The Sonic Who Couldn’t or the Curse of the Four Nines

At the beginning of the 2000s, my friends gave me a Sega Dreamcast, a top Japanese set-top box, which lived with me for a little over a month, after which I got rid of it, replacing it with a second black curling iron – there was exactly one game in the city for this stranger at that time – MDK2. And the local businessmen of the county town N could not offer more. And only ten years later, I had the opportunity to try what kind of console it was, which was loved by many, and left warm memories in the hearts of the players, but burned a hole in the budget of the creators. Its life cycle turned out to be very short, just over 3 years, after which Sega curtailed not only the production of the console itself, but also left the ranks of platform holders altogether. Despite the fact that the prefix itself got into the book of records for the number of devices sold in 24 hours. Now the Dreamcast, like almost all retro consoles, is experiencing a second youth, enthusiasts manage to find almost new, and sometimes not at all unpacked samples. Surprisingly, there are still servers for some online games due to the community and fans. But with spare parts it’s getting more and more difficult every year, and even the great Chinese Alibaba can’t always offer a replacement. No less a surprise for me was the fact that games are still being released for the console, and in general exclusives. Do not expect some kind of analytics from the article, just a small digression into history, if you have not heard it yet. I wonder how it happened?

Sega Dreamcast

Sega Dreamcast

Start of development

The development of the new console was started even before the release of the Sega Saturn, which, in principle, was logical, because the Saturn could not compete with the curling iron, and tried to butt heads with the Nintendo 64. However, it was also not very successful, as evidenced by sales in 8M devices, against 32 at Nintendo. It should be noted that the second has always had an extensive and devoted fanbase of Nintendoboys, which even received relatively weak devices well and provided decent sales. So, already then realizing that the heir Saturn should be at least a cut better, Sony with their playstation, to win over the market.

But in fact, the successor should also surpass the planned PS2, because everyone understood that behind the success of the curling iron and big sales, there are no less high expectations of the successor from Sony itself. Those. Sega was supposed to skip the generation of consoles that the Saturn and N64 lived in, and go straight to the PS2 + level, which basically happened. And it’s a pretty interesting situation, because Sega started work on two new consoles at once, two independent teams. So independent that they did not know about each other. The first team was located in Japan in the Hitachi laboratories, led by Hideki Sato, who was involved in the creation Sega Saturnthis project was codenamed Katana/Dural/WhiteBelt.

Hideki was an adherent of the classical Japanese school of console building, with its inherent overcomplicated architecture. The iron that came out from under his hand was perfection in “metal”, but writing games for it was flour for developers. And even the developers of Sega itself did not use all the possibilities of iron to the end. This project used a proprietary motherboard, a Hitachi SH-4 processor, and NEC’s PowerVR2 graphics chip. The first prototypes had problems with heat dissipation, which led to the use of water cooling for the processor and video card.

The second team was located in America on the basis of a research laboratory IBM Austin and commanded there Tatsuo Yamamotothis project was codenamed Shark/Black Belt. Yamamoto, as a supporter of the PC camp, created his console based on the 3Dfx Voodoo2 video chip and the Motorola PowerPC 603e processor, which were familiar and familiar to developers, were widely available on the market and relatively cheap to manufacture and refine. Both projects developed in parallel until 3Dfx decided to go for an IPO and conduct a financial audit, during which it was forced to declassify the technical characteristics of the future console, which led to mutual claims and the subsequent termination of contracts. The end of this story was the payment of a $10 million penalty in favor of the IBM team, and the entire development was transferred to Japan. Subsequently, Yamamoto’s name surfaced several times among the developers of the Xbox architecture.

Dreamcast prototypes

Dreamcast prototypes

Who knows, if Sega chose another option then, maybe today I would have a Dreamcast3 in my house instead of a ps4.

Sega’s plans were to use a DVD drive, but the technology was still expensive, and CDs no longer fit the volumes that have become familiar to developers. Then it was believed that the game should be released on one disc, and with rare exceptions, it was so. Therefore, GD-ROM (Gigabyte Disc read-only memory) with a capacity of 1.2 GB was chosen as the drive. In production, discs were as cheap as CD-ROMs, especially since the production was handled by a division of NEC, which also dealt with video chips.

