Sega Smash Pack Vol.1 and its prototypes, the beginning of the Mega Drive emulation on Dreamcast
Sega Smash Pack Volume 1 Dreamcast, is a collection of emulated Mega Drive games, which contains 12 titles including 10 relatively niche ones that were on Sega’s 16 bits console: Sonic the Hedgehog, Vectorman, Altered Beast, Golden Axe, Revenge of Shinobi, Streets of Rage 2, Columns, Phantasy Star 2, Shining Force, Wrestle War, Sega Swirl and Virtua Cop 2.
Gary Lake-Schaal (to whom we owe the italicized quotes in this chapter), the programmer of the Sega Smash Pack Volume 1, had arrived at Sega just as the Saturn was drawing its last breath. Burning Rangers, one of the last great games on the Saturn, had just been released at that time.
«Most of the Dreamcast team at Sega in the West were relatively new (no MegaDrive, 32X or Saturn). Sega's Technical Institute and all those people were pretty much gone. So there was no one in-house who could archive Genesis/MegaDrive ROM.»
A very nice Dreamcast package
When the idea of the Smash Pack was launched, the decision was made to increase the value of the collection by adding some games, such as Virtua Cop 2 (Saturn) and Sega Swirl (PC), which could not, or hardly, be sold separately.
«Scott Hawkins (Producer of Sega Smash Pack Dreamcast) was the author of Sega Swirl for PC. The Dreamcast port was made by Tremor Entertainment, perhaps best known for Kiss: Psycho Circus - The Nightmare Child.»
This Dreamcast version is the fourth compilation entitled Sega Smash Pack, the first three being released on PC. The idea was to propose a Sega Smash Pack version dedicated to the white queen. After Sega stopped manufacturing the Dreamcast, these projects were abandoned. No preliminary work on Sega Smash Pack Vol 2 had therefore started. Afterwards, a game based on this license was released on Game Boy Advance before the franchise came to an end.
«We received all ROMs from Sega of Japan. The selection of games for the Smash Pack was based on a preliminary list from Sega of Japan, and Sega of America proposed additions that were supposed to appeal more to the Western market. Vectorman was one of those games. We also included Wrestle War to represent the world of sports.»
In Japan, between the years 2000 and 2003, Sega offers users of the "Dream Library" service, included in the "Dream Passport 3" disc (distributed for free in April 2000 and put online at the end of May 2000), the ability to download and play Mega Drive and PC Engine games on Dreamcast. There was no way to save a downloaded game on a memory card so once the console was turned off, the download was lost however the game could be downloaded several times without any additional cost. Games had to be purchased from a website before they could be launched via the console's RAM. This is, in a way, the evolution of the Sega Channel service (Mega Drive) but this time online and no longer via cable TV.
The source code of the emulator that will be used for Sega Smash Pack Dreamcast was inherited from Japan before ending up in England (again?) where an employee, to practice programming, will design "the official Mega Drive Emulator (Unreleased)".
The title menu
Sonic or Vectorman ?
We have to thank them
There is an indirect link with Europe since Steve Snake (Lead Programmer of Sega Smash Pack PC) was one of the first contributors to the Mega Drive emulation scene. He was probably involved in the supply of ROMS.
«We only worked with ROMs provided by SOJ. At the time, there weren't many choices for ROM verification utilities, such as Cowering's Good Tools.»
Cowering's GoodTools is a suite of 35 ROM auditing applications for Windows (ROMs can be used on all platforms) that contains a database of known software for various video game consoles and home computers.
I decided, it will be Vectorman
Don't forget Shinobi
The Shinobi ROM from one of the Sega Smash Pack Dreamcast builds is special. It corresponds to a prototype version of the Mega Drive game. By mistake, the PC version of the Smash Pack also contains this version, probably because Sega only had this version in their archives at the time. The Team had been instructed to use the original version of Revenge of Shinobi/Super Shinobi and not the one of Shadow Dancer for rights and licensing reasons and certainly to keep a record for a future Sega Smash Pack.
«I remember validating the integrity of the files with a few DOS tools, but there was nothing to indicate that Shinobi was a prototype version. I saw some speculation on the Internet about this particular Shinobi ROM that came from the Sega Channel service. This ROM would have ended up in a collection with the label "Shinobi 1" while the full version would have been labeled "Shinobi 2" - maybe that's not so far off from the truth.»
