Brace for Import: Dreamcast at 25

John Bowe recalls the announcement and release of the Sega Dreamcast and explains why he waited for Sega’s greatest console.

On May 21st 1998, Sega held their New Challenge Conference, an all-in-one boutique of apologies for their recent priors and a promise for the future. To stamp the point they unveiled their 128-bit answer to the question of just what to do with a problem like Sega?

Their answer was simple; let Sega be Sega and let the Dreamcast be. It was a heck of an opening salvo and at the time I scanned the print media of the time looking over pictures of the new machine, the outstanding tech demo shots, and the various Sega alumni dragged out to give it the thumbs up. In some pictures was Yuji Naka promising the return of Sonic, and in others, arcade legend Yu Suzuki promising to do all he could to spend all of Sega’s money developing his new RPG.

Neither would let the company down. Industry legends.

Announcement of the Sega Dreamcast

As the tale would tell it though, the road to Dreamcast would find the public by E3 of 1997 when then fresh head Sega of America, Bernard Stolar dropped the mother of all bombshells in front of a conference crowd.

The Saturn is not the future of Sega, he said in his most poised of transatlantic accents.

Mic drop.

The crowd couldn’t believe it. The same Saturn that had been selling by literally the tens in the West was not going to carry this large and complicated international company into the new millennium? Either he was a very astute man or else a very silly one. Like I say he had that Mid-Atlantic tone of voice thing going on that made his discernment difficult to pin down.

It only turned out that he was right though. The Saturn wouldn’t do another commercial year in the West, despite always having been a machine as good at the time as it is remembered today.

But the heat was on; what would they do next?

Hitachi vs. 3dfx

We wouldn’t have to wait much time at all for signs of their interest. Sega had set up a polygon punch-up of a show-down between Hitachi and the American 3dfx team to decide which company’s chipset should be grafted into their new machine. Their likely last hope. So no pressure.

Hitachi had been Sega stalwarts for years, but 3-Dfx were the hot new trend with the iffy PC crowd. And those clowns were really sure about 3-Dfx. By the winter of 1997 though it became clear that only Hitachi had ever been in the running. But that didn’t matter because the real question of performance had already been dropped by Sega themselves a year before with Virtua Fighter 3 in arcades. It ran on Sega’s Model 3 hardware and was the future last word on fidelity at the time.

It was followed by Scud Race and it was thus clear that Model 3 was satellite to all other hardware. Like Sega on absinthe. The colours…

Dreamcast vs. Model 3: an arcade in your home?

So the real question was, how close to Model 3 was the new hardware going to be? Was that even a realistic expectation? For an old Sega bottom-feeder like me, you bet it was. It didn’t matter how difficult it would be to achieve, if the Dural, or Katana, or whatever else it wouldn’t end up being called couldn’t run Virtua Fighter 3 as good as proper, then what would be the hope? It had to do this, or next to near enough. Enough for whatever telly I would be running it through.

If the Dreamcast couldn’t run Virtua Fighter 3, then what would be the hope?

And I knew it wasn’t only me. The Saturn had built a steady and robust cult around itself for a few years and we knew Sega; we knew they were owed one. The output had been out there for the Saturn, it had been the reason for the cult in the first place. And much of their arcade IP was a natural one-up on that. If that could be done at home, then the job was done. In terms of Sega’s survival, it wouldn’t matter what Sony or even Nintendo could bring if they could get the jump by twelve months and give it blue sky Sega from both barrels. It couldn’t be ignored despite prior Sega ignominies.

Questions answered

On May 21st 1998 Sega answered some of this, and when I got Sega Saturn magazine a week later I got to hear about it. Yuji Naka and Yu Suzuki were looking very confident. The creatives were in full control, you could see it. This was going to go brilliantly.

The tech demos were certainly a herald of something, but where was Virtua Fighter 3?

Soon after came Sega’s next ballroom announcement, and footage, of Sonic Adventure. This thing looked amazing and still did when it arrived in PAL form some fifteen months later. In the summer of 1998 though, those stills were a real swivel to anything else. Unreal on the PC? It wasn’t going to matter because Sonic Adventure levels of fidelity were coming. Sega was not aiming to re-invent Sega, they were coming to terms with who Sega was. And in the most passing-meteor sense they delivered on that over the next few years. A fevered cottage industry re-directed to focus its financial efforts on creating console entertainment the likes of which had not been seen before.

At at the very least of those terms, they would achieve that within a couple of years.

Sega knew what we wanted before we did

But this was the international Sega of 1998, and outside of Japan and the arcade, it was becoming hard to know if there was an appetite for Sega in the West beyond what we might call a Neo-Geo flirtation. I was a fan, but living on the Welsh border it was hard at the time to gauge the interest myself. Certainly my brothers and everyone else that I knew were more interested in playing Tekken 2 than Fighting Vipers. They were going to have to get Dreamcast out fast for me to find out. Luckily Sega were thinking the same, at least in Japan.

And so six months after the announcement, and only a few weeks after displaying their line-up at the Tokyo Game Show, Dreamcast went on sale with somewhat limited reserves, something that would have a profound effect on my bank balance. I knew I was going to hot-foot it to an importer for one, but now the various costs were going to go up as those early adopters like myself were going to be fighting over supplies and inflated costs.

The question was, how badly did I need to see that Virtua Fighter 3tb conversion and how much was I willing to spend once one became available? A lot was the answer to both questions, and Essex import emporium Project K took hundreds and hundreds of my monies and got me a machine in the post just after Christmas of that year. It was probably 1999 by the time it arrived. That was the postal service at the time.

Next time out we’ll have a look at that Virtua Fighter 3 conversion and list another four games that arrived and which made import Dreamcast the way to play games in ‘99.

About the author

John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90's Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.

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