The time Sega gave every Weekly Famitsu reader a Dreamcast copy of Eternal Arcadia (Skies of Arcadia)… with a catch.
It may be more than a little tacky to feel any nostalgia for a marketing gimmick. But, as gimmick’s go, the North American launch of the Sega Dreamcast drilled a pretty good one for itself into my memory: The coveted calendar date of September 9th, 1999. 9/9/99.
As of today, September 9th, 2019, this was twenty years ago.
The Dreamcast first debuted in Japan on November 27, 1998. However, it would be months until I would get to see it outside of magazine screenshots. This would be the very small and poorly maintained home electronics section of a Sears. It was a bad setup, with my right side almost up against a wall. But the station did have a copy of Sonic Adventure running on it. Sonic was in the hotel lobby in Station Square, and before too long I managed to end up in the outside pool area. From there, stumbling into the first level of Emerald Coast. I was moments away from the The Orca Bridge Chase scene anyone remembers from that game. And indeed, I would go on to buy a Dreamcast. On the basis enjoying Sega’s video games, sure, but many folks were also sold off of playing that orca sequence. The Dreamcast itself would go on to become what I would still consider my favorite video game system.
There are a lot of different ways to look back and celebrate anniversaries though. The Dreamcast in particular was in such a tumultuous time. A machine with a built in modem for the future of internet multiplayer. Yet, too soon for the DVD, hard drive, and ever larger entertainment center features game consoles would soon take on. And Sega themselves were up against the clock. This machine would either be the Hail Mary that would save their home console division to fight another day, or… that would be it.
“Dreamcast” may as well have been the mission statement of the company at this point.
So when I reflect back on this video game console I like so much, I not only remember I games I played and enjoyed over the years. But I also recall it as a series of strange and bizarre corporate initiatives. Lurching, cascading business plans launched one after another in the hope that something, anything, was going to hit in the way Sega needed.
So, looking over my physical media collection, I remembered when Sega really, really wanted everyone to buy a copy of Eternal Arcadia / Skies of Arcadia.
Regardless of if you were playing video games in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, or have only heard about this time after the fact, you likely know this: Final Fantasy VII smashed into the industry with the force of its iconic meteor logo.
Japanese Role Playing Games had their fans. Enough to have multiple long running franchises, in addition to plenty of one off projects. But the space exploded almost overnight. As games featuring dozens of hours of story, it was a genre well positioned to make use of increasing video fidelity for its cinematic (and marketing) needs. Some chased expensive 3D pre-rendered movies. Others preferred to skew more towards in-game scenes to show off real time character models, lighting, reflections, and environments. Some made use of the increased video quality and CD storage space for anime cut-scenes, and forerunners in this area like the Lunar games received lavish remasters.
All of which is to say: home console marketing got a whole lot of technical showpiece mileage out of JRPG’s. And if you had an exclusive, so much the better. Sega may not have had a Final Fantasy VII, but they did enjoy the likes of Sakura Taisen (Sakura Wars), among others.
The Dreamcast had a laundry list of things it needed to have. Sonic games, for instance, which the Saturn by and large flubbed. But it would also for sure need a first rate exclusive single player JRPG. AM2’s Virtua Fighter RPG project spiraled and ballooned into Shenmue, which had huge ambition but also in turn was getting outside of that more specific genre. Sonic Team, in addition to making Sonic games, also had the task of picking up Sega’s much respected Phantasy Star RPG series name and creating an online multiplayer experience to help sell folks on the Dreamcast’s included modem.
Overworks would cobble together a team of folks from Panzer Dragoon Saga, Sakura Taisen, and the previous Phantasy Star games, among others. The result would be a game bringing the much vaunted “blue skies” optimistic style of many of Sega’s classic titles to the likes of Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999. Honorable piracy. The importance of a trusted crew in the face of an evil empire. Just with the melancholic reflections on the fate and failures of mankind dialed more toward the discovery and potential angles.
The game was to launch in September of 2000.
However, this was delayed a few weeks until October for a paid trialware version to stand alongside its release.
Sega’s @barai internet registration service was one of their very turn of the millennium ideas of how to convert Dreamcast skeptics into Dreamcast sales.
In a double sized DVD style case, so it was clear and away a different item than a normal Dreamcast game jewel case, the @barai label marked a special trial edition of Eternal Arcadia. It was available for a cheaper price than the normal game, but it still came with all the physical trimmings: both disks, a full color manual, and all the inserts and flyers one might expect in a normal release. This version of the game would only allow the player to proceed so far, until a dungeon boss a few hours into the game. After this point, it would lock the player out of progression until a fee was paid to unlock the complete game.
This may sound quite familiar when it comes to things like desktop computer software. The internet allowed for plenty of registration needs by this point. But this was very much outside the norm as an offering on home video game consoles. This was day and date with the release of the normal full priced versions of the game as well. Which, as a reminder, still worked the same as any other Dreamcast game. But, this “cheaper entry fee, and you can top off your purchase to unlock the full game if you enjoy it” feature was seen as an important enough marketing move to push Arcadia’s launch date back a few weeks.
Which brings us to the point of this story I mentioned right from the first line of this post.
Later that same October, for Weekly Famitsu Issue 618, Sega prepared a special… well, “treat” is the optimal Halloween word, but “trick” may well be more valid. Each and every copy of the magazine came with the @barai edition of Eternal Arcadia. Both disks were included, and thus you were bypassing even the initial purchase price of the retail @barai edition.
Some concessions needed to be made, to be sure. The controls and other features of the manual were printed within the pages of the magazine itself, rather than the manual being a standalone booklet. But Sega had done it: they set Arcadia out into the world, and pushed it into the hands of as many people as possible. Not every reader may have had a Dreamcast, but by golly they all now had at least one Dreamcast game. Kind of. Limited in initial function as the disks may be, this was their massive single player RPG push for the system. And now a version was in many, many homes.
Maybe some even went on to buy a Dreamcast.
…Or at least rent one (as this was also something Sega was trying).
The @barai software registration service was supposed to build up to over a dozen more games soon after Arcadia’s launch. The names of many further titles were announced. But only one other product was ever released with such trial unlock functionality: Hundred Swords, a strategy game developed by Sega’s Smilebit studio.
This was, after all, a big expensive project for something that still involved printing a large amount of physical goods while also managing registration codes. Meanwhile, in the short term, fully featured games tend to only get cheaper after their initial release windows. So these cumbersome trial unlock versions could only lose more and more ground against Sega’s own full release products.
While much regarding the @barai service has long since sunk beneath the internet waves, the Wayback Machine does allow us to poke around limited aspects of its marketing. The cheaper initial buy in of this distribution method would be, or so the thinking went, more appealing to casual audiences who did not want to risk the purchase price of a full game. The lower starter entry cost could also be a way to combat software piracy, like the eventual 0.99 cent MP3 song, as the Dreamcast was easy for anyone with a CD burner to bootleg games. And none of this would not be wrong: plenty of console games today enjoy the benefits of limited time trials, demos which allow progress to carry over to the full game, and so on. These also owe their success to the expansion of digital distribution over the years.
A normal Sega Dreamcast Visual Memory Unit contains 128 kilobytes of storage space.
There are a lot of neat little things a VMU can do, but full game trial downloads is a journey it could not take you on.
Meanwhile, the @barai service has long since ceased operation. The disks can no longer fulfill their purpose. And as we get further away in time, they become more like strange relics. There was such a small window of time where this would have ever been considered a way to do things. And I have two complete editions of this very specific odd thing, the retail trial box release and the complete Weekly Famitsu issue.
Well, they do still give me a story to share.
A good relic should always have that going for it.