Retrospective: Sega Dreamcast

Here at Silicon Sasquatch, we feel that old games deserve some love too. From time to time, we want to look back at games and, in this case, consoles that have made a big impact. It is in that spirit — fond memories combined with analysis of legacy — that we present a Retrospective. This time: the Sega Dreamcast.

It's very difficult for me to be objective about the Sega Dreamcast. Excuse me if this retrospective skirts into personal narrative; to me, the Dreamcast and my experience with it are one and the same. The system was announced and launched at the time I was transitioning from being a kid who played video games a lot to a "hardcore gamer," one who follows video game news in magazines and on the then-nascent online scene. The Dreamcast's September 9, 1999 launch was the first time I paid attention to such an event — and, in fairness, was one of the first times a console launch truly became an event.

The Dreamcast lived an all-too-brief life; despite promising software and innovative hardware, Sega's last console gamble had less than three years of official support.

It was early 1998 when I first saw the unveiling of Sega's new Dreamcast system in the pages of Electronic Gaming Monthly (I believe the unveiling image is what's at the top of this article). With the promise of jumping ahead of the market with revitalized versions of Sega's classic series (like Virtua Fighter, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega Rally, and more), this looked tantalizing from the start. As the year continued and more information trickled out ahead of the Dreamcast's November 1998 Japanese launch, things kept looking better and better — Sonic Adventure looked revelatory, Virtua Fighter 3 was arcade-perfect, and the console gained third-party support from companies like Capcom, Namco, and Ubisoft.

By the time the summer of 1999 came around, I was hooked; I needed this system. I traded in my PlayStation and got my Dreamcast a week after launch with the absolute bare minimum (Sonic Adventure and a memory card would come later). Though Sonic's true 3D debut hasn't worn well, the graphics were stunning at the time. One particular sequence from early in the game, featuring Sonic running toward the camera while chased by an Orca whale, was part of the demo that was on kiosks during the summer, and it looked absolutely stunning for 1999. It made PlayStation and Nintendo 64 games look dated immediately.

However, little of the game holds up today. Alongside Sonic's levels were ones featuring side-characters like Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and (ugh) Big the Cat, and none were as slick or fun as the blue blur's levels. The story and Mario 64-esque open world sections are laughably bad. With a little better writing, tossing aside most of the non-fun levels, and some control changes, an HD re-make of Sonic Adventure would be brilliant. Sadly, faults and all, this game is the current high-water mark for 3D Sonic games.

The true revelation from launch, though, was Soul Calibur. Namco's fighter was indisputably the prettiest home console game by a wide stretch, and it set a new high-water mark for home versions of fighting games. Sure, the mission mode may not have a comprehensible story, but it provided hours of challenge and tons of unlockables, providing much-needed depth. That said, good graphics and tons of missions do not a fighter make; fortunately, Soul Calibur is still one of the best, most well-balanced fighting games ever due to its 3D movement and dodging, the Guard Impact parry and blocking system, and varied characters and styles. It is easily the best game from the launch lineup, and the fighting arguably is better than in its successors.

Soul Calibur was just the first of a series of great arcade games ported to the Dreamcast. The list is long: Sega Rally 2, Crazy Taxi, Virtua Tennis, Samba de Amgio, Virtual On, House of the Dead 2, and Capcom fighters including Street Fighter Alpha 3, Street Fighter 3, and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 all made their way from arcades to the Dreamcast. One of the reasons for all the arcade ports was that Sega's arcade hardware at the time, known as NAOMI, was basically identical to the Dreamcast. This allowed for incredibly fast, easy ports of many games.

Another key concept connected with the Dreamcast is innovation. The console included a 56k modem and web browsing software — the first system to pack Internet connectivity in, and the first system to encourage online play en masse when SegaNet launched in 2000. The VMU, the Dreamcast's memory card, featured a screen that could be viewed through the controller, and buttons and a D-pad to play minigames on — a kind of mini-Game Boy. Neither feature was taken advantage of too often, and the greatest legacy of the VMU is its beeping when you turn the system on...warning you that the batteries are dead. It becomes quite the chorus if you have four VMUs plugged in.

The other half of innovation comes from the software produced for the system. Along with the arcade ports, games like Typing of the Dead (one part zombie killing, one part typing tutor!), Chu-Chu Rocket (a brilliantly cute puzzle game), Seaman (a sarcastic pet simulator), and Rez (trippy shooter/rhythm game) personify the wacky, creative streak seen in many of the Dreamcast's best games. Yu Suzuki's Shenmue was grandiose in concept, but it lacked in execution and lost a little something in its translation to the American market; however, the open-world gameplay (including varied real-life style minigames) definitely played a part in inspiring games like Grand Theft Auto III.

Jet Grind Radio was one of the ultimate executions of style on the Dreamcast, partnering in-line skating and graffiti with a freedom-fighting storyline and plenty of contemporary Tokyo cool, including one of the best video game soundtracks ever. Skies of Arcadia also became the spiritual successor to the Phantasy Star series, while Phantasy Star Online brought the loot-aholic ways of Diablo and the persistence of MMORPGs to console gamers.

Alas, we all know that the Dreamcast's story did not feature a happy ending. The launch of the PlayStation 2 in North America (which was Sega's key market for the Dreamcast at the time) proved that the Sony brand, the PS2's DVD playing capability and the far-off promise of Metal Gear and Final Fantasy games could outsell a system that was actually on store shelves and had very good software available (why no, I'm not still bitter about that at all). Considering Sega put all of its financial eggs in the Dreamcast basket, the PS2 launch's impact meant the system's end was inevitable.

What's worse, Sega has struggled as a software-only developer in recent years — Xbox follow-ups to Jet Set Radio, Panzer Dragoon and Phantasy Star Online were neither critical darlings nor sales dynamos, and it seems the death of arcades has sapped Sega of much of its creative powers. However, the Yakuza and Valkyria Chronicles series on PlayStation 3 prove that Sega can still develop critically acclaimed games. There's also the perennial hope that the next Sonic the Hedgehog game is going to be the one that restores the series' lost glory (though hope for that is waning, to say the least).

However, the legacy of Sega's final home console lives on. The Dreamcast is still well-remembered by hardcore gamers (like your's truly), becoming a cult favorite; some believe it has as strong a library as even the Super NES. And as Soul Calibur's loading screen famously said, "The Legend Will Never Die" — an appropriate tagline for a system cut off in its prime.