Thoughts on the Sega Dreamcast

Can you name anything that was alive for only a few years yet impacted gamers greater than the Dreamcast?  It’s the system that will not die.  Sega moved on, numerous consoles have come and gone since then—but the Dreamcast just won’t go away.

Even today, games are being made for it, whether by an actual team of developers such as Sturmwind and Fast Striker, or the numerous, numerous home-brew games.  There’s a good reason for it, and it’s more than the oft-touted “it was ahead of its time”.  While true, to a point, that’s not the whole story.

The Dreamcast’s predecessor was the Sega Saturn, with hardware unable to really make it withstand the change in gaming that was brewing.  It was, however, an insanely powerful system for two-dimensional games, and has garnered a loyal fan-base of its own—and a few years ago, Korea even has a new version of the console.

When Bernie Stolar took over for Sega of America, the PlayStation had already been out long enough to wreck Nintendo’s iron-fisted grip over gaming—while Sega was starting to flounder.  He was determined to make the company become a power-house once again, but he knew the Saturn couldn’t do it.  In a controversial move, he declared that the Saturn was “not our future” at the ‘Ninety-Seven E3—only a couple of years since the Saturn’s debut.

Though at the time some gamers would have disagreed most—vehemently—his decision to stop production of and support for the Saturn wasn’t malicious, nor was it some secret plot of Sony’s (his former employer) to destroy the competition.  In order to get Sega back to a position of power, the company needed to take the game world with a vengeance—and the Saturn just wasn’t going to to more than knock timidly.

Development of the Dreamcast was a slow and careful process, as Stolar and his team cut no corners in planning just what everyone must have known would have been the make-or-break product.  They must have known that the Dreamcast would have either returned Sega to its former status of gaming behemoth, or seen the once-strong giant topple over in impotence.  As such, the Dreamcast was not only his “baby”, but the hope of the company’s future.

The hardware had to be more than just top-of-the-line for playing video games.  It also included a powerful—and removable/upgradable—modem, the Visual Memory Unit (a memory card cranked up to eleven), and more.  Some of the even more interesting things were what didn’t make it beyond the prototype stage, such as the zip drive.

The Dreamcast had a solid hardware base to start with—but Stolar knew they couldn’t rest on that.  The best hardware in the world would mean exactly diddly-squat if the software wasn’t up to snuff.  In fact, Stolar’s gone on record as saying, effectively, software is the only thing that matters, so with the patient attention to detail that was displayed on the hardware, it can be easily imagined that there was no way he’d let some third-rate software onto the console.

The first hurdle was Electronic Arts.  They were in talks with Stolar about shipping a football title with the Dreamcast, but they wanted exclusivity.  They wanted to be the only sports game providers, and Stolar wasn’t having any of that.  They weren’t the last he had to deal with, but he fought through them all to get good, solid titles that gamers would enjoy and would make use of the Dreamcast’s numerous features.

There were more battles to fight—but the most important one was the one Stolar lost.  He was canned not long before the Dreamcast launched.  While he generally expresses more disappointment and dismay at the entire situation, one can easily imagine the shock and, perhaps, even sadness.

The Dreamcast broke the record for selling a million console units in the shortest amount of time, a record previously held by the PlayStation, and it had arguably some of the best titles around—but it wasn’t enough.

To hear Stolar tell it, the Dreamcast was abandoned by Sega after he was let go from the company.  Money was pulled out, “directions” changed, and so on.  It’s all too likely true, too, just looking at the history from a pure outsider perspective.  The games sold well, gamers were clamoring for more—but the rush of games became a trickle.

It’s a shame, too.  The Dreamcast represented what can happen when a drive for financial success meets the desire to do right by gamers and give them options that they don’t have to pay through the nose for.  How many hardware developers can you name that such could also be applied to?

I can’t think of any, either.


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