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The Lost Child of a House Divided: A Sega Saturn Retrospective

20 years ago, Sega created a beast of a console... unfortunately, the wrong beast for the wrong time.

Retrospective by Jeremy Parish, .

Sega Saturn embodies the very concept of "cult favorite." Despite being a major system by one of the three biggest console manufacturing presences throughout the '90s, it sold less than 10 million units around the world — only a fifth of which sold through in the world's biggest gaming market at the time, the United States.

A commercial flop in America, the Saturn trailed distantly behind Sony's PlayStation and even failed to surpass Nintendo 64 anywhere except Japan. Few properties that debuted on Saturn continue to exist as franchises in the modern era. The staggering financial losses the Saturn incurred helped hasten demise of its successor, Dreamcast, and pushed Sega out of first-party status as the new millennium dawned.

Objectively speaking, Saturn was an unmitigated disaster, the keystone Jenga block that sent a 60-year video gaming legacy crashing down. And yet, somehow, this wreck of a platform, this destroyer of empires, commands a legion of die-hard fans — many of whom never owned the system during its natural life span, and many of whom aren't even particular fans of Sega. What is it about this troubled console that makes it more than just a footnote in game history? And how did something capable of inspiring such loyalty go wrong in the first place?

A wealth of games like the Treasure-developed Guardian Heroes made Saturn feel like a latter-day Genesis in many ways, but even that couldn't save the system.

An uneasy peace between nations

Saturn's turbulent life and unceremonious demise did not happen in isolation. Its failure to catch on in the U.S. and inability to outperform Sony's PlayStation both resulted as a side effect of Sega's long, divided history, the fractious relationship between its Japanese and Western arms.

"It's hard not to see the Saturn's failure as a failure of management more than anything else," says Sega enthusiast and game writer Mike Zeller. "By most accounts, Sega's Japanese and American branches butted heads over nearly every issue, to the ultimate determent of the console."

There is no small irony in Sega's internal schism; in theory, no game company should have been better prepared, historically speaking, to find a harmonious balance between East and West. The company, established by American David Rosen in 1940, got its start in Hawaii but moved to Tokyo about a decade later to establish a foothold as Japan rebuilt its economy in the wake of World War II. It was eventually purchased by American media giant Gulf+Western, then bought out by an international consortium that included both Rosen and Japanese investor Hayao Nakayama, who reputedly bankrolled Sega's tenure as a first-party entity.

Yet outside of international arcade hits like OutRun, After Burner, and Golden Axe, Sega could never seem to get its business to line up between regions. The Sega Master System/Mark III saw massive success in Europe and Brazil and moderate popularity in the U.S., but it was a non-starter in Japan. Likewise, the Genesis/Mega Drive dominated America and Europe through the first half of the '90s, but it landed with a dull thud in its home territory.

Sega's arcade greats like Out Run found success in all territories — a feat the company could never extend to its consoles.

According to Director of Necrosoft Games Brandon Sheffield, "The goals of [Sega's] Western and Japanese offices were very different. The US and UK offices are what made the Genesis a success. It was much more successful here in the West than it was in Japan. But when the Saturn came out, Japan was back in control — they really cared about this one, so they wanted to dictate things a bit more."

Sega's internal struggle had made itself manifest long before Saturn launched in the company's bizarrely uncoordinated attempts to define a successor to the Genesis. "The decision to launch the 32X (favored by the American branch) and the Saturn (favored by the Japanese branch) so close together only served to siphon sales from both pieces of hardware," says Zeller. "It really started to foster the idea in the minds of consumers that Sega didn't stand behind its consoles and would make whatever decision would net it a quick buck, regardless of how that screwed over early adopters."

"The decision to launch the 32X and the Saturn so close together only served to foster the idea that Sega didn't stand behind its consoles and would make whatever decision would net it a quick buck, regardless of how that screwed over early adopters." — Mike Zeller

This same conflict began to hurt Saturn right out of the gate. Sega announced at E3 1995 — a late spring event — that its Saturn would be available at select retailers immediately, not in September '95 as previously announced. This precipitous maneuver, likely a panicked response to Sony's strong start with the PlayStation overseas, gave Sega's new machine a several-month lead over PlayStation in the U.S. Unfortunately, Sega let the competition have the last word at E3; in its own press conference the following day, Sony's entire message consisted of the system's price at launch: $299, $100 less than Saturn. Sega, having already released its machine into retail channels at a higher price, found itself unable to make a graceful countermove.

"The decision to have a 'surprise' launch for the Saturn in the U.S., mandated by Sega's Japanese branch to the protests of its American branch, [lost it] four months of building hype, which most certainly would have improved its early sales... not to mention cost it most of its third-party launch titles," says Zeller. "Perhaps most damaging to its long term prospects, though, was the way this upset numerous retailers who had been left out of the loop and made them hesitant to do business with Sega in the future."

These conflicting choices and confusing decisions didn't go unnoticed by customers, who grew increasingly wary of Sega's apparent lack of respect for their needs and money.

"Sega lost credibility with its fans," says German game writer Thomas Nickel. "I should know, I was among them. Sega seemed headless, without direction. There's no doubt the whole 32X affair was a major catastrophe and should never have happened. On the other hand, Sega of Japan dropping the Mega Drive [Genesis] so quickly was also a big mistake."

