Could the Dreamcast be the greatest console of all time? A video game console that was discontinued after just two years and actually sold less units worldwide than the Sega Master System? Well, no, not really. Still, while it’s hard to argue the case objectively with any kind of commitment (it simply wasn’t around long enough to complete with the likes of the PS2 and NES), it nonetheless remains one of the most resolutely popular consoles amongst, quote-unquote, hardcore gamers, and more importantly, and certainly within the context of this article anyway, it just so happens to be my favourite console of all time…..and by quite some distance I might add. It might have only been around (officially at least) for a couple of years, but this is a console that left an undeniably lasting impression on me, and above all else, represented everything that I had ever wanted from a video game console (up to that point anyway). Despite previous claims during the preceding console generations, other than perhaps the exorbitantly expensive Neo Geo AES of the early 90s, the Dreamcast was the first home console to deliver genuinely perfect arcade visuals. It wasn’t without its faults of course, but as a brave combination of ambition, creativity, naivety and ultimate execution, I’m not sure if there is another console out there can match it. Yes, there have been consoles with bigger libraries, and in the grand scheme of things, there aren’t all that many Dreamcast games that would make it onto anyone’s list of ‘greatest games of all-time’, but again, as a complete package, as a marriage of hardware to software, and more often than not, software to bat-shit crazy peripheral, the Dreamcast was something special, something indisputably unique. Most importantly though, it was something fun.
Whatever you think of Sega’s final shot at home console glory, whether it be fond memories or vague awareness, I can tell you this much for sure – there will never be another console like it……..Ever. This was a console of its time, a console built as much upon Sega’s failures as it was upon their previous successes; a unique console for a unique time. It was a brave last stand, a final roll of the dice. Financially it was a failure, it sent Sega crashing out of the hardware market and was arguably the last time that Sega truly felt like, well, Sega, but despite what might have happened since, despite where Sega are now, the Dreamcast will always have a special legacy and a unique place in the pantheon of home video game consoles. Some might argue that its legacy is viewed with rose tinted glasses and driven by the vocal minority who still sing its praises so fervently, but upon returning to the console, to its wild and eclectic library of both games and peripherals, I can say without any sense of misplaced idolisation that the Dreamcast remains something special – a console worth remembering and celebrating. Is it the best console of all time? No, it’s not. Its library of games is ultimately too slight to make such an outrageous claim, but for many, myself included, it is the most memorable. There is something almost intangible about the Sega Dreamcast, that special something that you can’t quite place that elevates it beyond its individual elements and components. That might sound like idealistic fan-boy hyperbole to many, but for anyone with a genuine love for Sega’s final home console, that elusive something is there, an undeniable part of a console whose mythology has become so much greater than its limited shelf life should have ever allowed. Simply put, you can’t judge the Dreamcast based solely upon the hardware and software, upon the base components that made up its architecture. Everything about it needs to be considered in context, to be considered in line with Sega’s history and the state of the market and the industry’s mind-set at the start of the 21st century. I don’t want to say that you had to be there, but you know what…..you kinda did.
It’s easy to forget when looking back, but upon its initial release, the Dreamcast really did feel like a console from the future. From the gentle roar of the processer upon start-up and the then impressive ‘Compatible with Windows CE’ sticker on the front of the console to the (to this day) sublime aesthetic design of the console itself and the wacky Tamagochi-esque visual memory units, everything about the Dreamcast screamed next-gen from the moment you opened up the box. Released over a year before Sony’s PlayStation 2 hit the market and essentially at death’s door by the time Nintendo’s, GameCube and Microsoft’s Xbox decided to show up to the party, despite being considered by most to be a 6th generation console (thanks largely to its technical capabilities), the Dreamcast actually spent a large proportion of its lifespan on store shelves alongside the original PlayStation and Nintendo’s, N64. Next to what we were used to from those ageing consoles, early Dreamcast games looked absolutely phenomenal. The fog was gone, the terrible clipping wasn’t there – the Dreamcast specialised in crisp clean 3D gaming and is arguably the first predominantly 3D console that can be revisited without a sense of the disappointment that often permeates the return to the early days of polygon-based video games and subsequently without the need for an especially strong pair of rose tinted glasses. Just try and go back to those PlayStation, Saturn and N64 games of your youth. Sure, gameplay ultimately wins the day and games such as Super Mario 64 remain as entertaining today as they were back in the mid-90s, but for the most part, 3D games on those consoles are just plain ugly by today’s standards. The Dreamcast has its fair share of stinkers of course and some of the games have inevitably aged better than others, but for the most part, those big, bold, arcade-inspired visuals that the Dreamcast was famous for have aged incredibly well.
