Widgets Magazine

Mind Games: Nintendo’s next — another Dreamcast?

Courtesy of Sega

For as little official information we have on Nintendo’s upcoming console, the gaming community has already given it a lifetime’s worth of dismissive labels, euphoric praise and, of course, internet memes. Some of that I can understand — it’s hard to hold back when Nintendo follows up the “Wii” with a console that reportedly bears the internal codename “Stream,” among others. And the rest, I suppose, is inevitable. Like with politics, pop music and everything else in the age of the Internet, rumors, speculation and fervent fanaticism fly fast in the world of videogames.

Most of that, as you’d expect, is irreverent but charming garbage like “leaked” images of the new console showing nothing but two Wiis duct-taped together, perhaps with a name tag slapped on the side that reads “Hello, my name is Wii 2.” But amidst the ocean of humor and rumor, I found one common thread that made for a more productive, if not entertaining, discussion.

More than a few gaming pundits — and not just the self-proclaimed ones — are explicitly comparing Project Café to a beloved console of yesteryear, the Sega Dreamcast. Most of that stems from the timing of Nintendo’s announcement — with Sony and Microsoft likely nurturing their next consoles for another three years or so, Nintendo’s targeted 2012 release could, the thinking goes, be a tragic retelling of the Sonic-maker’s last dance with the console market. Sega announced its promising console in 1998 and released it on North American shores on 9/9/99. It carried enticing and creative promise, and ultimately marked many gaming firsts — the leap to 128-bit graphics, online multiplayer, progressive-scan output and a virtual memory unit that served as an auxiliary, controller-mounted display, to name a few.

The only trouble, of course, is that Sony announced its powerful successor to the PlayStation at E3 1999 and completely knocked the Dreamcast out of the water in terms of power and third-party developers. Add in support for DVD playback and a release date just a year away, and the Dreamcast was dead in the water just 18 months after it released. History remembers it as the console without a generation, releasing too early to compete and too late to matter.

I can’t deny that the timing of Nintendo’s announcement evokes an almost eerie sense of déjà vu. Combined with numerous reports claiming that the console will only be “comparable” in power to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it’s enough to make me wonder what will put Nintendo over the edge and into what we insist on calling “the next generation” — the same problem our dearly departed Dreamcast had. But for how easy that part of the comparison is to make, it’s pretty superficial. We could’ve looked at spec sheets and release targets for the Xbox 360 or original PlayStation (if we could go back in time a bit) and made the same tin-hat conclusions. In that regard, the situation is too similar to ignore but too common to matter.

Speaking of superficial, there are some other aspects of the Café that make it hard not to think back on my Dreamcast days. These connections fall mostly into the “just for fun” category, and I really don’t think it’s worth extrapolating what they mean for Café’s success. But hey, fun is what we’re here for.

Most reports indicate that Nintendo’s new console will feature a controller-integrated touchscreen, something we haven’t really seen since Sega’s VMU. If any comparison can be made here, it’s a good one — Nintendo and Sega are (or were) both willing to take an off-the-wall approach to building unique hardware, which is a huge part of what allowed for the unique and quirky games that make us lament the loss of the Dreamcast in the first place.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that Nintendo doesn’t seem to be relying too heavily on gimmicks or quirky hardware (as it arguably did with the Wii). Even with the mysterious controller-screen that has everyone talking, Nintendo has gone on record that old-fashioned buttons and joysticks still reign supreme. Unofficial sources are insisting that the controller will feature traditional face and shoulder buttons, a d-pad and, most importantly, dual joysticks — a feature Nintendo hasn’t included since the GameCube and whose omission severely limited the types of software that worked well with Dreamcast.

Nintendo is getting serious in other areas that Sega missed as well. Before it even made an official announcement, the Big-N has insistently said it’s willing to reach into the vault to get quality third-party developers on board with its new hardware. That’s a major departure from the Wii and GameCube, and a huge difference-maker compared to the Dreamcast, which infamously failed to get Electronic Arts sports titles. Nintendo is taking this seriously with a controller and hardware specs that will finally allow games to be ported from its competitors, and if the hoard of partners it amassed to support the 3DS is any indication, it means business. Rumors are already swirling about projects from big names like Rockstar and Capcom.

As long as we’re getting a little technical, Nintendo is also sidestepping some other issues that plagued Sega a decade ago. The Dreamcast was cracked by pirates almost immediately after its release — an untold story that contributed to its downfall at least as much as Sony. As it did with the GameCube, Nintendo will be using proprietary discs to evade most piracy issues, which Kotaku reports to have a generous capacity of 25 gigabytes.

Even if Nintendo’s newest console meets a similar end to Sega’s last, I’m convinced it will be for different reasons. Like the Dreamcast, I have no doubt it will be less powerful than Sony and Microsoft’s next offerings, but Nintendo has shown in the last seven years that it can do enough to differentiate its hardware to render that gap irrelevant — the Wii runs on 10-year-old hardware and came out a year after the 360, and it still became the fastest-selling console in history. More so now than ever, innovative flair goes farther than graphical fidelity in determining the success of a console. With the possible exception of online support, Nintendo has the basics on lockdown in a way Sega simply didn’t, and seems poised to wage its war, once again, with its creativity. It’s too early to make a call on Café, but whether or not it kicks off the next “generation,” Nintendo has the ball in its court and I’m excited to see what it does with it.

In any case, we’ll know a lot more when E3 hits Los Angeles in about a month.