In the grand scheme of things, nine years isn't really that long of a time. But in most ways, Sega's Dreamcast feels like ancient history. Instead of doing some sort of top nine favorites or top nine best-sellers or whatever, I wanted to dig a bit more into my memory and think about the Dreamcast stuff that still stands out today.
1. The Launch
Console launches are always very hectic and crazy to cover in this line of work, but the Dreamcast launch will stand out as one of the craziest. Not because it was hard to get the console or the games or anything. Instead, I flew out to New York on very last-minute notice to appear on Good Morning America. They already had a Sega representative for the segment, but they wanted, like, an independent voice to appear, as well. I think my independent voice said like three or four things. In order to keep things extra-classy, I wore a Fubu jersey and a pair of shorts on the show. Diane Sawyer touched my bare leg at one point, which was obviously way hot. Also of note is that the copy of Ready 2 Rumble Boxing that was being shown exhibited the awesome sound bug that plagued a handful of early DC releases on live television. Whoops!
PSO was, to me, the Dreamcast's crowning achievement. I probably sunk 200 hours into that game, just grinding through the same four worlds again and again and again with a handful of friends. It was the game that made the Broadband Adapter and keyboard worth owning. It was also the game that made the Dreamcast Game Shark worth owning. Hey, want some hot four-slot armor and a spread needle? Hey, want to crash some lobby servers? The Game Shark's got your back!
Once Sega decided to start charging for PSO in Episode II, the magic was gone. What a bummer.
3. Sega's Development Divisions
Sega went and created a bunch of really memorable wholly owned studios around this era. It was interesting, because you really got the impression that many of these studios were operating with more independence that you might expect. You had Overworks with Skies of Arcadia, Smilebit with Jet Set Radio, Sonic Team with PSO and Sonic, United Game Artists with Space Channel 5 and Rez, Sega Rosso with Cosmic Smash, Hitmaker with Crazy Taxi, and, of course, AM2 with Shenmue and Virtua Fighter 3tb. It was neat to watch such a diverse lineup of games coming out of such a colorful group of studios, even if I didn't always like the games once they were finally released.
You know what? I don't like Shenmue at all. But it's certainly one of the most memorable things that happened to the Dreamcast. Yu Suzuki and AM2 went absolutely nuts with ambition. I was able to recognize that, but the execution felt like a mess to me. Not to beat a dead horse, but that game's probably something like a 6.8.
5. The Crazy Hardware That Never Came Out
I believe the first Tokyo Game Show I ever attended ended up being one of Sega's last as a hardware manufacturer. I remember walking into the exhibit hall and seeing Sega's huge booth. Right up front, under glass, were some upcoming peripherals: a VMU that allowed for MP3 playback. The VMU was the memory unit for the Dreamcast, in case you don't remember. It was removable and had a little screen for playing incredibly dumb games. It might have made for a neat portable MP3 player, especially in 2000, which is when it was unveiled.
The other weird DC peripheral was the DC Zip Drive. Remember the Zip Drive? Iomega's custom rewritable format took 100MB disks. I had one for my PC and it was actually pretty handy in its day--meaning the day when blank CDs and CD burners weren't quite commonplace. Sega's version for the DC, I think, came well after the format was done as a viable storage medium on computers. Apparently it would have been used to make the DC a bit better at storing things like e-mail and web pages. Some prototypes of this hardware made it out and occasionally pop up on eBay.
OK, if you've been reading this site for any length of time, you probably already know that I'm no sports fan. But as an observer of the game industry, it was really fascinating to watch Sega rise up and develop its own sports line. Visual Concepts turned the lack of EA's games on the Dreamcast from a weakness into a strength by developing the hell out of some sports games. The NFL 2K series was a monster--a lot of players immediately deemed it to be better than Madden.
Think about all of the things that shook out all this. EA went on to shut this series down by acquiring the exclusive rights to the NFL franchise. And Take-Two Interactive ended up picking up Sega's sports studio and then renamed an entire division of its company after those sports games. And apparently those guys still turn out the best basketball game these days. It was fascinating to watch it all unfold.
As Sega's domestic efforts got weirder and weirder, I found myself turning to imports pretty frequently. I ended up getting a chip soldered into my Dreamcast--this was before the whole boot disc thing came in and made booting imports (and, well, just about anything else) so easy. I have Dreamcast dance mats for playing the fairly-weak DC versions of Dance Dance Revolution. I imported the Japan-only sequel to Samba de Amigo. I imported Super Street Fighter II Turbo (for Matching Service!) and just about any other fighting game that came out in Japan first. I bought a sealed copy of Segagaga even though I couldn't (and still can't) read Japanese. This stuff served as suitable fodder for keeping the system meaningful as the US started descending into stuff like Floigan Brothers.
It's pretty much impossible to overstate the importance of Namco's weapon-based fighting game. It was the launch game that sold the system to you by looking like it stepped out of the future--games weren't supposed to look this good in 1999. I guess my big problem with it is that it wasn't Tekken. Still, Soul Calibur drew crowds and got people really excited about a fighting game, which was a pretty impressive feat, even back then. Me, I totally went nuts on the game's mission mode, which was really good at setting up interesting rules and different ways to play.
But still... a DC version of Tekken 3 would have been way more exciting to me.
9. The End
Much like the launch of the Dreamcast, I have pretty specific and weird memories of the day that Sega pulled the plug on the system. The word came via a conference call with Peter Moore delivering the word to the press. I believe it was late January of 2001. They kept using the term "platform-agnostic" to describe the software-only route they were about to take. There had been a few rumors kicking around in the days before the announcement that it was coming, but they were too hard to believe at the time. Listening to that conference call felt historic, even at the time.
So here's the weird part that I'll always remember about that day. I had been fighting off the flu for a bit. My stomach was... a mess. So I ended up listening to a significant portion of the call while planted firmly on the toilet in my hall bathroom, craning my neck out the door to listen to the call. They were taking questions from the media. I don't know if you've ever done this sort of conference call, but it was the sort of thing where you had to give your name as you called in, and then to ask a question you needed to push a button on your phone. I don't see how it could have been anything on my end, because I was pretty far away from my phone and most certainly didn't have a question, but at one point they said "and the next question comes from Jeff Gerstmann." I stayed silent.
It's easy to look back on the Dreamcast now and laugh at what now seem like incredibly obvious and critical tactical errors on the part of Sega. And I try not to let nostalgia sweep me up too much--there were a lot of really lame Dreamcast games. But as a moment in time, the DC's time was historical and, for me anyway, makes for a fascinating story from start to finish.