Wednesday, 25 January 2017

My Top Ten Dreamcast Games

Fifteen years ago in 2001, a mere three years after it was released and despite making 97 million dollars on release day, the Sega Dreamcast was discontinued. It had struggled with plummeting sales after its first year due to the hype surrounding Sony’s next console, the PS2 followed shortly by Microsoft’s Xbox. Sadly, Sega just couldn’t contend with these next-gens and the Dreamcast, its last ever console was discontinued leaving Sega with little choice but to become a software only gaming company.

It’s easy to blame Sony’s hyped marketing campaign or even EA games for the fall of the Dreamcast. After all, Electronic Arts who dominated the sports game market back then opted not to create content for Sega. Though I doubt that was a huge problem because in 2001, NFL 2K1 actually outsold Madden and it was the first truly online multiplayer sports game. Perhaps the main reason that the beloved Dreamcast suffered such an untimely fate was a lack of oversight from Sega. 

It may have been Dreamcast’s security, or lack thereof that tanked the console. It had no DRM (Digital Rights Management) which meant it could be hacked and games could be pirated easily. Illegal copies of Dreamcast games sprung up everywhere, but unlike the games and chipped consoles sold by your dad’s dodgy mate round the back of the market, if you owned a CD burner you could pirate Dreamcast games. School playgrounds became Dreamcast disc trading posts. It no doubt taught other console manufacturers a valuable lesson for the future. 

One could argue that had Sega released the Dreamcast a few years later, it might have dominated the market. It had free online play and came with an in-built modem and its own ISP which would have been great had all households been connected to the internet. In the late nineties if you had access to the internet, it was a rarity and even then it consisted of intense negotiating (arguing) with your parents who would often, without warning, interrupt your online gaming every time they needed to use the house phone.

Fifteen years after its abrupt end, I want to pay homage to the Dreamcast so, in no particular order, I have compiled my top ten list of Dreamcast games:

1) Shenmue 

Yu Suzuki’s slow burning revenge tale was perhaps not to every gamers taste (it did popularise quick time events, after all) but Shenmue tells a genuinely enthralling tale, even alongside the hilarious English dub. NPCs had daily routines, the open world recreated 80s China and Japan in superb detail and it was addictive, there was no playing for a quick 30 minutes because that soon became 3 hours. Ben Allen from the The Super 8 Bit Power Hour is one of the biggest Shenmue fans I know and I asked him to sum up why the game had so much appeal, here’s what he said: 

“Like a lot of games on the Dreamcast, Shenmue was unfiltered. A Japanese game that was pretty much untouched by Western hands and presented, at the time, to a world somewhat unseen by gamers outside of Japan”.

2) Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike

The third update to the third game in the series, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is indeed, aptly named and it also increased the number of characters by…five. Sort of feels like they missed a marketing trick here but I’m glad we got more than three extra characters. It was the same Street Fighter formula we knew and loved except 3rd Strike featured a Grade Judge System which well, graded you on your performance but it was incentivised, unlike at school, because the better you did the more secrets you unlocked!

3) Power Stone 

Capcom’s Power Stone is widely considered (but also contested) as the superior arena fighter game to Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. Both Power Stone and Power Stone 2 are incredibly fast paced 4 player brawlers with randomly spawning weapons and objects to aide you in defeating your opponent. By collecting gems (or…er power stones) you can also transform into a powered up version of your character and tip the scales in your favour to be the last one standing. 

The first time I played this game I was bit overwhelmed at how fast paced it was but that quickly wore off once I’d found my stride and my favourite character. I opted to play as Wang-Tang on the basis that his name reminded me of the Wu-Tang Clan. 

It was a tactic that served me well as Wang-Tang quickly became my favourite character to play as (although Ayame remains definite 2nd)! Perhaps the only downside to this game is that it doesn’t have much longevity, mainly down to the fact that there are only 8 playable characters, compared to the much larger rosters of other fighting games. 

4) Phantasy Star Online

This game has to go on the list for the fact it was the first console based MMORPG. I haven’t played this game myself but it’s a favourite of Stuart Ashen, YouTuber and author of Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of. I asked him about it and this is what he said: 

“Phantasy Star Online blew me away. I’d played Ultima Online and Unreal Tournament on PC but playing a joy-pad based console game in real time with other people across the world felt like something a console couldn’t be capable of at the time. Of course, the dawn of Xbox Live a couple of years later changed everything. Still, seems odd we were using dial-up connections on a console”

5) Soul Calibur

With its excellent character animations and full movement in 8 directions (yes, 8, you may laugh, but it was a big deal back then)! Soul Calibur was definitely one of the best 3D fighters of its time and many of the sequels have failed to capture the same level of joy I had when I first played it (though, admittedly that might just be nostalgia talking). It wasn’t your regular standard fighter game either, there were so many game modes with the Quest Mode being the one that really caught my attention for its story and level of detail.

