Happy birthday Sega Dreamcast, the only console I've ever mourned
Sega's final console turns 20, yet it remains relevant despite feeling even older.
Today marks the 20th birthday of the Sega Dreamcast, born on November 27, 1998 in Japan only to die far to young on March 31, 2001. Many accolades have been heaped upon Sega's final video game console but for me I can honestly say it was the only console whose end actually made me feel grief.
I should say this up front: I was never a "Sega kid." The Master System was an odd relic I encountered at friends' homes, and I only bought the Sega Genesis because it had launched at the right time and convinced me to sell my NES to advance to the 16-Bit age. As much as I enjoyed my time with Genesis, that transaction only proved to be my gateway to the world of trade-ins. Games were fleeting, consoles were temporary, and everything could and should be hocked in exchange for the newest, shiniest machine as it comes out. Genesis begat SNES which begat PlayStation which begat Saturn which begat the Nintendo 64.
With the Sega Dreamcast, things were different. At first, it was a cold commercial afterthought on my behalf: I remember buying it on launch out of obligation because I had the income to spare and nothing to do in my spare time but play games, even though I doubt I bought any launch titles because none of them were my bag. But it quickly won me over with its library of arcade ports combined with Sega's willingness to offer weird, distinct games that, even if I never finished them, their particular flavor appealed to me on a personal level.
The Dreamcast also stuck with me not just because of what it did but also what it did not do, namely, make me feel like I was behind the times. As Sega was giving me arcade-perfect ports of 2D fighting games and cartoon-soaked delights like Jet Grind Radio, its competitors seemed to be heading in a direction that was alien to me by doubling-down on 3D action games. PlayStation had hitched their wagon to the 3D train since the beginning but the PS2 seemed even more dedicated to polygons over sprites. And even Nintendo seemed committed to taking all their properties to the third dimension with the Gamecube as it relegated 2D games to handhelds.
It's worth reminding everyone that when 3D gaming debuted in the 1990s, there was a strong push from all fronts - the press, the fans, and the console makers themselves - to abandon 2D sprite-based games as a thing of the past. By the dawn of the new century it was as if every established name in video games had to at least attempt a 3D outing no matter how blocky the results. Even SNK, struggling to maintain a niche audience with the Neo Geo, debuted the Hyper Neo Geo 64 in the hopes of winning over new fans. It didn't work and I was dumbfounded by the attempt; we don't expect painters to be master sculptors but we expect the makers of King of Fighters to also compete with Tekken?
(In an ironic twist, Sega had partnered with SNK by way of a link cable that connected the Dreamcast to the Neo Geo Pocket, another system I felt great affection for as I watched it die)
So when the Dreamcast news broke in 2001, it was tough. To me, it was more than just a company restructuring or a product leaving store shelves. It was a sign that video games as a whole was moving on without me. The community at large had spoken with their wallets and they had decided that my favorite games weren't worth remembering. Sure, the gargantuan success of the PlayStation 2 meant that some companies kept porting arcade games to the system (including SNK, whose Neo Geo died a few years after Dreamcast did). But this was also the era when arcades in the US became harder and harder to find. When I was in high school in the early 90s, there were multiple locations mere minutes from school where I could play games when not in class (or in certain cases, instead of going to class). By 2000 they were all gone. Arcades became a niche of a niche, something I traveled for hours to visit on a weekend...maybe.
With all that in mind, it was a lot to say goodbye to the Dreamcast. I had other consoles on hand, and my proximity to New York's Chinatown meant I had plenty of import titles to choose from for years to come, but it was clear to me that a era was ending and it was one I didn't want to let go of. So I never did. The Dreamcast was the first console I never considered selling off because I knew nothing would replace it no matter how many bits it promised. I am grateful, all these years later, to see a video game landscape that has found room for arcade ports and 2D sprites as well as high-resolution 3D action, not for the sake of nostalgia but because those games always had value and always will. It took two decades but at last, I know now that I wasn't crazy; it was the video game world that went mad when it neglected the Dreamcast to death.