I was never into the Sega Saturn. It was sort of alien to me even though my neighbor would ultimately get one. It just didn’t have the clout, nor did it have any power behind the formidable Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 systems. I remember the date specifically, as the Sega Dreamcast was fortunately being released only 6 days before my 13th birthday! The release date was 9/9/99 (WHO CAN FORGET THAT?!), and you better believe I talked my wonderful mom into reserving that beastly machine MONTHS before the release!
A little history
The Sega Dreamcast was the fifth, and final, venture into the video gaming console market for Sega. Released in North America almost a full year after its release in Japan, Sega saw exceptionally strong sales in the western market (actually, they broke all sorts of opening day sales records). The Dreamcast preceded the Nintendo GameCube, Sony PlayStation 2, and Microsoft Xbox, and while it virtually saw no competition in the market, I remember hearing my friends say “I’m not getting one because I’m holding out for the PS2.” Even with a fantastic launch and many strong releases, the history of the Sega Saturn left a bad taste in many gamers’ mouths. The Dreamcast was way ahead of its time, being the first video game console to include a built-in modem, internet service for online gaming, and having significantly superior graphical and storage capabilities.
Dreamcast Chips, the Nitty Gritty
One of the major reasons for the Dreamcast’s failure was due to costs of manufacturing. Sega lost money on each Dreamcast sale, which in turn meant the more systems sold, the more money they lost. Sega purchased all of their chips from outside companies, putting them at a major cost disadvantage when compared to Sony’s PlayStation 2. Sony was one of the pioneers of the DVD player, so developing a gaming system around their own in-house developed chips gave the PS2 a major advantage. Sega was forced to cut costs on their system to remain competitive, further putting them in the hole. Software and accessory sales needed to stay consistently high in order to make up for the money lost on each system. And unfortunately, they weren’t selling enough software.
The main processor in the Dreamcast is a Hitachi SH4 RISC CPU that runs at 200MHz. Compare that to approximately 34MHz for the PlayStation, and 94MHz for the Nintendo 64.
The Dreamcast‘s sound is generated by a Yamaha 32 bit processor chip that can process 64 channels simultaneously, as well as full Dolby Digital and surround sound.
Powering the graphical department of your Dreamcast is the NEC PowerVR Graphics Processor. This little bad boy is capable of rendering over 3 million polygons per second. The original PlayStation rendered just under 400,000 polygons per second.
With 16MB of RAM for its main memory, the Dreamcast vastly outdoes its aging competitors as the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation were only capable of 4MB and 2MB respectively. Not to mention that the Dreamcast’s GPU provides an additional 8MB of video memory, and the Yamaha sound processor provides an additional 2MB of sound memory.
When you look at the comparisons, you can clearly see that Sega was prepared and ready for the next level of gaming. While all of these chips were obviously designed with the intention of outdoing the previous generation of gaming (including their own failed Sega Saturn), the 3rd market chips from Hitachi, Yamaha, and NEC set Sega back financially with each system sold. The system specs were balls-out awesome for a home gaming machine at under $200, but as the saying goes, “If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.” And Sega paid dearly for it.
Funny thing is, despite all of the impressive specs, the Sega Dreamcast was possibly the first home console since before the NES to NOT use a numerical “bit processing” value as a selling point. Going backwards, we can see that the Nintendo 64 and Atari Jaguar each boasted 64 bits, Sony PlayStation boasted 32 bits, and the SNES and Genesis touted 16-bit power, with the latter exclusively using the “Blast Processing” term as a gimmicky way of selling their system.
Launch Day Games
The Dreamcast saw a number of fantastic launch titles (no less than 20 in all), Sonic Adventure being the one we were all waiting for since Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (the last great Sonic game) was released on the Sega Genesis. The Sega Saturn failed to release a true Sonic original as Sonic 3D Blast was originally developed for the Genesis. Seeing the error of their ways, Sega would release Sonic Adventure in tandem with the Dreamcast, but not as a pack-in. It was actually one of the only reasons many of my friends bought the system, much like how the new Super Smash Bros. might be the only reason I buy a Nintendo Wii U.
