Ten years ago today (9/9/99), the Sega Dreamcast made its debut in North America. For M. Bison, it was a Thursday. For the rest of us, it was the day that forever changed console gaming as we knew it.
Bad timing? Yeah. Historically bad. The Dreamcast enjoyed just over a year in the spotlight before Sony launched the eagerly-awaited and massively successful PlayStation 2, which not only put Sega’s sixth-gen console entry to rest in the US in March of 2001, but subsequently knocked the company out of the console business entirely.
That wasn’t before the Dreamcast had made its mark, however. This is, after all, the machine that gave birth to online console gaming. It was vastly ahead of its time, it was affordable at $199, and among many other points you can read about after the jump, it was, and still is, my favorite console ever made. Follow on as Destructoid pays tribute in honor of its 10th anniversary.
The Dreamcast, as I see it, is a rockstar. A legend. It arrived with much fanfare, did its thing for a little while, and died far earlier than it deserved to. And like any rockstar, it’s found most of its greatest success and popularity long after the fact.
For a machine that’s historically regarded as a failure that destroyed a console manufacturer, it’s managed to hold its relevance for a ridiculously long time. To this day, it’s still supported by small sects of homebrewers and indie developers, and even made an appearance on the show floor of last year’s Tokyo Game Show and Games Convention in Leipzig.
I’m not here to rewrite the Wikipedia entry. We all know what happened when the PS2 launched, how it went down, and what led Sega to become a software developer. Instead, what follows is simply my own humble tribute to my favorite console of all time, based on my own experience. I’m sure you have your own memories to share as well, and I invite you to do so in the comments and community blogs afterward so we can all celebrate the Dreamcast’s 10th aniversary together.
By its very name, the Dreamcast represented something awesome. That’s often overlooked, but let’s think about it for a moment. Dreamcast. Broadcaster of dreams. A machine for projecting one’s wildest imagination. At the time, that’s what it did for many of us. The games it played were unlike anything we’d seen before, and not just in terms of graphics, but gameplay as well. It was host to some of the most original and inventive titles the world had ever seen, and may have even been responsible for launching a genre or two. More on that tomorrow.
Although it was far ahead of its time and in many ways ushered forth the future of gaming, the Dreamcast also represented the last of a dying breed of machines, in that it was a gaming console. Period. You could listen to CDs on it, sure, but it didn’t boast that. It wasn’t trying to be a DVD player or a PC or some home media center like current-gen systems. It was just a machine built to play games. The same could be said of the GameCube, but did that let you exchange save data with arcade machines? And let’s not even begin to compare software libraries. The Dreamcast was a gaming console that was still aggressively serious about itself. When you boil it down, there was really nothing else like it.
As if it weren’t already unique enough, there were a number of special edition versions of the console and its hardware. These ranged from the ridiculous to the ridiculously awesome, with console bundles for Seaman, Biohazard: Code Veronica, Sakura Taisen, Sonic, and yes, even Hello Kitty, in both pink and blue.
There were also limited editions in various colors, even silver and gold. Case mods became the hotness, and I think I was the only one within my circle of friends who didn’t have a purple, blue, green or clear Dreamcast. One guy I knew even had a chrome one. Custom cases were easy to swap out and mod yourself, and the same went for controllers. There was no mistaking what hardware belonged to who when the party was over and it was time to pack up.
That’s another thing that was great about it. It was so compact and light that you could toss it into a backpack and take it to a friend’s house without even thinking about it. It wasn’t an issue. And it was durable enough that if somebody had one too many beers and dropped it down the stairs, chances were, you could plug it in and forget the incident ever happened.
That D-pad. Ohhhh sweet heavens, that D-pad. It may have been a thumb-destroying cheese grater for fighting games, but when it came to shmups, it was bliss. Many will argue that an arcade joystick is the proper way to play an STG, and they’d be absolutely right. But if I have to do it with a D-pad, this is the one, thank you very much. For a genre often requiring pixel-by-pixel movement, it’s about as good as they can possibly get.
