Saturn: Future before the Future

A look at the system's reputable capabilities.
January 26, 2015
Okay, I did a Saturn article not too long ago I know. But rather than going past its history of bad, this time I want to do something different; I want to go over how innovative it was in the video game industry for what it was, not how it sold. And, this was originally going to be a light comment on something else, but it flourished into so many words that I just had to put it in article form instead. Also, I am not a SEGA fanboy; I just really enjoy how well SEGA built their Saturn system and I wanted to dedicate an article to it. In this article; I could care less about any of their other systems cause I never enjoyed any particular game on them, but the Saturn just had a good library that I liked a lot and its idea of creativity intrigued me quite a lot. I will discuss mostly the pros and occasionally the cons.

On my last article, all I covered was about how the Saturn was a failure; and many ways it could have done better. My sentiments here are to simply talk about what the system was; its capabilities, its hardware, its controllers, many things to discuss. Well I did bring up all of these last time, I will now talk about them more in-depth. Last time I was really vague about them, like a lot. This article is literally the vice versa of my last SEGA Saturn article, so if you haven't read that one I advise you do. But, after this one; since chances are you might not have the motivation to read it otherwise.

The SEGA Saturn. What was your first thought of this console's name? That it was something bigger, something better; far more revolutionary than the others? Ha just kidding, we're not going THAT deep here. We are simply discussing its capabilities as a system; no need to write a poem about it. You already know what it is: SEGA simply decided to name its next console after a planet, maybe to represent something. Perhaps, that it's a very vast system; which it was and also SEGA Saturn is catchy and simple, I always did like its title. SEGA is known for having creative console titles, as before it was using Genesis; the definition of which is "the first sacred book in the Torah and the Hebrew Bible" which is implying that SEGA's system was to be something new, something great; something nobody has ever seen before. A truly sacred system. Or perhaps they just like the title Genesis. Regardless, the American market was much more active here in their approach, as it was simply called Mega Drive everywhere else. That sounded pretty awesome too though, but I can not think up an insightful definition on that one. Needless to say, America did not have to change the SEGA Saturn's name; it was just that catchy. However, their other renditions of its cosmetic features can easily be put into question.

Two Dimensions to the Next Level

If something is doing well, why not make it better? 32-bit in place of 16-bit, thus more detailed 2D games. It makes sense, right? SEGA had all of the market share for video games at the time thanks to their successful SEGA Genesis, so they probably figured people would love 2D if it became more advanced. And believe me, 32-bit was an advancement over 16-bit.

Literally every single 2D game on the Super Nintendo that had competition with the SEGA Saturn lost. This was mainly because this was when SEGA took their 2D game up by a lot. And due to the creators implementing the hardware so well, it was probably easier for 2D developers to work with a Saturn for their games than on the Super Nintendo with special thanks to its CD storage and music quality.

So, for example, take a look at Mega Man up there. Clearly, there is a big, noticeable change. Mega Man himself possesses lots more detail than he once did once when seen on the Saturn's capabilities. However, Mega Man was not one of the better titles to translate over to the SEGA Saturn as many still considered the Super Nintendo version a lot better because it had better music, which I can agree on because I dislike the Saturn version's new music. But, graphically speaking, the Saturn wins by a lot here.

Now, here is a more in-depth comparison with Street Fighter Alpha 2. I figure, maybe I should also compare with a video game series that used to have a liking to Nintendo: Street Fighter. Capcom gave Nintendo lots of love thanks to the Super Nintendo having a superior SFX chip and slightly better 2D than the Genesis. And by the time Street Fighter Alpha 2 was released on the system, Capcom knew how to use that system and probably had a custom chip so it could do more effects and have even more sounds. And speaking of, look at the Ryu here; he looks so fleshed out with that extra size. 16-bit still uses all of the main colors that 32-bit does it's just that it had more limitations on how detailed they could look; and that is where 32-bit comes in to fix the issue with the additional shades of colors present to it.

However, the Ryu comparison is completely irrelevant to this as the game used a simple set of colors as you can see and the Super Nintendo still possesses quite a lot of the same visual detail. So this was more of an example on how the Saturn has better 2D hardware as well, which allows him to appear bigger. Also, since the Alpha games are among the fastest Street Fighter titles of the nineties, the Super Nintendo mostly lost thanks to it not feeling as quick and precise as the SEGA Saturn version did. Also, the Super Nintendo never really had a good button layout for the Street Fighter games to begin with either.

Dedicated Processors

The Saturn had a dedicated processor for everything including Sound, Video, 2D, 3D, etc. It was very advanced for its time and definitely made the Saturn feel superior to its competitors. The Saturn only suffered in its delivery of games because developers had trouble using its hardware. This is the sole reason why the Saturn failed in the end is because it was just too complex, but if utilized properly it was definitely far superior than its competitors.

