Top 10 Dreamcast Water Effects


August 19th, 2012

Posted in Features

For me, water always seems to be the go to litmus test for a video game console’s graphics capabilities. It’s such a difficult substance to portray. It’s always changing and moving. It bends and reflects light in interesting ways. It’s a really beautiful substance to admire. I just love seeing game engines render water. Water looks quite different from game to game (as you’ll see on this list). The variety is actually quite astounding considering most games are almost always trying to render water realistically.

I don’t think I’m the only person interested in virtual water. There’s definitely an awareness of water effects and trying to make it look great in video games. You can see admirable attempts in almost all games. Nowadays, water appears to be quite complexly rendered. Crysis for PC makes it look nearly perfect. Uncharted for PS3 is an example of simply making it look beautiful. There is still room for improvement, however.

I thought it would be nice to take a look back on how water used to be shown (before the complex shader effects of modern consoles/PC). Dreamcast is in the generation of consoles where developers really had to be creative with graphics effects. You mostly see water as a simple texture, possibly animated or at least scrolling along the polygons that make up the body of water. There are definitely some games on Dreamcast that displayed more than that, which I intend to show. You can check out video of each game’s water effect at the end of the article.

10. Dreamcast Menu Background (1998)

I’m not even certain this is literally supposed to represent water, but I just had to put it on the list. The background of Dreamcast’s menu is simply stunning to this day. It seems to be rippling water with a reflection of the clouds. It fades off quickly and gives the main menu a very calming, zen-like quality. Anti-aliasing seems to be working perfectly, as I can see no pixels even at Dreamcast’s modest 480p resolution. The curvature of the large ripples don’t show any sign of polygons. It’s insanely smooth. The only reason it isn’t higher on the list is because it’s kind of an abstract representation of water (and it’s not actually in a game).

9. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 (2000)

Similar to the Dreamcast’s menu, I decided to put this MvC2 lower on the list. The game has kind of a water-ish theme throughout the menus and loading screen. The main water effect is just on the title screen, but it will definitely leave a lasting impression on you. Super smooth water textures fly by with soft rays of light illuminating from above. There are juxtaposing water textures that layer very nicely to enhance the effect. The textures are also very high resolution and there are absolutely no jaggies to be found. It’s certainly a beautiful effect. That peculiar jazz soundtrack mixed with the water theme really define Marvel vs. Capcom 2’s personality.

8. Shenmue II (2001)

It’s no surprise Dreamcast’s arguably most graphics intensive game has some nice looking water. I think the very high-res texturing (and artistic styling of those textures) are what make Shenmue II such a spectacle even today. The water is simple in most places in the the game. The natural setting on Disc 4 shows it the best. In the video I show the river which has fish swimming around water reeds with a waterfall in the distance. The water isn’t flat. The polygons are wavy showing the flowing of water. The attention to detail is what makes it all convincing.

I think the best instance of water is the Muddy Stream real-time cutscene. The water has very well molded, dynamic rapids. The pouring rain is very dense and each droplet seems occupy’s it’s own plane in 3D space. The angle of rain appears to be consistent each camera angle. The water is basically just texture, but mixed with it’s dynamic shape, perfect sound effects, rain and lightning, it just feels real and ferocious.

7. Ecco the Dolphin (2000)

Ecco the Dolphin is hands down the best underwater environment on Dreamcast. Plant life and animals all look and are animated very realistically. From a technical standpoint the game looks gorgeous. The surface of the water is flat. It’s a pretty decent animated texture. Honestly, it’s not too impressive. Where the game really shines is the actual underwater environment. The bubbles and the refracting sunlight on the ocean’s floor are the highlights of the water for me. You can see in the video the incredible lighting. The environment fades out nicely in the distance, giving the water some density. Ecco the Dolphin displays ocean water life and environments in a very real way (even with it’s sci fi story). It’s a nice piece of artwork.

6. Sonic Adventure 2 (2001)

I think the water on Metal Harbor in Sonic Adventure 2 is just the best use of a plain old texture for water. It’s very high resolution. It’s also animated extremely smoothly and quick. It has a very realistic rippling/waves. The clouds overhead casts shadows on the water surface at moments, which really sets it off for me. There’s not really much to say about it, because it’s just simply a great water surface texture.

