Toys with buttons and silicon hearts
#2: Sega Dreamcast
As a child, I very much lived in the past, much as I do now. This is because we didn’t have any money, so nice shiny new things were crossed off my Christmas list with a big red pen. It didn’t bother me at all, really. I was happy and grateful for what I was given, even if it was second-hand.
My point is that I was always a few steps (or paradigm shifts) behind my friends, especially when it came to technology and computers. One Christmas in the early nineties, I was given a typewriter. My friends up the road had a computer with Windows; it had colourful graphics, sound and their dad had a hidden folder with some naughty pictures inside. They were pretty smug about it. But I loved that fucking typewriter.
Shortly after that, my dad brought home an Amstrad PCW9512 from work. They were chucking it out, and he nabbed it so that I could have a computer in my bedroom and be the envy of all my friends. Their mocking laughter can still be heard echoing around our neighbourhood. But I didn’t care, I had a blast with it. The discs were like something a spaceman would use, and it even had a printer!! A daisywheel! It had three fonts to choose from, and I delighted in writing stories and printing them out for keeps. Being able to edit text on the fly and then watching the computer vomit it out onto paper was a novelty – never let it be said that people of my generation take things for granted.
So, when the Sega Dreamcast was announced, I paid it little attention. I was still happily playing my Master System. We had managed to acquire some other games consoles throughout the decade – I was given a Super Nintendo (a story for another day), and my brother saved up and bought a Mega Drive. Life went on, and I pretty much forgot the Dreamcast existed. Then one day, a friend came over. He opened his rucksack and pulled out this gleaming, white thing from the future. “It’s a Dreamcast,” he said. “Want to play Sonic Adventure?”
Bear in mind that I hadn’t really played many “3D” games at this point. He handed me the controller, put the game in and turned the power on. What followed blew my mind.
The machine started up with this little blue dot bouncing over the words “Dreamcast”. The graphics were so smooth and clear…! And the sound! I was impressed already, and then the words “SONIC TEAM” appeared on the screen. I’d acquired a fair chunk of my brother’s Sonic obsession, so I was pretty psyched. Then this happened:
My jaw hit the floor. Yeah, I know it’s video and not actually being rendered by the Dreamcast, but it set the mood. We can look back now and laugh at the game’s polygons and frame-rate, but hindsight isn’t worth shit – what matters is the moment, and at that moment, my eyes wide and fixed on the TV screen, the graphics blew me away. The game world looked, sounded and felt real. It was miraculous, hearing Sonic and company speak for the first time. I felt connected to the characters – thanks to the Dreamcast’s analogue stick, the movements were slick and precise. Tails’ tails swished around his little bottom, Sonic ran so fast he turned into a neon blur, and Knuckles could dig into the ground. It was amazing.
No joke, I cried when I played this game the first time. I’m dead serious.
Even now, I boot it up to watch the sun set over the bustling city that is Station Square, chill out in the serene Mystic Ruins or ride the rollercoaster in Twinkle Park. The atmosphere is complemented tremendously by the game’s soundtrack – wailing electric guitars and ground-shaking percussion for when stuff gets busy, and pan-pipes and chorus for the parts where you can relax. I could go on forever about it, but I think in truth you just had to be there. Besides, I should talk a little bit about the console itself.
The Dreamcast was lightyears ahead of its time – the graphics and sound capabilities were on par with the best stuff in the arcades, the controller was so good that Microsoft ripped it off for their XBox, and a whole bunch of accessories were produced to bring out the best in the different types of games available; fishing rods, lightguns and such. Perhaps the most important accessory, and certainly the one the machine is remembered for, is the Virtual Memory Unit.
You could slot the VMU into the controller. The device fulfilled three functions; it was a memory card to store game saves, it served as a second screen during gameplay and it was itself a stand-alone console that you could play on the move. For example, in Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, you could download a virtual pet onto the VMU, and take him out and about with you. Wonderful.
The Dreamcast also had online play and an internet browser. This was unheard of at the time; most people I knew didn’t even have an internet browser on their computer. Hell, most people I knew didn’t even have a computer. These days, everyone in a household has at least one, be it a laptop or smartphone or whatever.
It was with the Dreamcast that I first went on the internet at home. It was the strangest thing, plugging a games console into the phone line. Sure enough, it dialed up and connected and I browsed away, all the while feeling like the Cyber Police were gonna break my door down and arrest me for crimes against common sense.
Well, that and I knew my mum would just about murder me when she saw the phone bill.
“Text on the fly”