Happy 20th Anniversary – The Sega Saturn

Sega’s ads for the Saturn ran with that ‘cutting edge’ and ‘renegade’ feel of the Genesis’ campaign for American audiences. Here, famous rapper Ice Cube sports his own rings as the words above his celestial cranium urge players to “head for Saturn”.

Although it came out several months before in ’94 for Japanese audiences, twenty years ago today marks the launch of the Sega Saturn for North America. This was a console that, for many, embodied Sega’s big push into 32-bit gaming as the long awaited successor to the phenomenally successful Sega Genesis.

The Genesis, or Mega Drive as it was called in Japan and elsewhere, was hugely successful in the West. It was a big hit in Europe, Brazil, and North America, a financial story enabling the House that Sonic Built to briefly lead Nintendo in the US as it edged to dominance with 45% of its market versus Nintendo’s 44%. Not bad for a company that went to war with a behemoth who, only a few years before, held roughly 94% of the home market versus Sega’s 6%.

The United States was also where the console wars reached feverish levels of hype with commercials slinging slogans like “Welcome to the next level” and “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” at eyeballs coast to coast. Sega’s dominance in other territories, like Europe and Brazil, was already a foregone conclusion thanks to the success of the Sega Master System (again far outpacing its popularity in Sega’s home country of Japan). But in America, things were a little different with Nintendo digging virtual trenches in living rooms from where it would lead a revival of the video game console industry.

Sega needed to fight even harder if it wanted a piece of that pie, and Sega of America’s relatively new president, Tom Kalinske, embarked on an aggressive marketing approach that had worked even though Japan’s corporate HQ wasn’t so sure. But it’s that spark that attracted Sega Enterprises’ then-president, Hayao Nakayama, to seek him out on a beach in Hawaii years earlier and ask him to come on board. He knew Kalinske had the ideas that would get Sega off the ropes. And he was right.

Years later, Sega was at something of a crossroads. Add-ons for the Sega Genesis like the Sega CD and the hastily rushed 32X seemed like stopgaps on the way to the Sega Saturn. The 32X especially was a confusing option considering that the Saturn came out in Japan in November of ’94 — the same month that the 32X would in North America. It was promoted as a cheaper option for gamers that wanted that 32-bit experience but didn’t or couldn’t get a Sega Saturn.

Still, I along with a few others remember thinking why buy another attachment and the games for it when the next console is just months away? Then there was that uncomfortable feeling that this was becoming an all-too familiar refrain from Sega. A few months later, the Saturn would arrive in the US on May 11th, 1995 in a big surprise launch event and some of us were wondering just how long Sega would stand behind this platform.

The Saturn itself was a monster piece of hardware which the Titan Arcade board (also released in 1995) was essentially identical to (games instead came on ROM cartridges instead of CDs). Sega wanted to give developers as much power as they could muster on silicon.

The caveat was that it was also frighteningly complex. Even Sega’s Yu Suzuki (Hang-On, Space Harrier) reportedly commented in an interview by Next Generation on the development of Virtua Fighter “I think that only one out of 100 programmers are good enough to properly program the Saturn.”. In an excerpt from a 1UP interview with Yu Suzuki by James Mielke, Tak Hirai (lead programmer for Shenmue), in response to a question on how long they had been working on Shenmue for the Saturn before moving it to the Dreamcast, apparently wasn’t that big a fan of the machine. Yu Suzuki says it was “amazing how much we accomplished on the Saturn. It’s unthinkable now.” after which Tak Hirai says “Yeah, it was something. I never want to do that again.”.

Another Sega Saturn ad from 1995, this one with some text boasting about its “three 32-bit orchestrated processors” and “16.7 million colors” to wow readers. From the cool chimes of the boot screen right before leaping into the game itself, the Saturn and its marketing weren’t shy about making an impression. They had to. It was going to war against the 3DO, PlayStation, and eventually, the Nintendo 64 plus it had to convince its 16-bit audience to upgrade.

