Still Dreaming

by | Jun 28, 2020 | Writing

At the start of the year, I made a commitment to cut back a little. My bookshelves are overflowing, my DVD collection is filled with unwatched classics, and I could no longer ignore the gathering dust on my shelves; filled with media untouched and overlooked.

Primarily, this commitment was aimed at my video game collection. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a die-hard gamer, and the proud owner of so many classic consoles that it’s hard to keep track.

My strategy – as with books and DVDs – has always been to avoid buying games at full price. Instead, I wait several months – sometimes years – until the price drops to a fraction of the cost, picking them up on the cheap. I’m always amused at the memories of picking up cheap, second hand Sega Saturn titles for around £5 while friends begged their parents for a £40 PlayStation release. Besides, who needs Gran Turismo when you have Sega Rally? This strategy has allowed me to collect a lot of videogames, usually played years after they’ve been forgotten by the mainstream.

The challenge comes when you just have too many to play.

It’s a first-world problem, but one I know many gamers have. With so many games left unfinished before moving onto the next one, collections continue to grow while half-finished experiences dwindle into memory. With the time demands of work and daily life, it only gets less and less likely that we will return to the games gone by, with every new title only adding to the problem.

I decided, therefore, that 2020 would be a year of no new games. Nor books, nor films. Instead, I would focus on playing, watching and reading what I already had. Not only would this save a bit of money, but it would allow me to appreciate what was already in my possession a little more, rather than chasing after the next “fix” of consumerist indulgence.

(Confession: I’m afraid to say that, when the lockdown came along, I did break this self-imposed rule!)

Returning to these old games brought back a lot of memories. I’d been a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog since my grandmother put on an episode of the classic DiC Adventures of series when I was only 5 or 6 years old. I’ll never forget the Christmas when I first opened the Sega Mega Drive, nor the first time I booted up Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and – there they were –my two heroes, Sonic and Tails, running around and saving the day. It was pure escapism, and I was forever hooked as a Sega devotee.

Flash forward to my early days in high school, which was a tough transition. To put it bluntly; I was a pretty weird teenager. Adolescence is hard for everyone, and my own experiences were defined by very few friends, a chip on my shoulder and a lot of self-esteem issues. Still immersed in Pokemon cards and Japanese manga, I was alienated from my Primary School friends, whose interests had shifted to music and girls. I lacked confidence, became extremely introverted and deeply shy. Rather than make connections in the real world, it became much easier to hide away in the fictional worlds of gaming.

Video games let players live vicariously through empowerment fantasies. Sonic blitzes through the world at rollercoaster speeds. Solid Snake lets us become a spy and action hero. Even Mario – never my favourite – offers simple risk and reward mechanics in its platforming gameplay. Save the world and you simulate the feelings of achievement.

More than words on a page; more than late night films with the volume turned down; for an aimless youth – alone in his bedroom – the games console was a way to feel good, and in control. A chance to achieve clear goals and to escape to a world so much more exciting and rewarding than school and homework.

Those are bittersweet memories. For all of my adventures in pixels and polygons, those escapist fantasies became an unhealthy obsession. I would be deeply concerned if I met myself then, seeing the hours I had poured into my save files.

Enter the Sega Dreamcast. More than any other console, the Dreamcast is the one which has left a lasting impact on me, and I doubt the course of my life would have been the same without it. My memories of Sega’s last games console are particularly fresh, having just purchased a commemorative book by Read Only Memory (again, breaking my 2020 rule), which I can’t recommend highly enough. I’d encourage anyone with a passion for the console to take a look.

Most gamers know how the Sega Dreamcast story ended: Sega, defeated, exited the console wars with their tail between their legs, becoming a third-party developer to their old rivals. Yet the Dreamcast represented the defiant vision of a company on a glorious last stand. If Sega was going to go down, it was going to go down fighting. And fight it did.

The console is still remembered fondly as ahead of its time; a pioneer of online multiplayer, a prototype for dual screen displays with it’s VMU memory “cards” (doubling as a portable gaming device in it’s own right), and with an offbeat software library still regarded as one of the most vibrant and unique in gaming. The Dreamcast even brought the concept of DLC into living rooms for the first time. I don’t think I’ll ever experience the sheer thrill of that first boot up of Sonic Adventure. Sonic – and Sega – hadn’t had a hit since the early 90s, the industry leaders now overshadowed and increasingly obscure. After years in the wilderness and the dawn of a new millennium, here they were: back, and bold, and determined to make their mark.

