Hardware Classics: Sega Saturn

Out of this world

Following their epic tussle for supremacy during the early part of the decade, the remainder of the '90s were difficult times for rivals Sega and Nintendo. The arrival of hardware newcomer Sony — and its phenomenally successful 32-bit PlayStation system — totally changed the landscape of the video games industry. Sega and Nintendo's 16-bit battle may have taken interactive entertainment to a whole new level, but neither company was able to convincingly exploit this new-found popularity when the next console generation came along.

Nintendo's powerful N64 system got to market after its rivals, and its reliance on expensive cartridges dissuaded third-party publishers from committing themselves to it fully. However, Sega went head-to-head with Sony with its Saturn system, a console which had its specifications tinkered with extensively prior to release, largely in response to the fearsome 3D power boasted by its 32-bit opponent. The Saturn struggled in a competitive marketplace and would ultimately be sacrificed in 1998 so that Sega could focus on the 128-bit Dreamcast — the company's final throw of the hardware dice, and another tragic failure.

Despite its commercial troubles, the Saturn is one of Sega's most fondly-remembered platforms, and hosted some surprisingly faithful coin-op conversions at a time when the company well and truly ruled the arcades. It may have lacked a Sonic outing to challenge Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot, but it certainly wasn't short of groundbreaking exclusives, such as the cult Panzer Dragoon series, Nights Into Dreams and Burning Rangers.

According to Sega project manager Hideki Okamura, the Saturn story began way back in 1992, two years prior to its Japanese debut at the Tokyo Game Show. Keen to leverage its growing stable of impressive 3D coin-op titles, Sega knew that it needed to create a system which could generate convincing three dimensional images and handle conversions of franchises such as Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing. Systems such as Commodore's CD32, Atari's Jaguar and the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer had begun to emerge, leading many to speculate that Nintendo and Sega would be left in the dust. Some within Sega pinpointed the 3DO as the system to beat, and made confident noises regarding the power of Saturn, the firm's own "3DO beater".

However, the end of 1993 heralded an unexpected announcement which shook the industry to its core — Sony lifted the lid on the PlayStation, the gaming console it had silently been working on since its failed deal with Nintendo a short time before. Sony had intended to produce the PlayStation as a SNES with a CD drive, and even went as far as creating mock-up hardware. In one of the most infamous double-crossings in video game history, Nintendo betrayed Sony just as the company was about to go public with its plans, and tied up an agreement with Dutch firm Philips instead, which was attempting to improve the ailing fortunes of its own CD-i entertainment platform. Sony would skulk away to lick its wounds and plan revenge — a revenge which involved turning its PlayStation concept into a powerful rival to Nintendo and Sega's proposed hardware.

It is said that when Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama saw the impressive specifications for the PlayStation at the end of 1993, he confronted his engineering team and demanded to know how an upstart like Sony had been able to create a system which was more powerful than the Saturn. Nakayama's harsh words resulted in some last-minute tinkering and the console was redesigned to make use of a dual-CPU architecture. Two SH-2 processors now formed the heart of the system, alongside twin Video Display Processors. This move was intended to bolster the graphical muscle of the console, but it the long term it made the Saturn very hard to work with — few developers could get all of the processors to work in tandem effectively, and this would have serious ramifications for the platform's chances of robust third-party support.

It may have had a troubled birth, but the Saturn's Japanese launch in 1994 was a success, with 250,000 consoles sold in two days. Arcade port Virtua Fighter was reported to have retailed at a ratio of almost 1:1 with the hardware, illustrating just how important Sega's position in the coin-op industry was to its domestic fortunes. Sadly, titles like Panzer Dragoon and Daytona USA were delayed, the latter proving to be graphically inferior to the PlayStation's Ridge Racer when it eventually did hit store shelves. The North American launch of the console was undermined by Sony pricing the PlayStation a full $100 cheaper than the Saturn's $399 price tag. Early releases seemed to indicate that Sony's console enjoyed a distinct technical advantage over the Saturn, and while Sega was able to claw back some respectively with ports of Sega Rally and the stunning Virtua Fighter 2 — the most popular arcade title of the period — the PlayStation soon began to pull away and consequently attracted more support from publishers, developers and the gaming public.

When the Nintendo 64 hit the market in 1996, the Saturn was pushed from second place to third. Support from developers declined further, and eventually Sega found itself in the position of being the main source of software for the struggling system. In the west, focus on the console was reduced dramatically, but in Japan — where the Saturn ultimately sold 6 million consoles compared to the 2 million in North America and less than one million in Europe — it clung on for longer. Support from companies such as SNK, Atlus and Capcom made the Saturn the format of choice for seasoned coin-op players; combat franchises such as King of Fighters, Street Fighter and Samurai Shodown all arrived on the console in near arcade-perfect form. The Saturn's talent for handling 2D graphics gave it the edge over the PlayStation in this regard; Sega's console had more RAM and this allowed for fluid animation and shorter loading times. Another bonus was the console's cartridge slot, which permitted the use of RAM and ROM cartridges to further augment the system's 2D prowess.

