What Genesis “does”, their successor could not. To commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the 32 Bit platform’s official release, this retrospective covers the highs, lows and low blows of Sega’s potentially great console: The Sega Saturn.
Just the Specs
CPU 2× Hitachi SH-2 (32-bit) RISC (28.6 MHz)
Storage Internal RAM, cartridge
Graphics VDP1 & VDP2 video display processors
Development of the Saturn began in 1992 and was designed with a new CPU from Japanese electronics company Hitachi. What seemed like a last minute decision, another video display processor was incorporated into the system’s design in early 1994 to better compete with Sony’s forthcoming PlayStation.
Failure to Launch, failure to communicate
In March 1995, Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske announced that the Saturn would be released in the U.S. on “Saturnday” (As in Saturday) September 2, 1995. However, out of desperation, Sega of Japan mandated a much earlier launch in order to give the Saturn an advantage over the PlayStation.
At the first Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) on May 11, 1995, Kalinske gave a keynote appearance for the upcoming Saturn in which he revealed the release price at a steep $399 (bundled with a copy of Virtua Fighter), and described the features of the console. Kalinske also revealed that, due to “high consumer demand”, Sega had already shipped 30,000 Saturns to Toys “R” Us, Babbage’s, Electronics Boutique, and Software Etc. for immediate release.
The surprise release alienated many gamers who could not purchase the console since it was distributed in limited quantities. This was just the first sign of the Saturn’s impending problems.
Virtua Fighter’s relative lack of popularity in the West, combined with a release schedule of only two games between the surprise launch and September 1995, prevented Sega from capitalizing on the Saturn’s early timing.
Without the same franchise that played a significant role in the success of the Sega Genesis, the Saturn was faced with an uphill climb, and an eventual fall.
If there was one thorn in Saturn’s side, it wasn’t Nintendo. Instead, a dark horse made its entry and Sega was no longer the other Big Kid on the block. With the emergence of Sony’s Playstation, (PSX)
It became a three way race and in the end, one had to lose out.
With dual-CPU architecture and a total of eight processors, its games are in CD-ROM format, and its game library contains several arcade ports as well as original titles one would think that Sega would have a strong grip on the gamers’ wallets. But that was not the case.
The Playstation was released not only with an impressive lineup of games, but a $300.00 price tag compared to Saturn’s $400.00.
What’s more complicated was due to the added VDP, many developers found it extremely difficult to program games for and that is why the finished product was often deemed inferior to Sony’s Playstation games.
Namco, a longtime arcade competitor with Sega, also unveiled the Namco System 11 arcade board, which was based on raw PlayStation hardware. Although the System 11 was technically inferior to Sega’s Model 2 arcade board, its lower price made it an attractive prospect for smaller arcades.
Following a 1994 acquisition of Sega developers, Namco released Tekken for the System 11 and PlayStation.
Directed by former Virtua Fighter designer Seiichi Ishii, Tekken was intended to be a fundamentally similar title, with the addition of detailed textures and twice the frame rate Tekken surpassed had Virtua Fighter in popularity due to its superior graphics, character design, story premise and nearly arcade-perfect console port, becoming the first million-selling PlayStation title.
On October 2, 1995 in order to compete with Sony’s venerable PSX, Sega announced a Saturn price reduction to $299. Also, high-quality Saturn ports of the Sega Model 2 arcade hits Sega Rally Championship, Virtua Cop, and Virtua Fighter 2 (running at 60 frames per second at a high resolution) hit retailers in hopes of proving that the Saturn’s processing power was up to pair against the Playstation.
This was perhaps a case of too little, too late as the Playstation was gaining huge momentum and support from consumers and most importantly, game developers.
A high-quality port of the Namco arcade game Ridge Racer contributed to the PlayStation’s early success, and garnered favorable comparisons in media to the Saturn version of Sega’s Daytona USA, which was considered inferior to its arcade counterpart (Pop ins and bad textures.)
It’s all in the games man!
