More Than A Dream

By Andrew Dickinson

It seems like ages since Nintendo and Sega vied for the attention of children and geeky teens alike. The current gaming landscape is almost un-recognisable from those times, an era when the sequel is king, online gaming is the norm and motion based controllers have captured the attentions of increasingly diverse markets. Who would have thought my mum, so adverse to a game of Tekken back in the day, would now be excited at the prospect of digital bowling?

Dreams do come true.

Dreams do come true.

The truth is it has been only eleven years since the departure of Sega from the hardware market, which ended the competition between gaming’s biggest players at the time. Who would have thought that the end would come at the hands of a younger rival though, not crushed under the boot of its more experienced opponent? While Nintendo may have survived the battle to finally beat Sega (by default) it was only the start of a larger console war, the stakes increasingly higher.

While aspects of gaming have gone on to improve, and the popularity of the past time has grown immeasurably, the death of the Dreamcast was a loss which has deeply affected the direction in which console gaming has taken. More than that though, my own relationship with gaming has never been the same since.

I grew up in a Nintendo household. My siblings and I would play Mario on the NES, and when the SNES was released we were those children who pestered their parents until we owned one. Playing a Sega system never crossed our minds, it would be like going over to the dark side. Besides, who would ever want to play a game starring a blue hedgehog (a question currently haunting Sega, unfortunately)?

My interest in gaming was ramped up a notch when a relative came to visit one day, bringing their shiny new PlayStation with them. I had never seen games like that before, truly 3D, although primitive by today’s standards. One game in particular caught my eye, and so began an obsession that consumed my teenage years – Resident Evil.

Games had become my primary media intake, my PlayStation a portal into worlds I could never before have hoped to experience. I consumed all of the classics of the era, not just my beloved survival horror series, and before I knew it I had completed Resident Evil 3 and found myself starved for the next chapter in the story, as hammy and unbelievable as it might be.

Then the rumours began. Games Master magazine told of a new console by Sega, which I had no interest in whatsoever, but soon enough rumours of a new Resident Evil began to circulate too. As these whisperings began to manifest into hard fact it was revealed that this new game would be an exclusive to Sega’s new console. Once the first images of this platform exclusive title were released it became very clear to me: I had to own a Dreamcast.

I kept up with news of this strange new machine, now home to my beloved franchise. Launch day came and went, and I started to buy the Official Dreamcast Magazine, hoping to devour more information about the game I was longing to play. I didn`t see the point in getting the console itself until CODE: Veronica was released (not least because I had no idea what other games I would want to play on the console). Whether it was the machinations of fate isn`t clear, however it came to pass that C:V was to release just months before my 16th birthday.

By this time my siblings had found other things to occupy them (my last real gaming experience with my brother being the time we pooled our pocket money together to buy Final Fantasy VII), so just one voice pestered parents on this occasion. I`m very lucky to have a mother who understands my love of videogames, even if she doesn`t really share it, as I received the white box for my birthday along with the game I had been practically drooling over for so long.

Thus began a love affair the likes of which I had never known, and one I doubt could be replicated again.

A forgotten classic?

A forgotten classic?

C:V exceeded my expectations, but once complete I had a console with no other games to play. Months spent reading the Official Dreamcast Magazine (the last great dedicated console magazine in my opinion) had given me some options though, and so I bought Crazy Taxi and Power Stone.

These two games speak volumes about the arcade heritage of Sega, which also ties into the reason for the consoles ultimate demise. Both were perfect arcade ports, possibly even improving on their original incarnation. This was the first time you could experience arcade quality games from the comfort of your sofa, and was a major selling point to some Japanese buyers. However the release of the Dreamcast coincided with a decline in the arcade business, a business that Sega was heavily invested in.

Regardless, both games were fresh and exciting to the console market. Creative game play was coupled with vivid colours, well-realised art styles and more detail than I had ever seen in a game before. All of these elements came to personify the system. Sega’s multiple first-party studios cranked out delight after delight, embracing a seemingly new found sense of fun and vitality to reinvigorate genres, and even create some new ones. The foresight of their hardware R&D department also added to this swell of creativity, giving developers not only a graphical powerhouse with which to craft new worlds, but also access to new player communication technology in the shape of the iconic Visual Memory Units and the built in modem.

