Dreamcast: the brightest star

Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. – Don Draper, (The Wheel) Mad Men, 2007.

It’s nearly 15 years since Sega launched the Dreamcast, first in Japan and then, some months later, in other part of the world. I bought the Dreamcast on launch day in the UK, in the fall of 1999, having been alerted by articles on the still-emerging web about the unusual array of games coming out for this console. As the Mega Drive and the Saturn passed me by, the Dreamcast was my first, and (for everyone) last, Sega video game console.

Turning it on produced that logo spiraling outwards and that short piece of music that still throws my head into an instant memory loop. Owners of the Dreamcast will know what I mean. Owners of other beloved items, such as certain books, or movies, or CDs, will also know that feeling.

The controller was odd (and copied to an extent by the Xbox 360 controller); so symbolic of the console. You could take out the Visual Memory Unit, a self-contained, watch-battery operated piece with a Tamagotchi-like LCD display, play mini games on it, or put it into another controller and use the saved positions housed within it. Even connect two VMUs to each other. Neat. Portably neat.

And the graphics, music and sound. For the late 1990s. Here’s the opening sequence of one of the launch titles, Soul Calibur. Nostalgia-trip-overdrive-for-former-Dreamcast-owners alert:

Like the Nintendo 3DS, the Dreamcast hinted at potential that was largely unfulfilled. There was a modem included. In a video games console. In the 90s (I keep saying that, but it was a different and primitive time then, of geocities and web rings and rubbish Internet connections and unsmart, crude phones, expensive laptops, and Psion organizers where today you’d have an iPad or some other tablet instead). Normal now, but then – not so normal. Web browsing was basic but, hey, it worked. Online gaming was possible. And implemented, in games such as Phantasy Star Online.

Then there was the fishing rod controller of Sega Bass Fishing, which could be used as a sword or light saber in other games, Space Channel Five and the maracas of Samba de Amigo (lineage: Nintendo Wii and a multitude of dancing and rhythm games). And, well, the speech recognition aspects of Seaman, a game almost impossible to explain (“So, there’s this half-fish half-man thing with the voice of Leonard Nimoy, and you can have conversations with it”) without playing (a NSFW video).

But more nostalgia trips (including Metropolis Street Racer, Jet Grind Radio, Ecco the Dolphin, Skies of Arcadia, Rayman, Rez, Crazy Taxi, Sonic Adventure, ChuChu Rocket) and the game that twigged me to the huge potential of digital games outside of ‘merely’ entertainment: Shenmue, another time.

The Dreamcast didn’t officially last long, even by video gaming standards. By Easter 2001, less than 18 months after the UK and European launch, Sega stopped making the console. Strange marketing, making the console deliberately ‘niche’ (re: low sales), and the juggernaut of the Sony Playstation 2 with bland but big-selling franchises, drained Sega of money. Though the community took over, in various ways, and kept the Dreamcast going as a viable platform for several more years.

It’s still, past and present, the console with the most innovative line up of games in video gaming history. Other sites agree. Many previous owners agree too. Now, well over a decade after its brief official life, memories of the Dreamcast – what it represented in video games, with a line-up simply too cool to be mainstream – lives on.

Just don’t tell the hipsters.

And hope that, one day, we’ll get to experience Shenmue 3.

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