sega saturn 32-bit console from the 90s

Sega Saturn: The 32-Bit Power House That’s Worth Your Time

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The Sega Saturn seems to be coming back in to vogue and rightfully so.

Sega’s 32-Bit console was well and truly beaten by the PlayStation back in the 90’s with the console being discontinued in 1998 in both the UK and the US, however, it seems that now is the time that the console is gaining traction with collectors and a new generation of gamers who are wondering what made the Saturn console so special.

A Brief History of The Sega Saturn

The Sega Saturn started to be developed long before its release in 1994 in Japan (1995 in the West). It was being developed as the ultimate 2D console and a true progression of the Megadrive/Genesis.

The Sega Saturn was 32-Bit, had a double speed CD-Rom drive and cartridge slot which many thought at the time was for backwards compatibility for the world dominating MegaDrive/Genesis.

Sega’s Saturn was touted as a 2D powerhouse with a huge colour palette, huge amount of sprites on screen, rotation and zooming effects and a whole host of other features that would have made the arcade experience at home as pixel perfect as it was in the early 90’s.

The dawn of 3D polygon games however was the buzz of the time nearer to launch and with Sony entering the next generation arena with the PlayStation which emphasised its polygon prowess, Sega added more processors to the Sega Saturn board to counter this.

This adding on of processors to enable this ability gave the console a disadvantage as it was difficult to program for and this led to more developers making games for Sony’s new titan.

At launch the Saturn retailed for just shy of £400, Sony came along at £279.99 and a lot of hype and deep corporate pockets and this put Sega on the backfoot from the start.

On top of this discrepancy of pricing the disastrous launch a year earlier of the stop gap 32X add on for the Megadrive was a commercial failure that made a lot of Sega fans decide that the PlayStation was a safer bet which also wowed gamers with its fantastic Ridge Racer conversion that was unreal to see at the time.

The Saturn also had a lot of arcade ports which were great for a short blast, however gamers were evolving and wanted more substance that their hard earned money could buy. It’s not to say there weren’t large time consuming games, it was the fact that they were given centre stage.

The Saturn soldiered on until 1998 in the UK and was discontinued without much fanfare and at the time was not really noticed.

What Went Wrong For The Sega Saturn?

As with all things, it wasn’t just one thing it was a multitude of factors that led to its demise.

Sega in the early 90’s was the upstart rising up with the behemoth that is Nintendo and successfully went head to head with them and could do no wrong.

The launch of the Mega CD and its promise of a bright gaming future full of interactive movie style games was a lost cause, FMV games whilst impressive (technically) at the time were mostly devoid of any meaningful gameplay and gamers who brought the system were mildly burned by this lack of games that were either Megadrive games with a flashy intro or cutscenes or low resolution interactive movies.

There were of course some really good games for the system, however for every good game there were at least two bad ones.

The launch of the Sega 32X also damaged Sega’s reputation and gamers trust at the time.

The system launched as a way to bring new life to the now six years old Megadrive/Genesis was an add on that like the Mega CD was promoted as a way to enhance the Mega Drive experience.

When it came out in the UK, the Saturn was already out in Japan and apart from a few games that were hyped such as Star Wars Arcade and Virtua Racing Deluxe, it was mostly ignored by gamers and most importantly developers.

The System on had less than 40 games made for it and those who brought it were most likely not impressed with this along with the £10 off a game vouchers that came bundled with it at launch.

1994 and through to 1995 was also a year where there were a huge amount of consoles available to choose from.

From the super expensive machines like the 3DO, Phillips CD-i and Neo Geo CD to the Atari Jaguar and legacy systems already out gamers had to choose wisely and Sega with its multiple systems and add-on’s just confused gamers at the time.

The PlayStation had already come out in Japan and was the darling of multiformat games magazines with its impressive launch lineup and big roster of developers on board already promising a new way of playing games was coming.

