Sega Saturn (1995-1988) The Little Black Engine that couldn't
It’s Memorial Day and what’s a better opportunity to remember the fallen by giving a brief retrospective of Sega Saturn’s ill-fated lifespan?
Wouldja believe it has been 25 years since the Sega Saturn console launch made its way to American shores, but through erratic business decisions? Anyone who was a gamer back in those days, will recall the shock, delight, and dismay of the once videogame giant’s foray into the 32-bit arena. Was the Saturn a failure at surprise launch and what could have been done to save it from an inevitable death?
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, Ma’am:
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
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 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.
To Sega’s chagrin, 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.
The Saturn was initially successful in Japan however, failed to sell in large numbers in the United States after its surprise May 1995 launch, four months before its scheduled release date. After the debut of the Nintendo 64 in late 1996, the Saturn rapidly lost market share in the U.S, where it was discontinued in 1998. Having sold 9.5 million units worldwide, the Saturn is considered a commercial failure.
Also, of note, 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 been considered a factor in the console's poor performance. Without the same franchise that played a significant role in the success of the Sega Genesis, the Saturn was faced with an uphill battle and eventually would fall.
If there was one thorn in Saturn’s side, it was not 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. And that was the Sega Saturn
Although the Saturn's design was largely finished before the end of 1993, reports in early 1994 of the technical capabilities of Sony's upcoming PlayStation console had prompted Sega to include another video display processor (VDP) to improve the system's 2D performance as well as texture-mapping.
The Saturn has a 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. But, 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.
Japanese Game developer Namco, who was a longtime arcade rival to Sega, 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 frame rate .)
It's all in the games, man!
Although inferior, especially when 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 exceedingly difficult when developing 3D games.) they manage to pull it off with exciting visuals accompanied by a breathtaking soundtrack .
Sega did not stop there. The Virtual Fighter series was like nothing ever seen or done before. The three-dimensional characters were mapped l with complex, yet surrealistic fighting mechanics. The game's roster ranged from a Ninja to a silvery Humanoid reminiscent to the T-2000 and what’s cool is that characters like Jacky and Sarah Bryant utilized moves that were straight from the legendary Bruce Lee.
It’s no doubt that the VF franchise paved the way for other well-known 3D fighting games like Tekken, Battle Arena Toshinden, Dead or Alive, etc. To further maintain their support for the Saturn platform, 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 some phantasmagoric setting, making this an innovative title not only due to its premise, but it was bundled with a new Analog 3D controller meant to enhance the performance of the gameplay. Not to mention, compete against N64's proprietary Analog stick Controller.
In keeping with the tradition of the glory days of Console wars, Sega released an attack ad when promoting Nights. Its target, you guessed it-Playstation!
Fade to Black
Due to frequent disagreements with Sega of Japan, 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 format 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, the Dreamcast!
Despite the great quality of heavy hitters, Nights into Dreams...the Panzer Dragoon series, along with the Virtua Fighter series, the Saturn's reception within the United States, were less than favorable due to its complex hardware design and limited third-party support.
Those two 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 quality 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 limited quantities, making them more of an 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 lackadaisical approach from 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 catalyst in the console's poor performance. But in hindsight it was Sega's management or lack thereof, which has been criticized for its decision-making during the system's development and cancellation. Thus, due to these poor decisions, the Sega Corporation will eventually exit the Hardware business five years later.
Despite its poor reception, the Saturn had proven itself to be a force to reckon with. The ambitious games, and innovative peripherals were among the console’s strong suit and enough 1st and third party titles, would have at least sustain its longevity, amirite? I cannot stress enough if only Sega's upper management had made more rational choices. This niche platform would have been a much stronger contender instead of an overpriced doorstop.
#Rest in Power