With every generation of video game consoles, there are new rivalries. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the video game crash of 1984, Atari were leading the market with their VCS system (later to be known as the Atari 2600). Later, towards the end of the 80s, Nintendo emerged as the market leader with their all-conquering NES. Not even Atari's newer 8-bit system, the 7800, could prevent Nintendo's rise to dominance.
However, another upstart company had emerged, with their own console: Sega. The Sega Master System was a powerful console, but was choked in the United States by Nintendo, who held a stranglehold on publishers. In Europe, however, Sega fared much better, with a strong library of games which soon lead to a comfortable position in the market. Again, we had a two-horse race. Eager to ensure they could keep, or even better, their position, Sega decided to release a 16-bit home system well in advance of Nintendo. This became known as the Sega Mega Drive, or the Genesis in the North American market.
Throughout the early 90s, Sega and Nintendo fought for control of the market. Sega's console was fast, and had a wide library of excellent ports from Sega's arcade line-up, whilst Nintendo presented their SNES, with a larger colour pallette, better sound, and Nintendo's own, equally strong, library. Neither side could claim victory for certain; Nintendo's Super Mario World, one of the defining platform games, was swiftly countered by Sega's genre-defining Sonic The Hedgehog. Nintendo one-upped Sega by releasing Capcom's famous fighting game, Street Fighter II, as a pack-in, but again Sega retorted, allowing an uncensored version of Midway's Mortal Kombat where Nintendo had demanded the removal of less family-friendly elements.
As time went on, however, and the consoles became older, gamers began to demand more. Nintendo continued to advance their SNES with chips built into the cartridges, allowing for fully-3D games such as Starfox. Sega released a series of expansions for the Mega Drive - the poorly-received Mega CD, and the even worse 32X, which brought 32-bit gameplay to their old machine. Nintendo had seen the Mega CD, and thought it best to release their own CD-ROM attachment for the SNES, roping in Sony to assist. What happened next would define the mid-to-late 90s games market.
Sony were glad to help Nintendo, but soon found themselves double-crossed when Nintendo decided to work with Phillips later on. Furious, Sony took their prototype SNES CD-ROM, and decided to enter the market themselves. (Rumour has it that one single 16-bit prototype was made by Sony, and now sits in their president's office.) Code-named the Playstation X, Sony announced a 32-bit, CD-ROM based machine, available in Japan for late 1994.
Both Nintendo and Sega failed to counter the assault by Sony. The Playstation was quick to market, and offered proper 3D gameplay on CDs. Sega's Saturn was more costly, and despite an earlier release failed to capitalise on this lead, soon losing out. Sony brought out a massive library of games, with plenty of top-quality titles (and the inevitable rash of less-well received games), while Sega soon lost many developers from their difficult-to-program, if powerful machine. Nintendo didn't manage to release their cartridge-based Nintendo 64 until 1996, and were condemned to be a lesser player in this console war.
Ironically, despite losing out, Sega's Saturn fared better in Japan than any console they had released previously. However, time was running out on them. Saturn was Sega's third consecutive failure, and retailers no longer regarded them with the fondness they used to hold during the reign of the Mega Drive. Sega had no choice but to pull out all the stops, and release a console to re-take the lead, hopefully to better Sony's forthcoming Playstation 2. Sega had a new arcade board, the NAOMI, that would be used as the base for the platform. The name: Dreamcast.
In my opinion, the Sega Dreamcast represents all that was good about video games. Unlike Sony, Sega were more than happy to license both 2- and 3D games, allowing a large library of quality titles to be put out. Every development team at Sega, from the legendary AM2 to Smilebit, were geared wholly towards NAOMI and Dreamcast development, giving the console excellent first-party support, and the four controller ports on the front of the machine make setting up multiplayer games a breeze. Many of the best titles available are designed to be multi-player affairs, giving the system a reputation for party games which it would pass onto the Nintendo Gamecube.
I remember seeing an imported Dreamcast in early 1999, playing Sonic Adventure. This game blew me away. Seeing a proper, 3D Sonic game, all in-game, was a dream come true. Seeing the killer whale chasing Sonic simply looked amazing. Seeing Soul Calibur reminded me what fighting games should be all about. Playing Power Stone was, and remains, sheer unadultered fun. The Dreamcast will always be the console that I knew I had to own, by any means possible.
Dreamcast is powered by a 200Mhz Hitachi SuperH4 processor, a 128-bit chip which gave the console a huge technical advantage over its rivals at the time - the Playstation and N64. Graphics are provided by a second chip, an NEC PowerVR Series II which was clocked at 100Mhz. This hardware is exactly the same as the NAOMI, which made ports incredibly easy. (NAOMI games are still, as of 2005, being released). Dreamcast does differ, however, from NAOMI in the amount of memory it carries: 16Mb for the system, 8Mb for video, and 2Mb for sound. This was half that of its arcade sibling.
Also notable about the Dreamcast is the medium for games: the GD-ROM, or gigabyte disc. Not quite a DVD, just more than a CD, the intention was to make games difficult to pirate. (GD-ROM drives were made available for the NAOMI-2, and are backwards compatible with the NAOMI.) While this was a good idea, Dreamcast was actually capable of reading, and booting, from standard CD-Rs, which lead to rampant piracy.
Perhaps most notable about the Dreamcast was its built-in modem. In North America and Japan, this was 56k, whilst in Europe only 33.6K, which was a tad unfair but still playable; indeed, games seemed remarkably playable even on this slow connection. Sega made available a web browser, too, which can still be obtained; simply 'phone up Sega customer services, or pass them an email, and you can obtain a browser disc. (In the UK, this is the Dreamkey 3.) With the release of a keyboard and mouse, this made the Dreamcast not just a powerful console, but a handy little internet machine, too - and with the release of the highly sought-after Broadband adaptor, soon a distribution of Linux could be loaded and run. Rumour has it that some people used their adaptors for the odd purpose of playing games.
A novel idea was the use of the memory cards, dubbed Visual Memory Units, was as a miniature console in their own right. The VMUs featured a screen which would display data when plugged into the controllers (which sported two slots, for either VMs or for other peripherals such as vibration packs, a micrphone, and more.) One could download mini-games to the VM, either supplied with games or from the web, and play them on the move.
Inevitably, Sony released their wunderkind, the Playstation 2, and Sega were almost immediately facing a crisis. DVD was still a new format, and many bought the PS2 for the sole purpose of watching movies. Whilst Sega had begun work on a DVD player for their console, it never saw release, and the Dreamcast suffered. Other ideas, like the Zip drive, were quietly shelved. Sony, as is their way, over-hyped the PS2 to extremes, claiming it would be able to "render Toy Story 2 in real-time". Compared to the Dreamcast, the PS2's graphics were nothing remarkable, often suffering due to the lack of anti-aliasing provided, whilst Sega's console looked comparitively gorgeous. Many later Japan-only releases, such as Ikaruga, are nothing short of beautiful; indeed, long after Sega announced they would cease Dreamcast production and development, there are still a trickle of games released in Japan.
Alas, the dream is over. Sega have bowed out of the console market, now a third-party developer for other consoles. If you had told a child in 1991 that, one day, Sega would release a Sonic game on a Nintendo console, they would laugh; but, alas, just that happened, with a hand-held Sonic appearing on the Game Boy Advance. (Sonic had also appeared on SNK's Neogeo Pocket Color, which could link up to the Dreamcast games. Sega and SNK got on remarkably well for arcade rivals.)
In 2004, Sega released worldwide a puzzle game called Puyo Pop Fever. In a final gesture to its fans, in Japan, it saw release for the Dreamcast. Sonic Team: we love you.