15 Years Ago Today, Sega Introduces Dreamcast To North America; Becomes The End Of An Era
As Sophia Petrillo would have said, “Picture it! 9-9-99.” If there were any more rememberable launch date for a video game system, it would certainly be that one. That date of September 9, 1999 would be remembered nearly as soon as it occurred. Fifteen years later, it still shows significance. It was then that Sega released the Dreamcast console to the masses in North America for the very first time. For Sega fans, this system showed a lot of promise, and a lot of hope that it would bounce Sega back into the world of console gaming. Unfortunately, it would ultimately become the final piece of home hardware that Sega would ever create. Today, we celebrate the past 15 years with a small history of the system that still has people ask if a sequel would ever be possible. Today, we celebrate the Sega Dreamcast.
Before we start talking about the Dreamcast, let’s go back to 1997. Sega’s then-current console, the Saturn, was struggling in North America. Sega of America president Bernie Stolar was pressing their Japanese headquarters to work on a new platform right away. Two competing teams were tasked with developing the console, that would later become the Dreamcast. These teams were a Skunkworks group headed by Tatsuo Yamamoto, who was a researcher at International Business Machines, and the second team was led by Hideki Sato, a hardware engineer at Sega. Sato’s group had selected the Hitachi SH4 processor architecture and the VideoLogic PowerVR2 graphics processor for their original Dreamcast prototype, while Yamamoto, while supported the SH-4, also included 3Dfx video hardware. Initially, Sega decided to use Yamamoto’s design, but later opted to use the PowerVR hardware of Sato’s design. This was attributed to 3Dfx leaking details and technical specifications of the then-secret Dreamcast project when declaring their Initial Public Offering in June of 1997. Sega’s design changes prompted a lawsuit by 3Dfx, which was later settled out of court.
Unlike some other consoles at the time, there was no operating system residing in the hardware itself. The OS is loaded on a disc with each game title. According to Sega executives at the time, the advantage to doing a structure like this is that developers can always ship products that use the version of an operating system with the newest features and performance enhancements. The operating system that was used by many Dreamcast titles was actually developed by Microsoft, after working with Sega for 2 years. This particular OS was a special version of Microsoft Windows CE, which supported DirectX. According to Richard Doherty, who was the president of Envisioneering Group, “Microsoft had initially wanted Windows CE to be Dreamcast’s main operating system. It isn’t.” The ironic part, is that over two years later, Mircosoft would become a home video game company as well with the release of the original Xbox, but more on that in a second.
The Sega Dreamcast originally launched in Japan about nine and a half months before North American audiences got their first release. In Japan, the console launched on November 27, 1998. Ultimately, this would become the very first entry in what is known as the “sixth generation” of video game consoles, preceding its rivals, Sony’s PlayStation 2 (which was first released on March 4, 2000), Microsoft’s original Xbox (first made available on November 15, 2001) and Nintendo’s GameCube (first presented for sale on September 14, 2001). Even with that amazing head start that Sega had to it’s advantage, with nearly half of a year before it’s first direct competition was offered, the Dreamcast would still end it’s production before the Xbox and GameCube were even made available.
Some of the launch titles for the Dreamcast included a variety of games that to this day still hold up as modern classics. Some of these games included Soul Calibur, Marvel vs. Capcom, and House Of The Dead 2. As time went on, other games would be released for the system that would make the console a hit, with offerings such as Crazy Taxi, Jet Grind Radio, and probably it’s most cherished (and most expensive video game over all), Shenmue. One of the things that were lacking as far as third party software was concerned, was no support from Electronic Arts, meaning that none of their sports games would ever come to light on the Dreamcast. (We all know how much of a success the sports genre was with previous Sega consoles, so this was a major concern at Sega.) With the lack of EA support, “Sega Sports” would ultimately take over on the console, to the point that a special limited edition black version of the system had been created, in which these are still looked for by collectors today. In addition, the Xbox classic “Fable” series was originally planned to be released for the Dreamcast before the Xbox was created!
You don’t have to look too far in Sega’s vast history to know that Sega was always looking for the latest technology to keep up to date with the times that they were currently living in. Even though the console was very short lived, the Dreamcast offered a lot of options that were firsts for the industry, in which many of these innovations are still used today in modern gaming. To start off, chances are you are a member of at least one online gaming opportunity, either from Xbox Live, PlayStation Network or otherwise. Look no further than the Dreamcast! It was the very first video game system to offer a modem, included right out of the box. This would allow you to play games with other people online, as well as connect you to the internet. Of course, the idea of online co-op playing goes further, with items such as X-Band and NetLink being offered previously. But this system was the first to offer such abilities from the start. While the modem that was included was a simple dial-up model, Sega would also offer a broadband adapter for high speed connections. This didn’t sell too well since not a lot of customers had access to broadband connections at the time.
It was also the first console to render full frames as opposed to being interlaced, in VGA mode at a 640×480 resolution, and offered a VGA output for it’s video, which to this day, many record gamers are extremely thankful for. If you want to connect a Dreamcast to a current HDTV, this is the best way to attach the system to your modern television set, so you can get the best quality video, which we know can sometimes be tough with other retro systems. It was also the first home video game console to offer “double screen” abilities, with special VMU memory cards that, depending on the game you were playing, offered additional details or information about the gameplay, on your controller. Naturally, this VMU would later become a concept on the current Nintendo Wii U Gamepad, which offers similar ability at a much larger scale. The VMU concept was an interesting one when it came to local multiplayer games, since some details could then be kept secret. Not to mention the alternate form of interactivity with such devices as the microphone, which would be infamous for talking to your Seamen!
While the system was very highly regarded even when it first came out, it’s the sales that make or break a system. Initially, Dreamcast sales were quite good, with a over 150% increase in revenue between July 23, 2000 and September 30, 2000. This would make the system more financially successful at the time than the Nintendo 64. While this may look great on paper and on a presentation slide, and even with its popularity, behind the scenes Sega was getting more and more in the red. By the end of the third quarter of the year 2000, Sega reported a loss of over $163 million, which would increase to over $388 million by the end of the year. With what seemed to be finally, a successful platform for Sega (after the somewhat disappointing sales of the Sega CD, 32X and Saturn consoles), it would be the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 2, alongside of the major financial losses, that be the final nail in the proverbial coffin. It would mark the beginning of the end for the Dreamcast itself, as well as start many changes for Sega. After Sega officially ended the platform on March 30, 2001, they also announced that they would no longer be a part of the hardware aspect of home video games, and would move their focus to creating games for other consoles. During it’s availability, Sega would sell over 10.6 million units worldwide.
The Dreamcast still holds a place in many retro gamers hearts, and long after production ended and support was no longer offered from Sega, the retro video game community has worked very hard to keep the console alive. Alongside the large homebrew software titles that have been released by fans, Japanese translations and new books have also been made available since the system folded. There’s even a lot of hardware offerings to make it possible to use different loading methods, doing away with the GD-ROM drive and replacing them with more widely available hard drives and flash drives. Even fans of Europe’s “Planet Ring” have brought back the online servers! Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, then-modern gamers were really in love with their machines. But despite all of the problems Sega may have had with their previous offerings, the Genesis generation was glad to have Sega release a system that could do it justice. But you can’t help but wonder what video gaming would be like if it weren’t for the Dreamcast. Think about it. You are probably using something today that started off on the Dreamcast! The next time you play an online game, interact verbally with your system, or download some exclusive content, take a moment to ask yourself where the concept started. Chances are high that you will begin having memories of this date fifteen years ago, when you very well may have been in line to get your own Dreamcast. Take a moment today to celebrate!