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The SEGA Saturn – a console drama novel – but with great games

July 22, 2015


SEGA Saturn – the life of a drama queen

After the successful Mega Drive/Genesis (especially in the US market) and the Nintendo struggle to launch a SNES successor right in time, SEGA was ready to take over the market. But then another bad guy appeared and showed everyone what a monster is looking like! Former in cooperation with Nintendo, the Nintendo/Sony project failed and Sony took the chance to attack the market by its own. The PSX was born.

How to dig your own grave – a guidance:

But it was not only the PSX – SEGA itself seemed to do everything to sabotage its own targets. The beginning of SEGAs dawn, was the release of the 32X add-on for the MegaDrive/Genesis. Released end of 1994 (jp/US) and Europe even beginning 1995, it was way to late in the MegaDrive/Genesis lifespan and failed completely the costumers needs. The Saturn was released November 1994 in Japan und May/Juli 1995 in the US and Europe. There were some good games on the 32X (not much, but some), but it was a terrible decision for the future of the company. But enough 32X stuff, I will later maybe do a separate article about this issue … but the trading partners and gamers lost trust in SEGA.

But it was not the only misdecision back the time the SEGA CEOs brought their own consoles to the grave. SEGA don’t died instantly … luckily we got seven more years (to 2002) of SEGA consoles with the great final called Dreamcast!

After the 32X the next big mistake found place in the Saturn hardware development. The SEGA resposibles thought the time was not ready for 3D games. How wrong they were, this misjudgement led into a strategic epic fail – and the next step to the coffin.

As a result Sega developed at first a much weaker hardware than the final Saturn. Sony meanwhile created the PSX and when rumors showed off their monster, sheer panic ruled the SEGA headquarter. It was so powerful, it was so superior – the SEGA CEO, technicians and everyone had failed. With this machine SEGA couldn’t compete with Sonys PSX.

Code red:

So the idiots went in red alert back to the hardware developement to pimp it up to an level to have maybe a chance against Sonys monster. But many decisions were already made and time was to short to start all new. So they added new parts like a second CPU to it to increase the sheer power of the machine and especially to give the Saturn better 3D capabilities. So now it had more power, but on the other hand it was very difficult to program which made it difficult to reach the theoretical potential of the machine. It made the software development difficult and more expensive. On paper the machine was now strong and more than competetive to the PSX specs, but the complex hardware architecture led into a weaker result onscreen in case of 3D compared to Sonys new challenger. Even if there were really impressive 3D games out on the Saturn like SEGA Rally, Panzer Dragoon Zwei and more, the hardware architecture made it hard for developers to achieve such results. The Saturn version of Tomb Raider was also a very impressive 3D game on the Saturn for its time 1996, even if the PSX version is a bit superior, the Saturn version was an impressive 3D game back then. Maybe I should write later an article about the best 3D games on the Saturn … dispite of the hardware architecture problems, there are many great 3D games out on the Saturn (but also crappy ones). In comparison the PSX was simply the more capable machine in case of 3D.

As result of the hardware improvement the Saturn had now 8 (!) processors … a sheer nightmare of complexity for developers. As already mentioned the hardware had now two instead of one CPUs. Two Hitatchi SH-2 32-Bit Risc CPUs. And a Memory of 2MByte (CPU memory speed 28,6 MHZ x 32Bit). But CPU1 and CPU2 cannot use the memory at the same time. That causes delays because one CPU has to wait if the memory is in use by the other. That costs performance.

The strength of the Saturn was still to apply 2D graphics. The 3D capabilities suffered a bit under the complex hardware architecture. There are really good 3D games on the system, but It’s not the natural strength of the hardware.

Another fail was that the Saturn was not able to do transparencies … yes, yes transparencies are possible and some games even show it. But however, most developers don’t brought the transparencies to run, instead they was forced to use a grid. The reason was that the Saturn hardware could only do transparencies in 2D. 3D transparencies were not possible to apply. That was really bad for the Saturn, cause the PSX celebrated transparencies with ease. The costumers noticed that.

But enough tech talk, we can be summed up: the Saturn hardware architecture was strong on paper, but way to complex and had some flaws which led to a difficult to program hardware and made it very difficult for developers to reach the theoretical possible result of the machine.

