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En-duhl-jer: The one who indulges

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Monthly Archives: September 2014

Happy 15th Birthday Dreamcast!

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On this day 15 years ago, one of the most revolutionary video game console systems hit North America. 9/9/99. It’s a date that I will never forget.

It’s a rare event in video game history when so much goodness comes out one day. Not only did Dreamcast launch that day (with its, at the time, record breaking breadth of launch titles), but Final Fantasy VIII did as well. That’s pretty much a nerd orgasm right there.

For months leading up to the release, every day I would ask my mother for “spare change” to put toward funds to buy the system (basically asking for a quarter a day!). I saved every penny I had…every damn penny! Finally, after a gruelingly torturous amount of time of waiting (I’m talking South Park levels here)…release day finally came, and oh man was it a beautiful day! It was easily the most coin I had ever dropped in one day in my short life. Dreamcast console, VMU, Sonic Adventure…oh and Final Fantasy VIII (can’t forget that…). Pretty sure that was way over $300 (which now seems so…cheap).

Just unboxing the thing was a joy in itself. The hardware was beautiful. And simple. White with grey accents and a little swirly Dreamcast logo.

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It had two buttons “Power” and “Open” and four ports for controllers (which, at the time, was unprecedented). The controller was a monster and innovative in its own right. It had two expansion ports to hold modular components. This included over the years a “Rumble Pak” (think N64), a microphone, and the most unique: a detachable VMU (Virtual Memory Unit) that had several functions. It was a memory card, a personal second screen for the player, and could be used standalone to play simple minigames. Way ahead of its time, and unfortunately never put to the greatest use. Wii U is struggling with this very same feature introduced 13 years later! Oh, yeah..the VMU could also attach directly to other VMUs to play multiplayer games on the go. I still have fond memories of playing the Sonic Adventure minigames on the school bus with other people that had the hardware. Most of the core components of the controller was shamefully ripped off by Microsoft when they released their XBox console two years later.

Hardware

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OK, that’s enough about the console and the controller. But there is one more important thing to note with regards to hardware. Dreamcast came equipped, out of the box, with a 56k modem (Google it). This turned the Dreamcast into a PC with a full web browser, and the ability to play online games. Do you realize how much of a big deal this was?! This was revolutionary stuff in 1999. Don’t forget the 128-bit graphics (side note: very sad we don’t gauge hardware in ‘bits’ any more…I loved this)!

Innovative Software

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OK, yeah, yeah, but what about the games? A system is only as good as its games, right? Oh, boy. What a run the Dreamcast had! An unbelievable number of new Intellectual Property came out during this time. Standouts include:

  • Shenmue I and II  – One of the first “sand box” games. Enormous open world.
  • Jet Set Radio – First ever game to utilize the “cel-shading” graphical technique.
  • Samba de Amigo – Included plastic maracas; pre-Guitar Hero era.
  • Seaman – First…and only (?) talking virtual pet simulator; required use of microphone (bundled with game).
  • Alien Front Online – First online console game to feature voice chat.
  • Phantasy Star Online – First online console free-to-play MMORPG.

Among many others. Special shout out to Crazy Taxi…umm…first game where you drive people around a virtual city as fast as possible (while simultaneously destroying the city)? Again, so very much ahead of its time. Sega pioneered so many new fun ideas in such a short period.

Graphical Discussion

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I’ll take some time to headline a few other games that mean a lot to me, but first…graphics. The first standout has to be Sonic Adventure…as it was the first game I purchased at launch. And wow. To me this game embodied the next-gen era. It was beautiful! It had its fair share of problems, and wasn’t quite the graphical and genre-defining impact that Mario 64 had on the industry, but man…it was close (to me; most people consider Soul Calibur to be the graphical darling of this era)!

There are only a handful of video game experience that have made me go “wow” (from a graphical standpoint) over the years. I can literally name them:

  • Super Mario Bros. – First game I ever played; at my aunt’s house. Unreal.
  • Super Mario World – Saw a demo at Sam’s Club; I adored SMB3 and this was just so much better looking, it blew me away!
  • Super Mario 64 – Played a demo at Toys R Us, and bought it at launch. This was probably the pinnacle of “jumps” for most everybody. Hard for anyone to argue this game’s impact.
  • Final Fantasy VII – Saw FMV sequences at Toys R Us. Doesn’t stand up that great today, but still…holy crap man. I distinctly remember seeing this scene at Toys R Us and as the biggest FFVI fan ever (even at that time), I knew I had to play this game.
  • Sonic Adventure – The most beautiful 3D I had ever seen at the time. Not to mention the opening sequence is still pretty freakin’ awesome.
  • Star Wars Rogue Squadron II – Gamecube launch game; just amazingly beautiful.
  • Resident Evil – Jaw droppingly gorgeous. This footage is over 12 years old and still looks better than most games today.

