by: John Bower
In the past, I've told you about Sega and its unfortunate Sega CD system, which had some good games buried beneath an avalanche of FMV shovelware. Now I bring you the brief, but tragic, tale of Sega's final foray into game consoles:
Sega released the Dreamcast to an eager public well before any of the other consoles of its generation. Players marveled at its cutting edge graphics and online capabilities. Heck, it even came with four controller ports built in so you wouldn't need to buy some peripheral if you were one of those weirdoes with more than one friend. Unfortunately, Sega just couldn't keep that momentum going once the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube came onto the scene. Only two years into the console's lifespan, Sega pulled the plug.
In its short run, the Dreamcast brought us a collection of truly unique games. Games that eschewed the traditional tropes and formulas. Games that introduced elements that have become so widespread that we're downright sick of them now. These are just a few of the games that will inspire you to scour the web and shell out the $20 needed to get a Dreamcast of your own:
Apart from its terrific graphics, Shenmue was the first game of its kind to boast a free roaming world with a day and night time schedule coupled with a weather system that would produce random types of weather as time passed. Shenmue was also the first game to introduce the Quick-Time Event, which was revolutionary at the time, but was very quickly run into the ground by every other player in the game industry.
If nothing else, Shenmue deserves credit for showing us that a game can include everyday activities like playing crane games and driving a forklift around and still be fun to play!
Sword of the Berserk
When I heard there was a game out stateside based off my favorite series, Berserk, I was overjoyed. I imagine the game must have seemed a bit disjointed to players not familiar with the series. The hefty amount of introductory text doesn't do justice to the curious party of mute girl, annoying fairy, and one-eyed man with giant sword and arm cannon.
The developers did a fine job in capturing the violence and dark tone of the series. Quick-Time Events, too, were implemented without becoming a huge hassle. The only downside was that the game was only a few hours in length. Then again, that's really more of a testament to how much you can get done with a sword that big.
As a scrolling shooter, Ikaruga was great, but what really puts it on a list like this one is the element of strategy. Instead of using periodically-released powerups to alter the way a player approaches the different scenarios, Ikaruga gives the player the power to switch the polarity of their shield/guns. Having the same polarity as your enemies meant you couldn't be harmed by their bullets, but having the opposite polarity meant you could deal double damage. It can be a tough decision to make, and one where I chose incorrectly more often than not.
What's even more impressive is that the game was developed by a team of just three people! That's pretty damned impressive, especially when you consider how many people it takes to make a game that's a piece of crap.
It had been a while since a new fighting game franchise had emerged when Soul Calibur came on the scene. Its predecessor, Soul Edge, wasn't too bad a game in its own right, but Soul Calibur was where the devs really hit their stride. With Soul Calibur, you could finally move around in the 3D environment at will. You finally felt like you were playing a genuine 3D fighting game, and not just a 2D fighting game with 3D sprites.
More importantly, though, the game was far more forgiving with regard to the timing on button presses. That meant a lot more time pulling of special moves, and a lot less time watching your character kick at the empty air while you yell about how that was supposed to be the start of a great combo, and your friend with the more dexterous set of thumbs just laughs at you. I can't be the only one who had that experience, right?
1999 was a great year for fighting games that strayed from the traditional formula of two guys performing special moves and combos until one of them fell over. First, the Nintendo 64 got Super Smash Bros., then the Dreamcast got an arcade port of Power Stone.
The basic mechanics of the two games were similar: you control a character with a couple special moves, and your goal is to use those moves, along with various weapons/objects that fill a given stage, to defeat your opponent. Power Stone's hook, though, was the eponymous stones. You and your opponent each start with one, and getting all three (or four , or five) will turn you into a more powerful version of yourself. Then the hurting starts.
It was a blast to play with friends, and nothing was quite as satisfying as beating the stones out of your friend and absolutely crushing him with gem-fueled special attack. Well, there was one thing: letting your friend get all the stones, dodging his special attack, and then laying a beating on him while he shouts, "Aw, come on!"
Another arcade port, Crazy Taxi combined the excitement of driving recklessly with the tedium of being a cab driver. The end result was surprisingly fun.
It's hard for me to get excited about a driving game that doesn't let you run over pedestrians, but the simple pick-up-and-drop-off gameplay was quite addictive, especially once you played it long enough to get a feel for the layout of the city. Less exciting was the bold product placement in the form of franchises like KFC and Pizza Hut as passenger destinations. I just can't imagine wanting to get fried chicken so badly that I'd trust my life to someone who drives a cab as bad as I do.
Chu Chu Rocket
Chu Chu Rocket had a sort of Lemmings-like quality to it, in that you were tasked with guiding a group of hapless creatures to safety. Single player, it was pretty fun, but the multiplayer was the biggest draw. It was a race to see who among you and your friends could horde mice into a rocket the fastest by deploying up to three direction changes for the otherwise directionless rodents.
