Thoughts on Sega Dreamcast Day 2019

Sega Dreamcast Day 2019 has arrived this week, and it’s a special milestone as it marks 20 years since the launch of the celebrated, yet short-lived videogame system.

On 9-9-99, I was kinda-sorta taking night classes at the University of Minnesota and working part time as a waiter at the Dinkytown Pizza Hut, which was a larger, sports bar-themed restaurant on the campus. I was working that night and decided to drive down to the nearest Target to buy a Dreamcast, a second controller, and a VMU. The games I picked up were Soul CaliburReady 2 RumbleNFL 2K and Trickstyle. Trickstyle was quickly returned soon after and replaced with Sonic Adventure.

The Dreamcast was an instant hit at the Pizza Hut with the employees, all young 20-somethings who were also massive videogame and Star Wars fans (they loved the hell out of Phantom Menace, btw). NFL 2K/2K1 were easily the most played games, with endless matches and tournaments that lasted until dawn on most Saturday nights. Ready 2 Rumble also extremely popular, thanks to its easy controls and those funny taunts. Crazy Taxi was the most popular racing game by far, thanks to its freewheeling sense of destruction and short runs. Virtua Tennis was also a big hit with 4P doubles matches, and Chu Chu Rocket was terrific fun with 4P battle mode. The stunt mode in San Francisco Rush: 2049 was constantly getting played, even though everyone only really played the first obstacle course. And, of course, Tony Hawk Pro Skater was a big hit from the guys who played it to death on Sony Playstation.

Weirdly enough, Soul Calibur didn’t really click with anyone, nor did any of the other fighting games. Ready 2 Rumble was the only big hit of the bunch, which kinda makes sense when you realize that most gamers back then (especially college students) were casual players who just wanted to mash buttons. They were the ones who’d play Tekken 3 just for Eddie Gorgo’s breakdance combo.

When I was playing solo, Soul Calibur’s epic mission mode kept me up late many nights, including at least one all-nighter (wow, you can’t do those anymore after ya turn 40). Tony Hawk 1 & 2 was endlessly addictive, to the point where the joypad’s shoulder buttons began hurting my fingers. I absolutely loved Street Fighter 3: Third Strike and thought it was the greatest Street Fighter ever, and I’ll probably stick to that claim today…if only I could find a good arcade joystick.

Much like the Saturn, Dreamcast was exciting but also very frustrating at times. The joypad was a mess. Simplifying the buttons was good, the VMU was a clever idea, but the d-pad just sucked eggs, the shoulder buttons were set too low (resting on your finger joints) and the back fins were far too thin. Saturn’s 3D Controller was far better in every respect, and far more comfortable. Sega tried to trim that design down but they cut too much.

Software support in 1999 was fantastic, but once the year 2000 arrived, third parties suddenly got cold feet. Instead of new videogames that took advantage of the hardware, ala Soul Calibur, we were given a lot of PSX and N64 ports. The ports that improved upon the originals, such as Soul Reaver, Shadowman, Rayman 2, Tony Hawk and Star Wars Episode One Racer, were highly welcome, but too many games were just lazy dumps. You caught on pretty quickly that Dreamcast wasn’t being taken seriously as anything more than a stopgap until the massively overhyped Playstation 2 arrived. Say what you will about Sony, those guys were masters of bullshit.

Of course, the videogame fans were also suddenly holding off, waiting for this massive “super computer” that could render “88 million polygons” and might not even be allowed in the United States because “it technically qualifies as a supercomputer,” and, besides, Saddam Hussein might “steal the technology for use in his secret WMD programs.” Hook, meet mouth.

The combination of media hype and lazy shovelware gave the impression that Dreamcast was only a little more powerful than PSX and N64. Many kids could rest easy and wait for the real next-gen consoles to arrive. Most kids were content to just keep playing Goldeneye and Spyro and Madden, none of which were on Sega’s shiny new machine.

Another key factor for Dreamcast’s demise that gets forgotten today: piracy. I remember one night in 2000 when one student told me about this hot new computer program called Napster, which allowed you to download literally anything off the internet for free. Music, videogames, computer software, everything. It swept through the campus like wildfire, and within weeks, the local used CD stores were overwhelmed with stacks and stacks of CDs. All the kids were turning their PCs into jukeboxes and packing the hard drives with MP3s. And guess which new videogame system didn’t have any copy protection what-so-fucking-ever? That’s right? Sega Dreamcast! So long, dental plan!

