Oh, what Dream(cast)s may come
Reliving the 09-09-99 launch of Sega's last console release
It is hard to believe, hell, almost unfathomable really, to note that it has been ten years since that fateful day outside the queue of my neighborhood Electronics Boutique.
It was a different time, most definitely; the economy was in an upswing, Wayne Gretzky was still playing center, and the biggest concerns my feeble thirteen year old mind could focalize upon were whether or not I could save up enough money to pick up a new pair of Nikes before Christmas.
This was the zeitgeist of my fledgling stint as adolescent consumer, and with a hefty pocket of change saddled in my britches (thanks to a summer job clipping grass under the sweltering seasonal sol and a thrifty savings plan), I was positioned outside the serpentine line of the retailer, with five one hundred dollar bills burning my trousers to cinders.
Verily, someone as young as I had positively no business carrying that much currency, but for my part, such a parental presence was quite overlooking of matters.
This was the moment I had been fantasizing about for nearly two years; As I gawped at my tennis shoes while watching the patrons above me pace through the store at an agonizing, stilted tempo, I concomitantly dwelled over the years that were, and what had lead me to this precise juncture.
As a young lad, like many of my peer group, my first experience within the world of interactive entertainment was vis-a-vis the Nintendo Entertainment System. Veritably, a majority of my youth was spent stationed in front of the cathode ray tube, an accumulation of time playing Tecmo Super Bowl, Super Mario Brothers 3 and Othello than I did coactively communicating with my parents, my school chums or attending religious functions. Yeah, that is correct: I said Othello. That game ruled.
For what it is worth, I more than likely spent more time gawking at the evil sun from that one level of SMB3 than I did under the radiation of the actual overhead stellar body, and in that notion, I can firmly attest that gaming was indeed rooted into my physiological composition.
By the third grade, the industry had changed, and at the epoch, the once jovial domain of video game banter had transitioned into a stratified war of epic proportions. The successor to the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, was now duking it out with the Sega Genesis for market supremacy, and in the ultimate 16 bit battle for superiority, one had to choose sides.
This was a lunchtime discussion that always roused ire, as our school cliques were actually based around which console one owned. As I had observed, the SNES crowd was, largely, a nerdy sort, the kinds that sported bifocals and curly tufts of unwashed hair. The Sega Genesis crowd, conversely, seemed to be of the cool kid composite, the types that brought Pepsi to the cafeteria from home and played on junior rec basketball on the weekends. When it came time to officially retire my Nintendo Entertainment System and upgrade, I was faced with a choice that would indeed demarcate my playground stature for the remainder of my elementary school tenure. As Christmas 1993 rolled around, I had nary a choice but to ask the red and white clad fat man for a new video game console, and it better have had the word Sega plastered on it somewhere.
The Sega Genesis was, to this day, what I would consider the greatest video game system ever designed. Sure, I loved my Nintendo, but this newfangled black beauty could do things that anachronistic pixel pusher could not dream of accomplishing; day in, day out, I would march around the abode talking about how great Blast Processing was, although even at the temporal, I am not one hundred percent soild on what the term actually construed.
Regardless, the games on the machine were phenomenal; of course, everyone played (and seemingly, were required by law to own) Aladdin, Jurassic Park and Mortal Kombat, but where the system truly shined was in the domain of testosterone soaked action titles; that is not to say that there were not a lot of great platform, role playing and puzzle games on the console (because, in actuality, there was a tremendous array of the sort), but within the realm of sports, racing, fighting and flat out kicking ass, the Genesis was virtually unparalleled in scope, both in quantitative breadth and quality.
Gunstar Heroes. Super Monaco GP. Super Street Fighter II (that thanks to the six button pad of the Genesis, was actually playable, as opposed to the SNES incarnation). The Amazing Spider-Man. Altered Beast. NHL 94, which I consider to be the single greatest video game EVER published (well, actually, I deem the Sega CD version of the title to be superior, but that is definitely a point of digression).
As the slogans on television boasted, the Genesis DOES effing rule.
I actually spent more time on the Genesis than I did the original Nintendo console, and as a result, several aspects of my character were clearly altered via the unbeknownst doing of Sega. My first encounter with the sport of hockey was not via a televised game, but via NHLPA Hockey 93; the same can be said of good old Peter Parker, as well. All in all, I consider my hours of late weekend hammering upon Phantasy Star IV and Sonic The Hedgehog 3 to be amongst my most cherished of childhood memories, and even now, I can not hear the term Vector Man without getting a little giddy (thankfully, how often does that moniker pop up in casual conversation?)
