The Sega Dreamcast launched in North America 20 years ago, on Sept. 9, 1999. The system enjoyed a brief but memorable time in the limelight with some truly fantastic games and a few features that would inspire future consoles -- it was the first console with built-in internet.
But ultimately a lack of third-party support, a somewhat underpowered architecture and the fact that the rival PlayStation 2 could play DVDs as well as games would mean a premature demise. None of that will stop us from remembering it fondly -- or wishing for a Dreamcast Classic.
I was in fifth grade, visiting a DisneyQuest while doing the whole Disney World thing, seeing the last gasps of 1990s interactive arcades, and there it was. That Sonic Adventure demo with the whale chase -- amazing to watch and awful to play.
I wouldn't spend any quality time with the Dreamcast until at least a year later, but seeing that showcase was astounding for the time. At that point I still just had a, so even a brief glimpse of Sonic looking halfway-decent in 3D was a revelation. And no, Sonic 3D Blast doesn't count.
Though I never bought one myself, a good friend did, and it became the go-to console for sleepovers and wasted Saturdays. The mix of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Power Stone, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 and that terrible Chao Garden feature from Sonic Adventure 2 was more than enough to keep us playing that Dreamcast until long after it had died and everyone else moved on. Plus, its giant controllers were still better than the awful DualShock 2 on the PlayStation 2. That's just a fact.
I had every Sega system that was ever made. Yes, even the 32X. I was a Sega kid -- the Master System with Superscope 3D glasses was my gift after getting appendicitis. While the Genesis was my favorite, the Dreamcast is a place of special memories. I was living in LA, working as a script reader and story editor, and playing amazing NFL 2K games to connect with my dormant feelings about the New York Jets. That NFL 2K game stunned me... it was the first TV-real sports game I'd ever seen. Crazy Taxi was my LA commuting therapy. I loved the weirdness of Chu Chu Rocket. And even more, I was obsessed with Seaman.
My first E3 I ever attended had the Dreamcast, and I saw the Leonard Nimoy-voiced fish-man in all its Lynchian horror. Seaman was so ahead of its time: It had a microphone I could speak to Seaman with. It was like if Alexa were a depressed cannibal fish. In my dusty little Sherman Oaks apartment, Seaman was my mystic surrealist aquarium. Along with the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, it was part of my cabinet of curiosities that made me dream of how strange art could be. Space Channel 5, the insanely real-feeling Shenmue, and yes, I owned Typing of the Dead. It was a great system of gaming oddities.
The Dreamcast was small and beautifully designed, had arcade-perfect games, and was my first real online gaming system. May it rest in peace in my mom's basement.
The Dreamcast was the first console launch I ever covered as a novice "games journalist" at the long-forgotten (but pioneering!) games-and-culture website UGO.com. My colleagues and I all shelled out for launch day bundles, and Soul Calibur was everyone's instant favorite.
We all ended up playing a lot of conference room Soul Calibur with UGO's most famous employee, former child star Gary Coleman. Gary was a total fiend for Soul Calibur, and regularly held court in our Park Avenue office, taking on all challengers and dispensing endless foul-mouthed trash talk. He was actually pretty good, and probably had an 8 out of 10 win ratio.
Other early Dreamcast highlights for me included Power Stone, Shenmue, a Resident Evil knockoff called Blue Stinger (I bet I'm the only one giving that a shoutout), and bizarre fish simulator Seaman. When my now-wife used the Dreamcast microphone attachment to tell Seaman she was going to eat him, he replied, "Or maybe I'm going to eat you." If that's not next-gen, I don't know what is.
I've come back to the Dreamcast a few times since its 2001 discontinuation, talking about it on my old talking head video game web series Play Value (circa 2006), and taking a deeper dive for the Dreamcast's 10th anniversary, which I wrote about here.
Would I buy a new "Dreamcast Classic" micro console? Definitely. Would I plug it in more than once or twice? Probably not.
My Dreamcast memories are a little different than most. Like Scott I was a Sega kid and, like Scott, I too owned (and still own) every Sega system. But my memories of the Dreamcast weren't so much about gaming as they were about coding. Lots and lots and lots of coding.
I was in college studying computer science and writing when the Dreamcast dropped, and my dream was to combine those passions and get a gig in the videogame industry after graduation. It was time to pick a senior thesis, and so I blindly emailed some folks at Sega to see if there was any way I could get permission to write a simple game for their hot new console.
Amazingly, I got a response. As it turns out I would not be allowed to develop anything for the Dreamcast -- the development hardware alone cost thousands of dollars and I was lucky if I could afford pizza on Friday night -- but I was given access to the Visual Memory Unit developer kit. The VMU, you may remember, was the tiny, Game Boy-looking thing that slotted into the controller. It had a tiny, gray and black LCD, a four-way D-pad and a couple of buttons.
Games for the VMU were written in assembler, an arcane language I'd never been exposed to in my studies. If that weren't daunting enough, the only documentation for the VMU kit was in Japanese, another language I didn't speak. Despite all that I figured it out over the following few months, then toiled and toiled and toiled to write what would be the first -- and to my knowledge only -- multiplayer VMU game. You could, you see, connect two of the mini handhelds together at the top thanks to a cunning, reversible connector. So, I wrote a Pong-like game played vertically, with the ball traveling from one screen to the next, back and forth.
