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Sega Dreamcast — why on earth did this fail?

By: 1 February 2011 2 Comments

The Sega Dreamcast is, quite simply, one of my favorite video game consoles produced.

When it came out in 1998, there was nothing that could touch it in terms of screen resolution, three-dimensional gaming and outright fun. By 2001, Sega had withdrawn from the North American console market entirely and has pretty well concentrated on software development for other systems since then.

So, what on earth happened to this great little console? To understand that, an understanding of video game history is in order.

The Sega Dreamcast was the first 128-bit system on the market. It was released when the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 were battling for position. The Dreamcast succeeded Sega’s 32-bit Saturn which — like Nintendo — was getting kicked in the teeth by the ridiculously successful Sony. When the Dreamcast arrived at the party, it was phenomenal — the detailed graphics, speed of the games and just about everything else about the system were far ahead of what was available in the current era. Yes, the Dreamcast pulled gaming out of the 32-bit era and into the wonderful world of 128 bits.

Sega, then, had an edge for a time. Sony announced the Playstation 2 in March 1999 and that system was busily shoving Sega out of the market the following year. Yes, the Dreamcast was great and had a solid head start and some initial success, but the PS2 went on to become the best selling console of all time. One of the reasons Sony dominated the 128-bit era was that the company had a rabid fanbase,  thanks to the success of the PS1. Selling those Sony devotees another system was easy enough for the company, particularly when you consider that the PS2 was a technical marvel in and of itself — it was also a fantastic 128-bit system, was backward compatible with the PS1 and had a ton of third-party support lined up to crank out quality games for it.

Yes, the PS2 was a great system, indeed. That didn’t help Sega one whit. Another thing that didn’t help Sega a bit had to do with a considerable amount of ill will directed at the company. You had the Sega CD add-on for the Genesis which cost a lot of money and wasn’t supported for long. That was followed by the Sega 32x, another Genesis add-on that offered users 32-bit power and (you guessed it) limited support.

In other words, the Sega Genesis won its creator a lot of fans. A lot of that support was lost because of Sega’s tendency to dump high-priced peripherals on the market and then not support them for long. A good number of those fans found their way to the Sony Playstation when it was released, meaning Sega was already at a disadvantage when it released the Dreamcast. That disadvantage became worse then the PS2 was released.

The failure of the Dreamcast was a shame, too, because that is one fine system. In addition to the “next level” graphics, quality games and blazing CPU, the system was also included a modem and set up online gaming for people who owned titles such as the popular Phantasy Star Online. The controller was also innovative in that it allowed for the use of visual memory units (VMU) that both saved games and featured a small, LCD screen that allowed for some mini games and such (that feature was rarely used, but the VMU was often utilized to pass on some relevant data to players during games).

The controller itself featured some new design cues and a couple of quirks. You had, essentially, four action buttons, a directional pad, two triggers on the underside of the unit and a thumb stick. The thumb stick tends to wear out over time and the cable connecting the controller to the unit comes out of the front of the controller. That’s an odd design, and Sega attempted to compensate by routing the cable to the back of the controller through a small channel and a couple of holders that don’t secure the thing very well. The controller is ideal for race games and was utilized well for fighters such as the short-but-fun Dead or Alive 2 — a game in which the developers exploited the graphical prowess of the Dreamcast by obsessing over the female fighters’ breasts (yes, you read that right).

Hydro Thunder.

Speaking of racers, one of the best for the Dreamcast — or any system — is Hydro Thunder. The player takes control of a fast, strange boat and concentrates on trying to outrun everything on the track. The game is great against a highly-competitive computer and the multiplayer feature is downright addictive. The tracks are huge and detailed and the action is fast and furious. Frankly, the graphics on Hydro Thunder and some other titles gives the Wii a run for its money when the Dreamcast is hooked up to an HDTV set (more on that in a bit). You want a great RPG? One of the best turn-based RPGs made on any system is Skies of Arcadia for the Dreamcast. I realize that Skies of Arcadia Legends is available for the Nintendo Game Cube, but the Dreamcast version beats the socks off of that one in the audio department (in other words, the music isn’t compressed).

Skies of Arcadia.

At any rate, back to the controllers.  You can hook four of them up to the Dreamcast if you want and there were a lot of specialty controllers that made the system something special. Add a keyboard and play Typing of the Dead for some strangely unusual fun. You’ve got a fishing controller for (yes) fishing games, maracas for another game, etc. Sega was well ahead of its time when it came to specialty controllers. Yes, it would have been nice if Sega would have added built-in vibration to the controller (a rumble pack is available, but it costs extra), but you can’t have everything.

Believe it or not, the Dreamcast is still pretty relevant. For one thing, you can easily hook it up to your HDTV set or computer monitor through the use of the Dreamcast VGA Box. The Dreamcast puts up a fantastic picture through that thing and any Dreamcast fan ought to have one.

Also, the CD-based system can be written to by a typical burner on a PC. As you might imagine, that has given rise to an active emulation scene. You can find more information about that over at DCEmulation.org. There’s also an active group of programmers still writing games for the Dreamcast. You can find more about that particular homebrewing scene by visiting the aforementioned site or heading to AtariAge.com.

All in all, it’s a shame the Dreamcast failed. Fortunately, picking one of those up isn’t hard (you might want to grab two as the CD units tend to fail) and there are some great, unique games for it that can also be found for cheap. The Dreamcast is go good, in fact, that some fans have wished for years that Sega would get back into the console business. Pick one up if you collect systems or just like to play them.

Stay tuned — more reviews to come in the “retrogaming” category here at First Arkansas News.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

2 Comments »

  • Donny said:

    I always wondered this, because I loved my dreamcast. It had by far the best selection of sports games ever spawned. NFL2k1, world series baseball 2k1, and nba2k1 may still be my favorite sports game in their respective categories. Also, a little game called Fur fighters was awesome. Even the controller was awesome. It was like an xbox predecessor . The best thing it had though was graphics. it blew everything out of the water. I think it was better than the ps2 until around 2005 or so. But, it failed because of support, which is why whenever people complain about there not being enough good “indie” games, we should bring up this sad story. You have to have backers to be succesful in the entertainment industry

  • Nintendo Fanny said:

    You ARE aware that Nintendo 64 wasn’t 32-bit right? Sega pulled gaming out of the 64-bit world into the 128-bit world, what it’s still in today.

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