A large number of the launch games were once popular arcade titles such as Hydro Thunder, House of the Dead, and NFL Blitz. While some of these titles were strong, a number of them were very sub-par and/or too similar. There were 2 football games and about 7 racing or simulator games. All-in-all, there was a little something there for everyone.
Trickstyle – Acclaim’s attempt to cash in on Wipeout‘s success – was a cool futuristic skateboarding-style game with players that race on hoverboards. Namco’s Soul Calibur was possibly the most popular arcade title ported to the Dreamcast and is STILL praised today by diehard fans. Power Stone is one of the lesser known fighting games in history, but any fighting aficionado will tell you that Capcom‘s Power Stone and Power Stone 2 are beautiful fighting masterpieces.
Sega had another concept for revenue that was far ahead of its time, and that was selling services for online gaming. Sega’s dreams of creating an online gaming hub where gamers could play together and share some good times together was a solid and sound idea, but unfortunately the world wasn’t entirely ready. A lot of people didn’t have the internet at this time, or if they did, they couldn’t justify paying a fee to play games (even though Sega was footing the bill by providing free gaming servers). At least that’s why my parents wouldn’t let me do it. My mom told me, “You have 4 controllers and plenty of friends” when I begged for some online gaming time. And she was right. Ultimately, developers didn’t believe in the idea entirely as the concept was a tough sell, and the Dreamcast was somewhat limited in its selection of online gaming.
The Dreamcast was highly renowned for its technical abilities, but it was also praised by developers as being a very developer-friendly system. The result was a whole slew of games that are still highly regarded as some of the best games ever made, even to this day. Some of the highest regarded original Dreamcast games that people still talk about today: Phantasy Star Online, Soul Calibur, Shenmue, Jet Grind Radio, and Power Stone 2. There are dozens of other memorable games, but these five games in particular show up on just about every top-10 Best Dreamcast Games list.
With 20+ games right off the bat and record breaking launch-day sales, how could Sega fail? In January, 2001, Sega marketing and PR head Tadashi Takezaki announced that Sega was going to halt production of the Dreamcast and focus their efforts on being a 3rd party developer for other systems. Sega fanboys wept while the presidents of Nintendo and Sony jumped with joy. This was a sad day for many people, especially for those who invested a lot of their money on buying a Dreamcast and were now short of cash when the PS2 or GameCube was released.
The Dreamcast Today
While stymied by unfortunate timing, the Dreamcast is still a powerful and enjoyable system today. The Dreamcast has also reached somewhat of a cult status in the States. Due to a paltry 2-year lifespan in North America, game production was somewhat limited, making a number of games wildly expensive, rare, and collectible. Burning Dreamcast games (see The Cubist’s review on burning Dreamcast games here) is a fairly easy feat, so purchasing these rare and expensive games isn’t necessary for the average gamer. You can pick up a Dreamcast and a few games for fairly cheap! Check out Nerd Bacon’s article on starting a Dreamcast collection for under $100!
It saddens me that my beloved Sega company was forced to close up shop in their hardware market, but it makes complete sense.
Will Sega ever release a new system (read my previous article on this subject here)? It’s highly unlikely. Right now they can develop and sell their own games to the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, iOS, Android, PC, PS Vita, and 3DS, giving them at least 8 (and maybe more) avenues for reaching consumers as opposed to developing games for Sega hardware only. Furthermore, Sega makes a fortune as a publisher for many third-party developers. The cash-cow finally arrived for Sega after a tumultuous decade spanning from the start of the Sega CD to the end of the Sega Dreamcast, and all it took was a pride-biting bow out of the hardware industry.
The Dreamcast may be forgotten by onlookers, but previous or current owners of this white beast will always remember the first time they picked up this badboy! Shhh… It’s thinking.
– Reviewed by Nerdberry
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