Even in this exciting modern world of emulators turning what were once cutting edge arcade behemoths into bite-sized bus stop distractions and lovingly packaged re-releases keeping old classics on shop shelves there are still plenty of reasons to make the extra effort and seek out an original experience: To wrap your hands around the Saturn’s beautifully curved six-button pad, to clear out an entire shelf under the TV for the sake of housing an original Xbox, to drag a long-forgotten NES or Amiga out of a dusty loft. Decades may have passed since they were relevant but every single one of those formats still proudly holds on to a mix of noteworthy exclusives (Steel Battalion‘s utterly immersive giant control panel setup, all brushed metal switches and light-up buttons, is sadly something never to be repeated no matter how ludicrous the imagined price point) and landmark titles that may have been moved elsewhere over the years but somehow still feel most “right” when played on their native hardware: Squaresoft’s 16-bit RPGs will always have that unmistakable “SNES look” to them wherever they go (unless they were later forced to endure the sort of HD “enhancement” Final Fantasy VI infamously had) but their pixel art craftsmanship will always feel most at home when bathing a room in the soft glow of a CRT screen, and while colourful background gradients may now considered so simplistic as to be completely subsumed by realistic vistas or detailed skyboxes when viewed as the backdrop of an Amiga classic with a Quickshot joystick in hand (suction-cupped to the table, as nature intended) they become fresh and vibrant frames for a 2D adventure once again. You can apply this nostalgic line of thinking to almost any format you care to dredge up from the depths of history – the Vectrex’s bright lines and colourful overlays, the satisfying click of a Neo Geo CD’s joypad as you impatiently wait for a loading bar to slowly inch its way across the screen, the grainy FMV intro that comes after watching a disc slide back into a Mega CD’s motorised tray – but there is one console in particular that has struggled more than most to retain its unique pull in the years since its untimely demise: Sega’s optimistic box of wonders, the Dreamcast.
Unleashed on Japan at the tail end of 1998 and possessing a release schedule that faded into commercial insignificance within just three short years before being reduced to subsisting on irregular import-only scraps until it’s final official title in 2007 (Milestone’s arcade shmup, Karous), Sega’s “failure” nevertheless managed to carve out its own personal space within the hearts of gamers everywhere within that brief but brilliant window of time. The Dreamcast’s commercial lifespan may have been short but it burned oh so brightly, a white-hot crucible of the industry’s finest talent stoked by nothing less than the very real need for survival in the hostile and partially self-inflicted environment that was slowly but surely threatening to drag the once-untouchable gaming manufacturer and innovator permanently under.
Spurred on by the Saturn’s unhelpful mix of relative success in Japan and abject failure everywhere else, the Dreamcast came into existence sporting the sort of brass-necked confidence and high profile advertising deals deemed necessary to thoroughly blow away the missteps of the past and remind everyone who the original gaming company “with attitude” was, who did what others [Ninten]don’t. And beneath all of that marketing bluster Sega really did have plenty to feel confident about: That pack-in modem was a huge deal back in 1998: Various forms of online connectivity and even remote head-to-head play had been done using consoles before (and by Sega themselves with both the Mega Drive as well as the Saturn) but to have that functionality included as standard, as an integral part of the Dreamcast’s personality and not a distant and expensive extra to be cooed over in magazines for a paragraph or two before disappearing from view forever, was nothing short of a revelation at the turn of the millennium. Many a friendship was made or broken over 33kbps phone line connections to simple text-only forums, lobbies, and leaderboards. Sonic was finally back as a main event and sporting a fresh polygonal look, a gaggle of colourful new friends to fish/hammer/dig with, and an unforgettable guitar-laden soundtrack. The VMU, Sega’s innovative sub-system-cum-memory-card hybrid accessory, would loudly announce their presence at every console boot (as wonderful as they were they did tend to eat CR2032’s for breakfast. And dinner. And tea.). Sega weren’t alone in this battle to create a brave new world: Capcom, the company that insisted on standing by the Saturn to the very end out of blind love over and above good business sense, were happy to continue their public support and brought with them a plethora of crowd pleasing old favourites, all-new and briefly exclusive survival horror experiences, and arcade ports you couldn’t find on anything else (outside of an actual arcade, that is). Other grand titans of the industry – SNK, Konami, and Hudson to name a few – were also keen on testing out Sega’s bold new vision of the industry for themselves to varying degrees of commitment and even Namco made an appearance – something of a surprise considering their longstanding arcade rivalry with Sega and frequent preference for all things Sony – and although they may have only stayed long enough to release two games for the system seeing as one of them was their heavily reworked and greatly expanded take on Soul Calibur – so thoroughly polished and upgraded it left the arcade-only original choking on the Dreamcast’s dust – they can be somewhat forgiven for taking the Dreamcast out on a dazzling whirlwind romance instead of treating it to the loving long-term relationship it deserved.
