Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Tribute to the Sega Dreamcast

(Note: In honor of the upcoming date, 11/11/11, I celebrate the last time such a date occurred--9/9/99, and the wonderful video game system that came to American shores that day)

In September of 1999, I had just begun my senior year of high school and continued to work at my lowly position of grocery store cashier. At this point I had worked at America's Supermarket, Winn Dixie, for more than six months and had earned a ten cent raise to reach a whopping $5.25 an hour. A nice chunk of this went to my car insurance, leaving precious little cash for fun and entertainment. I still managed to pick up a game for my beloved Nintendo 64 every 3 or 4 months, but that was the extent of my recreational funds. Twenty Bucks a year also went to my Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine subscription (sadly defunct for the last couple of years, but now in the middle of a comeback). I loved pulling this magazine out of my mailbox in the middle of my swampy cane field home. It made me feel modern or something. In August of 1999, I saw this staring at me out of the cheap tin box on a stilt:
Immediately, a new thought burrowed into my mind:
Nicholas, you must get a Dreamcast. Your very existence depends upon it.
But, Brain! I don't have enough money for a Dreamcast. I can barely afford to get a yoohoo and a bear claw after work!
But it is the biggest 24-hours in Entertainment History!
Entertainment History!
Okay, Brain, you know what's best!
I never took sides in the Nintendo vs Sega war. Nintendo and Sony is a different, bitter story, which I will not recount here. While I always had Nintendo systems, I loved playing my cousin's Sega Master, Genesis, and Sega CD systems. Those systems had excellent games, and the Sega brand meant a lot to me (I did own a Game Gear). After the Saturn flopped and Sega's future looked bleak, I felt a certain obligation to support the company who had given me so much joy and received so little in return. Plus, it was the biggest 24-hours in Entertainment History! Sega was launching the system with 17 games, most of them awesome.
9/9/99 fianlly came. I had $100. The Dreamcast retailed for $199.99 (get it?), not including tax. I was screwed. I was about to miss out on the biggest day in entertainment history.
IT'S THINKING! The Dreamcast ads promised me. Well, not if I didn't have one! All those thoughts would go to waste!!!
I went to work that Thursday after class, then went by New Roads, Louisiana's illustrious Wal-Mart. They had tons of Dreamcasts! No one in town was hip to the future yet! It was mine, if I could just get the money together.
I rushed home and begged my mom for a loan. "I get paid on Tuesday, you KNOW I'll pay you back!" I never borrowed money from my parents. I never even asked them for any. It's just not the way I came up. I had to work for what I got. But not that day. My mom told me to give her whatever money I had, and then she told me to get her checkbook. She pulled out a blank check, signed it and handed it to me. "Pay me back on Tuesday so I don't go overdrawn, okay." I gave my mom the hugest teddy bear hug ever, ran back out to my '96 Thunderbird and tore up the road. By the time I got to Wal-Mart, EVERY SINGLE Dreamcast was still there. While Sega ended up making more money that day than any movie's opening day or any other entertainment event at that point in history, the fervor never hit New Roads, Louisiana. In fact, here is a tip:

Looking for a hot item? Can't find it anywhere? Go to the Wal-Mart in New Roads, Louisiana. They will have a full stock of this item. People in New Roads only buy bullets and Wrangler's from their Wal-Mart. I have found success there anytime a popular gift is sold out everywhere else. Wal-Mart. New Roads. Do it.

I rushed home with my Dreamcast and tore open the box. I plugged it into the wall, and dug for the plug to hook it up to my TV. CRISIS NUMBER ONE! My old TV only had an RF Output! The cable that came with the Dreamcast was Red, White, and Yellow Stereo. NOOOOOOO!!!!!!
I ran to my parent's bedroom and checked the back of their TV. Sure enough, three tiny holes, one red, one white, and one yellow, unused, stared back at me.
I ran back to my bedroom, pulled the plug from the wall, and carried the whole system to my parent's room. I plugged everything in and turned the TV and the Dreamcast on. This happened:

