I bought a Dreamcast.
Every now and then, about once a year or so, a little monkey jumps on my back and compels me to splurge a little bit on retro gaming stuff. This year it happened that I finally bought a Dreamcast after having wanted one since the glorious date of 9/9/99. I don’t really know what finally made me decide to go in on one. Part of it was the excitement everyone seems to have over Shenmue 3. Part of it was also that I was perusing Gamestop’s new “vintage” gaming selection out of curiosity, and I came to the realization that secondhand Dreamcast stuff wasn’t that expensive. Oddly enough, I’m not getting into Shenmue yet (it’s too expensive right now), and I didn’t buy from Gamestop (I used ebay).
Sega was always gaming’s greatest underdog, always defiantly standing against titans like Nintendo and Playstation. It’s amazing that they stayed in the hardware business for as long as they did. Their machines were never able to achieve the worldwide mindshare that their competitors had. Genesis was probably the most successful thing they ever had, managing to run neck-and-neck with the Super Nintendo outside of Japan. It’s impressive to me that they were able to stay in hardware for as long as they did. Sega was known for its bold but spuriously logical business decisions that usually turned into embarrassing failures (32x, Saturn launch, etc.). I suspect that their long stubbornness to go third party was actually just another decision born out of bad business acumen, but one that actually ended up being great for gamers.
Dreamcast always strikes me as a deeply beloved machine. Dreamcast was the Sega underdog’s swan song, and I think that’s what contributes to its mystique. I find that even those who are consummate Playstation or Nintendo fans often express a fairly high respect for the platform, something they don’t show for the Genesis, Saturn, or Game Gear (and certainly not Master System). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it was just a way more competently managed product than Saturn.
In North America, it graced us for little over a year before discontinuation. But that was surprisingly enough time to amass a fairly respectable library, both in quantity and quality. That can partly be thanked to being out a year earlier in Japan, but it still amuses me to compare it to modern consoles which were relatively light on releases in their launch year. Getting a game out the door and onto shelves was very different back then, I suppose. It does mean, though, that despite its short lifespan, it’s worthwhile to go back to for retro-game fans.
And now, here is my shame: until this recent purchase, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Dreamcast in person, much less played one. I really wanted to get into Dreamcast at its launch, but I was just shy of the age where I could start earning income for myself. And with the PSX library still being so hot, I didn’t even bother trying to justify such a purchase to my parents. Nonetheless, I hung onto every bit of preview and review coverage I could find online for the Dreamcast and am left with this weird vicarious nostalgia for the system. The Dreamcast and its games just struck me as intensely cool in a way that Playstation wasn’t, even though I loved the PSX and its amazing library to death.
So fast forward nearly 16 years later, I now have a taste of that for which I so long pined. The system itself is relatively simple. The front-end user interface for managing save files, settings, and audio CDs is very sleek and functional with its simple sky blue background. To be honest, I never liked the PS2’s front end with the dark, abstract environments that it used as a background decoration. It just seemed depressing and desolate to me. The springy Dreamcast logo is way better than the weird cubes jutting up from beneath the dark blue cloud that the PS2 greeted gamers with. But this is all merely cosmetic, and unlike modern gaming machines, no one’s really going to spend a lot of time using the front-end.
The controller is another thing. I don’t really feel strong emotions for it one way or the other. I find it interesting that it has fewer buttons than either the PSX or N64 pads. Fewer buttons means its more difficult to pull off complex game systems, but, so far, I haven’t run into any games where I feel that more buttons would help. Honestly, (console) game design at the time probably didn’t favor overly-complex control schemes. Meanwhile, most modern games seem to map an action to every button on the controller and map further actions beyond that to specific button combinations.
