Veterans of the Last Great (Console) War: Buying a Dreamcast in 2017
My Sega Dreamcast is quite possibly my favorite console that I never play, and I always feel terrible about that. The Dreamcast has been an underrated, underappreciated stalwart of everything that made late ‘90s gaming amazing since it was released far too late for that fact to become clear. In many ways, the ‘90s ended not long after the system was released: September 9th, 1999. But in its roughly three-year run before being annihilated and put to bed by the Playstation 2, the Dreamcast produced amazing and unique games that exemplified its period while also being ahead of its time as a console altogether, becoming one of the first systems to highlight online play and other benefits of internet connectivity, as well as making bold strides in the design of its controllers and memory cards, among other things. As a result, hardly a day ever goes by where I don’t hear some kind of praise for the system, either by Sega fans who embraced it upon its release or retro aficionados who appreciate the system for the valiant effort it was.
But part of the reason I never play it, apart from a massive backlog of everything else under the sun that never seems to afford me time to appreciate the Dreamcast, is that its an admittedly difficult system to collect for. As a short-lived and ultimately failed console, many of its greatest titles are scarce and expensive for a number of reasons. For starters, they mainly failed to sell particularly well when they were new because they were too unusual or seemed dated at the time to sell to even the majority of a much smaller market than the Playstation, Playstation 2, or N64 had at the time. In addition, the nature of the discs and their format also makes it very difficult to find legitimate copies in good condition, as the console’s ability to play MIL-CD format created a highly detrimental loophole to their copy protection, causing piracy to take a huge chunk out of the system’s software sales, while the GD-ROM discs most games were printed on are nowhere near as resilient as its CD and DVD cousins employed by the Playstation or Playstation 2.
With all this information now, you may have come to the same realization that I did before I decided to write an article about the Dreamcast: if I consider myself a retro-oriented gamer, who loves the Dreamcast dearly, yet finds it so hard to collect for, how is someone much less familiar with the system supposed to approach it, or even find it worth their while? There’s a lot to consider with a console that has plenty of strengths and weaknesses, not to mention a hefty amount of titles that can clean out your wallet at a moment’s notice, but it’s still entirely possible to experience the Dreamcast without breaking the bank, or at least making sure to focus on what will make you appreciate the system and say, “yeah, this thing was ahead of its time.”
Buying the console itself is where you’ll encounter the least confusion, especially if you’re looking to stick to the basics (not getting into Japanese or homebrew games). In the US, there are really only two options: the basic white console (which can get quite dirty, like all white plastic, but can be cleaned up), and the black Sega Sports edition. Although having a black console is typically far more appealing than a white one, the Sega Sports graphic on the top will level the playing field for most. The only thing you may need to look at when purchasing a console is the model number of the system, and only if you intend on playing homebrews or imports on your US system — models 0 and 1 (identified by a sticker on the bottom) will be able to play those horrible pirated discs. Only now, the homebrew community depends on this previously console-killing loophole, so it’s all good, I guess. As far as getting fancy colors and things to customize your setup, you’re stuck with a white or black system (unless you pay someone to replace your console shell) but have many more options on consoles and Visual Memory Units (memory cards). In the US, there are a handful of attractive opaque plastic colors including red, blue, and green, but in Japan, the floodgates were always open on special colors, especially for VMUs, some of which are, of course, highly collectible. But as far as the basics, VMUs were one of the Dreamcast’s most overproduced items (this will be a trend when discussing the prices on some games), and are widely available for under $15, even brand new.
So yes, this might be where you end up spending a lot of your Dreamcast budget should you choose to undertake this type of project, but it would be foolish to get into a system without going for some of the games that make it worth owning, so from a fairly robust library of first-party titles, you can get an idea of what Sega was up to on this system. But at the same time, there still titles that defined the Dreamcast, yet aren’t quite necessary to own in their original forms just for integrity’s sake. For example, the assumption with any Sega console is that it’s must-have titles are whatever it may boast for Sonic The Hedgehog, but while copies of Sonic Adventure are somewhat easy to come by, you may find that both Sonic Adventure titles have aged rather poorly, and the Dreamcast doesn’t boast the best version of either game anyway. You could say the same about Phantasy Star Online with its GameCube port, but unlike some other Dreamcast ports, the original is just as robust and far cheaper. Crazy Taxi is also plentiful, but it also has plenty of ports including on the PS2 and GameCube, making Crazy Taxi 2 the way to go, with its extra locales and new roster of cabbies.
Sega flexed its pipes in the creativity department with Jet Grind Radio and Space Channel 5, a delightful cel-shaded rollerblading platformer and a groovy intergalactic rhythm game, respectively. They also brought things back down to earth (and deeper) with a brilliant port of House of the Dead 2 (which is still decent even with a standard controller) and Zombie Revenge, a 3D brawler based on the cheese-filled zombie-killing franchise. And of course, if you’re looking to make a high-dollar time-drainer of a purchase, Skies of Arcadia and Shenmue are integral to the console’s lasting legacy, and although they’re expensive, still deliver an excellent ROI in terms of sheer game hours.
You can probably imagine how good the Dreamcast’s library of fighting games is when Virtua Fighter isn’t even near the top of the list. Delivering some of the best titles of the era for both 2D and 3D fighters, the Dreamcast (which also has an excellent array of supported arcade sticks) is a fighting fan’s dream. On the 2D front, Capcom and SNK ruled the roost, releasing some of their best titles ever for the system, with Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 and Garou: Mark of the Wolves, pricy though they may be, being two of the absolute finest. Other companies fared equally well with 3D titles, though Capcom still sits atop the heap with the Power Stone games — open arena brawlers with as much in common with Smash Bros. and its four player action as with traditional head to head fighters. The original Soul Calibur is a top-tier weapons brawler whose sequels have continued that lofty pedigree, while Virtua Fighter 3tb, Dead or Alive 2, and Mortal Kombat Gold are all solid offerings with affordable price tags.
