Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Sega Dreamcast



Sega released its Dreamcast console in November 1998. Its lifespan in the market was relatively short, and it was Sega's last console before they pulled out of the home entertainment hardware industry. It did however have great games, and was in many ways ahead of its time. 

Upon release, things were looking great for the Dreamcast. Demand was so high that Sega had problems filling pre-orders both at the Japanese launch in 1998 and the US launch the year after. At one point, the Dreamcast even outsold the Nintendo 64, which was the second most popular console at the time. Sony's Playstation however, was the one to beat.

The Dreamcast was the first entry in the generation of consoles designed to end the Sony Playstation's reign of the console market. Unfortunately for Sega, Sony announced its Playstation 2 with great gusto and expert timing in March 1999, at about the same time as the Dreamcast was released in the West. This announcement cast a shadow over the new contender which it would never quite be able to emerge from.


Hardware and accessories


The Dreamcast was relativly small, but robust and quite heavy. Compared to other consoles at the time, with their "plastic fantastic" design, the Dreamcast had a construction which was more like a cute little PC. One of the first things that struck me when I un-boxed my Dreamcast, was the "new computer smell", an odor intimately familiar to all who built their own systems back in the beige/white -box era of the nineties.

It also had other things in common with personal computers. For instance, it could be hooked up to the Internet. Out of the box, it was equipped with a regular modem, but this was a replaceable part which could be substituted for a broadband adapter with 10/100 Ethernet support. The challenge was procuring said adapter, as it was only produced in limited quantities.

You could hook up mouse and keyboard, either the Sega branded official ones, or regular ones through adapters. It also had PC monitor output capabilities through the VGA-box, which provided superior picture quality to what was possible on most television sets from the era.

Controllers had two slots which could contain either a memory card or a "Rumble Pack". The memory card was quite special, as it had its own little screen, CPU and a small controller which made it possible to play simple games on it. Some Dreamcast releases were integrated with mini-games for the memory units, which unlocked extra features in the main game. This concept was recently revisited and enhanced by Nintendo with last year's release of the Wii U and its controller.

Games for the Dreamcast were loaded from optical media. Sega had their own proprietary disc format called GD-Rom, which was the same physical size as regular CD-Rom but had twice the storage capacity.


NAOMI - ( 直美 ) honest, beauty


Sega developed the Dreamcast in tandem with an arcade hardware platform called NAOMI. Both platforms share the same architecture, except NAOMI has more memory, can run in parallel with other NAOMI units to increase performance, and loads games in a slightly different fashion.

While the Deamcast reads game data from disc continuously, NAOMI boards equipped with a GD-Rom reads the disc just once, then stores the whole game in memory.

«Dead or Alive 2» © Tecmo 1996, 1999
The NAOMI platform was quite successful and lived a lot longer than the Dreamcast. One of the main reasons for this was that the NAOMI platform was licensable to third parties. So in addition to Sega, other big Japanese game makers like Capcom, Tecmo and Namco also developed arcade games for it. Many of these games were converted, often perfectly and with added features, to the Dreamcast. Examples include: «Crazy Taxi», «House of the Dead 2», «Power Stone 1 & 2», «Marvel vs. Capcom 2» and «Dead or Alive 2».

As a result of this and the fact that Electronic Arts refused to produce games for the console, most of the hallmark games for the Dreamcast were from Japan. 


Launch titles


The initial big games for the Dreamcast were «Virtua Fighter 3» and «Sonic Adventure», so they must be mentioned. They were however not that great, so it's tempting just passing them by.

«Virtua Fighter 3» in the arcades was an impressive game in its heyday with its advanced cloth physics and motion blur. The Dreamcast version is unfortunately just a shadow of its arcade counterpart, and was in many ways overshadowed by «Tekken 3» which rocked the Playstation the same year.

«Sonic Adventure» had potential to become the same triumphant transition from 2D to 3D for Sonic as «Super Mario 64» was for Mario. It had a cool intro, nice graphics and the soundtrack even had hair metal vocalist Tony Harnell on one of the tracks. The parts of the game with breakneck speed-running were also awesome, but they were far too often punctured by badly executed exploration sequences.

«Soul Calibur» © Namco 1998, 1999
Things got better for the US launch, when «Soul Calibur» was released.

