The Dreamcast was a defining moment for me. The week in which both Shenmue and Skies of Arcadia hit the Dreamcast was the week when I realized consciously how deeply interwoven gaming was into my personality. When I look back at the system on its 20th American anniversary, a big part of that was the downright bizarre collection of games on the system. There’s no list long enough to hold all the weird games on the Dreamcast, but these are some of my favorites. If you’re an old-school Dreamcast fan, you’ll be able to anticipate some of these, though I hope at least a couple will take you by surprise. Remember – this isn’t the list of BEST games – but rather some of the weirdest. Soul Calibur was not weird (compared to other fighting games of the time), so you’ll want to look elsewhere for that list. But now, let’s talk about weird games.
Samba de Amigo
Long before VR hit Beat Saber was even an idea, there was another game wrecking my arms with addictive, rhythm-based gameplay: Sambe de Amigo. This game, yanked straight from Japanese arcades, had the player shaking noisy maracas in time with the music emanating from the television. A bar on the floor received ultrasonic transmissions from the controllers to judge their position in reference to the on-screen positions. There were three positions for each arm, and the game would have you alternately shake, pose, and rattle the maracas in time with the music. The soundtrack included artists like Ricky Martin (“Cup of Life,” “La Vida Loca”), Reel Big Fish (“Take On Me”), and Chumbawamba (“Tubthumpin'” (of course)), along with other artists and original game tracks.
Between the maraca shaking, which works surprisingly well for being a non-traditional control method, the catchy tunes, and the funny monkey on-screen, I ended up playing a whole ton of this game both alone and with friends. It preceded the plastic instruments craze by a few years here in America, so it was a weird novelty at the time, and I absolutely adored it.
There was a time when some games were not open-world games. Long before the days of semi-annual Assassin’s Creed, and the epic huge worlds of Grand Theft Auto, there was a little game called Shenmue.
Shenmue put you in the shoes of a young Japanese man named Ryo Hazuki. Ryo witnesses a martial arts battle between his father and a mysterious man over a mystical mirror. Ryo spends the game trying to look for the killer, but designer Yu Suzuki wanted Shenmue to be more than a simple RPG. He wanted Ryo to live in the world of 1980s Yokosuka, Japan. While Ryo was done with high school, he could do things like talk to the citizens of his neighborhood, play arcade games, and explore. Oh, and let’s not forget about forklift driving. Ryo had to hold down a job.
While Shenmue hasn’t aged terribly well, there’s no doubt that this massive game foretold the future of games to come. It sits somewhere between “Immersive sim” games like System Shock and Deus Ex, and open-world games like Grand Theft Auto. The closest analog is Sega’s own Yakuza series, which is an evolution of Shenmue‘s main pillars, reimagined as a crime story. Yakuza departs from the ideas of Shenmue in many ways, but the pillars are still there. You spend the whole game in one city, and most of it in one district of that city, alternately solving problems with your feet and fists and with your words as a way of gaining experience and interacting with people in town.
At the time Shenmue came out, it was the most expensive game ever made, with a budget surpassing $20 million. It saw a sequel on Dreamcast and Xbox that ended on a cliffhanger. Almost 20 years later, a crowd-funded sequel is on the way. We awaiting it half-cringed and looking through our fingers. But at the time, Shenmue was the coolest game out there.
Jet Grind Radio
But if we want to talk about the coolest game, it’s time to revisit Jet Grind Radio, called Jet Set Radio over in Japan. This series is the first polygonal game I can remember to effectively use cel-shading techniques to truly convey the feel of playing inside a cartoon. Games like Flashback and Another World used shaded polygons for an interesting look, but Jet Grind Radio was something very different.
While game developers had basically mastered the 2D plane of the earlier consoles, the polygonal era was, for the most part, an ugly mess. The games just didn’t look good. Jet Grind Radio looked stunning.
In this game, you played as a gang of headphone-wearing graffiti artists who fight capitalism through the power of spray paint and dope music, combining original and licensed tracks. I loved Guitar Vader back in the day. I was terrible at the Jet Set Radio games, both the Dreamcast release and the Xbox sequel, Jet Set Radio Future, but the style is still something I look back on fondly.
Perhaps no game stands out as weirder than Seaman. Seaman was designed by Yutaka “Yoot” Saito. Before that, he was best known for the simulation game The Tower, released in America by Maxis as SimTower (another game I loved like crazy and poured many hours into!).
Seaman acts like a massively more complex version of the Tamagotchis that were popular around the same time. Seaman is a pet. A fish with a human face that you have to feed, maintain, and raise. The game stood out primarily for its use of a microphone as the main method of interacting with the game. Long before I spoke to my three beautiful children Siri, Alexa, and Hey Google, I was talking to my Dreamcast. The Seaman creature was a weird, grumpy critter that had a fairly limited set of interactions, but he was nonetheless incredibly fun to interact with. When I finished raising him, essentially “completing” the game, he even gave a speech that left 19-year-old me a little misty-eyed.
This list will of course not be complete and is totally subjective. But for me, I can’t go without mentioning Virtua Tennis. Tennis games are hard to get right, and Sega nailed it with Virtua Tennis. My friend Mike and I spent dozens of hours playing this one competitively. It was one of the few multiplayer games I ever felt competent at enough that I could handle losing. The game included a list of then-active tennis pros, each with their own strengths. Mike and I worked those into nicknames like “Various Shots” Courier and “Volley Master” Henman. The love I had for Virtua Tennis eventually bled over into me becoming an active tennis fan for four or five years, and it is still one of my absolute favorite memories playing video games.
Typing of the Dead
Remember the zombie lightgun game House of the Dead? What if that, but with spelling? Typing of the Dead combines the draw of killing zombies with the skills of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing into one of the silliest and most absurd game ideas. You can still check out the concept by heading to Steam and searching for Typing of the Dead: Overkill, a sequel that doubles down on the absurdness of the idea and really makes it work.
Chu-Chu Rocket is one of the very first games I ever played online. Thanks to the Dreamcast’s built-in 56K modem, I was able to connect to Sega’s ISP, which I once used as my primary ISP for a whole summer in college. In this game, little mice (chu-chus) were heading for a shuttle (rocket), and the goal was to get as many mie into the rockets as you could before cats got them. You know, just like in nature. It was a weird, memorable game with tons of color and attitude.
There are, of course, other weird games in the Dreamcast’s library, like Space Channel 5, Toy Commander, Power Stone, and more, but these – these games were weird and I loved them. What were your favorites?