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Dreamcast Can Win the War: An Analysis of How History Sides with Sega

Chi Kong Lui's picture

For months now, Sega and their latest console entry, Dreamcast, have been massively scrutinized to beatdown proportions in the public arena. This was largely due to the very prolific and high profile launch of Sony's own PlayStation 2 onto the global landscape. To an overwhelming majority of gamers, as well as industry experts, the PlayStation 2's arrival signaled the end for the Dreamcast. It was largely believed that the Dreamcast would not be able to fend off the eventual onslaught from Sony's technically superior wonder machine, which capabilities far outweighed that of the Dreamcast. The hype was in fact so convincing that Japanese gamers to date have avoided the Dreamcast en masse in favor of waiting for the PlayStation 2.

The media helped to fuel this sentiment with many an article making similar proclamations. "WHO WILL WIN?" was the title blared on the cover of the June issue of Next Gen magazine. The question was referring to the impending four-way console war between Sony, Sega, Nintendo and Microsoft (the PC representing the dark horse). In that particular issue, the editors put together an extensive report on the perceived strengths, Dreamcast and Accessories weaknesses, opportunities and threats of each representative system in hopes of predicting an odds-on favorite. The prognosis for Dreamcast was not bright as usual, but after reading the report, I noticed something. While the report was filled with details about technical capabilities, possible strategic alliances and business development issues, one crucial area was only minimally factored into the equation. That area was the actual games themselves.

History shows us that it's rarely the technical specs of the hardware that determines the success of a system. Rather it's the games produced for that particular platform that determine the final outcome. In the late '80s, during the 8-bit generation of consoles, Nintendo's NES was fairly outgunned by the Sega Master System. The Sega Master System displayed more on-screen colors at once, could render larger sprite sizes and boasted a faster processor. Yet it was the NES that emerged victorious due to the enormous overriding popularity of pioneering games like Super Mario Bros., Metroid and The Legend Of Zelda. The same thing happened again in the next-generation of consoles; only this time the roles were reversed. Sega was the one who found its 16-bit Genesis console technologically outmatched by Nintendo's Super NES, which boasted impressive features like being able to display hundreds of colors on-screen and the ability to rotate and scale sprites with ease. Still those features meant little in the face of the overwhelming popularity of trademark Genesis titles like Sonic The Hedgehog and John Madden Football, which helped Sega dethrone Nintendo as the market leader.

But perhaps the most compelling evidence of how hardware means so little to the overall success of a console is the portable Nintendo system, Game Boy. For over 10 years, the Game Boy has managed to outlast every other game console (portable or otherwise) to date with only minimal upgrades to its core hardware components. This is even more incredible when you consider Game Boy's earliest hardware capabilities were atrocious and faulty. The monochromatic display was not only a unpleasing spinach color, but fast moving graphics and spites would blur to the point where they were near indistinguishable (issues that have since been addressed by later iterations of the system). Yet the Game Boy still managed to fend off fierce competition in the past from the likes of Atari's Lynx and Sega's Game Gear, and in the present from the likes of SNK's Neo-Geo Pocket and Bandai's Wonder Swan. These competitors were vastly superior in terms of technology by having larger screens, more features and even the ability to display full-color, but the Game Boy had two games the other portables didn't that allowed the system to prosper all these years. Those two things are Tetris—the phenomenal puzzle game that is still largely regarded as one of the finest pieces of interactive entertainment—and Pokémon—the end all of kiddy fads. Both of these games enraptured an entire nation and helped to propel the Game Boy past all its competitors to the status of pop-culture icon.

Back of Dreamcast

So anyone who believes that "history is doomed to repeat itself" can see that the Dreamcast has more than just a slim chance of surviving because if anything, history illustrates it's usually the inferior hardware with the best games that wins the war. If that's the case, then the only thing that Sega needs to worry about is producing the next Tetris or Sonic The Hedgehog. Of course producing one of these instant classic killer-apps is much easier said than done, but with titles like Seaman, Jet Set Radio, Shenmue, Samba De Amigo and Phantasy Star Online on the horizon, the Dreamcast's prospects look pretty darn good. Only time will tell if one of those titles or another one will emerge as the savior of the Dreamcast—once again proving that it's not what you got that matters, but how you use it. But until that happens, feel free to tell me I'm full of crap.

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