In the annals of console history, the Dreamcast is often portrayed as a small, square, white plastic JFK. A progressive force in some ways, perhaps misguided in others, but nevertheless a promising life cut tragically short by dark shadowy forces, spawning complex conspiracy theories that endure to this day. So to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its launch, which passed recently, Eurogamer is going all CSI to consider who - or what - killed the Dreamcast.
Was it grinchy old EA, withholding the precious lifeblood of its licensed sports games? Or did the fiendish pirates help to sink the SEGA ship, cracking the GD-ROM format and allowing anyone with a CD burner to brazenly copy Dreamcast games? Or was it that big mean bully Sony, tucked away on the grassy knoll, blowing the head off the competition with a bullet of ruthless PR chicanery?
By November 1998, when the Dreamcast first arrived in Japanese shops, it had been ten long years since the popular Megadrive, a decade punctuated by a triple whammy of high-profile hardware mistakes. The SEGA CD add-on was the first, an over-priced and poorly supported multimedia attachment for the Megadrive that relied on the thankfully short-lived craze for FMV-based "interactive movies". Customers soon wised up to the fact that beneath the grainy video footage, they really weren't getting any more gameplay for their money. Following up this clunky bit of kit with the even more pointless 32X add-on merely deepened SEGA's malaise in 1994.
Another expensive add-on, the 32X flopped hard, selling less than a quarter of a million units. Software support was virtually non-existent, and the whole sorry affair was brushed under the rug in less than a year. SEGA fans who had faithfully bought each new product were left with pricey lumps of plastic and a severe case of buyer's remorse. It didn't help that the 32X was developed by SEGA's American arm, allegedly unaware that at the same time their Japanese colleagues were working on the SEGA Saturn.
Released a few months ahead of Sony's dark horse PlayStation, the Saturn seemed poised to restore SEGA's console fortunes. But SEGA hadn't banked on Sony successfully appealing to a wider audience, with PlayStation's clubland aesthetic and slicker image, and with the Saturn's internal architecture proving something of a tangle, many developers switched their attention to Sony's more accessible and successful platform. Despite fairly strong sales in Japan, the system struggled in America and Europe and soon found itself trailing in third place behind the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. With dwindling third-party support, SEGA's American head honcho Bernie Stolar announced at E3 in 1997 that "the Saturn is not our future".
Coming off a run of three high-profile failures, SEGA took the unusual step of getting two competing R&D teams to come up with a console capable of putting the company back on top. One team was based in Japan, the other in the US. Both had different ideas as to which combination of chips and parts would fit the bill, and the American team signed a deal with 3dfx to use a custom version of the company's Voodoo 2 graphics chip. Unfortunately, during the development period, 3dfx was looking to sell shares and as part of the documentation it revealed lots of juicy details regarding the top-secret SEGA console. The US plan was ditched and SEGA opted to go with the Japanese design, prompting the newly floated 3dfx stock to drop by 43 per cent. 3dfx filed a lawsuit, claiming breach of contract. The case was quickly settled out of court, but it was the sort of speedbump that SEGA could ill afford.
After a tepid Japanese debut launched the console with a resounding thud in November 1998, we poor saps in America and Europe would have to wait almost a year to get our hands on it. Finally going global in the autumn of 1999, the Dreamcast swiftly made up for its poor Japanese performance, breaking US sales records by clocking up 300,000 pre-orders and shifting over 500,000 units in the first two weeks.
It was a deserved success, carried on the shoulders of solid technical specifications and innovative new features. The Dreamcast wasn't the first console to offer online functions - even the SNES had tentatively dipped a toe in those waters - but it was the first to come with a modem built in and its own ISP for online gaming, thus enabling online play for all, rather than those who purchased a chunky peripheral. It was also the first to offer a memory card that doubled as a gaming device in its own right, with the Visual Memory Unit able to download mini-games, swap data with friends and act as a rudimentary battery-guzzling personal organiser.
It's true that Electronic Arts opted not to support the system, denying the Dreamcast the guaranteed sales that brands like Madden provided, but contrary to what the conspiracy theorists will tell you the Dreamcast software line-up managed just fine thanks to the SEGA Sports label. SEGA's own NFL 2K1, marketed as the first football game with online play, even outsold the official Madden game during its first weeks on the market. Away from the sports field, the games were just as popular. Exclusive titles like Sonic Adventure and Power Stone showcased SEGA's bright and bold aesthetic, while nigh-perfect arcade ports like Soul Calibur and Crazy Taxi put the aging PlayStation to shame.
But there was already a fly in the ointment, and the fly was called Sony. In March 1999, realising that SEGA was about to leapfrog a hardware generation and get its next-gen machine on the shelves first, Sony had publicly unveiled PlayStation 2 - then still a year away from release. The prospect of the successor to the world-conquering PlayStation was enough to cut the already wobbly legs off the Dreamcast in Japan, with most gamers opting to wait for the sure-to-be-awesome PS2, with its mysterious "emotion engine" and games that would literally emerge from the screen and fellate you senseless.