Sony also marketed the console as one that could be in the living room rather than the bedroom and toured nightclubs across the country which gave it a reputation of something grown ups can play.

Nintendo, whilst late to the party were also gaining more column inches with its partnership with Silicon Graphics with the Ultra 64 (Nintendo 64) promising true 3D worlds for games like Mario and Zelda.

Sega struggled to justify the Saturn and its price in this chaotic era where there was a huge amount of choice

Price cuts did happen and a fantastic library of games did come out, however when games like Tekken and Final Fantasy 7 came out and Tomb Raiders and Resident Evils sequels (which were huge franchises at the time) didn’t make it on the Saturn its flame started to flicker out rapidly.

For those gamers that stayed with the system the number of games coming out greatly reduced until its discontinuation of the system in the UK and US in 1998.

What Was Good About The Sega Saturn?

The Sega Saturn was hugely popular in Japan and carried on until the end 2000, two years after the Dreamcast’s launch there.

Being a 2D powerhouse meant a huge amount of Shoot ’em ups being made for the system as well as 2D fighting games.

The Cartridge slot that everyone initially thought was for Mega Drive backward compatibility was great for game like Metal Slug as it was used for giving the system an extra 4 Megabytes of RAM which gave an almost arcade perfect conversion that was very impressive. For once, the Playstation version had animation frames cut and was very much a poorer port in comparison.

This ability to handle the latest arcade games such as Streetfighter 3 and arcade perfect conversions of arcade classics such as Out Run, Rad Mobile (it was called Gale Racer for some reason), Afterburner, Power Drift and Space Harrier was impressive and fun to have at home.

Sega also had its latest roster of arcade hits to bring to the system such as Sega Rally, Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter 2, Manx TT, Die Hard Arcade, Virtua Cop 1 & 2, The House of the Dead.

The Saturn also saw the introduction of series such as Panzer Dragoon and the Saturn’s swansong Panzer Dragoon Saga is regarded as one of the greatest games to come out on the system. Nights into Dreams was a great experiment that worked brilliantly with the 3D controller, it’s design was clearly the precursor to the Dreamcast’s control pad.

The Saturn was supported by the likes of Treasure who gave the world Guardian Heroes and Radiant Silvergun (Japan only) and the huge amount of shoot ’em ups and fighting game which we mentioned earlier gave die hard fans a system that they cherished.

The PlayStation made gaming mainstream, the Saturn turned into a hardcore gamers paradise with its exclusive roster of games that while at the time were only enjoyed by the few are now desired today.

Why Is The Sega Saturn Becoming Sought After Today?

There are a few reasons why the Saturn is rising in popularity.

  • Emulation got better.

Emulating the Saturn has until recently been difficult. The multi-CPU set up is far more difficult to get working than single processor systems. For years it had always been difficult to get running and it wasn’t as supported as other systems.

It has got better and easier and this opens up a new generation of gamers to the machine and its library of games.

Once a barrier to entry its now easier than ever to have it running smoothly although its still not perfect.

  • The rarity of the Sega Saturn.

There will always be a glut of games like Sega Rally which sell for a few quid but there are games like Panzer Dragoon Saga, Burning Rangers, Guardian Heroes and many, many more that are worth a small fortune today.

This exclusivity and elusiveness of availability of these gems means collectors are going crazy when they see one in the wild or going into bidding frenzies on auction sites.

  • Hard Drive based devices to play the games on original hardware.

The introduction of drive emulators that can be installed in the Sega Saturn with minimal effort along with a hard drive to store the games opens up the Saturn to gamers who refuse to pay £100’s or more on a game and don’t want to emulate but play on original hardware.

These devices also increase the life of the machine as CD drive failures are happening more and more.

  • Japanese Exclusives

The Sega Saturn was a success in Japan and the ability to buy the games for far less than their UK or US versions.

The Japanese Sega Saturn was home to lots of Shoot ’em ups, fighting games and arcade games that never saw a release over here.