However, the video game industry, as it were, was a cruel mistress; just as soon as the Genesis hit its stride, the economical powers that be decided that it was time to switch over to 32 bit, and in that, the war betwixt the SNES and Genesis had been phased out in favor of the war betwixt the Nintendo 64 and the Sony Playstation.
Of course, I was oblivious to all of the hoopla surrounding all that concomitant talk of Ocarinas and Solid Metal Gears, because I was the frustrated owner of a Sega Saturn.
It is not that the machine was not entertaining (in fact, one of my favorite adolescent reminiscences is upon unfurling that bright new Sega console on Christmas 96 and playing Baku Baku Animal and Fighters Megamix until seemingly nonstop until the end of the year), it is just that, well, the overall assortment was kind of lacking, as far as I was concerned. What made the Genesis great was the variety of games available, and whilst there were some damned dandy titles on the machine, it was incredibly difficult pinpointing what was worth a hoot and what was not (since the video rental outlets in my area refused to carry Saturn titles). Thusly, all of my acquisitions for the machine were based solely upon the box art of the title in question; sometimes, I lucked up, as in the case of Resident Evil and Clockwork Knight. Other times, I was stuck with such forgettable fodder as Bug Too! and Independence Day, which if you are wondering, sucked.
Support for the system was short-lived, and I was basically left with a dead console six months after my parents had shelled out the nearly 200 bucks for the unit. To rub salt in the wound, every day at school, I had to hear my peers talk about how great their Tomb Raiders and Goldeneyes were, whilst I had to settle with going home and playing through Three Dirty Dwarves again.
Times, they were bleak, all right.
It was sometime in mid 1998, in which I was earnestly still playing my Genesis, that I heard of this enigmatic NEW console in the works from Sega. As soon as I saw the first screenshot of the controller, which had a freaking TV screen built into the controller, I was absolutely enraptured. I did not even need to see any game footage, I simply knew that Sega was back and they were going to kick some next-gen ass in whatever they put out! And thusly, I sat aside my first five bucks for what would become my eventual Dreamcast fund. That is right, I was so impressed by the news that I started saving up for the machine nearly two years in advance.
For some reason, I do not think anybody will be doing that for the Nintendo Wii 2 or the Xbox 720.
The months slowly crawled by, at the pacing of a slug. Slowly but surely, more information began to trickle down the information turnpike, and around spring 1999, I heard the news I had been direly wishing to hear:
The Sega Dreamcast, $199.99. Release Date: September 9th, 1999.
God, that must have been the most hellacious six months of my extant youth. I saved, and saved and saved, cutting corners whenever I could. Those two bucks a week that go toward my Friday night movie rentals? Placed in the savings box. Twenty dollar bill for my birthday? In the box. If my neighbors or familial figures had an odd job, I embarked upon it, no questions asked. The Dreamcast was slowly beginning to come into reach, and as each weekly viewing of Monstervision passed, I knew that the day of reckoning was soon upon all those losers that thought Nintendo and Sony were worth a hoot.
By the time eighth grade began, the world was a different place than it was all of those Saturn-fueled years ago (remember, in the mind of a thirteen year old, three years ago might as well have been ancient history). Despite the fact that we all had to tuck our shirts in at school (which was purportedly to lessen the odds of a Columbine like occurrence, of course), the world at large seemed to be smiling upon me; for crying aloud, even Extreme Championship Wrestling now had a cable deal, and with the approaching advent of the Dreamcast, I verily had all that a preteen of the epoch could ever hold reveries for (well, notwithstanding winning a lifetime supply of cherry soda and a sordid back row enfolding with the head cheerleader down at the Cineplex, obviously).
It is September 8th, midnight, and NHL 2Night just went off the air. I attempt to procure sleep but it is a lost cause. After all, my dreams are to be satiated on the morrow, I internally mused whilst scribbling a swirling red pattern upon the carapace of my Algebra II notebook.
My mom, perchance unwisely, allowed me to skip school that day so that I could pick up my object of longing; I guess she was so impressed by my stick-to-it-ness that she would allow me this one opportunity to ditch education to bask in the glow of interactive media, and in that, I was positively pumped for the day that was to be.
