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.

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