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Why the Dreamcast was different

Ten years ago today, the Dreamcast stormed onto US shelves in one of the most explosive console launches of all time… and then suffered a premature death less than two years later. Now, however, the internets are buzzing with retrospectives, histories, love letters and lamentations as every major game site lines up to pay its respects to gaming’s most brilliant failed system. If you weren’t a fan of the Dreamcast when it was alive, you might be wondering where all this devotion is coming from. Why is the Dreamcast remembered so fondly, when so many other consoles with longer lifespans have been tossed aside and forgotten?


Above: And what separates it from the rest of these losers?


HOW IT BEGAN

For starters, it helps to understand that, when it was released, the Dreamcast blew everything else completely out of the water. Where most failed consoles were dragged down by flawed or outdated hardware, the Dreamcast offered next-gen graphics and sound (for 1999, anyway), a handful of amazing launch games and out-of-the-box online connectivity – and it offered them all more than a year before the PlayStation 2 came rolling in.

In fact, the Dreamcast was the first console to fulfill the promises made by the 32/64-bit generation without any caveats; while the N64 was able to render huge 3D worlds, for example, it was hampered by fuzzy textures and relatively low cartridge capacity. And while the PlayStation’s CDs offered superior storage space and orchestra-quality sound, its loading times were frequently brutal, and nearly all of its 3D games looked like crap and have since aged horribly.


Above: What games looked like before the Dreamcast 

Even ignoring the fact that it pumped out visuals that put both those systems to shame, the Dreamcast was able to offer all of their benefits with almost none of the drawbacks. Load times could get a little onerous, sure, but the games could be huge and epic while looking sharp (especially when hooked up to a VGA monitor) and sounding great. Up until this point, gamers were used to putting up with obvious drawbacks, sacrifices and limitations from hardware, but the Dreamcast didn’t seem to have any – or at least, none that really mattered at the time.

“Dreamcast was the first console to really embrace the future,” said World of Warcraft Magazine Editor in Chief Dan Amrich, who worked for GamePro when the Dreamcast was launched. “VGA output, a modular modem (swappable for an Ethernet jack),  online gaming for real... it was almost too much stuff too early, but all the right ideas were there.


Above: Phantasy Star Online – too much, too early? 

“If they’d focused just on one of those three things and really maximized it, maybe it would have worked out,” Amrich said.

It also helped that, right out the gate, Sega demonstrated it was serious about its hardware. Not only did the VGA hookups offer crisper visuals than you’d see on a TV, but the controllers – while awkward and uncomfortable now – were perfectly suited to the Dreamcast’s 3D games while still being simple enough for newcomers to grasp. More importantly, they featured two expansion slots for memory packs, vibration packs (which could also be used in Sega’s gun peripherals for a vague simulation of recoil) and Sega’s would-be ace in the hole, the Visual Memory Unit. Part memory card, part handheld, the VMU could be used to save games and display data during play, and could also run specialized minigames downloaded from certain titles, like Sonic Adventure’s virtual-pet sim, Chao Adventure.


Above: Just one of the VMU’s many exciting uses! 

Granted, the VMU devoured batteries and was really only used by a handful of games, but that hardly mattered; they were tiny, frequently candy-colored and an awesome idea, and everyone with a Dreamcast immediately had to have one. Or four. And if that wasn’t enough connectivity with a handheld, you could also buy a cable to enable your Dreamcast to talk to your Neo-Geo Pocket, which really only came in handy when linking certain SNK games together.

Dreamcast also carried the rare cachet that came from legions of Sega fans excited to see their favorite brand revitalized. After the string of disappointments that followed the Genesis/Mega Drive –Sega CD, 32X, CD-X, the forgotten Neptune and the beloved-but-inferior Saturn – gamers who’d grown up in the house Sonic built were ready for a comeback, and when the Dreamcast came roaring in, it immediately felt like Sega had snapped out of its long slump and was back on top. Dreamcast was Sega’s long-overdue redemption, the moment at which it rose out of its own ashes like a phoenix to give its fans exactly what they wanted. Even the commercials, weird as they are in retrospect, were calculated to make Sega fans giddy.