Warm fluffy clouds passed through my head. Childhood memories of lying on the floor in the bathroom with the heater on and getting high off the steam. Bliss.
Once I set the date and time on the machine I suddenly realized that my financial shortcomings had stopped me from purchasing one of the 17 launch games! AHHH!!!! While I could easily just turn the Dreamcast on and off to see the logo screen boot up again and again, I needed to put my machine's brilliant mind to work. I put the Dreamcast on top of the television--I think I was holding it in my hands up to this point. My dad likes his TVs ten feet off the ground, so I almost had to stand on my tiptoes to get it up there. I ran back to the Dreamcast box. Low and behold, there was disc inside a sleeve:
Games, glorious games!!! Well, the first level to a bunch of games. Sega was generous enough to provide a disc with the opening levels to almost half of their launch games. While I tested them all, my heart immediately belonged to Sonic Adventure. After all, I'll never forget the first time I ran in a loop and hung upside down playing Sonic 1 on my cousin's Sega Genesis. Moments from this first Sonic Adventure level perfectly captured that incredible feeling of speed and weightlessness. I paid my mom back with my next check and fiddled with the preview disc for the next couple of weeks, but when I got paid again, that money went toward Sonic Adventure.
The speed, as I've said, was impressive.
After playing through the game, though, I realized that despite the incredible graphics, sense of speed, and sound, my first Dreamcast purchase was not a masterpiece. While the action stages were incredibly fun (and I still come back to them for a thrill), the padded adventure segments in between dragged, and the edges of the game didn't quite come together. Nevertheless, the game was a blast, and I don't regret purchasing it. Also, my Dreamcast and I had some intense bonding times. By intense, I mean that I pulled too hard on the controller and the system fell off the TV and hit my parents concrete floor. This dug a bad black scratch into the top of the Dreamcast and of course, the TV screen went black. I immediately petitioned heaven for mercy. How the heck would I ever be able to afford another Dreamcast?! Well, I turned the Dreamcast back over (it had flipped in midair), hit the on button, and my favorite intro screen powered up. It still worked! And I ended up repeating this devastating event three times! After the third, I somehow convinced my father to trade televisions with me. 12 years later, this TV is still in my old bedroom, and just like my Dreamcast, IT STILL WORKS.
After this, I went through some dark personal times. I certainly had no money for games, my family hit dire financial straights, and I got into a horrible car accident that was completely my fault. Despite our rough times together, my Dreamcast and I still found ways to operate, and I had a few dollars here and there to rent a few games. And hey, despite the hard knocks we had taken, we were still ticking.
I finally rumaged up enough money to buy a new game, and I settled on Crazy Taxi, a port of an arcade game. It had received excellent reviews. It deserved them.
I can't think of a game more fun straight out of the box than Crazy Taxi. You just pick up fares, get them where they need to be as fast as possible, then pick somebody else up. That's it. What a great game! It's sunny disposition forced me to pick my chin up. The punk rock soundtrack was just what I needed. Plus, it was a great personal inside joke for my previously horrible driving.
Leave the accidents to Crazy Taxi. Drive safe in real life.
It is a philosophy that has served me well. Though, I have not been in another accident since January of 2000, I have run several thousand cars off the road in Crazy Taxi. Video games are awesome.