While the console lived it really felt like it could deliver anything an enthusiast could possibly wish for: Games were compatible with anything from microphones to fishing rods, in-game locations could be redecorated “live” by the developers to suit the season or offer themed extras for your favourite characters, and your fastest time or highest score wasn’t a mere point of pride amongst friends any more but potentially a coveted place on an international hall of fame, updated in real time for all the world to see. Sega knew they needed to offer more than just a straightforward alternative to their rivals – the Dreamcast had to engage players with a whole new lifestyle, to be the central pillar of a brave new vision for gaming. This is the system that encouraged competitive and cooperative play locally and online thanks to four built-in controller ports and that console-defining modem, offered cross-pollination with arcade centres via player’s VMUs, and would even happily swap data with SNK’s fantastic underdog handheld, the Neo Geo Pocket Color. At the time the Dreamcast was the only console that would allow you to easily chat with someone on a different continent in one game and then arrange to meet up with them a few minutes later in another, and while the number of users never did come close to matching the aggressive “Six billion players” tantalisingly promised by the European marketing campaign it always felt like just maybe, with a little bit of luck and a just few things going Sega’s way, it could have. The US tagline – “It’s thinking” – actually turned out to be a little closer to the truth in the end: For the first time ever a console was actively connected to and capable of influencing the world – and the gamers – that surrounded it.
And when it died… Like a particularly plump carcass dropped before a starving pack of hyenas, the Dreamcast was stripped right down to the bone. Anything of immediately obvious value of was quickly shifted to what would hopefully be more financially welcoming shores, an unfortunate yet practical necessity in those years immediately following their permanent withdrawal from the hardware market; a time when Sega simply needed some – any – revenue to help keep the company held together in a recognisable form while the gaming press openly speculated as to whether Sega were still capable of existing at all or if they would end up as another Atari-like husk, their once respected name sold and re-sold to whoever felt the brand could be cynically wrung out for a few pennies more. But all of that was a long time ago now – almost twenty years have passed and as we all know Sega are happily still with us, forever changed and still the same old Sega all at the same time. Gaming as a whole has moved so far on from everything the Dreamcast once championed as an industry-changing marvel as to be hardly worth noting: Online games are found on phones. Flawless ports of arcade classics are the sort of thing to be casually picked up in assorted digital bundles for pocket change. And any game that ever had Sega supporters cheering from the rooftops and certain they could weather the oncoming PlayStation 2-shaped storm is now available elsewhere: even titles that were once the preserve of only the most dedicated Dreamcast importers are now available cheaply worldwide and in infinite supply at the touch of a button. All that’s left to the console’s name now are a few stragglers languishing in a legal limbo, the odd good game that’s more trouble than it’s worth to transfer to a more popular format, and a bit of chaff.