Apart from cats wanting to eat your mice, the game would mix things up by throwing in the occasional colored mouse, giving you the opportunity to boost your own score, or just wreak havoc on your opponents by dropping tons of cats on them, switching their rockets around, and more. Come to think of it, I do seem to really enjoy these games that let me screw my friends over. Maybe I just hated my friends...
You certainly wouldn't expect a list of the greatest games for a given console to include mention of a pet simulator, but that's just part of what made Seaman so unique. Taking care of your Seaman was ostensibly the main focus of the game, but the real fun came from talking to your Seaman using the microphone that came with the game. At first, Seaman doesn't know many words, but in time, he'll be conversing with you in a strange, George Takei-esque voice. Seaman, as it turns out, is a wealth of trivia and insults alike, and he's all too willing to share both with you.
If nothing else, Seaman deserves credit for breathing one last bit of life into the long-dead virtual pet market.
Rez is a tough one to describe. It's a rail shooter, but to describe it as such would be vastly underselling the game. Music, rather than being in the background during the action, is woven into the gameplay itself, becoming more complex as the player advances and being filled out by sound and visual effects that synced up with the beat. It's really something that you have to see for yourself to truly appreciate, and if you live near Washington DC, you can do just that. Rez was selected for the Smithsonian's "Art of Video Games" exhibit.
American audiences never got to see the Dreamcast version of Rez, but I've put it on the list for one other reason: The Trance Vibrator. A special edition of the game available only in Japan came with this bonus peripheral, and guess what people did with it? All I can say is it came with a protective, washable pouch...
Space Channel 5
It was early in the history of rhythm games that Space Channel 5 came on the scene. You control Ulala, an intrepid reporter covering an invasion by aliens that force people to dance. Ulala fights them off the only way she knows how: by partying. I didn't think reporters were supposed to get that involved in a story.
In any case, the dance-offs with the aliens and rival reporters produced some surprisingly toe-tapping tunes. The sequel did even more with the concept, adding in real time background and a two-player mode. However, the Dreamcast version of the sequel never made it out of Japan, so no list for it. Just an honorable mention.
Jet Grind Radio
There aren't many good games about tagging, but perhaps that's a testament to how great Jet Grind Radio is. What's more, you wouldn't think a game about rollerblading taggers fighting men in fish suits and cyborgs in Tokyo would have great mass appeal.
As with so many of the other games on this list, Jet Grind Radio has that perfect combination of easy-to-learn controls and a distinct style. And tagging those hard-to-reach places with a long chain of tricks is just so rewarding.
The game also popularized the use of cell shading in video games. As with Quick-Time Event, I'll leave it up to you to decide if that's a good or bad thing.
Making the transition from 2D to 3D was tough for Sonic the Hedgehog. You'd think being able to see further than fifteen feet in front of you would be a great improvement for a game with an emphasis on speed. Plus, there were points in the game where you fished. That seems about as antithetical to Sonic as you can get. Also, his eyes were a slightly different color...
Even so, Sega managed to make a pretty solid 3D game featuring Sonic, and a bunch of other, less memorable side characters. For the most part, you were racing through 3D levels designed not unlike their 2D counterparts. In between the main stages were opportunities to explore, along with some minigames if you were looking to get really distracted. As with a lot of early 3D games, the camera tended to get in the way at times, but even today, it's hard to imagine a better 3D Sonic title.
Well, maybe Shadow the Hedgehog. ;)
I could leave it at that and you'd have a pretty good idea of what Bangai-O is about. At its heart, there's a story about a gang stealing space fruit, but the only thing you'll need to know is that you'll be blasting them to pieces on an unheard of scale.
Calling Bangai-O an action game feels inaccurate. Some levels you can get away with just flying around shooting enemies as they come. More often than not, though, a level is presented in such a way that you'll need to figure out the precise way to complete it, without a whole lot of room for mistakes. Thankfully, these levels tend to only be a couple minutes long, so you won't feel that frustrated when your victory is preceded by twenty to thirty attempts that ended with you getting annihilated within seconds.
Phantasy Star Online
The Dreamcast did a lot for console online gaming in general, including having the first console-based Massively-Multiplayer game. Sure, the option existed for you to play PSO by yourself offline, but that was more for practice, or just killing time waiting for your friends to get online. The real meat of the game is getting a party together and going to town on whatever hapless mobs happened to get between you and the loot. The only way I could have loved it more would be if it had been more closely related to the original Phantasy Star series. I would have settled for a cameo by Wren!
The Dreamcast had a pretty remarkable library, in spite of its short run. Though official support of the Dreamcast dried up in the early 2000s, the system has seen a second life thanks to the homebrew community. New games for the system were made as late as 2009! Or you could go the opposite way with your Dreamcast, fitting it with an emulator to bring your old NES games into the modern world, what with its Windows operating system.
Is there another title that deserves special mention on our list? Any independent games you want to bring to our attention? Want to share the joy of playing a Dreamcast game for hours, then spending another hour playing a minigame on the VMU? By all means, drop a comment in the section below, and show everyone that '99 to '01 was a great time to have eyes, ears, and thumbs.
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