So because of the last minute hardware-arrangements nothing went to plan. The costs increased and led to a much higher price than the PSX and the time plan for software developments for launch titles went into a nightmare. So the PSX was in case of 3D superior, cheaper to produce and much easier to code – bad thing SEGA!

O.k. lets take a look on the standard periphery:

First the standard controller was a digital pad. At launch time there were differences between east and west. The brilliant Japanese digital pad, which I think is the best digital controller ever made … and the western one. Regrettably the western one was not as good as the japanese one, the directional pad was simply not as precise. Luckily SEGA decided then to bring the Japanese pad also as the standard controller to the US and Europe.

first western controller                                 Japanese controller/2. western controller

pad (1)  pad (3)

1996 SEGA released the 3D Pad for the Saturn. An analog pad which is in most parts the layout we are known today (but with one analog stick). The analog stick for the left thumb was positioned like it is natural and we are used today and the digi cross beyond (XB/360/One and most PC controllers). I personally like the 6 button layout more than the todays 4 buttons. And the controller had L and R triggers which are positioned like we are used it since then. The 3D controller was not perfect, but ahead of its time consolewise and really good!

pad (2)

The analog pad was released three months after the N64 pad on the Japanese marked. So both analog pads were at the same time in development, and the first analog controllers for consoles.

Here I want to add some notes:

Many gamers praised the analog controls from Nintendo and SEGA as a revolution – I didn’t understand this. I had the time my first PC in life … and analog controls were here standard long before. In my eyes it was not a revolution by Nintendo or SEGA, but console manufacturers were backward and simply not up to date … they came much to late into the analog technology.

As I saw 1995 the Saturn and the PSX in a store – I was shocked that they came without analog controls. It was so outdated 1995. I was not interested in, it felt like a step back in comparison if I played on my PC completely used on analog gameplay. Yes the digital pad was great … but to have no analog control possibilities in 1995 seemed for me kind of ridiculous.

I bought a Saturn fall 1996 – that was funny, everyone said … “no don’t buy it, the system is dead”. But I wanted to have one. I lived that time in the Ruhr area near the Dutch border. And at the time arcade machines were luckily still popular. So in my area there were some arcade machines available and sometimes in Holland there were also good places to play arcade machines.

I played Daytona USA, Sega Rally, House of the Dead and many others … I loved the arcade machines and I was from the Mega Drive time a SEGA fan and so I wanted the Saturn. I bought it instead of a PSX and had a lot fun with it. In my opinion it was a great time to buy the system, because the marked was full of used games I could catch cheap … and fall 1996 to 1998 still great games came for the system.

I bought a Saturn Sega Rally bundle with Daytona USA and Panzer Dragoon Zwei.


Despite its flaws I loved the Saturn – with the PC this both systems were my entertainment machines till the Dreamcast has been released in Europe and I added end 1999. Most PSX games I wanted to play I was able to get a PC version (e.g. Colin McRea Rally, Tomb Raider 2, Final Fantasy VII).

The Saturn wasn’t so successful in the market. Especially in the west the system failed harsh. Luckily it was very successful in Japan and was till Final Fantasy VII for the PSX came out even market leader in Japan. So many games were released there, helped SEGA to survive the hard time (more or less) and gave us many great Japanese games. Some with western releases, many Japan exclusive. So if you a Saturn fan – imports are your best friends. But there are also many interesting western releases.

SEGA Saturn

As you can read, the SEGA Saturn was a real drama queen, but luckily at the end with a lot of great games on it. The Saturn couldn’t really compete with the market leader PSX – I regard the Saturn more as a console similar to the PC-Engine in the 16-Bit times. That’s nothing bad, both consoles are great consoles for those who know the systems and know their strength and great games. The Saturn is like the PC-Engine a console for video game enthusiasts. Yes, the Saturn is the difficult child in the family, but I love it! In my view the Saturn is a console with a lot of character, this machine has a lot of charme.

Back to the games

If a game is not high ranked in the list, it don’t means it’s a bad game – King of Fighters 95-98 is on place 43 – and everyone knows they are great games. Or Romance of the three Kingdoms IV on spot 86 … but a very, very good game. Metal Slug X on 68, Strikers 1945 on 90 and so on and so on. So, there are simply enough games on the system to fill a top 100 list. I really do like every single game in this top 100 list!!