I was always drawn to Sega’s “offbeat” status. While everyone had the PlayStation, I played the Sega Saturn. When everyone went to PS2, I was on the Dreamcast. I suppose in some ways I saw Sega’s woes as a mirror of my own; a bit of an “outsider”, struggling to find a place in the world.

Three games in particular sum up the influence of the Dreamcast on my life.

Shenmue is probably the most notable example. Having for years been fascinated by Japan and Japanese pop culture (thanks in no small part to my love of gaming), Yu Suzuki’s passion project offered a chance to experience the streets of Yokosuka through the eyes of Japanese teenager. The game is one of the earliest “open world” 3D games – predating Grand Theft Auto 3 – with a commitment to photo-realism and portraying an authentic representation of Japan on the screen.

To say I fell in love was an understatement; I knew that, playing Shenmue, I had to go and experience Japan for myself. Several years later, I was working on the JET programme as an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan: a role I lived for three of the best years of my life.

Years before Facebook and World of Warcraft, Sonic Team’s Phantasy Star Online gave gamers a chance to connect with players from all over the world. For a pre-broadband teen, this was unheard of. It didn’t matter how few friends I had in the real world – here was a whole online community where adventure could be shared, slaying dragons and exploring an alien planet.

The game was so addictive that I secretly hooked up the 56K modem to the phone line after my parents went to bed, resulting in a hefty phone bill (and some very strong words from my parents)! Phantasy Star Online connected me to a literal world of other players, and sharing their experiences made me feel international – that I was a member of a global community.

Lastly, of course, there is Sonic Adventure 2. A strong candidate for my all-time favourite game.

One of the final games released for the Dreamcast, the game is effectively a “series finale” – climaxing story threads and character arcs from throughout the Sonic series, with thought-provoking story on revenge and identity that is still (to my mind) the series’ best. Even the game’s marketing hyped up that this was to be the last Sonic, with the trailers stating: “Goodbye, Sonic – forever.”

The Sonic series had always far surpassed Mario on narrative, with strong world-building and memorable characters centred on the central conflict of nature vs industrialisation. Here, though, Sonic peaked. It felt like the series had grown up with me, and the mature tonal evolution would forever influence how I’d write my own filmmaking scripts; seeing the mascots I’d grown up with not just as cartoon fantasies, but vehicles through which to explore complex narratives and themes.

More than that, the online message boards of the game introduced me to an online fan community of other like-minded teens; again, scattered throughout the globe. There, I found people just like me who shared my love for an increasingly unloved 90s icon. Not only was this validating, but it was comforting; I wasn’t alone. I would spend hours on the Dreamcast web browser discussing character motivations, indulging in (terrible) fan fiction and – basically – feeling understood. Those hours spent speaking with like-minded individuals on message boards gave me the confidence to speak up and connect in the real world.

That experience has been replicated by millions of young people online, who have found their voice and validation by communicating with others who share their passion and interests. These days, most people would describe me as an extrovert – but that wouldn’t have been possible without many long evenings in my bedroom, learning to speak again – and being listened to.

Many of the classic Dreamcast titles have since been ported to other consoles. Classics such Crazy Taxi, Jet Set Radio, and even the three that I’ve mentioned are all readily available on PC or other consoles. Yet the Dreamcast itself still has a few classics that have never seen the light of day elsewhere. Regardless of where it’s games have gone since, for three brief years the Dreamcast was home to countless unique, exclusive experiences unlike anything available with Sony or Nintendo.

Those formative years were a stepping stone in my life. As the years went by, I came out of my shell, started to date, made more friends in the real world and pursued other interests. As the years have gone by, gaming has become less important in my life, to a point where I can now enjoy a much healthier relationship than the clear addiction of my teenage years. It’s a fun indulgence, tinged with nostalgia, but a hobby now – no longer a lifestyle. And while I’m still a gamer, I find so much more merit in making the most of the real world rather than an imaginary one.

While my personal relationships, my social circles, my family and career have all given me my happiest memories, I still can’t help but enjoy booting up an old console on a rainy day for just one more run with my spiky blue friend. The Dreamcast may be an increasingly obscure memory, but I’ll forever be grateful to Sega for their glorious, defiant little white box, and the undeniably positive impact it has had on my life.

Wee additional note: this video on the Sega Dreamcast from the Geek Critique is well worth a watch. It accurately captures most of my own thoughts and feelings from the time, as why the system still has a special place in the hearts of so many gamers.

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