As life began to pickup again, I embraced the coming changes. Spring testing for college was about to begin. My dad was about to strike up a new profession. I was boycotting haircuts. This set the stage for some much needed relaxation in between, and during the week of spring testing at LSU, I picked up one of the most beautiful platforming games in history, Rayman 2: The Great Escape.
Even more aesthetically pleasing than Sonic, Rayman 2 was an actual masterpiece, a true work of art. Every element of the game was, and still is perfect. I hear you can get it on your cell phone now. I doubt this will compare to playing it on the Dreamcast, but if that is your only access to this magnificent game, go for it. Its simple jump and throw gameplay gives way to more complicated elements later, but Rayman is consistently intuitive and fun.
At this point, Dreamcast and I were riding high. I graduated high school with the highest GPA of any male in my class, the highest ACT of anyone, and a nice sum of money in the bank. I quit my job (at New Roads Wal-Mart, where I had turncoated from Winn-Dixie. Hey, they had Dreamcasts!) and decided to take the summer off. I used a small amount of my funds to purchase a new game to give my precious friend an opportunity to think some more. I chose a horror/action game titled Blue Stinger. This was actually a launch game I had wanted to get my hands on for a while, and the time had finally come.
This was a good, but not great survival horror game in the vein of Resident Evil, but it also works to prove a point about Dreamcast. There is just something endearing about that little white-gray box. I think the developers felt it, too. I think this pushed them to make every game for the system as fun as possible. I don't think any other system's games received as many solid reviews as Dreamcast's did. Sure there was some junk out there (Slave Zero for instance), but few systems if any rewarded the risk of game purchase like Dreamcast did. While Blue Stinger isn't a classic game, it boasts excellent graphics and sound, fun gameplay, and macabrely wonderful monster design. I mean, just look at that weird bug/crab thing using a jeep for its shell up above. Blue Stinger is chock-full of imaginative monsters like this. You just don't see this kind of effort and love put into most system's average games. Even games that would just be kiddie bargain-bin trash could be produced as classics on the Dreamcast. Take the game Toy Commander for example. This is a game where you drive and fly various Toys through missions around a house. On any other system, the developer would have made a simple, shallow, child-directed game. Instead, Toy Commander for the Dreamcast became a cult classic. It is beloved for its tight controls, well-crafted missions, highly detailed levels, and brutal difficultly.
Again, you just don't see this kind of love put into most system's "average" games. And I loved it. So much so that I bought a subscription to the Official Dreamcast magazine. This was a great, unbiased publication, giving out fair reviews, dishing excellent previews, and including a free demo-disc with every issue, housing playable levels of upcoming games. It was brilliant.
This was the first issue I received. No, this isn't a picture of my actual issue, silly, I stole this from another website. But that was the first issue I got, and I probably read it three times. It was awesome and the demo disc included a playable level from the game on my and most other gamers' minds that wonderful summer: Tony Hawk's Pro Skater.
The same word keeps popping up in my head when I think of these games: Fun. Every game I bought for this system was fun. Dreamcast might as well have been called the Fun Machine. I played the heck out of Tony Hawk. I can't even estimate how many hours I put into it. I always wished I could skateboard, and I got all my jollies out with this one. And this was the second instant classic with a fun punk rock soundtrack that year. Talk about nostalgia when you fire these games up now.

