20 Years of the SEGA Dreamcast
By Tom Middler
The Sega Dreamcast launched a whole 20 years ago in Europe, which is staggering for this writer, because back in the late 1990s the Dreamcast came to represent all that the future of gaming could be, and yet already that “future” has become “retro”.
The DC’s graphical leap from the competition - which at the time was the Sony PlayStation (the first one) and the Nintendo 64 - was almost unbelievable. Technology as a whole has moved on so much more than we could have imagined in the last 20 years, but looking at the Dreamcast’s oddly beautiful games now it’s hard to conceive that we were still 8 years away from getting the very first iPhone when Sega launched the console. That gives some context as to how impressive it was that the Dreamcast basically brought the massive “just one more try” coin-op arcade games that we loved (SEGA Rally, House of the Dead, Soul Calibur, Ferrari F355, Crazy Taxi etc.) directly to our own homes in a little whirring box. It was witchcraft.
The Dreamcast design raised eyebrows with its pointy rocket-shaped gamepad (love it or hate it), the memory card with a screen (you could take it with you and play basic games on the go), and of course, the fact that it launched with Microsoft Windows and a modem inside. Yep, online console gaming, at home, existed way back in the 1990s.
Unsurprisingly though, there weren’t too many people who were able to take advantage of the console’s online features to boot up a game of Chu Chu Rocket or Phantasy Star Online at the turn of the millennium, and so the clever advertising slogan of “Up to 6 billion players” wore thin pretty quickly for most DC owners. So too did the fact that the outdated CD format was small, loud, fragile and insanely easy to pirate even in the early days.
Nonetheless, the games didn’t just look nice, they were miles ahead of their time, and their emphasis on bold, bright fun means that many of them still play well today. Shenmue is well worth mentioning too; the most expensive game ever developed back then at over $50m, the story goes that every Dreamcast owner would have had to buy 2 copies for the game to turn a profit. It flopped commercially of course, but those who did play it found something very special indeed, a kung-fu adventure game giving you a seemingly endless amount of people to meet, punch or interrogate, and the freedom to simply play at the arcade, ride the bus or buy a soda on your quest to avenge your father in 1980s Japan. We had simply never seen anything like it, except in tantalising screenshots from gaming magazines of the day. Curiously, 20 years later, the final part of the Shenmue trilogy is amongst the most hotly anticipated new games with modern gamers… despite all the issues around the first two games.
The Dreamcast paid a heavy price for being an innovator in 1999. Launching ahead of the competitors was supposed to be an advantage, but in reality it allowed Sony’s PS2 to look all moody and enigmatic, and gamers were happy to wait in case Sony’s console became the next big thing. Sega was also coming off the back of the failing Saturn console, and so finances were at a stretch. When the huge early investment in the Dreamcast and its games didn’t seem to be working, the cash wasn’t there to keep plugging away, and Sega was sadly forced to go under, taking its bright, bold and beautiful games with it on its way to the grave.
But as it turns out, the Sega Dreamcast wasn’t quite dead yet. Of course retro gamers still drop big money to get their hands on rare and beautiful original titles like Shenmue II or Rez, but according to Shahzad Sahaib of retroguru.com there are still around 40 groups of indie developers worldwide who make new games for the Dreamcast, and the RetroGuru project is one of them!
Sahaib’s project has overseen the release of around 10 DC games already, and he reckons that the Sega Dreamcast is a programmer’s, erm, dream. The unprotected nature of Sega’s CD + Windows format was one of the things which ultimately doomed the console, but ironically it’s that which keeps it going these days.
“You have all the tools and development kits that you need right away, and you don’t have to change or modify the hardware… You can also boot homebrew software easily, and there are possibilities for emulation too.”
That means with a modern computer you pretty much have all you need to program and of course, play, new Dreamcast games without even owning Sega’s little white box. Yet within the niche market of a few thousand gamers around the world who enjoy these ‘nouveau retro’ games, many still want that feeling of holding a new Dreamcast game in their hands, and according to Sahaib, crowdfunding is making that a reality.
“The tendency is that developers are trying to make money with their hobbies these days… Many try their luck on Kickstarter, aiming to make physical copies of Dreamcast games, meaning you can actually have a brand new game on your shelf after years of the console being inactive, which is a rather nice feeling. But there are still people who give away the game downloads for free on their website.”
Guess what; retroguru.com is one such site, so if you want to join the community of retro gamers keeping old consoles alive, that’s a great place to start. On the 20th anniversary of the Sega Dreamcast, booting up that noisy old disc drive again with some new games would be a great way to give a nod to the legacy of the Dreamcast, whether you played it back in the day or you’re just discovering it now. Happy birthday Dreamcast, an arcade beauty, flawed but not forgotten.
Publiziert am 23.10.2019