Before the Sonic the Hedgehog game begins on Sega's Dreamcast console, the player is taken down a city street. Pedestrians walk and taxis drive beneath skyscrapers--until water gushes from a manhole, then explodes out of buildings and tears up roads. An alien craft flies low overhead. The scene is like a waterlogged Independence Day, and it bears the message that video games are edging closer to the movies.
Graphics such as these, probably the best seen on a video-game console, form part of Sega's attempt to grab back part of a market it relinquished to Nintendo and Sony. With a microprocessor that munches 128 bits of data at a time, Sega claims Dreamcast is 15 times more powerful than Sony PlayStation and 10 times more than Nintendo 64. What's more, the system has a built-in modem allowing online games to be played in real time and letting users download supplements to existing titles. A hit in Japan, with 900,000 units sold in the first four months after its November release, Dreamcast is Scheduled for launch in the U.S. this September.
That's where the challenge lies. Sega's previous console, Saturn, was a success in Japan, selling nearly 6 million units after its 1994 debut. But PlayStation and, more recently, Nintendo 64, trounced it elsewhere. Both were better to look at and Handle, and even Sega admits its marketing was a mess. Not this time. At $199, Dreamcast will be cheap. Sega vows it will be released in 15,000 stores in a $100 million marketing campaign. Fiftteen software titles, from $39 to $49, will be available immediately, rising to 30 by Christmas and 100 by the end of 2000.
Dreamcast's key appeal is the sense it gives of being inside a scene. Characters in PlayStation or the old Saturn are 2-D cutouts inhabiting a world constructed of layers of 3-D background. Dreamcast is all 3-D. Sonic the Hedgehog and his buddy Tails twist and turn up a spiral staircase. Besides guiding them, the player can act as cameraman, pausing to survey the scene.
Nintendo 64 manages some 3-D movement, but Dreamcast's graphic world is the most realistic in video games so far. While the games don't match the quality of the water-gushing intro, the beach in Sonic's Emerald Coast game glistens under tropical sunlight. When you look up, rings of light dazzle. In a Virtua Fighter game, clouds of sand blow over dunes as twisting, jumping warriors duel in a desert.
LOG ON. The real killer feature could be online games. Each Dreamcast console comes with a modem (33.6 kbps in Japan, 56 kbps in the U.S.), and signing up for an account with Sega's service provider is a breeze. Few will want to use this for Web-surfing, but they may take to virtual motor racing. Dial up the Net and race as many as three opponents as if they were in the same room. Users also can download supplements to existing software, say, adding a Christmas tree to make a town square appear seasonal.
It's all done on an improved box and handset. The console is the size of a small CD player. The handset is similar to those of PlayStation and Nintendo 64. It has a joystick for moving in three dimensions and handles that sit in your palms, leaving thumbs and index fingers free. For motor-racing games, brake and acceleration levers react to finger pressure.
Dreamcast puts Sega ahead of its rivals in technology--for a while at least. Sony plans a PlayStation upgrade for fall of 2000, and Nintendo a new console for Christmas that year. And--surprise--both promise their new products will beat Dreamcast. Sony says that with a chip dubbed the Emotion Engine, characters can purse their lips and narrow their eyes to express feelings. The three game makers don't stop. Maybe they should be cast as Virtua Fighters.