Year Released: 1994
Original Price: £399.99
Buy It Now For: £15+
Associated magazines: Sega Saturn Magazine, Edge, Sega Power, Mean Machines Sega, Saturn Power
Why The Saturn Was Great: Despite the errors that saw Sega build the Saturn as a predominantly 2D machine, for fans of Sega’s unique style of game – especially their arcade wares – the Saturn remains the only place to enjoy the works of Sega’s internal development teams at a time when they were arguably at their creative peak.
It’s not often that it can be said of a console that it mimics – for better or worse – the very attributes its parent company displays, but the Saturn is such a machine. On the one hand, the Saturn very much reflects the corporate ineptitude and lack of unity that blighted Sega at the time (and indeed, its relative failure at market certainly was a major contributor in Sega’s eventual pull-out from the games market barely more than half a decade after it launched), boasted one of the most complex system architectures around (and whose predominantly 2D orientation was at loggerheads with the three dimensional shift the industry was undergoing at the time) and an array of games that was out of touch with what mainstream consumers wanted; on the other hand, for those who appreciate Sega’s unique style of games – especially its arcade wares – along with the efforts of the Saturn’s few (yet staunchly loyal) third-party supporters, there will never be another console quite like Sega’s 32-bit machine.
In a trend that would set the tone for the console’s traumatic life, the Saturn was born into a Sega family beset with problems. Despite the successes of the Mega Drive – predominantly in the West – Sega’s management had increasingly fallen out of touch with the demands of both the market and the industry.
The Saturn started out life in the early 1990s deep within Sega of Japan’s Research and Development department. Originally going under the working title Gigadrive, the machine was essentially designed to be a 2D powerhouse of a console with secondary 3D capabilities using CD-ROM technology and would have sat, performance wise, somewhere between Sega’s System32 and Model 1 arcade boards. While this might have seemed like a suicidal prospect at the time, Sega’s thinking did have a certain degree of logic to it. The first consideration was the cost of the machine. Sega’s Model 1 board – which by the end of 1993 was wowing gamers with the likes of Yu Suzuki’s Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter – was very expensive, as were proving the attempts to shoehorn 3D graphics into console gaming, either in the form of chips-in-carts (such as Sega’s SVP chip that was used in the Mega Drive port of Virtua Racing or Nintendo’s Super FX chip) or upgrade modules such as the 32X, while not achieving arcade perfection. The second was the concern that the market might not be ready for 3D yet, with the rapid failure of the 3DO – the first ‘next-gen’ machine to hit the shelves – appearing to vindicate Sega’s management.
With GigaDrive, Sega thought it had found the ideal solution to this: create a machine that could handle Sega’s Model 1 games, but focus predominantly on 2D games ready for a Japanese launch in late 1994. Sadly, Sega’s efforts couldn’t have been more misplaced. A year before the launch, Sony Computer Entertainment formally announced that it intended to enter the console market with a 3D-capable machine that not only knocked the Saturn into a cocked hat, but blew the Model 1 board that gamers had been swooning over away. Sega was in major trouble.
The result was a complete redesign of the Saturn. Out went the simplistic single processor that had been intended, and in went two SH-2 RISC processors, along with dual VDPs in a bid to create a machine that was capable of 3D performances somewhere between the Model 1 and the all new Model 2 board that was being prepared to launch with Daytona USA.
Suffice to say, it was a tough haul, and this showed when the console launched on 22 November in Japan, with a launch line-up that included such abysmal efforts as Gale Racer (known as Rad Mobile over here), it all meant that Sega needed a seriously big game to wow the Japanese punters – and fortunately, it had just that. While Yu Suzuki and his AM2 team had enjoyed fame before with the likes of Out Run, AM2 had really shot to fame with the Model 1 arcade board, first with Virtua Racing, then Virtua Fighter. Using realistic physics to heighten the perception of realism, Virtua Fighter in particular had been impressing arcade-goers ever since its 1993 debut. Unsurprisingly, Sega ensured that the Saturn port of the game was ready to go when the console launched in November, with the console selling a quarter-of-a-million consoles in just two days.
While the following months would see the figures tail off, it left Sega free to plan the Western launches, but this presented its own problems. High price points and a general disinterest in next-gen formats had already effectively accounted for the 3DO and Atari Jaguar by 1995 (both were still being supported, but the writing was clearly on the wall) in the West, and Sega of America boss Tom Kalinski felt it wasn’t the time to launch a new console while 16-bit sales were still strong (a view that would later be confirmed, as 16-bit sales remained strong for well over another year). However, Kalinski’s political stock within the company had taken a major knock with the rapid failing of the 32X (something that would also not be helped by the launch of a new, more capable console), and with SoJ keen to beat the PlayStation to market, the Western launches of the Saturn were pushed through as a matter of urgency.