Above: The only time you will ever hear Virtua Fighter 3’s Takaarashi rap alongside former Seattle SuperSonics point guard Gary “The Glove” Payton

“The Dreamcast was that really defined point in time when everything changed in gaming,” said Official Xbox Magazine Editor in Chief Francesca Reyes, who was previously an editor for Official Dreamcast Magazine. “I had always been a huge Sega fan. I loved my Genesis. I loved my Sega CD. I loved my Saturn. And I absolutely loved my Dreamcast. It had the types of games I loved, from dodgy arcade ports, to super fruity weirdness, to some really groundbreaking stuff.”

All of this added up to a record-breaking launch in North America, and after just over two months, Dreamcast sales had cracked a million units – a figure that had taken the PlayStation nine months to reach. The stage seemed set for a massive mainstream success, but weirdly enough, the Dreamcast would end up taking a different path. And while that might not have panned out quite so well from a business standpoint, it would become a huge part of why the Dreamcast is remembered with reverence, rather than as just another technological milestone in the ever-surging console race.

47 comments

  • batmanboy11 - September 9, 2010 9:41 p.m.

    11 years now.
  • Deckard5627 - April 27, 2010 9:40 a.m.

    I loved my dreamcast, and I still play it today!!! For some reason I will always have a soft spot of sega, and the dreamcast, and everything they ever released. I guess it has something to do with a little known blue dude who went on to achieve a thing or two.
  • Moondoggie1157 - March 19, 2010 3:16 a.m.

    I have been looking around and I will most definitely be buying my Dreamcast... I should have done it 9 years ago... I was young and stupid!
  • throughironsights - September 16, 2009 4:48 p.m.

    does anyone remember pen pen triIcelon? that game was so weird but strangely addicting...
  • YamiZero - September 13, 2009 9:22 p.m.

    What about the most important aspect of the Dreamcast! The Death of Segata Sanshiro! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tstf-M2ngrc
  • Frootaloom - September 11, 2009 2:52 p.m.

    Let's hope we don't see the Dreamcast singing flavor flav songs in Guitar hero 10.
  • lilj805 - September 11, 2009 6:39 a.m.

    this was great, i played the hell outta Crazy Taxi though lol
  • Pocotron - September 10, 2009 10:38 p.m.

    So does this mean we'll have a 10 year anniversary for the PS2 soon?
  • Styrophoamicus - September 10, 2009 7 p.m.

    I only ever rented a Dreamcast from our local game store, Gamer's Edge. It came in this wicked metal suitcase you see in the movies and the foam padding inside was custom cut for the system. I only remember playing Sonic Adventure and Soul Calibur with my dad but we had a lot of f un with it. I was a total Nintendo junkie tho, so I refused to buy anything not made by Nintendo, a decision the Wii made me wholeheartedly regret.
  • rxb - September 10, 2009 12:50 p.m.

    Outtrigger what a blast from the past.... The Dreamcast really was a gamers console. BTW remember that JSR concept art a while back? Oi smilebit where is my new game?
  • ScoobyDoo - September 10, 2009 7:28 a.m.

    Ok nobody else has said it so I will. Yea the DC was ahead of its time in the technology sense. But the reason why it was great(and bad) was because it had hardly any PIRACY protection! I remember *i would have a friend* who would come home from school and have 5-6 full games downloaded and ready for burn. Hell as the scene grew they even found a way to include the boot disc into the game's ISO, no longer requiring a swap after booting from the boot disc. So long story short this *friend* of mine had a 64-cd case-logic case with 50+ "back-up" copied games and we would play the best.. all the hits and even some games that you would never buy all because of the downloadable-exploited security factor of just getting it off the net. My *friend* recently found his cd case with all the games. Sonic Adventure, Virtua Tennis, Virtua Cop, NHL2k, RE: Code Veronica, Mortal Kombat 3, Daytona USA, and Hydro Thunder just to name a few.. matter of fact the only game my *friend* actually purchased was SF Rush 2049 because it was NOWHERE to be found online. this was great for the 2 years it was active.. but it slowly died with the console. Sales plundered most likely because before you knew it, everyone had taken advantage of the security exploits. Sega nailed there coffin shut as far as being a console contender with this problem IMO. too bad because the Genesis kicked the SNES's ass, and the DC was way better then the PS1. Poor Sega. The DC was my favorite console ever though. I still have my DC in the garage somewhere. - I hope...
  • brodyhill - September 10, 2009 3:46 a.m.

