Dreamcast, Ten Years (and One Week) Later
Apologies to my regular readership (both of you) for the long delay in updating. I was up against a crazier-than-usual deadline for my latest project, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a freelance writer, it’s that you never spend time writing stuff for free when you’ve got editors banging down your door for the text that they paid you to write.
But now that I’ve finished that project (and have finally recovered from the 28- and 33-hour all-nighters I had to pull during the last week of it), I can finally get around to writing the piece that’s been floating around in my head for the last couple of weeks.
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I got my start in the games industry in May of 1999, when my girlfriend, my best friend and I packed everything we owned into a 4′ x 6′ U-Haul trailer and made the great pilgrimage from Vermont to the San Francisco Bay Area to seek our fortune. Holly had a Barnes & Noble job waiting for her in Berkeley, Matt had some savings that would get us through a month or two if things got dire, and I had nothing except a vague, “contact us when you get here” email for a job at a startup online games magazine.
At the time, I knew almost nothing about the games business. I hadn’t really played games for fun since my early high school years, and I’d only recently picked up a PlayStation, 3 1/2 years after it had first come out. My recent gaming résumé was limited to the Myst franchise, D&D-based RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Squaresoft’s epic Final Fantasy VII. But a half-hour phone call to my hardcore gamer brother the night before armed me with enough knowledge and buzzwords about the state of the industry to bluff my way through the interview. It also didn’t hurt that they were looking to launch a “lifestyle” gaming magazine (i.e.: interviewing celebrities about video games), and I had managed to cobble together respectable entertainment journalist credentials by being one of three working journalists in Vermont who interviewed the few rock stars who came to town.
That job turned out to be one of the greatest jobs I ever had, and my co-workers wound up becoming some of my best friends on the West Coast, despite the fact that most of us have since fled the Bay Area. It was one of those rare gigs where the daunting amount of work that had to be done on a daily basis didn’t feel much like work, because every workday also brought ten hours of hanging out with two dozen of the best people I’ve ever worked with. I even managed to repay my brother’s interview prep by getting him a job at the magazine a few months later.
Of course, I had to spend some serious time getting up to speed on the industry I’d doubletalked my way into. Through sheer coincidence, I was entering it just as Sega‘s final game console, the Dreamcast, launched in Japan. And did I mention that our offices were located at 650 Townsend Street, the (now former) Sega building?
But all of the synchronicity in the world wouldn’t have helped the Dreamcast win me over if it hadn’t also been the best game console on the market at the time, hands-down. Even once the PlayStation 2 launched, the Dreamcast’s crisp, colorful graphics absolutely blew away any other console hardware on the market, and the lineup of games it featured in its initial 12 months remains the most impressive first-generation game library in history: Soul Calibur, Sonic Adventure, Virtua Tennis, House of the Dead 2, Space Channel 5, Power Stone 2, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, Chu Chu Rocket, Crazy Taxi, Sega Rally 2… the list goes on and on. It was the first console that I ever went online with, and its innovative VMU memory device predated Nintendo and Sony’s efforts to link their handheld gaming devices to their consoles.
If there was any justice in the gaming world, the Dreamcast would have established itself quickly as the dominant console and secured its place in history as one of the all-time greats. Sadly, as it turned out, it only achieved the latter, and only among those of us who were there for the ride. It had the misfortune of launching at a time when its parent company was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, when the Japanese and American arms of the company could not overcome their cultural differences, and when Sony was preparing a marketing offensive for the PlayStation 2′s launch that would make the Dreamcast’s record-setting launch look like someone selling old VCRs at a flea market.
In a sad bit of tragic irony, Sega Chairman Isao Okawa forgave $40 million owed to him by Sega Corporation and gave it control of his nearly $700 million in Sega stock, shortly before his death in March of 2001. That was the same month that Sega discontinued the Dreamcast.
The magazine I worked for in San Francisco had gone belly-up less than a year prior, one of many casualties of the dot-com bust. And despite the fact that I’ve landed quite well and am fortunate enough to earn a good living from doing a number of things that I love, my memories of 1999-2000 will always exist on an untouchable plateau. I might have been born a generation too early to enjoy the Summer of Love, but I don’t think I’d trade the Year of the Dreamcast for anything.
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