Confessions of a Sega Saturn Owner
So, what was it like owning that other 32 bit console in the mid 90s?I
t is not easy being a middle child: just ask the Sega Saturn.
The Saturn was, for all intents and purposes, one of Sega s biggest marketing screw ups of the 90s, and since we are talking about Sega s marketing screw ups in the 90s, you best believe that covers a VAST amount of terrain. From a retroactive standpoint, it seems a tad harsh to look back on the Saturn with such downcast eyes: after all, it had the unenviable task of bridging the 16 bit era to the 128 bit era, which is only slightly less difficult than stretching your toes toward your own sternum. Still, as the missing link between the Genesis and the Dreamcast, you would think that the Saturn would be, well, a little bit more than what it ultimately was. By no means was it a bad console, and it did have some tremendous titles on it, but for something that SHOULD HAVE brought the company into the 3D era, it cannot be construed as anything other than a disappointing effort from the house Zaxxon built.
I received my Sega Saturn for Christmas, circa 1997, and by then, the system had been out for well over a year. Ultimately, I consider the system to be fairly underrated, but at the same time, I had (and still do) have same MAJOR GRIPES with the console.
You really can t talk about the Saturn without first talking about its predecessor. In case you were not aware, the Sega Genesis was pretty much the best thing humanity has ever created, so expectations for the Saturn were THROUGH the proverbial roof . . . Of expectations.
The Saturn was TRULY desirable because the side-consoles released by Sega post Genesis were, by and large, kind of lacking. To be fair, there actually were a TREMENDOUS amount of great games on the Sega CD and the Game Gear (and uh, not so much for the 32X), but at the same time, the offerings really were not what Genesis fans were hoping the next evolutionary step in gaming would be. Full motion video and full color handheld gaming (with a twenty minute battery life) is cool and all, but we wanted one thing: POLYGONS.
The so-called next level of gaming involved that jump to 3D. At that point in gaming history, you have to remember that TRULY polygonal game play was still in its formative stages: remember, this was a time in which Virtua Fighter and Donkey Kong Country were considered graphically cutting edge, so yeah, we still had a ways to go until we hit Soul Calibur territory with the visuals.
Circa 1996, it was a horse race between Sega and Nintendo: with Nintendo making strides in the 64 bit world with the. . . Well, you figure it out, Sega was poised to strike back with the less powerful yet still sleek and sultry Saturn. Seeing as how Genesis sales bested Nintendo in most non-Japanese markets, AND the fact that the Saturn was CD-based (making it easier AND less expensive to program games), it seemed like it was a given that Sega could easily bounce back from its revenue loses in its peripheral and handheld gambles and regain majority share of the U.S. console market.
And then, along came the Sony Playstation.
Although in hindsight we KNOW what the obvious choice SHOULDVE been, you have to remember that tertiary consoles, up to that point, had fared about as well as Verne Troyer in a slam dunk contest. The Jaguar, the 3DO, the CD-I. . . pretty much EVERYONE figured that Sony s foray into home gaming would have suffered the same fate as those HORRIBLY wayward attempts to enter the sector.
And so, by 1997, it had become a triad race between Sony, Nintendo and Sega, and to the shock of the industry, Sony was kicking all kinds of ass. The N64 has awesome first party titles, but titles were few and far in between: the cost of developing games on the console kept many third party developers away from the machine, and developers turned their eyes towards that newfangled Playstation instead. And Sega? Well, they seemed to be doing EVERYTHING in their powers to shoot themselves in the foot, including releasing the machine MONTHS in advance without even telling retailers that the thing was dropping early, and at an initial price one hundred dollars more expensive than the PS1. At the SAME time, they were juggling support for the Saturn, the Genesis, the Sega CD, the Game Gear, the 32X, a horrible waste of hardware called the PICO, their arcade titles, and an upcoming money burner called the Sega Nomad. Thats EIGHT simultaneous consoles being managed by one company: if you have ever tried lifting EIGHT pancakes with one pinky, I think you might have an idea of how burdensome such a plan REALLY is.
Just a year into the lifespan of the Saturn, I think Sega KNEW that they screwed the pooch on the console. The third party support was about as fruitful as the womb of an eighty year old, and the internal developers seemed to be putting out everything EXCEPT the games people wanted to play. Ultimately, what gamers WANTED was a machine that brought Sega Genesis titles INTO the world of 3D. You know, like how Super Mario 64 brought a beloved 2D franchise into that next dimension. From the get-go, Sega was hell bent on doing anything BUT giving the gamers out there what they REALLY wanted, and to me, it is one of the greatest wastes of potential in gaming history.