Many gamers have very fond memories of Sonic’s first truly 3D adventure in the aptly named, Sonic Adventure, but for the vast majority of early adopters, it was the arrival of Namco’s, SoulCalibur that truly cemented the Dreamcast’s place as a genuinely next generation piece of hardware. There have been plenty of games that have pushed the industry forward on a technical level; from Mario’s move to 3D and Halo’s undeniable proof that first person shooters could work on home consoles, but few have had as dramatic an impact as Namco’s exceptional, and at the time, outrageously gorgeous 3D fighter. It might not have pushed the genre forward and did nothing genuinely new in terms of its core mechanics, but man, wasn’t that a pretty game. It’s no great shakes by today’s standards, but back in 1999, SoulCalibur was a tour de force in terms of both its technical and artistic ambitions. More importantly on a personal level, and perhaps something that goes a long way towards explaining the Dreamcast’s ongoing popularity, SoulCalibur felt like the first arcade port that was totally uncompromised. There had already been plenty of decent ports released before then (some on the Dreamcast itself), bet never before had a console version not only matched its arcade equivalent on every level, but in many respects, actually trumped it.
I’ve thought long and hard about what made the Dreamcast so special, the reason why I and so many others continue to love it quite so much. I don’t think there is any easy, single answer to that question, but I do think the fact that the Dreamcast felt like the zenith of what video games appeared to be striving towards in many gamers’ youths does play a major role. While the motivations of the industry have since moved on, become more complex and arguably much more ambitious, it could be argued that back in the 8-bit and 16-bit days, gaming had different, more humble goals. Games released in the subsequent years between the SNES/Mega Drive era and the release of the Dreamcast inevitably moved the goalposts, but ask 10 year old me what I would have wanted from a video game console in the future and I might have described something akin to what Sega put on store shelves back in 1999. Needless to say, for many, the Dreamcast was the holy grail of gaming consoles – an arcade machine in your home that delivered more than any single coin-op machine could ever hope to achieve.
The thing is, back in the 80s and 90s, the very peak of gaming was to be found in the arcades; that was the ultimate goal, to recreate at home what we were previously asked to pay 50p/£1 a go for. They might not be all that relevant today (they certainly aren’t in the West), but for decades, arcades represented the very pinnacle of video game technology. They were something to marvel at, something to aspire to, and whatever your view might be on Sega’s, Dreamcast, if nothing else, it was the first console to achieve that goal on a grand scale, something which, given its architecture, really should have come as no surprise. Especially compatible with the then market leading, NAOMI arcade system board, the Dreamcast NAOMI essentially shared the same off the shelf hardware components as its arcade equivalent, thus making ports of their most famous arcade games of the late 90s and early 00’s a relatively straight forward affair. Sure, the Mega drive had some decent arcade ports in the form of OutRun, Golden Axe and Altered Beast, and yes, the Virtua Fighter 2 port for the Sega Saturn was incredibly impressive for the time, but none came close to matching the arcade originals. The Dreamcast on the other hand – arcade ports were its bread and butter. From Sega Rally 2 ,Virtua Fighter 3 and Virtua Tennis through to the array of fantastic Capcom ports (Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 stand out as two of the more obvious examples), the Dreamcast really was (and still is) and arcade gamers dream.
Of course, I could spend another few thousand words reminiscing over the likes of the brilliantly unique Shenmue series, the sublime simplicity of ChuChu Rocket or the sheer madness of Seaman and Samba de Amigo, but the fact of the matter is, Sega’s, Dreamcast was, and still is, a genuinely fantastic home console. It might not have been the best, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable, and for that small few for which the Dreamcast showed up at just the right time and at just the right age, will likely remain their favourite video game console until the day that they die.
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