Monday, October 16, 2006

Sega Dreamcast History






The Sega Dreamcast (Japanese: code-named "Blackbelt," "Dural," and "Katana" during development) was Sega's seventh & final video game console and the successor to the company's Sega Saturn. An attempt to recapture the console market with a next-generation system, it was designed to supersede Sony's PlayStation and Nintendo 64, and although generally considered to be "ahead of its time" (literally fifteen months before the PlayStation 2 and three years (based on original release dates, not U.S. release dates) before GameCube or Xbox) it failed to gather enough momentum before the release of the PlayStation 2 in March 2000. After the Dreamcast was discontinued, Sega withdrew entirely from the console hardware business.

History

When the time came to design the successor to the Sega Saturn, the new President of Sega, Shoichiro Irimajiri, took the unusual step of hiring an outsider. He hired Tatsuo Yamamoto from IBM Austin to head a skunkworks group to develop the next-generation console. It soon became apparent that the existing Japanese hardware group led by Hideki Sato did not want to relinquish control of the hardware department, bringing rise to two competing designs led by two different groups.

Design

A timeline of the development of the console's GPU may be found here.

The Japanese group led by Hideki Sato settled on an Hitachi SH4 processor with a PowerVR graphics processor developed by VideoLogic (now Imagination Technologies) and manufactured by NEC. This was originally codenamed "White Belt". The first Japanese prototype boards were silkscreened "Guppy", and the later ones "Katana".

The US skunkworks group (in a secret suite at the 303 Twin Dolphin Drive building) led by Tatsuo Yamamoto settled on an IBM/Motorola PowerPC 603e processor with a 3dfx Voodoo 2 graphics processor, which was originally codenamed "Black Belt". The first US prototype boards were silkscreened "Shark".

The Japanese hardware was codenamed "Dural", then later, "Katana". "Black Belt" and "Shark" were the only codenames used by the US hardware team (the hardware team was called "Black Belt team"; the "Shark" was in response to the Japanese team's "Guppy").

When 3dfx declared its Initial Public Offering (IPO) in April 1997, it revealed every detail of the contract with Sega. Sega had been keeping the development of its next-generation console secret during this competition, and was outraged when 3dfx publicly laid out its deal with Sega over the new system in the IPO.

In July 1997, perhaps as a result of 3dfx's IPO, it was decided that the Japanese "Katana" would be the chosen format, renamed Dreamcast. In September 1997, 3dfx filed a lawsuit against Sega and NEC (later including VideoLogic), stating "breach of contract", and accusing Sega of starting the deal in bad faith to take 3dfx technology, although they later settled.

Launch

The Dreamcast was released on November 27, 1998 in Japan, on September 9, 1999 in North America (the date 9/9/99 featured heavily in US promotion) and on October 14, 1999 in Europe. The tagline used to promote the console in the US was, "It's thinking", and in Europe "Up to 6 Billion Players".

The Dreamcast was the first console to include a built-in modem and Internet support for online gaming (besides the NES, Satellaview, and the Nintendo 64DD). It enjoyed brisk sales in its first season, and was one of Sega's most successful hardware units. In the United States alone, a record 300,000 units (citation Maclean's September 24, 1999) had been pre-ordered before launch and Sega sold 500,000 consoles in just two weeks (including 225,000 sold on the first 24 hours which became a video game record until the PlayStation 2 launched a year later). In fact, due to brisk sales and hardware shortages, Sega was unable to fulfill all of the advance orders. Sega confirmed that it made $98.4 million on combined hardware and software sales with the Dreamcast with its September 9, 1999 launch. Sega even compared the record figure to the opening day gross of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which made $28.5 million during the first 24 hours in theaters.

Before the launch in the United States, Sega had already taken the extra step in displaying Dreamcast's capabilities in stores nationwide. Much like the PlayStation's launch in North America, the displays of titles such as Soul Calibur, Sonic Adventure, Power Stone, and Hydro Thunder helped the Dreamcast succeed in the first year.