It is 10:34 a.m., and I am rocking my beloved Steve Yzerman jersey (although growing up, I was a L.A. Kings fan. Apparently, the idea of duality had yet to be introduced to existence) whilst waiting in line. In my mind, I begin to formulate my purchases;
Hmm, let me see. The machine is about 200, so there is that. Another controller is going to run me about 40, and then I need a memory card, so that is like, another 40. All right, I am at 280, I have 500, that means I can pick up four games. Right off the bat, I HAVE to pick up House Of The Dead, because, dude! It is House of the Dead! (actually, it was House of the Dead 2 that my youthful self fantasized of, but we abridged everything at the epoch). They did not have a hockey game at launch, so I was to pick up NFL 2K whilst there (I was not really big into pro football at the time, which probably had something to do with the temporality of my beloved Oakland Raiders kind of sucking, so this purchase was kind of stepping outside the usual jurisdictions of my cognitive processing). Hmm, two more titles, what do they have?
Finally, I stepped upon the terrazzo of the store, and found myself ushered through the infinitesimal department in assembly line rapidity; I picked up my hardware, an additional controller, and barely scooped up a Video Memory Unit. As by decree of the E.B. powers-that-be, I had five minutes to snake through the line, pick up my items, and stroll back out the door.
Hey, where is House of the Dead? I shout to one of the pimple-ravaged clerks.
Uh, we sold out of that one pretty early, the lanky acne-addled proprietor informed me.
Seeing the last copy of NFL 2K on the shelf, I quickly scooped it up, alongside a copy of Soul Calibur. I had never played the arcade game before, but I heard on a program on ZDTV that the game was righteous and kickass, so I took their word for it.
I have one hundred bucks left: which two games do I want?
Although purchasing such a kiddy game as Sonic Adventures could have been detrimental to my reputation, I scooped up that title as well; with about a minute to go in my selection-making, Team Swift elected to use their final first round pick to draft, of all things, Sega Bass Fishing for the 09/09/99 festivities. Yeah, I really can not explicate why I chose that one at the concurrent, either.
I had dropped nearly all five hundred American I had struggled to accumulate over the last two years, and as I ambled back to my mother and her sports utility vehicle brandishing a backbreaking bag of inventory, I could not help but feel alike Moses staggering down the mountain; I was the chosen carrier of the gospel, and by proxy, I was to be King amongst my Dreamcast-less brethren!
After yelling at my mom to drive home at 80 miles per hour, I ran through the aperture of the front door, began unscrewing cords to the back of my TV and soaked up the glimmer of the Dreamcast box as if I were granted manna from the heavens. Although it took me a lengthy two hours to set up everything, it was mayhap two of the most joyous of my existence.
Placing myself ass first upon the cushion of my bed, I reached over as far as I could muster, and at approximately 3:43 p.m., eastern time on September 9th, 1999, gave the entirety of my free time to the gods of 128 bit gaming.
This was the future, and I was going to experience it before anyone I knew.
As soon as that bright orange triangle flashed, my heart skipped a beat. The Dreamcast logo unfurled upon my television set, concluding with a metallic sound reminiscent of one dropping a brick into a fish tank. The grinding and screeching of the internal fan was surely the sound of an angelic choir in harmony, as the chunky, sky-themed interface of the machine proudly shone upon my face for the first time.
Oh, the joy of establishing the internal clock of the unit! Simply setting the language criteria upon the console was more fun than anything imaginable on the Playstation, I concomitantly mused.
Reaching into the massive plastic sack at my feet, I yanked out the first game I could tactically recognize according to the rectangular design of the CD casing.
Somewhat off put, the title I retrieved was, somewhat ironically, that damned fishing game that I bought on the most baseless of whims.
Well, I can not break tradition, I voiced, as I opened the package, slid my house keys over the virgin terrain of the sealing sticker and wedged the disc into my the spinning hull of my bright new plaything.
Gee, I wish I at least picked up the fishing controller that they had, I consider as the game slowly begins to load.
Sure, the loading intervals utilizing modern day standards are quit lengthy, but for the epoch, the Dreamcast was a blazing fast processor, even if the trade off was a console that often emit the shrieking sound of a soul sticking a number two pencil into a whirring airplane propeller every now and then.
Then, the game booted up, featuring a polygonal muscle head that more prominently resembled Hulk Hogan than any fisherman I had ever envisaged standing atop a pristine lake while soft techno music blared in the background.
Leave it to the Japanese to find a way to turn an endeavor as rigidly manly (in the American sense) as bass fishing into something with more homoerotic overtones than a week worth of Hercules movies.