And, oh, yes, I almost forgot: E-Fucking-A. Those bastards probably did more damage to Dreamcast than anything. Years later, it was revealed that they were holding out because they demanded a monopoly on sports games, all but ordering Sega to cancel NFL and NBA 2K. If you’re wondering why sports videogames took a massive flaming dive into the crash pit, here’s where it all started. This is the moment where EA joins the dark side and becomes evil.

Meanwhile, the DC fans were enjoying some really terrific videogames and enjoying the exciting new frontier of online gaming. It’s almost impossible to play Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament today due to the choppy frame rate (the Lobotomy Trilogy on Saturn looks better than any FPS on Saturn bar Outrigger), but it was a terrific thrill to play online matches with a 56K modem. Quake was probably my most-played game in the final months of 2000, second only to NFL 2K1, of course.

Thankfully, Dreamcast fans refused to let the legend die, keeping the console alive for many years, first with classic system emulators (this is where I first discovered emulation) and later with original software titles. We still see new Dreamcast games being made to this day, and while it’s true that none of them are remotely close to pushing the hardware, it’s also true that they’re great fun, especially if you’re a fan of arcade spaceship shooters.

Some quick pros and cons:

+ Sega’s creative explosion from the Saturn era continued in full bloom. Sonic Team was especially on a tear, especially with Phantasy Star Online. Even playing offline, that game is magnificent. BTW, you can still play online.

+ Sega’s policy of non-centralized online servers proved to be a masterstroke in the long run, allowing us to play DC games online today. Some of the old websites have also been preserved and resurrected.

+ The last stand for arcade games, especially fighting games, racers and shoot-em-ups. The gaming public just turned their back on 2D games and arcade games in the mid-90s, and they were completely, totally, absolutely wrong.

+ Sega buying Visual Concepts was a genius move. They should also have purchased Radical Entertainment who created NHL Powerplay 96 & NHL All-Star Hockey 98. And that goes triple for Lobotomy!

– It must be said, the VMU did not work out. The batteries die in less than a week, leaving you with that annoying BEEEEEP sound everytime you turn on your DC. Also, the screen resolution was too low and the mini-games just weren’t very good.

– The JP launch was a disaster. Hardly any RPGs, glitchy software, an over-reliance on Virtua Fighter to save things. That’s probably what killed the system, as US sales weren’t enough to balance things out.

– The US software library started out strong but quickly lost steam. Far too many sequels in too few genres. You know what Dreamcast really needed? Powerslave. Dragon Force. Panzer Dragoon Trilogy. Shining Force 3 Trilogy. Wachenroeder. Burning Rangers.

– What happened to the JP sports games? Worldwide Soccer, World Series Baseball, Decathlete, Winter Heat & Steep Slope Sliders were Saturn classics, but completely disappeared on Dreamcast. They were sorely missed. Once again, Sega forgot what made Genesis and Playstation succeed: sports games.

Photo of the Day (8/3)

A view inside the James Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. This photo appears in my book Biotracer, and several color photographs also appear in Trinitron Euphoria.

Photo of the Day (6/16)

An abstract photograph that captures the electrified energy of a rock concert. Photo taken from my book Depeche Mode: Spirit. You should buy a copy. Is anybody reading this besides the Google bots?

Photo of the Day (6/1)

A Colombian youth baseball team plays a friendly match in south side Chicago as guests of the White Sox. The teenagers on Reddit absolutely hate this photo, so I must be doing something right. Photo appears in my book Biotracer.

Panzer Dragoon Saga (Saturn)

Panzer Dragoon Saga for Sega Saturn

Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998, Team Andromeda for Sega Saturn)

And so we come to Sega Saturn’s crowning masterwork, the most beloved and revered title in its vast library, and a magnificent demonstration of the system at its absolute peak. 

Team Andromeda’s Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon Zwei were magnificent experiments in world building, in crafting a strange alien world filled with human tribes, mechanistic empires and strange hostile creatures. They transcended their arcade roots, offering more than Space Harrier with flying dragons. These games gave us hints at the vast world that lay just beyond the horizon. Panzer Dragoon Saga breaks free from the rails and brings us to those horizons, and the experience is everything you hoped it could be. It is not a shoot-em-up, but an RPG that takes the foundations of its predecessors and runs with it.