"I see it as similar to the battles NEC went through with the TurboGrafx," says Pulp365 reviews editor Matt Paprocki. "A stubborn Japanese side who believed they understood the American market better than the American side. Why else would most of the best and memorable games sit in import limbo while the U.S. side was granted non-classics like Congo or an updated Corpse Killer? It was a one-sided culture battle."

Bigger in Japan

And so it was that Sega effectively ensured Saturn's failure in the west. Sega of America's president during the Genesis era, Tom Kalinske, had been granted considerable latitude to market Sega's 16-bit console as he saw fit. Even when the Japanese office strongly disagreed with Sega of America's moves — the aggressive marketing, the inconceivable decision to give masterpiece Sonic the Hedgehog away for "free" as a pack-in title — they ultimately deferred to his experience and understanding of the American market.

His efforts paid off; under his stewardship, Sega of America multiplied its profits many times over. Yet throughout the 16-bit era, Sega's Japanese leadership slowly but steadily eroded Kalinske's autonomy, and the early Saturn launch happened despite his protests.

Rather the capitalize on 16-bit success like Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega's distanced itself from its hits. And its market lead eroded, slowly but steadily, throughout the '90s.

"It always felt that Sega tried to distance itself from its success in the 16-bit era," says Nickel. "Hardly any famous [Genesis] brand was continued on Saturn. Of course, I'm not sure if a polygonal Streets of Rage would have done much good, and a 3D Sonic would have to have been outstanding to stand any chance against Mario 64. But still, with a better mixture of classic brands, new properties, and the great arcade ports, Sega might have at least stood a chance against the Nintendo 64. Saturn's western-developed games always seemed to try a little to hard to seem cool and edgy, while PlayStation seemed to pull coolness off without much effort."

"The Japanese Saturn has one of the most eclectic, creative game libraries of any console, ever," says Zeller. "Its U.S. library is frankly pretty anemic, and outside of a few gems that now, on the secondary market, cost as much as a year of college tuition, most of those games have not aged very well. When third parties saw the Saturn's U.S. struggles, combined with the breakaway success of the PlayStation, it made most of them very reluctant to bring their Japanese masterpieces stateside, leaving countless amazing titles stranded on the other side of the Pacific."

Kalinske left the company a year after Saturn's bungled launch to be replaced by Bernie Stolar. Stolar had just helped usher PlayStation to a stunningly successful American launch, thanks in large part to an excellent marketing campaign that positioned the machine as a futuristic device for adult gamers, but even Stolar's sense for his audience couldn't turn around Saturn's fortunes.

"Sony's marketing trumped Sega's while smartly courting an audience who may have stepped out of gaming for a bit," says Paprocki. "Demographics matter. There was something new to what Sony was doing, more than just releasing their first console. Then there were those who were burned by the unholy console fungus of the Genesis, Sega CD, and 32X – the Saturn wasn't moving in different directions from what was established, and there was zero consumer comfort in a system not backwards compatible with those units.

"And really, it was a change for the industry. 3D was new, it was hot, and Sega bet wrong in their design. Their competition knew it, too. Steve Race's famous 1995 E3 address where he stabbed Sega in their financial heart by announcing PlayStation as a $299 console compared to the Saturn at $399? That's the killer, right as Sega tried to be hyper-aggressive with the immediate launch."

Saturn launched early with the awkward Bug!, which looked considerably more primitive than Nintendo's previous-gen Donkey Kong Country games. Meanwhile, PlayStation debuted with never-before-seen creations like the surreal 3D platformer Jumping Flash!, leaving no question which console had its foot in the future.

"If recent interviews are to be believed, the U.S. arm of Sega was not ready to launch in May of '95, and what happened in the following months seems to be proof of that," says former Electronic Gaming Monthly editor and Generation-16 creator Greg Sewart. "The early launch put the Saturn in a hole that almost no system would have been able to climb out of — alienating retail partners, throwing off schedules for third party developers, and a dearth of software during the first six months that only furthered Sega's already terrible reputation for releasing hardware without supporting it.

"If that was truly the result of pressure from Sega of Japan, then you have to say that the culture clash lead directly to the failure of the system in the west."

It definitely didn't help that Saturn, in addition to being badly launched, also suffered from hardware design as ill-considered as its launch. Sega found itself caught inexplicably off-guard by the industry's shift to 3D graphics; despite being a pioneer in polygonal game technology with Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racer, the company designed its 32-bit console as a sprite-pushing powerhouse. When the profoundly powerful 3D-capable nature of the PlayStation and Nintendo's "Ultra 64" became evident, Sega's designers hastily added a second processor to the machine, increasing its potential power... but creating such a complex, poorly documented architecture that few developers could hope to tap into the system's true power.

"The hardware was difficult to develop for," agrees Sheffield. "Like the PS3's SPUs, the Saturn's multi-processor setup was theoretically powerful, but it was hard to work with in practice. On top of that, Sega hadn't predicted the importance of 3D in the upcoming console wars, and while the Saturn was capable in this regard, the hardware was under-documented, and used quads instead of triangles like the PlayStation did. This meant ports were difficult, and developing for the Saturn required different and specific skill sets — nobody wants to invest in that when a console doesn't launch amazingly well, as was the case with the Saturn.

"It was a change for the industry. 3D was new, it was hot, and Sega bet wrong in their design. Their competition knew it, too." — Matt Paprocki

"If somehow, magically, the Saturn were the most popular console of that era, there's a remote possibility that quads would've become the standard instead of triangles. PC developers were mostly pushing triangles, but nVidia invested in quads. It could have happened! And it's minor, but Sega's continued lack of support for native transparency in its hardware made all its games look just a bit older and less impressive than games on the PlayStation.

