How Sega's Dreamcast Continues To Be Influential

12 years ago Sega launched their final console, the influential yet short-lived Dreamcast. We take a look at how the presence of the Dreamcast can still be felt in the gaming industry today.

When it comes to consoles, everyone has their own personal favourite. I€™ve owned and enjoyed a variety of different ones over the years, but for me personally, none of them can quite compare to the Dreamcast. Arriving in the U.K in 1999 during an era of blocky graphics, the Dreamcast was truly ahead of its time. It introduced arcade quality visuals to home consoles along with a host of fantastic games. The early part of the noughties marked a turning point for the industry, with the Dreamcast in particular highlighting how games were evolving at a dizzying rate. Sadly, following huge losses and dwindling sales, the Dreamcast became Sega's final home console. The company became exclusively a multi-format publisher in 2001 with no foreseeable plans for change. Seeing Sonic appearing on Nintendo consoles for the first time was like watching someone being kicked while already down. Likewise, Sega€™s recent attempts to bring back the Dreamcast brand with HD re-releases and a Dreamcast Collection, resulted in awful ports reflecting a lack of respect for the classic games and fanbase. While the last few years haven€™t been too kind to the Dreamcast€™s legacy, the console remains a cult favourite, with a fan base which continues to thrive. We take a look at how the console and its unique library of groundbreaking games continue to influence the industry today.

Online Gaming

Promoting the possibilities of online gaming long before Xbox Live, the Dreamcast€™s online functionality introduced many gamers to something previously exclusive to computers. Buying a Dreamcast and hooking it up to a phone line via its built in dial up modem was a somewhat baffling experience. As the console started to build an online community, it was obvious that the Dreamcast was pioneering something which would be key to the future of console gaming. With today€™s ultra fast broadband and wireless connections, it seems bizarre to think of playing games over a 56k dial-up modem. Interestingly, the Dreamcast was often less problematic online than some of todays consoles. Jumping into matches was quick and easy, with games rarely suffering from drop out or lag. Manic puzzler Chu-Chu Rocket and an excellent port of PC shooter Quake III: Arena helped cement the future of competitive online gaming, while RPG Phantasy Star Online offered gamers an expansive online world. As well as playing multiplayer games online, Sega launched their very own web browser which could be accessed using the additional keyboard and mouse peripherals. Modern online content or DLC can also be traced back in part to the Dreamcast, with many games on the console including online downloads. Sega even promoted the idea of gamers waging war long before Call Of Duty popularized trash talk, with a series of funny adverts poking fun at stereotypical attitudes to different european countries.

Visual Memory Unit

Subject to both ridicule and praise, the Dreamcast€™s visual memory unit or VMU, became the icon of the console's unconventional design. Acting as both a memory card and a portable gaming device, the VMU featured a small screen which could display a unique image relating to the current game being played. When playing Virtua Tennis, the screen of the VMU would display a tiny pixelated version of the on-going match, making it possible to beat your opponent by ignoring the TV and staring at the controller. This risky technique would result in both hilarity and anger if successfully pulled off whilst playing a friend. Sony followed suit by releasing their very own version exclusively in Japan for the Playstation. The PocketStation was a nigh on identical device for Sony€™s rival console, also acting as a memory card and portable device. With a shamefully poor battery life and a lack of decent mini-games, the idea of the VMU didn€™t exactly take off any further than these two devices. None the less, the VMU showed developers that the controller need not be just a device for playing games. Nintendo€™s recently announced Wii U console takes the basic idea of the VMU and runs with it, creating a controller dominated by a 6.2 inch screen. Much like the Dreamcast's VMU, it will be used to display information relating to games, such a health bar, inventory or weapon selection screen.

Add-Ons and Peripherals

With the market now flooded with fancy gaming add-ons like Kinect, Rock Band and erm€ A hunting rifle, it€˜s easy to take added peripherals for granted. The Dreamcast certainly wasn€™t the start, with fancy add-ons having been around for yonks. The 90€™s saw an influx of gaming tat like the Power Glove and the Game Boy Printer. The Dreamcast followed this trend with a range of creative and unique peripherals, some of which would heavily influence many available today for modern consoles. There was the Dreamcast mouse and keyboard, allowing for web-browsing and precise control in first-person-shooters - Something still lacking from most consoles today. A bizarre but incredibly fun fishing rod controller for arcade hit Sega Bass Fishing. Exclusive to Japan was an add-on titled the Dreameye - A digital camera and webcam, paving the way for Sony's Eyetoy. The biggest game changer was the rhythm game Samba De Amigo with its motion controllers. The act of shaking plastic maracas in time to the falling on screen commands was a direct influence on today€™s music games such as Rock Band and DJ Hero. Samba De Amigo also allowed for gamers to access an online store of additional songs, much like modern rhythm games. Sadly, gamers were more inclined to try and look cool with Guitar Hero rather than flouncing around with plastic maracas to Soul Bossa Nova€. There€™s no accounting for taste.