6) Marvel vs Capcom 2

A tag team fighting game between icons of the comic and gaming world. What could be better than Marvel vs Capcom? Answer: Marvel vs Capcom 2. As well as being a combination of two of my favourite things, comics and games, MvC2 had flashy combos, tag teams of three, over 50 characters (with the inclusion of the Master of Unlocking, Jill Valentine) as well as some gloriously animated movements, I mean, this girl appreciated Gambit’s coat flapping in the wind a bit too much, even if his character was a bit…glitchy. If Soul Calibur is the best 3D fighter of its time, then MvC2 was definitely the best 2D. 

7) Rez

This game was truly innovative, I’d never played anything quite like it before. The vector grid, super stylised visuals worked hand in hand with its dynamic soundtracks, both of which reacted in accordance with your progress. The more enemies you kill, the louder the music becomes and the more in synch it begins to look and sound. 

The further you progress in this game the more intense the sound and visuals get and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were on an acid trip or just really high, listening to electronic music and watching a screensaver. It’s definitely a unique gaming experience, I played it again a few years ago when it was released via Xbox Live Arcade and after a while, it becomes quite zen. If you didn't play it on the Dreamcast or don’t own a working console, I recommend downloading it from there.

8) Skies Of Arcadia

Of all of the Final Fantasy clones out there this game this was the best. Though perhaps it’s a little harsh of me to judge it as a clone as it had enough differences to make it a truly charming RPG. It was one full of adventure, exploration, interesting characters and had great original soundtrack too. It’s a perfect example of what turn based RPGs should be. 

Playing as pirate (of the air no less) and having ship-to-ship battles was my favourite aspect and the gameplay was simplistic. That’s not a negative thing however, it actually made the game more enjoyable especially as the visuals worked so well alongside it. They were bright and colourful and other than the occasional pixellation if the camera zoomed in too much, much of the detail was genuinely amazing for its time, from small things like wood grain to full 3D landscapes in each place you explored.

9) Jet Set Radio

The Dreamcast wasn’t short on quirky titles like Jet Set and that’s kind of what set it apart from other consoles of the time. For me, this game appealed because it meant I got to be part of a young, cool, rollerblading, graffiti spraying gang. Real-life 14 year old Emma-Jane was terrible at rollerblading and definitely not in a gang (unless you consider after school study groups a gang, library club fo’ lyf). 

It was colourful, the cel-shaded visuals were fun and it had an awesome soundtrack full of trip-hop, funky J-pop, metal and EDM. Think of it a bit like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater except the authorities who chase after you are either on foot, in police cars or tanks…so, kinda like Grand Theft Auto too?

10) Resident Evil: CODE Veronica 

I adored survival horrors in my youth and I have fond memories of playing this game. My next door neighbours were the first people I knew to own a Dreamcast and this was actually the first Dreamcast game that I experienced. We’d sit in the dark taking turns while those watching tried desperately to freak each other out. I remember being really impressed by the visual memory units and their tiny screens showing Claire or Chris’s health. The fact that Sega were able to persuade Capcom to debut it on the Dreamcast made it even more exciting. It was the first Resident Evil game with real-time 3D environments and camera movements too, no pre-rendered backgrounds in sight! 

Whether you believe the Dreamcast was ahead of its time or not, the games it produced were some of the best titles available at the time and even today, the indie community are still producing Dreamcast software and games (even if a lot of these are slightly odd Japanese dating sims). 

In 2012 a Kickstarter campaign made waves when it successfully funded a 2D scrolling shoot ‘em up Dreamcast title. Subsequently, German developer Hucast games are now currently producing RDX2, a sequel to Redux: Dark Matters. 

And so loved is the Shenmue franchise that another Kickstarter campaign backed by 69320 fans raised over 6 million dollars to create Shenmue 3 (now in development). 

With such a dedicated, cult fan base behind the games that it spawned, it’s no wonder the Dreamcast console itself is making a resurgence. Take Luke Benstead for example, his name might not mean much to most, but for many Dreamcast fans, his is a name that invokes admiration. Benstead recently used a Raspberry Pi, to create the DreamPi, a device enabling Dreamcast owners to get back online again. 

It’s a genuinely exciting time to be a Dreamcast fan, Maybe even time to get ahead of the curve (once again) and fetch your console down from the attic? 

As always, let me know what titles you think I missed and what your favourite Dreamcast titles are in the comments section. 

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