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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 Where most failed consoles were dragged down by flawed or outdated hardware, the Dreamcast offered next-gen graphics and sound (for 1999, anyway), a handful of amazing launch games and out-of-the-box online connectivity – and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.

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47 comments

  • chrisda - September 9, 2009 9:02 p.m.

    Great, now i have to go unbury my dreamcast
  • skyguy343 - September 9, 2009 9:35 p.m.

    to be fair, the dc didnt pull a shotgun on itself...
  • GamesRadarMikelReparaz - September 9, 2009 9:57 p.m.

    @skyguy343: It also didn't choke on its own vomit, so the comparison isn't entirely inappropriate.
  • WonsAuto - September 9, 2009 10:17 p.m.

    Which TDar did someone mention that they wanted RC Pro Am (or that type of game) to make a comeback? Well, how's 'bout they do that with a new Dreamcast game coming next month? http://www.redspotgames.com/rush-rush-rally-racing-official-annoucement/
  • madsick1 - September 9, 2009 10:24 p.m.

    Who knew Francesca Reyes swears like a sailor?
  • FartsOnMilk - September 9, 2009 10:32 p.m.

    I always felt that the Dreamcast was a "gamers" console. Hell I never really ever played football or basketball games untill NFL2k and NBA2k series came onto the scene, and even today I don't play sports games unless there my DC games (well NHL09 is a exception). But still I had over 20 games for it and never have I owned a console where I haven beaten all the games that I had for it!
  • CreeplyTuna - September 10, 2009 12:44 a.m.

    my friend had one of these but we've never played it. he has, but rarely. now i want one
  • aequitas13 - September 10, 2009 12:46 a.m.

    Power Stone FTW! I'd never been a big fan of many genres till the dreamcast came along... fighting games especially, but I loved Power Stone and Soulcalibur. We spent hours in college playing Ready to Rumble, Power Stone, Crazy Taxi, and TENNIS... of all freaking things Tennis was a blast on Dreamcast. Plus, the 2K series dominated!
  • tonloco - September 10, 2009 1:03 a.m.

    I still have 3 DCs. They are awesome.
  • Ensoul - September 10, 2009 2:49 a.m.

    "Never picked up" day one I mean. I really need to proof read.
  • Architek9 - September 10, 2009 2:51 a.m.

    Incredible article this really made me think
  • neon6 - September 10, 2009 5:30 a.m.

    R.I.P. Dreamcast. If it's anything, the PS2 will be joining you soon.
  • PanzerDSS - September 10, 2009 6:39 a.m.

    Thanks for writing this, Mikel. The Dreamcast deserves respect and admiration as a great system that just didn't get the support it deserved. As Tyrell says in Blade Runner, "The star that burns twice as bright burns half as long." Good night, sweet prince.
  • SausageLozenge - September 10, 2009 10:59 a.m.

    The word seamen makes me laugh.
  • dipone - September 10, 2009 3:58 p.m.

    the DC failed cause everyone was so far up sony's arse, everyone was saying i'm not buying the DC i'm waiting for the PS2 even though they knew nothing about it. To all them people you missed out big time, there is more than just sony out there, you play games for games not a brand
  • tmoe01 - September 10, 2009 4:13 p.m.

    Its been 8 years and I still get angry when I think about SEGA and the Dreamcast. It was like being dumped by your hot gf for someone better. I loved my DC so much, only to have SEGA let me down. It truly was revolutionary for its time. PSO was huge for its time, when SEGA finally shut down the PSO servers its what prompted me to get an Xbox so that I could keep playing. Ten years ago you actually surf the net on your DC. The PS2, Xbox, N64, and currently the Xbox 360 dont have that feature. If Sega taught me one thing from the DC it is that I will NEVER buy a system on launch date again.
  • TanookiMan - September 10, 2009 4:18 p.m.

    "World of Warcraft Magazine Editor in Chief Dan Amrich" For some reason, that sounds so foreign to me...
  • NelosAngelos - September 10, 2009 10:13 p.m.

    So...true...so...beautiful.
  • Sidnapolis - September 11, 2009 12:36 a.m.

    man...a part of me really doesn't like this dc week, because not getting a dc is one of my biggest regrets in gaming ever...sometime i will...
  • Sonneilon - September 11, 2009 1:05 a.m.

    I got one when it was in cheapo mode and that was for PSO. I never did play online, just solo'd it and had fun. I don't know what to think of the DC. I guess it was fine. I loved the Genesis and I did enjoy my Saturn. I believe the Saturn had the ultra cool rpg Dragon Force game. NOw... back to the DC. Wasn't there a game called Enemy Zero? It was an human vs alien game not unlike, I dunno, Dead Space. BUt this article was talking about creative endeavors and THIS game was dependent on sound. So you had to pay attention to where the sounds were coming from to know wher eht alien would be coming from. Wasnt' a big hit, but it creeped me out!

Showing 1-20 of 47 comments

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