I was there on the infamous date of 9/9/99.
The funny thing is I didn’t have much of a reason to throw my support to Sega at that point in time. I was primarily a Nintendo gamer and my inner fanboy at the time caused me to look down on Sega as a company that produced “alright” games but I felt Nintendo was a lot better. I had a Sega Genesis and a handful of games for it that sat alongside my SNES. Through a sheer stroke of luck I also had a TurboDuo but not many games for that either and most of my time in the 16-bit era was spent on my SNES. I felt that my stake in the console war was vindicated as Sega foundered with expensive add-ons like the 32X and the Sega CD. I ignored the Sega Saturn for years (a move I regret now) and it seemed to me that Sega was just throwing as much hardware at the market as it could to see what sticks.
As it turned out, the latter half of the 1990s was not kind to Nintendo fans. The Nintendo 64 was a powerful system but it was held back by the constraints of cartridges and a limited memory buffer. The console had amazing experiences like Super Mario 64, Wave Race 64, the one-two punch of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, Jetforce Gemini, Diddy Kong Racing (one of my favorites) and so much more. However, there was obviously a problem with the system. Background environments were frequently hazy and there was often a softness to the visuals.
I wasn’t entirely enamored with the Sony PlayStation either. You had to own that system if you wanted to play most of the third party games of that generation but the system had problems. The early PlayStations had a defect that caused players to position the console on its side or even upside down just to play their games. I had some other issues with the system, the games and the community surrounding it but as a fan of RPGs and Final Fantasy in particular, I swallowed my pride and switched from a Nintendo fan to a PlayStation gamer.
Thus it should come as no surprise that media coverage of the upcoming Sega Dreamcast caught my eye. Sega had endured some hard lessons throughout the 90s but this time it seemed like they had found their focus. No ridiculous console add-ons or complicated system architecture. The Dreamcast was a well designed system that was easy to code for. It had forward thinking features like an included modem and memory cards that had their own screen, control inputs and a way to exchange data with each other.
The games looked great so there I was at my local Software Etc store on September 9th, 1999. I picked up my preordered console as well as a VMU (the system’s memory cards) and a copy of Soul Calibur (I was a huge fan of Soul Edge in the arcades and on PlayStation.
It turned out that Soul Calibur was gorgeous and fun but I wanted more. Within the first week I had added Sonic Adventure, NFL 2K and Powerstone to my library. Over time I would come to enjoy games like Resident Evil: Code Veronica (the first title in that franchise I played through to the end, Ready 2 Rumble Boxing, Toy Commander (One of my favorites), Armada, Sega Rally and Shenmue. I bought that damned fishing reel controller for Sega Bass Fishing and I even threw down the cash for that keyboard (later given away for free as part of a promotion).
The Sega Dreamcast VMUs represented an interesting albeit short-lived concept. They mostly functioned as memory cards like we saw with the PlayStation and N64. However, the built in LCD screen could function as a secondary display when plugged into the controller. You could see information such as your character’s health in Resident Evil: Code Veronica or even download little Chao creatures from Sonic Adventure and play a mini-game with them on the VMU when you’re away from your console. You could see plays on the little screen in NFL 2K, see the ammo for your weapon in Grand Theft Auto 2, play a little RPG in Skies of Arcadia or even play a mini-racing game in Sega GT. Alas, this great feature was never used to its full potential. Many developers opted to simply display the game’s logo – if they even bothered to support the feature at all.
The standout feature of the Sega Dreamcast was the inclusion of a 56k modem. Online gaming for consoles was terribly under supported back then. By shipping a modem with each system and letting the owner use existing internet services, Sega made online gaming accessible for console gamers. I can’t imagine how much time I spent on Chu Chu Rocket, Sega Swirl, Phantasy Star Online and Quake III Arena.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of time for gaming media back then. I was completely unaware of the Sega Dreamcast’s struggles. I knew the PS2 was a powerhouse but I couldn’t get one right away. It seemed I never had a shortage of games to play on my Dreamcast and I was having a great time. The first sign of trouble came in early 2001 when the Official Dreamcast Magazine was canceled. Then I was stunned to learn that the console itself would be discontinued not long after that. The Sega Dreamcast had one last hurrah though – after years of losses Sega would finally post a profit in FY 2003.
The Sega Dreamcast was a system that was ahead of its time in some respects. It forced the industry to provide more support for online console gaming. Hell, the Dreamcast even pioneered cross platform play between console and PC in some titles. The concept of the VMU screens would be revisted later with Xbox Smart Glass.
The Sega Dreamcast is fondly remembered by many longtime gamers. For me, the console made me become a Sega gamer during its time on the market.