Panzer Saga was created by programmers and designers who were not fans of role-playing games, and so their work is infused with their own arcade sensibilities and a burning desire to stretch the genre’s boundaries. They had little interest in cliched plots about 1,000-year villains and kingdoms in peril and magic-empowered teenagers who look like they’re going to a rave party. They could care less about Tolkein-inspired fantasy tropes or conventions that go back decades. Their inspiration leans more towards dystopian science-fiction, of Moebius and Blade Runner and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. The mood is somber, grim, disillusioned. This videogame is running with Soundgarden in its veins.

The story does not involve a hero who must “save the world” or conquer some ancient evil force, but instead must struggle to live with the world as it exists. The main character, Edge, is a hired soldier for an empire that is excavating ancient ruins and mountains in search of relics and technologies from a lost age. An advanced civilization created vast machines and bio-engineered creatures and weapons of unspeakable power, but they vanished from the earth. What became of their society? Did they destroy themselves in a nuclear war? Did they victims of a climate-induced catastrophe? Or did they simply fade away slowly over centuries? Such questions are never answered, and this mythic past hangs over everything. The present world is caught in a struggle for survival between nations and empires, to say nothing of the deadly creatures, to think about such matters.

Edge and his superiors guard an excavation site. After an attack by giant hard-shelled crabs in the caves, a mysterious woman is found embedded in stone, frozen in a suspended state. Who is she and how did she get here? Before such questions can be answered, the camp is suddenly attacked by a renegade imperial faction led by a man named Crayman. His henchmen shoot Edge’s superior officer without warning, and then shoot Edge, knocking him into a bottomless ravine. They escape with the entombed woman in their armored airships.

Then an interesting thing happens. An unnamed spiritual force assigns you as the avatar for Edge, and then revives him by lowering him into a pool of water far below the surface. There has been some debate among fans whether Edge has been fully revived and you are assisting him, or if he truly did die from his wounds and you are animating a corpse. This question will hang over the story’s ambiguous ending like a shadow over a tomb, and it is one that was deliberately left open to interpretation.

That subtlety, that willingness to avoid simple good-versus-evil melodrama and embrace moral complexity, lies at the heart of Panzer Saga, and it is that quality that I admire the most. As the story progresses, we meet tribesmen, merchants, soldiers, Crayman and the mysterious woman Azel, and loyalties, motivations and desires are rarely fixed. These are not “heroes” or “villains” but frail humans who are motivated by a morality painted in shades of grey. These people are not conquerers but simply struggling to survive. Everyone has their reasons.

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Shining the Holy Ark (Sega Saturn)

Shining the Holy Ark (1997, Sonic Software Planning for Sega Saturn)

Now we come to one of Sega Saturn’s marquee titles, and one of the great fantasy role-playing games of its era. Yes, Final Fantasy 7 stole all the thunder and Panzer Dragoon Saga has the most devout fans, but Shining in the Holy Ark offers a rich and enchanting experience that is the equal of any of its peers, and long enough to keep players engaged for a very long time.

Sonic Software Planning began with Shining in the Darkness in 1993, a Sega Genesis “dungeon crawler” that incorporated many elements common to Japanese RPGs, and thus helped to raise its stature above the genre (I write this as someone who has never been fond of first-person dungeon crawlers). They followed up with the seminal Shining Force series, which moved into the realm of Strategy-RPG, a genre that plays out more like a chess match than the traditional dungeons-and-dice fantasy games. In 1995, the studio created Shining Wisdom, an overhead adventure game ala The Legend of Zelda that was rather cooly received (It began as a Sega Genesis project and was moved to Saturn late in development). In 1997, the series returned to its roots while continuing the continuity of the overall world, as well as serving as a prequel to the Shining Force 3 trilogy that soon followed.

Shining the Holy Ark begins with a trio of mercenaries hired by the king of Enrich to capture a rogue ninja for unknown reasons. They meet at the mouth of a mountainside, and proceed to explore the mines inside. After the confrontation with the ninja, the roof suddenly collapses and all the parties are either knocked unconscious or killed. A group of strange alien beings revive all four, inhabiting their bodies. One of the characters, however, is taken by an evil spirit and vanishes into the darkness. The remaining spirits implore the remaining three to join together to defeat a malevolent force before it revives a lost thousand-year kingdom and plunges the world into darkness. As the story progresses, allegiances and loyalties are questioned, the true state of the kingdom is revealed, and many new characters are brought together for the quest.