Electronic Arts announced it would not support the Dreamcast unless it sold 1 million units. When this happened within a record 90 days, EA went back on their word and declined to support the Dreamcast in favor of Sony's upcoming PlayStation 2. Although the Dreamcast had none of EA's popular sports games (due in part to EA's losses from the past Sega Saturn), Sega Sports titles helped to fill that void.

Competition

In April 1999, Sony announced its PlayStation 2, designed to be backwards-compatible with the older PlayStation. The actual release of the PS2 was not until March 2000 in Japan, and late October 2000 in the US. Sony's press release, despite being a year ahead of the launch of the PS2, was enough to divert a lot of attention from Sega. With the looming PS2 launch in Japan, the Dreamcast was largely ignored in that territory. The Dreamcast had great initial success in the US, but had trouble maintaining this with the PS2's release.

Dreamcast's overall superior games (vs. early PS2 games), online capabilities including SegaNet (the PS2 would not go online until late 2002), and significantly lower price (1/2 cost) did little to help sales once the Playstation 2 was launched. American public attention was focused upon the Playstation 2's much hyped graphics and its ability to play DVDs (the DVD format did not catch on in Japan until after the release of the PS2 as the LD was the established standard). During the holiday season of 2000, the Dreamcast was largely ignored even as the PlayStation 2 was plagued by production shortages, as people often paid in excess of $1000 on eBay for Sony's next-generation console.

The biggest competition between the two systems in the US was their football games (NFL 2K1 vs. Madden NFL 2001). Both games were highly regarded with NFL 2k1 having the advantage of online play (coinciding with release of SegaNet) and Madden arguably having a graphics edge. NFL 2K1 outsold Madden 2001. It sold about 410,000 copies which was about the number of PS2s sold in America [citation needed].

Quality of the overall PlayStation 2 library wouldn't catch up until a year later after developers abandoned Dreamcast development en masse and cancelled many nearly completed projects. Sony already enjoyed brand-name dominance over Sega after the huge success of the original PlayStation and commercial failure of the Sega Saturn, Sega 32X, and Sega CD, which contributed to poorer sales of the Dreamcast.

In 2000, the announcement of the Microsoft Xbox and Nintendo GameCube was widely regarded as the last straw for the Dreamcast, since both competitors had deep pockets, which fueled speculation that Sega did not have the resources for a prolonged marketing campaign.

Sega's decision to release the Dreamcast early, or even at all, is still debated. While it was largely regarded as a risky gamble, the Dreamcast was initially successful. Ultimately, anticipation of competitors' newer consoles resulted in stagnation of Dreamcast sales. The GameCube and Xbox weren't released until well after the Dreamcast was officially discontinued (nearly a year later).

End of production

On January 31, 2001, Sega announced that production of Dreamcast hardware was to be discontinued by March of that year, although the 50 to 60 titles still in production would be published. The last North American release was NHL 2K2, which was released in February 2002. With the company announcing no plans to develop a next-generation successor to the Dreamcast, this was Sega's last foray into the home console business. By the time Sega decided to cease development of the Dreamcast, about 10 million consoles had been sold. One key reason cited for the failure of the Dreamcast was Sega's poor relations with the games publishers (such as Electronics Arts, following the poor performance of previous consoles.

Though the Dreamcast was officially discontinued in early 2001, commercial games were still developed and released afterwards, particularly in Japan. Many consider the critically acclaimed arcade shooter Ikaruga developed by Treasure to be the Dreamcast's swan song. It was released in September 2002 in Japan only after a large amount of speculation on the game's fate; its US release was on the GameCube in April 2003. Hacked unreleased games like Propeller Arena and Half-Life continued to become available to the public by warez groups like Echelon.

On February 24, 2004, Sega released their final Dreamcast game, Puyo Pop Fever, although a small number of third-party games are still being released, such as Trizeal, Rajirugi, and most recently Under Defeat (released in March 2006).

