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that won’t die

Looking at the Dreamcast lineup for 2013, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Sega’s 15-year-old home video game system had never gone away. Of all the supposedly dead consoles, the Dreamcast is surely the one that looks most alive.

Despite the Dreamcast production lines shutting in 2001, the console’s community is still fervently supporting new titles that continue to release. Two highly successful Kickstarter campaigns last year, for role-playing game Pier Solar HD, and shoot-em-up Redux: Dark Matters, clearly showed that love for the Dreamcast is still strong.

When the Dreamcast first came out in North America in September 1999, it looked like it could change the gaming world.


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Dreamcast on wood background

It was the first 128-bit console, from one of the big three console manufacturers, featuring the first built-in online capabilities, and boasting a launch lineup of big-name titles such as Sonic Adventure, Power Stone, Soul Calibur, and Marvel vs. Capcom. Sales of 500,000 units in its first two weeks led to hardware shortages, and Businessweek magazine heralded the Dreamcast as one of the best products of the year.

Then, just six months later, along came Sony’s PlayStation 2.

The Dreamcast couldn’t compete with the power of the PlayStation brand, as Sony’s new machine — with its built-in DVD player – began a journey that would eventually see sales of 150 million consoles. In contrast, the Dreamcast managed to sell just over 8 million sales during its short lifetime.

Many Dreamcast fans feel cheated by the machine’s premature death in 2001 — a death that saw the once mighty Sega bowing out of the hardware business for good. Those same fans can take some solace, perhaps, in the glut of quality titles still being released for the console in 2013.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1YOfHOSVrY]

2013: The year of the Dreamcast

More than 15 unofficial titles have been released for the Dreamcast since its demise, and 2013 looks set to be the best release year yet, with seven brand-new games either scheduled or already out there.

Sturmwind is the most recent new release for the Dreamcast. The side-scrolling shooter from German developer Duranik came out at the end of April, and it has already been well received by critics and fans.

Sturmwind screenIt’s the first foray into Dreamcast development for brothers Roland and Johannes Graf, who between them make up the Duranik team. Prior to this, the Graf brothers have released games for the Atari Lynx, Jaguar, and Falcon.

So why pick the Dreamcast? “It’s always fun to develop for a console, at least for us,” said Roland Graf. “The other thing is of course the less-crowded market. Everyone is going to iOS or Android these days. These platforms are really drowned with apps of all type. Even if you have a nice game, it’s hard to stand out.”

Being new to the platform, Graf was unsure how many copies they would need to cope with demand. “We estimate around a few thousand units,” he said. “Of course, this is a quite a small number, but the machine has not been in the spotlight for a lot of years. There is certainly still a small but solid fan base that supports the machine, even after all those years.”

That support is more than evident now that Sturmwind has been released. Both the Limited Edition and regular version have already sold out at the website of publisher, RedSpotGames. The same is true at reseller PlayAsia.com.

Sturmwind’s Limited Edition run looks particular impressive, featuring a soundtrack CD, 3D-printed spacecraft, full color manual, and guidebook. It even has a plush toy of one of the bosses available to purchase.

Sturmwind Limited Edition

While CD-ROMs for the Dreamcast are much easier to produce than, say, a cartridge-based game, the quality of the Sturmwind physical release is still admirably high. “We had a lot of production issues with our special edition packaging,” Graf said. “This is the reason the game was delayed for several months.”

For Graf, Duranik is only a spare-time project. He leaves the manufacturing, marketing, and distribution of Sturmwind entirely in the hands of RedSpotGames. Sega also did its bit to help with Sturmwind’s marketing, though, when PR executive Fabian Doehla appeared on Destructoid Live to unveil and play a demo of the game.

“I think that was just for fun,” says Graf. “They certainly won’t come back and start producing Dreamcast games now. From what we heard, they enjoyed the game.”

Thoughts from a Dreamcast gamer

Official Dreamcast Magazine (UK) issue 1Jake Smith, “end of level boss” at digital agency JP74 , was a Dreamcast gamer from the very beginning. Importing a Japanese machine before Sega had hit the Western market, Smith talked up the console in the very first issue of Official Dreamcast Magazine (U.K.).

For him, the Dreamcast’s arcade root are all important. “Anyone who played Sega games in the arcades will have a soft spot for the Dreamcast,” says Smith. “Sega Rally, Zombie Revenge, Crazy Taxi, and House of the Dead are highly playable titles, even today. I think it’s the console that closely retained that arcade look and feel in its action games, but it still managed to play host to more absorbing and in-depth games like Shenmue, Skies of Arcadia, and Phantasy Star Online.”

He’s managed to keep on top of most new releases for the console and is impressed with what he’s seen. “Generally, of the ones I’ve played, they hold their ground very well,” he says. “Highly polished, lovely graphics, excellent music, and tight gameplay. Some of them don’t feel they have quite as much depth as officially released titles — an obvious consequence of small dev teams who possibly hold down full-time jobs too.”

“This isn’t a harsh criticism,” says Smith, “as with [2009 RedSpotGames release] Rush Rush Rally Racing, the game concept was decided on because it could be accomplished quickly for a [Hong-Hong-based distributor and retailer] Lik Sang competition in 2006, but the quality of the actual game is high. Then again, some original games, like Toy Commander, weren’t exactly deep!”

Dreamcast controller port

Kickstarting the Dreamcast

Redux: Dark Matters was the first big success for Dreamcast on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. The campaign to fund the shoot-’em-up from retro developer Hucast Games raised over $53,000 in June.

