Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Japanese launch of the Sega Dreamcast, Sega’s ill-fated parting dream and final glimpse of last gasp, wide eyed, wide screen blue skies. In maudlin celebration, let’s take a look at their last desperate days as a hardware manufacturer and dream of what might have been.
This article was originally published for Hyper Magazine/ PC Tech and Authority.
The Dreamcast was Sega’s last throw of the dice, the hail mary pass intended to staunch the bleeding that started with the Mega CD and had in turn become a drastic haemorrhaging, the death by a thousand cuts inflicted by the 32X, the Sega Channel, the Nomad and the ill-fated Saturn. This time Sega had learned from their mistakes, they did everything right, and yet the Dreamcast failed, and failed hard. Once bitten, twice shy, the masses stayed away in droves, biding their time in anticipation of the mythical Playstation 2 with its mighty launch titles like…erm…Smuggler’s Run? You fucking idiots! The Dreamcast was that strange kid at your school who no one wanted to play with but whom it turns out had super powers. AND YOU LET HIM DIE!
Way back in the 1980’s Sega had made a name for themselves with cutting edge bombastic arcade titles that made use of their impressive sprite scaling tech and some ludicrously opulent motorised cabinets. Games like Hang-On, Outrun, Afterburner and Space Harrier were the pinnacle of the high spectacle thrill ride Sega built their reputation on. Big, brash, colourful, fun. Sega.
The Middling sales of the SG 1000 and SG MK3 in Japan, and the Master System in North America saw them falter in the home market, but in the smoky environs of your local arcade, they were untouchable.
The promise of bringing that arcade experience home was what initially sold the Megadrive/Genesis, and to a lesser extent the Master System to a generation of gamers to whom the idea of the much hallowed ‘arcade perfect’ home port was the holy grail. The idea of playing the likes of Shinobi, Altered Beast, and yes, Space Harrier(!!) in the home was enough to give them a foothold in the marketplace which they would quickly consolidate with a slew of sports titles, some canny marketing and a certain blue hedgehog. But these ports predictably fell short of the grandeur of their arcade counterparts and ranged from the decent (Golden Axe), to the abhorrent (Super Thunderblade).
The Saturn too, struggled with the ports of Sega’s again pioneering 90’s output. The likes of Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA were vanguards in the brave new world of polygons, but the Frankenstein architecture of the Saturn never allowed them to truly capitalise on their popularity, allowing Sony to steal away the limelight with the likes of Tekken and Ridge Racer, especially in the west. Sega had shown the gaming world the way forward and yet, had oddly stumbled when it came to bringing their vision to the masses. Whilst to this day you’ll still find a wall full of linked Daytona machines in what few arcades remain, I bet you can count on one hand the number of people you knew who had a Saturn.
SEGA would make no such mistakes with the Dreamcast. First out of the gate (again) in the sixth generation, Sega was out to atone for their sins.
They made sure to make development accessible by utilising off the shelf components, they ensured a strong and varied launch lineup (in the west at least- in Japan it was anaemic at best), and they game out with all guns blazing in a concerted marketing blitz.. The North American launch was an unqualified success, at the time the most successful hardware launch of all time, the true believers had been seemingly vindicated, and Sega breathed a tentative sigh of relief.
It wasn’t to last.
The spirit of Sega Blue Sky was strong with the Dreamcast and throughout its life it played host to some of the most original and creatively left of centre titles gamers had ever seen on a mainstream console. From the glorious colours of Jet Set Radio, Samba De Amigo and Space Channel Five to the synesthetic hallucinatory trip of Rez and the balls out weirdness of Seaman. Sega was so willing to take risks at this point that we saw a stunning array of experiences that would seem to comprise the last bastion of truly unique and quirky titles to make it to the west, at least until the indie renaissance.
Namco’s superlative Soul Calibur port was the first to show what the machine was truly capable of. I remember watching a rolling demo of it in my local Harvey Norman store and becoming ridiculously besotted on the spot. Superior to the already impressive arcade original it was one of many arcade titles that at long last were truly unquestionably and without hyperbole the real deal. Arcade perfect. Crazy Taxi, Powerstone, Virtua Tennis, Virtua On OT, Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, it was an embarrassment of riches. The similarities to the Dreamcast hardware to Sega’s own NAOMI arcade board made in-house ports a breeze, and the generous amount of VRAM on offer made it possible for some truly stunning graphics in both 2 and 3 dimensions. In fact, in contrast to both Sony and old rivals Nintendo, Sega had not thrown the two dimensional baby out with the 16 bit bathwater, and if you had a predilection for sprite based art then the Dreamcast was most definitely your friend. Especially if you loved fighters. Both Capcom and SNK threw their weight behind the machine, culminating in the epic Capcom Vs. SNK games. For my money, still the greatest one-on-one fighters of all time.
But for all of its traditionalism, the Dreamcast and its library were also incredibly forward thinking. The laundry list has been well recited, the first console with out of the box online connectivity, the first console MMO, native VGA support, the innovative (if gimmicky) Visual Memory Unit, and handheld connectivity with the Neo Geo Pocket Colour. Sega had traditionally been the first to push the boat out on untested innovations and technological fripperies, and though it had bitten them in the ass in the past, they were still not averse to still nudging the envelope forward in ways that were sometimes prescient and sometimes baffling.
And then there’s Shenmue. Yu Suzuki’s obsession, and depending on whom you ask, either his masterpiece or his folly. Even the most ardent admirer of this sprawling epic must admit it represents a supreme act of hubris on behalf of its creator. Switching development from the Saturn when the machine was prematurely buried, the game that was known as Project Berkley spiralled into an all-consuming endeavour with a dizzying budget that meant that upon release, in order to break even on its development costs- every single Dreamcast owner would be required to purchase a copy (twice).
This…did not happen. A more divisive game would be difficult to find. For every person enamoured of its complexity and enthralled by its ambition there is another who is equally nonplussed by its meandering soporific pace and undercooked mechanics. More than any other game, Shenmue represents the era as a whole for Sega. Massively ambitious, a last ditch effort to create something unprecedented, but doomed to fail. Unable to compete in a rapidly changing landscape but destined to birth a cult.
And the cult endures. To this day, nearly 18 years since its demise, there are still games being released for the Dreamcast. Indies are releasing quality physical releases Fast Striker and Gunlord, and a thriving homebrew scene points to a still ravenous minority who never gave up on Sega’s swansong.
Perhaps the terrible shadow of Sony’s looming black box doomed the Dreamcast from the outset. Like the obelisk from 2001:A Space Odyssey, it sat ominously, diverting the gaze of the public with enormous hype and a pocketful of impossible promises about ‘emotion engines’. The rampant piracy enabled by the GD Rom format, and the notable absence of some high profile third party developers probably didn’t help matters either. Ultimately, the end was swift. Sega waved the white flag and capitulated to market forces that were impossible to ignore. They no longer had the capital to compete with the new behemoths. But the cult endures.
The Sega Dreamcast was the most fun I’ve ever had with a video games console. Although its Australian launch and distribution were utterly botched by Ozisoft, there was a wide range of options to get your hands on titles if you knew where to look, and on that note, perhaps it’s best to leave you with a stern warning that you should definitely not pick up a DC on eBay and then visit another less salubrious bay to bask in the sparkling ROM laden waters of Sega’s glorious last hurrah. Definitely don’t do that.