My home media unit is what you might call ‘cluttered’. A PS4 Pro and Xbox One X take up two of four spaces, while an American PS3 – my Region A Blu-ray player – occupies a third. A Nintendo Switch is perched on top, obscuring a few centimetres of TV when docked. A Stadia-compatible Chromecast Ultra hangs from an HDMI socket. Yet despite the cavalcade of contemporary gaming content available to me, that fourth slot is reserved for retro consoles, and is most often occupied by a platform most players ignored 20 years ago – Sega’s ill-fated but, to me, much-loved Dreamcast.
The Dreamcast launched in 1999 and, short version, died in 2001 when Sega ceased production of it. While entire theses could be written on how the Dreamcast presaged modern gaming, by pioneering online gaming on consoles, the simple fact was that its target market was cautious after being burned by flop after flop from Sega. The Mega CD and 32X add-ons for the Mega Drive, the Saturn and the Nomad handheld all bombed, so when the Dreamcast came along, amidst the unprecedented PlayStation 2 hype, people largely ignored it. To anyone who skipped over the Dreamcast at the time, or who has failed to appreciate its charms since, I can only say: you missed out.
While nostalgia for the Dreamcast undoubtedly pays a part in my enduring affection for it, the main thing that keeps me coming back is authenticity. The Dreamcast was essentially a home version of Sega’s NAOMI arcade board – or the New Arcade Operation Machine Idea if you’re being formal. While the coin-op hardware had double the memory of the Dreamcast, the similar architecture meant near-identical ports of the arcade experience. Given the nearest arcade to me growing up was a combo bowling alley/ice rink that burned down – twice – that made the Dreamcast a compelling alternative.
The only other ‘console’ that had achieved this feat of arcade accuracy before was the NEO-GEO AES – but given that cost $649 at launch in 1991 (around $1,200 adjusted for inflation) it was never an accessible option. Picking up a Dreamcast for £199 shortly after its 1999 launch was a far more attainable prospect. Sonic Adventure, SoulCalibur and obscure hover-board racer TrickStyle kicked off a collection that has blossomed to 112 games in the two decades since.
The Dreamcast’s fidelity to its arcade roots meant the likes of Dead or Alive 2, Virtua Tennis, and Giga Wing 2 delivered the same experience at home, along with the added modes expected of a console release. Meanwhile, the Dreamcast having four controller ports – a trick borrowed from the Nintendo 64 – meant mini-tournaments in the living room were a regular fixture, and occasionally still are. Power Stone 2 – another arcade-perfect port – remains a four-player brawler par excellence, one even Super Smash Bros hasn’t surpassed (fite me, Smash Bros bros).
Another reason I keep going back to the Dreamcast is the sheer weirdness of it. Sega threw pretty much everything at the wall when it came to the console, from an arsenal of specialised controllers – the fishing rod for Sega Bass Fishing remains a personal favourite, but more for its unintended compatibility with fighting game SoulCalibur – to utterly bizarre software like Seaman – a voice-controlled virtual-pet-meets-evolution-sim, narrated by Leonard Nimoy. (Incidentally, a boxed version with a working microphone add-on is one of the trickier holy grails for Dreamcast collectors). Those sorts of experiences are hard to find anywhere else.
The Dreamcast isn’t the only retro console I’ve held onto. I still have two PS2s (one UK, one American, where the backwards compatibility allows me to bypass region coding on games for both PS2 and PS1), two GameCubes (UK and Japanese), an Xbox 360 and more. Most of those remain boxed, though, as the games on those platforms remain broadly accessible elsewhere. Microsoft’s backwards-compatibility program means most of the games I own in that console family are playable on Xbox One, while the PlayStation games I’m most likely to return to are available as digital ports on PS3 or PS4. Cue an inordinate amount of Japanese RPGs; currently Star Ocean: Till the End of Time.
Only the GameCube comes close to the Dreamcast in games that are unique to the hardware and unavailable elsewhere. Although some Dreamcast games have of course been ported to other platforms, they tend to lose something in the process. Crazy Taxi had its soundtrack changed for later appearances, with expiring licenses meaning The Offspring and Bad Religion tracks remain the domain of the Dreamcast. Others, such as Capcom’s action shooter Cannon Spike, which featured characters from the Street Fighter and Megaman series, have never been re-released elsewhere – and if you were lucky enough to pick up a copy at release (spoiler: I wasn’t) its exclusivity can see a sealed copy reach asking prices of £700 on eBay.
Authenticity of experience comes with a price though – a constant battle to keep dated hardware viable in a modern media landscape. Go back one console generation, and you’ll still find HDMI connections, allowing you to easily hook, say, a PS3 up to a 4K TV. Go back two, and – at least here in the UK – you’re looking at SCART output from the consoles, a format contemporary TVs have long abandoned. That means shelling out for a SCART-to-HDMI adaptor, which can have varying results, or picking up something like a VGA adaptor.
Third parties have stepped into the void to address this issue, with the likes of Kaico creating dedicated Dreamcast-to-HDMI adaptors. (I haven’t tried these yet, so can’t speak to the fidelity of them.) But with every new generation of TV tech comes a new battle to keep older consoles viable on them. Even in VGA mode, the Dreamcast outputs a 720 x 480 image; there’s only so much that can be upscaled on a 4K screen, and I dread to contemplate how an 8K screen might handle it. Spontaneously gaining sentience just to laugh at the Dreamcast, I expect.
Another downside of connecting vintage consoles to contemporary televisions is that you have to accept some features just aren’t going to work. Light-gun games, of which the Dreamcast had a small goldmine – House of the Dead 2, Confidential Mission, Virtua Cop 2, I’m looking at you – are rendered inoperable, as the technology only works with CRT screens.
Any rhythm-action titles, such as Space Channel 5 or the brilliant Samba de Amigo, similarly suffer, as they were designed to work with the refresh rates of those old, bulky screens. And yes, I have the maracas. Trying to hammer out Ulala’s “up-down, up-down, chu-chu-chu!” instructions isn’t impossible now, but it’s a damn site harder than it should be.
Realistically, antiquated consoles like the Dreamcast require a period-appropriate CRT screen for maximum fun. Equally realistically, most people, myself included, don’t have space for those behemoths anymore, making retro obsessions something of a trade-off. For the games you can still get running without compatibility issues, it’s absolutely worth the hassle.
Despite all this, I don’t see myself getting rid of my Dreamcast, even as the advent of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X approaches. While those imminent titans may well usher in a new era of ultrapowered console gaming, they won’t be able to replicate or replace the bold, inventive, arcade-accurate adventurousness of Sega’s doomed child.
Retrograde is a new regular column in which WIRED staffers and contributors write about the tech they’ve lived with for years and refuse to upgrade.
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