“Nintendo’s Dreamcast” – Please, Get Your Facts Right!

Educating Fanboys.

That is a Dreamcast.

It was Sega’s last console before they left the hardware race back in 2001 (yes, that long ago!). A console that now sits upon a pedestal, revered and worshipped by any and all who dare approach it. It’s also a console that has been used very recently as a comparison to the troubled Nintendo Wii-U, to demonstrate some kind of parallel between the two companies and provide ample ammunition in the fight to drive Nintendo from the home console market and into a third-party software role.

Thing is, the Dreamcast and the Wii-U aren’t comparable. They share nothing more in common than they are home consoles. And today, I’m going to explain why comparing these two machines ultimately leaves your argument not just weakened, but invalid to the point of collapse.

A HISTORY LESSON – SEGA

The Dreamcast, by all accounts, was a very successful console in terms of revenue and sales – in a mere eighteen months, it achieved ten million sales and netted Sega a considerable sum of money in the process. And yet, yes, Sega withdrew from the market. Why was this? Well, the problem Sega had was not the Dreamcast – it was their past.

In the early 90’s, Sega were on fire with the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. In Europe, the Super Nintendo had been delayed into 1992, giving Sega pretty much the lions share of the European and PAL markets at the time. This was extremely profitable. Sega were famous for their arcade hardware, netting them a large amount of money. And with the intense battle in the handheld space between the Nintendo Game Boy and the Sega Game Gear, the company looked to be in great form. But looming was a new generation, a change – not merely in terms of hardware, but media as well. the CD-ROM was gaining traction in the PC space, and Sega – keen to pounce on this new format – were also keen to attempt to pre-empt  the upcoming generational leap at the same time. Their answer was the Sega CD – an add-on to the Mega Drive.

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The Sega CD. One of the multiple forms it took on to cater for all Mega Drive designs.

The problem was, however, that the Mega Drive already had three forms – the Genesis, the Mega Drive and the slimmed-down Mega Drive II. This meant that manufacturing and designing three separate machines was costly, and indeed, it was. The Mega CD was potent, innovative – but clumsy and far too early to the market. FMV games were slow and cumbersome – not helped by the chipset inside being incredibly poor for video playback. It also became guilty of the issue the PC was having at the time with the change, that unnecessary content was being shovelled onto the disc to justify the extra space. Whilst it introduced a few notable franchises, it never sold in huge numbers and the expense of the multiple designs was draining away a lot of the money Sega had accumulated during the previous few years.

And with the Sega Saturn delayed later, Sega decided another stop-gap was needed; this time, the Sega 32X. Having learned from the Sega CD, this slipped into the cartridge slot, so design was no longer an issue. What was an issue was that this was developed at great expense and was only to have a short lifespan on the market, so the add-on launched at an incredibly unreasonable price, ensuring that many simply couldn’t afford it and that the appeal of a true next-generational jump was not far off, the machine never quite took hold. Whilst it certainly had 32-bit processing power, few titles utilised it, no-one had the time to appreciate the intricities of the hardware and many were already working on content for the Sega Saturn. The 32X was doomed to not seeing back it’s money, and in the process of looking to save a little cash, Sega took a drastic step; they cancelled the Sega Game Gear and it’s follow-up, the Nomad, even though prototype machines were already in production.

Having largely blown everything it had, the Sega Saturn was sensibly based on what Sega knew – their arcade hardware. This meant that they could certainly keep things level and cost-efficient, but of course with Sega there was always a snag. The machine was notoriously tricky to make games for – sure, arcade ports were simplified and that was fantastic, but arcade ports maketh not a console. At the time, the arcade market was beginning to dwindle in the West too, slowly at first but still a noticeable decline as other hardware developers sought to move in and compete, namely Namco. It limited the games that it could have.

There was also an urban legend at the time that Sega had also turned down the prospect of exclusivity on a game that they felt was not going to work in the current market, or their market. Supposedly, that game is what we now call Tomb Raider. True or not, the company was known to turn away projects and games that it felt did not adhere to its vision for the console. This further limited its market base, when it’s rival – the Sony Playstation – had a diverse selection of games from across all genres. Not to mention its other rival, Nintendo, was riding the crest of a wave, having unleashed arguably one of the industries most successful franchises ever – Pokémon. Nintendo also had much critical acclaim for its software too, also diverse and focused on a more sociable level with natural split-screen multiplayer in several of its titles.

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The Sega 32X. Designed at some expense to last just a year or so until the Saturn released.

We now know that caught in the middle, divisions were rife within Sega. There were disagreements and with dwindling software and dwindling sales, and a terrible argument over Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega had decided to pull the plug on the Saturn early and focus instead on the next generation of console. As debts piled up, competition mounted and focus shifted from it, Sega’s decision to stop selling the Saturn inevitably meant that some projects were cancelled – mostly third-party fare, some of whom would never return to Sega again.