As plentiful as fighting games were on the Dreamcast, racing games, aka the shovelware developer’s bread and butter, were even moreso, and as you might expect, not as consistent in their quality. But even with more trash to weed out when making your selections, the library still has players covered in just about every genre of racing save for the ever-popular kart-racing genre, and usually for a very affordable price. Those who prefer simulation-style racers will be satisfied with Sega GT (the Sega answer to the Gran Turismo games) or the Ferrari-licensed F355 Challenge: Passione Rossa. On the other end of the spectrum, Speed Devils, 4x4 Evolution, and 4-Wheel Thunder are solid offerings with a more pick-up-and-play feel, while Test Drive 6 and Metropolis Street Racer (the precursor to Project Gotham Racing) sit staunchly in the middle of the road between the two styles. And of course, though they can be found on other systems, there are several excellent racing ports from the PS1 and N64, including Hydro Thunder, San Francisco Rush 2049, Re-Volt, and Star Wars: Episode I Racer, which are as good if not better on the Sega Dreamcast.
Plenty of companies who supported the Dreamcast during its time should be commended not only for doing so, but often did so with both original and/or high profile titles that took advantage of the system’s unique audience and intriguing features such as its online connectivity. Other great titles from third-party companies are either usually exclusive to the system or at their best on it, such as Game Arts’ Grandia II, one of the Dreamcast’s few non-Sega RPGs. Quirky Toy Story-esque vehicle sim Toy Commander puts you behind the wheel of numerous radio-controlled vehicles in a mission-based flight sim that outperforms and out-charms just about any other flight sim from the time. Ambitious developer Treasure’s side-scrolling mech-shooter Bangai-O received a much needed port from the severely limited, Japanese N64 release, and fits in quite nicely with the Dreamcast’s quirkiness and strong 2D capabilities. Quake III and Unreal Tournament both have solid Dreamcast ports for fast-paced, arcade-style FPS action, though Sega tried their hand at things with Outtrigger to great success, but is much harder to find with either one of those. And of course, my personal favorite Dreamcast title, Dynamite Cop, a beat-em-up adapted from Die Hard Arcade, is absolute madness in a brawler shell, boasting off-the-wall weapons, over-the-top attacks, and an overall sense of absurdity that encompasses seemingly everything Sega did differently at the time.
Homebrews and Imports
As I mentioned earlier, the Dreamcast’s biggest bugaboo during its lifespan has come back around nowadays to give it one of the strongest modern-day development communities, as well as bolstering its library by allowing region bypassing rather easily compared to other consoles. Among some of the most notable titles from the modern development community are a plethora of intense 2D shoot-em-ups, such as NG Dev. Team’s Ghost Blade, Fast Striker, and Last Hope, which even at their premium price tags for legit copies are still more affordable than their officially-released counterparts in the Giga Wing games and Gunbird 2. Also worth checking out is the well-known Genesis-style RPG Pier Solar and the Great Architects, as well as anything made in the Beats of Rage engine, a MUGEN-style beat-em-up engine that has produced fan made brawlers for numerous series such as Streets of Rage, Metal Slug, Splatterhouse, X-Men, and Battletoads, to name a few. Reproduction makers like Toysaurus_Games on Instagram (from whom I have purchased several homebrew discs and who also makes some amazing Sega Genesis, CD, and Master System products) make these products widely available, but in the case of official companies like NG Dev. Team, purchasing their official printings is a must.
And of course, much like its predecessor, the Saturn, the Dreamcast boasts an excellent library of titles that were only released in Japan or Europe but can be played easily on an American system by making a boot disc, allowing you to play such titles as Fire Pro Wrestling D, Border Down (and several more excellent shmups), Shenmue II, Segagaga, and Rez.
Filling In The Blanks
And of course, as I mentioned with the case of VMUs, many Dreamcast titles were produced in extremely high numbers that ultimately caused a lot of overstock when the system failed in achieving its boom, resulting in a lot of titles that are still fairly common even brand new and sealed that can be had for only a couple bucks and really fill out your collection with some quality titles. For starters, the Dreamcast had some of the best sports titles of its time, but never really got recognized for it because Sega wasn’t EA and EA didn’t support the Dreamcast, so they must not have good sports games. Regardless, while the NBA and NFL 2K games are some of the best from the time, the real masterpieces are Sega’s first party tennis and fishing games. Between Virtua Tennis and Tennis 2K2 and Sega Bass Fishing and Sega Marine Fishing, Sega’s development teams created two games that have been practically unbeaten for their respective sports in nearly 20 years, and their still dirt cheap price tags and accessible arcade-style approaches to their subject matter make them must-have titles for the Dreamcast even for non-fans of either sport.
Some other great budget-friendly titles for the Dreamcast include an excellent port of the PS1’s Demolition Racer, which is its own special breed of racing game focused on destruction in a pre-Burnout, post-Destruction Derby gaming landscape. Although the Dreamcast’s selection of wrestling games pales in comparison to those on the PS1 and N64, it does have the only port of the manic arcade title, WWF Royal Rumble, which fares better than Acclaim’s WWF Attitude and two ECW ports. Unique first-party action-puzzler Chu Chu Rocket was also produced in droves and has lots of leftover sealed copies, though the quality of the game still puts it in the $15 range anyway. Action heavy gamers can also nab a couple of other decent titles in the $10 ballpark such as Tomb Raider Chronicles, Slave Zero, Alien Front Online, Incoming, Fighting Force 2, and Expendable, to name a few.