When the title was released, the game was criticized for its poor emulation and the poor audio quality of the music. The emulator that the developers had initially received had serious performance issues for some titles, and the audio emulation was inaccurate and needed work. Unfortunately, it was the audio that suffered the most, as the update had to be done at every frame (60 hz). If the framerate dropped, there were stutters in the rendering of the track. Most of the programming work was focused on performance optimization.
Still, a photo of Sonic
The swirls of Sega
«The most difficult game to get working was Vectorman. Given the time constraints of the project, I ended up having to split the sprite processing into batches, which is definitely an emulator hack. If we ran out of display time, I would alternately skip every other batch of sprites. That's why I added the command line input parameters to the Ginsu launcher (SKIP0 - SKIP2).»
Ginsu is a development library on which the Sega Smash Pack is based. It was created by a contract development team that had been working with Sega of America for many years. It was necessary for the operation of the point-of-sale demonstration kiosks. At that time, all of Sega of Japan's development libraries had names like Shinobi, Katana, Kamui, Ninja, etc.
«When the author named this demonstration library, he amusingly chose the name Ginsu, which is an American brand of knives sold on late-night television (and at home in France via morning TV store shows) that "can cut through anything, including a tin can." . That's not a serious name at all. But SOA developed this library, so SOJ didn't know much about it.»
When Smash Pack Vol 1 was made, the developers didn't pay as much attention to emulation quality and historical accuracy as they do today. Namco Museum (released in 1995 for Playstation 1) was the best reference they had.
It should be noted that in Japanese game development, most of the original code and work of the development teams is owned by the parent company. However, the music often remains the property of the composer.
«I've worked on many emulators over the years, such as Midway Arcade Treasures and several Capcom remasters. So when older emulated games were released, we sometimes had to get the licensing rights from the musicians (the example I know of is Duck Tales).»
Originally, the title was to be provided in a new Dreamcast pack (console + game), all for the modest sum of $180. At the request of gamers, Sega of America decided to release a stand-alone commercial version.
A small play of a Saturn game?
Be careful not to cut yourself
«We had quickly learned that there was a desire to include it as a "pack in" title that would be sold as a bundle with the new Dreamcast units for the holidays. Because of this urgency, the development schedule for Smash Pack probably spanned a total of three months.»
Some of the titles included on the GD-Rom were must-haves at their time and marked the history of video games and Sega. The choice was heterogeneous, there was something for everyone, whether it was platform games, wargames or beat'em all.
Sega Smash Pack Game Boy Advance
As a small aside, initially, several titles of the Sega Smash Pack franchise were planned for the Game Boy Advance. As Nintendo's handheld didn't have enough system resources to emulate the Mega Drive/Genesis games properly, the sequel project couldn't materialize.
For the only episode released on the GBA, the development team had to port the classic games to the GBA and not just emulate them as they originally thought. While the source code for Ecco the Dolphin and Sonic Spinball could be located, the source code for Golden Axe was lost. Loving a challenge, the team had to rebuild Golden Axe from scratch. To do so, they wrote a tool to extract the assets and sounds from the Genesis version, while the gameplay had to be recreated. The advantage of this approach was that they were able to add a brand new four-player mode that could be played over a wired connection between multiple Game Boy Advance consoles.
Scott Hawkins : «It was similar to Golden Axe meets Bomberman - and was really cool to add to the game!»
For Sonic Spinball, developed by an internal Sega team (Sega Technical Institute, STI unfortunate acronym), when it was ported to the Sega Smash Pack Game Boy Advance, the source code had also disappeared. Nobody seemed to have a copy of the code, the computers on which it had been saved were no longer in the company's premises.
The GBA episode
After several weeks of searches Scott Hawkins was able to locate it. The former STI technology director had been able to find a box called Sonic Spinball in his garage that contained a magneto-optical disk that could contain the precious code, but nothing was certain at the time. Luckily, still in possession of a magneto-optical reader, they were able to recover the contents of the disc. It turned out that the source code was present and working very well. This story had a happy ending because they didn't have to recreate Sonic Spinball like they did for Golden Axe!
Sega Swirl PC and Dreamcast
Having briefly mentioned the Sega Swirl game above, this article is the right place to also talk about this title entirely designed by Scott Hawkins (to whom we owe the italicized quotes in this chapter).
Sega Swirl, a forgotten game
A similarity to Trivial Pursuit
The snake is specific to DC
It will be easy to beat me
Scott Hawkins : «One year I went to the GDC (Game Developers Conference) and was inspired after attending a session on puzzle game design. I decided to make a game myself - and that a puzzle game would be the most feasible option.»