"So then there was the marketing, and the launch. Obviously, Sega's gambit of releasing the console several months early failed hard. There weren't enough games ready, third party developers were alienated because they weren't informed, retailers felt snubbed, and the supply was constrained. They wanted to beat Sony to market, but the only thing they beat was themselves. The third party games that did start to trickle in from Western developers were largely not so exciting, and very PC-like, which felt strange on console. I like Amok because it uses voxels for its environments, but did we need it on the Saturn? Probably not.

"The software was eventually excellent, but by then it was too late. If the system had launched with a larger lineup, a bit later, other developers might have been encouraged to put their A-teams on the job. As it was, Western developers flocked to the much friendlier upstart in Sony's PlayStation. In terms of the hardware, it's not so anemic as people think. Check out the early demo of Shenmue on the Saturn to see what it was capable of."

Once upon a time (not in America)

"I remember seeing the Panzer Dragoon and Nights demos at Best Buy," says Saturn fan Kevin Bunch, "but other than that, I never physically encountered a Saturn, and found those demos to be completely bizarre experiences anyway. I do remember being fascinated by coverage of Fighters Megamix in the gaming press at the time, and was absolutely stoked for Sonic Xtreme. It was all moot anyway, though — by the time I could afford any of that generation of consoles, it was late 1997, the Saturn was already on its last legs, and I had gone with the N64."

The writing was already on the wall for Saturn in America by the time Stolar took charge. Rather than try and salvage the flailing system the way competitor Nintendo has occasionally managed to do, Stolar decided it would be best to cut Sega's losses. By the end of 1997, software releases slowed to a trickle. By summer of 1998, Sega released its last few Saturn games, including the beloved Panzer Dragoon Saga. By the end of the year, just as the generation was truly coming into its own with revolutionary releases like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid, Saturn saw its final official release: Working Designs' long-delayed Magic Knight Rayearth, a humble-looking 2D Zelda clone released at the beginning of the system's life in Japan.

Meanwhile, the system continued to thrive in Japan. Though it never came close to the sort of success Sony had with PlayStation, it maintained respectable support through 1999 and into 2000 — well into the Dreamcast's life, which kicked off in Japan in Nov. 1998.

The Saturn's durability at home, along with its friendliness toward developers who weren't quite ready to give up on classic 2D game styles, resulted in a respectable library. Ultimately, nearly 600 official releases saw the light of day on Saturn, about twice as many as were released globally for Nintendo 64. But less than half of those games made it to the U.S., and Saturn is generally most beloved among people who have ventured into the import market. The system's short life in the U.S., not to mention the U.S. market's eager embrace of 3D graphics, left many of the system's best games stranded overseas.

Badr Alomair, a Saturn owner, admits to being part of the problem at the time: "Back then, what I wanted out of the Saturn (well, what sold me a Saturn really) was these types of impressive and immersive 3D games. But the Saturn quickly ran out of those a year or so in. And I sort of ran out of things to buy. I ended up having to buy not-so-great games like SEGA Touring Car Championship or Steep Slope Sliders because the rest of the Saturn library consisted of 2D games that I thought were 'old.' I remember going to my cousin, who also had a Saturn, and thinking, 'his Street Fighter Alpha is just not as cool as my Battle Arena Toshinden' and other embarrassing thoughts. Once Metal Gear Solid came out on the Playstation, I jumped on board and never looked back."

"Seeing Virtua Fighter and Toshinden, or Daytona and Ridge Racer, side-by-side didn't help with the Saturn's image as a system not terribly suited for 3D," says Nickel. "In terms of marketing, Sega seems to have lost a bit of edge. While the PlayStation was perceived as cool, especially in Europe, Sega came across as rather clumsy.

"A more diverse software-line-up consisting of old brands, new IPs and arcade-ports would have been nice — if only to make former Genesis players feel more 'at home.' Without these, the Saturn often felt a bit alienating, strange — not very Sega. At least not very 'Sega of the Genesis era,' anyway.

"While the PlayStation was perceived as cool, especially in Europe, Sega came across as rather clumsy. The Saturn often felt a bit alienating, strange — not very Sega. At least not very 'Sega of the Genesis era,' anyway." — Thomas Nickel

"Virtua Fighter 2 showed that Saturn could go head-to-head with the PlayStation, at least in the first years, if the programmers really understood the machine. The 2D was often amazingly beautiful and the controller was perfect for fighting games."

Sega clearly sensed the uphill battle Saturn it would face once consumers beheld the slick visuals of the PlayStation. Their response: Obscure the games, hide the visuals, and best Sony at being oblique and cryptic. PlayStation's "U R not e" campaign was strange, but Saturn's ads were downright bizarre. Off-puttingly so.

"The marketing...yikes!" muses Sewart. "Sega's marketing took such a weird turn when the Saturn was launched. We went from the quick cut, cool, absurd Sega scream/Welcome to the Next Level campaign to the bizarre and kind of disturbing Theater of the Eye campaign. It was just too weird. Seeing dudes in conehead caps drooling into camera did not really create a great image of the new hardware."

"I owned a Saturn but it was an 'inessential' console in my life," says Wired contributor Daniel Feit. "I bought games for it, often played it for hours at a time, but when I think of the major games that affected me in that generation, they're all on N64 or PlayStation.