I haven’t had a wow moment (graphically speaking) for any game since 2002. OK, I lied, I thought of a few:

  • Odin Sphere – The pinnacle of 2D sprite work.
  • Final Fantasy XIII – A particular section of Final Fantasy XIII.
  • Heavy Rain – The whole game.

Still, not much has had the same impact on me as these games had…in over a decade. Either I’m become way too jaded (a legitimate possibility) or we’ve just passed the point of dismissing marginal returns. Which is sad…and is a big reason why I look to this Dreamcast era (’99-’02) as one of the best ever. Soul Calibur, Shenmue, and Code Veronica were also widely heralded for outstanding graphics. But graphics are just one aspect, it’s really only about the gameplay. What made Dreamcast so great?

Sonic Adventure

Have to come back to Sonic Adventure. This felt like a genre-changing game at the time and I still consider it to be. It is one of the very best 3D Sonic games ever made (and there’s a bunch…and there’s a lot of crap…). Blazing fast gameplay; all very beautiful. Just don’t mention Big The Cat, and we’re good.

Nobody remembers or talks about this, but this game had online play, and I had never experienced anything this before. I am a very, very…VERY competitive person, and I was able to break into the top 10 on some challenges (open to the whole world). There is nothing more satisfying than to beat your peers at things on a worldwide scale (hell, it’s the only reason I played Bioshock II…to be the best, but I digress…). Fun note, this game had sponsored events. I remember Reebok (Google it…oh wait, I guess they’re still around) hosting one, and was the first instance I’ve ever seen in-game advertising before. I thought it was neat at the time.

All that said…this was a fun game! Most people widely consider the sequel (SA2) to be the superior game, but to be honest…the open-world nature is what really makes this shine. Throw in a virtual pet simulator (which could be raised on the VMU) and there’s hours of entertainment here.

Chu Chu Rocket

The first online multiplayer game ever released on a console game out a year later in 2000. It’s name was Chu Chu Rocket. And oh, was it beautiful. A deceptively simple puzzle game, but its big draw was the online play. It had a layout that I don’t think any multiplayer game has been able to replicate since (at least that I’ve played). It had basic online lobbies that functioned as a chat room (’90s loved chat rooms) and anyone could create a “game” for up to 3 others to join. That’s it. Talk? Play? It’s up to you. Unbelievably simple, unbelievably fun. And addicting. Oh, did I mention you could play Japanese people?! It had no region locks. This was during a time when companies didn’t care who played each other (unlike today where most everything is region locked), and again…it was beautiful. I was one of the four best players (I considered Lennon, ZeRO, and Ruff Ryder my equals – I still remember their damn names…) in America. I ended up being Top 10 on the leaderboards, and it’s an accomplishment I’ll be proud of until the day I die. I would come home from school, watch Gundam Wing and Dragon Ball Z, and then hit the Chu Chu lobbies. Can’t get much better than that man.

It had a pretty big social impact on my life.  I still talk to people who played this game (and other multiplayer games) 15 years later. You’ve got to appreciate the context here…this was basically during a time when the internet was a baby. Remember AOL chat rooms? Chu Chu was pretty much this. I’ll never forget this era (one that didn’t include microphones…thank God). It’s quite something to be one of the first people to do something, and I really felt like I was a pioneer during these times. And it’s one of the very key reasons I can type 120 words per minute (forgot to mention the keyboard accessory)!

It was re-released on GBA and on iOS and Android a few years ago (sans online play…which is a bummer). Main benefit of those versions is that they include hundreds of user generated puzzles (still haven’t seen if any of mine made the list!). Desperately awaiting the day that this ever gets a true sequel on a real platform. I mastered this damn game…and miss it very much.

