Want to kick off 2022 with an amazing revelation? How about this? Virtua Fighter 3 might have made its way to the Nintendo 64, had former Sega of America boss Bernie Stolar gotten his way.
This particular bombshell comes from former games journalist James Mielke, who is now a producer at Limited Run Games. We need to travel all the way back to the year 1999 for this one; a time when Sega was still actively supporting its Dreamcast console but was at something of a crossroads. The company was in dire financial straits and, unbeknownst to fandom at the time, it was close to taking the long, painful step into the world of third-party publishing. However, the official announcement of this seismic shift wouldn't come until early in 2001, and in 1999 – the year the Dreamcast launched in North America – there was certainly no shortage of people who were utterly convinced that Sega would remain a hardware maker forevermore.
The crazy thing is that to my knowledge Bernie just did the deal with Greg Fischbach, without getting the approval from Sega of Japan
It would seem that Stolar – who, prior to joining Sega, was the first executive vice president of Sony Computer Entertainment America and was instrumental in launching the original PlayStation in the US – was already planning ahead, because, according to Mielke, he had brokered a deal with Acclaim CEO Greg Fischbach to bring select Sega titles to rival systems.
"I was previews editor at Gamespot in San Francisco, and I had a reliable source within Acclaim," Mielke explains. "One day, in the thick of the early Dreamcast era, my source told me a behind-the-scenes story about a crazy day at work, where s**t had basically hit the fan, because Bernie Stolar had made a deal with Greg Fiscbach to port Virtua Fighter 3 and Crazy Taxi to Nintendo 64, which technically speaking just sounded bonkers as that platform would have been unable to produce anything resembling Model 3 levels of quality."
Amazingly, it seems that Stolar went rogue for this particular agreement. "The crazy thing is that to my knowledge Bernie just did the deal with Greg Fischbach, without getting the approval from Sega of Japan – they had a contract executed and everything. From how I remember the scenario, Sega Japan got wind of this and was naturally like 'there's no way we're doing this'. I don't remember if this rebuke came from upper management or from the dev teams coming back and saying 'this is not even possible' but the short version was Stolar being told he would have to break that contract because there was no way it could happen. A colleague at Sega of America — who worked two floors above us in San Francisco — corroborated this story to me, as well."
Mielke's recollections give valuable context to a rather odd situation that took place around the same time. Remember when Acclaim's name appeared on the box for Ferrari F355 on the Dreamcast – one of Sega's big AAA titles for 2000? It seems we now have a partial explanation for this weirdness. "Whether it was due to contractual reasons or just a face-saving exercise, Bernie ended up letting Acclaim publish Ferrari F355 on Dreamcast as compensation for not getting those two pieces of fantasy vapourware," says Mielke. It's worth noting, too, that Acclaim was working on its own Ferrari video game at the time – Ferrari 360 Challenge – so there's a chance that could be another reason for its getting the rights to publish F355 Challenge (thanks to Games Asylum on Twitter for pointing this out). Acclaim's game – developed by UK-based Brain in a Jar Games – would never see the light of day, apparently due to escalating development costs and undisclosed issues with the license itself. Acclaim would get to publish more Sega games, too – but more on that shortly.
So, why wasn't Stolar's deal with Acclaim reported at the time, you might ask? Well, Mielke wanted to, but it wasn't quite as easy as that. "Amazingly, my source was going to let me run this story – or at least wasn't going to stop me – but I was not going to name my source, firstly because I protect my sources, and secondly, they wouldn't have been long for Acclaim if this was in any way connected with them. Somehow, the managing editor of Gamespot, despite her journalistic credentials which she reminded me of fairly frequently, demanded to name my source or else she was going to kill this story. Her argument was that without the source, this was basically an unsubstantiated rumour, which didn’t make any sense as they do this in sports and political reporting all the time. If I recall correctly, Gamespot ran a bastardized, almost apologetic, version of the story, because it gained zero traction, as no one actually remembers this."
Whether it was due to contractual reasons or just a face-saving exercise, Bernie ended up letting Acclaim publish Ferrari F355 on Dreamcast as compensation
For additional context, it's worth pointing out that around the same time, Mielke's fellow Gamespot staffer and long-time friend Sam Kennedy ran a piece that hinted that Sega was considering a future away from hardware. "Sega of America had invited myself and Sam to a CSK/Sega charity event where we got to interview Sega and CSK chairman Isao Okawa. At the time, Sega was one of the Big Three, and this was before they went multi-platform," Mielke explains. "He had recently injected a huge sum of his personal fortune into Sega to ensure the Dreamcast’s success, so I asked him point-blank if Sega would continue on in the console market, despite the increasing challenge coming from both PlayStation and Nintendo. He responded quite directly, saying 'hardware is not Sega's future.' When Sam ran the story on Gamespot, I distinctly remember Sega fansites explicitly challenging this news, basically saying 'It's obvious this was something that was lost in translation,' even though I was actually there and there was no mistaking what was said."
Sega even went as far as to respond to the report, saying “perhaps there was a mistranslation of what Okawa stated in Japanese.” Despite the signs being plain for all to see (Sonic Pocket Adventure had come out on the Neo Geo Pocket Color in 1999, for example), there was still a surprising amount of faith in the fact that Sega would remain a hardware manufacturer — with an SOA rep going so far as to tell Gamespot "we definitely do have another hardware coming.”
As we all know, that faith was misplaced. Sega would officially announce that it was exiting the hardware business in January 2001. And guess what? A PlayStation 2 port of Crazy Taxi would appear in May of that same year – courtesy of Acclaim. 18 Wheeler followed in November (it would come to GameCube in 2002) and F355 Challenge came the following year, also published by Acclaim, and there were apparently plans for Acclaim to bring Zombie Revenge to PS2 and GameCube, too (which sadly never came to pass). So, while Stolar's astonishing deal to get Virtua Fighter 3 and Crazy Taxi onto the N64 was nixed in the end, he would eventually get his way – albeit in a manner that probably wasn't as elegant as he would have liked. Not that he will have been very concerned at the time; Stolar was famously fired from Sega just before the Dreamcast's North American launch and would join Mattel in December 1999.
This article has been updated to amend an incorrect date (the year of this event would have been 1999, not 2000) and the fact that 18 Wheeler was published by Acclaim on the PS2 and GameCube, but not Dreamcast. A reference has also been added to Acclaim's cancelled Ferrari video game from 2000.