SEGA SATURN: AN OVERVIEW
(October 22, 2019) -- Sega Saturn is Sega’s 32-bit home videogames console. It was released in Japan on November 22, 1994, the United States on May 11, 1995 and UK/Europe on July 8, 1995. It was the direct competitor to Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64, Atari Jaguar and 3DO. The 5th Generation was a transformative and turbulent time for the videogame industry, which saw the emergence of groundbreaking 3D polygon technology, online play and the growth of the global market. It also marked the creative peak, and the popular decline, of 2D pixel-art videogames, and the terminal decline of video arcades, once the life blood of the industry.
In Japan, Saturn became Sega's most successful home system, selling six million units (source: Saturn no Game wa Sekai Ichi, 2000), thanks to the blockbuster arcade hits Virtua Fighter and Virtua Fighter 2, as well as Sega's stable of coin-op hits, original titles like Sonic Team's Nights: Into Dreams and the tactical adventures like Sakura Wars and Super Robot Wars F. The system outsold Nintendo 64 and ran even with Playstation through 1996. In 1997, Sony secured exclusive rights to Square's Final Fantasy and Enix's Dragon Quest, Japan's two biggest videogame franchises, pulling away for good. Sega announced and released its final home console, the Dreamcast, the following year in 1998, but Saturn software continued to emerge in 1999-2000, including Street Fighter Zero 3, Dungeon & Dragons Collection and Final Fight Revenge.
In the West, Saturn was far less successful, selling less than four million units in the US, UK and Europe. Reasons for this failure have been hotly debated for years, including a surprise May 1995 US launch that alienated many key retailers, an overly complex hardware design that alienated software developers, the failure and confusion surrounding Sega's 32X, an insufficient supply of sports games, and the lack of a flagship Sonic the Hedgehog title. Gamers also quickly embraced 3D action-adventure games like Super Mario, Tomb Raider and Goldeneye, while almost completely rejecting traditional 2D and arcade games. At the 1997 E3 trade show, Sega of America president Bernie Stolar notoriously declared "Saturn is not our future," and by Christmas, Saturn was all but dead, holding only 4% of the US videogame market (source: EGM), a shocking fall from the glory days of the Genesis.
Worst of all, Saturn was cursed with a toxic reputation for poor 3D performance that continues to haunt it to this day. "Can't Do 3D" became a never-ending mantra in the wake of early rushed software titles, most notably Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Playstation, meanwhile, offered the far smoother and more polished Ridge Racer, Tekken and Battle Arena Toshinden, as well as near-universal support from software publishers who were attracted to Sony's more streamlined hardware design and development tools.
Today, Sega Saturn's reputation has enjoyed a major renaissance, thanks to the revival of 2D and arcade games, the discovery of Japan's vast software library (including many of Saturn's greatest titles cruelly kept from our shores), a reappraisal of Saturn's 3D polygon powers (matching and surpassing Sony and Nintendo in many respects), and a growing appreciation for what is now seen as Sega's creative golden age of the 1990s. The system was both behind and ahead of its time, packed with a seemingly endless supply of innovative classics and hidden gems. It stands as one of the greatest videogame consoles of all time and Sega's most underrated system.
Sega Saturn features eight processors, dividing the work load into specialized functions. Two Hitachi SH-2 CPUs work in semi-parallel, sharing a single data bus in a master-servant relationship (late in the console's life, the two chips were integrated into a single multicore processor). A system control unit (SCU) controls all buses and serves as a co-processor, and also contains a very powerful DSP. In addition, two video display processors draw the polygons and sprites, manipulate multiple background layers and display the images onto the screen. Skilled use of VDP2 proved crucial to Saturn's success, combining 2D with 3D graphics. On the audio side, a custom sound processor with an integrated Yamaha FL-1 DSP capable of 32 sound channels with FM synthesis and 16-bit PCM sampling, as well as a Motorola 68EC000 that functions as the sound controller. Finally, a Hitachi SH-1 processor is used for the CD-ROM drive to speed loading times.
The video output displays as resolutions ranging from 320x224 to 704x480. Many Saturn games take advantage of its "high resolution mode" in gameplay, menu screens or art galleries. Polygons are rendered as quadrilaterals (as opposed to triangles as used on PSX and N64), in keeping with Sega's arcade titles of the period. This has long been a source of controversy between fans and critics, as there are strengths and weaknesses to using quads versus triangles, in addition to the unique challenges of Saturn's hardware. Other systems to use quads include the 3DO and Nintendo DS.