During 3 weeks and many hours of coding, on his laptop alone at home, every night when he came back from his long working days, he programmed a first working prototype of Sega Swirl. He will bring it to Sega and show it to his boss Shinobu Toyoda who will tell him: "It looks really interesting, you should continue your work on it while continuing to produce the games you produce at the company".
«That's how I got the official go-ahead to continue this project at my workplace. I knew that once I worked on it away from home, it would become Sega's property (technically, it was probably already their property before that), but I was totally fine with that.»
Sega Swirl is a puzzle game initially created for the Windows PC (both as a standalone Windows program and as a web version running with Macromedia/Adobe Shockwave). It is on Dreamcast, in an updated version (new features, new animations, improved graphics etc.), that the title will be the most successful.
«The week I was able to work on the "Swirl Email/email challenges" mode for PC, I made a demo showing this feature to the president of Sega Japan who was visiting Sega America at that time. After seeing the demo, he got up from his chair and tapped the table several times saying, "This... Must be on Dreamcast... By Thanksgiving..." That was when the project was officially approved for the Dreamcast.»
The game was basically about swirls of different colors stacked on top of each other. The goal was to match as many swirls of the same color as possible on the screen before making them disappear, once satisfied, by pressing the equivalent color. The higher the combo (number of swirls matched), the higher the number of points earned. It was simple, effective but very addictive!
On Dreamcast, the game had never been marketed. It was provided for free in the DreamOn Volumes 8 and 18 demo disks for Europe. On the American continent, Sega Swirl was available in the demo discs, the Web Browser 2.0 software and finally the Sega Smash Pack Volume 1 compilation.
«There's a funny story related to the Sega Swirl title and Europe. Sega made a deal with Tivola because their logo was similar to the Dreamcast swirl. Sega agreed that the Dreamcast swirl would only appear in blue in Europe to minimize confusion with the Tivola logo. If all the shapes of the Sega swirl were the same color, the game would be really confusing. So we changed the shape of the Sega Swirl to avoid any conflict with Tivola. It would have been cooler if the swirls matched the shape of the Sega Dreamcast swirls, but sometimes you have to make those kinds of concessions to make things work...»
Maybe it's finally time to discover or rediscover this little forgotten and overlooked game from the Dreamcast!!!
Mega Drive emulators on Dreamcast
DreamLibrary Mega Drive emulator included on some Dream Passport disks in Japan.
Fan-made interfaces for the DreamLibrary emulator (e.g. by the pirate group POPNMUSIC).
Sega Smash Pack Volume 1, a compilation published in the United States by Sega in January 2001 (analysis of a prototype detailed below).
The official Mega Drive emulator (to download by clicking here): The European version of the Mega Drive emulator has never been officially released. There was never a serious project to release it. This is the first Unreleased I found (a nice memory)!
Sega Smash Pack Vol 1 (prototype)
Fan-made interfaces for Smash Pack (ROM loader by the pirate group Echelon, Lemec Loader by Obsidian):
The programmer of Smash Pack Dreamcast, Gary Lake, had included a letter to the hacker group ECHELON which was included as a file called ECHELON.TXT on the commercial version of the game. Surprisingly, this .TXT file was not removed when the GD-rom was pressed, perhaps the last mystery to be solved about this game!
To whomever releases this pack..
Let me give you a few bits of info:
- I emulate a U.S. Genesis, including territory lock-out.
- ".sga" files are standard Genesis/Megadrive ".bin" files renamed.
- The emulator is looking for some parameters to be passed via Ginsu.
If you don't know what that is, you'll figure it out:
MDE_US.BIN ALTBEAST.SGA MODE2 SKIP0 SOUND0
MODE0 = standard, fastest video mode settings
MODE1 = slower, supports some extra features
MODE2 = slowest, includes window layers (used by some games)
MODE4 = same as MODE0 with background skewing
SKIP0 = no sprite skipping until maximum reached
SKIP1 = moderate sprite skipping, used to prevent major slowdown
SKIP2 = maximum sprites skipped
SOUND0 = standard sound emulation
SOUND1 = sound tempo increased
And don't forget to pay your respects to Uncle Sonic.
Sony just doesn't get it.
