As Sega's final console, the Dreamcast marked a bittersweet chapter in video game history. It was a wonderful but largely under-appreciated machine. Released on 9-9-1999, the power of the system far surpassed anything else on the market. With its jaw-dropping graphics, compact design, comfortable controllers, and excellent selection of exclusive titles, the Dreamcast by all accounts should have been a runaway success. Unfortunately, Sega's reputation was in tatters after the abject failures of its previous two systems (the 32X and Saturn). Many gamers were more-than-content to hold out an extra year for the much-hyped Playstation 2.
But perhaps the biggest single factor that hamstrung the Dreamcast was its inability to play DVDs. In 1999, DVD format was just beginning to take off, yet players were prohibitively expensive for most consumers. Sony seized the opportunity and marketed the PS2 as a combination game machine and DVD player. Not only did this make it an incredible value, but it held appeal far beyond the gamer market. Sega went with a proprietary "GD-ROM" format which stored more data than a standard CD, but it felt like old technology.
The system itself was compact with four controller ports and even a built-in modem for online play. Its roundish controllers fit into your hand very well, and seemed to be modeled from the Saturn's "3D" controller. Innovative Virtual Memory Units (VMUs) not only provided a portable means of saving games, but with its tiny screen and controls could potentially even play its own games.
The Dreamcast had a strong lineup of games. Sonic Adventure finally gave the popular hedgehog his first legitimate 3D adventure and prompted a hit sequel. NFL 2K and NBA 2K thrills sports fans with television-quality visuals and sophisticated gameplay. Easy-to-play arcade-style titles like Crazy Taxi, Hydro Thunder, and Virtua Tennis were a staple of the system. Sega wasn't afraid to push the limits of gaming either, taking chances with innovative game designs and peripherals that often bordered on bizarre.
Sadly, Sega couldn't compete with the Sony juggernaut, and was forced to bow out of the hardware business in 2001. It's a shame that a quality system like the Dreamcast had such a short lifecycle. For collectors, it remains a dream to collect for, thanks to its limited but rich library of original titles.
Console design: A. The Dreamcast is a surprisingly compact system, and its bright white casing and orange logo are attractive and distinctive. On the top of the system you'll find a power button, open button, and a triangular power light. Taking its cue from the Nintendo 64, four controller ports line the front of the unit. The much-ballyhooed built-in 56K model proved to be of little consequence however.
Console durability: D. The system's main downfall may be its reliability. The Dreamcast laser mechanism tends to wear out over time, making it prone to intermittent read problems. As a result, many Dreamcast fans own a second (or third) system as a backup.
Graphics: A. The Dreamcast's graphics were miles ahead of its competitors in 1999 and they still look terrific today. The dawn of high definition may have eclipsed it from a technical perspective, but its smooth, colorful visuals have a timeless quality. Games like Soul Calibur, Hydro Thunder, Power Stone, Skies of Arcadia, and House of the Dead 2 still compare favorably to current generation titles.
Controller: B-. The Dreamcast controller is fairly large but molds to most hands very well thanks to its comfortable grips. It features both a digital pad and analog stick. The trigger buttons have a wide range of movement, but the best use I've seen for them is controlling the speed of instant replays in sports games. Even in racing games, they are far too loose to adjust with precision.
Two slots on the top of the controller can accommodate both a rumble pack and a Virtual Memory Unit (VMU) at the same time. VMUs were oversized memory cards with tiny buttons and a black-and-white LCD display that's visible through a square opening on the face of the controller. In theory, a VMU could be used to hide information from your opponent or play stand-alone mini-games. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but few games really took advantage of the VMU, and the short life of its lithium batteries made it impractical as a portable game machine.
Probably the most glaring design flaw is the cord which inexplicably extends out from the bottom of the controller, towards the gamer! For a company that had been in the video game business as long as Sega, you'd think they'd know better than to place the cord where it would get in the way! As if Sega recognized this early on, they incorporated a notch in the middle of the back of the controller, allowing you to route the wire away from you. It looks pretty hokey however, and the wire does not always stay put.
Media: C. While Dreamcast disks appear to be normal CDs, they actually use a proprietary format that store up to 1 GB of data compared to the standard 650 MB capacity of a normal CD. Many questioned Sega's decision not to go with the new DVD format, which swayed a lot of potential customers in Sony's direction.
Packaging: B+. Packaged in standard jewel cases, Dreamcast titles are slim and easy to store. While the initial white color scheme looked very attractive, Sega inexplicably ditched it in favor of a black one that mirrored the Playstation packaging.
Pack-In Game: To keep the price of the console low, no game was included.
Launch Titles: A. Stocked with 19 games(!), the Dreamcast had arguably the strongest launch lineup of all time. While a few may be considered filler (Aerowings, Flag to Flag), many were sensational including Hydro Thunder, Power Stone, House of the Dead 2, NFL 2K, Soul Calibur, and the must-have Sonic Adventure.
Library: A. The Dreamcast library is outstanding, especially for those who prefer arcade-style action. Games like Hydro Thunder, Crazy Taxi, Soul Calibur, House of the Dead 2, Sonic Adventure, and Sega Bass Fishing appeal to all ages with their flashy graphics and pick-up-and-play gameplay. Groundbreaking sports titles like NFL 2K, NBA 2K, and Virtua Tennis offered breathtaking visuals and intuitive controls. Jet Grind Radio combined skateboarding with graffiti painting using groundbreaking, cell-shaded graphics.
Unlike Sony, Sega did not eshew 2D titles, so you'll find a wide array of quality one-on-one fighters and frenetic shooters. Best of all, Sega released a lot of exclusive, eclectic titles. Space Channel 5 and Samba De Amigo took rhythm games to a new level, and Typing of the Dead is a brilliantly educational (and hilarious) variation of the House of the Dead 2 light gun game. Sega Bass Fishing was the first game to incorporate a "fishing rod" controller, and Seaman is an absolutely bizarre virtual pet title (complete with microphone).
Collectability: A-. The Dreamcast console is a lot of fun to collect for. The games are readily available, usually complete, and it's even possible to collect the entire library. Although the games were dirt-cheap in the early 2000's, they've recently begun to inch up in price as they've become more scarce. The toughest part of collecting for this system is finding a reliable console, and it's a good idea to keep a spare.
Innovations: Analog triggers, VMUs, on-line capabilities, fishing controller (Sega Bass Fishing), voice recognition (Seaman)
Pros and Cons:
+ Rich library of games with interesting titles and peripherals
+ Smooth, arcade-style graphics
+ Games fun to collect
- Systems prone to disk read problems
- Controller may not appeal to all