"Primarily I used Saturn to play arcade ports, because for whatever reason the Saturn versions always felt more authentic. Games like Street Fighter Alpha 2 and NightWarriors had more animation and better special effects on Saturn than they did on PlayStation. I also thought the world of the heavy-duty joystick I had for Saturn, which may or may not have been an official Sega product."

Saturn fan Kevin Bunch agrees. "I really appreciate the strength of [Saturn's] '90s arcade conversions, at a time when its competitors were either underpowered or underutilized in that regard. It has without question one of the best libraries of shooters and fighting games out there, and a fair amount of weird Sega titles like Burning Rangers and Nights to fill in the gaps. And really ambitious ideas — the idea of splitting Shining Force III into three separate releases, plus a premium disc, kind of foreshadowed their ideas for Shenmue, for sure.

"I do wish it hadn't fallen prey to internal politics so badly, though. Sonic Xtreme is an obvious example of something that shouldn't have died, but canceling Eternal Champions 3 so it wouldn't compete with Virtua Fighter 2 is just idiocy. There was also the questionable decision to leave those Capcom ports in Japan with the RAM cart, but considering the Saturn's market position and sales, I can kind of understand that one."

Better on Saturn: Though available on PlayStation, sprite-heavy action games like Mega Man 8 and Street Fighter Alpha 3 looked and played better on Sega's machine.

"The Saturn was great at pushing sprites, and with its RAM expansion, it could go even further," says Sheffield. "And the fact it was very similar to the ST-V arcade board theoretically meant lots of easy ports — unfortunately, support for the ST-V wasn't incredibly strong, but it was a good plan, that was pushed further with the Naomi/Dreamcast pairing.

"And back then, Sega attracted a different breed of developer. Games on the Saturn were weirder than those on the PlayStation, and certainly weirder than anything on the N64. There was a lot more experimentation back then, something I really strongly associated with Sega, especially in the titles it developed and published. Sega had a great arcade division, in terms of development. On the console side it was weaker (with some big exceptions, like Sonic Team and Team Andromeda), but very strong as a publisher.

"The Saturn was a landing point for games that were too 'adult' in content for other systems, as it was the only one that allowed an 18+ rating for content in Japan. While most of this resulted in anime fanservice pandering, some games, like Enemy Zero used it to take body horror to new levels, an important step toward the expansion of games and who they served."

The system we deserved, but not the one we needed

In other words, amidst the muddled marketing and bungled business that benighted Saturn, the console itself offered much to appeal to gaming enthusiasts. Its beefy processors offered a glorious refuge for developers who still dealt in 2D visuals, delaying (if not preventing) the disappearance of countless Japanese game studios who thrived during the 8- and 16-bit days. And while its 3D graphics rarely stood up to those of PlayStation and Nintendo 64, it still offered sufficient power that talented developers could create immersive, atmospheric worlds for gamers.

"The Saturn did quite a lot well," says Sewart. "Obviously it was a beast when it came to 2D games, but I don't think its reputation as a weak 3D console was deserved. I think that perception grew out of the fact that the system was just too hard to program for. Couple the difficulty of wrangling the system's power with its ever-decreasing market share and it makes sense that most third parties could not justify the resources no doubt required to make the Saturn sing in 3D. But games like Sega Rally, Virtua Fighter 2, Burning Rangers and Panzer Dragoon prove that system was more than up to the task."

In fairness, though, Sega's inane corporate strategies definitely put Saturn off on the wrong foot — but it's hard to imagine a scenario in which a system geared toward 2D, sprite-based visuals could have triumphed as gamers' tastes rapidly shifted to 3D. Saturn was an impressive console, but its strengths were best suited to a bygone era; it embraced a future that never happened.

Many of the Saturn's defining games, such as Treasure's Radiant Silvergun, remained disappointingly stranded in Japan once Sega of America decided to cut off the console's support in the U.S. in order to invest in the Dreamcast's spectacular launch.

"Sega could not have beaten Sony," speculates Nickel, "but they might have stood a chance against Nintendo if they had played their cards a bit smarter. Still, I think the industry's move to 3D and the lukewarm reception to pretty much every 2D game in the second half of the '90s made it quite difficult for Sega. Even if they had released the smoothest, most colorful 2D Sonic imaginable, the press would have complained about it being old-fashioned, and most players would have agreed."

"The war was theirs to lose," says Sheffield. "They knew the PlayStation was a bit stronger graphically, but they made the wrong choices in trying to combat it — rather than explaining what their hardware could do well, they decided to just jump the gun and cross their fingers. Releasing the console later with more games would have been a good start. Better documentation would have helped as well.

"We would've had to start with both of those things in place to even begin to speculate, because without that, you still wouldn't have developers wanting to sign on in the West. There's plenty we could say about Sega not bringing out all the best titles in the West, but by that point, and without a solid customer base, how much would it have helped?"

While all of these factors did Saturn no favors at the time, the combination of a widely deprecated platform and tons of top-quality software (much unseen in the west) give the system a retrospective appeal. Both the press and the gaming public generally ignored or derided the Saturn, which tended to put a hefty chip on the shoulders of its few enthusiasts. Time has softened perspectives on both sides, though, and now classic game enthusiasts tend to regard Saturn as a fascinating counterpoint to the more popular systems, packed with creations that march to a different drum than the popular hits of PlayStation and N64, similar to the relationship indie developers have with AAA software today.