A CR 2032 battery is used to store system settings such as time, date and default language, as well as storing saved game data. This is an advantage over PSX, which requires additional memory cards (and lots of them) to save games.
A cartridge expansion slot is used for backup memory cartridges as well as memory expansion, which proved to be critical for many arcade conversions by Capcom, SNK and Atlus. Two software titles (King of Fighters '95 and Ultraman) use a ROM cartridge that contains game data in addition to CD-ROM.
The Japanese Saturn controllers feature a d-pad, two shoulder buttons, a start button and a six-button layout ala Street Fighter 2. It is highly regarded by gamers, many of whom consider it to be the finest videogame joypad ever made. The 3D Controller adds an analog joypad, two analog triggers and a larger size that is very comfortable to hold. The Western Saturn used a different 2D controller with the same layout but an entirely different, bulkier design that is universally criticized as inferior to the originals.
Sega Saturn was blessed with a large supply of accessories, including joysticks, racing wheels and memory expansion cartridges that boost the system's performance.
3D Controller (Multi Controller)
Saturn's analog controller was created specifically for Nights and was Sega's answer to the Nintendo 64 controller. It features an analog joystick and two analog triggers, as well as a switch to revert to digital play. Many games use analog settings, including the Lobotomy Trilogy, Daytona USA Circuit Edition and Manx TT. For many gamers, this should be your default Saturn joypad.
Saturn Infrared Control Pad
A wireless controller that uses infrared light to send signals between joypad and receiver. Extra joypads were sold separately. JP exclusive.
Sega's official arcade joystick, perfect for playing fighting games or spaceship shoot-em-ups. The Virtua Stick Pro was later released in Japan and features a more streamlined design.
Virtual On Joystick
This twin-joystick controller was created specifically for Sega's Virtual On, and is also compatible with other titles such as Gungriffon 2. JP exclusive.
This PC-style joystick was designed for aerial combat games like Panzer Dragoon, Mechwarrior 2 and Black Dawn. It's absolutely perfect for playing Afterburner and Space Harrier on Sega Ages.
This steering wheel is an absolute must for Saturn racing fans. Many games are designed specifically for this controller and greatly benefit by its use, including Touring Car Championship, F-1 Challenge, Daytona USA and Sega Rally.
Stunner Light Gun
Several titles are compatible with this gun accessory, including Virtua Cop 1 & 2, House of the Dead, Mighty Hits, Area 51 and Maximum Force. It is only compatible with CRT televisions.
This mouse is compatible with many games, including the light gun titles and strategy/simulations. JP exclusive.
This adapter allows for more players in multiplayer games such as Saturn Bomberman, Guardian Heroes and Vatlva.
This 512k cartridge allows you to save game data in addition to the system's internal battery save. This is similar to the PSX and N64 memory cards but stores far more memory. Today, a Pro Action Replay is a smarter option.
These cartridges add memory to the Saturn, enabling better arcade conversions with more animation and better audio. It is required for many games, and the 4MB cart will work with 1MB-compatible games.
Action Replay 4M Plus Cartridge
The essential holy grail for modern Saturn fans. Its features include backup memory, cheat codes (necessary for playing Panzer Dragoon Saga on a JP Saturn), 1MB/4MB RAM expansion and system region override (allowing you to play games from any region). Purchase this cart (seen above), stick it into the cartridge slot and never move it again.
In recent years, amateur coders have hacked the Action Replay to enable users to run CD-R "backup" discs. You must download a software file and "flash" it onto your cartridge for this to work. However, doing so will disable several cart functions including the 1MB/4MB expansion. If you wish to play backups, this author recommends that you instead install a Phantom Universal Mod Chip.
A modem that allows for direct-dial online play. In Japan, the 14.4kbps modem was compatible with the X-Band service and supported by 17 titles including Decathlete, Worldwide Soccer 98 and Virtua Fighter Remix. In the US, the 28.8kbps modem was supported by only five titles: Duke Nukem 3D, Saturn Bomberman, Virtual On, Daytona USA CCE Netlink Edition and Sega Rally Championship Plus. Both modems offered email and online browsing. Because of its P2P nature, Netlink can still be used and enjoyed today.
