Review by falsehead

Reviewed: 12/02/01 | Updated: 12/02/01

A beautiful dream cast adrift in an uncaring world

I've never been one for the console wars. I have many consoles and find something to enjoy in every one of them. When it comes to choosing my favourite console of all time I would end up going with the original PlayStation (for several deeply emotional and personal reasons). But it's a close run thing. The Dreamcast is a console I have a deep affection, (maybe even love) for. I feel it was a truly innovative, groundbreaking piece of hardware blessed in its short life span with some of the most original and brilliant games ever published. I purchased a Dreamcast very soon after it initially came out and was fortunate enough to be part of the anticipation and excitement that greeted each new software release, as well as sadly witness its inevitable decline and the crushing disappointment of hearing that the DC would no longer be manufactured and would be Sega's last ever console. The Dreamcast is dead, but I hope you'll find this a fitting eulogy

Young, Gifted and White…

Aesthetically, the DC is probably the loveliest console ever designed. When I first saw pictures of it, I was a bit dubious. It reminded me of those Breville Pie Magic pie-making machines. But when I got mine home and actually got my hands on it I fell in love. It's a lovely chunky piece of kit, smooth and simple, its gently curved top and plain white design are a minimalist triumph. With just two button and a discreet logo its very pleasing to the eye. Its heavy, but satisfyingly so. It feels like a machine packed with technology and I am not ashamed to admit I have run my hands over its silky plastic finish marvelling at how much power can exist in such a compact little machine.

And what about the peripherals? Oooh, the DC has my favourite controller ever. It's an utter joy to use. The ergonomic curves and the placement of he analogue stick and triggers make it incredibly comfortable for prolonged gaming sessions. The VMU was a typical stroke of genius, being able to see cool displays while you were gaming and carry on in some cases after your DC was switched off was something that should have been exploited more than it was. Four joypad ports as standard? Thank you very much Sega! About the only reservation I have about the controller was the d-pad, which is raised a little to high from the joy pads surface. This could be a little unresponsive and hard on the fingers if you were playing a game that did not support the analogue stick.

The modem and online play was another DC innovation that was simply to ahead of its time. The UK release of the DC came equipped with a 33.3k modem and this drastically affected the online capabilities. With a little time maybe Sega could have sorted this out, but alas this was not to be. The Sega UK/European Internet gateway was the excellent Dream Arena. I used this service quite a lot and it was optimised very well for the display limitations of the average TV. There was always the latest news, game information, reviews and plenty of input on message boards and forums from other Dream Arena users. Due to the annoying local call charging system in the UK (i.e. we have to pay by the minute for any phone call), I did not play online very much. It's a pity that this groundbreaking aspect of the DC was not allowed to be exploited to its full potential.

Finally there were plenty of other bits and pieces to add to your DC. The keyboard and mouse were essential for easier net access and allowed you to play the great range of First Person Shooter games with greater ease. Sega released a fishing rod, a microphone, light gun, steering wheel and EVEN maracas for use with various games! For a dedicated collector of console add-ons like myself, the DC was certainly the king of the daft accessory.

Here comes the science bit, concentrate…

Technically the Dreamcast showed that Sega had learned valuable lessons from the Saturn debacle. The Saturn had been notoriously difficult to programme for, even in-house Sega technical staff had trouble getting the most from its complicated internal architecture. Many third party games developers abandoned Sega completely during this time and some like Electronic Arts (grrrr), never came back.

The DC was completely different. In many ways, although its raw processing power was less than the PS2, its graphical handling in many ways matched and in some case beat the PS2 hands down. Especially compared to many initial PS2 releases. Now I don't claim to be an expert on these matters but I was curious to discover why this was the case and looked up the Dreamcast's technical specifications.

Now the DC was designed with a ''tiled'' internal memory structure, which spread graphical processing across all of the main memory. This was called VRAM and allowed massive amounts of processing power to be devoted to handling compressed textures and graphical rendering. The PS2 confines all its graphical handling to one dedicated graphics RAM chip, so initially designers had to work much harder to squeeze the same capabilities out of what was supposed to be a more powerful machine.

Early PS2 games were plagued with the infamous ''jaggies'', or polygons that had not been smoothed down because the PS2 could not create the same beautiful, smooth surfaces with the same ease as the DC. This led to early DC to PS2 conversions actually being graphically inferior, Dead or Alive 2 being the worst offender. Of course now good developers now know how to solve these problems and PS2 games look (in the main) superb. But its was a common complaint when the PS2 launched that it was no where near as easy to get the best from as the elegantly designed and developer friendly Dreamcast.

