I've got to hand it to Sega -- it's built buzz around the new Dreamcast gaming console. Witness the near-riot on the bus that I rode last Wednesday, as I lugged my review-unit Dreamcast home from work in a shopping bag.
Before I'd even planted my rear in the molded plastic seat, the yuppie in a suit across from me had already plunged his hands into my shopping bag. "Ooh, you mind if I take a look at it?" he begged, fondling the box with tensed fingers. (I could tell he was deliberating about whether he could convince me to open up the box so he could peek inside.) The parka-clad teenage boys in the back of the bus craned to look at the box, nudging each other and muttering about the merits of the Sony PlayStation vs. the Dreamcast. And a middle-aged mom practically assaulted me as I was stepping off the bus; blocking my path, she demanded to know how I managed to get a Dreamcast console the day before they hit the stores. "I gotta get one for my kids," she yelled after me as I scurried down the street, enduring the continuous slap of the heavy bag against my leg, and the fear that she would snatch the Dreamcast from my grasp.
Yes, I'm exaggerating, but only slightly. At my local Toys "R" Us -- where I hauled my sleepy self early Thursday morning to procure an elusive "Dreamcast RF" unit, which hadn't been included in the package and which was apparently necessary to hook my new console up to my TV -- the sales staff was groggy. Toys "R" Us had already sold out of Dreamcast machines, thanks to a stampede that had converged on the store at 12:01 a.m. the night before. The precious units that remained were hidden in the back, and were being suspiciously meted out only to those who had pre-ordered them. According to Sega, 300,000 fans were wise enough to do so.
What is everyone so worked up about? Perhaps the palpable excitement is primarily due to Sega's savvy (and expensive) marketing campaign; but after spending some quality time with my machine, I think it's fair to say that the Dreamcast is worthy of much of the buzz. More than a mere gaming console, it's a kind of hybrid gaming-browsing machine -- a cross between a WebTV and a traditional Sega console, as it were -- with the most stunning and zippy graphics you'll see off your PC. But it's revolutionary because of how it will change the notion of console gaming -- if it lives up to the interactive promises that Sega is making.
The Dreamcast machine doesn't look like much -- it's a beige box, smaller and squatter than other gaming consoles on the market, but relatively nondescript. Its improvements are on the inside, where it uses an operating system based on Windows CE and boasts 16 megs of RAM, a 128-bit graphic system and an Internet hookup. The games are provided on a proprietary CD-ROM-like system, called GD-ROM, and the console will even play your music CDs. Sega's tag line for the product is "It's thinking," implying that the machine is artificially intelligent, studying your playing techniques and adapting accordingly. It's not. But that doesn't mean it's not worth playing.
And despite initial concerns from the gaming community, Sega is providing plenty of games to play. The Dreamcast launched with 19 games, with a heavy emphasis on sports and racing (no less than seven various racing titles are currently available, while only one adventure game is being offered); another 20 are on their way, including some quirkier Japanese titles like Seaman (a virtual pet simulation) and Evolution (an anime role-playing game), plus Furballs, an ultra-violent action game featuring a cast of cuddly animals -- not to mention even more sports and racing games. I tested Sonic the Hedgehog, Blue Stinger and NFL2K, and found them all to be zippy and interesting, incredible to watch (all three heavily emphasize full-motion video sequences and cinematics), but beyond the graphics the gameplay wasn't anything genre-busting.
Still, the Dreamcast's 128-bit graphics -- using a chip that processes data twice as fast as any previous console -- make it fun just to watch this machine zip away. The graphic detail is truly stunning: The football players in NFL2K look nearly photo-realistic as they muscle across the field; the water in the adventure game Blue Stinger sparkles and ripples as it reflects the sun, and even Sonic the Hedgehog leaves tiny shadowed footprints marking his path as he runs on the sandy beaches.
Of course, before you can play, you'll have to set the damn thing up -- which isn't as easy as it sounds. Configuring the Dreamcast might be a cinch for console veterans, but for someone who has never attempted the cord-juggling feat of hooking up a console to a television system, it's a phenomenal hassle. Those who connect their televisions to a VCR or cable hookup, for example, will have to pick up a Dreamcast RF unit, a pricey little gadget that shuffles all your electronic appliances into the appropriate jacks.
