Originally written for the Dreamcast's 10th anniversary, this retrospective from Dan Whitehead is still a remarkable tribute to Sega's final home console. We're republishing this today, the 20th anniversary of the Dreamcast's launch in North America, as fans worldwide celebrate that legendary 9/9/99 release date. (Though Europe had to wait until 14th October.)
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.
Even in the west, as the PlayStation 2 drew closer the Dreamcast lost momentum. It was at this point that the legacy of SEGA's worthless Megadrive expansions and the fumbled Saturn came back to haunt the company. In what would become a grim self-fulfilling prophecy, many punters were understandably quicker to put their cash towards the established and widely loved PlayStation brand rather than risk ending up with another SEGA system with few games and no long-term future.
In the face of such competition, the Dreamcast's technical features proved of little value. SEGA, arguably about five years ahead of its time, had gambled on the importance of online play but console gamers in 2000 were a lot less interested in networked games than their PC counterparts. Back then, MMORPG was just a really bad handful of Scrabble tiles, so a pioneering effort like Phantasy Star Online just wasn't what joypad lovers were looking for. With the PlayStation 2 doubling as a DVD player, a desirable technology that had just tipped over into mass-market must-have status, the ability to play Chu Chu Rocket over the internet wasn't likely to turn the tide in Dreamcast's favour.
As the PS2 sold more and more on its epic ten-year journey to become the world's best-selling games console, Dreamcast sales dried up. In March 2001, a mere two years after the Dreamcast's impressive US launch, SEGA announced that not only was it discontinuing production on the console, but it was withdrawing from the hardware side of the industry altogether. The words "end of an era" don't even begin to cover it.
If you want a snapshot of how fast the Dreamcast died then consider the fact that in June 2001, only a few months after becoming a software-only publisher, SEGA released Crazy Taxi for the PS2. By Christmas you could pick up a brand new Dreamcast, plus a game, for less than GBP 70. And in June 2003, SEGA finally switched off almost all the Dreamcast servers, with only Phantasy Star Online kept alive on digital life support. It seemed that the last embers of SEGA's hardware empire had finally sputtered out.
The story doesn't quite end there though. Despite being pronounced dead, the Dreamcast lived on in Japan - the nation so underwhelmed by it at launch - long past its official expiration date. Shops still sold the console until as recently as 2006, and new software is still being produced today by the indie community - albeit sporadically. For reasons that may never be fully understood, the Japanese shoot-'em-up fraternity decided that the Dreamcast was the place to be, giving the system a stay of execution with cult favourites like Ikaruga hitting in 2002 and Triggerheart Exelica in 2007. It's not exactly a new lease of life, but it's certainly a testament to the appeal of the sleek white brick.
At least SEGA the console maker went out on a high - in critical terms if not commercial. It was petite, stylish and many of the ideas it pioneered have since become standard features for the current console generation. SEGA was certainly visionary in its championing of an online future, while the connectivity between the Dreamcast and its VMU was but a taster of the cross-platform content sharing now at the heart of the PS3 and PSP, and the Wii and DS. For Japanese gamers, the Dreamcast was the first console to have its own digital camera, and the first to feature a karaoke game with microphone peripherals. With the separate VGA adaptor and 60Hz PAL capability it was even, technically speaking, one of the first HD consoles, even if it could only muster 480p resolution. So much of what the Dreamcast offered forms the core of the console wars today, and yet at the time nobody seemed bothered.
The Dreamcast was arguably the right console at the wrong time, but who struck the killer blow? Probably not Sony, although it's hard to begrudge Dreamcast fans their lingering resentment that a technologically inferior console with a fairly dire line-up of early titles was able to so easily steamroller their beloved box just on the basis of brand loyalty. Sony certainly did its best to spoil the Dreamcast launch with its carefully timed PS2 announcement, and can therefore perhaps take a hefty chunk of the blame for the console's limp performance in Japan, but to say that Sony killed the Dreamcast would be a gross overstatement.
Ditto for Electronic Arts. Its lack of support for the system was merely a symptom of the real problem rather than the cause. The Dreamcast simply came too late in SEGA's hardware decline to reverse a long-running downward trend. For all its technological innovations and excellent games, SEGA's misadventures during the 1990s had left both gamers and publishers wary of any new platform bearing its name. Confidence in any new SEGA console was low, and with the PlayStation brand in the ascendancy such trepidation was enough to ensure that the Dreamcast would always struggle to maintain its early momentum in the face of stiff competition. Even if it had shipped with a champagne fountain and a nozzle that fired a constant stream of chocolate and diamonds into the player's lap, it seems likely that many potential owners would still have adopted a "wait and see" attitude.
The Dreamcast died and, perversely, in doing so it may have sealed its reputation as one of the greatest consoles ever. Nothing builds a cult like a tragic demise, especially when so much potential is left unfulfilled. There's a reason why few people get misty-eyed for the Saturn, but are inspired to passionate defence and blissful nostalgia by the Dreamcast. It's not the technology, or even the brand. It's the games. With that in mind, we've come up with a rundown of the best of the bunch, and of course our own Dreamcast Cult Classics.