Enjoy my personal top 100 for the glory SEGA Saturn!1

SEGA Saturn top 100:

  1. Shining Force III Trilogy
  2. Sega Rally
  3. Tomb Raider
  4. Fighters Megamix
  5. Panzer Dragoon Saga
  6. Virtua Fighter 2
  7. Daytona USA
  8. Thunder Force V
  9. Resident Evil
  10. Grandia
  11. Street Fighter Zero/Alpha 3
  12. Shining the Holy Ark
  13. Radiant Silvergun
  14. Albert Odyssey – Legend of Eldrean
  15. Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter & X-Men vs. Street Fighter
  16. Dragon Force
  17. Wipeout & Wipeout 2097
  18. Panzer Dragoon Zwei
  19. Magic Knight Rayearth
  20. Elevator Action Returns
  21. House of the Dead
  22. Last Bronx
  23. Deep Fear
  24. Shutokou Battle Drift 97
  25. Burning Rangers
  26. Street Fighter Zero/Alpha 2
  27. Dark Savior
  28. Dungeons and Dragons Collection
  29. Dracula X aka Castlevania SotN
  30. Parodius Deluxe Pack
  31. Diskworld 2
  32. Iron Storm
  33. Soviet Strike
  34. Layer Section aka Galactic Attack
  35. Alien Trilogy
  36. Nekketsu Oyako – Stronghearted Family
  37. Real Bout Fatal Fury Special
  38. Virtua Cop 1&2
  39. Shokyuugurentai
  40. Darius Gaiden
  41. Dead or Alive
  42. Sengoku Blade
  43. King of Fighters 95-98
  44. Warcraft II
  45. Keio Yugekitai 2
  46. Panzer Dragoon
  47. Story of Thor 2 aka Beyond Oasis 2
  48. Shining Wisdom
  49. The Need for Speed
  50. Shinobi X aka Shinobi Legions
  51. Tenchi o Kurau
  52. Battle Garegga
  53. Enemy Zero
  54. Road Rash
  55. Fighting Vipers
  56. Battle Arena Toshinden URA
  57. Gungriffon
  58. Layer Section 2
  59. Assault Suit Leynos 2
  60. Groove on Fight
  61. Die Hard Arcade aka Dynamite Cop
  62. Shinrei Jusatsushi Tomarou
  63. Quake
  64. Exhumed aka Powerslave
  65. Destruction Derby
  66. Darkstalkers aka Vampire Hunter/NightWarriors & Savoir/3
  67. Mega Man aka Rockman 8, X3, X4
  68. Metal Slug X
  69. Golden Axe – the Duell
  70. Manx TT
  71. Anarchy in the Nippon
  72. Darklight Conflict
  73. Titan Wars aka Solar Eclipse
  74. Pandemonium
  75. Street Fighter Zero/Alpha
  76. Touge – King of Spirits 1&2
  77. Myst & Riven
  78. Diskworld
  79. Gusun Oyoyo S
  80. Fantastic Pinball
  81. Mystaria – the Realms of Lore
  82. Guardian Heroes
  83. SEGA Touring Car Championship (Japanese version only*)
  84. Nascar 98
  85. Daytona USA CCE
  86. Romance of the three Kingdoms IV
  87. Wing Arms
  88. Code R
  89. P.T.O. II Pacific Theater Ops
  90. Strikers 1945 & Strikers 1945 II
  91. Sim City 2000
  92. Andretti Racing
  93. Macross – Super Dimension Fortress
  94. Virtua Racing
  95. Sega Ages Vol. 1
  96. Detana Twinbee Deluxe Pack
  97. Chase H.Q. Plus
  98. Power Drift
  99. Three Dirty Dwarfs
  100. Battle Arena Toshinden Remix

Note: there are many Japanese only games out there, but I took only those which are dispite of the language barrier easy to get into or if there were back the time early translations scripts (to print) available (e.g. Shining Force 3 Part II&III, Grandia). If the game is great, maybe playable for nerds but the language barrier is high I don’t put those games into this list (e.g. Princess Crown).

* Sega Touring Car Ch.: the 50 Hertz Pal version is a very poor port – it’s completely trashed!1 – So buy the Japanese version. Maybe also the US-Version cause it’s also the 60 Hertz version, but I never played the US-version so I recommend only the Japanese Version. The PC version is, like the Pal Sat version, car handling-wise total crap too. So, the one and only homeport version I can recommend is the Japanese Saturn port – and you should use the Saturn 3D pad, the digital pad is no option for this game!



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