Sega memories from the past – The Dreamcast

dreamcast_console

The Sega Dreamcast! This pic from Wikipedia shows the controller with the VMU (visual memory unit) inserted. It was pretty comfortable to use creating many fond memories of fun on the console.

I remember feeling a mix of confusion, excitement, and a deep sense of wariness on hearing about the Dreamcast. I had a Sega Saturn at the time and I enjoyed the few games I had for it. But it was also a weird time in gaming. Nintendo’s own N64 and the Saturn were both trounced by a surprising newcomer: Sony.

Sony’s Playstation, by 1999, had dominated a narrative that was once primarily driven by both Nintendo and Sega when it came to consoles. For a generation of players that grew up through the 16-bit wars witnessing the reaction of fans, their friends, shooting the shit with the workers at your local Electronics Boutique or Funcoland about said consoles, and the explosion of magazine coverage celebrating and selling the latest games paving the roads both titans strode across into living rooms everywhere, it was a Muhammad Ali sized upset stretched out across several years of smart marketing and decision making by Sony along with a torrent of questionably good games. But there were enough gems in that morass to wow, bedazzle, and pull in legions of players over to Sony’s side and that was what mattered.

So when Sega announced that they were coming back with a new console of their own, that sense of unease at hearing the news had quite a lot to it especially after the dismal performance of the Saturn.

The Dreamcast  came out in Japan on November 27th, 1998, and would arrive nearly a year later in North America on a date that would be burned into the memory of Sega die-hards everywhere: 9-9-99. I remember the E3 event that year — Sega’s booth had that swirling eye hovering against black walls everywhere, logos saying “It’s thinking” lurking nearby, kiosks set up to allow journalists take a closer look at the console, and a lot of hype riding on what was clearly Sega’s hoped flanking maneuver against Sony’s usurpation of the market.

It was as if the stars had aligned perfectly over that day to herald a new age for Sega.

The Dreamcast was also engineered with an eye towards making it just a tad bit friendlier for developers. The Saturn’s complex architecture (it featured eight processors that included dual Hitachi SH-2 CPUs) theoretically created a foundation packed with power.

The problem was finding the expertise proficient enough in being able to code for both CPUs and, on top of that, having them all talk to the other dedicated processors. Even in the PC world at the time, pretty much every game ran on one, main CPU which pretty much every desktop had. Having two was something often found more in server/workstation setups often running high-end applications specifically written to make use of multiple CPUs ranging from video editing, rendering, or CAD design. At the same time, when they could work out the kinks, the games for the Saturn were pretty incredible to see on your TV screen.

In contrast, the Dreamcast only had one CPU – a Hitachi SH4 – for the brain and the PowerVR chipset. A custom version of WindowsCE was launched from game disks that used it, further closing the gap between its architecture and the developers.

The Dreamcast’s journey wasn’t a smooth one, either. Two competing teams worked on the project. Tatsuo Yamamoto from IBM worked on a design that opted to use the Hitachi SH4 processor but couple it with the 3dfx Voodoo 2 and Banshee graphics processors. At that time in the late 90s, 3dfx was the “go to” card for 3D graphics in PCs everywhere and was a hot commodity. Yamamoto’s system had a number of codenames, the last of which was Dural who was also the final boss in Virtua Fighter by Yu Suzuki and AM2.

Hideki Sato, however, was the head of hardware development at Sega of Japan — the mothership. He wanted the work internalized there and while opting for the SH4, wanted to use the PowerVR processor from VideoLogic instead. His project had a number of codenames, too — “White Belt”, “Guppy”, and ultimately, “Katana”.

3dfx was also prepping itself for an IPO on Wall Street and had inadvertently let slip a few details on the then-secret project they were working with Sega on. Sega ultimately decided to use the PowerVR setup instead, a move that alienated 3dfx, leading to a lawsuit against both Sega and NEC (who licensed the PowerVR tech with a stake in VideoLogic). Ultimately, the suit was settled and the development of the Dreamcast ultimately led to a forward-looking console that saw what was coming.

Like Sony’s Playstation, the Dreamcast had an optical drive. Most Dreamcasts also had a built-in modem — the original Japanese version initially had one that ran at 33.6 kbits/s while the US version (and the Japanese model that followed that release) featured a blistering 56kb model.

The information tidal wave of the internet and the possibilities riding its crest wasn’t a concept lost on Sega. PC players were enjoying multiplayer matches around the world, surfing the web, and staking their claim in what was a buzzing hive of dot coms and services with names like Prodigy, Gamespy, Kali, the MSN Gaming Zone, and scores of others.

Sega also wasn’t a stranger to the concept. They, along with Nintendo, had tasted the future thanks to XBAND — a modem and a service that the Genesis and the Super Nintendo both had access to for the short time that it was available. In Japan, the Sega Saturn enjoyed an online service called SegaNet. And now by bundling a modem in with their new console, Sega hoped to expand SegaNet around the world.

The controller even had a VMU (video memory unit) that detached and became something like a mini-Gameboy with functionality supported by a number of games. The Dreamcast also had four controller ports expanding its capabilities for friends that might drop over to share a game or two.