If you’re a RetroforceGO! listener, you’ve heard me go on about the polymer ball. To illustrate this point, and so that you can stop looking at me like a fucking crazy person, I took one of mine apart so you can see what I’m talking about. The center of the Dreamcast’s D-pad has a flared cylinder in it, and the silicone membrane that connects it to the circuitboard has a little … well, ball thingy embedded in its center. The idea here is that the component itself sits at just the right height atop that ball, allowing for a full range of motion so you can smoothly float to diagonals and back again. Not only that, but the leverage it adds makes for more precise, definite recognition of true up, down, left and right, so that no matter what you’re trying to do, there’s no blaming the hardware if you fail.
The point of all this yammering about something seemingly insignificant? R&D, people. Sega put an unprecedented amount of thought into this, and it’s about time they got some respect for it.
As for the rest of the controller, it was big, it was awkward, and after spending a few years with its six-button sister on the Saturn (best controller ever), it wasn’t very comfortable. What you can say about it, however, is that it was innovative and influential. If you want to start an argument about that, I suggest you go have a look at what came with your 360.
It was the first standard controller to launch with a reasonably-placed analog stick, and for all intents and purposes, that was pretty decent, too. Responsive, pressure-sensitive dual triggers and four perfectly acceptable face buttons made for an altogether impressively functional set of components, albeit housed in a goofy-looking shell. There was also a small recess where you could clip in the cord to keep it out of the way, situated in a 2-slot box that held a rumble pack and/or one of the coolest things ever to come out of console gaming …
It wouldn’t be a proper Dreamcast retrospective without paying homage to the console’s wildly imaginative take on a removable storage device, the Visual Memory Unit. In the short-lived era during which memory cards were thought to be the wave of the future, Sega blew the doors off its competition by equipping theirs with a tiny LCD screen, a small speaker, two action buttons and a (surprisingly functional) little D-pad. It had an 8-bit CPU and 128 KB of flash memory, and while that isn’t exactly a powerhouse system, it still beat the fuck out of your N64 memory card, which did … well, nothing.
First and foremost, it was still a removable storage device, and a widely-supported one at that. Some of Sega’s NAOMI arcade cabinets sported a slot for the VMU, allowing you to share data between the home and arcade versions of a game. Unlocked Morrigan in Marvel Vs Capcom 2 on your Dreamcast last night, did you? Well, now you can use her when you play it at the arcade, too. At least you could in 2000, back before they turned it into a Sunglass Hut.
Not only did it serve as the Dreamcast’s memory card, but when plugged into the controller, many games made use of the VMU as an auxiliary display for whatever you were playing. Ikaruga, for instance, used its LCD screen to show your chain status. It was an awesome little feature that added a lot of fun and personality to the titles that have since lost it upon being ported elsewhere.
When not plugged in, the VMU became a micro handheld gaming platform, with some Dreamcast titles featuring minigames that could be downloaded to it and played on the go. If it was time to turn off the console and head to work, you could carry along your VMU and level up your Chao on the subway, then load the now-boosted versions back into Sonic Adventure when you got home.
Sony answered back in Japan a few months later with its PocketStation, but aside from launching DokoDemo Issho (still one of my favorite Sony franchises), it was never quite as cool. In later years, a homebrew scene even sprung up around the VMU, some examples of which you can see below.
On paper, it was one of the coolest ideas we’d ever seen. The sad reality, however, was that the little bastard would grind through those watch batteries so fast it felt like it was consciously trying to piss you off. Paying $3-4 each for those stupid things wasn’t fun, but that didn’t stop my friends and me from carrying a VMU around in our pocket wherever we went, back in the day when a young man could still get his fightans on in any number of now-closed arcades here on the (b)east coast.
Most of the games it played were nothing to write home about, but if you’d like to see what you did miss and don’t want to stock up on those goddamned batteries, there’s a VMU emulator for Dreamcast that will let you do so without the annoyance.
Like any Sega console, the Dreamcast saw its fair share of accessories, and perhaps then some. It got the usual stuff the PS1 was seeing at the time — a DDR pad, a racing wheel and so on. But there were also some weird, innovative or otherwise interesting accessories you might not have known about.