So when the Dreamcast was released late 1999, Sega were already in serious trouble. It’s home console reputation seemed in tatters, and competition in the arcade market – with a lack of funds – had further cut into their coffers, and even that market, where Sega used to dominate, was losing them money. The Dreamcast sold over ten million units in the space between September 1999 and March 2001 – which in any generation would be considered extremely healthy sales. However, for all the success the console was enjoying, Sega had to come to realise that nearly a decade of mismanagement and organisational chaos had taken its toll. The Dreamcast was making money, but not enough to pay back their debts and certainly not enough to offset the losses elsewhere in the company. As 2001 dawned, the news was clear: Sega, as a hardware company, was to cease. They simply could no longer survive. They had finally made another great product – but too late to save themselves from inevitable collapse.

MEANWHILE, SOMEWHERE MORE NINTENDO…

In spite of being late to the party in Europe, the Super Nintendo largely enjoyed critical acclaim and released with numerous games.

The Nintendo 64 was cartridge-based, which made the games more expensive. But Nintendo were masters of their hardware, and along with a company called Rare, were making it very clear that the machine was no mere throwaway gag. The extra horsepower that came from the 64-bit architecture ensured that games like Mario Kart, Zelda and Mario looked crisper and more colourful than anything its rivals could manage. It was delivering knockout games like Ocarina of Time, and Super Mario 64. However, Nintendo’s biggest hit of the era was Pokémon, which it was enjoying global success with and watching as it saw a resurgence of interest in the Game Boy. With a 3D Pokémon tie-in on the Nintendo 64, sales spiked, and the company enjoyed a relatively smooth – if not always uneventful – trip through the generation. Even Capcom later demonstrated the potential within the hardware by doing what many thought was impossible – a superior port of Resident Evil 2. All the content on one cartridge. It was no mean feat, and underlined the point that Nintendo’s hardware – used right – was very much superior to its rivals.

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Pokémon – the game which made and continues to make Nintendo an awful lot of money.

The same was true of the Gamecube, although it never really spiked as much as expected. It was a pretty quiet affair, however it also birthed its own classics, and was not just technically superior to its rivals, but cheaper too. Nintendo arguably didn’t seem to take advertising it that seriously however, and with the PlayStation 2 on the market, just seemed to become an underdog. Not that it was a disaster, however – the machine still made a healthy profit for the company in spite of its low sales.

Coming up into the modern era, however, we can only talk about the improbable success of the Wii and Nintendo DS. And they were huge success stories. Coming into the current generation from the Wii and DS, Nintendo made billions of dollars and effectively sewed up the handheld market, which it continues to do with the 3DS. The DS and Wii’s global success has given Nintendo cash reserves in excess of $10 billion, which is a very large amount of money to have in reserves for any company, considering its rivals haven’t enjoyed nearly the same level of financial success from their machines. For all the smack-talk of Nintendo supposedly abandoning the gaming market, the reality couldn’t have been more different and even prompted its rivals into costly evolutions and variations of its own successful titles and innovations. Very few companies can claim to have exerted that kind of force upon the market, so even if you dislike the Wii and/or DS, it’s very likely you have experienced something that came in the rush to compete toe-to-toe with Nintendo in its own arena.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?

1) Nintendo are coming to the Wii-U on the back of huge global success and large financial reserves.
2) Sega went into the Dreamcast already pretty much dead. The Dreamcast never had much of a chance.

That’s kind of important to make a note of. The Dreamcast did not kill Sega, Sega killed the Dreamcast. Had the financial situation been somewhat different, there’s no doubt Sega would likely still be in the hardware race today. The Dreamcast, by any measure, was quite a successful machine with titles which have now become cult classics, such as Shenmue. But with so much already lost, Sega didn’t have the finances to keep it running. It expected far too much of the Dreamcast, and it was just not realistic to expect the console to financially repair everything already broken.

Nintendo on the other hand has enjoyed decades of growth and profit, culminating somewhat with the Wii and DS, but also notably in their ownership of the continuing success that is Pokémon. It is coming into the Wii-U arguably in an unenviable position of years of continued success and growth, and perhaps this is partly the problem with their silence on the Wii-U content front; it’s hard to understand how a company like Nintendo would consider it sensible to maintain radio silence on the machines future.

The two companies and the two machines therefore share very different tales,which means it is quite hard to justify the comparison of the Wii-U being “Nintendo’s Dreamcast”, unless you expect the Wii-U to be quite successful (which it sort of is – over 4 million units in 6 months isn’t a terrible amount to be shifting…). And the companies are very different, hence why Nintendo is unlikely to “do a Sega” any time soon. Nintendo have the money to limp along for several years without losing much market traction if it so wanted, but seeing as we’re six months in and Sega didn’t shoot themselves in the foot until some years into the Mega Drive and Saturn eras, it’s entirely too early to tell what Nintendo is planning.