As mentioned already, the Saturn is a 32-bit machine. It believed that 2D was the future and thus decided to return the 2D processor again. However, at the last minute, and in order to save their butts in case 3D did become the main thing this generation, they threw in an additional 3D processor so that all 3D games wouldn't just go to the N64 and Playstation.

The Saturn's 2D processor allows for many more graphical effects in 2D games to occur, well the Playstation used a faux-2D method due to their lack of an individual processor for it. The best example when comparing the Saturn's 2D capabilities is with a game that is the shining gem in my own SEGA Saturn collection which is Street Fighter Zero 3, the most successful arcade replication of the game to date as nothing else has ever included all of the animations the way the Saturn did.

The Playstation version's most well-known flaw in their port is its reduced character sprites.

Now, well I should be comparing a 2D game with more graphical power, most of the differences between the Playstation and Saturn in 2D are usually similar. But, if the Playstation port needs more effects, its solution is to compress sprites or even go so far as to remove certain elements which can make the Playstation version of a 2D game look far inferior to the Saturn version which in most cases it usually did.

The Saturn's individual processors did help it run games a lot better if a developer knew what they were doing. And at some points, both the 2D and 3D processors have worked together a couple of times, but the titles of which that utilized this dual-core feature are actually pretty rare to come by. One notable example is a certain famous shooter developed by Treasure. It was going to be available on the Playstation as well, but was ultimately canned when their efforts became futile due to how much they would have to compress the game for it to work.

However, the Playstation has just one prominent advantage over the Saturn that made it feel the most futuristic with its 3D: the special effects processor. Basically, transparency and gouraud shading were mostly in it. For those confused, gouraud shading is an effect that makes shadows look more noticeably detailed. When combined with transparency, it can give off a lot of detail.

Crosshatching wasn't the best for shadows.

The identification wasn't necessary here.

The reason why the Saturn can't do these effects as easily is mostly because it has to do it directly off its own processing power. Which can result in it having to lower its resolution to meet demands and eventually developers just gave up and decided to make the game look bad and unfinished.
But, what the Saturn could do best is 2D and 3D processing, and there is in fact one game that exists that has the characters in 2D sprite form, but within a 3D terrain. This game has both gouraud shading AND transparency effects present on the Saturn original. A Playstation port exists that surprisingly looks inferior most of the time even in the 3D areas which is quite shocking. In fact, shading effects are mostly non-existent on the Playstation port. Well on the other hand with the Saturn, the textures and sprites look far better. In fact, the Saturn original was subject to universal acclaim well the Playstation port just got positive reviews and a fan petition was made to localize it. So this really is the best comparison I can bring up to you that proves the Saturn is superior when utilized correctly, but is just troublesome to program and that's why most of the time it loses.

The Saturn original has textures of a higher quality and the buildings have shadows, well the Playstation port is completely oblivious of these visuals.

Out of all the processors they had, it really is a shame that SEGA never thought about that ninth processor for separate special effects integration. It would have for sure made the Saturn a worthy competitor, as that was the one processor that mattered the most in the end since transparencies and shading are two of the things many bash the 3D Saturn games for. I mean, due to the example above, you'd figure developers just need to put more effort into the game to make it work, right? Well, most developers are usually adequate at best, and this is why only a small handful of 3D games are superior on the Saturn, as those are made from proficient developers.

The Playstation is not perfect itself as it forgot about that 2D and it ultimately screwed them over in the end for those games. Thus, Playstation was the best 3D and the SEGA Saturn was the best 2D. Though at a time where 2D was shining the best and 3D looked cool, but really awkward, I felt as though SEGA had good intentions on deciding to focus on the 2D more.

Build Quality

The Saturn felt so polished and the creators really knew the meaning of the word improvement. Compared to the Genesis, the Saturn feels way more modern than it should have. Internal memory storage, WiFi connectivity (through a Sega NetLink add-on cart), a friendly hub menu, a built-in clock (some games utilized this feature for real-time effects) and much more made it feel better than its competition and a significant improvement to its predecessor. All of these features felt so innovative for their time, but many failed to notice them yet as they later would two generations later.

This system was most likely the biggest video game console of the nineties and the one with the most features available.

The games looked really professional too, in Japan anyway. With unique CD art that popped just as much as the jewel cases they were encased within did. And inside the case was a peculiar item: the Spine Cards. These little cards gave a little information about the game and have a few pictures on them as well. Unfortunately, they will ultimately upset collectors thanks to many Saturn owners probably not realizing their worth and perhaps thought they were an advertisement so they most likely threw them away. Spine cards retail a used game for much more as well since collectors love to have things in complete sets.

