OUR CONSOLE: Sega Dreamcast

OUR CONSOLE: Sega Dreamcast

In every console generation there are successes and there are failures. Arriving on the back of the Mega-CD/Sega-CD, 32X and the Saturn, Sega certainly needed the Dreamcast to be a hit. Instead, it sold fewer than 10 million units worldwide, had an official lifespan of less than two and half years (only launching in the US and Europe after one year had already passed), and was Sega’s final console before withdrawing from the hardware business entirely. So, the Dreamcast was not just a failure but a spectacular, record-breaking one. 

I thought it was fantastic. I still do.

In retrospect, I think there were two main reasons why I loved my Dreamcast. The first one came down to the hardware itself, which had this super weird mixture of being kind of crappy but also cutting edge. Burned by heavy losses on the Saturn, Sega designed the Dreamcast to use various “off the shelf” components that apparently made it a nightmare to code for—not a great start. In addition, rather than using a DVD drive, Dreamcast games ran on a custom “GD-ROM” format based on older, cheaper CD-ROM technology, which came with many drawbacks. A DVD drive could play films and each disk stored nearly four times the data of the GD-ROMs, which could be freely pirated and were generally a bit shit. Again, not a great start.

But it was also pioneering. It was the world’s first 128-bit games console, launching over a year ahead of the PS2. It had a modem built into every unit which, in 1998, was a pretty big deal and let people like me dip our first, tentative toes into the world of online gaming. It was the first console I owned with a controller that featured analogue controls and triggers as standard. And instead of a simple memory card, it had the VMU (Visual Memory Unit), a kind of micro-console in itself with its own buttons, sound output, and screen that could be used separately for some rudimentary fun or slotted into the controller to provide a secondary screen for the player. The VMU was ahead of its time, not entirely useful, and the exact sort of insanity that made the Dreamcast so easy to love.

But the main and most obvious reason why I loved the Dreamcast was its games. As a Sega kid, I’d grown up playing Sonic and spent who-knows-how-much on their arcades. After making do with spin-offs and compilations on the Saturn, the Dreamcast gave fans not one but two new mainstream Sonic games. Sure, the exploration elements of both Sonic Adventures were kind of weird and the action stages were frequently janky, but each holds a place in my heart—particularly for their spectacular and thrilling set-pieces. I’ll never forget the first time I was chased by a rampaging Killer Whale, snowboarded through (sort-of) San Francisco, or sprinted down the side of a skyscraper. And it’s both a testament to each of the games and a criticism of what’s come since that they still might be the closest that 3D Sonic has come to being actually good… OK, you’re right, Sonic Generations was excellent.

The Dreamcast was also blessed with a string of impressive ports from many of Sega’s major arcade series, including Virtua Fighter, Crazy Taxi, Sega Rally, House of the Dead and, of course, Daytona, plus an incredible version of Namco’s SoulCalibur that I sunk absolute hours into (and which currently sits as Metacritic’s fourth best game of all time). Capcom’s awesome Power Stone series deserves a mention here too, almost as much as it deserves a new entry or reboot (seriously, please do it Capcom). The quality of these games was mostly excellent too, thanks to the machine sharing architecture with Sega’s NAOMI arcade board, making the Dreamcast the console that genuinely brought the arcade experience home—albeit without the sticky carpets and constant fear of being beaten up. 

In hindsight, the Dreamcast gave me many of my purest gaming moments: varied, often ludicrous concepts delivering short, intense bursts of fun. It was not just hedgehogs and arcade conversions—titles like Jet Set Radio/Jet Grind Radio, Chu Chu Rocket, Rez, and Space Channel 5 all stand out in memory, though I’ll avoid trying to describe any of them because it’ll sound like I’ve totally lost my mind. 

And when I got tired of guiding space-mice into rockets or practicing dance-combat during a news broadcast, I could play as a maraca-wielding monkey or nurture a fish with a human face. The Dreamcast library was certainly small due its limited run and terrible third-party support, but it was anything but dull.

It wasn’t all bonkers brilliance though. Metropolis Street Racer offered something entirely more grounded, with renditions of areas in London, San Francisco, and Tokyo that were so accurate that they genuinely helped me navigate in real life. It had a great soundtrack of made-up but believable artists, over 250 routes, and a “Kudos” system that rewarded style as well as speed, forming the template for many modern racers and quickly becoming another of my favourites. 

But, for me, the Dreamcast’s peak was in Shenmue, the opening chapters of Sega’s unfinished masterpiece and a game that’s in the conversation for my favourite game of all time. I loved the story, the world and its inhabitants, the incredible detail, and even the grand but unfulfilled ambition underpinning it all. It was incomplete and full of eccentricity and issues. But much like the console itself, that was part of the charm. 

Winners are fine and all, but it’s the underdogs that really stay with you.

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