Monday Spotlight – SEGA Saturn

Each and every Monday I take an in-depth look at one video game topic. This can be anything related to games and the industry, from individual titles and consoles to developers and prominent figures, and everything else in-between. All related topics are fair game and I will offer some history, commentary and insight for each.

The SEGA Saturn has long suffered an identity crisis. It is both celebrated as the true beginning of the fifth generation, a pioneering console rich in ground-breaking and critically acclaimed titles and derided as an overly complicated piece of machinery that bombed outside of Japan, surviving just long enough to irrecoverably change SEGA’s fortunes as a console manufacturer. That’s a lot for a system that only survived three years in the West.

Released in Japan in November 1994, a month ahead of Sony’s PlayStation, and following in the West in 1995, the Saturn was fighting an up-hill battle from the get go. Although in Japan it initially outsold Sony’s maiden console, it was beset by problems as developers struggled with the system architecture; an expensive and overly complex board which featured two CPUs. To make matters worse, in-house dissent was rife as some higher-ups in SEGA US were not convinced of the merits of the new system, and throughout its development Japan HQ and SEGA US were rarely on the same page. In fact, the Saturn almost didn’t happen, as SEGA were at one time very close to making their next console a joint venture with Sony, as Tom Kalinske, head of SEGA America at the time, recalls (taken from an excellent history of SEGA over at IGN) :

“We got together with [Sony] and defined what we'd like to see in our next hardware. We had this great idea that it should be a joint SEGA-Sony hardware system. If we had to take a loss on the hardware (which was the norm then), we'd split the loss on the hardware, but we wouldn't split software, so any software they did, they'd get 100% of the profits, and any software we did, we'd get 100% of the profits. It seemed like a fair deal since we were eons ahead of them in terms of software development……….So we go to Japan, and Sony management liked the idea. Then we went to SEGA, and Nakayama (former VP) hated the idea. So that was the end of that, and the rest is history once again. Those were the specs that became the PlayStation."

Even before release, the casualties were stacking-up. The SS launch would mark the premature death of the Mega Drive/Genesis – a console which never fully took off in Japan, but was big business in America and particularly in Europe, where it was the number one home console. The Mega Drive would be the first victim of the botched launch of the Saturn and was one of many examples of SEGA abandoning an existing platform in favour of the next generation; something which would come to cost them dearly.

Virtua Fighter ensured a healthy launch in Japan where the system was flying off shelves faster than retailers could stock it. The honeymoon period would not last, however, as it gradually lost market share to the upstart PlayStation. Things were no better abroad, as on the other side of the world a comedy of errors was making its debut one of the worst Western console launches of all time.

SEGA shocked the industry when, at E3 ‘95, they announced that the Saturn would be released immediately, months before retailers and consumers were expecting it. In these days of polished launches, where midnight store openings are standard and pre-orders are offered months in advance, it is difficult to even comprehend such an approach and error in judgement. This early release meant that there was only a frugal collection of games for the all-important first six months and retailers were predictably hostile to a new console for which they were unprepared. This resulted in many refusing to support the new console with in-store promotions and premium shelf space being given over to SEGA's competitors instead. Some large chains even refused to stock it, creating bad blood which would carry over to the Dreamcast

"You must play SEGA Saturn!"

Bernie Stolar would replace Tom Kalinske in 1996 and he wasted no time in distancing himself from the SS. At E3 ‘97 he let it be known that the Saturn was not in SEGA’s future and it was subsequently abandoned the following year to make way for the forthcoming Dreamcast. SEGA would learn from many of their costly mistakes and produce an excellent and more accessible system in the DC, but the damage was done and the DC was doomed to fail.

Although the Saturn died a hideous death, SEGA enjoyed a measure of success with their confrontational and entertaining marketing campaigns, including a widely published spread which featured a naked blonde with screen shots of Saturn games covering her modesty. One memorable TV advert had N64s being shot into the air like clay pigeons, part of a running theme of ridiculing the competition which continued with the Dreamcast. But of all the advertising campaigns, one stood head and shoulders above the rest; the Segata Sanshiro TV spots. Featuring an iconic Judo master who coerces members of the public to play the Saturn and punishes those who do not, these off-beat ads showed SEGA at their jovial best. Segata Sanshiro mastered his arts by bashing the buttons of a giant Saturn controller, breaking N64s with his head and bothering anyone who had the gall to not be playing SS at all times. The series and the console ended with Sanshiro sacrificing himself to save SEGA, mounting and redirecting a missile intended for SEGA’s Tokyo headquarters, riding it off into space and exploding into a million pieces.