The success of this campaign came as a shock to head of Hucast Games, René Hellwig. “Yes, we were surprised!” he says. “We were hoping to reach the original funding goal of $25,000, but we made double!”

Redux Dark Matters Kickstarter screenFor Hellwig, the Kickstarter experiment was fruitful, but not something he is looking to do again, at least for Dreamcast titles. As the pledge rewards were all for copies of the game, Hellwig feels he was really preaching to the converted. “It was a nice and valid experience, but we won’t use Kickstarter for Dreamcast projects anymore,” he says. “When we do a Kickstarter again we will aim at a big-scale market to reach a new audience.”

In terms of sales, Hellwig says that developing titles for the Dreamcast is definitely worthwhile. He already has a number of successful releases under his belt with the NG:DEV.TEAM, including side-scrolling shoot-’em-up Last Hope and last year’s critically acclaimed release, Gunlord. The latter having been awarded “Game of the Year” by YouTube channel Classic Game Room.

“With Last Hope [released on Neo-Geo and Dreamcast], back in 2007, we released Limited Editions and regular editions. The Limited Edition made a fair chunk of our money,” says Hellwig. The Limited Edition also sold out especially quickly. “I still remember when we accepted re-orders for the Last Hope LE on Play-Asia,” he says. “Five hundred copies sold out within five days. I’m still amazed by that.”

Going forward, Hellwig has both Redux: Dark Matters and recently announced shoot-’em-up Ghost Blade set for release on Dreamcast in 2013. “Developing games for new and dead platforms is our business,” he says, “but still a passion, as all great platforms need great new games.”

You can see Ghost Blade in action in the video embedded below.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFWS2TBKi4w]

What’s with all the shooters?

Looking at the array of upcoming Dreamcast releases, you spot a pattern — one that involves a great deal of shoot-’em-up action.

Dreamcast arcade sticks

Jake Smith helps explain the intimate relationship between the Dreamcast and the shoot-em-up (shmup) genre.

“I couldn’t be sure and speak for everyone,” he says, “but I think the Dreamcast’s hardware, its ability to throw 2D sprites around over top of 3D backgrounds and scenery, or [display] full 3D shooters with ease, will certainly make it look attractive [to developers].

“From a gamers point of view, being able to get VGA-out from a Dreamcast hooked up to a rotated LCD monitor, with a nice heavy arcade stick for hammering the fighters and shmups, it sure is an attractive set up,” he says. “[Classic shmup game] Ikaruga is beautiful when played like this, even if it’s still just as hard!

“You can also throw in a scan-line generator for that full arcade monitor feel, which I’m always a sucker for.”

Aha! A role-playing game

Helping buck the shmup trend is Pier Solar HD, the other big Dreamcast Kickstarter success.

Pier Solar HD screen 3An HD-remake of the contemporary Sega Genesis role-playing game, Pier Solar, it raised over $230,000 on Kickstarter late last year. Developer WaterMelon Games is planning on bringing the title to Dreamcast, along with Xbox 360, Wii U, PC, Mac, Ouya, and iOS.

For WaterMelon president Tulio Adriano and creative director Gwenael Godde, the Dreamcast was key to the campaign. “It was the Dreamcast development that sparked the whole HD idea,” they say. “It was while Pier Solar was being straight ported to Dreamcast that we had the Kickstarter idea to bring it to the next level.”

Adriano and Godde are coy when it comes to talking about potential sales on retro systems. “If I release numbers I’ll probably be fired. [Laughs] I can tell you though that the level of demand is good enough that we keep releasing Pier Solar [on Genesis] over and over, and also have the opportunity to make new games such as those on the Magical Game Factory.”

Is Sega paying attention?

Dreamcast console close-up

While Sega showed some interest in Sturmwind, it seems unlikely that the company will ever officially support the Dreamcast again.

WaterMelon has had no contact from Sega despite bringing new titles to two of its old platforms. “It’s hard to say whether they would have interest or not,” Adriano and Godde said. “I believe that news from our game probably never reaches the decision-makers of the company. I think that if it was my company and if I had fans all over asking me to license a development team that is honoring my company, I’d listen to them.”

Hellwig has also never heard from Sega, but he was pleased to see the company supporting Sturmwind via Destructoid Live. “They were giving it some air time and it was nice to see they were enjoying the game. That’s the spirit!”

As for Jake Smith, he can’t see Sega touching its own hardware again, given the problems it had last time. “As much as I’d like them to return with hardware,” he said, “the stakes are so high now, and consoles aren’t just about the game. Sony and Microsoft have shown how much the sharing and social elements will be embedded into their latest consoles, and like it or not, that’s what Sega would be competing against. Their current multiplatform approach, and acting as a publisher, is likely the reason they’re still in business, to be blunt.”

Whether Sega is still interested in the Dreamcast or not, the support is definitely there to sustain development on the console that just won’t give up the ghost.

Dreamcast console close-up via DAVIDSDIEGO/flickr, Dreamcast on wood background via bochalla/flickr, Dreamcast front image via bochalla/flickr, Dreamcast controller ports via resendejes/flickr, Dreamcast arcade controller image via Jon Gotlin/flickr, Dreamcast Divers 2000 series CX-1 image via driph/flickr, Pier Solar HD images via Kickstarter, Redux: Dark Matters screen via Kickstarter, Ghost Blade image via Hucast Games, Dreamcast Magazine and scanline images via Jake Smith, Sturmwind images via Duranik.

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