Usually, when an arcade game is ported to a home system, it is considered a success if it is about as good as the original and maybe throws in a few extra modes. «Soul Calibur» was not just as good, but an order of magnitude better than its arcade counterpart.

It was the game that truly showed what the Dreamcast was capable of. It had awesome graphics and flow for a game from 1999, where the standard was «Quake III» which was also ported to the Dreamcast the year after.

«Soul Calibur» is a fighting game which is fun both for the frantic button-masher and for those who master it. The series is currently up to its fifth iteration, but I will claim that «Soul Calibur» for Dreamcast is still the best in the series. Whereas the sequels have progressively improved the graphics, added more options and enlarged the breasts of the female characters, the Dreamcast version is in its simplicity closer to perfect.


The golden age


«Shenmue» cover art © Sega 1999
As the Dreamcast matured, it got many titles that would influence later generations of games. «Shenmue» was one of these titles. It was a project so ambitious that it is still incomplete.

It was initiated under the codename «Virtua Fighter RPG» on the Sega Saturn, the predecessor to the Dreamcast. It was eventually moved over to the next generation hardware because it needed more muscle, but also because of its long development time.

After a record 70 million dollars worth of development costs, the saga of Ryo Hazuki and his quest to find the man who killed his father, is still without an ending. The game got two chapters, the second only released for the Dreamcast in Europe and Japan, but ported to the Xbox for a US release.

«Shenmue» was a very impressive early open world sandbox game. The game has night and day cycles and weather which gradually changes, making every day in the world a different experience. Games which have later used a similar system, include the «Elder Scrolls» series, starting from «Morrowind».

The plot takes place mainly around a detailed copy of the Japanese harbor town of Yokosuka, populated with NPCs with their own patterns of behavior, who move around the world according to their daily routine. Exploring Japanese suburbs might not sound too exciting on paper, but eventually it starts to feel like home.

As such, Ryo’s burning desire to avenge his father is often sidelined by activities like feeding kittens, learning martial arts techniques or just walking around and enjoying the scenery. You can also play games in arcades and bars, including perfect ports of the Sega arcade hits: «Space Harrier» and «Hang on». The real Yokosuka has as a result of «Shenmue» been visited on many occasions by fans looking for the Hazuki dojo.

Lan Di, The main antagonist of «Shenmue»
«Shenmue» was for better and for worse, also responsible for inflicting quick-time-events upon the gaming industry. Granted, «Dragon's Lair» pioneered it, but it was «Shenmue» creator Yu Suzuki who named the controversial game mechanic and popularized it.

The «Shenmue» battle system is based on «Virtua Fighter», and it is therefore quite complex, and contains a training system where moves improve as you use them. It's also tuned for combat against more than one opponent. A modern game with a similar system is last years «Sleeping Dogs».


Blazing a trail


Another game which had profound influence on modern gaming was «Phantasy Star Online». It pioneered many mechanics which would later be adopted by modern action RPGs like «Borderlands». This futuristic dungeon crawl could be played solo, but was way more interesting when played online with other people. It is one of the first games where the lobby used for finding team-members for your adventures was an area you could walk around in, as opposed to just a list of names and a chat-client.

«Phantasy Star Online» is not quite an MMO, but it incorporates many of the things that would later become staples of that genre, like a high focus on “loot” and fellow players that spend all their time opening treasure caskets instead of actually contributing to battles.

«Jet Set Radio» © Sega 2000
Yet another game to make an impact on future games was «Jet Set Radio». It was primarily a game about inline skating around an Orwellian cartoon version of Tokyo, avoiding the police and spray-painting uplifting messages on buildings. But it was also the game which popularized "cel-shading", a way to render vector graphics to make it look like a traditional cartoon.

Arc System Works also produced cartoony games for the hardware, like «Guilty Gear X», which was very anime inspired.

«Guilty Gear X» © Arc System Works 2000
«Guilty Gear X» is a traditional 2D brawler for hardcore fans of the genre. Not many 2D games were released in the early 2000s, and most of those that were, had semi 3D backdrops overlaid with blocky, low resolution sprites recycled from the developer's glory days in the 80s and 90s (Capcom was notorious for this).