Jet Set (Grind) Radio

How cool was this game? Has there been anything like this created since? This epitomizes the spirit of Dreamcast. Fun, innovative, and unique…with a remarkable sense of style. It’s hard to even describe the gameplay. Let’s see if I can do it in a sentence: you play as a member of a roller blade gang which vandalize a city called Neo Tokyo via graffiti…and eventually save the world (or something).

Totally recommend getting this on today’s consoles as it was re-released a few years ago. This got a sequel on the original Xbox which…remains a challenge to play. The fact that it hasn’t been released in a digital form yet is…troubling. I’ll save remarks on why at the end of the piece…

Skies of Arcadia

The very best RPG on the Dreamcast. Unfortunately, one of only a few RPGs on the Dreamcast (can’t forget Grandia II though!!). Still, a very fun traditional RPG (gotta love those random battles…actually…no, it was one of the games worst features…) with excellent music and interesting battle mechanics.

Sega now gets fans hopes up of ever seeing a sequel to the series by placing the main characters in random series. For apparently the only reason other than to break the hearts of those said fans.

Shenmue / Shenmue II

One of the main reasons I decided to purchase a Dreamcast in the first place. I remember watching all kinds of promos about this game. It ended up being an open-world (while still pretty constrictive) with all kinds of weird features. It had old Sega arcade games, it had QTE (Google it), it had Darts. Shenmue II had duck racing. Yes, duck racing. It’s a weird series, and very Japanese. I loved them! At its heart, it’s a game about finding out who murdered your father.

America just wasn’t ready for this game. I’m not sure the world was ready for these games. With a reported record breaking $70 million dollar budget, some point to this game being what ultimately destroyed Sega. Grand Theft Auto IV ended up breaking this budget record…10 years later. Strangely, Sega did not even bothering to release Shenmue II in America (but it did release in Europe). Shenmue II is notable for me as being only one of two games I have ever imported (Xenoblade was the second). I consider Shenmue II to be the third best game I have ever played…probably mostly for sentimental reasons, but I absolutely adore Shenmue II.

This series is one that fans are dying to see revived. Sega has teased fans, most recently in 2013, of a possible sequel by having Ryo (main character) as a driver in Sonic Racing All-stars.

There are reports that Sony is interested in continuing the series as it was always intended to be much longer. There are supposed to be 16 chapters in the series. Shenmue I and II comprise the first 8. The sad thing is that Yu Suzuki (the game’s creator) has had the story written since the Sega Saturn days!! No one will finance it. It’s an unbelievable shame.

Resident Evil: Code Veronica

In my mind, the very best 3rd party game released on the Dreamcast. Other notable contenders include…umm…Soul Calibur? Looking back, one of the main reasons Dreamcast did not end up being a lasting force is because it ended up having the same curse that has plagued Nintendo for 20 years…no third party support.

That aside, what a fantastic game. I still consider this to be the absolute best “classic” Resident Evil…although RE2 is pretty close, and I personally think it gives RE4 a run for its money. Scary, creepy, beautiful with an interesting plot.

Phantasy Star Online

I cannot very well end a discussion on Dreamcast software without discussing Phantasy Star Online. This game changed my life. It turned an introvert into a “never want to go anywhere and do anything introvert”! I have no regrets about that. I would very much rather live in a virtual world than the real world. Is that an indictment on today’s society or on me? Perhaps too philosophical to discuss here. Moving on…

How can something so simple and monotonous be so much fun? The game boils down to a button mashing action RPG at its core. It’s basically a 3D Gauntlet. Well, if you make it free and provide other incentives (shiny things; RARE DROPZ), all while letting you do it with others, what could be more fun?!

PSO was just the beginning though. There were many sequels and expansions on various platforms. PSO version 2.0 released on Dreamcast but set a dangerous precedent with being pay to play (I believe ~$10/ mo)? I never got to play it as: I was poor, and when it released my Dreamcast was dead at the time. Not soon after, Dreamcast would be dead for good…

Post Dreamcast, Phantasy Star released on Gamecube (again pay to play), but featured several new areas and other improvements. Phantasy Star Online Episode III released shortly thereafter on Gamecube, but was basically a different game. It was a card game (think Magic: The Gathering) where you can play 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 in virtual lobbies. Absolutely fantastic game, by the way, and another one where I became a “God” (literal distinction given to top 50 players).

That would be followed up by PSO: Blue Burst (Episode IV) and was the pinnacle of the series in terms of content. It was basically an expansion pack to the original game which included the Gamecube chapters. However, it was only on PC, and remains the only PC game I’ve ever played for a significant period of time. The servers were retired several years ago.

