Throughout the 1990s, there was a building level of tension surrounding the year 2000. Whether you believed the world was about to end or that the start of a new millennium was of cosmic importance, the changeover was made into a big deal in all forms of media. This obviously reached a fever pitch in 1999 when suddenly everything was “the last X of the millennium.”
Sega capitalized on those feelings and advertised the hell out of their new “Dreamcast” system and its prophetic-sounding release date of 9/9/99. Hyping a release date as a string of numbers was nothing new, but given the anxiety/excitement of the calendar change, 9/9/99 really had some weight to it. Combined with the creepy “It’s Thinking” tagline, the Dreamcast advertisements somehow seemed important.
At least, that’s the only way I can explain what happened to me, because I found myself getting worked up over the Dreamcast’s release despite having no interest in any of the launch titles. I made sure to buy it on that epic day but then I left the system in its box for at least a month. I don’t even recall the first game I got for it, and I can remember that for every other console I’ve ever owned.
In my “defense,” I should mention that I had only recently moved out of my mother’s house and into my first apartment. I worked a surprisingly high-paying, low-effort job and had few expenses, so my disposable income was at an all-time high. My friends and I were so into video games, we all had at least three or four consoles hooked up to our televisions at a time. Once we started an evening of playing games, we didn’t want to have to stop to reach behind the TV to start tugging on wires.
One of those consoles on permanent stand-by in my apartment was the Neo Geo. While I was lucky enough to have a friend who owned one during its heyday, it wasn’t until 1999 that I finally got my own off of eBay. By that point, the console had long been abandoned by brick-and-mortar retailers but there was a steady niche market online. I bought my copy of King of Fighters 99 directly from SNK and I kept the packaging for years because the box featured their logo so prominently.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I was a devotee of 2D arcade games and in 1999 they were still relevant, albeit past their prime. The PlayStation and Saturn had attempted to bring arcade games into my home, but the necessary shortcuts and omissions that came with porting to the smaller screen were always evident. Long load times and missing frames of animation were par for the course. Only the Neo Geo could offer a direct copy of the arcade games I loved and I was willing to pay hundreds of dollars per title for the privilege.
That all changed with the Dreamcast. Suddenly I had access to high-quality arcade ports at home that didn’t feel like ports at all. Indeed, in some cases the home versions offered features the arcade originals did not. One of the early hits on the system was Crazy Taxi, an arcade-faithful translation of the game packed with bonus stages to practice and refine advanced driving techniques. The controls were so well thought out, we never missed the steering wheel.
However, the real treat for me and my friends was the steady stream of near-perfect ports of 2D fighting games loaded with extras. Street Fighter III: Third Strike had an option to allow characters to use all of their super moves instead of forcing players to choose one per round. King of Fighters 99: Evolution featured new 3D-rendered backgrounds and had unlockable characters who were not in the arcade (some of which were accessed by linking a Neo Geo Pocket to the Dreamcast, an incredible cross-company link). Marvel vs Capcom 2 enabled players to choose multiple iterations of the same character (yes, this meant at least one all-Servbot battle royale). There was even a Japanese-only version of Darkstalkers that included every character in the series and offered online play via the system’s built-in modem.
A lot of people give the Dreamcast credit for being ahead of its time, usually in reference to the console’s innovative Internet features. As true as that may be, my favorite thing about the Dreamcast was its positively backwards approach of focusing on bringing arcade hits home. I bought the system out of consumerist compulsion and it ended up surprising the hell out of me by doing a better job than Sony or Nintendo in giving me exactly what I wanted.
Even ten years later, the mega-powered consoles I own now are only barely scratching the surface of delivering beloved arcade titles via their online stores, and these rarely offer new features or content. Look at the new XBLA/PSN port of Marvel vs Capcom 2 as a prime example: it doesn’t allow you to choose a character more than once like the Dreamcast version did.
Ahead or behind the times in the grander scheme of things, it was the perfect video game system for me at that time which is why I’ll always treasure it. It’s the only “retro” console I’d even consider digging out of storage and hooking up to my TV today and that includes my Neo Geo.