|Today is the day. They are calling it "the biggest
day in entertainment history." Why? The release of Sega's Dreamcast and Final Fantasy
VIII. These momentous events, coupled with MTV's Video Music Awards, whose viewers will be
barraged with Dreamcast advertisements, make it a pretty good day. With perhaps the
largest cult following of any current series, Final Fantasy VIII is already blowing the
minds of faithful denizens. The success of the latest FF installment was never in doubt.
Sales will rise exponentially as the holiday season approaches. In fact, schoolyard gossip
could spark a remarkable rise in sales this weekend. But what about Sega?
Sega is doing fine. Tripling Sony's record for PlayStation pre-sells, some 300,000 Dreamcasts were reserved for purchase today. Kickoff events began at midnight, attended by famous characters such as the former Sable and Mini-Me as well as the usual gaming mascots. Sega has mounted a marketing campaign of insane proportions to insure the success of the new system, and they have backed it up with a veritable stable of launch titles and accessories. From light guns to fighting games, a range of some 30 products were available for the Dreamcast in retail outlets across the nation today. Bolstered by an early rental program through Hollywood Video, the hype was felt everywhere. NPR began its morning with Dreamcast coverage, and even up here in Idaho people bought out the local KB Toys.
So is it worth it? Yeah. This is one of those times when Chuck D. isn't the guy to listen to, and you had better believe the hype. Although forecasts of a dismal future are on the lips of every PlayStation diehard and scornful ex-Sega fan, there is no denying what Sega has offered us right here, right now. The 128-bit system gives graphic performance only recently seen on high-end PCs, a portable gaming unit, and internet connectivity. While the system retails for $199, it will take a sink of about $300 to hook up with an extra controller, Visual Memory Unit (VMU), and a game. The VMU is like a shrunken Game Boy, and many of the launch titles include minigames you can download into the VMU to play on the go. Overall, the minigames are simple, but entertaining on a bus ride or when just killing time. They range from simplified versions of the game, to virtual pets, to old casino standards. In all, the VMU is an essential investment, especially at a retail price of $20-30.
Perhaps what is most intriguing about the Dreamcast is the internet connectivity. The system comes with a 56K modem, and web browsing and dial-up software is included. Set-up for the online aspect of the system is a snap. Enter the basic information supplied by your ISP, and you're ready to go in no time. ATT Worldnet is the preferred ISP, and if you sign up with them you get a Dreamcast keyboard (a $20 value, but really worth gold when typing emails), but the unit can be configured for any carrier. The web browsing software is supplied by PlanetWeb, and is not too shabby. It cannot support some common web elements (Java, etc.), and plug-ins are not supported yet, but Sega has pledged to maintain a brisk development schedule for browser upgrades. Details about the upgrades are unclear, but the timeline calls for updates to come out every three months or so. Of course, the upgrades won't counter the abysmal resolution of most televisions, but text is anti-aliased very well, and Dreamcast-oriented sites can easily make themselves look quite nice for the limited browser.
The online capabilities are interesting because they come in a package that is usually thought of as a "toy." The Dreamcast brings the internet to people who may not have had access to it before, due to the prohibitive cost and perceived complexity of computers. While we are further astounded every day by the number of newbies entering the online world, it is even more astonishing to think that half the population of the US isn't involved in the computer revolution. What do they think of the Yahoo TV ads? But for $199 you can get a machine that won't only keep your kids occupied, but will give everyone in the household access to a whole new universe of information and media.
Of course, what gaming fans want to know is: How are the games? So far they look great. While the cavalcade of launch titles has its share of stinkers, the overwhelming majority of them are quality games. Some titles, such as Sonic, Blue Stinger, PowerStone, Ready 2 Rumble, NFL2000, and Trick Style are really spectacular. Over 50 titles should be out by the holidays, making "Dreamcast" the word of the season. The best of these titles are already pushing the envelope in a way that will challenge both console and PC game developers. Animated textures, beautifully sculpted characters, and interactive environments are just a few of the brilliant innovations we're seeing even in the first generation of games.
The online capabilities of the system further anticipate new innovations in games. Online multiplayer has taken the PC world by storm, so much so that sequels to major titles, such as Quake III, are exclusively multiplayer. Sega hopes Dreamcast developers will push the envelope in the online play category as much as they have with graphics and environments. Street Fighter Alpha 3 will support online matches, and Slave Zero will include online multiplayer as well. Talk abounds of games that will be released concurrently on Dreamcast and PC, and they will be multiplayable between platforms. Already, on the day of the launch, Sonic players can download special decorations for Station Square to celebrate the day, and they can trade their Chao via an online "daycare."
Overall, the new system looks great. The big question my friends want answered as I sit there playing with my Chao, Melvin, on break is: Will the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo be better, or should I buy this? Well, given the year that Sony has to develop their system, it will almost certainly be technically better. But that doesn't mean that Sega hasn't put out a truly enticing product already. As far as I see it, Sega's put a big, steaming pile of goodstuff on your plate, and if you can push it away for the next year to wait for your PlayStation, then more power to you. You're a stronger man than I. But be cautioned, once you see it you will want it. I don't know if it's thinking, but it has at least one thing on its mind: It wants your time, and it wants it now.