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Retro Corner – The Sega Saturn

It was May 11th 1995, the very first day of the very first E3, when Tom Kalinske announced that the Sega Saturn was available in North America today, as in that very moment. In today’s climate a stunt like this might work – look at the Xbox 360 Slim’s release last year – but in 1995, long before you would expect to find internet access in the average home, news simply could not spread that fast. With magazines scrambling to cover the sudden release and the lack of any pre-release marketing, the Saturn arrived stillborn to a US game market unaware of its existence; Sega had certainly pulled a fast one.

I distinctly remember walking into a Babbages not long after that inaugural E3. Having no knowledge of the Sega of America president’s announcement, you can imagine my shock to find the Saturn – four months prior to its previously announced September release – actually sitting on a store shelf. Thinking back, I remember being somewhat underwhelmed with the selection of games, which included Virtua Fighter, Worldwide Soccer, Pebble Beach and a couple of unknowns to me at the time, Daytona USA and Panzer Dragoon. Despite my reservations and its $400 price point, I was a Genesis stalwart; I went home and started my Saturn fund immediately.

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With little hype and less games, the Saturn limped into its fall showdown with Sony’s PlayStation. Reportedly, the console was only able to sell a meager 80,000 units during its ‘head start’, a lead the PlayStation would quickly erase. Not only did the Saturn’s spontaneous release catch both gamers and the media off guard, but it left developers, publishers and a few major retailers bewildered, and in many cases angered. Games that publishers had planned for the September system rollout were left to fend for themselves, rather than attach themselves to the launch buzz. KB Toys actually went so far as to briefly boycott the system, after it wasn’t selected to be one of the exclusive retail chains back in May. In short, no one was happy.

Built around two Hitachi CPUs, the Saturn’s architecture and lack of tools posed a significant hurdle for many developers to overcome. The hardware afforded the console superior ability to render 2D game engines when compared to the PlayStation, but made the Saturn the less attractive console to program for. Gamers wanted 3D graphics and the Saturn’s unique manner of rendering polygons via quadrilaterals instead of triangles, required developers to alter their pre-existing design tools. As the Saturn aged, a handful of teams were able to find more and more power in the system, better understanding the architecture and capitalizing on its eccentric design. Notably, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the most prominent teams were Sega’s own AM2 and Sonic Team, the latter of which produced the long forgotten Burning Rangers, which arguably had some of the most impressive particle effects of the generation.

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Launch and hardware accounted, the Saturn’s undoing had as much to do with Sony’s marketing as it did Sega’s product: the PlayStation was the new Genesis, the hip alternative to the Nintendo 64. Sega once again had the inferior console on the market, but this time they didn’t have Sonic and they could no longer claim to ‘Do what Nintendon’t’; the Genesis had the Sega scream, the Dreamcast was thinking, and the Saturn, well, it never knew what it wanted to be. The system’s identity and direction were never clearly set forth, leaving it to wallow in relative obscurity, the odd man out in the 32/64-bit generation.

For the fortunate few – approximately 9.5 million of us – that took the plunge, the Saturn had a wide variety of timeless, unknown classics. Long before the Dreamcast became synonymous with Sega’s turn of the century arcade hits, the Saturn churned out many of their early 3D arcade offerings. Beginning with Virtua Fighter and ending with The House of the Dead, the Saturn was the definitive arcade experience at the time, including classics like Virtua Cop, Sega Rally Championship and Virtual-On.

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While the system was a flop in the western markets, the console found moderate success back home in Japan, giving the Nintendo 64 a battle for runner-up behind the PlayStation. The resilience of the Saturn in the east can mostly be attributed to the steady diet of RPGs, shmups and fighting games, a trio of staples in the Japanese gaming market. Sadly, many of the titles that sustained the console abroad were never officially released in the US or Europe.

If there was one franchise that became synonymous with the Saturn in Japan, it was Sakura Wars. Combining the simple strategy gameplay of their own Shining Force franchise with the emerging dating-sim genre, Sega and the Red Company had an exclusive RPG hit. To date, the franchise has sold over 3 million units and is still fondly remembered in the Japanese market.

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Even with its popularity, Sakura Wars could never hope to match the fervor for Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy VII, but that doesn’t mean the Saturn was lacking in relevant role-players. Regarded by some – misguidedly – as an FFVII killer, Game Arts’ Grandia arrived to universal critical acclaim. Continuing the spirit of their beloved Lunar franchise, Grandia was the colorful, plucky alternative to Final Fantasy’s shift to modern sci-fi. Of course, Grandia would eventually appear on the PlayStation, with better 3D effects and worse sprites, but the franchise, like Lunar before it, remains closely associated to Sega hardware.