Speaking of nostalgia: Two weeks before college I walked into VGX, Baton Rouge's lone used video game store, and picked up a copy of Soul Calibur, usually considered Dreamcast's benchmark release, the game that brought an arcade experience into the home.
It brought many sleepless nights to my home, especially those two weeks before college began. I beat the game with every character, unlocked everything, and got biceps in my thumbs. Awesome. With that said, I still don't feel like I've mastered this game. It is that deep.
Unfortunately, Dreamcast and I were about to take a short break. I had college to begin, and pennies to pinch. I rented some great games about this time, MDK2 included.

MDK2 was another aesthetic masterpiece, a game so alien and beautiful as to be beyond description. If I had only three words, I would say. Beautiful. Architecture. Shoot. I will probably never beat this game, but eight years after renting it, I found it in a thrift shop for five bucks. I still had my old file on the VMU. It was like no time had past. Speaking of VMU, now is a perfect time to talk about Dreamcast's marvel of a memory card.
The VMU was a nifty little gizmo in itself. That was the nerdiest sentence I've ever written. It had a screen you could play mini-games on, which no other system's memory card has had. It's got groovy buttons, and it came in all kinds of groovy colors. Groovy. Also, as I previously mentioned, it apparently holds data for an indefinite quantity of time. That is the second nerdiest sentence I have ever written.
During the fall of 2000, Nintendo released a great Zelda game for the Nintendo 64, and that took a lot of my attention from my old orange swirly-marked pal. But that winter he came back into my life with a vengeance.
That December, Dreamcast finally received its first proper RPG, Grandia II, and as soon as finals ended, I scooped it up. Exhausted from my first semester, I bought a truckload of Stewart's Soda, frozen pizzas, M & Ms, and this game. Taking breaks only to replay Chrono Trigger on my SNES (and maybe one day I'll write a tribute to that other beloved system), the first half of my winter break was a solid junk food and Grandia II binge.
Yeah, it pretty much looked like this. Grandia II's strongest attribute was, without a doubt, it's fighting system. If you can't tell from this picture, there was a heck of a lot going on at once, and the game managed this so well, it's a wonder this fighting system hasn't been ripped off more since. The graphics were stellar, the sound solid, and the character design and voices well done. Where the game slipped was its overly serious and pompously philosophical story, and the way it is implemented in the game. There is actually a quiz section 3/4's of the way through where you must answer yes or no questions to not so black and white religious issues. If you answer incorrectly, you die. This is as ridiculous as it sounds. Added to that, the game sufferes from 17,000 final bosses-itis. I went into the game one night expecting to finish in an hour and ending up falling asleep during the end credits just as the sun was rising. This not only marks the only time I have not watched the entire end credits sequence of the game, but this is also the only game I have never booted up again after beating. I was that wore out on it. That said, the battle system is cool enough to maybe lure me back some day, but I was being lured by something else at that moment...the majesty, grandeur and legend of Shenmue.
"I cost 80 million dollars to produce" Shenmue.
"I am Yu Suzuki's life's work" Shenmue.
"Just look at how awesome I look" Shenmue.
You kids today, with your hooker-beating games. Back in my day, we didn't have games where you could walk around and do whatever you wanted. Shenmue changed all of that forever. Shenmue was completely open-ended. There was a story about solving your father's murder. You could do that. OR, you could just walk around the highly detailed, spot-on recreation of late 1986/early 1987 Yokosuka, Japan with your mouth open as the days go on and the seasons change. You could get a job and just buy music to listen to in your room. You could try to get a date out of the cute girl who works at the flower shop. You could even just blow all the money you made at your job at the well-stocked arcade in the middle of town. You could do anything you wanted. You could infiltrate the local gang, play detective, and get into more and more intense fights (the final warehouse showdown between you and about 80 guys is one of the most bravado video-game sequences in history). I took my time with this game, and I'm glad I did. I still hear the main character, Ryo's, voice clearly in my head, and it's been more than a decade since I played through this game. Other games have adopted it's open-ended structure since, including you kids' hooker-beating games, but I am quite sure none capture the immersive feeling that Shenmue does. Plus, I totally saved that orphaned kitten's life and now he's a grown cat. Yay for me!
With Shenmue completed, I eagerly sought Dreamcast's just released RPG, Skies of Arcadia. Though my anticipation was high, I did not realize that this game would not only turn out to be one of Dreamcast's crown jewels, but also the last Dreamcast game I would play through completely for ten years. Unfortunately, my precious New Roads Wal-Mart had stopped carrying Dreamcast games by this point. I had been buying games from the Baton Rouge Wal-Marts, but for some reason I had to absolutely scour them to find this game. When I did, it was hiding behind a rack of inferior Playstation games. I rescued it and took it home.