Mouse and keyboard
Typing of the Dead. That is all you need to know.
Fishing rod controller
Probably the best-known and most talked about of the Dreamcast’s peripherals, the fishing rod controller was, oddly enough, left-handed by default. Stranger still, you could use it to play Soul Calibur. Yeah.
What’s so special about a light gun? This one supported rumble functionality. It also had a D-pad on it, so you didn’t have to bother with a second controller just to browse game menus.
Again, not incredible, unless you stop to consider that this might have been the first home console arcade stick that didn’t suck. It was a great piece of hardware, and more or less paved the way for what you play your fightans on today.
ASCII Pad FT
By the late 90s, the arcade stick was no longer the only acceptable way to play fighting games. Street Fighter fans weren’t ready to let go of their Saturn controllers anytime soon, and ASCII knew it. The Dreamcast thankfully got this six-button fightpad, which even had built-in rumble.
For playing Virtual On like a REAL mech pilot. That was pretty much the only game it was useful for, but man was it awesome at its intended purpose. Virtual On also made good use of another Dreamcast accessory, the link cable, which let you network more than one system together. LAN party much?
A docking station that turned your Dreamcast into a karaoke machine. It supported two microphones, one of which was included, and connected to the system via the docking bay on the back of the console and a couple of loop cables.
It didn’t play karaoke CDs, but instead used an online service through which Sega offered downloadable songs. (Sup, Rock Band, SingStar?) It also worked with the Dreameye (yep, Dreamcast camera — sup, EyeToy?), so you could watch yourself performing on the TV.
ASCII Mission Stick
What is this, I don’t even … You can learn more about this flight sim controller here.
Densha De Go! controller
If planes weren’t your thing, there was also this monster, for use with Taito’s train conducting sim.
Samba de Amigo maracas
For Niero, who still totally has a set (in-box) and still totally plays this. Don’t tell him I told you.
Pop’n Music controller panel
A proper, 9-button Pop’n Music controller, from back before Konami decided the game should be dumbed down beyond recognition.
Microphone controller attachment
Sure, the N64 had one, too. But Sega had bigger plans for their mic, and part of those plans included in-game communication while playing online. With the advent of Xbox Live, it’s something we take for granted every day now, but it all started with this little puff, which had originally been intended for much more than just talking to Seaman.
Europe-only, so I’ve never seen it in person, but the RGB SCART cable is still widely regarded as the best way to connect a Dreamcast to a television.
VGA adapter box
Dreamcasts don’t typically look as nice on VGA computer monitors or HDTVs, but the VGA box fixes that, letting you play in its native 640x480p resolution. And if you want to piggyback a second VGA to HDMI adapter, you can even connect it via HDMI port.
The Dreamcast came with its own 56k modem installed, but around the turn of the century there was this fancy new thing called cable internet. It’s a shame this add-on arrived too late in the game to see much support.
There were plenty of other weird and wonderful things that you could buy for the Dreamcast, but these were always the ones I thought were coolest. Taking a look at its catalog of peripherals and acessories now is rather like staring into the primordial ooze from which a lot of what we use today first originated. It’s made great contributions to what modern gaming has since become.
The hardware might not be as impressive nowadays, but there’s no denying the Dreamcast played host to a wealth of truly fantastic games. Many of them have since been ported to newer systems and still hold up now just as they did then. Jonathan told you about one of his earlier this week, and I’ll be doing the same for a quite a few of my own tomorrow. Keep an eye out for that if you’d like to know what all the fuss was about.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade now. It feels like only last week, which I guess officially makes me old. The Dreamcast didn’t get a lot of mainsteam glory for very long — it swept in quick, blew everyone’s faces off, and then it was gone, but it still lives on as a legend for what it did. It’s kind of like a ninja that way. Ninjas are awesome. The Dreamcast was awesome, too, and if you ask me and a lot of other people like me, it always will be.
Happy birthday, sweetheart.