For owners of an American Saturn, the small case and luxury spine card were not welcomed additions as they aimed for huge cases instead for some reason and thought the spine card was pointless to include. I can agree on this, because well I did enjoy them we already did have a manual for the game that should have pictures and information about the game. Regardless, they were a nice addition and display all of the simple information and even tells you if the game requires a certain RAM cart to run it or not. But, they are really hard to come by within a used game for the aforesaid reasons and by the end of your Saturn collection, if you're not a professional collector that is, then more than half of your games will probably not have spine cards in them.

Thanks to the gold around the SEGA Saturn logo, it just looked a lot more premium.

The RAM expansion, which was utilized much more often in Japan, was also a very nifty bonus as it helped out lots of games. This was the sole reason why the Playstation usually failed at doing 2D is its limited RAM, well the Saturn had more RAM in its own storage and this expansion, which gave them a huge lead when it came to how many effects they could put in their games. If the 3D games used this, I guarantee they could have made games where the Saturn could run at full resolution with all special effects present.

The Controllers

Being the first company to do so, SEGA had an alternate way of play for all your games. So, you had a 2D controller, which at first you'd assume is just for 2D games but it works best for shooters. Its D-Pad feels like one of the best D-Pads you've ever felt, and despite it being a 360 one it is VERY precise. The button layout was also creative too; they simply believed you'd be using three buttons for most games, and the extra buttons were simply gray and made smaller, well the ones you'd normally use are colorful and concave; how fun. The grip material feels really good and looks particularly sui generis. And the part that is glossy won't ever be touched by your hands thanks to the grip material extending to the front-bottom part where the edge of your palm normally rests well holding a controller.

I also love the idea of having six front face buttons. I never liked having to readjust my pointers on the extra shoulder buttons, and using them in general for fighting games as the high attacks are mapped up there and it's awkward. Speaking of which, their shoulder buttons click and feel pretty good. Though, they're unfortunately glossy. SEGA also felt different for not even labeling them; they are simply left blank, which I imagine would have been their tradition if they continued making consoles. And they match the start button's color for some odd reason, I personally thought they would look cooler just being gray like those extra buttons. But eventually, I got used to it and in the end it looked kind of unique I guess.

Truly is the best controller to use for any 2D game.

The 3D controller has a bit of the classic SEGA reversal that they do of Nintendo's stuff. With the concave bullseye on the joystick instead of convex, it's simply a nub instead of poking out and lastly it's probably the biggest joystick, or joynub in this case, that I have ever used. Well Nintendo's feels like the tiniest, but definitely is the only joystick to properly define the word joystick as that thing stuck out. And, just for good measure, I suppose since the Playstation controller had an in-between thing going on, I guess it's just Joy. Either way, the 3D Pad really is something that SEGA pulled out of their butt because of their last minute inclusion of 3D.

The 3D controller's D-Pad feels more flexible for fighting games; likewise with the buttons, as they are now all the same size and evenly centered. So no more separation of grayed convex and colorful concave they can all coexist in peaceful symmetry. And lastly, the Saturn is the first system to have analog triggers on its controller; such a surprise, but this was just a bit farther ahead of its time. However, I love pressing analog triggers more than digital, so I love using them; even if it's not for a digital reason.

Never has a circle with grips felt as professional as this.


The SEGA Saturn had all of its negative feedback because it had bad ownership after its original creators left, leaving such a premium system in the hands of bad leaders whom drove it down to the ground. The Saturn has a history, a good one. But, most of you seem to acknowledge its negative one only most of the time.

To this day, ever since I bought a Saturn, every single game I get is fun and exciting. I never had one of these as a child, and only recently heard about it. But, its impressive mark on the video game industry is more revolutionary than the Genesis' was in terms of its improvements that don't just feel incremental either.

The Saturn port of this shooter surpassed the original Neo Geo AES version thanks to some proficient graphical enhancements.

But, a question came to mind before I purchased it: can't I just emulate it? No, I can not; at least not in proper playable form anyway. Every Saturn emulator that emulates raw ISO files has had a slow emulation; an unplayable experience if you will, and thus the only way I could truly enjoy this system was if I got it myself. After I read all about the system's positives, realized its primary library was of 2D fighters, shooters and arcade ports, I was ready to load the UZI and shoot my wallet to smithereens.

And if you are still doubting the Saturn, I suggest you buy it today if you like retro games; it is indefinitely the best system you can add to your collection thanks to its longevity and novelty; this system aged quite exceptionally. Never has a nineties system felt more futuristic than this, not even the Dreamcast feels futuristic anymore from my perspective.
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