Characteristics and features.


SH4 RISC 7750 CPU@ 206 MHz (360 MIPS/1.4 GFLOPS) + 128-bit vector graphics registers

video chip

PowerVR CLX2 Series II @ 100 Mhz


16 MB main, 8 MB video and 2 MB audio

Game carriers

GD-ROM (Yamaha technology) up to 1.2 GB. Dreamcast drives made before 2001 could read regular CDs. Later drives could only play CDs after flashing the BIOS

Data storage

Virtual Memory, 128 KB


Yamaha AICA, 32-bit

Dimensions and weight

189 x 195 x 76 cm; 1.9 kg


White, Black (US only, limited edition with SEGA Sports logo)


Modem operating at 33.6 Kbps for Europe, and at 56 Kbps (only after 9/9/99). Removed and replaced with a third-party network adapter.

Production costs

Sega is estimated to have spent $80-100M on hardware development, another $50-70M on software development and affiliate payments, and about $100M on advertising and promotion. How did a company that suffered two failures in the release of consoles, and had a fairly large debt load at the level of another $ 70M, find the money for a new major project?

A significant part of the funds was provided by Isao Okawa, businessman, owner of CSK, shareholder and chairman of the board of directors of Sega. The company also opened a line of credit from the Japanese government, and foreign investors still believed in the success of the company, almost standing in line to lend money to the Japanese publishing monster. Especially believed in the success of American companies that the era of 16-bit consoles were associated with Electronic Arts. The latter collaborated with Sega, and thanks to games such as Madden NFL, Road Rash, NHLas well as many other popular projects, successfully competed with Nintendo, receiving multi-billion dollar profits.

But relations began to deteriorate after the break with 3Dfx, in which EA had already invested a lot of money, as well as game developers who made them with this graphics architecture in mind. The second reason that accelerated the gap was the desire of Sega to revise the terms of licenses for the release of games, reducing deductions towards EA from 75 to 60%. And the final step that led to the final break was Sega’s purchase of Visual Concepts (later 2K Sports), which made sports games? in fact, a competitor to EA, whose sports simulators occupied the top of the charts and brought considerable profits.

As I wrote above, of the two options for the future console Sega forced to stop at Japanese, although it was less productive. The heart of the console was a 32-bit RISC processor SH-4, modified specifically for the needs of the new console. SH-4 could calculate the geometry and lighting in the game at a speed of up to 10 million polygons per second. It was paired with a GPU. PowerVR2 with a rendering engine throughput of up to 7 million polygons per second. The average overall performance reached 5 million polygons per second, 3.5 million at 24-bit color. The prefix could produce a picture with a resolution of 640×480 and had a VGA output. RAM Sega dreamcast was 26 MB: 16 for main memory, 8 MB for video memory, and another 2 MB for audio RAM. All memory was available for cpu/gpu at once. The audio chip was used by production Yamaha-AICAwas 10 times more productive than Saturn.

The first game developers were Core Design, Capcom, GameArts and Namco and more than a hundred companies. Programming for a productive system, unlike Saturn, has become much easier. EA and Squaresoft found it inappropriate to invest in Dreamcast games. Most painful was the absence of EA, whose sports sims were incredibly popular in North America.

Successful start

On November 27, 1998, the Dreamcast was released in Japan. About 80 thousand consoles were pre-ordered, and by the time of release, 150 thousand were ready. Another 150 thousand are stuck in NEC warehouses due to problems with the production of video chips. Thus, about 100 thousand devices reached the shelves, which were sold out in the very first days. According to game analysts, Sega could sell an additional 200-300 thousand consoles at the start of the sale, but stocks were not made, plus packaging problems led to what happened. Sonic Adventure was coming out for Christmas, and it could help sales a lot if consoles were in the right quantity in stores. By March-April, 1 million devices were sold, but unsolved problems with production at NEC and the start of a company in North America forced the company to keep some of the set-top boxes in warehouses so that history would not repeat itself like in Japan.