Although inferior compared to PSX and Nintendo 64, Saturn still had an impressive library of Games such as Guardian Heroes, Gun Griffon, Burning Rangers, Virtual On, Virtual Cop and Daytona just to name a few.
But it was the heavy hitters that really stood out among the crowd and somewhat gave Sega’s competitors a run for its money. When one hears about the Sega Saturn, its flagship title Panzer Dragoon often comes to mind. The post-apocalyptic on rails shooter was a massive hit in Japan and abroad.
For what programmers Team Andromeda had to work with, (the Saturn was very difficult when developing 3D games.) They had managed to pull it off with exciting visuals accompanied by a breathtaking soundtrack .
Sega didn’t stop there. The Virtual Fighter series was like nothing ever seen or done before. The three dimensional characters were mapped with complex, yet surrealistic fighting mechanics.
The game’s roster ranged from a Ninja to a Silvery Humanoid that is reminiscent of the T-2000 and what’s also cool is that characters like Jacky and Sarah Bryant utilized moves that were straight from the legendary Bruce Lee.
The VF franchise paved the way for other well-known fighters: Tekken, Battle Arena Toshinden, Dead or Alive, etc. To further cement their support for Saturn as well as maintaining the need for more innovative games, Sega courtesy of the Sonic Team, released Nights into Dreams.
Nights is akin to a score based racing game however you play as an androgynous harlequin in a phantasmagoria setting and the game was bundled with a new Analog 3D controller that was meant to enhance the performance of the gameplay and also to compete against N64’s proprietary Analog stick Controller.
In keeping with the tradition of attack ads that mostly were used by politicians running for election, Sega even made one for Nights. Its target, you guessed it-Nintendo!
Fade to Black
Due to frequent disagreements with Sega of Japan, Tom Kalinske lost most of his interest in his work as CEO of Sega of America. And as of July 16, 1996, Sega announced that Kalinske would be leaving Sega after September 30th of that year.
Bernie Stolar, a former executive at Sony Computer Entertainment of America (who was responsible for Sony’s marketing success of the Playstation) was appointed to the role of president of Sega.
Stolar believed that the Saturn had no future as the Playstation was outselling the Console by 3-to-1 within the US market. To make matters worse, after the arrival of Nintendo’s console (N64) both Saturn hardware and software declined at a faster rate.
As a result, Stolar had abandoned his support for the Saturn and instead focused on diverting his attention to Saturn’s successor.
Despite the great quality of heavy hitters; Nights into Dreams…the Panzer Dragoon series, along with the Virtua Fighter series, the Saturn’s reception was mixed due to its complex hardware design and limited third-party support.
Those two important factors spelled impending doom for the Console.
It was then in 1998 that Sega had decided to pull the plug on the Saturn but not long before releasing 2 very good games: Panzer Dragoon Saga and Burning Rangers. (The latter was developed by Yuji Naka- Creator of Sonic.) Those games along with a port of House of the Dead was sold in very Limited quantities thus making them more of a collectors’ item. A copy of Panzer Dragoon sold on eBay for $300.00 *Wink*
Having sold only 9.5 million units worldwide, the Saturn was considered a commercial failure. The failure of Sega’s development teams to release a game in the Sonic the Hedgehog series, known in development as Sonic X-treme, has also been considered a factor in the console’s poor performance.
In hindsight it was Sega’s management that has been criticized for its decision-making during the system’s development and cancellation. And due to these bad decisions, eventually the Sega Corporation would be forced to exit the hardware business.
In spite of its failures, the Saturn had proven itself to be a force to reckoned with. Ambitious games, and innovative peripherals was among their strong suit and if only Sega’s upper management had made more rational business decisions, the gaming console would have been a stronger contender instead of an expensive doorstop.
That being said, I had great experiences with this console from shooting down Giant Aircraft via Armored Dragon to beating the snot out of my friends when going Head-to-Head in the Capcom/Marvel fighters.
Thanks for those awesome memories Saturn!