Friday, September 9, 2016

What Dreams Were Made of - Sega's Dreamcast Celebrates 17 years

Seventeen years ago today, Sega's Dreamcast hit the shelves in North America. The much-loved, short-lived console fell victim to "middle brother" syndrome, coming at a time when it towered over current gen heavy hitters like the N64 and the original PlayStation, But revolution was in the air: the PlayStation 2 would arrive about a year later, a graphics and processing power juggernaut that eclipsed Sega's little white box by a mile.

Despite a user base of nearly 11 million worldwide, Sega pulled the plug on the Dremacast in March 2001, mere months after the PS2's October 2000 release in North America. Frankly, they could have kept it alive and profitable for another year or so, but Sega evoked its long established "drop it like it's hot" sales strategy that also marked the premature deaths of the Genesis and Saturn.

Sega's quirky console has since gained a cult following, thanks in part to its incompetent piracy protection. Though rampant piracy was one of the many nails in the console's coffin, today, Dreamcast devotees can download and play former retail titles, homebrew games, and a variety of wacky software ranging from MP3 players to grainy films reminiscent of another of Sega's old consoles, the Sega CD.

I enjoyed my time with Sega's last son to be sure, but I'm not sure why people wet themselves over the Dreamcast anytime someone so much as farts and it sounds kinda like the jumping sound in Sonic Adventure. (Two bodily function jokes in one sentence. Watch out world, I'm on fire.) There was some groundbreaking stuff for the time, but nothing really sticks out as classic in my mind. The aforementioned Sonic Adventure, for example, is fun for awhile. However, this was also the first title to start the series' inexplicable focus on Sonic's furry convention friends, like Amy Rose, a bargain bin Johnny Five from "Short Circuit," and Big the Cat, who is a big cat with a small brain and a fishing pole. (Fun fact: he's voiced by Jon St. John, who also voices Duke Nukem.) No one liked those other jerks, so clearly, Sonic's friends became the focus of every Sonic game going forward.

Artist's interpenetration of Big the Cat

From Street Fighter III and Marvel vs. Capcom to Last Blade and Fatal Fury; Mark of the Wolves, we got some excellent home ports of the final wave of great arcade fighting games. But you've seen a Dreamcast controller, right? It kinda looks like the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek, and it controls just as a cumbersome spaceboat might. I guess what me and my strained comparison are trying to say is, don't expect to the next Evolution Championship to be fought with stock Dreamcast pads.

Then there was PowerStone, a 3D fighter that was like Smash Bros. in many ways, but you don't know any of the characters and no one remembers it because it was on a dead system. It was a great party game if you could get anyone to play it with you, but most of the time, no one would, because DAMNIT, I KNOW IT'S NOT MARIO AND DONKEY KONG; GET OVER IT, MIKE.

When discussing great Dreamcast software, a lot of people like to bring up the unfortunately named Seaman, which did have some merit as being the first video game that asked my about my day and then yelled at me for responding appropriately. But in the end, it was just a glorified Tamagachi with a bad attitude. Not my cup of tea, but it gets bonus points for being narrated by Leonard Nimoy. Perhaps the DC's Enterprise-like controller motivated him to lend his voice to this game. Or maybe Sega just paid him heaps of money in an attempt to save a boring game. Probably that second thing.

Don't get me wrong, though. For a brief but memorable period, the Dreamcast was THE game system to own, sporting must-haves like Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Soul Calibur, and more. Like a lot of early 3D consoles, I don't think it's aged very well. Yet the Dreamcast's influence and contributions to gaming history are undeniable, and for that, I have to hand it to Sega. If the House that Sonic Built was destined to crumble, the Dreamcast was a great console to end with.

It was a bittersweet end to the David that once challenged the Nintendo Goliath. Compared to the lukewarm games they've been making for the last decade and a half, nowadays, Sega's final console seems like it was just a dream.

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