Even in the west, as the PlayStation 2 drew closer the Dreamcast lost momentum. It was at this point that the legacy of SEGA's worthless Megadrive expansions and the fumbled Saturn came back to haunt the company. In what would become a grim self-fulfilling prophecy, many punters were understandably quicker to put their cash towards the established and widely loved PlayStation brand rather than risk ending up with another SEGA system with few games and no long-term future.
In the face of such competition, the Dreamcast's technical features proved of little value. SEGA, arguably about five years ahead of its time, had gambled on the importance of online play but console gamers in 2000 were a lot less interested in networked games than their PC counterparts. Back then, MMORPG was just a really bad handful of Scrabble tiles, so a pioneering effort like Phantasy Star Online just wasn't what joypad lovers were looking for. With the PlayStation 2 doubling as a DVD player, a desirable technology that had just tipped over into mass-market must-have status, the ability to play Chu Chu Rocket over the internet wasn't likely to turn the tide in Dreamcast's favour.
As the PS2 sold more and more on its epic ten-year journey to become the world's best-selling games console, Dreamcast sales dried up. In March 2001, a mere two years after the Dreamcast's impressive US launch, SEGA announced that not only was it discontinuing production on the console, but it was withdrawing from the hardware side of the industry altogether. The words "end of an era" don't even begin to cover it.
If you want a snapshot of how fast the Dreamcast died then consider the fact that in June 2001, only a few months after becoming a software-only publisher, SEGA released Crazy Taxi for the PS2. By Christmas you could pick up a brand new Dreamcast, plus a game, for less than GBP 70. And in June 2003, SEGA finally switched off almost all the Dreamcast servers, with only Phantasy Star Online kept alive on digital life support. It seemed that the last embers of SEGA's hardware empire had finally sputtered out.
The story doesn't quite end there though. Despite being pronounced dead, the Dreamcast lived on in Japan - the nation so underwhelmed by it at launch - long past its official expiration date. Shops still sold the console until as recently as 2006, and new software is still being produced today by the indie community - albeit sporadically. For reasons that may never be fully understood, the Japanese shoot-'em-up fraternity decided that the Dreamcast was the place to be, giving the system a stay of execution with cult favourites like Ikaruga hitting in 2002 and Triggerheart Exelica in 2007. It's not exactly a new lease of life, but it's certainly a testament to the appeal of the sleek white brick.
At least SEGA the console maker went out on a high - in critical terms if not commercial. It was petite, stylish and many of the ideas it pioneered have since become standard features for the current console generation. SEGA was certainly visionary in its championing of an online future, while the connectivity between the Dreamcast and its VMU was but a taster of the cross-platform content sharing now at the heart of the PS3 and PSP, and the Wii and DS. For Japanese gamers, the Dreamcast was the first console to have its own digital camera, and the first to feature a karaoke game with microphone peripherals. With the separate VGA adaptor and 60Hz PAL capability it was even, technically speaking, one of the first HD consoles, even if it could only muster 480p resolution. So much of what the Dreamcast offered forms the core of the console wars today, and yet at the time nobody seemed bothered.
The Dreamcast was arguably the right console at the wrong time, but who struck the killer blow? Probably not Sony, although it's hard to begrudge Dreamcast fans their lingering resentment that a technologically inferior console with a fairly dire line-up of early titles was able to so easily steamroller their beloved box just on the basis of brand loyalty. Sony certainly did its best to spoil the Dreamcast launch with its carefully timed PS2 announcement, and can therefore perhaps take a hefty chunk of the blame for the console's limp performance in Japan, but to say that Sony killed the Dreamcast would be a gross overstatement.
Ditto for Electronic Arts. Its lack of support for the system was merely a symptom of the real problem rather than the cause. The Dreamcast simply came too late in SEGA's hardware decline to reverse a long-running downward trend. For all its technological innovations and excellent games, SEGA's misadventures during the 1990s had left both gamers and publishers wary of any new platform bearing its name. Confidence in any new SEGA console was low, and with the PlayStation brand in the ascendancy such trepidation was enough to ensure that the Dreamcast would always struggle to maintain its early momentum in the face of stiff competition. Even if it had shipped with a champagne fountain and a nozzle that fired a constant stream of chocolate and diamonds into the player's lap, it seems likely that many potential owners would still have adopted a "wait and see" attitude.
The Dreamcast died and, perversely, in doing so it may have sealed its reputation as one of the greatest consoles ever. Nothing builds a cult like a tragic demise, especially when so much potential is left unfulfilled. There's a reason why few people get misty-eyed for the Saturn, but are inspired to passionate defence and blissful nostalgia by the Dreamcast. It's not the technology, or even the brand. It's the games. With that in mind, we've come up with a rundown of the best of the bunch, and of course our own Dreamcast Cult Classics.