📅 Posted 2018-08-13
Getting back into the “not-so-serious” blog series, here are my thoughts on why the Sega Dreamcast is the best video game console of all time. Of course this is biased. But you already knew that!
North-American readers will note the blue hue of this logo: it was red in the US but blue in Europe, to avoid similarities to the Tivola logo. Australia got the European version - to match the PAL standard no doubt
A bit of background
So I didn’t grow up with video game consoles at home. Sure, we had a PC (which was supposed to be used for learning/work/etc.) loaded up with plenty of classic DOS games, but never any dedicated gaming system. A lot of my friends of course did have gaming consoles, so many hours were spent gaming across all the usual platforms.
After getting a job, I started to buy up some of the consoles which I couldn’t own myself as a child. The Dreamcast was one of my earlier purchases, which was packaged and sent from an eBay seller complete with a stack of burnt games. Sad face. I guess that’s just one part of the Dreamcast story since bootdiscs were available pretty early on. Real CDs are always the preference but often the cost is quite prohibitive in expending this collection, just like any classic console.
A History Check
The Sega Dreamcast was to be Sega’s last home console, after 18 years in the market. It was released in late 1998 in Japan and 1999 for the rest of us, just before the Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCube abd Microsoft Xbox. It was to replace the Saturn - a console I always considered to be comparatively unsuccessful, despite selling 9.26 million console. The Dreamcast, on the other hand, made 9.13 million sales and was discontinued worldword in March 2001.
The design of the Dreamcast in many ways was a lot simpler than the Saturn, which made it a lot easier to write games for. It also shared a lot of hardware with similar NAOMI arcade platforms (so great arcade ports were plentiful) and could also run Windows CE with DirectX (so PC games could be ported, too). It’s funny looking back at the front of the unit with the proud “Compatible with Windows CE” and I’m told not that many games used this platform.
There was also the released of the commercial PlayStation emulator called Bleem!, which despite much legal action from Sony, was successfully released. I still remember discussing “which console to buy” in High School when this came out: Why not buy a Dreamcast and play both Sony and Sega games? Of course, reality wasn’t quite that good…
Enough chat, let’s see why this bad boy sings.
1. It still works
Great reason, eh? I don’t just like to collect classic consoles, I like to play them as well. It’s 2018 and the Dreamcast is alive and kicking!
I have a Sony PS1 and PS2 which both suffer from lots of crashing and disc read errors. Can’t Sony make a console that lasts more than a couple of years? One day I will work out how to fix them, but until then…
When I first got my Dreamcast, it did have a habit of crashing after about 1-2 hours of solid gameplay, but this was quickly fixed by bending some pins in between the power supply and the main logic board. Simple fix! Good to go again for hours without a hitch ever since. Apparently it’s a heat-related issue and the pins bend over time as they heat up, which leads to poor connectivity, which leads to crashes.
2. That sweet crystal-clear native VGA out
I mean, what a fantastic idea for 1998. Sure, it might only be 480p which isn’t a scratch on 4K by today’s standards but hook it up to any regular PC monitor and you were in for a sweet time. I’ve noticed LCD TV’s of late are missing VGA input for some reason (but confusingly still offer crappy composite?) which makes me sad.
The adapter works on most games - something I don’t quite understand why not all games support it - and it really makes a huge difference.
The other thing to note is my slight modification of the adapter to support 240p: this special mode which is supported by games like Bangai-O is enabled by disconnecting one of the pins in the adapter. Interestingly, 240p is not supported by a lot of TVs, so your mileage may vary. A flick of the black switch will toggle between regular VGA mode and 240p mode.
The following screenshots of games don’t really do it justice: it’s seriously crisp IRL. You’ll have to trust me on that one! Maybe I’ll have to buy a VGA capture device and have another go?
3. Broad selection of great games
There are many that I could mention including several great arcade ports (considering Sega’s dominance in the arcade, this comes as no surprise). So here’s a few that made my shortlist:
Chu Chu Rocket
Chu Chu Rocket, because we are not regular mice, we are space mice. This is worth having just for the manual alone. So cute and so Japan. But it’s actually a seriously addictive puzzle game - a bit like Bomberman - only this one is great with 1 - 4 players. It also had great online multiplayer action - although I haven’t had a chance to try that in recent years!
What about an unreleased version of Half-Life? That’s insane. Game of the year 50 times over and now available on the humble Dreamcast. Well, it almost did anyway. Just before it was about to be released, the Half-Life port for the Dreamcast was sadly cancalled in June 2001. You might be lucky to find a leaked build on the Internet somewhere. Perhaps CS could’ve come to the Dreamcast, too?
If you are after a great JRPG, this is the one for you. I feel like playing it again right now, complete with the battle music kicking into gear. The storyline is interesting and the action is not a grind: the soundtrack really stays in your mind long after playing this one.
Squeaky shoe afficionados unite! This game allows you to play using just the VMU as your screen - perhaps that’s a good way to give yourself a handicap? Sure, the graphics and textures aren’t freat by today’s standards and it doesn’t support the VGA adapter (who knows why?), but this is a decent tennis game. Grab some friends and 4 controllers for doubles!
One of the best vertical shooters ever. Of course, it’s from the folks at Treasure who also brought us Gunstar Heroes, Bangai-O and Radiant Silvergun.