Imagine the possibilities: a 3D Streets of Rage that would have kicked Fighting Force right in its big, polygonal ball sack. An awesome, 3D Ecco title with a level of immersion that made Pilot Wings feel like an Atari game. A 3D Vector-Man title to mop the floor with all of those RARE developed titles on the 64. If Sega KNEW what they were doing, the Saturn COULD HAVE been one of the most kick ass consoles EVER.
Alas, there was no Streets of Rage, nor any Ecco, nor any Vector-Man on day one of the Saturn Launch. There was no 3D Phantasy Star to combat Final Fantasy 7, nor was there a 3D Gunstar Heroes follow-up to blow away whatever the 64 was putting out before Golden Eye. For the love of all that is digitally holy, Sega did not even bother putting out a 3D SONIC game on its new console, which is kind of like making a cake without icing: it simply DEFEATS the purpose of what it is that you should be doing.
Ultimately, I wound up choosing Sega for the very reason listed above. At a local department store which will remain nameless (hint: its logo is kind of circular), the three next generation consoles were lined up side by side at kiosks: sure, I was as impressed with Super Mario 64 as everybody else, and yeah, Crash Bandicoot looked kind of entertaining, but I was simply CERTAIN that the big S would pull through with its 32 bit Genesis successor. I mean, how much COULD they let me down? Its Sega, after all, isn t it?
Out of ALL of the kids in my junior high school, I was the ONLY person with a Saturn. Apparently, everybody else had either rolled the die with Sony or Nintendo, and in the video game equivalent of the Pepsi challenge, I ended up choosing Faygo. Secondly, NONE of the video stores in town had any Saturn games for rental. Seeing as how I had ALMOST no means of trying out a game before purchasing them, I was basically left picking games at random and just HOPING that I did not drop fifty bucks on a piece of shit compressed into CD-ROM format. And when you are in the 7th grade, coming across FIFTY bucks is not something that just happens at the drop of the hat. This was a serious investment, and I had the least stable stock in the video game market.
Because of the above factors, my experiences with the system were quite limited. I think I may have played about a dozen or so games on the machine, and absolutely none of the titles that were retroactively hailed as masterpieces. For example, that one Panzer Dragoon game everybody is always nutting themselves over in the gaming media? Not only did nobody care about it, nobody even KNEW that it existed. When people have no idea you just released your purported killer app, you KNOW that your marketing has dropped the ball, and HORRENDOUSLY.
Still, what games I did manage to get my hands were, by and large, quite good. The games listed below are pretty much every game I ever inserted into my Saturn unit, and as you will see, the quality of the titles fluctuate from pretty damned great to I-want-to-kick-my-own-balls-off-for-wasting-40-dollars-on-this-chunk-of-crap awful.
Fighters Mega Mix
I think this is the game that really justified owning the Saturn for me. As far as I am concerned, it was the best 3D fighting game on a home console, up until Tekken 3, anyway. And it certainly kicked the crap out of whatever overrated games were on the PS1 at the same timeframe. Battle Arena Tush En Den? The hell are you trying to sell me on, Sony?
Anyway, Fighters Mega Mix was basically a game combining the rosters of two really great Sega fighting franchises, Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers, plus some kooky special characters, including a bear with only two attacks, a kung fu fighting cactus, and a giant green duck monster. For what reason. . . I really cannot tell you.
As I was saying, this was the first 3D fighter on a console DONE RIGHT, and I played the ever loving crap out of it. By the time the Wings won their second cup, I was pretty much UNSTOPPABLE with Akira, and if you had the grapes to challenge me on the elevator level, you were getting your ass Hans Gruber-ed in under 20 sec flat.
In a way, this was the Sega equivalent of Super Smash Bros., only based around a TECHNICAL fighting engine instead of whored out guest stars. It s really hard to say much more about the game, other than the fact that it was a top-notch, thinking man s fighter. It may not have been the greatest killer app ever released, but it was good enough to warrant ownership of the machine, in my humble opinion.
Baku Baku Animal
NEVER underestimate the power of an addictive puzzler. Tetris pretty much gave Nintendo the handheld market on a silver platter, and Baku Baku Animal may very well have been the game that kept me holding on to the hopes of future Sega greatness.
You scoff at such lofty praise? This is easily one of the best puzzle games I have ever played, and a game, on my radar at least, that is worthy of mention in the same breath as such vaunted genre standards as Tetris Attack and Bust-A-Move.
Well, the only games out there that require LESS explication than the fighting genre are puzzle titles, I suppose: in Baku Baku Animal, it is your job as the invisible hand of god (or whatever) to mix and match some animal heads with their corresponding foodstuffs. For example, you have to rearrange the blocks so that the puppy gets a bone, the monkey a banana, so on and so forth. It sounds incredibly simplistic, but in its uncomplicated game play lies a deceptively engaging (and demanding) little arcade puzzler. This was the kind of game that I would play when I had thirty minutes to kill, and end up playing for two hours straight. It may not be an all time classic in anybody else s book, but for me, this was hands down one of the most memorable titles of the 32-64 bit era.