Seaman€™s Voice Recognition

Bizarre doesn€™t even begin to describe Seaman. A strangely depressing interactive pet-sim where players not only take care of a fish, but talk to it through a microphone. Oh, and the fish has a humans face ala Monty Python€™s The Meaning Of Life. Perhaps through fear of it not being weird enough already, they slapped on a slightly dirty name and called in Leonard Nimoy to narrate for no apparent reason. Tasked with caring for your Seaman from birth, the game slowly learns about the player through interaction and speech. Eventually your fishy friend will know your age, name and share jokes and trivia with you as well as scorn if you€™ve been neglecting him. It was so baffling and odd it didn€™t even receive a release in Europe. Still, Seaman ended up inspiring improved voice recognition technology in games and similar titles based around the same idea. Lionhead€™s much publicized Milo Kinect demo, featured the same kind of vocal interaction on a wider scale. Perhaps more or maybe less worrying, instead of interacting with a scary human fish hybrid, Milo featured players interacting with a young boy. Although the game looked almost finished, the project was mysteriously scrapped with conflicting reports over its fate. Elsewhere, freaky little Seaman could be heading to the 3DS. Let€™s face it, a struggling hand-held potentially doomed to failure is a pretty apt follow up to Seaman's previous home on the Dreamcast.

Cel-Shaded Graphics

When Jet Set Radio grinded its way onto the scene in 2000, it immediately demanded attention and quickly became one of the very best titles on the Dreamcast. Skating around a stylized Tokyo and collecting spray cans, players would have to tag marked areas whilst avoiding increasingly relentless police. You could even design your own graffiti tags, giving players the freedom to spend hours on a true work of art or simply draw a cock€. We all did it. Yet as good as the game itself was, it was the cel-shaded visuals which left the biggest mark on the industry. Even today the game still looks stunning and different to anything else, leading to the technique of cel-shading in video games becoming increasingly common. Games like 2003's underrated XIII and orb hunting romp Crackdown in 2007, have since used a similar visual style. 12 years after Jet Set Radio€™s release and the technique is still frequently used to great effect. The upcoming The Darkness II, has utilized cel-shading to stylistically match the dark and gothic artwork of the comic books on which it is based.

Shenmue€™s Open World

Shenmue, Sega€™s lofty and ambitious epic featured the most detailed and interactive open-world ever seen in a video game at the time of its release. Sadly the game was doomed, with the unprecedented $70 million budget making the game the most expensive ever made in 1999. While the game failed to make a significant impact commercially, it secured its place in history by becoming another groundbreaking Dreamcast title. The huge 3-D interactive world paved the way for games like Rockstar€™s GTA III to continue building larger and even more realistic worlds in games. Shenmue may have failed on several accounts, but its pioneering features showed both gamers and developers the future of open-world gaming and the possibilities for epic and expansive storytelling. And who could forget the QTE ! The timed button pressing mini-game from Shenmue which has since reared its head in everything from God of War to Heavy Rain. Overused and often seen as something of a joke, it€™s easy to forget how exciting the feature actually was back in 1999. Quick Time Events were used to keep the player engaged during the lengthy and often action packed cut-scenes, maintaining the games emphasis on interactivity. Team Bondi€™s L.A Noire can almost be seen as a modern equivalent of Shenmue. Both spent years in development hell at a great cost, resulting in two groundbreaking but opinion-splitting games. Even the gameplay is somewhat similar. The object examination puzzles were uncannily close to those in Shenmue, with both Cole Phelps and Rio Hazuki enjoying the past-time of picking up random objects and fondling them in extreme close up. Even more similar was 2010€™s Deadly Premonition, a bizarre mix of Shenmue and Twin Peaks which plays exactly like it's an unreleased Dreamcast game which has been unearthed in a basement. With god-awful driving sections and sluggish controls, Deadly Premonition has still managed to build a following, thanks no doubt in part to its similarities to Shenmue. _________________ In what other ways has Sega's Dreamcast changed the face of gaming ? Should Sega launch a brand new console ? Share your comments and memories of the Dreamcast below.
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Cult horror enthusiast and obsessive videogame fanatic. Stephen considers Jaws to be the single greatest film of all-time and is still pining over the demise of Sega's Dreamcast. As well regularly writing articles for WhatCulture, Stephen also contributes reviews and features to Ginx TV.

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