Jul 16, 2015

Eulogy for a Console, Part 2: Sega Dreamcast

This is the second in a series of three stories about parting ways with my first three consoles. 

I will be moving abroad soon (more on that later) and that means an opportunity to clear out the closets and rid myself of stuff I don't foresee using much anymore. As a result I've recently sold my three oldest consoles. Now this was a pretty big deal as I've had them all since I was in school, however even I had to admit to myself that if I hadn't played with any of them in, at least, eight years, I wasn't likely to pull them out and play with them again in the foreseeable future.

Love at First Sight

I'll be honest, my eventual ownership of a Sega Dreamcast on launch day was pretty much an inevitability. As mentioned before, I was a huge Virtua Fighter fan and I was loving what Sega had been showing of the Dreamcast in anticipation of the launch. But if there was any doubt left in my mind, it was vaporized when I first had the chance to meet the little white console months earlier courtesy of a friend who had just returned from a dream trip to the land of the rising sun. That's right, he had brought back a Japanese Dreamcast some two or so months before it was released in North America! He came over, I invited my old arcade accomplice and the three of us went nuts over games like Sonic Adventure and Blue Stinger. I was floored by how tiny the console was. There was something, almost, adorable about it. Man. I remember wanting one so badly.

On Day One

I don't remember all that much about the day I picked up my very own Dreamcast. I know I had reserved it at a downtown Electronic Boutique. Yes, there was a time EB stores were known by their full name. I had put down a fifty dollar deposit. It would be waiting for me after school. As I said, I don't remember much of that day, but I'm sure it felt painfully long. I know I'll never forget the date, though: September 9, 1999 or 9/9/99, My brother's twenty first birthday.

Round One. FIGHT!

It's funny. I never did end up buying Virtua Fighter 3 for the Dreamcast. It was one of the reasons I had anticipated getting a Dreamcast of my own, after all. Bad reviews and a less than exciting demo found on the pack-in demo disk I got with the console kept me away. But as a fan of virtual pugilism, I was well served on Sega's latest console. I played hours of Capcom's arena based fighter, Power Stone, delighted to have a fighting game so approachable I could play it with anyone, including my girlfriend (spoiler: I married her). What I wasn't expecting, though, was to fall in love with a game from Sega's biggest fighting rival, Namco, makers of the Tekken series. Now, back in the nineties, if you were serious about 3D fighting, you were either in the Virtua Fighter camp or the Tekken camp. So, when my old Virtua Fighter buddy came over with a copy of a Namco game for us to play, let's say I was more than a little skeptical... and felt more than a little betrayed. Soul Calibur would go on to haunt my thoughts and dreams for months. For the first time in my life, a technically impressive arcade game had seen visual improvements made in its translation to a home console! I never thought a game could even look so good. My mother even enjoyed watching the flawlessly motion captured demonstration katas with me. My friends and I would go on to enjoy many virtual fight fests such as Dead or Alive 2, an almost unfathomable leap ahead from the first game in the series; Street Fighter 3, which remains the gold standard of Street Fighter games in my heart; Capcom vs SNK, which allowed us to finally settle who would win a fight between Sakura and Yuri Sakazaki; Rival Schools 2: Project Justice, who's uncharacteristically upbeat stage music still gets my foot tapping; and many more. The Dreamcast was truly a fighting game fan's dream system.

All for One and One for All

Now, I don't know if it's more of a testament to the Dreamcast console itself or the fact that for the first time ever all my friends and I were working and had disposal income, but some serendipitous crisscrossing of fates lead to the Dreamcast being the first and only game system my friends and I all owned. Out of the six or seven guys with whom I regularly hung out in high school, five of them also owned a Dreamcast! The best part of that was all the games we could swap and the stories we could all share. Ok, on second though, the really best part were all the games we could play together in split screen mode, like TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, Quake III, and Phantasy Star Online, which none of us ever played online. But the one that really got the ball rolling, the game my friends and I would go to the mall during lunch breaks or free periods to play on a demo unit at the EB, the game that convinced a friend of mine who had never bought a console to get a Dreamcast of his own was Toy Commander! There was really something about this game. The single player missions were varied and fun and the split screen multiplayer was so fun, it could have single-handedly justified the consoles four controller ports. It was probably also the first console game my dad really got into and the first we really got into playing together.

Walking Dead Part 1

Another game that left an indelible mark on me. Another game that redefined my preconceived notions of how good a game could look was Capcom's Resident Evil: Code Veronica. Now, I had played earlier Resident Evil games, lots of RE2, especially, but Code Veronica was such a leap forward, graphically, I could hardly believe it. Gone were the pre-rendered backgrounds in favour of real time rendered backdrops that sacrificed not an iota of quality over their static predecessors. Gone, also were the blocky, barely discernible character features. This game was a milestone game for me. Where Soul Calibur was the first game I played that looked better than it's arcade forebear, Resident Evil: Code Veronica was the first game I played that effectively blurred the line between pre-rendered cinematic cut scenes and real time game play graphics. When that opening sequence in the prison first ended and suddenly I had control over my character with no perceivable drop in quality, I nearly lost it! That was the experience of owning a Dreamcast. It really felt like a huge leap forward in terms of gaming technology.

Walking Dead Part 2

Some say the Dreamcast died an untimely death due to games being too easy to pirate. It's impossible to know how things would have turned out otherwise but it certainly seems feasible that piracy was a big factor leading to Sega pulling out of the console business altogether. If you've ever heard of "razor blade marketing" then you understand how a console that ended up selling over 10 million units in roughly a year on shelves could be considered a failure. Console sales don't sustain a company, game sales do. By the end of its life, the Dreamcast was being sold severely under cost and since we were all pirating games, those losses weren't being offset by software sales. Yup, you read that right, I said we, as in I did it too. I had one of those ubiquitous CD binders full of burned Dreamcast games. Some of the ones I mentioned above I only played in pirated form, in fact. A year or so later, when Sega announced it was discontinuing the console and had no plans to produce a follow up I found myself wondering if I had something to do with it. Wondering if we all had something to do with it.

The End of a (Short) Era

Many would say that Sega is now but a shadow of its former self. Sonic games have become a bit of a joke around The Interwebs and the once awesome video game powerhouse has failed to produce any new hit titles since the fantastic days of the Dreamcast. It's a shame, really.

Many, today, lament the popularity of re-releasing old games. Complaining that companies aren't taking enough risks on original new ideas and just filling our download queues with rehashed old games from a bygone era. Is that really so bad if it means that a new generation of gamers can sit down with their parents and find out how surprisingly fun it can be to try to outdo each other in games of Crazy Taxi or to bat the ball around on the court in Virtua Tennis?

I look back at the Dreamcast not as a game console but as a time in my life, a nexus of gaming among my high school friends and a fixture at get-togethers where those four controller ports were always put to good use. 

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