09 September 2009

9.9.99 - 9.9.09: The Dream Lives On.

Forget the Beatles. Today belongs to the Dreamcast. On the 9th of September 1999, Sega was back, in a big, big way.

I remember staying up all night for the big unveiling of the Sega Katana (previously referred to as the Dural). The first images emerged, and I have to admit, there was some of us Sega devotees disappointed and confused initially. "'Dream-cast'?! What was wrong with 'Katana'? That's a heaps cooler name," the collective complained. (We were too naive back then to know that products hardly ever released under their codenames. We later discovered that 'Dural' and 'Katana' also referred to two different prototypes.) "A white console?! But Sega's always been black!" Sega fans everywhere were inverting their Dreamcast photos in MS Paint for their own peace of mind. "They'll release a black model soon," we kept telling ourselves.

"And isn't that...the Cinnabon logo?"

"No diagonals? Only four face buttons?! How am I supposed to play Street Fighter with a controller of this kind?" Saturn owners were used to gaming at the apex of 2-D fighting, raised on the finest of D-pads and button layouts.

But what were we really asking for? A souped-up Saturn, or a brand new console? Sega delivered a new console, and a new Sega. A Sega with a singular vision [Dream] for Gaming; a Sega with a plan to put that into effect; and a Sega that, heaven forbid, actually marketed their products [cast]! Sega were back, man, and it felt awesome!

The reason it felt awesome was that despite all the cosmetic differences, Sega's vision for Gaming was ours. Today's Nintendo fans would be envious of Sega's fan service at that time. The Dreamcast was our console; it was our dream of two years, finally come to fruition; and though we didn't know it at first, it was the system we had asked for. 'Arcade-perfect' left our vocabularies and our mindset - we could now expect better and more than a mere faithful translation. Online and local multiplayer [is it any wonder Halo was originally slated for the Dreamcast?] - yes, we had games that actually used all four controller ports, and lots of them! Armada, Bomberman Online, Chu-Chu Rocket, and Power Stone, just to name a handful. A 3-D Sonic game, finally - you may laugh now, but if you weren't there you have no idea what that meant to us. We felt like we had been listened to.

More than that, it was what Sega gave us that we didn't ask for that surprised the most - their vision included our dreams, but it also eclipsed them. Sega was the freewheelin' Bob Dylan of the games industry - they made what they wanted when they wanted - irrespective of demographics and sales targets. This virtue had been Sega's vice since the late Saturn years, but would you rather see games like Seaman, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio, and Shenmue in the world, or another business-savvy hardware giant? Are those two things mutually exclusive? I'd like to think so.

The bravest game in the world?
I've been trying to dissect mine and others' feelings towards the Dreamcast, and I can put it down to a few things. In many ways the Dreamcast was the first 'next-gen' console - not in any official capacity, but just in its circumstances. By the time the internet had established itself as a household institution, the fifth generation of consoles had already launched and carved out their respective niches. By 1997, gamers were already speculating on the next generation of consoles - namely, the 'Dural', the 64DD, and the 'PSX2'. Sure, people had been doing the same thing in print media for years, but the hype on the internet was worldwide - it was happening [then] now, in front of our eyes - the excitement was palpable. It was the first unveiling and the first system launch I had ever witnessed, and it was all thanks to the wonders of the internet.

For me, the internet and my experience of the Dreamcast phenomena were inextricably linked. 'Sega Dural' and 'Sega Katana' was all I looked up in Metacrawler and Altavista when we were first hooked up. 'Sega X' became my primary source for 'Dural' news. I devoured every scrap of 'information' I could find - I memorised fake tech-specs; I memorised the real tech-specs - needless to say, I was a big fan. Eventually I was asked to write editorials for the site (which eventually became SegaDreamcast.net), so I did, writing Sega-biased articles at the tender age of 14, right up to the system's death. My spelling and grammar were immaculate as always, but my writing was terrible. Still, it was probably a missed opportunity for me - writing under an alias; submitting articles sporadically due to schoolwork; without even thinking to hit up up-and-coming online publications for work - given the number of hits 'segadreamcast.net' probably received. While I can't emphasise enough just how terrible and biased my juvenile rantings actually were, games journalism itself was in a juvenile state, and I really feel I missed my 'in'. Hopefully I'm a better writer for it.

I won my Dreamcast (plus three games) right here on IGN after reading the terms and conditions for the competition. It didn't say anything about being a US resident, so they paid for postage and mailed the box right over to me. Two weeks prior I had won a Dreamcast CD holder and a bright orange Dreamcast T-shirt (a shirt that became synonymous with me at the time), so I figured no-one entered these competitions (and maybe I was right! I couldn't tell you how much stuff I've won on here).

My heart actually skipped a beat when I saw the massive box sitting on my chair at the dinner table. Could it be? No way! I started opening it, and I couldn't believe it. The machine that I had been reading about, talking about, nay, dreaming about for years was right in front of me - in my hands - nearly a full year before it was to release in Australia. I felt like I was living in the future while everyone else was stuck with their Playstations. When the kids at school gave me shit about Sega, I just smiled - I didn't care. They didn't know what they were missing out on. They still don't, probably. Hindsight reveals that most consumers and developers were waiting for the PS2, and the Playstation's brand power, in my opinion, is ultimately what doomed the system.

It took a long time for me to get back into gaming once Sega left the hardware race. After the Dreamcast, I had no excitement left to share around. I bought an Xbox fairly cheap towards the end of its life cycle, partly because the morality system of KOTOR II intrigued me, but mostly because it had the Sega games I wanted to play: Smilebit's (aka Team Andromeda's) Jet Set Radio Future and Panzer Dragoon Orta, mainly.

That's my bittersweet Dreamcast story for the most part. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed re-living it. For the record, my Dreamcast remains plugged into my TV, and there's plenty of gaming left to be done on it. So Happy Anniversary, Sega Dreamcast, it's been a great ten years. Here's to at least ten more. I think between Power Stone and Street Fighter III, we've got it covered. And here's to you, Sega, for your bravery in the face of certain death and your willingness to dream. We won't forget it, so make sure you don't.

"A candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long."

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