Rounding out the Saturn’s library of signature RPGs are a trio of unforgettable and unconventional titles. Dragon Force was a wholly original blend of RPG mechanics with strategy gameplay, combined with an unprecedented amount of sprites on-screen, creating a battlefield experience still unmatched. Shining Force III was released as three separate scenarios, two of which happen simultaneously on opposing sides of the same war, with the third picking up immediately after the first two. Save data could be imported from one scenario to the next, carrying the players’ actions from one game forword. And finally, Panzer Dragoon Saga, was one of the final games released in the western market. With only a tiny print run, the game has become one of the rarest and most valuable titles published on the system. Mixing the on-rails shooting of Panzer Dragoon, the rich atmosphere of the series and the emotional story of protagonist Edge, with that of the mysterious Azel, proved to be one of the most gripping RPGs to date.

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While on the subject of rare titles, the Saturn’s robust lineup of shmups could essentially be boiled down to one game: Radiant Silvergun. Long known as the undisputed kings of bullet-hell titles, Treasure has never crafted a finer shooter. Unlike most vertical shooters, players have immediate access to seven different weapons at all times, challenging them to learn how to use each effectively, rather than killing enemies to collect weapons. Before the convenience of weapon swapping, different weapons were utilized via separate combinations of the game’s three buttons being pressed concurrently. Later, on the Dreamcast, Treasure would release Ikaruga, a spiritual successor of sorts, but it did little to appease the many shmup fans that have yet to play Radiant Silvergun. Thankfully, all of that will change when the game finally sees a rerelease, likely this summer on XBLA.

If one great Treasure title on the Saturn wasn’t enough, they also dropped a little game known as Guardian Heroes. Unlike many of the games I’ve noted, Guardian Heroes actually made it to the west and remains the finest, most complete sidescrolling brawler of all-time. Supporting two players in classic arcade style co-op, or as many as six in versus, Guardian Heroes delivered an unprecedented amount of content in the beat ‘em up genre. The story had dozens of endings based on branching storylines, every character in the entire game could be unlocked for versus and each one of them had a unique move list. Sure the insane roster meant the versus mode could never be totally balanced, but it was one of the fathers of the so-called ‘party fighter’.

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For more traditional fighters, the Saturn turned out to be the system of choice – assuming you weren’t a Namco fan. With Sega providing Virtua Fighter 2, Fighting Vipers, Last Bronx and the eccentric fighting mash-up, Fighter’s Megamix, there was never a shortage of 3D fighters hitting market. Combining the superior sprite rendering capability of the Saturn, with the Capcom friendly six-button controller, the Saturn became the obvious choice for fighting fans. While many of the marquee fighters associated with the system didn’t make it to the US, such as Street Fighter Alpha 3, Vampire Savior, X-Men vs. Street Fighter and Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter, many specialty retailers such as Electronics Boutique began stocking import copies, along with the relevant accessories necessary to play foreign games. While the games weren’t cheap, it helped put new Saturn product on shelves and introduced many gamers to the previously untapped import market.

Despite the dozens of classic titles mentioned, the Saturn is probably most remembered for the games it didn’t have. Despite the best efforts of new titles such as Panzer Dragoon, Bug!, NiGHTS into Dreams, Clockwork Knight and Baku Baku, the Saturn suffered from the absence of a number of key Genesis franchises, including Streets of Rage, Phantasy Star, Out Run, Ecco the Dolphin, Toe Jam and Earl, Vectorman, Shinobi and Golden Axe – though the last two appeared in forgettable incarnations. But, of course, the most notable no show was Sonic the Hedgehog, who only appeared in Sonic 3D-Blast (a Genesis port), Sonic Jam (a retro collection), and Sonic R (a mediocre racing game).

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Never quite finding its way to release, Sonic X-Treme is probably the single most famous piece of vaporware in history – assuming Duke Nukem Forever does hit next month. Going through multiple iterations, starting and stopping, Sonic Team and Sega of America could never reconcile what a new Sonic game should be. While series creator, Yuji Naka, was hard at work on his new IP, Sega Technical Institute headed the development. The Sonic X-Treme prototype employed an interesting fish-eye effect to create warped, tubular stages, which can easily be seen on YouTube. After several years of development and frustration, the heads of the project were relieved when Japanese executives were unimpressed and Naka threatened to leave Sega over an engine dispute, which soon lead to the game’s definitive cancelation.

Sonic X-Treme’s checkered development reflects the overall performance and identity of Sega’s forgotten hardware. The talent, commitment and even the product itself were never the issue; gamers were still jaded by the Sega-CD and the 32x, and rightfully so. Without a clear, unified vision for the Saturn’s marketing, Sega had no chance of replicating the Genesis’ success. And with the resounding commercial failure of the Saturn, no amount of lessons learned would ever have been able to save its darling successor, the Dreamcast.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @_seankelley.

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