The «Guilty Gear» series on the other hand, had crisp, well drawn sprites and backgrounds well suited to the higher resolution of the Dreamcast. It also had awesome, over the top character designs. The game is a wellspring of hair-metal references, and hits just the right spot for those craving an old fashioned but edgy brawler.

The Dreamcast was also instrumental in popularizing rhythm games. Before «Guitar Hero» on the Playstation 2 in 2005, with plastic guitars and classic rock, there was «Samba de Amigo» for the Dreamcast with plastic maracas and Ricky Martin. Other rhythm games worth mentioning for their unique feel and presentation is the «Space Channel 5» series, with its sixties inspired sci-fi aesthetics, and «Rez» with its techno-synesthesia and retro wire-frame graphics.


End of the line


In March 2000, the price of the Dreamcast was reduced to about half the price of a Playstation 2. Dreamcast sales improved, but not by enough for it to be profitable to keep up production. At the end of January 2001, Sega of Japan decided to cut their losses and give up the home console hardware market entirely. Production of new Dreamcasts was halted two months later.

Games were made for a few more years. The last official Sega release for the Dreamcast was «Puyo Puyo Fever» in 2004. Other companies - often smaller, independent ones - kept the torch burning but the pickings started slimming down and genres became more niche. New titles were released almost exclusively in Japan at this point, but the quality was often top notch. For those interested in SHMUPS, some of the genre’s most polished and refined pearls are from this era.

«Ikaruga» © Treasure 2001, 2002
«Ikaruga» is one of them. It is the spiritual successor to «Radiant Silvergun», notorious as the most expensive collectible for the Sega Saturn. Made by Treasure, a developer well known for their ability to create innovative games of the utmost quality.

In this vertical shooter, each enemy has one of two polarities: Black or white. The player can change his own polarity with the press of a button, and is immune to enemies of the same color. This gives the game a fun strategic component. This classic SHMUP has later been re-released on many other platforms.

«Border Down» is another classic. In this horizontal shooter, you have three weapons which can be used interchangeably. Holding the fire button down, releases a concentrated stream of bullets straight ahead. If you tap fire repeatedly, you launch seeking bullets in a scattered pattern. There is also a super beam weapon, which can only be fired sporadically, but can be used to generate highly damaging interference fields by crossing it with enemy beams. With the right use and positioning, this weapon can be used both as a shield and a damage multiplier.

The game has a slightly cheesy but kind of cool pop-jazz soundtrack, and an interesting feature where your ships fly towards the level bosses by different routes. As a consequence, if you get shot down, not only do you loose your ship, you also must fly a different and often more difficult route.

«Psyvariar 2: The Will to Fabricate» © Success 2003
«Psyvariar 2: The Will to Fabricate» is a third. In this game, the player increases his firepower by flying as close to enemy fire as possible without getting hit. It is an intense and demanding entry in the “bullet hell” genre, where the screen is often filled to the brim with enemy fire.


Why was it so awesome?


The Dreamcast was the epitome of a social era of gaming, before it became standard to play together-with-others-but-alone online. Whilst it may have trail-blazed online gaming for consoles, it was first and foremost a machine with awesome games worth playing in the same room as your friends on as big a screen as possible. And because it had high quality video output, it could be used to drive a projector, thus making it possible to create pretty big screens. If you had a white wall and access to a workplace where it was possible to borrow the corporate presentation gear for the weekend (this was before projectors became so cheap that it was common to own one), you could create a pretty sweet setup.

The picture from the Dreamcast VGA-box was sharp, crisp and could easily be blown up to around 100 inches. Other consoles from this generation did not have the same picture quality. Trying to hook a Playstation 2 up to the big screen usually resulted in a far more muddy and hazy picture. It was not until the next generation of hardware with the Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and HDMI that big screen gaming once again became practical.


Why did it die?


The main reason for the early retirement of the Dreamcast, was undoubtedly that Sega didn’t have the ammunition to win the public relations battle against Sony and their Playstation 2.

Technological development was also pretty rapid at the time with regards to game engines. Whilst some early titles which were released for both platforms were better on the Dreamcast, as the Playstation 2 matured it got games which likely would have been too demanding for the Dreamcast's less powerful CPU. The Playstation 2 has also in retrospect showed extraordinary competitive resilience to other competitors as well, and was only recently discontinued. The Dreamcast is however still warmly remembered by those who experienced it in its prime. It was truly an awesome platform.

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