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Sega's new system plays like a dream


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 1999

The games are smoother. The detail astonishing. It is a Dreamcast of a video game machine.

Even with an early rental preview under way in the United States, many gamers won't get a full shot at Sega's long-awaited Dreamcast until it goes on sale Sept. 9. Not many people would travel thousands of miles to play a new video game system, and, honest, that wasn't the main reason for my trip to Japan. But I couldn't resist a chance to try out this new entry in the video game market during a recent visit.

Dreamcast is a small, sleek system, about half the size of a Sony PlayStation and a lot easier to pack in your luggage. The controller, at first glance, looks a lot like a plastic bat, even a little too big, but it felt comfortable in my hands.

What struck me about the first few games I played was how easily the Dreamcast handles polygons, the components of 3D objects. Sega Rally 2, a dirt-tossing rally car racer, was smooth as opposed to the choppy tracks and cars you see on the PlayStation. The Nintendo 64 comes close as far as its racers' main elements, but it can't match the Dreamcast on details.

My favorite Japanese Dreamcast game, Sonic Adventure, has been improved for its U.S. release. In Sonic Adventure, our little blue pal gets plopped down into a 3-D world that makes your mouth water.

Take control of the adjustable camera and you can home in on the individual leaves on a tree. This is 3-D with no limits: no blocky characters or pixely on-screen props. Just lush realism, plain and simple.

At this point you might ask, what good are the graphics if Sega fails in the software department as it did with its last console venture, the Saturn? As you might remember, the Saturn folded because other gamemaking companies didn't support the system.

Well, don't worry. Dreamcast games had a fun factor that is reminiscent of Sega Genesis games of the early '90s.

House of the Dead 2, for instance, is no more than a shooting game. But then again, your targets aren't the kind that fall down because you blew a hole in them. In the past, a game such as House of the Dead 2 would have been impossible on a console system. First, it is made by Sega and Sega would never license one of its great arcade franchises to Nintendo or Sony. Second, the graphics would have to be watered down too much.

None of the games I played in Japan took advantage of Dreamcast's Internet modem because the Japanese network isn't up and running. However, Sega promises a functioning U.S. network by Sept. 9, not to mention 12 Sega games and more than 20 third-party games.

It is Dreamcast's Internet compatibilities that make it such an interesting new toy. Imagine being able to hook up with people from Seattle to Syracuse and play a baseball game or a fighter. Instead of having neighborhood rivals, you could have a national rival. Finally, I may find someone who can match my prowess for hockey games.

But Sega is not pushing dreams for the future. From what I have seen and heard, a slew of games besides Sonic will have the U.S. gaming public champing at the bit. NFL 2000 is the most realistic football game ever and will arrive in time for football season. Ready 2 Rumble, a comic-style boxing game, is said to have an addiction factor higher than potato chips.

For more icing on the cake, Dreamcast controllers are compatible with a device known as a Visual Memory Unit. Besides being able to store your game info on it, the unit acts as a pseudo Gameboy and pocket pet rolled into one bite-size package.

This clever gadget, in essence, lets you take your Dreamcast wherever you go, and they are sure to infest numerous kids' pockets. I found the unit to be an engaging video game snack.

You may be as eager to play Dreamcast as I am (again). It is available for a two-day rental at select Hollywood Video stores for $20 (that includes a game), plus a $350 refundable deposit. Sega plans to stagger games -- including Sonic Adventure, NFL 2000 and Ready 2 Rumble -- for rent until Sept. 9.

An early check showed brisk interest in the machine, which Sega hopes will translate into sales of the $200 Dreamcast when it is released. (Games will cost about $40 or less.) Should Sega reach its goal of 200,000 Dreamcast pre-orders, the company will be back in the game market in a major way, once again shoring up the Big Three that includes No. 1 Sony and No. 2 Nintendo.

Don't be too surprised if Sega's hopes become reality. In many ways, Dreamcast is the stuff video game dreams are made of -- at least until the Next Generation PlayStation and Nintendo's Dolphin project come out in 2000.

-- Robb Guido writes about games for Tech Times.

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