Flashback Friday: The Fall of the Sega Consoles – Pop Culture Uncovered

In this week’s Flashback Friday, we take you back to the 90s to look at 2 Sega systems that, in some ways, were ahead of their time. The Sega Saturn and the Dreamcast had some innovations that later became standard in other gaming consoles, yet neither fully made it through the generation life cycle.

We will look at some of what made these systems great and give our own opinions as to why they failed.

Sega Saturn

Can you believe it’s been over 20 years already?

The Sega Saturn, in many ways, came along at the right time.  In the mid 90s, gaming companies were tinkering around with ways of getting away from cartridge format based games.  We gamers wanted something that got us away from blowing on discs and rubbing alcohol on the contact leads and brought us a larger storage format for games.  I think I was one of the few in my area that owned a Sega CD system and I could only imagine what a full-fledged console could do.  Also at this time, Nintendo and Sony’s partnership had fractured with whispers of Sony’s console in the works.  Not to mention, the Phillips-CDi and Atari’s Jaguar had crashed and burned, leaving gamers wondering if we would be facing another crash of the market.  The Sega Saturn‘s launch was a bit of a disaster as it was originally supposed to be released on 9/2/95 (Sega Saturnday). In order to get a jump on Sony’s Playstation, it came out on May 11, 1995, the same day that the 1st E3 opened.  I am sure there were many angry gamers and retailers who knew nothing about the earlier release date.

What made it good?

The Sega Saturn was finally breaking down barriers that that blocked home consoles.  Sure, you can cite the NeoGeo as having already done so but the entire system and gaming price was cost prohibitive to many gamers.  And yes, we will get to the Saturn’s pricing in a moment, but it’s hard to deny that this system was about to really bring the arcade experience home.  The big games for the US release were Daytona USA and Virtual Fighter and later on, Sega Rally and Virtua Cop became available.

Many of those games were almost arcade perfect and provided gamers a way to get the arcade experience without leaving home.  Some were still suspect, however.  The pop up in Daytona USA was insane.  However, the graphics in many cases were better than what we had seen in past generations.  Games like Panzer Dragoon pushed the boundaries of earlier games like Space Harrier, to give us a great visual experience for that time. A very unique game for its time, Nights Into Dreams, even required its own controller as it was played in a 2D and 3D world.

Why did it Fail?

One could always simply say “Playstation,” but that’s not a good place to start.  The biggest problem with the Saturn was that it was released entirely too soon.  Again, rather than waiting until its proposed release date, the Saturn came out nearly 5 months ahead of schedule.  This angered a few retailers like KB Toys, who dropped the Saturn from its stock.  Not to mention, the systems were scarce and games were even harder to find.  Worse yet, of course, is how it fractured the relationship with Sega and 3rd party developers as they had no time to get games out.  Between the Saturn Launch and the Playstation’s launch only a handful of games were released and that first year, no Madden football.  If your system didn’t have a Madden football title during those times, it wasn’t going to sell.  The worst offense during this time was the Street Fighter release. A horrible game based upon a horrible movie with equally horrible controls.

This game nearly killed the Street Fighter franchise.  To top things off, along with the blundered release, a lack of games, and a lack of communication with 3rd party developers, there was the price.  It was $400 dollars at that time, which adjusted for inflation, is about $570 dollars.  That was a lot to ask gamers to pay for a system.  It’s a lot to ask of now considering that, in many cases, systems don’t even come with games.  The Playstation was released a few months later on 9/9/95 with a console that was $100 dollars cheaper and had better launch games, still no Madden at the time, but NFL Gameday was up there.  Among some circles, the Sega Saturn has been called the worst video game system of all time.  In my opinion that honor still belongs with the Virtual Boy.  I think that, in many cases, the Saturn had some upside, but it’s only earned the dubious honor of being the worst because of the mismanagement at Sega.

It wasn’t a complete failure in that a few hit games did come out before the Saturn’s support ceased in 1998.  Among them were Fighters Megamix, Street Fighter Alpha, Xmen: CotA, Darius, and a few others.  For system that was considered a failure, it left behind nearly 650 games, which is impressive.

Sega Dreamcast

The Sega Dreamcast, released in North America in September 1999, was arguably ahead of its time.  It debuted to rave reviews from gamers & critics alike, with ‘Next Generation’ magazine saying that it was, “the most powerful system available now, showcasing the best graphics at a reasonable price,” and ‘Bloomberg Businessweek’ calling the Dreamcast, “one of the best products of 1999.”  Sega also held high hopes for the Dreamcast, after taking a pretty devastating loss on the launch of the Sega Saturn.  Following the decline of the Saturn, gamers also seemed to be clamoring for something new, more powerful, and with better staying power.  So, when the Dreamcast was announced to have four controller ports, a controller with ports for the Dreamcast’s VMU memory card and a vibration feedback pack, and be the first home console to feature a built-in modem, demand for the system skyrocketed.  I was the first of my friends to go and get a Dreamcast, and it kept me good company while I lived in an apartment with no cable TV.

What made it good?

There were so many great things about this console!  As I mentioned earlier, the Sega Dreamcast was the first gaming console to feature a built-in modem, allowing for internet connectivity & online gaming.  This was the start of what we now know as the online gaming community.

Graphics-wise, this console was also a cut above the rest, featuring beautifully-rendered games such as Shenmue, Dead or Alive 2, Ready to Rumble Boxing (SUCH A FUN GAME!), Soul Caliber, and my first foray into serious adventure games: Phantasy Star Online.  Like the Sega Saturn’s library, a lot of the games featured on the Dreamcast were near-arcade perfect, and kept the immersive feel that core gamers came to love.  Additionally, the Visual Memory Unit (VMU) featured its own screen & controller buttons, which allowed it to function like a portable gaming device, as well as allowing for commands to be entered into various games on the system (e.g. calling plays in ‘NFL 2K’, or raising virtual pets in ‘Sonic Adventure’).

Why did it fail?

Like the Saturn, the Sega Dreamcast faced heavy forecasted opposition from the Sony Playstation.  However, there were a lot of factors that went into the Dreamcast’s demise.  One of the main factors was rumored to be a change in leadership at Sega.  Sega chairman Isao Okawa stepped into the role of president at Sega in early 2000.  He had been an open proponent of the company leaving the console business, and focusing only on developing software.  This ultimately led to the heads of the studio walking out.  Eventually, the company announced that they were discontinuing the Dreamcast, and restructuring themselves as a third-party developer.

Other business-related reasons that were given for the system’s decline were the aforementioned hype for the Playstation 2, and a serious lack of support from third-party developers like EA and Squaresoft (two of the most popular at the time).  In turn, many other developers began to lose faith in the Sega platform, as the company’s previous products (Saturn, Sega 32X, & Sega CD systems) had led to a fairly negative reputation for Sega.  Additionally, a little-known factor in consumer confidence of the product was that some gamers also took issue with the design of the controller, which required that the user’s hands be held in a strictly vertical position, as opposed to a more natural & relaxed angled position.

Despite its difficulties, the Sega Dreamcast remains one of the top gaming consoles of the last 20 years.  Its demise signaling the end of the arcade gaming culture and a move towards in-home social gaming, the Dreamcast still holds a warm place in the hearts of many gamers.  In its 2 year run on the market, almost 640 games were released for the system, many of which spawned several franchises that are still played today.  The Dreamcast also remains the progenitor of the online gaming culture, which has now become a staple of consoles and a huge selling point to the majority of today’s gamers.