Less than a week ago, NBA 2K20 arrived on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. As the latest in Visual Concepts' extremely successful series of NBA sims, it will no doubt be one of the best selling games of 2019. It will also help to keep alive a small part of the legacy of a legendary console—the Sega Dreamcast, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today.
The Dreamcast, of course, was where NBA 2K got its start. Its name was originally derived from the fear of the so-called Y2K bug, which in turn represented anxiety over the turn of the millennium. It was a futuristic-sounding name for a futuristic console. And it worked. NBA 2K was a hit, outlasting the Dreamcast and eventually growing into a mega success on HD consoles.
NBA 2K isn't the only successful vestige of the Dreamcast's legacy. In just a few months, Yu Suzuki will finally be continuing the cult classic Shenmue series, which got its start on the Dreamcast back in 2000. Yakuza, its spiritual successor, likewise has a seventh mainline sequel in development. Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who was a pioneering force in the rhythm genre on Dreamcast, recently released the extremely well-received Tetris Effect.
In ways large and small, the Dreamcast has affected the way that we see video games. It was a bridge between gaming's classical period and the modern era that would follow. It was a console that was ahead of its time; a platform for daring creators and even more daring ideas.
It's easy to romanticize the Dreamcast because it was an underdog, and because it was so short-lived, ultimately lasting only two years. But even if we go a little far at times in lionizing its legacy, it continues to be the standard by which Sega is measured. And more importantly, it represents a key turning point in gaming history.
On September 9, 1999, tens of thousands of curious video game enthusiasts lined up outside of stores around the country. That day, which would go down in history as "9/9/99," was counted as a spectacular success, with Electronics Boutique touting it as the single biggest day in its history.
The Dreamcast's launch was the culmination of a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign by Sega. The tagline "It's Thinking" was intended to convey the power of its hardware, which was far beyond that of the PlayStation and N64. More importantly, it was meant to bring some of the luster back to the Sega brand after the failure of the Saturn.
It's hard to understate how much of a debacle the Saturn was for Sega in North America. Its surprise launch poisoned relationships with retailers, and it lagged far behind the PlayStation, which gobbled up market share. It hurt the Sega brand to the extent that the company wondered whether it should attach its name to the Dreamcast. "I still thought there was great equity in the Sega name, but it was a little bit of a fight, because people were trying to insist on just calling it the Dreamcast," former Sega of America president Peter Moore remembered in a later interview with Glixel.
The Dreamcast is often described as a hail mary by Sega—the console where it left everything on the table. But in the early going at least, Sega stuck to the playbook that had worked with the Genesis. Its launch lineup was heavy on arcade games, a Sega staple. It leaned on sports games, which had previously propelled the Genesis to success over its rival, and it made fighting games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 a staple of its library. And, of course, it had Sonic.
Indeed, Sonic's Dreamcast debut may go down as the blue blur's last truly great moment. Sonic is still alive and well today, and still pretty popular to boot, but it's tough to overstate the impact of him racing that giant killer whale in the opening stage of Sonic Adventure. It wound up being the Dreamcast's signature launch title, and it really felt for a time like Sega had found its "Mario 64 moment."
Sonic ended up headlining what turned out to be a killer launch lineup for the console, which was a marked contrast from the disaster of Saturn's North American launch. In fact, most of our major memories of the Dreamcast are from that lineup. Offspring? The story of souls eternally retold? Sonic and the whale? All launch titles. They were the games that helped plant the Dreamcast in the public consciousness.
"We did $99 million in that 24-hour period in North America. Still the greatest launch line-up in console history, by far: Soulcalibur, TrickStyle, Hydro Thunder, Sonic Adventure," Moore would later tell Glixel. "You know, I look at launch lineups today and go, 'oh man,' because we had 18 titles that weekend ready to go, all—for the most part—brand new IP."
"It Introduced Me to a Kind of Gaming I Didn’t Know Existed"
Brand new IP. Sega was unusually good at developing new IP for the Dreamcast. The best of them helped give the upstart Dreamcast a bit of an "it" factor among hobbyists, serving to set it apart from the monolithic PlayStation and kid-friendly Nintendo 64 .
They were the product of a talented pool of developers and an unusual willingness to greenlight cherished individual projects. Phantasy Star director Rieko Kodama made Skies of Arcadia, a sky pirate RPG that she described as one of her favorite projects to work on. Sonic creator Yuji Naka made Chu Chu Rocket, a peculiar action-puzzle game designed in part to test the Dreamcast's online functionality. Space Harrier creator Yu Suzuki created Shenmue, which put players into a living interactive world (and let them drive forklifts).
