Scrolling Pixels is a new column focusing on retro gaming. Check back on the first Monday of every month for the latest instalment.
Console wars over the years have seen a huge number of casualties, from the Atari Jaguar and its terribly awkward control pad, to Nintendo’s headache-inducing virtual reality head set the Virtual Boy. Hardware failures generally come down to bad business decisions, bad engineering decisions or a mix of both. But whatever the reasons, few consoles that hit the scrap heap are ever mourned by the gaming community to any great degree.
Except, that is, the Sega Dreamcast. Released in Japan in 1998 and the rest of the world the following year, the machine was, objectively speaking, a failure. Discontinued after just two years, it marked the end of Sega’s presence in the console business after the hardware's struggles caused the one-time heavyweight to suffer major financial losses. But while the Dreamcast couldn’t return Sega to the top of the industry, for its brief life it burned so, so brightly. Like a lot of people, I play my Dreamcast more than any other old device, and its reputation among gamers continues to grow year-after-year.
A gamer’s game console
Gaming consoles are such a powerful pieces of machinery these days. The Playstation 4 is so smug with its social network integration, movie streaming services, facial recognition technology and selection of ambient music. But the 128-bit Dreamcast felt like a pure gaming system – perhaps the last ever pure gaming system – even when compared to its chief competitor, the Playstation 2, which at the time looked more like Darth Vadar’s DVD player than it did a console. With the Dreamcast you popped in a disc, hit the big round power button and off you went, and despite a short life span, the number of essential games released on the platform was incredible. But unlike most other machines, the Dreamcast felt like absolutely nothing else on the market at the time or since.
For all the reasons the Dreamcast failed, such lack of third-party support and relative ease to illegally pirate games (which are laid out in more depth by a number of informative YouTube documentaries), it was maybe its simplicity that defeated it. Not only was the PS2 a great console in its own right, but it played DVDs at a time when most people didn’t have a DVD player. Launching at US$299 in the US actually made it a competitively priced DVD player for its time, while promised backward compatibility helped keep loyal Playstation 1 users from jumping ship while they waited for Sony's next generation machine.
Following the PS2's release in 2000, Sega succumbed to Sony's dominance in the marketplace, and its demise still brings tears to the eyes of a generation of gamers brought up on the Megadrive (known as the Genesis in the US). At its peak, the company took on the might of industry leader Nintendo with an aggressive ad campaign and a then-unheard of strategy of bundling the Megadrive with one of its best games, Sonic the Hedgehog. Its follow up machine, the Sega Saturn, was a disaster however, and resulted in the company losing a huge amount of its US market share to the Playstation and Nintendo's N64.
The Dreamcast was meant to correct all that. Getting the jump on Sony, Sega plotted another ruthless campaign to get enough of its newest machine into homes before the PS2's release, and that strategy partly relied on putting out classic game after classic game after classic game. Even the console's US launch titles (which are almost always terrible) included real must-haves like Sonic Adventures, Soul Caliber, Power Stone and Ready 2 Rumble Boxing.
But it wasn't just that the Dreamcast's catalogue features so many great games. What defines the console is the style and verve of those games. As it lacked third-party support from software development companies like EA (who felt burned after the mistakes made with the Saturn), Sega was forced to produce a huge number of titles for the console, and ever the industry mavericks, the firm came up with some of the barmiest titles ever conceived. Sega Bass Fishing, for example, gave angling enthusiasts a fishing simulator. Typing of the Dead replaced popular first-person shooter House of the Dead’s light gun with a keyboard so to allow people to practice their typing skills, while the unfortunately titled Seaman is…hard to explain. Imagine a large scale Tamagotchi except your cyber-pet is a fish. And the fish has a human head. And that human head is voiced by Star Trek actor Leonard Nemoy.
Adding to the Dreamcast’s old-school gaming feel is the number of classic arcade-style titles available. Sega and publishers like Capcom – a third-party firm that did go in big for the Dreamcast – were skilled at creating games that offered short, visceral bursts designed to give players a quick thrill for their lose change, and so the console boasts a suburb selection of beat ‘em ups, like Soul Caliber, Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes, Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes and Dead or Alive 2, as well as shooters like Mars Matrix and Armada.The Dreamcast did cater to lengthier, plot-driven adventure games too. Resident Evil Code: Veronica, one of the best games of the series, debuted on the console, as did Headhunter, a flawed but stylish Philip K. Dick-esque sci-fi adventure.
Another factor that makes Dreamcast so unique is the amount of games on the console that seemed tailored to the Japanese market. Japan is the home of gaming, of course, with not just Sega stemming from the island nation but Sony and Nintendo too. But the Dreamcast seemed particularly Japan-centric, utilising beautiful Manga, Anime and Hentai-inspired artwork more than any other system. Capcom, for example, created a lot of gorgeously animated games like Project Justice, Plasma Sword: Nightmare of Bilstein and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Heritage for the Future, the latter of which was based on a Manga comic series.
A world apart
But perhaps the Dreamcast’s most famous exclusive series was Shenmue. “A world that transcends games”, the official trailer called it and, at the time, director Yu Suzuki’s masterwork was the most expensive videogame ever made, with a production budget of US$70 million (according to The Guardian, every Dreamcast owner would have had to buy two copies for Sega to get its money back on the project).
Almost undefinable, both the original and its sequel, Shenmue II, are cinematic pieces that follow teenager Ryo Hazuki on a quest to avenge his father's death in eighties Yokosuka. It featured many of what would go on to become regular gaming features, like open-world exploration, non-linear gameplay, day-to-night transitions and changes in weather patterns. As Ryo, you interview the town's colourful characters, explore the its various restaurants, casinos and arcades (which feature a number of playable mini-games), all as the mystery reveals itself. That is until you come across an unannounced quick time event – another feature pioneered by the game – or engage in a combat sequence.
Open-world games are pretty common now, with the lush boulevards of Grand Theft Auto V, Watch Dogs and others dwarfing Shenmue’s scale. And the game is certainly slow paced. Ryo often must make appointments at set times meaning players are forced to wait for his watch to roll around to the right time before moving the plot forward, while his gentle nature and pleasant mannerisms certainly place him at the opposite end of the lead character spectrum then, say, Trevor Phillips (Ryo gets told off by his mum if he comes home after 11pm). Still, Shenmue is undeniably engaging. Soothing to play, even.
Unfortunately, a slated third instalment was never released, and the series ended on a cliffhanger. While it's forever polarised gamers, for me, Shenmue remains a chilled-out classic.
In addition, the Dreamcast was the first console with online play capabilities, allowing for friends to connect to each other via SegaNet. To combat slumping sales, Sega even started offering free Dreamcasts to gamers who signed up to the service for a monthly subscription. But it was not to be. The Dreamcast was discontinued and Sega became a software-only firm, producing and publishing games for other consoles. As soon as you saw Sonic and Mario on the same box, you knew it was over.
Still, the Dreamcast's legacy lives on through not just its pioneering tech, but the fact that its 12 years since the last machine was built and some developers are still making games for the thing!
That fans just won't let the console die is a testament to its greatness.