5. Sega Bass Fishing 2 (2001)

It’s my personal belief that Sega Bass Fishing 2 has the most realistic graphics of any Dreamcast game. It’s obvious the graphics style is intended to mimic the real world. The lakeside scenery is very true to life. The water effect isn’t perfect, but it definitely conveys a nice calm rippling water (which you would expect in lakes). It’s basically just an animated texture. It seems to suggest wind as it flows in a direction and slows to halt as if the wind might be changing direction. The ripples are always flowing in one direction.

My favorite aspect is the differing coloration on each of the game’s levels. The water texture’s color is based off of the sky’s color. It feels like the sky is reflecting off of the water in each level differently. It’s a great touch. Another nice touch is that the environment’s offshore scenery and objects are reflected on the water. My favorite area is the Lake Rattler’s Golden Fall. The waterfall coming off the small rocky cliff looks spectacular for a Dreamcast game.

The rain effect works pretty well. The sky is overcast and the water’s surface color is darker like the sky. The light water droplets make small ripples randomly on the water’s surface.

Then you have the amazing underwater environment. The water’s debris, bubbles and murkiness is perfect. There are parts where there are quite a variety of underwater plant life and sunken logs. Like Ecco the Dolphin, there is a refracting sunlight effect on the bottom of the lake floor. It’s not as good Ecco’s because it seems to be an animated texture.

4. Re-Volt (1999)

This games graphics are all-around superb. High-res textures and great lighting make this one of Dreamcast’s best (graphically). The water effect in the neighborhood level is not a texture, which is refreshing. It appears to be a tricky effect that is similar to today’s shader effects for water. The little stream in the level has a dynamic surface. It’s dynamic shading, while not realistic, shows a start to trying to achieve a water effect that isn’t texture-based. It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s best to just view it in motion. I was very impressed when I saw this for the first time.

3. Surf Rocket Racers (2001)

I consider this game a hidden gem. I first saw it in an online video which showed the title screen. When I saw it I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The water seemed to be an advanced effect from modern game engines. I pretty much bought the game out of curiosity for the graphics alone (I actually really enjoy the game as well, contrary to most reviews.). I had to see if the title screen was real-time and not a looping video. It is real-time but on closer inspection it’s just a really high-res, translucent, animated texture. It kind of looks jelly-like. It’s not realistic but it impresses nonetheless. The water’s surface isn’t flat either, it has simple waves (and wave physics in-game).

During actual gameplay, the water does not look as good as the title screen (it seems to be lower-res). The texture is also kind of lost as you race by. Luckily, the waves are really fun to race along. Your jet ski bounces and gets air off the larger waves. The New York level has the environment reflecting on the waters surface. It looks great. The reason this game is so high on the list is for the shock-factor that the title screen brings alone. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s astounding.

2. Super Magnetic Neo (2000)

I love this game. I will write a review on it later, because it is highly under-appreciated. That has nothing to do with it’s water effect, but I just had to say it. Super Magnetic Neo has a hub world to get to the games levels. On the first World’s entrance, there is a water effect that is way ahead of it’s time. The water is dynamic and reactive. The water surface reflects the surrounding environment. As you walk through it (or jump on it), the water ripples outwardly from your feet. It is amazing. The effect is not texture based and has a very liquid feel to it. The reflected environment even bends as the water’s surface is agitated. It’s a Dreamcast spectacle for certain. It has the most “liquidy” feel of any water on Dreamcast. It’s the best example of water that is reactive to your character’s movement.

1. Sports Jam (2001)

It may be a little presumptuous to place this water effect at the top of the list, but my jaw dropped when I saw it! I love it. It’s only at the start of the game when the creators of are shown (Sega’s Wow Entertainment studio). It’s a simple pool of water; presumably in a golf course. A golf ball plops into the center of a still pool and the water ripples perfectly outward. The reflected environment bends and morphs expectedly on the water’s surface. It’s an interesting effect. This looks like a tech demo showing the future of how water would be rendered in games. I’m sure Wow Entertainment was experimenting with graphical effects and wanted to place this in a game somehow (even if Dreamcast wasn’t powerful enough to do this during gameplay). It’s just a small instance of an incredible water effect, but it definitely left the largest impression on me.

You might think I’m crazy about getting excited about water effects that probably seem unrealistic in today’s gaming, but you have to put this in perspective—It’s fun to see a console from 1998 render effects that wouldn’t initially seem possible. I haven’t played every Dreamcast game, so I’m sure there are other great water effects that should be on this list. Feel free to enlighten me. I’m a graphics-whore (for better or for worse).