Which sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? The Dreamcast must have more left than that! But with a little time and a handy pen we can back up this sorry point: Print out a full list of every Dreamcast game released in every region, including one-off novelties such as Christmas Seaman, regional magazine giveaways like the European-only Planet Ring, and even those Hello Kitty-themed email programs (yes, they’re real). Then cross off all of the games that were originally made for something else (whether that’s arcade, PC, or another console), then run a line through all of the ports of once-exclusive Dreamcast titles that can now be bought and played elsewhere, and you’re left with an alarmingly small list of honest-to-goodness exclusives. It turns out nothing is sacred, worthwhile Dreamcast classics perhaps least of all. Flagship titles like Shenmue are now more likely to be found in battered Xbox-branded cases at the back of charity shops or sold for pocket change in digital sales than on a GD-ROM. Skies of Arcadia, once heralded as the Dreamcast RPG, received a very warm welcome from Nintendo owners when it was rebalanced and enhanced for the GameCube. Other unmistakably “Dreamcast” titles, those games crackling with Sega’s flair for arcade-style action and passion for experimentation like Sega Bass Fishing, Samba de Amigo, and Space Channel 5 all saw releases on a mixture of once-sworn rivals and hardware that didn’t even exist before the Dreamcast’s demise.
But those are all easy targets aren’t they? Obvious low hanging fruit makes for an unfair assessment of the Dreamcast’s postmortem situation – of course well-liked and well-reviewed international releases are the most straightforward and most likely of things to end up elsewhere even under the best of circumstances. There’s less work and more speed all round and they’re a relatively easy sell to consumers and accountants alike – it doesn’t take all that much to get a seal of approval to transfer a popular fish to a bigger pond. So let’s continue and dig a little deeper as we go: How about the Japan-only fantasy RTS Hundred Swords? That’s also available on PC – and bizarrely enough has an English release too. What about an obscure shmup like Triggerheart Exelica, brought to Sega’s console at a time when every official release felt like a brief stay of execution, flimsy proof that the Dreamcast still “lived” even when the rest of the world had long moved on? That’s been available worldwide via Xbox Live Arcade for a decade now. Let’s look at European exclusive Headhunter, feted by parts of the gaming press as Sega’s answer to the Solid Snake phenomenon: Oh. That – and its not-on-the-Dreamcast sequel – are both available on the PlayStation 2.
So what’s left, really? What’s truly exclusive? What’s still worth playing on the Dreamcast that honestly can’t be found anywhere else? Cool Cool Toon may be a great rhythm game with that undeniably funky-fresh Dreamcast style… but that doesn’t make it the sort of thing anyone should seek out an entirely new console for. Segagaga is a wonderful game as well as a painfully knowing tribute to both Sega’s glorious history as well as the uncomfortable do-or-die situation they were in at the time… but it’s also a dense web of nerdy developer in-jokes – assuming you can read enough Japanese to understand what any of them are saying in the first place. There’s El Dorado Gate, Capcom’s Japan-only heptalogy of 2D RPGs. Warp’s snowy D2. Microsoft’s Project Gotham Racing originator Metropolis Street Racer. Esoteric survival experience L.O.L.: Lack of Love. And… and… Super Magnetic Neo? Sengoku Turb? Blue Stinger? When you discount everything the Dreamcast dared to bring home from arcades before anyone else would or could, or those games lovingly created exclusively for the format only to be carried away elsewhere, all that’s left is a shallow pool ranging from “OK if you like that sort of thing” to “Nobody would honestly give this the time of day if it was on any other format” and a few shiny exceptions to desperately cling on to.
Now consider this: It doesn’t matter.
Not. One. Bit.
The Dreamcast’s library has been well plundered simply because it was well worth the plundering, and having so very many of those wonderful games now scattered far and wide – often needing little more than added widescreen support and a resolution upgrade to bring them up to acceptably modern standards – doesn’t diminish the Dreamcast’s legacy at all but instead enhances it: The console remains so firmly in the public consciousness and so well loved precisely because so many people have been able to get their hands on games they may have missed out on the first time around, or have had another chance to revisit a cherished classic that would otherwise have been packed away or sold off a decade or more ago. But even then there’s more to this than merely refreshing fond memories and keeping old titles available across the full suite of digital storefronts to hoover up leftover store credit on a rainy afternoon – these re-releases are justice. Just think of all the fabulous Dreamcast games – Phantasy Star Online, Crazy Taxi, Ecco the Dolphin – those gems that would have otherwise been forever lost to conservative print runs that were given a second (or third, or even fourth) lease of life elsewhere on more popular – and profitable – systems. Rez always deserved better than to be locked away as a limited-region release on the death end of a sorely underappreciated console. Anyone in the world with even the slightest bit of interest in Sonic Team style rhythm-action can now bring home a reasonable approximation of the full maracas-led and sunshine-drenched Samba de Amigo experience without the ridiculous price tag associated with Sega’s bespoke Dreamcast shakers. Far from damaging their first and forever home these re-releases are the cold hard proof fans always longed for – that the Dreamcast’s selection of games were always good enough to stand side-by-side with their more financially stable peers when judged by their quality alone, and that Sega’s die-hard enthusiasts were right to champion these games as much as they did.