This was a dual-processing system with two custom CPUs designed by Hitachi and Sega. The SH-2 processors acted as the brains of the system and this was at a time when having more than one CPU core was far from the norm — even on PCs. In the arcade, a few boards used dual CPUs, but they were often the exceptions (usually because of cost). Two video display processors (one for polygons, sprites, texture maps; another for backgrounds) handled the visuals. It had a (then) cutting edge 2X CD-ROM with its own Hitachi SH-1 CPU. It also boasted a cartridge slot for backup RAM carts to save your games onto. Accessories even included a six-player adapter for local multplayer.

Having so many CPUs under the hood (and where both the main CPUs shared the same bus and couldn’t simultaneously access the Saturn’s memory) created a complex juggling act that programmers used to more conventional setups had to learn. This was iron crackling with great things but only if programmers could figure out just how to reach in and harness all of its power.

And unfortunately, that’s one of the things that worked against the platform. Instead of quickly developing games for such a powerful system, programmers had to spend more time trying to figure out the hardware. It’s one of the reasons why both Microsoft and Sony finally decided to adopt the ubiquitous x86-64 architecture for both their newest consoles (the Xbox One and the PS4, respectively) in the hopes of accelerating their side of the software arms race. The faster it was to iterate content, the more games you technically could have available for your platform.

But was it really the most difficult platform to develop for? It seems that depends on the programmer you were talking to. Others would point to the Nintendo 64 as being more difficult to work with (especially with its reliance on cartridge-based media which necessitated some clever compression work as in the case of Resident Evil 2’s CG cut scenes). One or two would point to the Atari Jaguar which also featured multiple CPUs. However, there was no getting around the basic argument that the Saturn wasn’t very developer friendly and as the demand for greater visuals, bigger experiences, and larger 3D worlds grew, that kind of learning curve proved to be a bottleneck in the face of unyielding competition from Nintendo and new upstart, Sony.

What also didn’t help was its surprise launch on May 11th months before its previous target of September. On paper, it sounded like a great idea — hit the market running before Sony’s PlayStation could make a move on retail shelves. The problem was that only a few retailers were in on the secret. Others, like Wal-Mart and Kay Bees, weren’t, subsequently ruining relationships that would prove damaging in the long run.

The early launch also meant that development libraries, the components needed by the actual developers making the games, were being cobbled together from scratch. To the public, it seemed like a thunderclap move. The following months, however, demonstrated that Sega had nothing else in reserve with scarcely any new releases outside of its tiny library of launch titles.

I remember having only Panzer Dragoon and Virtua Fighter to play with for the next several months following its May release — I wasn’t that big a fan of the other games like Clockwork Knight or Bug!. Virtual Hydlide, Shining Wisdom, and Mystaria came out in the following months though they also left a lot to be desired compared to what the previous generation had already accomplished.

But that wasn’t all that the Saturn’s library had to offer. Despite what Tak Hirai said earlier in hindsight, he, Yu Suzuki, and many others buckled down and created magic through its circuits. They mustered their coding voodoo and made the Saturn dance through amazing arcade ports and a smattering of original titles made for it.

Other games such as Dark Savior, Daytona USA, Guardian Heroes, Nights into Dreams, and the Saturn’s own version of Tomb Raider provided solid fun. Included in the mix was also a growing collection of Western titles ported over from PCs such as Quake, Crusader: No Remorse, Duke Nukem 3D, and even Warcraft II: The Dark Saga.

Towards the end of the console’s life, some of its best games would arrive on shelves such as Burning Rangers, Shining Force III (the first part of which was only made available in the West while the other two remained in Japan), and the epic Panzer Dragoon Saga, all of which came out in 1998 with the last of its games. After that, there was nothing else to look forward to as Sega began slowly placing their eggs in the Dreamcast’s basket which launched later that year in Japan — towards the end of 1999 for the rest of the world.