"Saturn was a beast when it came to 2D games, but I don't think its reputation as a weak 3D console was deserved. I think that perception grew out of the fact that the system was just too hard to program for. Games like Sega Rally, Virtua Fighter 2, Burning Rangers and Panzer Dragoon prove that system was more than up to the task." — Greg Sewart

"I admit, I do have a heart for the underdogs," says Nickel. "The Saturn is a system I still like to fire up today for a session of Daytona, Panzer Dragoon or Shining the Holy Arc. This is becoming less frequent, though, as many of the great titles are available in more comfortable form today. Many great Capcom fighters are on PSN or XBLA; Sakura Taisen is out on Dreamcast and PS2; there are many ports of the great Treasure games... still, a few games I really, really loved remain Saturn-exclusive to this day."

"Saturn-era Sega were very generous with content," says Sheffield. "There was always more. There were always secrets. There was always something to find. In NiGHTS, there was an entire enemy-raising simulator built in that was easy to ignore, and many players never saw. Likewise, while the main game was about speed and precision, if you chose to ignore the game's main prompts, and just walk around the world as a child, you'll see areas you could never otherwise access. Sega always made sure its worlds were full, and then invited you to explore, without forcing your hand.

"There were some fantastic new experiences to be had on this console, and it's very sad to me that it had to fail so spectacularly. They just didn't have the positioning to capitalize on these excellent games, because they stumbled out of the gate, and the market was just too crowded to support three major players. We learned this for a fact in the next generation, when, in spite of all the ingredients for success in place, the Dreamcast couldn't turn Sega's fortunes around."

The old shape of things to come

"In the end, the Saturn might be more of a cautionary tale," muses Nickel. "Don't alienate your user base, don't lose focus, don't treat your own regional offices as enemies, don't abandon everything that made you successful before. And if it becomes clear that you won't beat the new market leader, don't abandon all hope. Hang in there, please your remaining user base with good games, and the games that they really want."

Sheffield agrees. With the benefit of hindsight, Saturn predicted many of the troubles that lay ahead for the Japanese games industry as a whole in the subsequent decade.

Thanks to its huge catalog of hard-to-find and painfully expensive Japan-only releases like Shinrei Jusatsu Taroumaru (Psychic Assassin Taromaru), Saturn has developed considerable cachet as a machine for serious enthusiasts.

"I would pose that Saturn's largest legacy is Sega's hubris," he says. "They thought they were invincible, and that structure and hierarchy were necessary for their survival, but more flexibility, and a greater participation with the West could have saved them. This pattern has been repeated with company after company in Japan, and that's how we win up with the Japanese game industry we have today, where you can walk around the Tokyo Game Show floor and find nothing of note to speak of."

"In some ways, the Saturn is a relic, but an important one, which represents the harshness of progress and what it can leave in its wake," says Paprocki. "The Saturn is a comfortable curiosity, with jagged polygons and scornful draw-in, but it has a charm which, like the 3DO, it can claim as its own. No other systems pushed such abstract (and inconsistent) style during the period. You see something in the Saturn and its identifiable surrealism, whereas the PlayStation feels almost sanitary with its heavy push for realism. It was cool and “in” at the time. In retrospect, the Saturn is infinitely more interesting when considering the period during its lifespan."

"The Saturn was an interesting transitionary console for me," says Sheffield. "You've got the 'Blue Sky in Games' Sega in full effect, with games like Daytona, Virtua Fighter, and others, but you also had a darker Sega showing more of its teeth. Burning Rangers and Panzer Dragoon Saga are excellent examples of the slightly more unnerving side of Sega. And NiGHTs Into Dreams was right in the middle — the hopeful dreams of Nights, and the nightmares of Reala."

"Unfortunately. the system's legacy in North America will always be the hardware that ruined Sega," says Sewart. "It will always represent Sega of Japan wrestling power back from Sega of America, the complete opposite of what seemed to happen five years earlier with the Genesis.

"For me it represents all of that. But it also represents the sort of amazing library that was possible due to Sega finally succeeding in Japan. It's also my first memory of playing a console game online, as well as the first console where I actually imported games. It's a pity the Saturn's legacy is so shameful, because its library is actually quite impressive."

Saturn's final U.S. release was the charming but dated Magic Knight Rayearth — a fitting capstone to a charming but dated console.

Saturn's place in history is difficult to define in large part because the system was neither the beginning nor the end of the troubles the resulted in Sega's demise. It was a point on a timeline that began with the company's power struggles and fragmented hardware strategy in the 16-bit era and ended with the Dreamcast, a system born from a competition between America and Japan that squandered countless millions of R&D dollars. Saturn didn't instigate Sega's departure from the hardware market; in many ways, it was more a symptom of that breakdown than a cause.

Zeller, though, frames Saturn's place in history most eloquently. "I feel like the Saturn's legacy is really twofold," he says. "For Sega, it was definitely the final nail in the coffin of their hardware development. They absolutely learned from their mistakes, as everything they did wrong with the Saturn they did right with the Dreamcast, but it didn't matter. Coming on the heels of the questionable Sega-CD and the disastrous 32X, the way the company continually bungled everything to do with the Saturn not only convinced consumers (and a lot of developers) that Sega had no clue what it was doing with its hardware. It also allowed Sony to take a massive lead in the console race, both in terms of finances and mind shares.