The enduring popularity of these games, always more than welcome wherever they are found, is the ultimate mark of the Dreamcast’s collective quality: The Dreamcast can afford to share almost everything it ever had to call its own and still retain its own unmistakable identity. These games were never special because they were expensive, or rare, or locked away behind a massive collector’s premium on a dead system people didn’t like when they “should have” – it turns out they’re special because they were always special. The cel-shaded streets of Tokyo-to will always be citrus-sharp no matter the shape of the controller in your hands as spray graffiti across a wall. Rez… what praise is there left to heap on Mizuguchi’s breathtaking synesthesia masterpiece that hasn’t been said already? Whether you’re playing it over the Dreamcast’s pin-sharp VGA connection, with the PlayStation 2’s Trance Vibrator about your person, or fully immersed in a VR headset, the fundamentals of that evolutionary musical journey remain the same. The eternal allure of Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram‘s balletic space combat continues to help sell eye wateringly expensive twin stick controllers on every format it’s ported to even though the only other games they’re compatible with are other rarely-seen titles from the same series. The infectious enthusiasm and raw technical skill demonstrated by these and other examples of the Dreamcast’s best and brightest enable these games to effortlessly find themselves at home anywhere and everywhere and always. Who knows where people will next play Chu Chu Rocket, or Shenmue, or The House of the Dead 2 – but there will never be any confusion about which system they really call home. And that’s where the Dreamcast’s magic lies: Any one of your favourite Dreamcast games, from the most meticulous arcade ports to the astoundingly ambitious internet-connected home games of the era, may be individually considered stunning examples of what the greatest talents in their field are capable of but collectively they tell another story – this endless parade of hits are simply how the Dreamcast is. These games are the living embodiment of Sega’s mission statement for their precious first-party swansong, of their desire to take gaming and gamers themselves in a whole new direction – or at the very least go down in a blaze of glory. It’s the place where the raw fizz of arcade challenges sits comfortably next to lengthy home adventures, where the bold and the different aren’t novelty sideshows but a defining part of the system’s ethos and something to be proud of: No other company dared to ask its gamers to switch from space dancing to co-operative international online RPG action to racing around tracks in a painstakingly accurate digital reproduction of an F355 Ferrari, to put all of these disparate experiences front and center and insist they were all as equally Dreamcast as each other or any of the traditionally “safe” titles you’d expect to see pushed into the foreground on a mainstream system.
This is why the Dreamcast itself, as a system in its own right, will forever be relevant to anyone interested in seeing gaming at its best – when viewed as a whole these individual titles are transformed from a hodge-podge of scattered genres found spread across every format created since the turn of the millennium into a curated collection of some of the greatest moments the medium has ever produced. Even now, when all the servers are gathering dust and the original websites are, at best, trapped in archival amber, today’s Dreamcast is a time capsule of Sega at their finest – of everyone at their finest. It remains a system of imaginative firsts, of wild experimentation, of bold new ideas from the biggest industry giants to the smallest indies. It’s a one-stop-shop of single-player inventiveness, of multiplayer mayhem, of arcade-born peripherals that run the full spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous. The Dreamcast is Sega’s open defiance given physical form, the line in the sand of a company determined to produce their very best work even when their once unshakeable empire was crumbling all around them. The system’s brightest stars may have found new life in distant skies, but Sega’s soul forever remains with the Dreamcast.