Ikaruga has a very innovative “polarity” feature whereby you deal more damage to enemies in the opposite colour, but you ‘absorb’ energy for the same colour. It’s hard to explain but creates great balance and when “bullet hell” is something you want to avoid, at least you can switch polarity and suck up all of the bullets!
It’s a pretty short game and you die a lot, but definitely worth having in the collection.
This game is a bit of a gem. Part 3D vector shooter, part underground club bender, this game mixes the beats with the shots you fire: a neat concept. There’s something about Egypt and hacking networks (or something) but I guess why not mix several genres in one go!
So I probably missed a lot of great games, but here’s a few more just quickly:
- Sonic Adventure: the greatest selling Dreamcast game for good reason
- House of the Dead 2: woeful voice acting in this demonic arcade action thriller
- Dayyyyyyyyyona: Wow it looks dated, but is very faithful to the early 90’s racer
- Shenmue: How could you spend so much money on making a video game? Seriously.
- Quake III Arena: I doubt you’d be very competitive without a mouse, but at least this opened up the game across multiple platforms
- Phantasy Star Online: I couldn’t help but mention this “ahead of it’s time” online RPG
Here are some screenshots of Quake III just for fun:
Actually this may have lead to the ultimate downfall of the Dreamcast, with the ease of copying games and repacking them so that “GD-ROM” discs were actually required (by the few games which were larger than a regular CD anyway). But the adoption of the CD was a great choice, only hindered by the fact that Sony released their DVD-capable PS2 not a long time after (and during a time when DVD players were so expensive that the PS2 was the cheapest option - with a free console to boot). Cheap to produce and plenty of storage.
5. A Modem to go On-Line
Talk about connectivity out of the box! This bad boy could go online, so I did try this many years ago to see what my (then) website would look like. It’s a little complex these days to get a dial-up modem going, but not impossible.
When actually it should look more like:
Yeah, OK. Not a great experience. But I guess it was released in Australia in 1999… And at least you could get a keyboard and mouse for it.
This reminds me, that skin rocked!
6. Did I mention the size of the unit?
The Dreamcast is TINY. It includes the power supply, 4 controller ports, expansion ports AND a modem (or LAN if you are lucky enough to have one, alas I am not). All within a single unit which can be powered by good old regular figure 8 power cable. Forget losing those special cables or using a wall wort. Great design! It’s probably not that much bigger than a few CD jewel cases stacked on top of each other.
7. The VMU
This was a super crazy idea, especially when you could plug two VMU’s together as if they were mating garden beetles and transfer the huge 128KB memory from one unit to another.
You could play games using the tiny screen which was a super-scaled down version of the action on the TV. This still required the complete set up, but I guess you could play with the TV off if you wanted to. The example I’ve played is 1999’s Virtua Tennis:
You could take games on the road with the built-in memory + CR2032 batteries. Check out Sonic Adventure for this one with what I can only describe as a Tamagotchi style game.
Oh and you could interchange a rumble pack with the VMU in your controller, since every controller had 2 ports. I can’t imagine another console with 4 controllers and 8 memory cards concurrently connected.
Rumble Pack on Left, 2 VMUs on right
If you had lots of VMUs, you could easily identify them using a cute character, like this:
8. New Releases
Uh yeah, that’s right. New games are being released for the Dreamcast, many years after it’s discontinuation. Crazy!
NEO XYX was released in 2014 for the Dreamcast, albeit an unlicensed release. Other honourable mentions go to Karous (2007) and Last Hope (2006). Strangely, all scrolling shooters. Well, I guess the console was built for the genre!
Apart from major releases, the platform is also popular amongst the homebrew scene with lots of emulators, VCD players and even Linux.
9. Random custom controllers
Maybe you thought the NES Power Glove was rad, but what about fishing rod controllers? Train sim controllers? Maracas for Samba de Amiga? That little microphone so you could ‘talk’ to a fish, with Leonard Nimoy narrating in Seaman? Gun controllers that only work on CRTs?
The great thing about the fishing rod controller is that it was one of the first motion-sensitive controllers for a game console - AND IT WAS FOR A FISHING GAME?!?
As I don’t personally own any of the rad controllers listed above, here’s a picture of the beauty that is the stock controller (it’s actually quite a nicely designed unit):
10. A controller which has the cable coming out the front
OK, I’ll admit this isn’t a great design choice. In fact it’s more of an ironic #10 in a Top Ten list. But I thought I’d mention it just for fun. You can see why they would do this, since the VMU slots at the back occupy a space where the cable would normally be, but surely there would be another option? Regardless, you quickly forget this…
In some ways it’s like the side-exit cable on the Famicom (which I actually quite like…).
That funky colour-changing power light
This one I’m pretty sure is a custom modification in my Dreamcast (it arrived like this when I bought it 2nd hand). Distracting and quite useless. But worthy of a mention, the light constantly changes through a series of colours. Umm. Yeah. What colour was it originally?
So there you have it. These are just a few reasons why I still play my Dreamcast: that sweet combination of unique design and great games. If you don’t have one, I recommend picking up one before they become any more collectable! There’s even a special Hello Kitty edition for those who are really keen…