Sixteen years ago today, Sega made history with the launch of its Dreamcast video game console, selling more than 225,000 units and setting a Guinness World Record for most revenue generated in the entertainment industry in 24 hours. The company’s previous console, the underwhelming Saturn, was thwarted at every turn by Sony’s PlayStation, but Sega seemed poised for a comeback. But despite its innovative features and diverse software library, history repeated itself, as the mere promise of Sony’s PlayStation 2 proved nightmarish for the Dreamcast’s sales. A scant 19 months after its launch, the company would halt production of the console and leave the hardware business altogether. But for a system that lasted less than two years, it made a hell of an impression on gamers. Sega’s biggest failure is arguably my favorite video game console of all time.
The Dreamcast launched on 9/9/1999 for $199.99 with 19 games (marketing!). The 128-bit system was a graphic powerhouse, easily outmuscling PlayStation and Nintendo 64. It was the first console to include a built-in modem for online play (though it was dial-up because, you know, the ‘90s). The beefy controller featured large rear triggers that have become standard on modern controllers, and it used VMU memory cards that had a tiny LCD screen and controller that could be used for mini-games, such as Sonic Adventure’s Tamagotchi-like Chao Adventure.
The console got off to such a great start thanks to one of the strongest launch lineups in history. Sonic was Sega’s biggest star, propelling its 16-bit Genesis to stratospheric heights, but he pretty much sat out the Saturn, which certainly didn’t help that console’s fate. But Sonic was back in a big way on Dreamcast, which translated the speedy hedgehog to 3D for the first time to spectacular results.
Heavyweight publisher EA didn’t support the system, so Sega created its own series of sports games, starting with NFL2K, which sparked a glorious rivalry with the Madden series. NFL2K looked so realistic that friends passing by would often mistake it for broadcast television (which is kind of hilarious now).
In the late ‘90s, when arcades still offered the best graphics (also, when arcades still existed), Namco’s beyond-perfect port of fighting game Soulcalibur stunned, and no quarters were required. Sega had a strong library of arcade games to pull from, and solid ports of hit games like Virtua Fighter 3, Crazy Taxi and Dead or Alive 2 kept gamers out of arcades and glued to their couches.
Dreamcast featured some of the weirdest games ever to grace a console. Sega was at its creative peak, allowing its studios to try out just about anything. Want to play a game where you talk to a fish-like creature with a human face and is narrated by Leonard Nemoy? Try Seaman! How about a version of arcade shooter House of the Dead 2, but instead of using a light-gun, you use a keyboard to kill zombies? Meet Typing of the Dead. Years before Guitar Hero, Samba de Amigo brought plastic maracas to the living room that let you shake it to Ricky Martin songs. And Space Channel 5 was a rhythm game that had you dancing alongside an alien Michael Jackson, the imaginatively named Space Michael.
The Dreamcast was just brimming with personality. I have both an Xbox One and PS4, but aside from exclusive titles, they’re so homogenized that I can barely tell the difference on what system I’m playing. But you always knew when you were playing a Dreamcast game, because it offered so many fresh experiences. As the system aged, the VMU battery would eventually die, emitting a loud beep every time you turned on the system. I’ve hung on to my Dreamcast, pulling it out occasionally when I’m feeling nostalgic for Sega’s final console, and that beep still elicits an emotional response that I’m in for something special. I wrote my first-ever video game article on the Dreamcast’s launch for my college newspaper. Sixteen years later, I’m still dreaming.