"The Dreamcast was a pretty great console, but consumers were extremely wary after the Saturn debacle. And besides, why would they want to take a risk on Sega when they had the surefire hit PlayStation 2 coming out just six months later? Ultimately, Sega's internal bickering undid not only the Saturn, but their hardware future as well.

Saturn's short and troubled life set the stage for Dreamcast's short and terminal existence, along with Sega's departure from the console business.

"The other, somewhat brighter piece of the Saturn's legacy, is that in the years since its untimely demise it's become something of an El Dorado for classic game collectors and importers. Stripped of the corporate baggage that hung about its shoulders at the time of its release, the system stacks up well against both its contemporaries and classic consoles as a whole.

"No other console released in the U.S., with the possible exception of the TurboGrafx-16, has ever had such a massive portion of its library, including most of its best games, left un-localized. As such, adventurous and/or bilingual gamers have made all sorts of amazing discoveries among its Japanese games. All the amazing RPGs may present a bit of a language barrier for those of us who don't speak Japanese, but the legion of fantastic shooters, fighters, and other arcade-style games that called the Saturn home are a cinch for monolingual importers to enjoy."

In other words, the Saturn represents an inviting video game frontier for adventurous gamers: A piece of game history, one of which Americans saw only a tantalizing fraction. Difficult to emulate, with a library that even today is incompletely chronicled in English, Saturn's hidden treasures — along with its better-known but inaccessible greats — simply beg to be discovered.

That's hardly the legacy a system with as much heritage and as rich a creative library as Saturn deserves. Ultimately, though, the system's failure has less to do with its hardware or software than with corporate decisions surrounding its life. Though Saturn diminished Sega's potential as a major industry player for the future, on the other hand it offers a rich and worthy piece of the past.

Image credits: Wikipedia, Hardcore Gaming 101, VG Museum

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  • Avatar for KaiserWarrior #1 KaiserWarrior 3 years ago
    My Saturn remains one of my most treasured consoles, because it captures the zeitgeist of 90s-era arcades perfectly -- something that neither the Playstation nor the N64 do. With Saturn, you have that mouth-watering mix of the early days of 3D arcade games (as seen through the lens of Sega), with their bright and colorful polygons/textures and music that wasn't afraid to still be "video game music", and the mind-blowing beauty of late-era 2D games that had refined the art of sprite-based graphics to a razor's edge. For someone that loves big, beefy, beautiful sprites with tons of lush animation, the Saturn is an irreplacable part of history. And as a nice bonus, you get Sega's excellent 3D games that weren't trying to be anything more than video games with polygons in them.

    Blue, Blue Skies I See, indeed.
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  • Avatar for Sturat #2 Sturat 3 years ago
    I think people don't give enough credit to the Saturn's sound processor. Mega Man 8 sounded much better on Saturn than Playstation, and the music in Nights is substantially better on Saturn than Playstation 2!
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #3 kidgorilla 3 years ago
    This was really spectacular. Thanks, Jeremy
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  • Avatar for ArugulaZ #4 ArugulaZ 3 years ago
    Funny how betting on the wrong horse can change your perspective on the game industry. I picked the Saturn instead of the Playstation in the 90s, and that decision soured me on the trend toward 3D gaming, while most players were eager to embrace it.
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #5 CK20XX 3 years ago
    I had to trade in my Saturn as a kid in order to play Megaman Legends. That was the killer app that made me want a Playstation.

    The only reason I have any regrets is because Saturn Bomberman is fantastically amazing and also ridiculously rare now. Hudson doesn't even exist anymore! This console built by a house divided has left me a very divided adult.
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  • Avatar for mobichan #6 mobichan 3 years ago
    Nice article! Being my personal favorite console, I would have to say that unless you were importing, the US library really was sad. I guess if you loved Sega's 3D arcade offerings, you might have had something to look forward to. In the end, the best stuff embraced what the system did well and didn't try to be a PS1 game.

    As for the top 10 picks, I am not sure why Tempest 2000 is on there. Panzer Dragoon 2, Burning Rangers, Layer Section(Galactic Attack), Night Warriors or Shining Wisdom are better choices IMHO. And you mentioned Marvel Super Heroes, but I think you meant Marvel Super Heroes Vs. Street Fighter in the video.
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBarnstorm #7 JohnnyBarnstorm 3 years ago
    I still need to get that 4 meg Action Replay that lets you play Japanese games. I got what I later realized was an unopened copy of Shining Force III a few years ago (and, er, well, opened it... oops...) and was pretty disappointed. I still would like to find a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga, but I'd rather get Snatcher first.

    The most fun I've had on my Saturn has still got to be Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game.

    I didn't buy a Saturn until 2008 because I was only working part time in 1995, and when I'd saved enough for either console I worked out which had more games I wanted to get. This turned out to be the PlayStation, but it was a close call.Edited November 2014 by JohnnyBarnstorm
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  • Avatar for sean697 #8 sean697 3 years ago
    The Saturn is the ultimate importers console. A more complete list of releases can be found on SEGA Retro here Saturn Releases

    (Wikipedia's list is a little lacking)

    They have something like 1058 individual disc releases. Granted some of them were things like VF portrait CG discs. But the thing is, a large majority of those never saw the light of day in the US. I still find out about Saturn games that I never knew existed to this day. Never has any console had so many Japanese exclusive games. It is easily the system I have the most imports for. Also as noted in the article it has a huge number of games that are playable no where else but on Saturn as there were no ports and Saturn emulation is very lacking and imperfect due to its complexitys.

