I was just settling into a new home, town, and life when I realised my older brother Wes and I had left something terribly precious behind in our family’s move: a Sega Dreamcast. With it, my childhood fantasy of hauling arse around San Francisco in a yellow Cadillac Eldorado slipped beyond reach.
That vision was of Hitmaker’s Crazy Taxi. The rowdy game and other Dreamcast titles — like Jet Set Radio and Soul Calibre — captivated my 8-year-old mind like no others. Next to my first console, a dusty but respectable Super Nintendo, Dreamcast’s games were obnoxious yet radiant, punched up by tracks from The Offspring, Bad Religion, and B.B. Rights. Like so many other kids circa 1999, I wanted a Dreamcast. And believe me I paid a hefty price for it.
My family had just relocated from Winter Park, Fla., bringing with us memories of heavy air, fire ants, and moss-draped trees. When I imagine my first home now, I see myself stretching a controller from the SNES into the gap beneath our living room couch. I laid there on the cool concrete floor, hiding from my mum to max out the time I could spend playing Donkey Kong before she’d send me outside for fresh air.
Other times, when we weren’t fighting or scrimmaging, Wes and I would wash down a jumbo box of Goldfish with tall glasses of orange juice and race to finish the map in Super Mario Bros.
As we wore down the family console, my brother plotted an upgrade. A bike ride to Orlando’s Fashion Square Mall led him to the arcade edition of Crazy Taxi, where he’d rack up points picking up irate passengers and doing tricks, slamming into passing cars and dodging pedestrians along the way. Around this time Sega’s $US100 ($137) million marketing machine whispered into my 13-year-old brother’s ear that he could soon play the game at home. “9/9/99 for $US199 ($272),” the Dreamcast sales pitch went.
I didn’t need much convincing by the time Wes brought it up in a late-night chat before bed. I don’t remember exactly how it went, but I was persuaded to contribute my birthday money and do a bunch of chores, all so we could eventually buy a sixth-gen console of our very own and share it. I struck a deal to weed the garden in exchange for some of the spare change that gathered atop my grandmother’s bed.
I remember climbing an escalator, checking my shoes were tied along the way, and walking into a KB Toys to learn more. I knew early on that we were unlikely to get the money together in time for the Dreamcast’s North American release, thanks to warnings from my mum, but a salesperson convinced my brother and I to lock down a unit on layaway anyways before supplies ran out. As Sega pinned its hopes on the upcoming console, aiming to make up for the Saturn’s poor sales, my brother and I waited in the wings. Little did I know our mission would soon crumble to pieces, just like Sega’s.
An off-kilter taxi driver simulator was just about all it took to win us over, but Sega had more tricks up its sleeve in the run-up to the Dreamcast’s U.S. release. An unprecedented campaign meant the console was briefly unavoidable, from a 1999 MTV Video Music Awards sponsorship to tie-ins with an upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger flick. An E3 press release republished by the Verge captured Sega’s appetite to put it in front of basically everyone: “Sega Dreamcast will have 950 television spots on MTV alone from July through March 2000, buys on ESPN and Monday Night Wrestling. […] Sega Dreamcast will be everywhere, as consumers watch television come this summer.”
Under the hood, the Dreamcast ran circles around fifth-generation consoles like Sony’s PlayStation. It boasted 16 MB of RAM, proprietary “GD-ROM” discs with an entire gigabyte of storage capacity, and a modular 56 kbit/s modem that made it the first dedicated console to feature online gameplay. The modem was a glimmer of the future. It powered transformative games that went over my head at the time, most notably Phantasy Star Online.
You could even swap in a broadband adaptor later on for speeds as fast as 100 Mbit/s. Among hardcore fans, these adapters are still in demand and sometimes top $US200 ($274) a pop on eBay.
When it launched, Sega raked in $US98 ($134) million from Dreamcast hardware and software sales in less than 24 hours. My brother and I heard all about the frenzy from the KB Toys staffer and congratulated ourselves for putting one on reserve. We dutifully handed over deposits towards the futuristic machine over the course of a few months.
And then suddenly our home was filled with boxes. A mental fog embraced us. When I emerged from that cloud a short while later, I charged out of a new bedroom and shouted to my mum about what I believed to be a horrible mistake. What about the Dreamcast? What about our money? Holy shit, what about my money?