All in all, this is standard fare, but I enjoy the characters and the pacing of the writing, which is brisk and engaging without becoming overly complicated or self-absorbed, thankfully avoiding the bloat that was already consuming the Final Fantasy series.

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A Short Defense of Lou Reed’s Final Album Lulu

Lou Reed and Metallica, Lulu (2011)

The topic of the highly controversial (to put it mildly) 2011 collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica appeared recently on the Steve Hoffman music forums. Having written a lengthy essay in defense of Lulu, I thought I would share a few short thoughts on Reed’s final album:

Lulu is an excellent album that was unfairly mauled by critics who really, REALLY, hated the idea of Metallica making an album with Lou Reed. It all smacked of high school clique warfare. This group can’t hang out with that group, that sort of thing. I’ve always felt that if Lou made this album with, say, Radiohead, and every note was exactly the same, it would have been praised as a masterwork.

In addition, I think many people became used to this image of Lou Reed as a tame, safe “NPR” artist. He was remembered more for his poppier ballads and mellow songs, and not for the angry, abrasive, atonal and openly shocking music that he created. Everybody remembers “Perfect Day” but forgets “Berlin,” “White Light/White Heat” or “Metal Machine Music.”

To be fair, Lulu is an extremely abrasive album. It is scraggy, ugly, unshaven and angry, like an old gunslinger who just knocked down three shots of whiskey before the shootout. Much of the material is shocking, both musically and lyrically. This is not an album that you can play every day, or even more than once or twice per year. It’s an event, not a habit. It sometimes feels like an assault, and you come away in a state of stunned shock, almost like those first audiences who saw The Exorcist or Psycho in the theater.

Personally, I love this album and consider it one of Lou’s finest statements. As a farewell album, it’s absolutely magnificent and stands equal to David Bowie’s Blackstar. It will always be controversial and spark fierce debates, which is most likely what the author intended. What better way to go out? Say what you will, but nobody could accuse Lou Reed of going soft in his old age.

Oh, and Junior Dad is a beautiful song, especially the long cello outro. It’s the perfect farewell and you couldn’t ask for anything better.

Photo of the Day (5/2)

Onlookers gather to view panels of a 1989 Keith Haring mural in Chicago. Photo appears in my book Keith Haring: Chicago Mural.

Hyper Duel (Sega Saturn)

Hyper Duel for Sega Saturn

Hyper Duel (1996, Technosoft for Sega Saturn)

As a lifelong fan of Sega Genesis, I have always held a special place in my heart for Technosoft, the masterminds behind Herzog Zwei and the Thunder Force series. These were genre-defining masterworks pushed the 16-bit generation forward and raised the bar for everything that followed. When the 32-bit era ushered in the age of 3D polygon graphics, the studio attempted to adapt with the times but continued to stick with the arcade shoot-em-ups that made them famous. Thank Heaven they stuck to their guns.

Hyper Duel first appeared in the arcades in 1993. It was Technosoft’s second coin-op title after Thunder Force AC, but failed to become a hit and quickly disappeared into obscurity, known only to diehard fans. I played it many years later on MAME and came away slightly disappointed. The legendary science fiction designs were still there, but the stages too short, the pacing too streamlined, the challenge too light. Worst of all, the graphic design had an abnormal obsession with lime greens and tomato reds, which just seemed out of place. I blasted my through to the end in less than an hour and never returned again.

In this game, one or two players fly a spaceship that also transforms into a robot at the touch of a button. You can also choose between three different spacecraft that have their own unique weapons and abilities. Power-up icons can increase your firepower, but the most valuable upgrades are additional ships or robots that join in the battle. They don’t follow after you as in Gradius, but fight on their own like the soldiers in Herzog Zwei. You battle over eight stages through space stations, colonies and alien worlds before reaching the enemy’s home base and win the war.

There are many examples of classic videogames that required multiple drafts before they could fully blossom into greatness. Contra, Tecmo Bowl and Ninja Gaiden on NES are three examples. Here lies another.

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