Which is arguably the problem – in the last eight years, we’ve become more connected than ever before, and the rise of smartphones and 3/4G and other gadgets means that we’re in the Information Age. Nintendo aren’t sharing much information right now. Now, neither are Sony or Microsoft right now – but then, their machines aren’t out yet. Nintendo’s kind of is, and therefore silence in the modern era tends to give the impression of death. With so much noise and so much information, when it stops, we just assume the worst, which is largely what seems to be happening with Nintendo. It hasn’t quite caught up with the 24/7 nature of free information, and in the absence of official statements people can – and do – get away with rampant speculation, peddling rumours and gossip as somehow factual. Nintendo do need to change globally to keep up with the very extreme pace of things in this digital era, and whilst it’s taken some tentative steps – they are tentative, and small, and not enough right now to be seen by many as meaningful.

But of course, elsewhere, Nintendo is making a LOT of noise. The 3DS is selling huge numbers – more than any other machine on the market. So perhaps it’s also the extreme juxtaposition, the deafening success of the Nintendo 3DS right now compared to the quiet and strange Wii-U. It seems odd. And let’s be honest, most people don’t like odd.

SO NINTENDO HAVE NEVER MADE A MISTAKE?

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What can I say about the Virtual Boy that hasn’t been said countless times before? Talk about a stain you just can’t shift…

Not at all. Nintendo have made mistakes. To say otherwise would be foolish. Personally, I hated the Game Boy Advance design. But Nintendo had no real competition at the time. It was a leap too late for me, in spite of it having one of my favourite ever platformers in the form of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow.

This said, if you must have an insult to level at the Wii-U and the suggestion it’s the wrong device at the wrong time, then can I suggest you instead dig into Nintendo’s own past, and find a little something that they would prefer to remain buried, but we all know it happened. I am, of course, referring to the Virtual Boy. One of Nintendo’s big mistakes – and yes, Nintendo made this mistake. A head-mounted 3D-glasses fare something like an old-school Oculus Rift, with minimal colour and dodgy technology, it just never flew as a device. It gave people headaches. It was tricky to make games for. You looked like a right prick wearing it as well. It was a mistake that did cost Nintendo some money.

See? The problem with this is that it doesn’t suggest that Nintendo will go third-party like Sega did. And to this, I ask – are you serious? Look, even if – and I doubt it –  the Wii-U ends up as Nintendo’s last home console for whatever reason, they aren’t likely to go third-party for the home console market. Since 1989, Nintendo has dominated the handheld arena and continues to dominate it to this day. With such huge success on the handheld console front, it’s more realistic to simply assume in the event of the Wii-U failing, development and focus will simply shift to evolving and pushing their current and future handhelds. Sega sacrificed their handheld arm in the pursuit of saving money; a mistake that today they must know was hugely costly in entirely the wrong way.

So before you jump to the next Wii-U bashing article to proclaim the machine “Nintendo’s Dreamcast”, stop for a moment and think about it. Comparisons only tend to work when the two sides are comparable – and there’s no real common link between the Dreamcast and the Wii-U. The Dreamcast sold like the clappers, was beautiful to behold – truly, I would call the Dreamcast a work of art, aesthetically gorgeous – and was dead largely before it even got to the market, because the company behind it simply didn’t realise it was already a dead man walking. Nintendo’s Wii-U sales have slowed to a crawl. The machine is, frankly, rather dull to look at compared to the sharp style the company had with the small and perfectly formed Wii. But Nintendo are coming into this new generation with large cash reserves and a very successful secondary arm that is very likely capable of keeping it relevant in the current market. Although for how long the 3DS can truly distract from the bleak silence from the Wii-U, we can only really hypothesise. Nintendo has the money and the experience to save the Wii-U. It really does. It just has to get on and do it.

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And the Nintendo DS. One of the most successful consoles of all time, one which reasserted Nintendo’s dominance of the handheld market.

Details. They are important, and if you’re truly going to try and insult the Wii-U, comparing it to a beloved and frankly revered machine like the Dreamcast is, to put it mildly, the wrong way to do. You’re doing both machines a bit of a disservice. If Nintendo fail with the Wii-U, it won’t be because they couldn’t keep it running. It will be because they can’t see a future in it, and I find it difficult to believe Nintendo don’t see a future in the Wii-U. At least, not for a few years yet. It’s only really just got into the market, and I can’t see any company pushing a machine out onto the market only to pull it after six months without a serious scandal attached to it. Not everything takes immediately; some things need time to take root. It requires nurturing and attention, hopefully – and that’s a big ask right now, I know – something that Nintendo is already working on.

But on the upside, the guy who at Sega decided to pull the plug on the Dreamcast was a one Peter Moore, who currently is tipped to take the head CEO spot at EA sometime this year, having worked in the company under John Riccitiello for some years.

EA did not make games for the Dreamcast on principle. Remind you of something?

By contrast, Sega are now entering into a more secured partnership with Nintendo in order to publish certain games, like Yakuza and Sonic, on its hardware.

Isn’t it odd the strange by-roads we go down in this world?

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