The gaming scene today looks very different to how it did back in the 90s. At that time, Nintendo and Sega were riding high, with Sony’s PlayStation a new and unproven unknown. Microsoft had yet to release its Xbox, although that console would debut with the next generation, and although PC gaming was still a hugely important market, it was mostly enjoyed by enthusiasts and devotees rather than the more widespread audience it enjoys today.
The final home console Sega developed in the 90s was the Sega Dreamcast. It was a hugely promising and ambitious machine, delivering many of the things that future consoles would consider to be standards, but it was let down by poor marketing and an inability to escape the curse of the Sega Saturn. Let’s take a look at Sega’s ill-fated but ultimately underrated console and figure out just what went wrong for this once-giant of console manufacturing.
The Dreamcast initially sold well
At first, Sega was pretty satisfied with the sales figures for the Dreamcast. Sales figures in North America, when the console launched in 1998, were impressive; Sega actually set a Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling console, with 372,000 units of the Dreamcast sold in a single 24-hour period. In less than two weeks, Sega managed to rack up 514,000 sales, apparently surpassing Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in terms of day-one figures. It looked as though the Dreamcast was going to be everything Sega wanted it to be after the relative disappointment of the Sega Saturn, but let’s back up a little and examine the Dreamcast’s predecessor first.
The Sega Saturn was a flop
The reason Sega had a reputation to claw back in the first place was down to the Sega Saturn. The console was attempting to compete with the Nintendo 64 and the Sony PlayStation, both of which had absolutely killer apps (in the case of the N64, gamers loved games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, while the PlayStation had games like Crash Bandicoot).
The Saturn, meanwhile, could only muster a handful of exclusives, none of which were system-sellers. By far the greatest game available for the Sega Saturn was Panzer Dragoon Saga, an expansive JRPG with an innovative combat system, but it wasn’t a big hit in the West, leading Sega to largely ignore the legacy of that series for a long time.
It also didn’t help that Sega pushed its Saturn release date forward to compete with the PlayStation, alienating developers and leaving a huge gap between Sega and its partners when it came to Saturn support. The console subsequently received very little third-party support and promptly flopped, meaning it was all to play for with Sega’s next machine.
The Dreamcast was sunk by the PlayStation 2
In the end, Sony’s PlayStation 2 console sank the Dreamcast, and it would likely have sunk its other rivals as well if they weren’t so well-established already. Nintendo could weather the storm thanks to a lineup of excellent first-party titles, and Microsoft had the backing of one of the world’s largest tech conglomerates. However, Sega were now comparatively small fish in a huge pond.
The PS2 had DVD playback support, something the Dreamcast lacked. This turned out to be surprisingly important for gamers; they wanted a machine that would let them watch movies and play games without needing to swap cables over, and the PS2 would serve just that purpose. By contrast, the Dreamcast didn’t offer this functionality, leaving it at a severe disadvantage.
There was also the thorny issue of backwards compatibility. Gamers that did have a Sega Saturn back catalogue were disappointed to discover that the Dreamcast wouldn’t play it, while Sony engineered backwards compatibility into the PS2, allowing gamers to play their PS1 titles without swapping the SCART over. The GameCube and Xbox didn’t have backwards compatibility, either, which is partly what helped the PS2 sell so well.
Sony marketed the hell out of the PS2
Another reason the Dreamcast unfortunately died was that Sony was simply willing to spend more marketing money on the PS2. The console’s much-touted Emotion Engine was a big focal point of the marketing; ironically, Sega was being hoisted by its own petard, one created by “blast processing” during the Genesis marketing blitz.
Sega just couldn’t compete with Sony’s marketing spend; the PlayStation giant even managed to get legendary movie director Steven Spielberg on-side to talk up the PS2 and tell gamers why they should buy it. Next to that kind of clout, Sega was utterly powerless, and it showed in the way they were unable to sell the Dreamcast.
The Dreamcast had some decent games, but no system-sellers
The PS2’s lineup at launch may have been a little thin, but within a year or two, the system had some of the most hotly-anticipated games around. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Final Fantasy X, and Grand Theft Auto 3 all helped to make the PS2 an absolute monster when it came to sales, while the Dreamcast could only lag behind with its relatively paltry lineup.
It’s true that the Dreamcast certainly had some great games going for it. Shenmue, while a very odd game by today’s standards, arguably pushed the medium forward in many ways, and Sonic Adventure was a leap forward for the Blue Blur in terms of tech. There just weren’t any Dreamcast games that gamers could point to and declare as system-sellers; it was a good curio, but nothing more.
In the end, the Dreamcast fell victim to a number of issues. It had no marketing budget, it had no major games it could rely on, and although it was technically ahead of its time – online gaming! – it wasn’t enough to beat out Sony’s more convenient, more accessible machine. The Dreamcast could have succeeded if it had been released in a less enlightened era, but the PS2 was poised for dominance, and the Dreamcast was just one of Sony’s many casualties.