This cable enables play between two Saturns and two televisions. It was only used on only seven titles: Daytona USA Circuit Edition, Gungriffon 2, Hexen, Doom, Hyper Reverthion, Steeldom and Hyper 3D Taisen Battle Gebockers. It's worth it just for Daytona. JP exclusive.
This card fits into the back of the Saturn and enables support of Video CDs, a little-known media format that had a mildly successful following in Asia. Some cards also include support for Photo CDs. Games that support the card offer MPEG-quality video above the Saturn's Cinepak or TrueMotion encoding. It is supported by (at least) 16 titles including Vatlva, Lunar: Silver Star Story MPEG-ban, Gungriffon and Sentimental Graffiti. JP exclusive.
Saturn Floppy Drive
A 3.5-inch micro-floppy disc drive that enabled greater storage memory for save files. It is only supported by a small number of software titles, most notably Dezaemon 2, the legendary shoot-em-up "construction kit." JP exclusive.
SOFTWARE: THE ESSENTIALS I
Sega Saturn offers an enormous library of outstanding games in every conceivable category. Its best-known genres include arcade, fighting, shooting, racing, adventure and role-playing games. It is home to many of Sega's greatest classics as well as many successful franchises including Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop, The House of the Dead, Dragon Force, Panzer Dragoon, Dead or Alive, Sakura Wars, Culdcept, Shin Megami Tensei, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Wipeout, Metal Slug, King of Fighters and Samurai Shodown.
This is by no means a definitive list of Saturn's best games, but a sampling of essential must-plays to begin your Saturn journey. Please consult this ongoing community thread for more reviews and essays.
Virtua Fighter 2
Sega AM2's spectacular conversion of the Model 2 arcade blockbuster smash is a triumph of programming skills, offering "480/60" high-res graphics, glorious motion captured animation and an immensely deep martial arts fighting system. The gold standard for fighting games.
3D fighting classic that combines Virtua Fighter, Fighting Vipers and a host of crazy characters from the Sega AM2 vaults including Rent-A-Hero, Janet from Virtua Cop 2 and the Daytona USA race car. Breezy, blistering fun, endlessly addictive.
Sega AM3's take on the 3D fighting genre is more aggressive than AM2's quasi-sim approach, as Tokyo street gangs bash each other senseless with weapons. It's not VF2 nor Soul Calibur but a great experience in its own right.
Dead or Alive
Highly polished 3D fighter with outstanding 3D polygon graphics, iconic character designs and a rich fighting system to rival Sega. The hold reversals and explosive danger zones are welcome additions to the genre.
Anarchy in the Nippon
3D fighting title created by four of Sega's "Tatsujin" professional Virtua Fighter celebrity players. Essentially a hardcore fan tribute to the VF series, with some inspired and slightly irreverent character designs.
All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua
Most wrestling videogames are brutally dumb, aimed at button-mashing drunks, but Sega brings their Virtua Fighter technical skills to this excellent 3D rendition of the Japanese wrestling league. Break bones, win over the crowd, what's not to love?
Capcom 4MB Fighters
X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter, Vampire Savior and Street Fighter Zero 3. These are the finest 2D fighting games available anywhere and gloriously demonstrate Saturn's 2D superpowers.
King of Fighters '95, '96 & '97
SNK's premier 2D fighting series that equals Capcom in many gamers' eyes. Features an all-star cast of characters from the SNK library in tag-team matches. KoF '97 is the best, but I have a real affection for the '96 edition.
Wild, frenzied 2D fighting game with psychedelic, seisure-inducing sprite graphics that bend, warp and rattle across the screen. Gameplay is extremely friendly to button mashers, making this the perfect party game.
Asuka 120% Burning Festival LTD
Anime-styled 2D fighting game featuring an all-female cast and a remarkably fast and deep fighting system that rivals the best from Capcom and SNK. Character designs and animations are sublime, action is relentlessly addictive.
Daytona USA & Daytona Circuit Edition
Sega's rushed-to-market Daytona conversion may look rough, but its gameplay is both more complex and more engaging than Namco's Ridge Racer. Circuit Edition features greatly improved graphics, two additional courses and 2P races via split-screen, link cable or online.