I was a proud Saturn owner back in the day, having upgrading from a Mega Drive at great cost, and felt very much betrayed when they stopped supporting the system only a year after I had bought one. Like many others who felt burned by SEGA I opted not to buy a Dreamcast – the first and last SEGA console which I would skip. Unfortunately I sold my original SS collection, but have since accumulated a sizeable library of Japanese SS games, along with two different console models and more peripherals than I need. The SS had no shortage of extras including the Nights 3D analogue controller, which pre-dated the Sony analogue pad by a year, a modem and all sorts of arcade sticks and light-guns.

The SS came in a variety of shapes and sizes, including separate colour schemes for Japan and the West (grey and then later white in Japan, black in most other territories). A trend which has long since passed saw hardware partners such as JVC and Hitachi make their own SEGA licensed Saturn’s which, by and large, differed only cosmetically. There are a number of limited edition versions but one model commands a price tag well above the others: the Hitachi Hi-Saturn Navi. Released in December 1995, Hitachi’s top-of-the-range take on the SS was flatter and thinner than the original model, as it was intended to be installed in a car. It features a karaoke system, TV antenna socket, LCD monitor and GPS, which was quite the luxury at the time. Produced in extremely limited quantities, it cost ¥150,000 (£1,170, $1,870) and they continue to command a princely sum amongst collectors.

Although it was an unprecendented disaster and kicked off the demise of SEGA as a console manufacturer, the SS had no shortage of classic, critically acclaimed games. In particular, the SS is the connoisseur’s choice when it comes to 2D games, as multi-platform 2D titles looked significantly better running on the Saturn’s complicated hardware than they did on its competitors. Many such games utilized the cartridge slot for RAM expansion carts which allowed games like X-Men Vs. Street Fighter and the King of Fighters series to run the frames and sprites which defined them in the arcades. The SS offers definitive versions of a number of 2D classics such as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as well as countless shmups, the most prominent of which is Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun.

The majority of my Japanese Saturn collection

Unfortunately, the list of games that didn’t quite make it to the Saturn is almost as long as those that did. The SS never got its own true Sonic game, as its development was beset with problems and was eventually scrapped once it became clear that the console wouldn’t be hanging around much longer. Sonic-Xtreme was touted as being similar in style to Super Mario 64 and was set to take the series in an entirely new direction.

Shenmue was another casualty of the SS’s short shelf life and the time consuming process of developing for the notoriously complicated system. Earmarked as the console’s killer app, it was transferred to the DC and came to define SEGA’s final system. Grand Theft Auto, Sonic Adventure and Virtua Fighter 3 were all under development for the SS, but instead went on to enjoy great success elsewhere.

Japan enjoyed a varied and generous library of games, dwarfing what was made available in the West. The SS remains one of the great import consoles, and I would strongly recommend any budding SEGA fan to start a Japanese SS collection as opposed to US or PAL. Bernie Stolar was staunch in his belief that the Japanese-centric games that had succeeded in its home territory would not appeal to a Western audience – a belief that was held industry-wide until Final Fantasy VII became a global hit. Excellent games like Sakura Taisen, Policenauts, Shining Force 3: Scenarios 2 & 3, Segata Sanshiro Shinken Yuugi and X-Men Vs. Street Fighter never made it outside their home territory and remain a huge part of the system’s enduring charm. Due to their larger production runs, it is often now cheaper to buy Japanese SS games than tracking down their rarer, Western counterparts.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom throughout the rest of the world, as there was a core base of outstanding titles that were localized, or even made specifically for the Western market. SEGA’s speciality in the arcade was front and centre with all-timers like Sega Rally Championship, Daytona, Virtua Cop 2 and Virtua Fighter 2 leading the charge. NIGHTS into Dreams did an admirable job of standing in for Sonic and is one of the finest games to grace the short lived console. The Panzer Dragoon series is still fondly remembered and is due a Kinect revival, next year I believe, and the side scrolling brawler, Guardian Heroes is a high point of Treasure’s most productive period. Virtual On, best experienced with its bespoke twin stick controller, managed to make a believer even out of a robo-sceptic like me and Decathlete is by far the most enjoyable way of making your thumbs bleed. From Albert Odyssey Gaiden to Zap! Snowboarding Trix there are hundreds of great reasons to own a SS.

Almost 17 years later, and the Saturn remains a controversial topic. The passing of time has helped to lessen the disdain felt by many both within and without the industry, though it is still best remembered as the direct cause of SEGA's fall from grace and often shrugged off as the poor man's Dreamcast. Though it would be irresponsible to ignore its many failings, it would be equally ignorant to turn a blind eye to the many features it championed which have since become standard (analogue controls, online connectivity and "lifestyle" games such as dating discs and photo editing) and the classic games it featured. The SEGA Saturn suffered a series of calamities and proved a vital lesson for the entire industry but, if you are willing to give it a chance, its true qualities will always shine through.


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