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An Homage to the Past - The Sega Dreamcast
By James Smith -- Staff Writer
Published 4/9/2004

Itís been a few years since the latest batch of gaming hardware has made its assault on the gaming public. The latest trio of hardware, the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube, has had varying degrees of success. While the PS2 and Cube relied heavily on their past, we canít help but recognize that the face of gaming today depends somewhat on a venerable console that didnít quite make it. The Sega Dreamcast was a console that was ahead of its time. Despite its failure in the marketplace, it established trends in gaming that are with us now.

The Controller

Debates on what controller is best will continue as long as controllers are being made. But for my adult sized hands, only one controller before the year 2000 fit my hands like a glove. The Dreamcast controller was a revolution in fit and function. The fit was sublime. Sure several hour-long sessions would yield a little finger pain, but with time my skeletal structure adapted. Foremost, my hand was no longer in the claw-like posture it had become accustomed to with even the dual shock PSX controller.

But the Dreamcast controller also had function. The dual analog triggers were a first in the gaming world. As a fan of racing games, I certainly appreciated this feature. Unfortunately, early controllers suffered from fatigue issues. Iíve had more than one controller go bad on me due primarily to a failure of the plastic trigger. Nonetheless, I loved those triggers as they allowed me to modulate my throttle and braking to a good degree.

The general design of the Dreamcast controller is clearly evident in the Xbox controller. The dual trigger design, general layout of the buttons, and overall size are certain throwbacks, and they make the Xbox controller what Iíd consider to be the best controller on the market. Additionally, the controller slots on the Xbox controller are a near carbon copy of the Dreamcast. Both support memory cards, and while you may think that the Xbox Live headset is a novel feature, donít forget the microphone that came bundled with Seaman on the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast controller influenced the PS2 and Cube controllers as well, as both feature some sort of analog buttons. The PS2 was the first to go above and beyond with its pressure sensitive buttons.

The Console

By 1999, the PSX was getting long in the tooth. While some games looked remarkably well, they were no match for what was ahead. Nintendo, for its part, just never had the market enamored with the N64. The graphics were a step up, but that didnít seem to matter much to the gaming public. Enter the Dreamcast with texture quality only seen on computers at that time. Games were beautiful. Even today you can pop in some DC titles and gawk at the visual beauty. The Dreamcast was a pioneer in console graphics. Sega even supported VGA output of some games. This was a precursor to the eventual high definition support on the next generation consoles.

Even more important than graphics was the integrated modem that came with the Dreamcast. From the start Sega envisioned online gaming would be the future of consoles. How prophetic they were. Sadly they couldnít fully reap the benefits of online gaming. Despite only being a 56k modem, the online play was fairly lag free. Direct play games like the NFL 2K or NBA 2K series demonstrated that online play was possible and totally entertaining. Quake 3 Arena introduced online shooters to the console world. The online aspect brought gamers from around the world together. I recall many a time playing F355 online with gamers from around the world. While the online racing wasnít really against live opponents (you raced solo and watch the replay with the full grid after), it was still filled with adrenaline.

The Xbox mimicked the Dreamcast design with its integrated network connectivity. Whereas Sega gambled with the whole online aspect, Microsoft instead gambled on the delivery method. Microsoft grabbed onto wideband as the future of gaming and shipped the Xbox with a built-in Ethernet port. In time, the consumer base has built up to fully support Xbox Live, and we can thank Sega for setting the precedent. Itís interesting to note that Sonyís online efforts havenít been as successful as Microsoftís simply because early PS2 owners have had to purchase add-on hardware to make their PS2s net-worthy. Ultimately, however, the DC led the way to online play on both platforms.

The Games

The games, more than anything else, define the heritage of the Dreamcast. The failure of the Dreamcast had the result of Sega turning into a software company. It ported and developed software for all three surviving platforms. One factor that may have contributed to the death of the Dreamcast, the failure to attract EA as a developer, ultimately may have helped Sega generate additional revenue on the latest crop of consoles. The NBA 2K and NFL 2K franchises have both been reasonably successful in the market compared to Live and Madden. I personally think some of the improvements made to the EA sports franchises have been due in some part to the increased competition from Sega. At the time, NFL 2K and NBA 2K raised the bar in sports gaming. EA reacted in time and now the sports gamer is the better for it.

Racing fans have always appreciated the diversity and quality of racing titles on the Dreamcast. Games like F355, Test Drive Le Mans, Vanishing Point, San Francisco Rush 2049, Tokyo Xtreme Racer, and Metropolis Street Racer lead a long list of incredible racing titles. With the demise of the Dreamcast, I personally felt a race game void until the next generation consoles picked up the slack. Microsoft grabbed the MSR title along with developer Bizarre Creations. Project Gotham Racing was a launch title for the Xbox that had advanced positive word of mouth from the Dreamcast faithful. Vanishing Point was reincarnated in some respects as Burnout and Burnout 2 as a multi-platform title. The TXR series has been reborn on the PS2. Overall, no one console holds a lead as strong as the Dreamcast did at the time.

The Future

Thereís no telling what the future holds. All we can do is grab onto the past and go along for the ride. I still hold onto the past. Every now and then I start up the trusty Dreamcast for a trip down memory lane. Games like NBA 2K1 still hold their own compared to todayís hoops titles. The Dreamcast still seems as fresh now as it did when it was released to the American public on 9-9-99. The Dreamcast was a shooting star Ė a brilliant flash of light that died an early death as it hurtled towards an overpopulated gaming world. But what a flash it was.
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