Sega Rally Championship
A near-perfect translation of Sega AM3's arcade classic, featuring brilliant track designs and a simulation-worthy physics engine that surpassed all racers of its day. Also known for its superb funk and rock-fueled soundtrack recorded by Joe Satriani. Game Over, Yeah!
Wipeout & Wipeout XL
Psygnosis' futuristic racers that are justly famous for their sensational roller coaster track designs and thumping electronica soundtrack. The first looks slightly rougher than its PSX cousin (but plays better), while the sequel is practically identical.
Sega Sports '98
Arguably Sega's finest sports lineup of any season, including the greatest baseball videogame of all time, World Series Baseball 98, the always engaging Worldwide Soccer 98, the solid and challenging NHL All-Star Hockey 98, and Visual Concepts' first 2K basketball game, NBA Action 98.
Madden NFL 98
The last Madden title to feature 2D character sprites, the last EA Sports game to appear on a Sega system, and the last time EA cared enough to bother coding the Saturn properly. And it holds up surprisingly well.
Jonah Lomu Rugby
Codemasters' brilliant rendition of rugby that captures the sport so successfully, you wonder why it hasn't taken hold in America. Its liquid looseness reminds me of Sensible Soccer. UK exclusive.
Decathlete & Winter Heat
Summer and Winter Olympics classics from Sega AM3, who provide a few welcome wrinkles to the classic Track 'N Field formula. Perfect for multiplayer and parties, great showpieces for Saturn's 3D powers. JP versions feature bonus characters.
Steep Slope Sliders
Is this the greatest snowboarding game ever made? On my best days I may agree. This game captures the experience so well, from its Tony Hawk-like controls to its magnificent course designs, glorious visuals, inspired soundtrack and inventive video editing mode.
Nights: Into Dreams & Christmas Nights
Yuji Naka and Sonic Team's wildly unique fusion of 2D and 3D platforms games. Its genius lies in its endless little details that only emerge after repeated plays, its sublime controls and its sensation of flight. And Xmas Nights is the best demo disc ever created.
Sonic Team's wholly original spin on 3D platforming features futuristic firefighters who battle fires and rescue hostages. Graphics push Saturn to its limits (and occasionally breaks it to the melting point), and the audio navigation is truly groundbreaking.
Panzer Dragoon Trilogy
Team Andromeda's masterwork saga brings Space Harrier into the worlds of Moebius and Dune. The first two titles are pure arcade shooters filled with wonder and mystery. The third title, Panzer Dragoon Saga, may be the greatest RPG ever made.
Powerslave is a FPS adventure that openly steals everything from Super Metroid and is literally years ahead of its time. Duke Nukem 3D offers irreverent humor with relentless action. Quake is dark, gothic brilliance. Saturn "Can't Do 3D?" Swallow this.
Three classics from the master coders at the peak of their powers. Guardian Heroes fuses beat-em-ups with RPG stats and a zany cast of colorful misfits. Silhouette Mirage pushes 2D game design to its absolute limit, and Radiant Silvergun does the same for 3D.
Virtua Cop 1 & 2
Sega's brings the light gun genre into the polygon age with the flair of a Hollywood action blockbuster. The context-sensitive shooting directly inspired Goldeneye, and the thrilling set-pieces never fail to excite.
Supremely refined, bold and confident, this is the best installment of the legendary Darius series. Lush colors, trippy visual effects and brilliant operatic techno soundtrack. Only one of two arcade shoot-em-ups released for the US Saturn.
Technosoft's 1996 revision of their 1993 arcade shooter makes several critical changes that transform the experience from a curiosity into a bona-fide classic. Precisely focused, perfectly paced, relentless in its rhythm.
Thunder Force 5
Blistering shoot-em-up from Technosoft, masters of the genre, featuring thrilling action and dazzling visual showpieces that show off what Saturn can do in the right hands. The techno-rock music score is another standout. Life doesn't get much better than this.
Spoken by hardcore shoot-em-up fans in the same hushed reverent breath as the mighty Radiant Silvergun, thanks to its stunning visuals, exciting set-pieces (the planetfall stage is legendary) and analog control. The Otokuyo edition features crucial bug fixes for playing on a US Saturn.
Cave's genre-defining "bullet hell" shooter overwhelms the senses with tanks, spaceships large and small, and endless waves of massive explosions. You feel like you've cheated death every five seconds, and the adrenaline rush never wavers.