More baffling, though, are the Internet configurations. The Dreamcast includes a built-in 56K modem that you can plug into a telephone jack to log on to the Net, and proprietary browser software to surf the Web. But none of this is explained in the Dreamcast instruction manual. (The instructions, I discovered after much searching, are hidden in the "liner notes" for the browser software CD, which was buried at the bottom of the Dreamcast box.)
But once you figure out how to install it, Sega's Internet software is worthy of praise, as it manages in a few simple screens to launch you online. You have a choice of setting up a special AT&T WorldNet account, or logging in through your current ISP. Either way, you can receive e-mail, chat or browse the Net using the Dreamcast console. Much like the WebTV interface, Sega's browser (which was designed by PlanetWeb) includes its own simplified navigational tools, adapting text and layouts to work on a TV screen, and doesn't necessarily support all Net protocols -- so some of your favorite Web pages might look odd. Your best bet is to visit the exclusive "Dreamcast Network" of gaming hints and tips, chat rooms and news, which can only be accessed through a Dreamcast machine and has been carefully designed to look great on the TV screen.
Unfortunately, the Dreamcast doesn't include a keyboard (this, apparently, is sold for an extra $24.99) or a mouse; it relies instead on an on-screen keypad and some deft maneuvering of your joystick, which makes typing a tedious and difficult task. Unless you feel like springing for the keyboard, I wouldn't suggest using the Dreamcast as your primary means of Net access -- and I certainly wouldn't suggest attempting a chat room. It also isn't very stable: My Dreamcast browser crashed twice during the first few hours of use (though it's certainly quicker to reboot than a Windows PC).
But as a rudimentary browsing tool, the Dreamcast serves its purpose. And its greatest potential lies in online gaming: allowing Dreamcast users to play their favorite Sega games together, competing across the Internet. This has been one of the much-hyped aspects of the Dreamcast -- but, oddly, not a single one of the games that Sega has currently released allows networked, online play. (According to IGN.com, Sega hasn't set up the American gaming network yet because it requires an immense infrastructure). Instead, although you can access the Net while playing games like Sonic the Hedgehog, there is no true "interactivity"; the best you can do is visit the Sonic home page. But when you log in through the Sonic game, it does change the Web browser interface to feature cute little Sonic characters as icons.
Sega is counting on the Dreamcast to revive the company from the throes of near-death. Sega, which once ruled the console gaming market with a market share of nearly 60 percent, flopped with the Saturn, its 64-bit graphic system, and now claims a mere 1 percent of the console market, while Sony and Nintendo share the rest. But the current console systems are now several years old, and all three companies are coming out with new 128-bit systems. Sega has the advantage of being first to market, but Sony and Nintendo expect to launch their new machines, also boasting Internet capabilities, in fall 2000, and will provide stiff competition -- Sony's graphics are rumored to be even better than the Dreamcast's, and both Sony and Nintendo will use a DVD format that allows users to play games and movies. Sega has a sales target of 1.5 million units by March, hoping to nab consumers before its competitors launch their products.
But the Dreamcast's main competition may not be Sony or Nintendo at all, but the desktop computer. With the rise in quality of PC gaming, console game machines increasingly feel like an antiquity from a past era. Computers now offer incredible graphics and sound, along with access to the networked gaming available online, so why would you want to buy a whole separate gaming system that communicates only with your television? (The main advantage of consoles, beyond some of the great games that are offered for these systems, is their smoother play -- less plagued by bugs and crashes -- and the fact that they offer a more social kind of gaming, where you can plop down on the couch with a passel of friends and a box of joysticks.) Computer game sales were up 18 percent in 1998, although industry experts forecast that console sales will continue to exceed PC gaming sales, both in total sales and in sector growth.
The Sega Dreamcast -- part Net machine, part gaming machine, with a CD player thrown in for good measure -- is addressing many of these issues. It is a superior, multipurpose gaming machine, good for sitting around with friends and (if Sega gets its act together) strangers across the Net; and though it still can't compete with the overall utility of a PC, it costs only $199.95 and could certainly enable kids to e-mail grandma.
The Dreamcast may have an important place in the future if we do move into an appliance future, in which the "computer" moves out of the PC and into specialized, Internet-ready, single-purpose devices -- gaming machines, kitchen computers and the like. Regardless of whether the company loses the console battle and goes down in flames, Sega has succeeded in being the first to reinvent the capabilities of gaming machines as we know them -- which is why everyone on the bus is making such a fuss. Even if the Dreamcast itself isn't actually "thinking," it's clear that Sega is.