The inclusion of a modem in the Dreamcast can be, and often is, attributed as being the origin of the rise and current popularity of online console play. However back at the turn of the millenium console gaming over the web was much different to what it has become now. Of course, as you`d expect from a dial-up modem, there were no games with 16 people all playing simultaneously. Four was the maximum, although you could chat to quite a few people in the lobbies of Phantasy Star Online. This restriction kept game play flowing well, or as well as you`d expect from an internet connection that could be cut off when your mum wanted to use the phone.

The biggest difference at the dawn of online console gaming though, was that the games were very rarely a matter of shooting at every moving thing on the screen in the hopes of leveling up to get the next weapon that will help you kill just that little bit more efficiently. No, back then you worked with a friend to get as many mice as possible into your rocket ship before the other team blasted off. You found some like-minded hunters to go down to that bright and charming planet below your space station base to take out the monsters together, edging closer to the secrets held deep within those lush environments. This was a revelation, the chance to share the wonders of gaming with others, friend or not. Quite often strangers battling with you became friends by the end of your session.

Here we find the crux of what has made this particular console the benchmark of greatness that I have yet to see exceeded. Fostered by a richness of content and a love and commitment on the part of Sega, which I`ve not seen from any manufacturer since, a community arose. This was a community who shared a passion for a console which had provided them with experiences like never before. Flying amongst the clouds in a pirate ship exploring floating islands of wonder, fleeing from the Tokyo police on inline skates in a cel-shaded world, dancing through a psychedelic dream as a pink haired investigative reporter, and so much more.

Reading the official magazine you could feel the love from these people whose careers were guided by gaming. More importantly, online communities sprang up as gamers came together to share their love too. Not only could we play together, we could also go that extra step and interact with other Dreamcast owners in the forums of fan sites. This was a console that offered a vision for gaming so dazzling that it could no longer be solely solitary. You had to connect, to share with others, and that is how Sega created a dream even if the ending to their story was more like a nightmare.

Despite the creativity and the foresight, the innovation and the love, Sega was failing. Its hardware sector was haemorraging money, both from the arcade and home console areas. Their marketing strategy, or lack of one, meant uptake of the Dreamcast system was low. Word of mouth should have been their most valuable form of marketing, however the new kid in town had become popular on a vast scale, attracting a more mainstream user base. It appears to me now, looking back, that Sony were intentionally dealing the critical blow to Sega, showing the world who the new boss was, by announcing the PlayStation 2 before the Dreamcast had even released. This tactic created an apathy for the little white box, people instead preferring to wait for the next incarnation of the PlayStation.

And yet…

Finishing off the Dreamcast may have meant dominance for Sony during the noughties and an end to Sega’s manufacturing arm, but one thing created during those dark times is something that no amount of money or PR can hope to achieve: a legacy.

It may be gone and all but forgotten under the clamouring of the current generation, but for those of us who were lucky enough to experience the euphoric highs and torturous lows of owning a Dreamcast during its brief lifespan, it will forever be in our memory.

Chaotic times

Chaotic times

My own thoughts about the console are forever recorded on a long dead fan site I wrote for over a decade ago. I happened across another avid Dreamcast fan in a chatroom (remember those?) who was setting up a site for people to discuss this fantastic machine, and ended up writing reviews and articles up until the bitter end. The two of us also became great friends and recruited more people to our cause. Our community was small, but loyal. My writing was terrible, but from the heart. Although no longer active, it still stands as a testament to what once was, and how we loved it so (www.dreamcastsource.co.uk if you`re interested).

In an era when gaming has become mainstream, a time when Sony and Microsoft angle their devices as media centres rather than pure game consoles, it`s difficult to imagine a time when the box under the TV didn`t do everything. It was not all that long ago that a games console was just that, though. The Dreamcast was truly the last of its kind, a device full of innovation but purely dedicated to the art of the video game.

And what a fantastic canvas the Dreamcast was. What beautiful art it encouraged. What wonderful memories it has created. If anything those memories have become more cherished as time has passed because, after all, to be this good takes ages.

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