The Dreamcast had a lot going for it. It also helped that the games weren’t half bad, either, with a solid launch collection that consisted of fighting games like SoulCalibur and Marvel vs. Capcom and a sports game like NFL 2K. Hours upon hours were lost running around, throwing, and kicking friends in Power Stone.

Although the Dreamcast enjoyed a stable of developers who created games specifically for the console and ported others (such as id Software’s Quake III complete with multiplayer support), they weren’t enough to replace the vast library already available for Sony’s Playstation covering a huge spectrum ranging from sports titles to my favorite, the RPG. A few RPGs did come out for the Dreamcast such as the Diablo-like Record of Lodoss War from Neverland along with bold and experimental titles such as Seaman and the iconic Shenmue. When people talk console exclusives, the Dreamcast had an impressive collection that included the likes of Sonic to giant robot fighting in Tech Romancer.

Dreamcast_Logo

The Dreamcast logo was simple and sometimes superimposed on an eyeball in some of the more disturbing ads. Sega’s name was purposely left off of the logo itself, apparently as a way to further obscure the impression people might get at seeing it and remembering Sega’s growing reputation for short lived hardware. Personally, I don’t think it helped much. In my circle of friends at the time, all of whom were Sega fans since the Master System, even we were wondering just how long the Dreamcast would actually last.

Unfortunately, Sega’s diminutive white console would almost be doomed from the start. Earlier in 1999, Sony announced the PS2 which would be released the next year on March 4th and a few months later in October for the United States. DVD tech had just arrived and it would aggressively include a DVD drive allowing it to perform double duty as a both a DVD-player and a game console. It also had something else the Dreamcast didn’t – built-in backwards compatibility extending the life of the Playstation’s already substantial library.

Although Sega slashed prices from $199 to $149 in the latter half of 2000 to take advantage of the PS2’s production issues which resulted in shortages kicking sales into overdrive for a time, as soon as more PS2s became available, Dreamcast sales began evaporating.

It’s really puzzling when you look at what the Dreamcast had going for it. It had a large library of its own when the PS2 launched in the US with only a handful of titles and dropped to literally half the price of the PS2 with the price cut. Yet Sony’s PR steamroller didn’t have to do a lot of work because of what the hardware actually put on the table alongside the cachet that they had built with its fans. The PS2 might not have a lot to offer now, but they could also watch movies on it to help pass the time while waiting for the torrent of titles that they felt would come later once developers came to grips with the complicated Cell architecture. And then there was also Microsoft’s Xbox which was set to arrive in 2001: developer friendly, powerful internals, broadband ready. Nintendo was also getting its own console ready to go…the Gamecube…also in 2001.

Yu Suzuki's vision for Shenmue was an evolutionary title in many ways much like how Sega's Dreamcast positioned itself with its built-in modem, VMU, developer-friendly architecture, and four-controller hub.

Yu Suzuki’s vision for Shenmue was an evolutionary title in many ways much like how Sega’s Dreamcast positioned itself with its built-in modem, VMU, developer-friendly architecture, and four-controller hub.

There was also Sega’s reputation which suffered with the blitz of hardware add-ons for the Genesis and then the relatively short lived Sega Saturn. Developers seemed to have to second-guess what Sega was going to do a year or two down the road adding to whatever costs were already factored in to develop their games. The string of hardware from the Sega CD, the 32X, and even the Sega Saturn, confused not only consumers but developers at the same time. Will what they are developing on be around two years later? With Sega, over time, they weren’t so sure just which basket their eggs would be safe in.

Faced with a double whammy of competition and withering confidence from its shrinking stable of third-parties, many of whom likely ended up on Sony’s side bolstering their already impressive lineup of third party power, Sega decided to call it quits on January 31, 2001. The Dreamcast dream was over.

Sega by that point literally didn’t have the cash to fight everyone and was losing money over the Dreamcast. This also cut into budgeting cash into whatever advertisements they could drum interest up with as well as take the battle to Sony. Sega, perhaps wisely, decided to cut their losses, and it’s hard not to see why.

It gets a bad rap for its short life, but I still love my Dreamcast. The games on it seemed to capture some of that Sega boldness and the essence of its ambitious attack on Sony’s and Nintendo’s titans with an amazing variety of titles that didn’t make the console a “sports” console or an “RPG” console or a “shooter” console. Even today, there’s a homebrew community out there that still make games for the Dreamcast from beat ’em ups to shooters.

To me, it was kind of an “everything” console. The crazy, party-like combat atmosphere of Power Stone, pitting giant robots against each other in Tech Romancer, racing at breakneck speeds for fares in Crazy Taxi, Phantasy Star Online’s debut, and a growing number of Western ports making it to the Dreamcast including Quake III and Soldier of Fortune, concentrated an eclectic celebration of many ideas no matter how strange or different in one place. Samba de Amigo had even come with maraca controllers for players to use and Space channel 5’s rhythm based combat where music and dancing were the weapons of choice for space reporter, Ulala. Even Michael Jackson shows up near the end as Space Michael.

In today’s gaming environment where it can be loath for some companies to step too far out of bounds, Sega’s Dreamcast welcomed all comers in a world were fun was king, a man-faced fish could talk, and where some of a Hedgehog’s best hours in the sun could be found if you catch a glimpse of him just in the nick of time.

Happy 15th, Dreamcast!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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