Despite its short lifespan, the Dreamcast is still a very popular and highly-regarded console among many fans due to its impressive library of both mainstream and quirky titles. It is even starting to become a cult classic, as the system is getting harder to find (in fact, although the Dreamcast was officially discontinued in January 2001, Sega continued to produce the console for a short time afterwards due to rising demand, not least among collectors and hardcore fans).

Several Dreamcast emulation projects have emerged after the Dreamcast's end of production, with Chankast being the most notable.

GD-ROM

The Dreamcast used a proprietary format called GD-ROM or "GigaDisc" for storing games and software. Sega chose the GD-ROM format for its increased capacity while using inexpensive compact disc technology. All Dreamcast consoles could also play audio compact discs until the introduction of revised GD-ROM drives in 2001 that could not read burned CDs of any kind.


Windows CE

Microsoft co-operated with Sega in hopes of promoting its Windows CE operating system for video games. Windows CE offered easy porting of existing PC applications, but offered limited capabilities compared to the Dreamcast's native operating system. When developers took advantage of the easy development offered by Windows CE, the resulting games (e.g., Sega Rally 2) lagged in performance and framerate. The only Windows CE application known by most users was the pack-in CD containing a CE-based dialer and web browser.

The Dreamcast used the same technology as the Sega NAOMI arcade game hardware platform, therefore NAOMI-based games such as Crazy Taxi were easily ported to the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast, however, had less memory and games were loaded from GD-ROM discs (while some NAOMI games were released on GD-ROM most used ROM boards).


Graphics Output

The Dreamcast is able to output true 640x480 VGA (480p60 EDTV), which (at the time) set it apart from other consoles. The system, when combined with the VGA adapter accessory (mentioned below), had the ability to display high-res, non-interlaced picture(s).

The feature was underused by the public despite the potential for improved video quality with the use of a PC monitor or HDTV set. This was likely due to lack of knowledge on the subject. Also, a few notable games were not compatible with this mode, including certain Capcom fighting games and 2D shoot-'em-up games.

Other well known graphic implementations such as, cel-shading and bump mapping, were first seen on Sega's console. In fact, the first completely cel-shaded animation game was Jet Set Radio (Jet Grind Radio in US), released in 2000 on the Dreamcast.


Connectivity

Much like the successive GameCube, the Dreamcast has the ability to connect to a handheld gaming unit. Using a special cable, with specific games, the Dreamcast could connect with the Neo Geo Pocket. SNK and Capcom took advantage of the connectivity to allow players of Capcom vs SNK and The King of Fighters to trade points between the console and handheld versions of their games.


Online

Dreamcast consoles came packed with a disc containing web browser software allowing dial-up Internet access. Dream Passport was the Japanese browser, Planetweb was used in America, and DreamKey in Europe. Version 3.0 of Planetweb included broadband capabilities, Java, Flash, and mouse support. In Europe, the final version of DreamKey was 3.0.

While Planetweb was a browser created specifically for the US market, Europe's DreamKey was in fact a translated version of the Japanese Dream Passport. It was used on some American game releases (such as Metropolis Street Racer); here it was called Internet Viewer.

The Dreamcast was one of the first home console systems to offer online gameplay with the game ChuChu Rocket! (which was distributed free to Dreamcast owners in Europe). Sega also has the honors of the first online console sports title (Sega Sports NFL 2K1) as well as the first ever online console RPG (Phantasy Star Online). The SegaNet online dial-up service (US$29/month membership) attracted 750,000 subscribers in America alone. About twenty-two games, including Quake III Arena and Phantasy Star Online, supported SegaNet. Other major online games include 4x4 Evolution (first crossplatform online game), Starlancer, and Ferrari F355 Challenge. Although the online features of most commercially-released online-capable Dreamcast games are no longer supported, with the complete shut-down of support in the US, some games are still playable online in Japan. Yet, fans have developed servers for playing Phantasy Star Online and the North American version of Quake III Arena which can still be played online by finding or setting up a server using software and a map pack released by Sega. The games still playable online are Quake III Arena, Starlancer, 4x4 Evolution, Phantasy Star Online, Maximum Pool Online, and Sega Swirl, which still have dozens of players online.

