The Sega Saturn’s history is a complicated one, it was a console which for the first time was a hit for Sega in its homeland, yet little more than an embarrassment elsewhere. However, ignore the mainstream and scratch the service of this understated gem and you will find of the most pure gaming experiences around.
Simply one of the most gorgeously designed consoles ever
Due to the feverous anticipation enjoyed by the Virtua Fighterseries at the time, the Japanese reception to the Saturn was in stark contrast to that received by its forefathers. At launch (November 27, 1994), the company shipped over 200,000 units retailing for a huge 44,800 yen (£ 270/$450) making it the most expensive Sega system ever. This figure is even more impressive when you consider the less than stellar launch lineup of Virtua Fighter, Myst, TAMA Mahjong Goku Tenjiku and Wan Chai Connection. I remember rumours of people sitting outside stores for days waiting for the console, and it was later revealed that in the run up to Christmas that Virtua Fighter was being sold with the console at a ratio of almost 1:1 - simply, Virtua Fighter was massive.
The importance of Virtua Fighter cannot be understated
During this time, the console appeared unstoppable in Japan outselling its rival the PlayStation at a rate of 3:1. However, things were not exactly how they seemed. It has been suggested that the figures Sega released for the Saturn were of how many units had been shipped, and not what had actually been purchased by people on the streets; simply there were a larger number of Saturns sitting on shelves than Sega would have had us believe. Still, there was no doubt that the Saturn was selling better than any previous Sega branded console had in Japan and the company grew confident about its future and the oversees launches.
Yet, internal wrangling between Sega of Japan and the US branch, especially communication between CEO Nakayama-san and the head of Sega US, Tom Kalinske threatened to derail what should have been a solid US launch. In the West the company was struggling to support its myriad of formats: Megadrive, Mega CD, 32X, 32XCD, GameGear, Nomad and Pico, and while Kalinsike supported the American approach of spending your way into profit and keeping alive the successful Megadrive, the Japanese section preferred the much more conservative approach of cutting their losses and focusing on just one project. Arguments can be made for both sides, especially considering the huge success of the Megadrive/Genesis in Europe and US, but simply Sega overstretched themselves. Still, there is no doubt that the decision to completely disown the Megadrive meant that Sega had left Nintendo with profitable 16-bit market all to themselves.
In comparison to the success in Japan the American launch of the console was a huge disaster. Designed as an attention-grabbing surprise to take away any exposure from the PlayStation it is widely considered the leading cause of the console's terrible failure in North America. Initially, the plan had been for SEGA to release the Saturn on September 2 which gave them a week before the release of Sony’s Playstation. However, at E3 in May, Sega president Tom Kalinske revealed that the September release date was actually false and the console would ship earlier, in fact it had gone on sale that very day.
Sega's most disastrous decision?
The surprise launch stirred up some excitement to be sure, but it wreaked absolute havoc on the third-party publishers that SEGA would need to support the Saturn and it infuriated retailers that would left out of the first shipment due to supply issues. Furthermore, without prior notice over the surprise launch, the Saturn debuted with a small library of first-party software and absolutely no third-party titles caught up to the shelves for months. This lack of Western games also had a strong effect on European sales, a territory which had typically been a Sega stronghold.
The European logo improved on what was a misjudged color scheme by Sega of America
The reason for this apparent impatience was that Sega was concerned about its console's inability to go toe-to-toe with the Playstation ‘s 3D capabilities. It is well documented now but the Saturn was a 2D beast at heart, and every aspect of the machine reflected this, even the 3D bits of the system. You see the Saturn relied on quads - polygons made up of at least 4 points. This was because the Saturn’s "polygons" were in fact just 2D textures that were warped, rotated, and stretched into the correct shape, a technique also used by the successful Model 1 Sega Arcade board.
Unfortunately for Sega, as time would go on, 3-point polygons became the standard, giving Saturn games a very odd and unique look. Furthermore, it made converting games over to the system a painstaking process. Steve Palmer, the creator of NBA JAM summed up the difficulty developing for the Saturn “To learn to program for the Saturn was to learn the machine. To learn to program for the PSX was to learn C”. Although standard today it also didn’t help that the console featured complicated dual SH-2 processors (a reactionary move to improve the consoles specs against the PlayStation), especially as the companies user manuals were initially distributed in Japanese. It is therefore unclear if any 3rd party developer really ever made proper use of the 3D capabilities of the Saturn. The legendary Yu Suzuki commented “I don’t think that all programmers have the ability to program two CPUs- most can only get about one and a half times time the speed you can get from one SH-2.”