Clicking on the bright, pastel font that shouted ARCADE in all capital letter font, I soon found myself navigating a gulf, asked to pick a fishing venue. Cracking open a store-brand Dr. Pepper knock off and shoveling a wad of gum into my maw, I opted for the first locale, which was overlooked by a massive lodge.
Another loading screen, and my console asked me to Selectalure! Knowing virtually nothing at all about fishing, I just picked the sinker that reminded me off a teal octopus. After making my choice, a disembodied narrator commands me to Selectacastingpoint! Huh, maybe the whole reason the American branch of the Sega infrastructure picked this title for the U.S. launch was so they could make a whole Dream Casting pun about the title, I initially muse.
As it soon dawned on me, this was not really a straight up fishing simulation, but an arcade style fishing game, which means players could imbibe super colas and use Sonic the Hedgehog as bait. The game play, much to my surprise, was fairly straightforward, entertaining, and nuanced enough to keep from being one of those games were you just close your eyes and run roughshod over your virtual obstructions.
At around 5:01 p.m., I turn off my Dreamcast for the first time and dwell on the notion that Sega Bass Fishing is, in earnestness, a pretty fun little title. Like some sort of slobbering alcoholic going through DTs, I found myself physically rattling my wrists and daydreaming about hooking another polygonal bass, awaiting the heavenly voice of the play-by-play announcers most satiating decree of Fish!, which leapt upon the screen in a multi-hued cursive font at his utterance.
In my brief respite, I called up my best friend, as we talked about what middle school children circa 1999 were fond of; hockey, pro wrestling, horror movies and of course, that bright, gleaming new console situated upon my TV stand like a war trophy. After a twenty minute conversation, I bid him adieu, unsnap another Master Pepper (since he had not quite achieved his PH.D in soda-ry, yet) and went back to my electronic intravenous unit.
At 5:37, I traipsed back to my bedchambers, clutching my 13 inch television remote controller from the shelving of a Jason Voorhees action figure and a Red Wings logo emblazoned puck. Reaching back into my satchel, I unearth NFL 2K and prepare to go to town on some Denver Bronco ass.
NFL 2K opened with what is, unquestionably, one of the most stirring opening videos in the annals of sports video games. A proud, disembodied voice began to speak over the polygonal representations of John Elway and Dan Marino, as the Sega Sports Network shone upon the VMU wedged inside my Dreamcast controller. Gawping down at a video game controller with its own monochrome screen, hearing a movie-quality rally cry and envisaging football players that resembled real, living things instead of blocky splotches, at was at that juncture that I realized that this was something transcendent, something above mere Sega fandom. This was, veritably, the great missing link betwixt two epochs of interactive media, bridging the days of A Boy And His Blob and Flashback: The Quest For Identity to the future; simply clicking through the menu screen of NFL 2K, all I could muse was what dreams may come in the future of video gaming!
The game was, of course, absolutely phenomenal in presentation; gazing at the viridian field of the Oakland Coliseum, it was the first time I ever envisioned a real life locality appear in a video game in a manner that was fitting of the actual venue. It looked real, even if some of the players did kind of look like they swallowed accordions for their pre-game meals.
The commentary in the game was just about the best in the business, and to this day, is probably some of the best voice work I have ever heard in a video game. The commentary by "Dan Stevens" and "Peter O'Keefe' (two analogues for John Madden and Pat Summeral, whom, incidentally, provided better, more thorough analysis than their two, real-life templates) was virtually seamless in "stitching" (which is techno jargon for when pre-recorded dialogue is inserted at specific junctures of game play, per, when a fumble occurred, a specific lineation in the game's code cued a certain audio clip). Even now, during real-life NFL games, I can sometimes hear dubbed lines about passes resembling "Drunk ducks with bad direction" streaming from my subconscious into my inner ear, and in that, I shall always sport a smirk when refracting on the title.
I quickly ran through two games, once against the Denver Broncos and a subsequent game against the Kansas Chiefs. One of the coolest things about the title was that the playbook actually appeared on the video memory unit of the controller, so in bouts against human competitors, one could not see which plays their three-feet away adversary was running. As my Jeff George led Raiders decimated their substandard AFC rivals (complete with me sacking Elway nine times in the first game; the Raiders Blitz package was positively unstoppable), I decided to take a brief break from gaming; at about 7:35 p.m., I shut off my glistening new unit, cracked upon another not quite Dr. Pepper and decided to skip around the television's offerings; basically, I was just waiting for the MTV Music Awards to kick off, mindlessly rooting for Korn to win the Best Video statuette for "Freak On A Leash". As it were, that particular honor ended up going to Lauryn Hill, perchance memorable only for the fact that during the awarding, John Lennon called her "Laura" by mistake. Or maybe Beatles just don't care about black people, who knows?