    As far as the article I can't really add much. It was a very Japanese system. I chose it over the Playstation. I enjoyed it. And moved on the N64. I really enjoyed the quirky games that were on it, as well as the Sega arcade titles. Some my favorite games of all time are on Saturn. Saturn Bomberman is often regarded as the best multiplayer game of all time. (Made Next Gens top 10 games of all time list.) while a lot of the 3D games don't hold up well today, the 2D games most Definetly do and are worth seeking out.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #9 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    Former Sega fan, checking in.

    Played the hell out of Nightwarriors and SF@1 back in the day in college.

    But you can bet your ass I sold that thing for a PSX in 1997 and never looked back. Gotta go where the future is more secure, the grass legitimately greener, ya know? Still got a DC; now that truly was tragic, whereas the Saturn was more Greek Tragedy.
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #10 Captain-Gonru 3 years ago
    One thing I'll say about this, is that by around 1998, you could really clean up on two generations of stuff, still new, on the cheap. Thanks Kay-Bee Toys.
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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #11 pashaveliki 3 years ago
    Bravo, Mr. Parish.
    Yet more proof of why the USgamer + Retronauts decision makes sense.
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  • Avatar for mobichan #12 mobichan 3 years ago
    @Captain-Gonru Yea, if there was one huge silver lining, it was that the clearance sales made getting lots of games a much cheaper task. Even in Japan, you could find great prices on used games back between 2000 and 2005. Nowadays, not so much.

    I cleaned up on Sega Cd as well. ^_^
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  • Avatar for GaijinD #13 GaijinD 3 years ago
    @mobichan@Captain-Gonru I, too, grabbed a Saturn on the cheap. I most certainly do not regret it. As someone who still loves 2D fighters, it was my dream system. Now, if only I'd managed to get Panzer Dragoon Saga. I have a few other rarities, but that one's always eluded me, even though I tried to buy it right at release.
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #14 Captain-Gonru 3 years ago
    @mobichan@GaijinD I cleaned up on Genesis, CD, and especially 32X. Saturn was harder to find for some reason, so I ended up with less of that. RAM cart is clutch, though.
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  • Avatar for TotalHenshin #15 TotalHenshin 3 years ago
    I remember when I was young, I had no idea the Saturn even existed. I had a Genesis (and SNES) as a kid, and I got a Dreamcast when that came out, but I literally thought there was nothing from Sega in between those two consoles. And I never noticed it. When Dreamcast was announced, I simply thought that Sega just left the industry for a while and the Dreamcast was their comeback.

    I would later on learn of the Saturn and buy one off eBay, but that was many years later.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #16 Monkey-Tamer 3 years ago
    I went with a Saturn over the Playstation due to Street Fighter Alpha being better on the Sega machine. Unfortunately I didn't purchase many games for the Saturn, and wound up buying the Playstation for games like Castlevania, Metal Gear, and FF Tactics. By the time the Dreamcast came around I had been burnt by Sega once, and wasn't going to let it happen again, especially with FFX being slated for the PS2. I still have my Saturn, and it will always mark the end of a gaming giant.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #17 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    Excellent article.

    I have to say I've got a soft spot for the system, but I got to it late. Unfortunately, that means I didn't get to snag the really awesome games, so I ended up modding mine instead. No way was I going to miss out on Panzer Dragoon Saga when I couldn't even find a copy for less than $200.

    It really is a system that feels like what the 32X probably should have been, and had Sega not freaked out and botched everything about the launch, and just held back on the 32X, we might be looking at a slightly different console landscape. The system was clearly capable of impressive visuals, even if it took more effort; take a look at Grandia, a game where the Saturn version is superior to the PSX.

    Still, there's something to be said for having a system easy to develop for. It's not a guarantor of success, though. Just ask the Dreamcast, Gamecube, and XBOX how they fared against the PS2 juggernaut. Heck, even Sony decided to simplify things finally after the tricky-to-use PS3.

    Anyway, fantastic system that just got caught flat-footed in the transition to 3D. Seeing things swing back somewhat, though, where 2D doesn't automatically elicit sneers of contempt, gives me hope for the future.
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  • Avatar for Neifirst #18 Neifirst 3 years ago
    I have nothing but great memories of the Sega Saturn. Once I read about the E3 announcement in the newspaper, I was at my local Babbage's (remember them?) with $450 in hand for a system with Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. One week later, I added Panzer Dragoon to my collection. I still think the Sega 6-button controller S is the pinnacle for 2D console gaming. Like most, I eventually migrated to the Playstation in late 1997 for FF7, but '95-'96 was great with Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop, Sega Rally, and more.

    Two more oft-overlooked games are DecAthlete & Winter Heat, which are especially fun for fans of the old Track & Field games by Konami.
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  • Avatar for killias2 #19 killias2 3 years ago
    Great article!

    I was a huge Sega fanboy from about 1992-1995. Reading this article made me reflect on exactly why I turned away. One thing that, upon reflection, surprised me was this: the end of Sega Visions. I was a Sega Visions subscriber for most of the above period. I remember eagerly gobbling up any bit of video game info. that came out. My dependence on it even got me excited about the 32x (of all things!), which I purchased after the price crashed. But then.. Sega Visions died.