It was a disaster. The Saturn launched on 27 April 1995 in the USA, followed by 8 July in Europe. With a minimal amount of fanfare, games and consoles simply arrived on the shelves and in some countries, neither the specialist press nor the media at large were sent review material; from one day to the next, the Saturn simply arrived.
The games were a mixed bag as well. Whereas Sony had been hyping up Ridge Racer, Toh Shi Den and other texture-mapped 3D games ahead of the PlayStation’s launch, the highlights of the Saturn’s launch were the ‘raw’ polygonal Virtua Fighter (bundled with machines) and a port of Daytona USA that AM2 had hurriedly ported in under six months. With a price point way beyond most gamers’ means (£399 in the UK and $499 in the USA) and launching during the games industry’s quiet time of summer, the move backfired horribly.
As Christmas drew closer, things were getting perilous for Sega. The PlayStation launch came and went, and – adding further weight to Kalinski’s argument that the West wasn’t ready to go next-gen – failed to really attract the huge sales Sony had wanted (and spent large amounts of market cash on chasing), Sega needed some big hits, and it looked like they were going to get them.
Thanks to the initial rush to redesign the console, the first generation of games had to be rushed through. However, by September 1995, Sega of Japan’s teams had had a year to perfect their techniques and most importantly, had some great games they could try them out on. During this time, Sega’s Model 2 board had become the arcade hardware of choice for the arcade department, and its two top studios, AM2 and AM3, had three games ready for porting. The first to make it was AM2’s Virtua Cop. The light gun game had been struggling since its heyday in the Eighties, and AM2 saw the chance to reinvigorate it with Virtua Cop, a game that was as much about precision as raw adrenaline.
The second AM2 title was Virtua Fighter 2. With the success of the VF1 undeniable, a sequel was inevitable and Suzuki’s team managed to deepen the game and increase its fluidity to the point where it seemed further improvements would be impossible. The third game in the queue was AM3’s Sega Rally. The brainchild of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the game was about as far removed from Daytona USA as you could get, attempting to create a deep rally game that was realistic enough to the point of being convincing, but without making things overly complex. In short, the ports were a complete success. Technically as well as in gameplay terms, there was nothing on any console to touch them at the time, and while Sega Rally and VF2 would miss Christmas in Europe, it didn’t stop Sega Rally setting a record for the fastest selling CD game in the UK, and global sales for the Saturn finally started to catch up with those of the PlayStation.
With the Christmas period a comparative success, Sega was upbeat going into 1996. At E3 that year, Kalinski announced that “Sega games would be the success of 1996”, and, on paper, he should have been right. The Saturn’s line-up for the year would be strong, including a new Sonic game, NiGHTS, a new Panzer Dragoon title, Virtua Cop 2, a reworked Daytona and Fighting Vipers, but it didn’t end there. Sega also took the wraps off its new analogue controller (due to be bundled with Yuji Naka’s NiGHTS) and Sega also used E3 to unveil its NetLink modem and internet service, which was expected to debut in the States that Autumn for $199 and, by offering an affordable internet access machine, would help Sega sell the 1.5 million consoles it was aiming for in 1996, as would aggressive price cuts on the hardware – and with much hype surrounding the Model 3 board, Kalinski also used E3 as a platform to announce Yu Suzuki’s third game.
Sadly, things didn’t go according to plan. Consumer interest was changing. While arcade ports had been fine before then, gamers were expecting more – and the PlayStation was delivering that in spades. No better is this demonstrated than with Formula One. Both Sony and Sega had acquired licences for the 1995 season, but whereas Sega squandered its licence on a rather tame arcade-style racer called F1 Challenge (or Live Information as it’s known in Japan) that only featured a handful of playable cars and tracks (of which only three were real), Sony entrusted Psygnosis with its licence, who in turn enlisted the help of Bizarre Creations to create an in-depth Formula One sim that attempted to recreate the whole season. While Sega’s game launched first, it barely managed to register on the sales charts, whereas Formula One became Europe’s bestselling game of 1996 and finished second in the global sales charts to another PlayStation title, Final Fantasy VII. Things were going to get very, very difficult for Sega’s console…
Four Great Sega Saturn Games
Read the full feature in Retro Gamer issue 34, on sale digitally from GreatDigitalMags.com
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