Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Sega Dreamcast's Ten Year Legacy Recap

So yesterday was the ten year anniversary of the North American launch of the Sega Dreamcast. For those of you who don't know (ie: those of you who aren't huge geeks), the Dreamcast was the final console put out by Sega, one of the two companies that really shaped the video game industry as we know it. Back in the 1990s the only "console war" was between Sega, with their Genesis system, and Nintendo, with their Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). They each had their flagship titles/mascots, Sonic and Mario respectively, and the competition between the two dominated, nay was the industry of the day.

As technology changed and games moved into three-dimensions these companies found increased competitions from the likes of former competitors like Sony, and the market began to expand. The former solitary giants found themselves with dangerous peers, and they experienced some awkward growing pains. Sega released the Saturn a console which did not fare well, and Nintendo made the mistake of utilizing cartridge technology over CDs for games on the Nintendo 64, a design choice that held the console back from achieving the promise its game developers displayed. It was in the successive generation that the industry finally began to change in ways that realized its own potential.

On 9/9/99 Sega launched the Dreamcast in North America. They utilized a highly successful marketing campaign that emphasized the power of the machine as intelligence, telling consumers "It's thinking," and that "You know it's alive. Worse, it knows it's alive." Their first day sales set records as being the "biggest 24 hours in retail entertainment history," giving the system a solid install base of customers and earning the company a cool $98 million.

All this success did not help Sega in the long run, however, as the PS2 launched about a year later and began its ascension to becoming one of the most profitable consoles in history. In 2001 Sega announced the end of their production and support for the Dreamcast, and became a third-party software developer.

So if this console was ultimately a failure, and one that put the final nail in the coffin for Sega's history as a console manufacturer, then why are we celebrating its ten year launch anniversary?

The Sega Dreamcast may not have been a financial success but it was undoubtedly one of the most important and innovative consoles of all time. It makes sense that it floundered economically because its list of features and innovations seems too wildly experimental and visionary to ever exist in the late 1990s.

The list of first-time innovations that took place on the Dreamcast is staggering. Hell, I remember downloading free additional content for Sonic Adventure years before anyone had even begun to start thinking of coining that type of media DLC. Likewise the proliferation of games on the system that are still unique in the market and history, like Seaman, are a testament to the passion and vision of those in charge.

Most importantly, however, the Dreamcast was the first console to bring users online, playing together. This is a fundamental change of the medium on the level with showing wide screen and now 3D films in theatres. To this day there are still some people playing them together. According to the Wikipedia entry on the console, Quake III Arena, Maximum Pool, 4x4 Evolution, Starlancer, and SEGA Swirl are still being played online. Never before had console gamers interacted like this, except possibly those few who managed to experience the potentially-ahead-of-its-time Sega Channel before the internet really started picking up speed.

I remember playing Phantasy Star Online online, and how it completely changed from a somewhat repetitive and dull experience to one that was worth eagerly waiting for a 56k modem to deliver. We take online features for granted today, and are even surprised and annoyed when it isn't featured by a game. This was revolutionary at the time, and wasn't even taken up by Sega's competitors that generation. Sega paved the way for the industry we know today, and it paid the price. The least we can do is remember and pay homage to such an important moment in the history of video games and media.

To give a sense of the impact this system had I've collected a number of articles from around the web, detailing how many people have recognized the ten year anniversary of 9/9/99.

The first is a retrospective on Peter Moore's official blog over at EA Sports. Moore, for those of you who don't know, began his work in the video game industry with Sega Of America at the time of the Dreamcast. He has since gone on to play key roles at Microsoft with the XBOX and XBOX 360, and now at Electronic Arts. It doesn't seem like an accident that a man so central to the Dreamcast was heavily involved with the beginnings of XBOX Live, which many consider the premiere online gaming network on the planet.

The next few links are to various gaming news sites that have honoured the Dreamcast's birthday, so to speak. I've also embeded the Screw Attack Top 10 Dreamcast Games video from I am also including a link to ThinkGeek's online store, which started selling Dreamcasts again in May of this year. Hopefully this will all convey a sense of the importance of this historic machine.

Kotaku's Dreamcast Fantasy
Joystiq's Dreamcast Remembrance Post
ThinkGeek Store

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