Official Mega Drive Emulator
This alludes to Echelon and how to create a loading interface. Now with one of these Sega Smash Pack Vol 1 Dreamcast prototypes, we can see how Sega's own text-based interface appeared in November 2000, before being removed and replaced by a graphical menu for the January 2001 version, and replaced again by Echelon in February 2001 with their text-based menu. Couldn't the Echelon emulator model have been used by Sega internally?
All these emulators use the same emulator core (Ginsu)
You can download the Echelon Dreamcast emulator below:
However, all these emulators use the same emulator core
The Sega Smash Pack Dreamcast prototype (Nov 15, 2000)
This new prototype, one of the very first of the Sega Smash Pack Vol 1, shows the emulator in an intermediate state between DreamLibrary and the Sega Smash Pack version. The file dates indicate November 15, 2000, leaving about 3 months between this prototype and the Sega Smash Pack commercial release date of January 31, 2001. There is a Ginsu-based ROM loading interface, very similar to Echelon's, but the list of available ROMs as well as the MODE and SKIP parameters for each ROM are explicitly mentioned in the GINSU.INI file (Ginsu, as explained above, being Sega's SDK library for creating menu systems on Dreamcast for demo discs and other automated kiosks), instead of being chosen by the user from the menu as in Echelon's The Loader.
Japanese warning message
Credits of DreamLibrary ?
Impossible to get out of this menu
Shinobi prototype ROM
Debug Message ?
Video of the prototype
Using the GD-Rom Explorer tool to see the game name, date and version, the IP.BIN is named Quake 3 Arena.
The game starts directly on a basic Mega Drive ROM selection menu (see picture above). The title menu is absent on this prototyped version.
The pixilated "Smash Pack" icon on the memory card is not displayed on this build, and the same is true when Mega Drive games are launched.
The list of Genesis games present on this prototype is the same as the final version. However, Virtua Cop 2 (Windows Ce) is missing. Sega Swirl being a CE game too, it will not run on any Dreamcast emulator. Prefer Demul to play it.
When a ROM is loaded, the main menu screen always displays an old "DreamLibrary" texture instead of the texture with the living room TV that we see in the final version. This feature can be found elsewhere. During this loading, the game should deploy a loading window presenting the people who worked on the Sega Smash Pack project. This transition is, here, non-existent.
The names of the main menu options differ from one version to another.
Some parts of the menus, for example the save (warning) menu, are also in Japanese. This shows that they were not finished yet at this stage.
By accessing the Credits from the main menu, they are certainly those of the Japanese emulator.
The controller configuration window will be subject to slight modifications until the game is commercially released. Once in this menu, it is impossible to go back, as the "Exit" and "Defaults" options are not yet present.
As mentioned above, the ROM of "The Revenge of Shinobi" is a prototype version from March 1989, while the ISO of the Master is dated September 1989. The particularity of this Shinobi worth mentioning is the "God Mod (invicibility)" that can be activated in the options by selecting "No Death". Other differences are perceptible like the title screen for example. It's up to you to find them!
Other ROMs contain differences like the logo "SEGA TM" instead of "SEGA ®" for the game Golden Axe.
Phantasy Star II and Shining Force have Debug information (related to Sega Smash Pack) when you choose between "loading" or "starting a new game". In the upper left corner of the screen, the inscription "Backup!" flashes continuously.
You can download this build of Sega Smash Pack Vol.1 Dreamcast below:
I would like to thank Gary Lake-Schaal and Scott Hawkins: for their availability, their kindness, for taking the time to answer my questions. Their testimonies bring new information about the history of Sega Swirl and the Mega Drive emulation for the Dreamcast.
Special thanks to:
Really special prototypes (big differences, early builds, weird ones etc.): Guilty Gear X Dreamcast - Dead or Alive II Dreamcast - PlanetWeb Browser Sonic Dreamcast - Virtual-On Oratorio Tangram Dreamcast - Spirit of Speed Dreamcast - Re-Volt Dreamcast - Phantasy Star Online Dreamcast - Bangai-O Dreamcast - F1 Racing Championship Dreamcast - Monaco Grand Prix Dreamcast - Rayman 2: The Great Escape Dreamcast - San Francisco Rush 2049 Dreamcast - Speed Devils Dreamcast - Wacky Races Dreamcast - Sega Worldwide Soccer 2000 Dreamcast - Spawn The Demons Hand Dreamcast - Evil Twin Dreamcast - Sega Smash Pack Vol.1 Dreamcast
More than 200 prototypes, documents, press kits have been dumped or scanned, you will find them in free download in the "Release of prototypes and documents"