Never has a circuit-board been the subject of so much debate
Inevitably, the Saturn was never really able to standup against the PlayStation and N64 outside of Japan, and the release of Final Fantasy VII in Japan became the straw that broke the camel’s back(despite the stellar attempt by Sega of putting Panzer Dragoon RPG against it). Finally, Bernie Stolar's "The Saturn is not our future" comment sort of cemented any lingering thoughts gamers had about the future of the console.
These days, while the consoles 3D graphics appear dated its 2D capabilities and its superior memory (especially with the 4mb expansion) are considered timeless and without question the best around. It is ironic that the consoles 3D deficiencies led to it receiving the best 2D games around at a time when 2D visuals were reaching their pinnacle. In this sense, the Saturn is somewhat similar to the Neo Geo AES but has a much wider range of software and is obviously more wallet friendly than SNK’s exclusive system.
The Saturn received a host of arcade perfect SNK ports like Waku Waku 7
Personally, the Saturn is my favourite system after the Dreamcast, the sheer quality of 2D title put out by Capcom and SNK, and smaller teams like Treasure is simply astounding (especially when compared to their PlayStation equivalents) and stand as a pinnacle of that particular visual style. Although, in my opinion the Dreamcast has the better 2D games overall, Sega's later system represents an era when 2D visuals were being combined with 3D. The following are my personal gaming highlights; all which can be enjoyed as much today as they could back when they were released.
Street Fighter Zero 3
SF Zero 3 is a real technical marvel, especially when you consider its superiority to the 128-bit Dreamcast version
Marvel Vs. Street Fighter
The last of the VS titles on the Saturn and the best. The 4mb cart make this one as smooth as playing at the arcade
Street Fighter Zero 2
The perfect Street Fighter game. The Saturn version is vastly superior to what appeared on Sony's console
Groove on Fight
Yes, it should have been better, and the loading times are inexcusable but its still an enjoyable alternative to Capcom's lineup
House of the Dead
Again, another game that should have been better but this is still the only home version of the greatest Zombie shooter of all time
Can be picked up for peanuts. Superior to its sequel and still a very enjoyable rally game
Recently has become more expensive than the legendary Radiant Silvergun and the reason is because it is simple the best example of the genre on the system
No game epitomizes the Saturn like this game. A simply breathtaking experience.
Panzer Dragoon Zwei
A sequel which improves on the original in every way
The Saturn's equivalent to Track and Field, it is still one of the best multiplayer experiences on the Saturn
A special mention has to go to the console’s sublime controller; a direct descendent of Sega's 6-button Megadrive controller the Saturn controller received slight modifications in its size and shape, and the addition of two shoulder buttons. You don't need grand modifications when you start with a great design and Nintendo's unwillingness to have controllers evolve from their immediate predecessor has never really sat easy with me. The Saturn’s controller was the perfect evolution of its predecessor and the most comfortable way of playing classic 2D arcade games. Sure, the controller loses some luster outside of 2D games but this was rectified with the release of the “Nights Controller”. What I love most about the Saturn controller are the six face buttons. Two rows of three columns, your fingers knew where they were based on a button's size and shape. A convex button means you're on the top row; a concave tells you you're on the bottom row; perfect for fighting games. Also, the eight-way d-pad affords more precision than PlayStation's partially submerged d-pad and doesn’t make your thumbs ache. It is simply my favourite controller of all time.
The last official figures regarding the sales for Sega Saturn were released in 1998, Sega sold approximately 10 million consoles worldwide, 1 million in Europe, 2 million in the US and the rest in Japan (a miniscule number was sold in other parts of Asia). The company had gone from a high of $230 million profit during the Megadrive days to a net loss of $242 million at the demise of the Saturn.
Looking back it’s obvious that Sega made a lot of mistakes during this era. It doesn’t matter if you have the best machine on the market, the best first party games around, if you approach the market arrogantly and fail to back what you have with solid marketing, or any decent 3rd party support, then you are all but doomed. Still, look past its prefix as “ill-fated”, “embarrassing”, “misconceived “and you will arguably find a console with the best quality to game ratio of any console, and a selection of games which play as freshly as the day they rolled off the conveyer belt. It is probably one of the most played retro systems around and it is safe to say that it is highly more desirable than any PlayStation console is these days. Postmortem and I guess in this way you could say Sega had the last laugh of the 32 bit generation.