It was all a thousand miles away and my Mum wasn’t sure what had happened to it.
I confronted Wes later that day, insisting we had to act, but then he deflected. At first, I recall him arguing I hadn’t really paid much of the deposit to begin with. I felt the sting of betrayal as I pieced together what had happened, and I kept on him until he eventually caved: “Oh, I got most of the money back. I spent it,” he said.
I remember screaming and slamming my bedroom door, craving a tidy resolution that wouldn’t come. For all that grief, Sega’s fortune turned out worse.
Soon other sixth-generation gaming consoles arrived and stole the show. The PlayStation 2, Gamecube and Xbox abruptly eclipsed Sega’s chaotic lineup and ate its marketshare. Sony in particular hit a home run with its embrace of DVDs. Sony’s willingness to sell the PS 2 at a loss surely helped too.
Sega leaned hard into its online gaming features to fend off the competition. In doing so, it built a foundation for later services like Microsoft’s Xbox Live.
Former Sega of America President Peter Moore mused in a retrospective on Sega’s early vision of online gaming: “In our heart of hearts, we worried that we would not be there for the entire journey, but it was with great pride that with our Sega Sports games in particular, that we ushered in the era of connected interactive entertainment. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that the Dreamcast and its online network laid the ground for what we all take for granted today — online game play, linking innumerable gamers from around the world to play, compete and collaborate, as well as enabling new content to be delivered in addition to that which was delivered on the disc.”
Sega may have launched gamers into the future, but those online features also now lock some aspects of Dreamcast’s legacy in the past. Sega’s regional online services (e.g.: Dricas in Japan and SegaNet in the U.S.) are long gone. In their place, Herculean efforts from super fans like Shuouma have resurrected some online features, breathing new life into the console for those dedicated enough to wander down a rabbit hole.
In a video featurette I discovered years later, IGN called the Dreamcast’s story bittersweet: “It’s a story of bright beginnings and tragic endings,” the video’s narrator mused — and my inner child nodded.
“But what it’s not though is a story of blame,” the narrator continued. “No one group is responsible for the sad fate of the Dreamcast — not indifferent gamers, not publishers that withheld their support. Everybody has a little blood on their hands.”
With respect to IGN, I’ll absolve my 8-year-old self of the blame. But what about Wes? What about his bloody hands? Craving to resolve a childhood grudge about 20 years later, I called my brother without warning to ask: “What gives?”
I did my best to jog his memory and let it sink in.
“You know what,” he replied, “I think that is exactly what happened. I wiggled myself to the mall and got the money before we moved, and here’s why: We were like halfway through the process, and so it was basically like — lose the money or get it back. And I think that I had gone to that mall with one of my friends on my bike, and I scooped that money up and probably bought a lot of orders of biscuits and gravy. Uh — yep.”
This sort of thing isn’t exactly new for Wes and I. Still on the phone, Wes summed us up: “We fought a lot and I fucking did a bunch of mean shit to you. And there were also moments where we were inseparable and best friends, and we’d play soccer ‘til dark and watch cartoons. I remember though, you know like, feeling really bad about that one,” Wes said of our doomed Dreamcast. I burst into laughter. “There was like all the other shit and then there was that one. I feel like I carried the guilt with me on the aeroplane,” Wes added as we unpacked the family move.
I pressed him for more and he offered other answers for what might have happened to the money, which we pegged around $US100 ($137). “I feel like I spent it on blacklight posters at Spencers? I’m sure whatever it was, it was freaking ridiculous. Maybe I bought myself a copy of like, Sim City 2000.”
At some point years ago, my brother bought me Pokemon cards to make up for it all. “It was some kind of half-assed pay you to keep your mouth shut situation,” Wes said. “Harri, please accept my apology. Your Dreamcast is in the mail.” (It wasn’t.)
“I accept,” I said. “Thank you.”
“You both made my night and ruined it at the same time,” Wes added. “Maybe now the wounds can start to heal.”
In the Offspring single “All I Want,” which takes centre stage in Crazy Taxi, lead singer Dexter Holland tells it like it is:
You get no respect
(You get no relief)
You gotta speak up
And yell out your piece
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!