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Happy 15th Birthday, Sega Dreamcast!

Sega Dreamcast
Sega Dreamcast

Few stars have burned as brightly — and burned out as quickly — as Sega’s Dreamcast console.

Adored by players from the moment it was announced in 1998, the system was truly ahead of its time. Even today, on the 15th anniversary of its debut, the Dreamcast has a fan base more loyal than many modern systems.

Boasting sharp graphics, revolutionary online multiplayer capabilities, and an embarrassment of game software riches, the Dreamcast enjoyed massive prerelease orders and seemed poised to put Sega back on top of the console world after it floundered with the Sega Saturn.

Unfortunately, it was doomed from the start. Released on Sept. 9, 1999, the Dreamcast hit the market just prior to Sony’s PlayStation 2, which stole Sega’s thunder en route to becoming the best-selling home console ever. From end to end, the Dreamcast lasted only 19 months on U.S. shelves.

But what a 19 months it was.

SoulCalibur. Crazy Taxi. Shenmue. Jet Grind Radio. Skies of Arcadia. NFL 2K. Heck, even Seaman. Few systems have had such an impressive lineup of games in their lifespans, much less in just a year and a half.

Even more impressive? The Dreamcast was the first system to feature a built-in modem, enabling online play for all users right out of the box over the frail but functional SegaNet service. The first NFL game to feature online play? NFL 2K. The first online RPG on a console? Phantasy Star Online. Undoubtedly, the Dreamcast was a groundbreaker.

Not everyone was on board, however. Most notably, Electronic Arts refused to support the Dreamcast, though to this day, there’s no consensus on the reason for that divide. EA maintains that Sega’s hardware choices and hardball negotiation tactics caused the publisher to walk away. Former Sega boss Bernie Stolar always maintained that EA didn’t want to compete with Visual Concepts, the makers of NFL 2K.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t partner squabbles or even the PlayStation 2 that doomed the Dreamcast; it was Sega’s weak bottom line.

The company’s arcade business was doing well at the time, but it was otherwise strapped for cash. As Sony, then at the height of its power, began to market the PS2, it easily outspent Sega, shifting consumer awareness and cashing in on the brand loyalty it had created with the original PlayStation.

Sega’s then-spokesman Charles Bellfield and his newly minted marketing chief Peter Moore (who went on to lead Microsoft’s Xbox division and is currently chief operating officer of EA) saw the writing on the wall and delivered a report to their bosses in Japan called “Manifesto of the Future,” which declared that Sega had to remove itself from the video game hardware business — and focus solely on software — if it was to survive.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Bellfield in 2009. “We presented a strategy in September 2000 that said we were not viable as a hardware player in the States beyond Christmas 2000 and that we needed to get out of the hardware business. That meeting was the first time Japan had ever heard that we could not be successful against the power of Microsoft, who had not yet announced their intention to come into the space, but we knew they were.

“When we told them that staying in the hardware business was not our advice, the next thing that happened was all of the heads of all the studios got up and walked out without saying a word. That, in the Japanese culture, is pretty rude. But they were shocked.”

Ultimately, of course, Bellfield and Moore were right, and despite some troubles along the way (we’re looking at you, Sonic), Sega is still going strong as a publisher.

Fans, though, have had a hard time letting go. To this day, they hold out hope for a Dreamcast 2 announcement (it’s not happening, folks) and point out that the system actually outsold Nintendo’s Wii U in comparable time frames.

But while the Dreamcast may be gone forever, it left a legacy in the gaming world that few modern machines can match.

“I don’t think it’s an understatement 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,” Moore said to mark the anniversary.

“Rarely does a week go by where I don’t bump into somebody that fondly reminisces about this wonderful piece of hardware and the great times they had (and are still having!) playing some of its superb games. So as we all enjoy everything the next generation of hardware has to offer, give a tip of the hat (or glass) this evening to The Little Console That Could.”

Follow Chris Morris on Twitter.