This tremendous graphical handling worked very much to the advantage of gamers who live in PAL territories. The DC was blessed with the ability to do something called ''interlacing'' with incredible ease, which relates to how fast the picture updates on a TV screen. In PAL territories the default screen update mode is 50Hz, in NTSC it's 60Hz. The DC made PAL conversions much easy to achieve and far superior to what had gone before.

For those not clued on the whole PAL/NTSC issue, here is a quick guide. PAL TVs display a 625-line picture, which is a higher resolution than the NTSC 525-line standard (Japan/USA). However, the picture updates slower on a PAL TV, 50Hz, compared to 60Hz. So when developers converted NTSC games to PAL they often slowed them down and stuck nasty black borders at the top and bottom of the screen to compensate for the extra 100 lines.

However, most PAL TV's now have the ability to display in 60Hz. So when DC games were released in PAL territories, most came with the option to view in either mode. Now let me tell you, a DC game running on a high resolution 625-line TV in 60Hz mode is a sight to behold, and because the DC could handle graphical interlacing so well, the 50Hz mode versions were often very close in quality as well. Black borders were minimum and the speed was identical. So even if you had an older TV you wouldn't miss out. Sega, unlike Sony worked hard to ensure games supported this dual format and the DC remains probably one of the only consoles in gaming history where PAL gamers have actually been treated with any kind of respect.

Enough science! What about the games?

Soul Calibur, Crazy Taxi, Phantasy Star Online, Shenmue, Sonic Adventure, Virtual On: Oratario Tangram, Unreal Tournament, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, House of the Dead, Samba de Amigo, Ready 2 Rumble Boxing, Powerstone, Chu Chu Rocket, Metropolis Street Racer, Skies of Arcadia, Worms World Party, Bust a Move 4, Headhunter, Evil Twin, Virtua Tennis, Typing of the Dead, Dragon Riders, Shenmue 2, Grandia 2, Streetfighter Third Strike, good grief people, do I need to spell it out?

There was something for everyone on the DC. RPGs in the form of the awesome Skies of Arcadia and Phantasy Star Online. Puzzle fans were catered for with the hilarious and original Chu Chu Rocket as well as the best home version of the Bust a Move series. Odd and quirky games like Samba de Amigo appealed to the more bizarre tastes. Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament provided FPS action, and the DC probably had the biggest range of quality fighting games ever. UK gamers even came out on top at the end of the DC's lifespan seeing versions of Headhunter, Shenmue 2 and Evil Twin which had been snapped up by the likes of Microsoft (bleh) in the USA.

For a console that existed for barely two years in the west that is they produced an incredible amount of software and losses such as Half Life and Black and White are seriously mourned. One thing that left a pretty nasty taste in my mouth was the attitude of the gaming press in the UK after Sega announced their intentions to become third party developers for the likes of the PS2 and the Gamecube. Magazines that had denigrated the Dreamcast and poured scorn on it and its games in the same of sad fanboy console wars, suddenly couldn't praise Sega highly enough. In my opinion Sega during the DC years outshone even Nintendo as purveyors of new and exciting gaming experiences and there was a palpable sense of fear for a while whoever bagged Sega's best games would have an edge in the next generation console ''wars''. Of course, luckily for those who care about games Sega have decided to develop across all platforms and for that at least I am truly thankful.

Those who burn twice as brightly, burn half as long

So where did it all go wrong? To be honest, in retrospect the DC was doomed from the start. Sega never had the financial muscle of Nintendo to bail out the console if sales were disappointing to start with and with Sony gazumping every announcement regarding the DC with its claims about the PS2 the actual physical Dreamcast never matched up to the imagined amazingness of PlayStation 2. It wasn't helped by the poor ad campaigns promoting its launch. In the UK the online capabilities were delayed and its adverts claiming ''up to 6 billion players'' fell foul of consumer program Watchdog and the Advertising Standards Authority banned its campaign. Add to that Sega's baffling reluctance to advertise its actual software like Soul Calibur or Code Veronica and you wonder if they hadn't given up on the console market much earlier than they officially did.

Now you can buy the first 128-bit console for less than the price of two new PS2 games. Software and accessories are available at bargain prices and unlike the Sega Saturn, this is a classic console you'll be getting pleasure from for many years to come. I said at the beginning the Dreamcast is dead, but maybe that's not entirely true. It may not be made anymore, but it still forms an integral part of mine and my friends gaming leisure time. Ten years down the line when the PlayStation 4 is duking it out with the Microsoft Z box and Nintendo Game Octagon there will still be a place under my TV that is forever Dreamcast.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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