Another offshoot series followed soon after called Phantasy Star Universe. It released on PC, PS2, and Xbox. It had the same basic gameplay with slight changes. Combat mechanics changed, but most people agreed…it just wasn’t the same. These servers were also decommissioned a few years ago. The Japanese servers went for much longer and were finally decommissioned in 2012.

I miss the game / series very much. It was basically a job. This is a game you play for 8+ hours a day. I had several long-lasting friendships playing this game, and I hope to revive that again if Sega would allow it (or maybe it’s for the best that they don’t…). The funny thing is Sega reinvented the PSO series. Phantasy Star Online 2 came out in Japan in 2012, and has received much critical acclaim. However, Sega has set no release date for America. A point of which I and several others repeatedly complain about on their official PSO2 Facebook page.

All that said, without Dreamcast laying the groundwork, I would not have had the experiences I’ve had for the last 15 years. And for that, I am thankful. People still play Phantasy Star games on private servers to this day (most notably SCHTHACK for PSO) via some…custom hacking.

So what happened?

How could something so great…end so quickly? Dreamcast only lived for basically 2 years. There are many factors which led to the demise of the Dreamcast, not one single answer, but here are some of the more compelling reasons:

  • Sega was not in a good position when Dreamcast launched. Their previous console, Sega Saturn, was a flop. Sega was in debt and Dreamcast was supposed to be their savior.
  • They spent a ton of money. They had a great deal of in house development studios, and literally blew all their money (Shenmue alone was a shit-ton) making games. Not all these new ideas sold. When you’re already in debt and go even more in debt…well, it’s not a good recipe.
  • 3rd party support never came. EA very famously and publicly did not support the Dreamcast. As a result Sega had to create their own sports games: Sega 2K games. 2K was sold in 2005. My hatred toward the major publishers still is very raw and fresh to this day. It’s a major reason why I will never purchase a game published by EA, Ubisoft, or Activision. I refuse to support mainstream garbage.
  • Piracy. Dreamcast got massively hacked. It used a custom GD-ROM disc technology and illegal game piracy was rampant after this media was cracked. Not to mention Bleemcast!, an emulator that let Dreamcast play Playstation games, just added to the bad reputation of the system being a pirate console. I still recall eBay listings that had hundreds of NES gamed on one Dreamcast disc.
  • Playstation 2. This was really the final nail. PS2 came out shortly after with better graphics, a DVD player (a big, big feature at the time), and a huge amount of exclusive games.

No one will ever again accomplish what Sega did in such a small time frame. All that’s important is that their effort is acknowledged and not forgotten. Whatever issues I have with Sega, I respect them.

Where are we today?

Sega still exists. they merely stopped all hardware operations, but continued as a software developer, but not nearly at the same level in 2002. Most of the Dreamcast era development houses were shuttered or combined. However, in 2004, the game changed. Sega was bought by Sammy. Sammy was mainly known for pachinko machines (think Plinko)in Japan. Sega was at one time a behemoth in the arcade market, so this move kind of made sense at the time… However, it has not gone well. Their new company is called Sega Sammy Holdings, but Sega has been allowed to continue to function as Sega… but Sammy is calling the shots. And when corporate entities call the shots and have no historical background in the videogame market, it doesn’t end well for the consumer. Couple that with the abysmal state of videogame operations in Japan as a whole, and it’s been a disaster.

Sega currently releases piles of shovelware and licenseware that no self-respecting hardcore gamer would ever play. They have shunned almost all of their Intellectual Property (which rivals that of Nintendo), but continue to release games nobody wants. I literally cannot think of a single title they have released in five years not related to Sonic (that has made it to the US), and has been enjoyable. They are having financial troubles and refuse to localize games such as Phantasy Star Online 2 or release any semblance of software that made them “Sega”. It is absolutely depressing. It is basically the same thing that is happening with Squaresoft. After their merger with Enix (and other companies) creativity, innovation, and…entertaining fun games are not being created.

It really is a sad state of affairs for the video game industry as a whole. But, the past is the past, and that’s what makes it great. You can never take away those memories. And for that I will forever be grateful. Thank you Sega. Thank you Dreamcast! Happy 15th birthday!

Filed under Videogames
Sep 9, 2014

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