For example, King of Fighters '95 shipped with a ROM cartridge which contained game data which could be quickly loaded into the Saturn's memory, reducing the need to access the information from the CD. Later SNK games would make use of a 1MB RAM cart, while Capcom's X-Men vs. Street Fighter would be bundled with a 4MB variant — the result was an arcade-perfect conversion, and Capcom would follow this with Vampire Savior, Dungeons & Dragons Collection and Street Fighter Zero 3. With the exception of some early releases — the aforementioned King of Fighters '95 being one — most of these gems remained exclusive to Japan.

By the time 1998 rolled around there was already talk of Sega's next console, and it was clear that the Saturn was about to be put out to pasture earlier than planned. The arrival of the Dreamcast was the final nail in the coffin for Sega's 32-bit challenger, and the company switched its focus to its new console. During its lifespan the Saturn sold less than 10 million units worldwide to the PlayStation's 102 million and the N64's 32 million, and this dire commercial performance resulted in Sega posting a loss of over $300 million in 1998. The Saturn wasn't wholly responsible for the company's withdrawal from the hardware arena — the failures of the Mega CD, 32X and Dreamcast all contributed as well — but for many, the 32-bit console is seen as the beginning of the end for the firm which only a few years earlier had bloodied Nintendo's nose in the west.

That isn't to say that the console was a flop with all gamers, though — quite the opposite. When PlayStation fever gripped the globe, owning a Saturn was considered a badge of honour by many dedicated players, especially fans of arcade fighters and shooters. Import gamers also flocked to the system thanks to the superior support it received in its native Japan — titles such as Princess Crown, Radiant Silvergun, Strikers 1945, DoDonPachi, Batsugun, Metal Slug and Elevator Action Returns never made it to the west, yet they attracted a considerable amount of attention from North American and European press and players alike. Although western Saturn owners were denied many amazing releases, they were still lucky enough to get some of the best titles of the 32-bit period; the epic RPG Panzer Dragoon Saga was seen as the console's answer to Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation, while late arrivals Shining Force III, Burning Rangers and House of the Dead all ensured that the Saturn didn't go without a fight.

If you're looking to pick up a Saturn today, then it's highly recommended that you opt for a Japanese system, purely because it grants access to the widest selection of software. Two hardware iterations are available — the launch machine had oval Power and Reset buttons and a disc access light, while the subtly redesigned Mark II system had circle buttons. It's also worth noting that early models of the North American and European Saturn shipped with larger controllers, but these were replaced with the original Japanese pads when the remodelled console appeared. The Japanese pad is arguably one of the best controllers ever made; its rolling D-pad and six-button layout make it ideal for the many 2D fighters which fill the Saturn's library. Sega released an analogue controller alongside Nights Into Dreams, and an official light gun was produced to support the likes of Virtua Cop and House of the Dead. There's even a twin-stick controller available which makes robot battling title Virtual On feel more faithful to its arcade parent.

Collecting for the Saturn isn't a cheap affair, though. The low sales of the console meant that software was produced in small quantities, and as a result second-hand prices have rocketed in recent years. Radiant Silvergun's release on Xbox Live Arcade hasn't put a dent in its resell value on the Saturn, and it has been changing hands for around $160 / £100 for the past decade. The western version of Panzer Dragoon Saga was released in such limited numbers that demand has consistently outstripped supply since its 1998 release, and the game can often fetch as much as $250 / £150 to $330 / £200, depending on overall condition. The last Saturn game ever made — Capcom's Japan-only Final Fight Revenge — is another title which sells for astronomical values, despite the fact that it's not actually very good. However, the prize for most sought-after Saturn title goes to Psychic Assassin Taromaru, of which only 7,500 copies were ever made. Expect to part with as much as $400 / £240 to secure a copy.

The Sega of today may be different to the one which entertained and enraptured millions back in the '90s, but there will be many players out there — Nintendo fans included — who have fond memories of both the firm and its systems. The Saturn may have been a commercial failure and a pain in the backside to develop for, but it was also home to some amazing games, many of which felt all the more special because they were import-only and required significant investment and effort to appreciate. Sony and Nintendo may have chased the mainstream market at the time with their respective machines, but it felt as if Sega was aiming for the hardcore sector — so it's little wonder that the Saturn still holds so much respect among gaming veterans.

Screenshots courtesy of The Video Game Museum.

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