    http://techphules.blogspot.com/2009/09/latest-dreamcast-game-launch.html Someone is actually launching a NEW dreamcast game this month... amazing?
  • reyalejandro13 - September 10, 2009 3:04 a.m.

    Sad Face: Being young, I grew up watching TV First. And what was on TV in the 90's: Pokemon. So what was the game I got first: Pokemon. So what system did I get? N64. So what did I completely miss out on? Dreamcast, and all of its glory. In all seriousness (maybe it's because I was 6 in 1999), I only played Pokemon for the longest time. So I never knew about the greatness of Mario and Sonic until i got a Gamecube. Now I need to get a DC (or at least an Emulator, but that might be confusing) to play these great games, like NiGHTS, Jet Grind Radio, and SA2. oh well.
  • Ensoul - September 10, 2009 2:47 a.m.

    Of all the systems that I never picked up Dreamcast remains the biggest regret. Never had a Sega system, but I had decided to pick up a Genisis one day if I could find one at the local flea market. I ended up with a used Dreamcast and a copy of Shenmue and Dead or Alive 2 very, very late in it's "life" for under $100. It didn't take long before I was picking up anything and everything related to DC and at clearance prices too. I felt like a bit of a vulture. :-/ It sucked that I was never that much of a contributer to the PSO party (Lvl 10 while my friends were MUCH higher) but it was still fun, as was Unreal and Quak III, all via dail up no less. (NFL 2K1 was too choppy though) Then I discovered the homebrew side of things; whole games and emulators, I was amazed at what was being done. The common opinon amoung most of my friends is divided. Some say the DC was the system no one knew they loved. Others think it's so beloved now is the afor-mentioned "Dead Rock Star Syndrome" and feel it's kinda over-rated now. As a late joiner I lean towards the former. Thanks GR for doing this look back.
  • boxcar44 - September 10, 2009 12:26 a.m.

    i remember buying my dreamcast...i only bought it because the PS2 was sold out everywhere after i bought it like 2-3 weeks later or something they announced dreamcast was be discontinued
  • gmilf71 - September 9, 2009 11:59 p.m.

    NO ONE CARES ABOUT THE DREAMCAST!! WHY ARE THERE SO MANY ARTICLES ABOUT IT??!!??!! Respetfully, Gmilf71.
  • Pyroco101 - September 9, 2009 11:56 p.m.

    man, they schold have put up the video of that dreamcast "turduken." man that thing was a beast
  • Soggybrain - September 9, 2009 11:29 p.m.

    Me and my brother loved our dreamcast we got it cuz we just couldnt wait for the ps2 ta come out but it was one of the best systems. We played house of the dead 2 n power stone all day cant wait till the new game comes out im gana need to add it to my crate of dc games
  • cronoman66 - September 9, 2009 11:07 p.m.

    In reference to the dead rockstar syndrome... Does this mean we'll see a Dreamcast prancing around and rapping in Guitar Hero 6?
  • Johnny6Gun - September 9, 2009 10:52 p.m.

    I still have my maracas and I still wish I could type better than G did, but I'll be damned if I can't say that the DC was something special. From failing to get Chu Chu Rocket working online, to getting my char up to 100 in PSO with friends over that blazing 56k modem, the DC screamed fun at every opportunity. Sure, the controller kinda sucked for the Capcom fighters, but they were such perfect ports that it hardly mattered. As Jet Grind Radio was the last game I ever received as a gift from my parents and Seaman almost busted a cheating friend to his girlfriend while she was in the room, I can only say that the Dreamcast gave me grander memories than any console since. Segata Sanshiro died for this console and I almost like to think that I would do the same.

Showing 1-20 of 47 comments

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