Sixteen years ago, on September 9, 1999, SEGA introduced Dreamcast, its newest video game console. Featuring twice the graphical and CPU power of the Playstation and Nintendo 64, a built-in modem for online gaming, and LED display-capable controllers, the Dreamcast was the console of the future.
Until, um, it wasn't.
Despite a hot start, Dreamcast sales slowed down a few months later, due in part to the launch of Sony's Playstation 2. Sony claimed its new Playstation was five times as powerful as the Dreamcast; it could also play all of your original Playstation games, too. Soon Nintendo announced a new console, the Gamecube, and Microsoft began developing theirs as well.
Less than a year after its release, the Dreamcast was seen as obsolete. SEGA tried reducing the price for the system; at the end it retailed for a stunningly low $49.99. On March 31, 2001, the last Dreamcast was manufactured; a third of SEGA's workforce in Tokyo was fired; and losses for the company stood around $400 million.
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SEGA still exists as a 3rd-party publisher, publishing titles on 26 different platforms, none of which include the Dreamcast. Despite this, however, there have been at least 36 new games for the Dreamcast since 2003–37 if this Kickstarter can reach its goal. There hasn't been a new Dreamcast machine produced since 2000, but game developers have kept it alive and fresh over fifteen years later.
How is this possible? DIY developers have discovered that it's incredibly easy to port indie games onto the Dreamcast. The hardware is not that difficult to hack and the system still offers some decent tech specs. The fans at Dreamcast Scene (18,687 message board posts by 911 users) have been doing this for years. And though 36 games in a decade isn't huge by any means—sometimes it can feel like the Xbox One and Playstation 4 get 36 new games per day—anything higher than zero is notable for a console that has essentially been dead for years.
In fact, Dreamcast Scene counts 10 games as released already in 2015, making it to most prolific year for Dreamcast since SEGA shut down operations.
I emailed Boing Boing's Leigh Alexander about the Dreamcast resurgence. I asked her why she thought Dreamcast has stuck around.
"I think the Dreamcast is emblematic of the adolescence of game hardware," Alexander said. "It was marketed in a real aesthetically-pleasing way, around the time a certain generation of game fans were hitting puberty. It gleamed gently with the promises of being a grown-up."
I also spoke to Decky Coss, a game designer from the Bronx whose medium is the SEGA Genesis, who shared similar sentiments.
"I think people are so fond of the Dreamcast because it managed to be both charmingly quirky and a heavyweight contender," Coss said. "I think the most ambitious projects were the products of people who never played it safe. Nothing was too 'out there' for them as long as it was playful and memorable."
I asked her why people would still be making games for Dreamcast, so many years later. She gave me an Everest-y answer: It's because they "can," she tells me.
"I believe every artistic medium is distinguished by the technical limitations it places on its practitioners, and I see the limitations placed by old consoles as a mechanism for producing unique, sublime beauty."
She cites how the lack of 3D rendering in some older consoles forces illustrators and designers to use all the tricks they know to simulate perspective, or how limited audio quality forced game composers to "think differently about harmony and texture."
Chris Powell, the editor of SEGA Nerds editor Chris Powell, says that the Dreamcast's short lifespan has paradoxically led it to live longer.
"In a lot of ways, the Dreamcast was just hitting its stride when SEGA announced it was discontinuing the system. A lot of people weren't ready to move on."
It helps that the games that did get released for the Dreamcast really were that good.
"There are plenty of classics on the Dreamcast that still hold up," Powell told me. "Games like Shenmue, Soul Calibur, Power Stone and Samba de Amigo are fantastic games that are every bit as good today as when we first experienced them."
The Dreamcast may have also survived and remained popular because of a curious reason: piracy. Once "homebrewers" discovered that the proprietary GD-ROM discs that Dreamcast use could be copied onto CDs, all bets were off. Powell tells me that this allowed for games released in Asia or Europe to reach North America—think of it as Sonic samizdat—and bam, instant online community.
Today, sixteen years after its official, hope-filled introduction, the Dreamcast remains cheap, and there are many inexpensive titles available. A small but devoted community of developers and enthusiasts exists online, giving continued life to the doomed system.
It's been enough to keep the Dreamcast going well into the second decade fo the new millennium. Enough to get SEGA thinking about a Dreamcast 2? Maybe in another 16 years.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org