In Europe, the online service was known as Dreamarena. This was created and operated for Sega Europe by a partnership between ICL and BT (ICL developed the web sites and software, with BT providing the dial-up capabilities and network infrastructure). The service was free and the game servers hosted within it could not otherwise be accessed from the Internet. Dreamarena ran until the beginning of March 2002. As the DreamKey web browser was customised to only work with Dreamarena, Sega subsequently offered a free replacement version which would allow connection with the user's own Internet service provider.

The modem module in the Dreamcast could easily be replaced with a broadband module to allow networked gaming over Ethernet. Phantasy Star Online, Quake III Arena, Unreal Tournament, Outtrigger, Bomberman Online, and POD Speedzone included support for this device. It should be noted, however, that not all of those games supported the Ethernet adapter; the US release of Phantasy Star Online only officially supported dial-up connectivity, however it was possible to use the Japanese version of the game to configure usage of the Ethernet adapter (or, alternatively, another Japanese title that configured the same settings in the system BIOS) and then play the US release of the game with the Ethernet adapter.

The standard Dreamcast unit is made of white and grey plastic. The power light, like the Dreamcast logo in NTSC regions, is orange (this color was chosen because the Japanese consider it to be lucky). Games were sold in jewel cases which initially had the Dreamcast name and logo on a white background, but later games used a black background (blue in Europe).

The unit was packaged with a video cable which supports composite video and right/left stereo audio. Available separately were an S-Video cable, a RF connector (included as standard in the UK and Portugal) and a VGA adapter (see accessories below).

In the United States, a black Dreamcast was released in limited numbers with a sports pack which included two Sega Sports titles. Electronics Boutique offered a blue Dreamcast through its website. Similar offerings were sold through the Lik-sang website. Cases of different colors like blue, red, orange, and green were sold for replacements of the original casing. In Japan, Sega released many varieties of the system, including limited edition Sonic anniversary editions, and Hello Kitty outfits. The Sega Dreamcast Hello Kitty was released in 2000 in Japan. Due to its limited production, it has become an extremely rare collector's piece. The package contains a keyboard, a controller, a VMU, a mouse, and a Hello Kitty trivia game. The console and accessories are translucent pink in color with some printed designs. The Sega Dreamcast Hello Kitty special edition was also available in a blue with all the same accessories.

The Brazilian version, manufactured by Tec Toy under license, was essentially the same as the US version, however its video output was converted to the PAL-M standard and it didn't come with the modem, which was available separately.

The Dreamcast in Europe had its spiral logo in blue, similar to the logo on earlier Sega systems. This change in logo is thought to have been for copyright reasons. A German company, Tivola, had been using a similar swirl logo years before Sega branded the Dreamcast with the orange swirl. As well as the VGA mode (again using an adapter), the European Dreamcast supported PAL video, in both 50Hz and 60Hz modes. This was a first for games consoles, as no previous PAL console had offered the option to play games at full speed, using the ability of more modern PAL televisions to operate at 60Hz. This became a feature of all major consoles released since. The 60Hz option had to be enabled on the game disc, however, but only a small number of games lacked this. Games in Europe were sold in jewel cases exactly twice as thick as their US counterparts, possibly to enable the inclusion of thick instruction booklets containing instructions in multiple languages.

A third-party company from China named Treamcast released a portable modified Dreamcast which used the original first party Dreamcast components with a custom made plastic casing. This small system with its fold-down display resembled the later PS One. Many companies included software and a remote with the unit that enabled it to play MP3s and Video CDs. When the internet import videogame store, Lik-Sang, contacted Sega to ask permission to sell a modified version of the system with Sega trademarks on the system, they were told that Sega did not approve of the unit, and felt that it violated their trademarks. In reality, this system is not any different from selling a Dreamcast pre-modified with a third party shell, as the system's internals still use first party hardware, and contain no modifications whatsoever aside from the outside casing and modifications for internal sound and video.