Developing that game, plus another simple, Simon-like game, consumed my senior year at school. The resulting code, when printed out for my final thesis presentation, filled a binder as big as a phone book. Along the way I learned enough about the game development industry to realize it wasn't for me, but that project, just me and my text editor toiling for months, is still the programming project I look back upon most fondly.
I was 17 when the Dreamcast launched and was working for a dotcom start-up run by three 21-year-olds. I remember the day it went on sale, one of the partners ordered it for same-day delivery from a service called UrbanFetch.
It arrived and we didn't do any work for the rest of the day. It was just nonstop Ready 2 Rumble. I recall being instantly impressed with how crisp the visuals were. It was a level of fidelity I hadn't ever seen before.
Everything seemed so fast, so advanced, so futuristic. The Dreamcast arrived in between the other console cycles, so it felt like we were getting a very early glimpse into what the rest of the competition would soon be offering.
I didn't wind up owning my own Dreamcast until college, but I eventually fell in love with Sonic Adventure, problems and all. I played most of the Tomb Raider and Resident Evil games on the Dreamcast too.
The Dreamcast will always have a place in my heart for its ridiculous memory card adapters, its mostly awful controller and the insane speed at which its disc reader would spin and adjust, like some kind of dot-matrix printer that went off the rails.
I never actually owned a Dreamcast, but for a period in my life, I could not get enough of one game: Fighting Vipers 2. It was while I was in college and one of my friends had a Dreamcast, so when we were not out at night or studying, we'd spend hours fighting match after match.
The funny thing is, it wasn't called Fighting Vipers 2 as far as I knew back then. My friend had a bootlegged copy on a disc and everything written on the sleeve was in Japanese, as was all the on-screen text in the game. I even had to rely on him to start up games because I couldn't navigate the menus. At the time, he explained the game wasn't available in the States, but it didn't officially come to Dreamcast until 2001 and never in the US.
But once he started a match, it was button-mashing heaven. I remember being blown away at the crisp 3D graphics and cool-looking fighters at that time. But the best mechanic of all, and probably the biggest reason I loved the game, was that you could kick your opponent through the wall of the arena at the end of the match.
Maybe that sounds silly, but fighting games between friends can get tense. When you can send your buddy through the wall at the end of a long fight it's an exclamation point like no other. We'd get dramatic about it too, yelling "Boooooooom!" as we'd blast the other guy about 50 yards outside of the cage.
So, no, I didn't own a Dreamcast, because I was a poor college student, but I still have fond memories of stomping out my good friend in Fighting Vipers 2. "You're going through the wall!"
The Dreamcast was the most incredible console I never owned. Games like Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Sonic Adventure and the mighty Shenmue, and features like online gaming and the VMU made me want one badly, but I just couldn't afford it as a 12-year-old.
Code Veronica looked incredible at the time of its release -- replacing static prerendered environments with fully 3D ones and bringing in some sweet sweeping shots to showcase them. The blur effect as resurrected (and newly superpowered) villain Albert Wesker darted around made my jaw drop (this was shortly after The Matrix had blown my mind at the cinema).
It got an expanded rerelease -- Code Veronica X -- on the PS2 in 2001, but the original version hasn't come out on any other systems. So my Resident Evil completionist urges aren't quite satisfied... but it's fine. I'm fine.
Sonic Adventure seemed like an incredible expansion of Sega's mascot into 3D, even if it's agony to play today. That whale chase looked amazing at the time and it seemed the obvious step forward for Sonic after Mario's glorious transition into 3D.
Shenmue was the big one though -- a glorious life simulator with a rich open world that was unprecedented. Seeing Ryo Hazuki wandering around Yokosuka, Japan, as he tries to unravel the mystery of his father's murder was fascinating, and something I only got to experience fully through the recent remaster.
Why did I pay a premium to have this system imported? I was a Sega fanboy and the Dreamcast was where I could continue playing Sega games beyond the defunct Sega Saturn.
But as much as I loved playing the Dreamcast, looking back now, it's clear to me what it really represented for me: A last chance at console success for Sega. I got a Sega Master System in 1987 and from then through the end of the Dreamcast's life I was not only invested in playing Sega games, but also hugely invested -- emotionally, to be sure -- in Sega's success as a console developer.
It's probably strange for people to understand that, but here's the way I saw it: The more successful Sega's consoles were, the more great Sega games the company would make. I not only wanted to play those games, but to also have other people discover how great they were. To see in them what I saw in them: Games with great graphics and simple gameplay that belied a depth you had to uncover.
You could play Crazy Taxi like a normal person, sure. But if you didn't use the Crazy Dash and the Crazy Stop, which allowed you to go from 0 to 60 in less than a second and instantly stop, then you weren't playing it right.
That want and need for the Dreamcast to be successful was real. Even at the time I knew that if the Dreamcast didn't sell a certain number of systems, Sega would likely leave the hardware business, which the company eventually did.
And the anticipation of each new big release was addicting for me. It was less about how much I would like Shenmue and more about whether it would push enough mainstream audience buttons to make people buy a Dreamcast over a PS2. It's silly to think about now, but that was me.
I guess I just needed something to distract me from my real life at the time. For a few solid years, it was the Dreamcast.
Originally published Dec. 1, 2018.
Update, Sept. 9, 2019: Adds anniversary of North American release.