Sega Sinking? The big story in the East this time around is Sega's announcement of a Dreamcast price-cut. The system now retails for ¥19,900 (approx. £100, or $150), down from ¥29,900.
This is a very significant reduction, and I think it shows that Sega is aware that its only way to compete against Playstation 2 and Dolphin is to build up a big user-base before its competitors launch their products.
In related news, Sonic Adventure and Virtua Fighter 3 TB are being re-released on a budget collection on June 24th, for ¥1,990 (£10, $15). This is extremely cheap, and although it may be paving the way for the Japanese release of enhanced versions of these titles, it's still an almost unprecedented move, and does smack of more than a little desperation. Sony certainly didn't start trying to sell its launch titles at budget prices this soon after Playstation started.
These kinds of tactics also reflect the Dreamcast’s problems with having too few big-name games. Sega has tried to buoy itself up by announcing the popular Virtua Striker 2 for Dreamcast release in October (as rumoured in this column an issue or two back), but there's another big-name game in particular that's experienced yet another distressing slip in ship date.
Shen Mue Slippage. I'm afraid it's true, Sega's great hope for a real Dreamcast killer app — the Yu Suzuki epic, Shen Mue — is again delayed. It's already been split into two parts, and now Part 1 has been pushed back from August 5th to October 28th in Japan. Again, Sega has tried to put a brave face on this by announcing that hundreds of thousands of playable demos and videotapes will be given out with Japanese Dreamcasts and software, but the fact remains that the title is delayed yet again. (Playable demos are due August 1st with all DC software, import fans!)
I recently got a chance to see some more video footage of the game, and the attention to detail looks absolutely amazing. It will be a groundbreaking title, and I daresay it will sell millions. But whether it will save the Dreamcast in the long-term is much more debatable. No matter how good it is, when Shen Mue is launched, the Playstation 2 launch will be less than six months away in Japan. People who already have a Dreamcast will flock to buy the game. But will it really convince enough people to buy a Dreamcast just for Shen Mue alone? I fear not.
Related to this may be the real danger that Shen Mue will not make a Christmas ship date in the US and Europe, which might be a real disaster. The lack of breadth and depth in titles in the launch periods affected the world's view of the console in Japan, and it's a mistake Sega can ill afford to replicate.
DC Upgradability? Further rumours have surfaced, this time on fgnonline.com, regarding possible upgradability for the Dreamcast. There is definitely an updated version of the SH-4 processor available, but it's entirely possible that the divergence issues of having two sets of consoles out there will mean that Sega won't upgrade, at least not for a while.
The Japanese rumor of a DVD upgrade for Dreamcast in summer 2000 also reared its ugly head again. This seems possible, as the greater storage and DVD movie playing will make the DC much more relevant. A DVD upgrade is also classified as a non-essential upgrade, so people won't feel like they got handed an inferior console in the first place (so not having the upgrade will be okay).
How about a DVD player with a built-in enhanced SH-4 chip? There's precedent for this, since it's along the lines of the Mega-CD, way back when. And if you could use both processors somehow, it might even boost DC capabilities significantly. Now there's a rumor to circulate.
Nintendo Profits. Several online sources have reported Nintendo's announcements of the company’s 1998 financial results. As always, there's a number of interesting informational nuggets buried in there. The bottom line was that Nintendo had increased its profit by 8 percent to approximately £50 million ($75 million). The company also announced that it has already sold 13.5 million Gameboy Colors since launch, and hopes to sell another 18 million throughout the rest of 1999. Tthe N64 was no slouch either. With 8 million N64 units sold in 1998 and a similar amount predicted for 1999, Nintendo seems buoyant. The icing on the cake is that total Gameboy sales are now at 79 million, making it the biggest selling console ever — darn impressive, and rather confounding to those who said that Nintendo was sunk about a year ago.
Magic Box reports that Sega is working on a Naomi version of its all-time classic Out Run. If this were true, needless to say, Dreamcast conversion would be straightforward. All I can say is — please, Lord, let it be true!
There have been a number of interesting new Dreamcast projects announced that have gotten scant coverage in Western publications as of yet. Firstly, a new lightgun game called Death Crimson 2 has been announced, and seems to have RPG as well as action modes. It certainly sounds intriguing (although the original game was apparently one of the worst Saturn titles ever!). Also, Project Ares is a newly announced RPG being published by Sega — it's from the team who did the classic Phantasy Star series, and will be fully 3D. Screenshots are already looking spectacular.
In some surprising news, Final Fantasy IX has been confirmed on the Playstation. It's due out early in 2000, and this is probably the title that was originally thought to be just a FF7 sidestory. It may still have elements of this, of course, but officially speaking it's a full-blown sequel. Square is in the middle of suppressing this information from its sister company, Digicube, though, so it's hardly confirmed yet.
Finally, there's been confirmation that another long-awaited Dreamcast title (originally an M2 title!), D2, will come out this December on 4 CD-ROMs. I was lucky enough to see Kenji Eno demonstrate this title at the Tokyo Game Show, and although it was still looking a little patchy, some of the graphics and ideas were just plain brilliant. Eno is also adored by his public in Japan as one of the few "rock-star" style game developers, so count on his fame selling a fair few hundred thousand of his title no matter what, Molyneux-style.
Japanese Top Ten (week ending May 23rd)
Yet again, much as in the Western charts, the usual suspects litter the top end.The Konami "Bemani" series trundles on and on, more or less staying in the Top Ten forever.
The Simple 1500 Series also goes from strength to strength, and I have managed to ascertain that it's the differing Playstation game royalty structure inside Japan which allows companies like Culture to release titles for only ¥1500 (£7.50, $10). Western publishers need to pay roughly that amount to Sony for each copy of a Playstation game, unless they are invited onto Sony's Platinum Series after selling a certain number of titles.
There are a couple of interesting newcomers towards the bottom of the chart, though. Pro-Kun Pocket is Konami's extraordinarily successful cartoony-but-stat-filled baseball title in its Gameboy incarnation. Also, Namco's excellent Playstation platformer Klonoa (which borrowed the Pandemonium 2D-platformer-with- 3D-graphics concept and put an Eastern slant on it) has survived conversion to the Bandai Wonderswan admirably. Although the exquisitely cartoony FMV that illuminated the cult-ish Playstation version is, understandably, missing, it's still a great game and the kind of thing which expands the appeal of the Wonderswan even further.
On a related handheld note, it's interesting to see that Tiger Electronics seems to be relaunching the Game.com. There's obviously some serious cash behind it because Metal Gear Solid is now coming out for it. This is a Western product, though, no sign of it appearing in Japan as of yet.
Simon Carless is a game designer/project director at a UK games developer. His game credits include design on PC and Playstation titles for (amongst others) Eidos and GT Interactive. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Simon would like to thank Magic Box, Re:Tokyo, Gamespot, FGNOnline, Core Magazine, and his other Japanese sources for the information that helps to write this column.