Recently, in 2005, the internet import store, Lan-Kwei, has started selling a "Treamcast" portable modified Dreamcast with a 16:9 widescreen LCD. Aside from the cosmetic differences in the case to accommodate the larger screen, there are no differences between the original Treamcast portable modified Dreamcast and the newer widescreen model.


The Visual Memory Unit, or "VMU", was the Dreamcast's memory card. It had a monochrome LCD screen, a D-Pad, and two gaming buttons. It could play minigames loaded onto it (a Chao game was obtainable in Sonic Adventure, for example). It could also display a list of the saved game data stored on it, and two VMUs could be connected together (end-to-end, needing no other hardware) to exchange data.

Standard memory cards could also be purchased without the additional features of the VMU. Most of these were manufactured by third-party companies (such as the Nexus Memory Card), although Sega eventually released a 4X memory card. The 4X cards did not have the VMU screen or stand-alone abilities, but they had four times the space by switching between four 200-block sectors.

Controller and Rumble Pack Most Dreamcast games supported a rumble pack ("Jump Pack"), which was sold separately and could be plugged into the controller. In Japan, the Jump Pack was named the "Puru Puru Pack".

The Dreamcast controller offered an analog stick, a D-pad, a Start button, four gaming buttons (labeled A, B, X, and Y), and two analog index finger triggers on the underside. It also contained two slots which fit memory cards or the rumble pack; the uppermost one had a window through which the VMU's display could be seen. The Dreamcast controller was somewhat large and a few players found it difficult to hold.

VGA Adapter Unique to the Dreamcast among current console gaming systems, it could use a VGA adapter for output to a computer display and HDTV compatible sets (which provided much better quality than a television set).

Not all games are compatible with the VGA adapter, but there are work arounds to trick all but a handful of games into working with it.

Dreamcast Mouse and Keyboard The Dreamcast supported a mouse as well as a keyboard which was useful when using the included web browser, but was also supported by certain games such as The Typing of the Dead, Quake 3, Phantasy Star Online and Railroad Tycoon 2. Other games such as REZ offer undocumented mouse support.

Fishing Rod A motion sensitive fishing rod was released for the few fishing games on the system.

Microphone There was a microphone peripheral used for Alien Front Online, version 2.6 of the Planetweb Web browser (long distance calling support), the European Planet Ring collection and Seaman (the first console game to use voice recognition in the US).

Lightgun

Sega also produced a light gun for the system, although this was not sold in the US presumably because Sega did not want its name on a gun in the light of recent school shootings. American versions of light gun games even blocked out using the official gun. Several third parties made compatible guns for the few light gun games released, including The House of the Dead 2 and Confidential Mission. The only other light gun compatible games were Death Crimson OX and its Japanese only prequel, Virtua Cop 2 on the Sega Smash Pack, and a light gun minigame in Demolition Racer No Exit.

Arcade Stick Sega also released the heavy-duty Arcade Stick, a digital joystick with six buttons using the same microswitch assemblies as commercial arcade machines. Although it could not be used for many Dreamcast games due to the lack of an analog joystick, it was well received and helped cement the Dreamcast's reputation for 2D shooters and fighting games. The Arcade Stick itself lives on beyond the Dreamcast, as adaptors are now available to use it on other hardware platforms.

Third-party sticks were also made, like the ASCII Dreamcast fighting Pad, which some regard as having a more comfortable 6-button configuration and a more precise digital direction pad.

Twin Sticks A twin stick peripheral was released specifically for use with the game Virtual-On. This add-on mimicked the original dual arcade stick setup and made gameplay much more precise. They are extremely rare and versions that appear on ebay sell for over $100.

Dreameye Sega developed the Dreameye, a digital camera for the Dreamcast, but it was only released in Japan.

Samba de Amigo controller Sega developed a special "maracas" controller for the Samba de Amigo music game.

Cancelled Accessories Toward the end of the Dreamcast's lifespan, Sega created and displayed prototypes of a high-capacity VMU/MP3 player, DVD player, and Zip drive peripherals. None of these items became available to the public.

11 comments:

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