An all-time classic arcade shooter with military aircraft, endless waves of bullets, richly drawn environments and a difficulty curve that flies off the charts. Another 2D sprite powerhouse for Saturn, hailed by diehard fans as the greatest shooting game ever.
Toaplan's legendary shoot-em-up that birthed the "bullet hell" genre offers wonderful pixel art design, a gloriously poppy soundtrack and a remix mode based on the never-released arcade upgrade.
SNK action-shooter justly famous for its gorgeous art design and spectacular 2D sprite animation. It also has a fair bit of humor, which is always welcome. A standout title for Sega Saturn.
Wacky, irreverent and wildly inventive 2D platformer by the makers of Bonk's Adventure and Sakura Wars. The vivid cartoon visuals and fluid animation are joined to a surreal zaniness that rivals Treasure's best efforts.
Akumajou Dracula X: Gekka no Yasukyoku (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night)
Seminal chapter in the famous franchise that incorporates RPG elements and Super Metroid gameplay. Lazy PSX conversion by Konami Nagoya but not nearly as bad as you've heard.
Jeff Minter's masterpiece, a wonderfully trippy, rave-induced interpretation of the 1981 Atari arcade shoot-em-up. Its gameplay is simple yet very challenging and you find yourself hooked for hours in search of that high score.
The definitive version of Hudson Soft's iconic multiplayer party game, featuring 28 battle arena variations, 10 characters including Bonk, Milon and Master Higgens, and a single-player mode that's actually worth playing for once.
Take command of a giant robot and battle one another in a wide variety of futuristic battle arenas. Visually spectacular rendition of the Sega AM3 arcade hit, tremendously deep gameplay that makes VF feel shallow.
Gungriffon 1 & 2
Game Arts' thrilling 3D action games put you in command of a giant mech who destroys enemy armies and installations. A solid mix of speed and strategy with loads of explosions and varied landscapes. Great fun.
Gundam Side Story: The Blue Destiny
Trilogy of 3D action games set in the Gundam universe where you control giant robots and destroy everything in sight. Silky smooth 60fps visuals shame most Western software developers.
In their usual genre-fusing brilliance, Bullfrog joins the action of Doom to the world-building of Populous. Destroy enemies, collect mana, build castles, discover new spells, win over the locals and defeat rival genies.
The iconic 3D action-adventure that practically defined the Sony Playstation, yet was originally conceived on Sega Saturn and is just as good. Visuals are lush, hypnotic and beautiful but also sometimes a bit rough. Stage designs are magnificent and hauntingly so. A classic.
A "Rogue-like" horror adventure filled with a foreboding sense of dread. Its post-apocalyptic style and measured pacing feel heavier and scarier than anything in Resident Evil. Its plot is incomprehensible even if you know the language.
Cult classic RPG-Simulation hybrid that plays like Legend of Zelda mixed with Herzog Zwei. Players control a Taoist mountain hermit who creates dungeons, summoning monsters, managing your rooms and repelling invaders.
Shining the Holy Ark
Camelot's first-person "dungeon crawling" RPG that features a wide variety of environments, including caves, mines, graveyards, towns, castles, as well as a charming cast of characters. Visuals combine 3D polygons and CG sprites to great effect.
Shining Force III Trilogy
This epic conclusion to the revered Strategy-RPG series spans three separate scenarios that reenact the same story from different points of view. An immense cast of characters and deeply compelling combat system make this a genre masterwork.
Dragon Force 1 & 2
Strategy-RPG series where you raise enormous armies and lead them into battle to unify the kingdoms against evil. A masterwork of 2D pixel art, very challenging and deep. The sequel now has an English translation.
In conclusion, thank you for reading this thread and sharing your love of Sega Saturn. Feel free to share comments, photos, videos, reviews and essays. All are welcome and encouraged to contribute. Much thanks to NeoGAF and its members for their support. You know who you are.
My name is Daniel Thomas MacInnes. I am the founder of Ghibli Blog and DT Media and the author 16 books, including Zen Arcade: Classic Video Game Reviews, Pop Life, Depeche Mode: Spirit and Biotracer. I was once a freelance writer for GamePro Magazine a million years ago, if that counts for anything.
(UPDATE: 10/25/19: Added screenshots and moved some micro-reviews to my "Essentials II" post on page 9.)