Honestly, its difficult to analyze the controller, because I feel that I’m spoiled by modern gamepads which have become highly evolved. I’m quite fond of the Dual Shock 4 for its ergonomics and the tactility and precision of its buttons/sticks. I use it not just for PS4, but also extensively on the PC. The Dreamcast controller feels like a cheap third-party controller, in contrast. Of course to be fair, I should be comparing it to its contemporaries, but it’s been so long since I’ve used the PSX controller that I don’t remember it that well. And I wasn’t really an N64 gamer. The analog stick feels okay to me, tight enough for the games that were coming out at the time, but it probably would be terrible for modern games where more precision is needed. Also, there’s only one stick! The PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube all had 2, and 2 is really necessary for advanced 3D gaming (one to control movement, one to control camera). Assuming it didn’t die so early, I’ve always wondered how Dreamcast would have stacked up against the competition in terms of multiplatform releases for the rest of the generation. I can’t imagine it would have ever been the preferred machine for multiplatform games.
The VMU is a neat addition, but I find that it’s used by hardly anything. It’s been great for Code Veronica, though, where it displays your health without the need to go into the menu. As far as I can tell, the battery is dead in mine, so I haven’t been able to try it out as a portable game machine yet.
The d-pad is a bit of a point of contention for me. It’s an okay d-pad, I guess. Not as abysmal as the 360 pad. Again, it’s been so long since I’ve played on an original PSX pad, so I’m not sure how it compares, but the DC pad has the problem that a lot of lower quality d-pads have where it registers diagonals way too easily. You can have your thumb touching only the up-direction, but if you’re pressing it off center, then it will register a diagonal. I think it’s given me an appreciation of why people hate tank controls in old survival horror games. I played RE1-3 on PSP and never had trouble with these controls. But the PSP has an excellent d-pad. In Code Veronica, on the other hand, I’ve often had the problem of veering off-course (usually straight into a zombie’s face) when I’m trying to run in a straight line.
Here are the games I’ve gotten so far on Dreamcast:
Code Veronica: I’ve given all the mainline Resident Evil games a go except for Code Veronica and Zero, so this is a big hole in my gaming experience. At first I thought it was going for something a little different than the standard Resident Evil formula, but it’s really the same formula just expanded over what feels like a much larger area than the mansion or the police station. In some ways it’s a better sequel to 1 and 2 than 3 is, but I don’t think it does anything as innovative as what 3 did with Nemesis. I’ll maybe write more on this game after I’ve beaten it.
Time Stalkers: This is a cool dungeon crawler that caught my eye while browsing ebay. Doesn’t seem like it’s one of those games that a lot of people talk about while remembering the Dreamcast, for whatever reason.
Hydro Thunder: I am a glutton for arcade racers and a huge fan of Hydro Thunder Hurricane on XBLA. Honestly, I didn’t realize that Hurricane hewed so close to being a more advanced remake of this game than a sequel. It’s kind of hard to play, consequently, as Hurricane just does what this game is doing so much better. All it does is make me want to break out the 360 to play Hurricane again.
Vigilante 8: Second Offense: I’m a huge fan of Twisted Metal, but I’ve never really tried the Vigilante 8 series. I thought this would be a good opportunity to do that.
Zombie Revenge: As I mentioned, for someone with no Dreamcast experience, I’m oddly aware of most of its library due to the preview coverage I read at the time. But I don’t remember Zombie Revenge at all, and only heard about it after recently listening to the Dreamcast episode of Retronauts. I was looking at House of the Dead 2 originally, but realized the light gun wouldn’t work on my HDTV, so I went with this spin-off instead.
Blue Stinger: This is a very unusual survival horror game that was recommended by one of my favorite YouTubers, Derek Alexander. Seems like a bit of an odd game, from the same team that made the infamous IllBleed. Looking forward to playing it.
Noticeably, there’s no Sonic Adventure on this list. I’ve played the Steam version of SA a bit and realize that, while it was amazing at the time, it’s aged incredibly poorly. SA 1 and 2 still seem like quintessential Dreamcast games though, so I may give them a go sometime later. I hope to write a few more posts about the above games as soon as I’ve played through them.