But it was Tetsuya Mizuguchi, then a rising star at Sega, who did more than almost anyone to build up the Dreamcast's "it" factor. In recounting his time at Sega with USgamer, independent developer Jake Kazdal talked about how Mizuguchi insisted on moving his studio from the drab industrial park that housed Sega's headquarters to Shibuya, which still is the epicenter of "cool" in Japan.
"Mizuguchi-san was convinced that if we were going to be hip and relevant and be into modern pop culture and modern entertainment, we needed to be in the heart of all of that stuff. So he convinced Sega Headquarters to allow him to bring his team right into the heart of Shibuya, which is like the heartbeat of young Tokyo," Kazdal said.
Mizuguchi's magnum opus on the Dreamcast was Rez, which was one part rhythm game and one part action game. It neatly encapsulated everything that made the Dreamcast great in the minds of its fans: it was stylish, it was unique, and it was built around an odd but interesting Trance Vibrator, which would vibrate in line with the music. (Fans found... uh... other uses for the peripheral.) It spoke to a whole generation of EDM fans who had never seen or played anything like it.
These boutique masterpieces were relatively few in number, but they went a long way toward establishing the Dreamcast's credentials as the hip alternative to more established competition. Today, they are the games that are most frequently cited when talking about the Dreamcast's legacy.
"It felt so subversive and strange. It spoke to me as someone who didn't enjoy games like Madden or GTA or Gran Turismo. Even the worst Dreamcast games were interesting experiments. It introduced me to a kind of gaming I didn’t know existed," veteran game journalist Susan Arendt wrote on Twitter in response to the question of why the Dreamcast still mattered to her.
"Like, seriously, Jet Set Radio is this incredibly odd blend of art, music, and customization," she said, referring to the cult classic rollerblading game that revolved around tagging a fictionalized Tokyo with graffiti. "Being able to upload my own images to use as graffiti was amazing. That game is just so, so weird, but it's also an excellent game. The weirdness is a choice, rather than the point."
The Pivot of Gaming History
The pity of the Dreamcast is that many of these games have faded from the collective memory. They feel like... well... a bit of a dream. The most relevant of them is probably Rez. Even Shenmue is a bit of an anachronism these days, despite the impending release of its sequel.
In many ways we care more about what these games represent than the games themselves. They represent what we imagine to be a kind of swashbuckling approach to game development, one that supposedly faded away on subsequent consoles; nevermind that the PlayStation 2 alone gave us Katamari Damacy, which would have been right at home on the Dreamcast.
Mostly, we have a vague sense that "they don't make consoles like that anymore." And it's true, they don't. What made the Dreamcast so interesting was the way that it looked both forward and backward, encompassing both the past and the future of gaming.
It was what one might call "the last arcade console," which is to say that it was pretty much the last system to be defined by its relationship to arcade ports. The Dreamcast was when ports started being better than "arcade perfect," with games like Soulcalibur featuring both superior graphics and a much larger feature set. What's more, while Japanese shoot 'em up developers like G.Rev would ultimately do well on Dreamcast, arcade-centric genres of this sort were clearly on the wane. The Dreamcast was pretty much the last console to feature shmups as a major genre.
By the same token, the Dreamcast was also clearly ahead of its time, as so many observers love to point out. It was home to one of the very earliest console MMORPGs in Phantasy Star Online—an astonishing feat for a console that came out in 1999. It was a pioneer in the rhythm, sports, and open-world sandbox genres. It heralded the many changes that would be coming to gaming in the 2000s and beyond.
These dueling identities make the Dreamcast a bright dividing line in console history. On one side, arcade games and platformers; on the other, gaming's online future. When the Dreamcast perished in 2001, it was replaced just a few months later by the Xbox, thus ushering in the modern era. And sadly for many, it commenced Sega's long and painful creative decline, though it's been doing a bit better of late thanks to well-received hits like Sonic Mania.
So why should the Dreamcast still matter, even if an entire generation of gaming enthusiasts barely remembers it? Because it was where gaming history turned. Because it was where some major game series like NBA 2K got their star, and because it laid the groundwork for Yakuza on the PlayStation 2. Because it was cool in a way that few consoles before or since have ever matched. And heck, because it had Power Stone 2. Who doesn't love Power Stone 2?
"It seemed like everyone making games on it had a sense of freedom they hadn't known before. Seaman, PSO, everything felt ahead of its time," WayForward director Tomm Hulett says. "That flavor will always be Dreamcast. Even when Nintendo gets really weird, like Splatoon and Arms, I describe it as 'Nintendo but Dreamcast.'"
It's in that respect that the spirit of the Dreamcast is alive and well as it turns 20. And it's a spirit worth taking to the next generation of consoles.