What Sega’s Dreamcast launch keynote would have looked like, 20 years ago

For a brief period 20 years ago, this was console gaming's state-of-the-art.
For a brief period 20 years ago, this was console gaming’s state-of-the-art.

We originally ran this piece five years ago, on a day when the 15th birthday of Sega’s Dreamcast coincided with a major Apple keynote event. In honor of the Dreamcast’s 20th birthday today, we thought we’d revisit this fun “alternate history” take on how the Dreamcast’s launch impacted the world of gaming and continues to influence it to this day.

While seemingly the entirety of the Internet was off paying attention to Apple announcing its new phones and watch, something weird was happening to my Twitter feed. Apparently, someone had messed with my settings so that my feed displayed tweets on a 15-year delay for a couple of hours. That means that, instead of Apple tweets, my followers got to go back in time and experience a portion of my liveblogging from Sega’s Dreamcast launch-day keynote address from September 9, 1999.

We figure this technical snafu is as good an excuse as any to look back on the Dreamcast as it existed 15 years ago today, when it hoped to be the savior of a once-proud Sega still recovering from the failure of the Sega CD, 32X, Saturn, et al. Below are my live tweets as they were written 15 years ago, along with some accompanying commentary that has the benefit of a decade and a half of hindsight.

[Editor’s Note: For those with defective sarcasm genes (or just those feeling a little bit slow today), I will state up front that these are not actually tweets from over six years before Twitter even existed. Sega didn’t even have a keynote-style launch event on 9/9/99. I just thought these somewhat jokey “livetweets” would be a fun way to reminisce on the launch of Sega’s last console, and reflect on how much technology and the gaming market has changed in the intervening period.]

Yes, I know there’s a typo in here. It was actually Soulcalibur (a.k.a. Soul Edge 2) that launched with the Dreamcast in the US, not Soulcalibur 2. In any case, I actually probably undersold the home conversion a little bit. The Dreamcast version actually looks significantly better than the System 12-based arcade version, which has more in common with the original PlayStation. Consoles had been aiming for “arcade perfect” for years, but the Dreamcast ushered in a new era of surpassing arcade perfection.

Unfortunately, Sonic has yet to really stop talking. The Sonic series has come to be dominated by the kind of cut scene-heavy, exploration-filled 3D quests first envisioned by Sonic Adventure, much to the series’ detriment. Even the games that focus on speed and platforming don’t have the same oomph they had before this first real 3D effort. A shark-jumping moment if ever there was one.

I was probably a bit too enthusiastic about the Visual Memory Unit. Sure, it could play extremely simple games on its extremely lo-res, two-color screen, and show secret/enhanced information to the player outside the TV screen. Still, it was an idea before its time, without the technology to really support it in 1999. These days, the Wii U GamePad owes a debt of gratitude to this little screen-in-a-controller.

This is quite possibly the most incorrect tweet I’ve ever written, as the Dreamcast was quickly cracked to run “backup” games burned to regular old CD-Rs. The widespread piracy this allowed probably hurt the long-term market for the system’s software, but may have been the best thing possible for the hardware’s general longevity, as Michael Gapper recently argued over on Medium.

First off, how did we ever tolerate online gaming before broadband? It was OK for slow-paced, turn-based games and the like, but anything that required any reflexes at all was an exercise in lag-filled frustration. Second off, can you imagine if Microsoft or Sony charged $ 22 a month for their online gaming service these days? There would be riots in the streets!

The Dreamcast didn’t exactly hurt for sports games, but the lack of EA’s popular sports titles probably hurt the system’s prospects more than Sega would have liked to admit. The omission stemmed from a disagreement over exclusivity: EA wanted to be the only sports brand on Dreamcast for a five-year window, but Sega wanted to also make use of its recently purchased Visual Concepts team. The split robbed Sega of some important early third-party support that may have helped the system survive a bit longer.

Given its ignominious failure less than two years later, it can be hard to remember that the Dreamcast was an unqualified success during its US launch, selling over 500,000 consoles in a two-week period. But with the PlayStation 2 buzz getting louder and louder as 2000 went on, and sales in Japan and Europe looking weaker than in the US, Sega lost the oxygen it needed to build up an early lead and really challenge Sony’s coming juggernaut.

