Sega may now be an ally to Nintendo, but at the turn of the millennium, it was still very much a rival, with its final games console – the Dreamcast – joining the N64 in a marketplace that was ultimately dominated by the Sony PlayStation.
The Dreamcast might have been Sega's last throw of the dice in the hardware sector, but before the company pulled the plug and became a third-party publisher, the console enjoyed a pretty successful launch in North America – although, according to former Sega tech staffer John Byrd, the release itself almost didn't go according to plan.
Speaking to the Retro Hour Podcast, Byrd discusses a bug which, he claims, has never been spoken about before now. Days before the machine's North American launch in September 1999, he was getting feedback from journalists that certain games were causing their Dreamcast consoles to crash randomly, and that the games in question were all created by the publisher Midway.
Byrd was swiftly sent to Midway's San Diego office to find out what the issue was, and, because he suspected it had something to do with the "Audio 64" driver developed specifically for the North American market and included in Midway's games, he took with him the developer of said driver – who, after a few days, decided to flee the scene and take a holiday, leaving Byrd to fix the issue alone. In his own words, he realised that if the bug went unsolved, the blame would fall solely on his shoulders.
While only Midway's games were encountering the crash, if Byrd couldn't find out exactly what was causing it, there was the danger that it could potentially be present in other launch games – or future ones. Until the cause was discovered, there was always the looming risk of the Dreamcast being branded as buggy and faulty – something Sega naturally wanted to avoid with such a high-profile release.
As Byrd recounts to the Retro Hour team, the millions being spent on the North American launch of the Dreamcast would be at risk if he didn't work with the Midway team to resolve the bug – which, it should be noted, was a true heisenbug in that it appeared to be totally random and impossible to properly debug and fix. It was only when Byrd removed the console's modem in a fit of frustration that he hit upon a vital hint – it caused the game to crash.
Byrd knew that the modem was connected to the G2 bus – as was the Yamaha AICA sound chip. The sound chip had a MIDI input pin which, on the Japanese model, was tied to ground. On the North American model, the pin in question was left 'floating', and it turned out that this was what was causing the system to crash.
However, the crash was caused by a whole bunch of unpredictable elements – anything from the thermal noise in the room to the height of the sun or the position of the moon, according to Byrd. When one of these random elements caused the chip to think the pin was picking up MIDI information, the Audio 64 driver would fall over the cause the entire system to crash.
The solution? A revised version of the Audio 64 driver was quickly created and included in remastered editions of Midway's games, and disaster was largely averted. The games impacted were recalled and replaced by corrected discs (with a "Hot!" and "New!" logo on the cover), but around ten to fifteen thousand copies made it out into the wild, and these could potentially become collector's items over time.
While the Dreamcast wasn't the success Sega had hoped for – it certainly didn't prevent the firm was exiting the hardware sector – Byrd's story proves that it could have been a lot, lot worse; if the bug hadn't been discovered and fixed, the Dreamcast launch would have been something of a disaster.
This article was originally published by nintendolife.com on Sun 15th November, 2020.
The Dreamcast was the most powerful console of it's time. To bad it didn't make it.
Dreamcast Classic Edition would print money. However I doubt we'll see it or an N64 Classic Edition or basically any console that natively had 4 controller ports.
@CurryPowderKeg79 By which you mean, a year.
I’d love to grab a Dreamcast, I never owned one at the time but the games I played on the Cube were amazing like Sonic Adventure 1 and 2 and Skies of Arcadia.
JSR disc on the article pic. The pain of not having it on Switch will never stop.
"The sound chip had a MIDI input pin which, on the Japanese model, was tied to ground. On the North American model, the pin in question was left 'floating', and it turned out that this was what was causing the system to crash."
Baffling stuff. Just goes to show the importance of hardware design, to prevent things like unit warping or controller stick drift. Isn't that right, Nintendo?
Glad this problem was limited to a few thousand people.
I loved my Dreamcast: Shenmue, Sonic Adventure, Power Stone, Phantasy Star Online. Great games.
We have always been a multi platform family and when I heard SEGA was stopping making hardware it was like a family member died.
I had a faulty launch copy of Hydro Thunder. Luckily I was able to trade it in for House of the Dead 2, which I would have bought at launch but couldn't find a light gun. The article mentions the "New! Hot!" stickers, so if anyone is planning on getting into Dreamcast collecting, make sure your Midway launch games (HT, Mortal Kombat Gold, Ready 2 Rumble, NFL Blitz 2000) have those stickers or you might get a broken copy.
It was super easy to burn dreamcast games that's what really killed them.
I was one of the admins on the Sega servers and enjoyed the Dreamcast console very much. Phantasy star online was amazing at the time. But other than that most the online was terrible and Sega just didnt deliver. I still have my dreacast, w/ all games(like 30) vmus and all. I fired it up a week ago to play Soul Calibur.
Imagine if the XSX and PS5 couldn't have their OS updated. They have quite a few issues which can easily be fixed with a new firmware nowadays, but back then they would have be screwed and tagged as broken console manufacturers.
My Dremacast definitely has a special place in my heart. I think that's because it's the first console that I bought with my own money at launch. Really glad I still have it and still play to this day.
@SlimPieEats Dreamcast Quake 3 Arena was amazing! Even with the 28k modem on a poor UK network. I feel that deserves as much credit as PSO, and considering the importance of ping in that game, it probably deserves more credit than that of PSO imo.
@RUNE2K Quake was cool. I always played the PC version and connected via the seganet servers and still played the DC crowd. I own it on the DC, but it maybe unopened.
I still choose both of PS2 and PS1 over than Dreamcast.
Yes, Dreamcast have DDR and Pop'n Music but they are same games as PS1 version , there are more DDR and Pop'n Music games on PS2.
The only Dreamcast game that also caught my little attention was Rent a Hero. The game was also available on Xbox Classic, but too bad both of them are Japan version only.
Have a japanese Dreamcast, so mine shouldn't have this Problem with "Collectors Items" lol
That's really interesting. Midway had some great games back in the day. NFL Blitz comes to mind. I miss my Dreamcast. Can Sega come back into the console business?
Amazing console still use mine every weekend had it since launch never heard of this problem before not even on the Dreamcast junkyard and they pretty much know everything. Gotta say Quake 3 arena played amazing well online and Unreal tournament not just phantasy star online
@JRRR92 What system was more powerful than the Dreamcast after a year of the Dreamcasts release???
@CurryPowderKeg79 PS2... Although, it was more than a year. Year and a half, right?
I would still consider the Dreamcast and PS2 the same Gen though.
@Gravitron Burning games was complicated by needing a boot disc and having access to a burner. By the time self-boot images were widespread the Dreamcast was already on the way out. Software piracy was the least of Sega’s worries. The Dreamcast was virtually DOA in Japan.
Welcome to Nintendo Life, home of the Sega Dreamcast
Nintendolife evolved to...Segalife!
@Juga that and the Shenmue Series, and Skies of Arcadia.
@Cyberbotv2 That would be dream come true. I was one of the ninties kids who was a Sega soldier at the play yard. Now I get 'N', not out... Go figure!
@Kienda PSO changed my life. Playing internationally with people speaking other languages is without a doubt what led to me being a foreign language teacher. I miss my Dreamcast :’(
There are still Ways to play with the Dreamcast online
@Gs69 Love that you still use yours regularly. What are your most played games?
I had all four of sega's home consoles. The dreamcast was great but the Saturn was my fave sega console. A close second to the N64 as favourite of all time. Nowadays new consoles look better and but the jump from megadrive to Saturn and SNES to N64 was just so huge. The future was on my tv.
@Kanbei Ou parents were right. You do appreciate things more if you work for them.
@CurryPowderKeg79 Yes it was. Though I am glad nintendo gave up on the console arms race. The Wii and switch both proved power doesn't always win.
And didn’t it do wonders afterwards. 😂
My unforgettable last home console!
When i bought a dreamcast at launch I think it cost 200 uk pounds. Plus I got four games at launch Sonic Adventure, House of the dead 2, Sega Rally 2 and i think that Fishing game Virtual fishing too or was it Cho,Cho rocket i got at launch can never remember 100 percent. Regardless how many consoles today would you say you got four games at launch more than likely a big fat zero.
@andykara2003 I play crazy taxi quite often I’m trying to beat a score I set in 2006 I can’t seem to get anywhere close to it 😂 if I have friends around it’s usually soul Calibur or SF 3rd strike but mostly I’m a high score chaser so games like zero gunner 2 or psyvariar 2, cannon spike and I love shenmue 1 and 2 just got 3 for the PS4 to finish the story off
20 years later, people still want a sequel to Skies of Arcadia, or a remastered version of the Gamecube version
I still have my Dreamcast, i play a lot on SegaNet... good times from Quake 3, Bomberman Online, Unreal Tournament
Although it was a great console, the Dreamcast was still doomed from the start; it had absolutely no copy protection, meaning unscrupulous users could copy and burn any game and play it for free on it. This eventually ended the Dreamcast's run well before its time, and was just the latest in a long string of incredibly inept screwups on the part of Sega's upper management that brought the company down from arguably the top of the videogame industry to abandoning consoles altogether.
They then became a mediocre third party publisher with a myopic focus on Sonic and the glory days of the Genesis, as evidenced by the percentage represented by each in their body of work since.
I’m still mad that the Dreamcast got dropped so fast. I loved that console, the same way I loved the Wii U, both of which I still play. Dreamcast games still look great today, if you use a CRT monitor.
Yet more proof if any were needed that is was Sega of America that royally screwed the pooch and killed Sega, I really do wish Sega would get back into the hardware game but not have an American arm of business.
@Slowdive Same here. I love Dreamcast. It was way ahead and finally no more load times with 2D games. Street Fighter Alpha 3 felt so good to be played on Dreamcast. The horrid PS1 port with big load times... it was annoying. Marvel vs capcom 1 and 2 those 2 gems were the released on the right hardware
@Azuris both Dreamcast systems i owned died over 10 years ago
I love that Sega 60th is getting more coverage on this Nintendo site than Mario 35th.
Best console ever! DREAMCAST.
Just wish I could track down a tosac GDI file for PROPELLER ARENA.
I love the Dreamcast, I've got a few of the Japanese special editions and my prize possession is the Maziora Dreamcast which has an amazing pearlescent paint finish that shifts between green, blue and purple.
My everyday Dreamcast is a regular PAL machine in a clear case with a replaced PSU and an optical drive emulator. I still need to replace the fan so it can run totally silent. I still enjoy Sega Rally 2, Daytona USA, 18 Wheeler, Soul Calibur, Jet Set Radio, Mr. Driller, Crazy Taxi, Code Veronica, Ikaruga and of course Shenmue 1&2.
I'm still hoping someone does a demake of Shenmue III for the DC. I really feel the DC deserves that closure.
Sadly I don't have a CRT so it's been a while since I've played House of the Dead 2 and Confidential Mission.
"How disaster was averted"
Albeit only temporarily...
All kidding aside, though, I am to this day still a proud and happy owner of a first generation Dreamcast. Far as I'm concerned, it's still the most "arcadey" home console ever made, with the Neo Geo as a close second.
Sad to hear it.
What killed them?
The Disk Drive or another Component?
PLEASE!! FOR THE LOVE OF CAPCOM!! GIVE US THE POWER WORLD?!
@Azuris Disc drive on both... after the second (the replacement) died of the same issue, I gave up. Similar fate with my Saturn... when the disc ribbon went (which happens to all Saturns, eventually), I knew I’d be fighting off the inevitable. Sold off my games while they were still in good shape, and usable. PD Saga, Burning Rangers, Shining the Holy Ark... I had a bunch of the harder-to-find games. Now, with the Polymega having come out a few years later, I wish I had held on to them. To be fair, I got my money’s worth out of them. I had PD Saga for a cool 20 years. Not bad for disc-based media, to have no peeling during that time.
@AtlanteanMan No offense, but the idea that pirated games had any significant influence on the speed of the Dreamcast's demise is complete and utter nonsense.
The primary reason, or rather reasons are several consecutive bad decisions and gross mismanagement, NOT piracy.
There is an official documentary about this, made by G4TV, which features all the key people involved at the time, so that's the actual story from a first hand source.
Besides, only gen 1 Dreamcasts could read burned discs/copies, so that made the impact even smaller than it already was, not to mention that for most people, internet download speeds were excrutiatingly slow back then, so acquiring a significant number of downloaded games would have been an almost impossible task, or at least one that took next to forever...
Here's that documentary:
I have some very fond memories of the Dreamcast. Phantasy Star Online was an absolute dream (although we never got the solo RPG we wanted). Skies of Arcadia. Power Stone. Chu Chu Rocket. Such good times.
Well, the first Discs will also start rotting in the next Decade.
So at least you will not see them die :>
I think for People who want to go on playing with the original Hardware those SD-Emulation Drives will be the Solution.
@Azuris Thanks that makes me feel a little less sad.
@AtlanteanMan it had copy protection! it just got cracked pretty fast...
@CurryPowderKeg79 Literally everything. The DC was the weakest of the consoles that gen.
@the4seer There is no considering, it is fact that the Dreamcast and PS2 were the same generation.
@CurryPowderKeg79 well for a year it was until the PS2 arrived, then GCN and Xbox.
Thanks for the info @liveswired was just wondering.
You can't sink a ship that was already sunk. The dreamcast should have done better, it's sad.
@Gs69 love it!
Give that guy a beer, he deserved it 👏
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