A Dream, Cast Aside, or I Wonder What It’s Thinking About Now?

9 09 2014

15 years ago today, I was taking a day off from work. I’d been out late the night before, picking up a brand new Sega Dreamcast at a midnight sale at Lenox Square Mall. I remember standing in line, watching NBA 2K footage on the store’s monitors, thinking “That looks almost like an actual broadcast basketball game. These graphics are insane.” One of the games I bought that night was Soul Calibur, and just like the basketball game, it blew me away with its visuals. Gone were the visual seams and occasional warped polygons that were the hallmarks of so many 3D titles in the previous generation. These characters were big, detailed, smooth, and beautiful, and it was almost possible to believe that the graphics race was over – that little white box with the orange spiral logo was the last word.

That was silly, of course – most games look almost laughable now, and I caught a bit of the newest Madden title’s graphics last night and thought “That looks almost like an actual broadcast football game,” so obviously we’re getting ever closer to real without quite catching it. Still, the Dreamcast was a very impressive system with some fantastic games. Sega’s decision to exit the hardware market was a sad end to the best thing they’d done since the original Genesis, and they haven’t managed anything as successful since.

Their attempts to cash in on nostalgic favorites have been middling at best, filler games rather than triumphs. So many attempts to reboot Sonic the Hedgehog have come and gone, each fumbling badly and eliciting ever more calls from reviewers to put the ol’ blue fella out to pasture. There have been successes – Bayonetta is apparently well-regarded – but there have been crushing failures, like the unmitigated disaster of Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game so bad it resulted in a (now settled) lawsuit over misleading demo footage.

Long gone are the salad days of a Sega willing to embrace gleeful weirdness (Space Channel 5, Chu Chu Rocket, Samba de Amigo, Seaman) and take wild leaps on things like Shenmue – a game with an unprecedented level of detail, featuring non-player characters with their own distinct lives and schedules, even if they were completely unrelated to the plot. It set the template for the 3D entries in the Grand Theft Auto series, dropping the player into a fully realized world and saying “Hey, there’s a story to pursue, if you feel like it. If not, go to the arcade! Wander the streets! Engage in high-stakes duck racing!” (that was Shenmue II, but still).

As many long-time fans know, the Shenmue story remains unfinished. Yu Suzuki envisioned a massive narrative spanning something like 16 games, but only two were ever published (not counting an MMO – did that ever come out?). Plenty of people would love to see it completed, but today’s Sega (Sega Sammy, if we’re being accurate) seems content to churn out low-effort rehashes that feel almost like Asylum movies – designed to dupe people who don’t know better by looking and sounding a lot like more beloved properties, but usually failing to clear even the “so bad it’s good” bar. Recently they’ve even started churning out utterly passable licensed movie tie-ins, just like Acclaim (that was Acclaim, right? I think it was Acclaim) – a practice that’s pretty much universally reviled. Sure, there have been a few movie-to-game success (the Disney games of the 16-bit era were generally good, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was great), but most have been cynical, no-effort cash grabs, made to be bought by people who don’t know any better. And now Sega’s all over that.

At this point I must nod to the upcoming Alien Isolation, which is both a licensed game and seems to boast fairly unique gameplay in its one-person-versus-one-alien-that’s-it premise. I’m excited about it, and it’s from Sega, so it obviously hurts my overall thesis… just not very much.

15 years ago, this sad progression seemed unthinkable. Sega had learned from the missteps of the Sega CD and the 32X and the Saturn, and the brand new Dreamcast was their flag planted confidently atop the mountain of relevance. They were bold, they were scrappy, they had a crazy gleam in their eyes, and for a time, they were the best game in town. That little white box with the orange spiral logo gave me a lot of fun and a lot of fond memories, and today, I’ll celebrate that.

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