VGA 101: Happy Birthday, Sega Dreamcast: “It’s Thinking”… But Probably About Better Times.

Note: This isn’t at ALL a “complete history” of the console. It’s just more random off the top of the head wistful reminiscing!

(thanks, Wiidork!)
For one brief, shining moment (well, that moment lasted three years or so), Sega has many of us gamers on the edge of our seats and extremely happy about it. Once the US arm of the company deemed the Saturn “dead” and started peeling away support for it, there was a gap of time where we were wondering what was coming next. When whispers of a new and more powerful console code-named “Katana” started getting traction in the game press, followed up by early screenshots of works in progress, some fans were trumpeting that upcoming console as a redemption and return to form for the company and in Japan, while Saturn games were still being sold, it seemed that everywhere you went in some spots, ads popped up announcing something was coming from Sega that would be new, unusual and exciting. And oh, was it when it finally did arrive…

I worked in a small independent game shop in NYC when the Dreamcast arrived in Japan with a mere four titles, an enhanced port of Sega’s arcade fighter Virtua Fighter 3 called 3tb for its team battle option, an anime adventure game July, a goofy mascot racer, Pen Pen Tricelon and the slow-moving stomp-fest known as Godzilla Generations. Despite the small lineup, we couldn’t keep Japanese systems in stock thanks to the pure visual power those early games displayed. Granted, these early titles weren’t “great” games and a few key later launch window games weren’t initially much better. Sonic Adventure had some busted camera angles, Blue Stinger with its stiffly animating character models and sometimes even worse camerawork made it a chore to play and let’s not even mention the fittingly named Buggy Heat and a few other games that had the first wave software blues attached to them. Those sold well at the shop, as did flat-out weird games like Seventh Cross: Evolution, Sengoku Turb and a few others whose titles escape me.

As 1998 ended and 1999 rolled in, other, better titles such as Capcom’s Power Stone and Marvel vs Capcom showed the system could handle both fast-moving 2D and 3D arcade games with ease, but it wasn’t until Namco’s absolutely brilliant better than the arcade version of Soul Calibur popped up that some of the more stubborn regulars took notice. This was a good thing, as that import helped move a good many US consoles once it was confirmed that the game was coming as a launch/launch window title. Sega’s own arcade hits like Crazy Taxi, Sega Bass Fishing, The House of the Dead 2, Zombie Revenge and others came at such a quick pace and had many customers agreeing that outside the Neo-Geo, this was THE console for modern arcade translations. However, it was a “little” game called Shenmue that was at the time one of the most ambitious console games ever created as well as THE game people really wanted to see and play. Yu Suzuki’s masterpiece was so massive that one game spread over multiple discs wasn’t enough to contain the epic (or not so epic, depending on your tastes) tale of Ryo Hamazaki’s quest to find the man who killed his martial arts mentor (among other things).

We carried Japanese games as we could get them and when the US version of the system launched on September 9, 1999, we had all 17 launch titles in stock and good or bad, we sold out of systems and games many times over. Some people would trade in their Japanese consoles for US ones, while others kept both systems just to make sure they could play US and imported titles. Sega Sports’s 2K and 2K1 games were amazing and even set the EA juggernaut on its side by offering up titles that looked better and played better to many sports fans who found them more “realistic” than other companies’ offerings. Even my non-sports game playing self had to admit these games were initially so striking it almost felt like watching actual telecasts without the annoying commercials to break up the action.

Shortly thereafter, when some clever folks figured out the means to bypass the console’s region protection to play imports and unfortunately, copied games, we had someone train themselves using online instructions to modify consoles if someone asked and paid for the service. We never sold modified consoles in the shop as far as I can recall, but I do know some small shops that blatantly advertised this modding as well as sold copied games under the table. Some say this piracy was bad for actual game sales and it certainly didn’t help when we had customers come in to ask about burned games (we didn’t do that at all) only to walk out and go elsewhere when told we didn’t participate in that behavior.

At some point, Sony’s new console was getting plenty of hype and pushing the Dreamcast to the back burner on many fronts. When it finally released, the import version of the PlayStation 2 exceeded all Dreamcast sales in the shop by a stupefyingly large amount and the US console did even better. By this point, the DC was getting some great games, some so-so ones and a few clunkers (just like any other system) and despite some great innovations such as Phantasy Star Online’s addictive play as a console MMORPG with a solo offline story mode, Sega adding Broadband support to the system and some great to funky games like Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Seaman, WARP’s odd, intense horror game D2, Record of Lodoss War, and a small but solid selection of Japanese role-playing games made the console a keeper for more open minded gamers.

As the DC eventually faded away in late 2001 and into 2002, it was clear (at least in the US), the ride was over for Sega as a console maker. The system still got games in Japan for YEARS afterward and a few late European releases such as Headhunter, Stunt GP and Evil Twin showed some amazing visuals that came close to or bettered what was on the PS2 at that time, but it was too little, too late for the system in North America until a number of independently developed titles were released and kept the console going strong as a system to collect rarities for. If one was a fan of anime romances, expensive limited edition arcade space shooters and a few other titles, the system lived on and still lives today. There’s at least one “final” major new release on the way from and independent developer and publisher (Watermelon’s Pier Solar and the Great Architects), but even then, I’m betting the old DC will still surprise some who wrote it off when it was officially put down for the count by Sega here.

Eh, I’ll tweak this to add images later. I hadn’t intended to ramble on so, but I was in the mood to vent about something else and then I realized it was the system’s launch anniversary here, so there you go. Now, to get home and play something from the library to celebrate…

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