Skies of Arcadia takes place in a world of floating islands, where wooden ships sail through the sky in an age of exploration. You play a young pirate just taking charge of his first ship The sense of discovery is unparalleled. The music is some of the best not only on the system, but period. The graphics still look stunning. The characters are endearing. The story is engrossing (even though it is often short-shrifted in reviews). It is the kind of game you desperately want to live in. Near the end of this game I started feeling the most intense sadness, not just because I knew my time with the game was drawing to a close, but because I knew my life was changing. I had made plans to move onto campus that summer, and the view from my window would go from my beloved fields and trees to a brick wall. The little disposable income I earned from crawfishing for my father, something that had turned out to be a lucrative enterprise, would disappear. To my mind, this was it. Sega knew it, too. The Official Dreamcast magazine discontinued operations that spring. In March, Sega announced it was pulling support of the Dreamcast. I really think they miscalculated. I know they were deep in the hole, but I really think the system could have made it.
A few months later, I moved into a crappy just-off-campus apartment, and my Dreamcast came with me...and sat. I took an incredibly full course load that fall, and played few video games. To further ostracize my poor, hyper-intelligent Sega Box, I stood in line at a BATON ROUGE Wal-Mart the night of November 17th until midnight hit and used a small savings fund to purchase the new Nintendo Gamecube.
Now a quick word on the Gamecube. It had its endearing qualities: Its strange box-shape and handle. Its little mini-discs. It had some decent games. The two Metroid titles were quite good. Animal Crossing was addictive. Resident Evil 4 is one of the greatest games of all time. It's Zelda and Mario games, however, are lackluster when compared to previous titles. It was a decent system, but it wasn't special. Not like my poor Sega Dreamcast.The only play my Dreamcast got that fall was not from me. My roommate, an outgoing fellow, discovered that several LSU football players shared our apartment complex, and made fast friends. Upon hearing I had a Dreamcast, they begged him to bring it over. Feeling sorry for my neglected friend, I gave him permission to go. Apparently, they really enjoyed playing. I'm glad they did. Eventually, Dreamcast came back home, and I put him into storage. He seemed sad, but accepting of his fate.
I moved home some time later, brought the Dreamcast with me, and sat him on a shelf. I played a decent amount of Gamecube, graduated college, moved out again, got married, had a kid. I had some bad years and some good years. Around 2006, I quit playing video games except for a few Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 titles I wanted to replay, and a short, previously mentioned re-dalliance with MDK 2. Nine years passed since I last flew through the Skies of Arcadia. The orange light on my Dreamcast stayed dark. The whirring of the disc reader remained silent.
Then something magical happened.
After my son was born, the wonder in his eyes brought back memories. I felt like partaking in activities I enjoyed when I was younger. Also, my sister married a guy with two sons under ten, and they were both video-game fanatics. They first noticed my Dreamcast, gathering dust in my old room at my parent's house. "What is that?" they asked. What indeed. "This is a Sega Dreamcast, boys," I said, "and it's thinking."
We made a quick run through the games I already had, especially Sonic, who the boys knew from Gamecube. It was at this point that I discovered the website I suddenly realized that most of the games I couldn't afford as a late teenager were between $5-$10. Even Marvel vs Capcom 2, which was an unreachable $70 back then, was a more conceivable $25. I began stocking up on games. The weekly family trip to my parent's house also became my weekly Dreamcast time, where I would test out my new purchases. It was then that I found my soul-mate, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future. Like a lot of kids growing up in the 90s, I played Ecco the Dolphin for the Genesis. Heck, I even got to play it on Sega CD, which was a pretty incredible experience. But nothing could have prepared me for the sense of wonder this Dreamcast iteration would cause.
This game is absolutely beautiful, almost photorealistic at points (and Dreamcast was truly the first system to have photorealistic moments). The gameplay is difficult, basically swimming through a futuristic sea until you have an epiphany about what you are supposed to do, but it rewards dedication. The music, composed by Tim Follin, is the best I've ever heard in a video game, a throwback to 70's New Age, Science Fiction, and Nature Documentary Soundtracks. It's soothing in all the right moments, it's hypnotic in all the right moments, suspenseful when it needs to be, and all around perfect.

Give it a listen.
I have always had a love for the ocean, and my son, even at his young age, seems to be developing a love for it as well. His first post-"dada" and "mama" word was "fish", and months later he still says it all day, looking at my aquarium or his fish toys. It was with great joy that I finally conquered this game on a recent Sunday afternoon at my parent's house with my son sitting on my lap, staring in wonder. Thanks, Dreamcast!The incredible thing is, there were so many great games I missed the first time around that I will most likely never catch up, and that is great. I haven't bought a new system since the Gamecube. I can't deal with double analog sticks and Wii remotes. That's fine. The second decade of gaming with my Dreamcast is proving to be just as fruitful, if not more so, than the first. Hey, I haven't even started importing yet!
Long live the Dreamcast!

No comments: