The story of Sega, a Black Belt, Dural and a Katana!
Over at Dreamcast-Talk.com forums a few pictures of the canceled Dural console, the forerunner to the Dreamcast recently became the topic of conversation. It’s fascinating in this day and age of corporate greed and maximization of profits, and a lack of appreciate for aesthetics (XboxOne) or the consumer in general (again, XboxOne), that there once existed an age when companies would be so frivolous as to carry out numerous internal projects and create a variety of designs in an attempt to create the ultimate gaming device. The Dreamcast’s origin is no exception, going through several name changes, specifications, designs and even teams before the console we all know and love would see the light of day. Let’s take a look at that story.
It was pretty much common knowledge that towards the end of 96, that despite a stellar attempt in the UK were sales were favorable without ever being amazing, Sega had pretty much given up on the Saturn outside of Japan and was hastily working on its successor. Just like with the Saturn, Sega made the decision to start up two competing projects, one by the US division which had given up on the Saturn and wanted to see a successor on the shelves as quickly as possible, and one by the Japanese arm, which was in less of a hurry due to the relevant success of the console in its homeland. Development of the console in the West was put into action by newly appointed head Shoichiro Irimajiri and carried out as a completely external project. This was a concious decision to avoid the major internal political turmoil that was destroying the company from within on both corners of the globe and ensure that it did not harm the development of their future console.
The Sega of America project was codenamed Black Belt, and was based around the 3Dfx chip while the Sega of Japan system, was give the moniker the Dural and encompassed an NEC PowerVR chip. The Black Belt's team based much of the design (and its decision to utilise 3Dfx), through feedback he received from various game studios and publishers (EA being one of the most prominent). Development of the project in the East was actually spearheaded by SEGA of Japan's head of hardware development Hideki Sato, supposedly as retaliation and frustration that the company's president looked outside of his department for the company's next major console.
Both projects progressed but in early 1997, Sega made the decision to cancel the Black Belt project and proceed with Dural. When the latter design was chosen, and the decision to go with the PowerVR on their respective hardware was confirmed, 3Dfx's were furious. So much so that they actually filed a lawsuit against Sega and NEC claiming that they had misled them into believing that they were committed to using 3dfx hardware for their new console while knowing that intended to use the NEC chip set, Sega, and other companies involved in the suit settled, with Sega paying a hefty $10.5 million to 3Dfx in compensation.
It is interesting to note that while most people wanted Sega to go with 3Dfx because of the popularity of its cards at the time with a large amount of 3Dfx games which could take advantage of the graphics card. However, there is also some debate that the 3Dfx chip was dropped because it was arguably the weaker of the two. Therefore, home conversions of Model 3 arcade games, the standard which Sega were using for its arcade devs, would not be possible using that chip (Black Belt would have been far more similar to developing for the Model 2 than Model 3) due to the fact that it was more of a consumer than an industrial product. Whatever the reasoning behind the decision, it is safe to say the PowerVR decision further damaged the reputation of the machine which would soon be re-dubbed Katana. It was announced to the public by that name on September 7, 1997 as the company announced its internal teams were working on three games including the long awaited Virtua Fighter 3, a soccer game (probably Virtua Striker 2) and an unknown basketball game for the system.
The bad publicity from the 3dfx fallout was one of the factors which led to the decision to hide the Sega name from the console as much as possible. The new console was finally announced as the Dreamcast in May, 1998 with an iconic orange swirl as its logo (although blue in Europe) taking prominence in front of the well-known Sega logo. As you can see in the picture below, Sega had three prototypes in the works. Prototype 1 was designed by an unknown Italian design team based around the ethos of a revolutionary, futuristic product and with its protruding controller slots on the side it certainly looks different. Prototype 2 is believed to have been the Black Belt, which adopts the black colour Sega consoles were renowned for in the West and the final prototype is the Dural, designed by the Japanese team. Curiously, looking at the designs it is interesting to see that the eventual Dreamcast would take aspects from both projects, with the square design (albeit slightly slimmer) of the Black Belt combined with the white/grey colour scheme and more oval look of the Dural.
In typical Sega fashion the company did not want to do things the easy way and from Black Belt to Dural to Katana, to Dreamcast, the console certainly had an eventful beginning. It is a shame we will never get to see what the Black Belt was capable of compared to its generation but, after all the commotion and boardroom dramas it is safe to say that, with the success and ease which games could be converted from Naomi and Windows CE the Dreamcast’s NEC based set-up was probably the right decision in the end. So in the end, I guess you could say it was all worth it.