The Dream Lives On: Diary of a Sega Dreamcast Fan
The Underdog Returns!
Sega is one of the most recognizable names in gaming. The scope of their influence on the gaming industry is rivaled only by Nintendo. The console wars of the 90's fueled some of the most innovative, original & fun games in the history of home entertainment. Titles such as: Sonic the Hedgehog, Rayman, Revenge of Shinobi, Super Metroid & Golden Axe revived the console market after the burn-out following the discontinuation of systems like the Atari 2600. Nintendo had managed to monopolize most of the console market, with any contenders quickly being beat-down or overlooked.
Enter Sega: a company with an existing success in video game arcade machines. Sega had the idea of bringing the arcade experience to the home, but was limited by the technology of the time. Their first console, the SG-1000, was generally regarded as a watered-down arcade emulator. The company also lacked a strong lead title, an icon that really stood out and made Sega instantly recognizable. Alex Kidd was the first attempt at remedying this situation, and was later packed-in with a slimmer model of the Master System, Sega's second try at capturing arcade-quality gaming in the comfort of the home.
While certainly not a failure, the Master System was not enough to secure Sega as a true competitor in the fight against Nintendo's seemingly invincible base. But, this did not keep Sega from continuing to try. Surprisingly, their very next attempt with the Mega Drive/Genesis, ended up doing exactly what it was intended to accomplish. It was slow in the beginning, but in 1991, Sega debuted their now famous mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. Starring in a game named after himself, Sonic was the push that Sega needed to really compete with Mario & the Nintendo Entertainment System. He was the complete opposite: edgy, cool, fast & blue.
Game play in the original Sonic the Hedgehog game was based around completing various platforming levels as quickly as possible. The power-ups, environments & music all catered to going as fast as possible. Loops, power sneakers & rings helped excel the hedgehog to the maximum bonus & future of Sega as a major competitor in the home console race. The sequels that came improved the speed and depth of game play. For the next few years up until around 1994, it seemed that Sega was unstoppable. Sonic 3 & Knuckles saw the blue blur at the apex of his popularity among console gamers. But, Nintendo was now back with an even more powerful machine: the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System).
It was time for Sega to make their next move. But, instead of releasing a new console, they came up with expansions for the Genesis in order to prolong the success it had seen over the years. The Mega CD/Sega CD was the first of these add-ons to be released. It allowed CD-quality audio & certain graphical functions (e.g. scaling) in games that were previously not possible with the Genesis hardware. The problem was in the lack of software available for this item. Sonic the Hedgehog CD was one of the few notable games for the CDX. Horrible FMV games plagued the majority of the add-on's library, and this resulted in poor sales.
Sega of Japan, on the other hand, was already working on the next true console. The Sega Saturn was to be Sega's answer to the pressures of the market demand for CD-ROM-based entertainment with high-color 2D games. Three-dimensional games were on the horizon, and companies like Sony & Nintendo were beginning to push the idea that the future of gaming was in the third-dimension. Originally, the Saturn was designed around the idea of being the most powerful 2D machine on the market, with high-quality audio, CD-ROM storage & minor 3D elements. Sega of America, however, was stuck in the past. They did not want to abandon the Genesis.
Sega of America's answer to the 32-bit question was the 32x add-on. This was yet another Genesis expansion in order to prolong the life of the hit console. The problem was that it was released at the tail-end of the Genesis' life. It had a small library of games that, for the most part, did not take advantage of the 32x hardware due to titles being rushed in order to coincide with the release/promotion of the new peripheral. This resulted in poor sales & a quick discontinuation. It's now 1995, and with the PlayStation & Nintendo 64 looming, Sega realizes that they need to wake up & smell the money. Sega of America drops Genesis, 32x & CD support & moves on to the Sega Saturn. To make it more competitive, Sega decides to add an additional processor for extra graphical capabilities. This ends up making the console difficult for developers to understand.
The second processor was probably the first major mistake that Sega made. The next poor decision was the launch of the system. Sega had originally planned a launch day, dubbed "Saturnday" September 2nd, 1995. Instead, Sega surprise launched the system early in the summer of that year with a very slim (and incomplete) launch lineup of games. Some of the games were later re-released in remix packs in order for developers to essentially complete those games. Then, Bernie Stolar made the most infamous announcement in video game history, "The Saturn is not our future." What? The guy in charge of the marketing & sales of a major gaming platform is doubting his own product?
Needless to say, the Saturn did not sell well in the U.S. territory. Sonic X-Treme, the code name for the would-be killer Sonic app kept getting delayed and was eventually cancelled. The Saturn was discontinued and for the majority of 1998, Sega did not have an active console on the market. Sega went back to the drawing board & decided to drop all support for its previous hardware in all regions & focus on a single platform with the intentions of recovering the success that was enjoyed with the original release of the Mega Drive/Genesis. The Sega Dreamcast was soon announced for "9.9.99" & resulted in one of the most successful console launches in history.
Sega's Most Powerful Console
The Sega Dreamcast came out of the gate roaring with a great lineup of games, which included the forgotten-project Sonic Adventure. The system was cheap at launch, easy to program for, and came with a modem & browser. The graphics were way ahead of anything else on the market. The new GD-ROM format allowed for over a gigabyte of storage on a single disc. Sega had done everything right. The marketing campaign leading up to the release was one of the strongest in history. Dreamcast machines were flying off of the shelves. It seemed like Sega was back and stronger than they had ever been in the past.
Enter the year 2000. The Dreamcast is doing exceptionally well. More accessories are being released/planned for the console every minute. But then other things begin to happen. The advent of the CD-Burner is becoming increasingly more popular & widespread. Soon, it is discovered that Dreamcast games are not at all difficult to pirate. Then Sony announces the PlayStation 2, which now sports a DVD player built-in to the system. While these were troublesome reports for Sega to swallow, the financial instability within Sega themselves was becoming a greater threat... The new system & games that were being developed, manufactured, marketed & distributed (namely Shenmue) were sucking the life out of the company. Major heads in the company were beginning to dig into their own wallets to keep the Dreamcast alive.
At one point, Microsoft was approached with requests for financial support for the endangered console. Microsoft refused, and shortly after the release of the PlayStation 2, Sega pulled the plug. The Dreamcast was discontinued & the company withdrew from the hardware business after a dramatic change in the management structure. Sega is now going to be a third-party developer and release games on all platforms.
Now, as a kid I heard my parents talking about this after reading the newspaper, but this didn't really mean much to me. All I knew was that I had a Dreamcast & Sonic Adventure 2 was about to be released. I had no idea that it was going to essentially be the end of the Sega I grew up with and loved so much. I started getting stuff like Sonic Heroes and (later) Shadow the Hedgehog & Virtual-On: Marz. It was clear to me at that point that whatever had happened to cause Sega to leave the Dreamcast behind had more of an impact on the company than I had originally thought. The games continued to become increasingly rushed, buggy & just plain irritating. It was as if Sega had Alzheimer's and was beginning to forget their own franchises and what made them popular in the first place.
Pretty soon, the only IP Sega was consistently pumping out was Sonic. We would start to get a new game almost every year with quality in the latest release being even poorer than in the last. What was happening? What is going to happen? These questions have haunted me to this day.
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