In March 2001 the dream was over. A little more than eighteen months after its European launch, Sega discontinued its final console and retreated from the gaming hardware wars for good. Despite a strong launch and a line-up of great and innovative games, the Dreamcast couldn't stand up to the onslaught of Sony's all-powerful PlayStation 2. A project that had started out with high hopes and a real vision for the future of gaming now felt like another console failure.
Look at the numbers, and that verdict still stands. Dreamcast never achieved the sales or won the third-party software support that could have kept the dream alive and Sega in the console business. Pull away from the raw figures, however, and you can see that Dreamcast helped shape the console hardware and services we know today. Maybe with the benefit of hindsight we can see that Dreamcast wasn't a disaster. In fact, you could say it was ahead of its time.
Why? Let's start with the physical design of the hardware. Sony's original PlayStation had made efforts to make the games console look like it belonged in the living room, not the kids' bedroom. The 3DO consoles from Panasonic and Goldstar looked like regular AV appliances. The Dreamcast, however, bought us the console as a design statement: small, unobtrusive, white, curvaceous, friendly. Everything from the swirl logo to the controller made you feel that this was a console that had been formed by artists, not just engineers. Look at the Dreamcast pad now and it's clear how it influenced Microsoft's work on the Xbox controller and - more successfully - that of the Xbox 360. And if Dreamcast didn't directly shape the design of that console or Nintendo's GameCube, you can still see some clear similarities.
You could say the same of what was inside the box. Before Sony and Nintendo, Sega realised that there was no point putting expensive R&D dollars into proprietary graphics hardware when companies working in the competitive PC graphics industry were ready and willing to do the work for you. Infamously, Sega started off with not just one hardware design for Dreamcast but two, working in the US with the guys from 3Dfx on a console codenamed Dural, and in Japan with the chaps from NEC on a Power VR-based design known as Katana. Though 3Dfx had more developer support in the West and had already cornered the market in the PC sphere, Sega finally opted for Katana (bringing on a lawsuit from their one-time American partners). All the same, the result was a console that used technology that developers were already familiar with, and - interestingly - based on a Windows-derived operating system.
Perhaps the involvement of PC graphics specialists helped Dreamcast to be the first console that saw beyond standard definition TV resolutions and towards the HD future. Dreamcast owners who bought the optional VGA cable could play the majority of their games at an impressive 640 x 480 resolution, either on a PC monitor or a VGA-equipped LCD or Plasma screen. I still have memories of playing Power Stone on a projector screen when the Dreamcast first appeared, and it was an absolutely staggering experience at the time.
Unfortunately, there's one other way in which the Dreamcast prefigured today's console systems - hardware failure. We're not talking Xbox 360 levels here, but the Dreamcast's convoluted cooling systems were prone to the occasional mishap, and a fair number had to be returned to the shop when the cooling broke down. Mine was to go down when an early fishing rod controller overloaded the motherboard circuitry inside.