Peep Show: Sega's New Console Creeps Out of the Shadows

The elusive Black Belt, Sega's fourth-generation console, is quietly being built here in the US, though we may never see the fruits of Sega's labor. Our four-part story on Sega's hidden agenda begins today.

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Over the past few months, VideoGameSpot has been peeking behind the curtain Sega has drawn around its new Black Belt console. Rumors have been flying and contradictions mounting. GS News has contacted sources from California to Tokyo in an effort to pierce the veil and secure the latest information on the new console.

We enlisted VGS contributor Jer Horwitz to sort through the facts and fictions behind Sega's Black Belt. We asked him to speak clearly, and speak the truth. Jer filed this report:

A Little History: Black Belt is presently a code name associated with Sega's fourth-generation standalone home console. It follows on the heels of Sega's 8-bit Master System, 16-bit Genesis, and 32-bit Saturn. There are three primary Black Belt-related topics which merit discussion: first, that the name Black Belt is subject to change before release; second, that even the vague rumors about its design are entirely unsubstantiated, save for one fact; and third, that there is no guarantee that the system everyone has been hearing about will ever actually come to market - but not for the reasons initially suspected. Additionally, there's a bit of side information relating to Microsoft and Sega internal decision making that will probably help you understand how complex the launch of a new system really is.

A Little More History: For a few years it seemed that Sega was reasonably obsessed with cosmic hardware names. There is the obvious Saturn, the lesser-known Mars (original code name for the Sega 32X), and the Neptune (the canceled US$199 combination Genesis and 32X machine), all of which were supposed to be followed by a newer system code-named Eclipse. Eclipse was said to be Sega's 64-bit hardware specification, which would either have plugged in to the Saturn or stood alone as a new console unto itself. At various times, Sega has spoken with a number of 3-D graphics chip set companies in efforts to define its 64-bit Eclipse strategy, including arcade partner Lockheed Martin, M2 creator The 3DO Company, later M2 owner Matsushita-Panasonic, and low-cost 3DFX designer Alliance Semiconductor, among others.

After Nintendo succeeded in defining 64-bit, however, Sega apparently came to the conclusion that to enter the 64-bit market with a new console after Nintendo would be suicidal, especially considering its present large-scale problems with the Saturn. As for the possibility of a 64-bit Saturn peripheral, many US developers have already ceased or are presently ceasing Saturn development, and when Sega quietly gauged developer reaction to a Saturn add-on device a few months ago, the response was even less impressive than it had been for the buried-but-not-forgotten 32X. Insiders at the company now concede - off the record - that the Saturn, too, will inevitably be abandoned, despite the fact that Sega was first to market with a 32-bit console. So, the Saturn's in rough shape. The Eclipse is gone. No more cosmic fantasies for Sega.

That's where Black Belt comes in. At this point, the company (and its allies) believe that it either succeeds with its next console or gives up trying to sell home game hardware altogether. Selling hardware is an expensive proposition and the company is losing money playing high stakes games with Nintendo and Sony already -Sega wins only when third-party license royalties are rolling in, and with Saturn software sales where they are right now, Sega's accountants are counting checks made out of air. Even SegaSoft has stopped developing for the Saturn.

The Name: Black Belt is an entirely separate project, so named because it is Sega's last shot at a knockout blow against the competition. Whether it will depend on a 64-bit CPU or 64-bit core chip set is presently unknown, though persistent rumors have it that Sega is very inclined to play the numbers game and present the new machine as the first 128-bit game console. The only thing that has remained constant from Eclipse to Black Belt - with the clear exception of Sega's desire to release a fourth-generation console bearing the Sega name - is the involvement of Microsoft in developing an operating system (OS) for whatever Sega's new console turns out to be. But more on that in a moment. The moniker Black Belt could easily disappear before the system is released, unless it first becomes very well-known and well-liked, and then passes a trademark search.

The Facts: There is only a single fact which has been confirmed officially about the fourth-generation Sega console as of today: The company has been involved in talks with 3DFX to secure a low-cost 3DFX chip set as the graphics system for the machine. A recent public disclosure from 3DFX established this as fact (though Ziff-Davis magazine Intelligent Gamer revealed it almost a year ago). And though it is known that Microsoft is, in fact, developing a Black Belt OS, and that a team of engineers from SegaSoft is heading up the Black Belt hardware project on Sega of America's behalf, those facts have not been confirmed on an official level by any of the companies involved.

Tomorrow, part II of our story.

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