Anyway, during the three hour long procession, in which Chris Rock (back when he was this close to being Eddie Murphy levels of comedy superstar) tore through celebrity asses like a starved pit bull granted an uncooked turkey, the occasional Dreamcast commercial was broadcast; after two or three viewings, I suddenly had the psychological NEED to fire up my gleaming white console, and to cap the night, I decided to have one more go-around on Sega Bass Fishing. Kind of ironic, huh, that on my first day of Dreamcast ownership, the game I accumulated the most playtime on was the one game I had virtually no interest in playing beforehand?
At 11:04 that eve, I finished my final game of Sega Bass Fishing and turned off my bright, luminous new console for the last time that day; as I slowly crept into my bedding, I couldn't help but turn over and stare at my fancy new machine from afar, already satiated immensely by my reticent purchase. As I closed my eyes that first night as Dreamcast owner, I could only imagine what was to come down my alley in the ensuing weeks, months and years.
Over the next couple of weeks, I finally managed to unseal and play through both Soul Calibur and Sonic Adventures; whilst I had many a fond memory of pummeling my school chums as Nightmare and blazing through the Speed Highway sector over and over again, the majority of my autumnal gaming hours were still centralized upon NFL 2K and Sega Bass Fishing. By the time New Year's Eve rolled around, my Virtua Raiders had gone on to win seven consecutive Super Bowls I had unlocked damn near every sinker, floater and tackle toy known to man.
Of course, we know the ultimate fate of the Dreamcast; perhaps done in by lack of DVD support, the ensuing specter of the Playstation2, or a multitude of internal control failures (well, OK, all of the above in actuality), the console that instilled more hope into my psyche than any other video apparatus was veritably a brick in the water by 2002, but in the interim: my god, what a library of games, and much more importantly, what a chain of memories: coming home and having existential debates with a toad monster in Seaman, spending six hours straight designing graffiti emblems in Jet Grind Radio, having my mom ORDER me to play Shenmue as soon as I got home so she could see what happened to Ryo next; the Dreamcast, to me, wasn't just a chunk of plastic with some fancy electronic guts and blinking doodads; it really was a memory-making machine, a technological wonder that was at the crux of many of my developmental paradigms.
The Dreamcast will go down in history as perchance the last true "gamer's console"; with an impressive scope of titles, featuring quality games in practically every genre under the sun, it's pretty much a given that we'll never see a machine with a library as quantitatively impressive as Sega's last hardware offering. The Dreamcast, to me, will always be a metaphorical representation of a multitude of things; as my first major, self-purchased item, the relic is something of a median point of my existence, symbolic of my transition from childhood dependency into adulthood self-autonomy.
As a mid-twenty something at the concurrent, I look at the temporal video game market as something of a mixed-up shell of its former self, alike a once commendable entity suffering swings of dementia in mid-life crisis. As a billion dollar industry, what was once the fledgling domain of Bomberman and Earthworm Jim has become just another mainstream outlet, a place for the corporate hegemony to stretch its octopus arms even further into the pockets of the collective American consumer. Chronologically gawping backwards, I suppose the Dreamcast represents the interactive medium at its absolute prime, at the highest peak of its integral being, before the industry's decline into streamlined cultural absorption and synergetic takeover.
It's a daunting order to reflect on the last ten years; a notion that makes me feel a lot older than I desire, and frankly, quite depressed at the lack of progression the industry as a whole has yet to accumulate. That being said, for the console that died before its time, the burning nova that burst before its moment of fulfillment, the Dreamcast has become, quite fittingly, a symbolic emblem of hope, and yes, dreams that have yet to pass, something of a concomitant mechanism that displays the possibilities of future progression.
For years and years, there has been conjectural hearsay about the odds of a long-overdue successor to perchance the most beloved cult gaming machine ever produced coming to fruition; although Sega is now a software-only company, mayhap there is a small, inkling of a possibility that, some day, our dreams may become realized again, but in the interim, it shall always be September 9th, 1999 in the calendar of my heart...
09-09-09: Never Forget!
James Swift is a fledgling young author from the metro Atlanta area. His semi-weekly rants and ravings on the world of mixed martial arts and guys pretending to hurt one another during the Clinton Administration can be viewed at TheWrestlingFan.Com.