In Europe, the Saturn was warmly received and spawned a number of publications that followed it closely such as Future Publishing’s Saturn Power in the UK.

The one consistent thing behind all of these games was Sega’s obsession with 3D as it rode the graphics rush of the 90s as poly-power became everyone’s obsession, too. Given that the company had been flirting with 3D concepts since the days of Space Harrier, the jump to 3D seemed like a natural thing for Sega to do. At the same time, it also feels as if they had banked everything on that even though the Saturn was intended to raise the benchmark on both 2D and 3D gaming. However, in being the master of both, it didn’t do 3D particularly well and often felt as if it were the ultimate 2D bulldozer.

Probably the biggest driver in killing the Sega Saturn was the mic-dropping announcement from upstart Sony during the first E3 in 1995 (following Sega’s surprise launch announcement) pricing the PlayStation at $299 — $100 less than the Sega Saturn. Matched with Sony’s aggressive marketing muscle along with a large library of launch titles giving it the kind of momentum it would enjoy for the next several years (it also helped that certain high profile releases, such as Final Fantasy VII, would come over into Sony’s camp when Squaresoft became a licensee in February of ’96).

In 1996, Sega was running ads like this to help show off what the system had to offer game-wise. Unfortunately, Sony was also running an extremely aggressive campaign for its games that seemed to swarm through every publication.

By May of ’96, the PlayStation had sold 1.2 million units versus 600k Sega Saturns — and both had slashed their prices even further that month hitting the magical $199 barrier. The PlayStation was eating the Saturn alive especially at retail chains still feeling bitter over Sega’s merry-go-round of hardware and the surprise launch that only a few knew anything about. By the end of 1996, the Nintendo 64 would arrive to steal away more customers especially those that had been holding off for what the House of Mario would do next.

Sega, for their part, pulled out their own marketing guns and what they did to promote the Sega Saturn was a varied grab bag wavering between cheese and outright brilliance. For example, in 1997, Sega introduced the character of Segata Sanshiro, a judo master who dedicated his life to the Sega Saturn and who has made it his mission to find people who aren’t playing the system and literally beating some sense into them (or visiting kids disguised as Santa and handing them one).

He trained deep in the forests of Japan with a giant Saturn strapped to his back using a giant controller as a punching target to hone his love for the system. Segata Sanshiro became a hit in Japan — and only in Japan since he never emerged in the West. But since then, he has emerged as something of a Sega icon the world over.

By 1998, the writing was on the wall for the Sega Saturn and for Sega. Too much ground had been lost not only to Nintendo (again), but to the new kid on the block — Sony — whose PlayStation did the impossible in one console generation taking the market by storm from two video gaming gods whose rivalry helped in rebuilding the industry. Sega’s hardware story wasn’t over yet, though. The Dreamcast was waiting in the wings. But the Saturn’s fight was over.

I still boot up my Saturn from time to time to get in a game of Dragon Force or go another round through Panzer Dragoon Saga because despite losing badly in the 32-bit war, it had some amazing games made for it. It was even capable of going online via the NetLink Internet Modem (Japan also had the same thing, albeit an older version of the device). Unfortunately, the high cost (it apparently initially retailed for $200) and the severe lack of games supporting it doomed this forward-thinking accessory, though the idea would be revived with the arrival of the Dreamcast and its built-in modem.

If anything else, the Sega Saturn is remembered more for those rare classics than as commercial lightning Sega hoped would strike twice. From its troubled launch to its mediocre end as another nail in Sega’s hardware dreams, the Saturn will probably remain a controversial console in any debate. At the same time, it’s also the poster child to the age-old adage that it isn’t so much the hardware that matters — it’s the games.

Many fans were saddened, disillusioned, and frustrated by the Saturn’s relatively short life. On the other hand, many of them would choose to focus instead on what the multi-CPU juggernaut brought to the table with its games. Like me, many of the Saturns’ fans could take comfort in knowing that as poorly as it did in the marketplace, there were gems that were only made possible because it was there.

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