I was just joking here… the keynote barely mentioned Hardcore Heat at all. But this tweet highlights the ridiculously large and varied launch library for the US Dreamcast launch. The 19 games available when the system hit stores was unprecedented at a time when consoles usually limped out with six rushed titles at most. Even though the PS2 would launch with 26 titles less than a year later, the Dreamcast’s well-constructed launch library helped contribute to the early buzz for the system.

While not everybody hates Big the Cat, he’s probably the least loved character in the growing Sonic diaspora at this point. In fact, Sonic Team officially retired the big galoot in 2012, and I bet you didn’t even notice, did you? DID YOU?!

I’ll admit it: this tweet was just an excuse to link to the hilarious video of Funky Head Boxers. 3D graphics had already come a long way, even in 1999…

Fans of obscure Japanese rhythm games know what’s coming next…

Sure, the maraca controllers may have been a little wonky, and the official ones were incredibly hard to find in the US. Still, I dare you to find a more sublimely ridiculous rhythm game experience than this one. Too bad the Wii version was so awful…

Sony’s Japanese unveiling of the PS2 just months before really cast a shadow on the whole Dreamcast launch. Though Sega did its best to ignore or downplay it, everyone knew the next generation didn’t really start until Sony said it did.

Yup, Sega actually made this comparison to highlight that its console was a business force to be reckoned with. Personally, we wouldn’t want to compare a new system to a movie that pretty much single-handedly ruined a once-proud film franchise (bring on the comment arguments!)

Hard to believe that, in 1999, Nintendo was still two years out from introducing its first disc-based system. The Dreamcast’s 1.2GB discs and the Gamecube’s 1.5GB discs couldn’t hold a candle to the 4.7GB that could be stored on a PS2 or Xbox DVD, of course.

For more on how console launch prices look under the specter of inflation, see this analysis.

This was an unfair comparison. Hydro Thunder is its own game and fun in a very different way from Wave Race 64. That said, isn’t it weird how many water-based racing games we got once hardware could handle wave physics semi-decently? Since that boom, the sub-genre has pretty much died…

Excepting the Gamecube in 2001, we have yet to see another major console launch in the US as low as $ 200 (Sorry, Ouya, but we’re not counting you). Adjusting for inflation, though, the Wii’s 2006 launch at $ 250 was roughly comparable, both coming in around $ 290 in 2014 dollars.

The built-in rumble motor on the PlayStation 2’s included DualShock 2 controller made the Dreamcast controller look immediately lacking less than a year after its US launch.

We never got Sega’s version of Smash Bros., though we did get a Mario Kart clone in Sega and Sonic All-Star Racing over a decade later. And, of course, Sonic appeared in Super Smash Bros. Brawl in 2008, an idea that seemed laughable less than a decade prior.

At $ 300, the PS2 was among the cheaper DVD players on the market when it launched in 2000, a fact that helped buoy both the system and the still-new video format. Who knows how different things would be if Sega had embraced the standard a year prior?

Raise your hand if you have ever used a Video CD. Hmmm… I’m not seeing many hands…

Sega’s relatively early launch was its best chance to get its foot in the door before Sony had a chance to corner the market yet again. Unfortunately for Sega, many gamers were willing to wait…

If you suffered through the minutes-long loading times of the Dreamcast version of Soldier of Fortune, you know this hope didn’t come to pass…

Of course 7 million polygons per second seems a bit laughable today, when modern consoles can push thousands of times that amount. At the time, though, it was a huge, orders-of-magnitude increase over the kind of blocky, muddy 3D we had seen on earlier consoles.

Fifteen years ago today, I was stuck in my childhood bedroom’s beanbag chair, gorging myself on Soulcalibur and Trickstyle and marvelling at how far consoles had come to get us to that point. The Dreamcast might not have ended up being the most long-lived console, but for a brief moment on September 9, 1999, it really did feel like the future of video games.

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Gaming & Culture – Ars Technica

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