The idea of having retroactive nostalgia for something I never took part in is bizarre to me. Having these longing feelings for something that to me only existed peripherally just never made any real sense, so when I have those feelings, I get confused. The Sega Dreamcast turned 13 years old yesterday, and while I never owned one while it was a viable platform, I started having this longing for it. I was never a Sega kid. I lived in a Nintendo household, so I went from the Nintendo 64 to the Gamecube. That’s just how it was. I had friends who had the Dreamcast, and at the time I never truly realized how special of a console it would be. Of course, it never got the chance to really grow due to Sega leaving the hardware business, but in the short couple years it was on the US market, it gave us an amazing amount of truly unique game experiences. It’s likely that because of that sort of innovation that I’m having this longing for this early entry in the sixth generation of consoles.
In the United States, the Sega Dreamcast was released on September 9, 1999. The advertising focused on this 9/9/99 release date, making it out to sound like a revolution was coming. It was released, and while it started off well, everything went south and the writing was on the wall. Sega had lost Electronic Arts and their array of sports games that had propelled the Genesis to popularity. The Dreamcast lacked DVD playback, something that would instantly sell consumers on the Playstation 2. After the Playstation 2 launched, the Dreamcast quickly lost momentum. Adding a DVD drive wasn’t cost effective during development, but if it came to it, Sega could beat Sony in a price war. This, mixed with every other horrible thing that happened, doomed the Dreamcast. Sega had done everything right, doing everything they could to fix the wrongs they had made in the previous generation, but the brand was tarnished. Ultimately, nothing could be done, and unfortunately, the end was inevitable. The Dreamcast had an amazing launch and boasted one of the strongest console launches ever. Sega’s first party studios were at the top of their game. Everything had come together in a great way, and they set out to push these wild, crazy ideas, but it just wasn’t enough.
This is why I’m upset about this. The Dreamcast did all these things that we take for granted now, and was either the first console to do them, or do them well. It had online multiplayer. Not only that, but it had cross platform online multiplayer with PCs for Quake 3 Arena. In 1999. That is absolutely crazy to think about! Not only that, but it had games that were heavily focused on online play. Phantasy Star Online was built entirely around playing online with your friends. Of course you could play offline, but where’s the fun in that? Communicating wasn’t a problem at all either if you had the Dreamcast keyboard. They made a keyboard for this thing! Thirteen years later and consoles still aren’t keen on the idea of using keyboards. The PS3 supports them for certain titles, and in Japan, a keyboard can be used for Dragon Quest X on the Wii, but beyond that, keyboard and mouse controls are almost unheard of for consoles. Considering the types of games that sell a lot of units, this is really surprising to me. I might be slightly more interested in playing shooters on console if I could use a keyboard and mouse. The idea that this existed in 1999 is cool. I don’t think “cool” is a great word to really describe it, but to me, it’s the proper descriptor. The Dreamcast was just cool.
Now, I talk about online functionality on consoles like it was an entirely new concept for the Dreamcast. It wasn’t. The Nintendo Famicom could access an early version of the internet and you could do your banking on it. The Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo had the X-Band online service, which supported online multiplayer for about a dozen games. It wasn’t a new idea at all, but it was the first time it was done in a reasonable, functional way. PCs had been enjoying the fruits of online multiplayer for a few years now, but Sega really set the foundation for what would become a cornerstone of current generation console gaming.
They didn’t stop there, though. Did you know that the Dreamcast had it’s own downloadable game service? In Japan there was a service called Dream Library that allowed the user to download Sega Genesis and PC Engine games to play, similar to the Sega Channel service from a few years earlier. Not only that, but certain games with online features had content that could be downloaded, similar to how DLC is handled now. Sega was never afraid to take chances and push the boundaries of the medium. In games like Jet Set Radio, you could use the internet browser to download graffiti tags to the use in your game. The Dreamcast had an internet browser, something current consoles still haven’t functionally implemented. It is yet another example of Sega being ahead of the curve, something that always benefited everyone but them.
I get upset over the Dreamcast not only because of how great of a system it was, but also because of the unused potential. The gaming landscape could have ended up wildly different. Even then I hated seeing Sega go down like this. Despite the missteps it took to get there, they did everything right, only to be kicked to the side. Sega really was at their creative peak during this time, and after they quit the console business, I don’t think their internal teams hit this consistent level of quality ever again. Sonic the Hedgehog games continue to be released to various levels of acclaim, while the majority of Sega’s lineup of franchises has been left to die. Over the last few years, a lot of Sega’s top talent have left the company. They really are a shadow of their former selves. I hate seeing it, and when Sega of America was hit with heavy layoffs this year due to restructuring, I started getting really worried that Sega might be going down for the count.
Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding their final home console, I do feel as if Sega has been making a few good decisions lately. I was really happy with a lot of their publishing and rerelease choices that I saw at PAX such as Double Fine’s new title The Cave, and digital rereleases of games like Sonic Adventure 2 and Jet Set Radio, all of which demoed really well. I really want to see more of these Dreamcast games better represented on current generation consoles. The HD rerelease of NiGHTS into Dreams looks and plays surprisingly well. I don’t typically go for a lot of rereleases, but I want people to remember that these games exist and that many of them are still great.
While I said that Sega is a shadow of their former selves, occasionally they do something that seems to bring back some of the magic. I got to demo Phantasy Star Online 2, and it felt just right. It played well, and I got that same enjoyment from it that I get from the original. I had a lot of fun playing it, and I really got that Sega vibe that I don’t get from a lot of their games anymore. Even though Yuji Naka and Yu Suzuki are long gone, and Rieko Kodama mostly acts as a producer now, I still believe in Sega, and sometimes I even believe the magic is still there. Because of this, I don’t want to watch them die. They once had their slogan that said they did what “Nintendon’t,” and I don’t want “shutting down” added as a new entry to that list of accomplishments.