    Let me emphasize this: just as the Sega Saturn was launching, Sega pulled the plug on their primary propaganda platform. I remember knowing NOTHING about the Saturn at release besides what my brother heard from his friends. This was when the internet as we know it was starting to come together, so I didn't really have any other good source of information. Suddenly, despite being a years-long unabashed Sega fanboy, I found myself completely in the dark about the new console.

    This led to me largely ignoring the Saturn until it had obviously failed and then becoming a full-blown Nintendo fanboy.. complete with Nintendo Power subscription (for the first time since before I got my Genesis). Eventually I succumbed to my love for RPGs and got a Playstation as well.

    In any case.. why did Sega Visions die on the cusp of the Saturn? Who let that happen? It was an amazingly boneheaded decision.
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  • Avatar for StevieWhite #20 StevieWhite 3 years ago
    Awesome stuff! I have to disagree with Mr. Alomair's description of "Steep Slope Sliders" as a "not so great" game. Simply on the merits of the two weird J-pop ballads on its soundtrack, it is an AMAZING experience.

    From a 3D standpoint, no question that the Saturn was inferior - but I'm glad I picked it over the PSX. As weird as it sounds, I think it prevented me from ever becoming a graphics snob.
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  • Avatar for theemondowray #21 theemondowray 3 years ago
    I owned a Saturn on its original UK release and remember it all being very drab, the release schedule, the packaging, the initial games...something was just amiss. I soon got an Action Replay and began to import games like X-Men Children of the Atom and many other wonderful sprite based games. Even the Japanese packaging seemed more alive than the horrible oversized European boxes, with their muted artwork.

    Recently bought a Japanese Saturn and building an awesome library, buying lots of titles my teenage self couldn't afford and in the process discovering the console anew.
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  • Avatar for mganai #22 mganai 3 years ago
    How I lament the PSOne's meager RAM.

    Just think how much better ground up versions of SotN and Gradius Gaiden might have looked on the Saturn. (Granted, they look great, but those clearly digitized explosion animations in Gaiden for instance...)

    Mega Man 8 on Saturn also had a couple extra bonus stages not present in the PSX version. Not that many people care I guess given the state of MM at that time.
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  • Avatar for thomascai #23 thomascai 3 years ago
    THe saturn is the first console i truly bought with 100% of my own pocket money (back when i was a 14 year old kid, i bought a japanese saturn btw).....

    It's the console made for me, being a capcom fighting game enthusiast.

    Arcade perfect ports? Check.

    Six button controller? Check.

    Seriously, running x-men vs street fighter side by side between saturn and ps1 is more than enough to convince any 2d fighting games fans to buy a saturn.
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  • Avatar for thomascai #24 thomascai 3 years ago
    @Sturat and the graphic processor! Virtua Fighter 2 has the highest resolution of ANY console game in the entire 32bit generation!
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #25 LBD_Nytetrayn 3 years ago
    I never got to play much Saturn-- a demo of Bug! here, a demo of NiGHTS there... It's one I'd like to go back to, though. Sounds like it might be that "lost generation" I've been looking for, if 2D games continued into the CD era with greater prominance.
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  • Avatar for robertspencer48 #26 robertspencer48 3 years ago
    @ArugulaZ I was exactly the same. And to be honest, to some extent I still tend to prefer 2d games to this day.
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  • Avatar for robertspencer48 #27 robertspencer48 3 years ago
  • Avatar for robbiesabo #28 robbiesabo 3 years ago
    @sean697
    Great points! The only thing I'll say though is that Saturn emulation has been fantastic for the last half-decade. SSF is amazing - and though you don't get fancy things like texture filtering or being able to up-res, it's 99.99999% perfect in every other regard. Games look right, they sound right, and most importantly feel like you're playing on a real Saturn. I use the emulator as a test-bed for when I want to splurge on imports for it. Recently, I gave Mobile Suit Gundam Side Story a whirl. 10 minutes was all it took for me to jump over to GAME OF JAPAN and order the entire trilogy. They're gonna look reeeeeal nice with my RGB Scart to HDMI set-up. As good as the emulator is, it's hard to beat popping a disc into the real hardware :)
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  • Avatar for keiththornton35 #29 keiththornton35 A year ago
    The sega saturn was cheated by bad management no questions asked.

    The first fallacy was the comparison of first gen games. The thing is because of bad management. The Saturn was rushed to the market before anyone was ready for it so a lot of releases that was still in development was released early making the saturn look bad compared to sonys new machine at the time.

    Sega of America did not imbrace the saturn like they did the genesis with the odd Comercials, leaving great titles in japan alone with a lot of other thing.

    The hardware was hard to program for but was just as capable as the other 2 when a talented developer got their hands on it. When developer started to get the hang of it, thats when management shown it's ugly face again in the form of Bernie Stolar who put the knife in the saturn with the announcement of "it is not the future.
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  • Avatar for keiththornton35 #30 keiththornton35 A year ago
    The sega saturn was cheated by bad management no questions asked.

    The first fallacy was the comparison of first gen games. The thing is because of bad management. The Saturn was rushed to the market before anyone was ready for it so a lot of releases that was still in development was released early making the saturn look bad compared to sonys new machine at the time.

    Sega of America did not imbrace the saturn like they did the genesis with the odd Comercials, leaving great titles in japan alone with a lot of other thing.

    The hardware was hard to program for but was just as capable as the other 2 when a talented developer got their hands on it. When developer started to get the hang of it, thats when management shown it's ugly face again in the form of Bernie Stolar who put the knife in the saturn with the announcement of "it is not the future.
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