The last game to officially come out on the Sega Saturn in Japan was in December 2000.

Buying these games is generally cheaper than UK or US versions and with devices like the Action Replay cartridge meant playing region locked games is easy and non intrusive compared to having to physically modify other consoles for the same results.

The Saturn hardware also saw many different models come out in Japan including the Derby Stallion version whose case is a see through and licensed version such as Hitachi’s (Sega chip maker for the Saturn) HI-Saturn among many.

  • It’s a classic slab of gaming history.

The Sega Saturn is a fantastic machine with a diverse line-up of games including shoot em up’s, fighting games, RPG’s, adventure & platformers, sports and puzzle games.

It’s main power was in its 2D graphics capabilities, however it did pull off 3D polygon based games well too for its time.

The Sega Saturn had plenty of exclusives that were not available anywhere else such as their arcade conversions including the Virtua Fighter series, Fighting Vipers, Fighters MegaMiX, Daytona USA, Burner Rangers, the Panzer Dragoon series, Virtua On (with its’s twin stick setup), House of the Dead, Guardian Heroes and many many more.

It did lack a true next generation Sonic game, although gamers got a glimpse in the Sonic Museum area of what the future held for the blue Hedgehog in Sonic Jam, although recent footage of the cancelled Sonic XTreme has come to light and Sonic R while an OK racing game was graphically impressive.

The Sega Saturn had around 1,100 games released for it across all regions during it’s run between 1994 and 2000 which is impressive for a ‘failed’ machine and for gamers and collectors looking for a new system to collect for will be a fun albeit pretty expensive endeavour to take on.

It’s also crazy to think that the 32-Bit machine will be 30 years old in 2024 and this milestone will also be a factor for increased interest in the console.

The Sega Saturn’s Future…Homebrew And More.

One things that has been asked by fans of the Sega is a for a Sega Saturn Mini to be released, if Sega did this for its 30th anniversary this would create some hype for the machine and its diverse library of games.

It would be great to see though although would it be as popular as the previous Mega Drive Mini’s that have been released? That is doubtful but there must be a legitimate business reason why Sega haven’t done that yet.

If one isn’t announced to coincide with its 30th anniversary than don’t be surprised if it never happens although we’d be very happy to be proven wrong here.

  • The rise of homebrew games.

As previously mentioned the Saturn was a notoriously hard machine to program for so over the years it’s been quite devoid of homebrew titles compared to other systems, apart from a few simpler text based adventure games like The Lighthouse of Sao Bento Do Ouest until recently that is with new open source development kits being made available for budding homebrew developers

We’d like to finish off by highlighting this great video showcasing the works in progress which include Sonic Xtreme, Quake and an impressive game called Bio-Hazard 2 which is a complete reworking of Resident Evil 2 and what is required to start making games yourself for the Sega Saturn.

Final Summary

The Saturn was overshadowed by the PlayStation when it first came out in the UK. Sony was on another level in regard to company size (and marketing budget) at the time.

Couple this with an weary customer base at the time due to previous mishaps the Saturn quickly lost its footing in the 32/64-Bit era and bowed out in favour of Sega’s final console, the Dreamcast.

The library of games that did come out were varied, fun and in many cases technically impressive ,no one at the time or even now can dismiss its 2D capabilities which were the best out there for a long, long time.

Whilst it wasn’t a hit over here, it was in Japan where it had a decent run of six years and has a massive library of games to be discovered and enjoyed.

The Saturn is for many the most mysterious and least accessible console from Sega in the west.

This mystery is what we think is making it stand out now and become more popular than ever. It’s small run of games towards the end makes collecting for it an exclusive and expensive pastime but one that will surely have some serious bragging rights included.

From the arcade hits of the day to obscure shoot ’em up and RPG’s the Saturn still has something for everyone and with the rise of homebrew it might just be something that keeps on giving joy to gamers 30 years after it launch.

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