In Japanese and American mass media, Dreamcast was actively promoted in print media, outdoor advertising, and videos. Rollers were common for the time, but their numbers gave the console a good head start. And the face of the executive director of the company – Hidekazu YukawaMr. Segawas known to all teenagers. In the states, the advertising campaign was in full swing, for almost two months people were shown something in commercials without explaining the specific purpose of the offer, until, finally, in one of the commercials they showed the console itself.

Four nines

The system went on sale in North America on the mystical date of September 9, 1999 – “9.9.99 for $199” with eighteen games available. 9 is a homophone for the word “suffering” (苦 ku), the launch did not become suffering, but was instead accompanied by one of the largest advertising campaigns in the history of Sega, many posters, television commercials, support for the music groups Limp Bizkit and Filter. There were no articles about the new console except on lampposts, and even that was not a fact. In a little over two weeks since the release, more than 500 thousand devices were sold through stores, and another 300 thousand left on pre-orders, leaving not only warehouses in the States empty, but also partially picking up set-top boxes that were supposed to go to Europe. However, there the release took place on October 14, 1999 and was not so noisy, a million devices in Europe were sold only six months later.

Console advertising in the States

Console advertising in the States

For several months, the console had no competitors, until rumors began to appear about the imminent release of PS2. What dramatically affected sales, even the launch of the Internet provider and the subscription service SegaNet, which many of the fans were waiting for, did not help. At launch, the company only had one multiplayer game, ChuChu Rocket!, but users could chat and browse. And later, SegaNet began to support NFL 2K1, Bomberman Online, Phantasy Star Online, Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament and other games. The company tried to win customers over to its side, providing a year of free admission to the Internet from the console, and discounts on access to the network. In an attempt to return customers, the price of the system was reduced to $149, and in company stores to $99, Japanese law did not allow lower. But all Sega’s attempts to stimulate sales of the Dreamcast only led to new financial losses. And here Sony’s more loyal policy to support studios and developers, who began to move en masse, seeing the possibilities of the new set-top box, played a role. When the black box of the PlayStation 2 hit the market, Sega was unable to offer players something as powerful to turn the tide in their favor. Sales fell throughout 2000, and in February 2001 it was decided to permanently stop production, because more than 300 thousand set-top boxes accumulated in warehouses, they were sold for another two years at an insanely low price of $ 99, then at $ 79 and at the end at $ 49.95 .


Pirate games for Saturn no less than for other consoles of that time, they needed only direct hands and the presence of one licensed disk, which was inserted before the pirated game and allowed it to run. Together with Yamaha, a new format for storing data on a disk was developed, and GD-rom itself has not yet been able to be copied. In different parts of the disk there were special marks that were not reproduced when overwritten, and the prefix understood that a pirated version of the game was placed in it and caused a halt, it could only be brought back to life by pulling out the power supply. But the optical drive dreamcast Worked great with regular CDs as well. Pirates found a solution to this problem when one of the developers leaked devkits Katana. Its drive had no protection and allowed to run any discs, the firmware quickly spread around the stage, and led to the ability to burn discs in another Sega format – MIL-CD on ordinary CD-Rs, which were also perceived by the set-top box as non-pirated. Sega reacted pretty quickly to the hack and stopped making MIL-CD-supporting consoles.





light gun

Controller with dual analog sticks

Fishing rod shaped controller

Controllers made in the form of maracas

Advanced memory card with extended functionality, own display, buttons and games


Digital camera


A karaoke device that supported two microphones and allowed you to download new songs from the network.

The Sonic Who Couldn’t

After another failure, director Shoichiro Irimajiri voluntarily resigned, and a man who was far from iron and games came to his place, but he was a certified manager who advocated abandoning the console business in favor of developing online games and arcade machines. On January 31, a decision was made to restructure the company and stop production of the Dreamcast.

A total of 9M Dreamcast consoles were sold. The last game for the system was released in February 2002 in the United States. It was NHL 2K2.

Okawa forgave Sega all debts and provided additional funds, which saved the company from complete collapse.



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