Yesterday marked the birthday of one of those great, unappreciated game systems: the Sega Dreamcast, which was released in the United States twelve years ago yesterday. On September 9, 1999 (9/9/99), Sega unleashed the Dreamcast upon the North American market with high expectations. Unfortunately the system ended up being a commercial failure on such a scale that it drove Sega, which had at one point gone toe-to-toe with Nintendo, completely out of the console market.
As a system the Dreamcast had several unique innovations. Take for example the Dreamcast’s memory card the Visual Memory Unit (VMU). It’s like the engineers at Sega asked themselves why should a memory card be used just for storage? So they gave it a little digital screen. Some games used the VMU screen to show stats or other information while others just used it to just project the game’s logo or a character. I know it doesn’t have anything to do with gameplay but looking down and seeing the little pixilated version of Rock swing his tiny axe while I pummel Astaroth to oblivion in Soul Calibur always brought a smile to my heart. You could also use the VMU without the Dreamcast to play little games.
The Dreamcast was also built for online play in a time when online console play was still in its infant stages. The Dreamcast was ready for online play right out of the box with it’s built in modem. The Dreamcast was also very import friendly and out of region games could be played using a boot disk.
On top of these technical innovations, the Dreamcast had a library of fresh and unique games. Sure, they brought Sonic to the next generation (Sonic Adventure, Sonic Adventure 2), but the Dreamcast introduced some new franchises in addition to arcade ports such as Soul Calibur, Blitz 2000, and Mortal Kombat Gold. Over its short lifespan it also released some unique and innovative titles, including Seaman, Jet Set Radio, and Skies of Arcadia.
So why did it fail? I can name several reasons. When it came to releasing systems Sega was plagued with poor timing. Take for example the Dreamcast’s predecessor: the Saturn. On May 11, 1994, Sega released the Saturn several months ahead of the Sony PlayStation in an attempt to gain an early control on the North American market. Sony responded by releasing the PlayStation on September 9, 1995, selling it for $299, $100 cheaper than the Saturn’s $399 pricetag. The lower price helped to undercut any advantage the five month head start may have allowed. When it came time to release the Dreamcast, Sega again took the plunge as the first of the next generation systems.And Sony ultimately burned them again. In 2000, Sony released the PlayStation 2. This time the tipping point was technology. The Dreamcast was released on the cusp of a transition from VHS to DVD. Sony’s marketing of the PlayStation 2 as an inexpensive DVD player gave the PS2 an advantage over the Dreamcast, one from which Sega never recovered.
Another reason for the Dreamcast’s demise lies in one of the strengths I enumerated above. It’s lack of region restrictions and its ease of importability made it extremely susceptible to piracy. People quickly learned that it was easy enough to burn game .ISOs and play them on the Dreamcast. Some needed the boot disc but others booted up just fine without any help.
Sega’s failure in the face of these problems marked the doom of the Dreamcast. In March 2001, Sega announced it was abandoning the Dreamcast. With the impending release of the Gamecube and Xbox, Sega decided to throw in the towel, abandoning both the Dreamcast and ultimately the console business. In a way, Sega never really recovered from the Dreamcast. In 2004 a beleaguered and floundering Sega was acquired by pachinko maker Sammy. Over the past decade their track record as a game developer has been mixed, and it’s clear the Sega of today is a shell of its former self. Last quarter Sega reported a $50 million loss, up from $8.23 million in the red the year before. Lately their only recourse has been to occasionally call upon Sonic to try to gain money by capitalizing on nostalgia for their past success. Today Sega is a shell of its former self.
And yet despite its commercial death, the Dreamcast lived on. Sega still released games in Japan where it was more commercially successful until 2004 (Puyo Puyo Fever was the last one). When Sega shut down the servers for Phantasy Star Online in 2003, fans set up their own private servers. It has also gained a dedicated homebrew following. Some indie companies still market and sell games for it (for example, Gunlord, is a promising looking 2-D sidescroller scheduled for a late 2011 release) I’ve also seen some interesting mods involving the Dreamcast including this awesome portable handheld version.
So be sure to take some time today to honor Sega’s last console. If you have one, be sure to dust it off, plug in a VMU and have fun. If you don’t have one, it’s worth adding one to your collect as they’re relatively inexpensive online. Some of my favorite titles are Seaman, Giga Wing 2, Ikaruga, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Sword of the Berserk: Gut’s Rage, and Power Stone 2.
What are your memories of the Dreamcast? Discuss your favorite games in the comments section. Happy Dreamcast Day!