You did know the original RE was not a PS1 exclusive, right?
Anyway, the controls on the PS1 were HORRENDOUS, and on the Saturn (especially sans the dual shock controller), the tank controls were even MORE migraine inducing. That being said, I positively ADORED this game when it first came out, and I cannot lie, I still feel my heart swell whenever I hear someone utter the words don t, open, and door in the same sentence.
I was going through a pretty big George A Romero phase at the time, so I loved RE more than a fat kid loved cake, ice cream and chicken nuggets combined. Yes, the lines were cheesy, the controls were next to impossible to master and some of the game design was flat out ridiculous, but this game absolutely EMBODIED everything that I loved about crappy horror. Who out there DOES NOT recall the dog jumping through the window and freaking the hell out? That was one of the definitive moments in 90s gaming, and a moment that, to this day, makes me jump out of my seat a little.
The game had faults, and I will never forgive Capcom for including such a horrific save system in the title (it was not until about a YEAR of playing that I realized the game even HAD a save feature), but there is so much nostalgia packed in this game that I cannot help but reflect on it with much splendor and joy.
Man, anybody else craving a Jill sandwich right about now?
NiGHTS into Dreams
A beautiful game in its own right, and probably the closest the Saturn got to replicating the success of Super Mario 64. Although that is the game this one is ALWAYS compared to, I always kind of likened this title more to something like Pilot Wings, or even an Ecco the Dolphin title. The game certainly has a sense of exploration (despite being fairly linear in design), but everything is just so aesthetically pleasing and finely tuned that it seems like you are doing something MORE than just riding rails. Anytime a game can make you think you are doing MORE than you are actually doing is certain a rarity in gaming, regardless of the timeframe.
The controls in this game were absolutely spot-on, and probably the best flight controls in gaming up to that point. This game was also the best example of analog stick gaming to come out on a home console until Ape Escape, as it made that old ass D-Pad feel downright antediluvian by comparison.
Nights is without question a tremendous game, but I think gamers tend to give it a little bit TOO much credit. It was a top-notch title, for sure, perhaps even one of the 100 best titles of the decade, but it certainly had some flaws, namely, the repetitive game play and the absurdly easy difficulty level. For what it was, however, it was an immensely enjoyable experience, and the sort of game the Saturn should have had SCORES of in its library. A financial bomb when originally released, this game is now heralded as a cult classic, and for good reason: it is one of the best games on the Saturn, and one of the best 2D to 3D transitional games you will ever come across.
Clockwork Knight I & II
These games deserved SO much more attention than they received. OK, so the games may be an incredible rip off of Toy Story, but they are also among the best pseudo 3D action games I have ever played. This was, fundamentally, Sega s answer to Donkey Kong Country, and while I think that the games were no quite up to that caliber, I still think they are some pretty damn good games, and the kind of underrated mid 90s titles that really make you feel nostalgic for the Clinton years.
Anyway, the two Clockwork Knight games are about a toy soldier, armed with a key (that I am willing to say that Square Enix ripped off for Kingdom Hearts) that hops across a 2.5D environment. Ultimately, this is a 2D platform game with 3D caliber visuals, and all of the hopping and bopping you would expect from a good Donkey Kong Country-esque title.
The cut scenes are really well done, the music is great, the boss fights are awesome, and while there is probably a surplus of runaway mine cart stages (you know, those stages were you are riding atop a speeding object while avoiding sundry obstacles, the kinds that have been mandatory for ALL platform action hybrids since Battle Toads), these two games are certainly above average when it comes to a majority of the plat formers of the era. In a way, I liken it to a Treasure title (like Gunstar Heroes or Dynamite Headdy), with less gun play and a more laid-back emphasis on exploration (essentially, these two games are Vector Man on valium). These games may not be up to snuff with Tomba or Klonoa, but there still pretty damned enjoyable plat formers that I think any genre fan would be wise to seek.
This is a game that I only VAGUELY recollect. Ultimately, it was sort of like a Jet Force Gemini type game, only a couple of years before that one was released. In Burning Rangers (not to be confused with Power Rangers, right?), you play as a group of intergalactic firefighters that fly around in mech suits and extinguish fires on space bases. Yeah, it really does not sound like the most enticing idea in the world (a sci-fi fire fighting sim?), but it was, for the most part, a pretty enjoyable little title.
Opinions about this one kind of fluctuate. Pretty much every one loves the music, and the visuals were pretty damn good considering the hardware limitations, but the unorthodox game play (which basically entailed you running around in mazes trying to find fires in a specified amount of time) turned off a lot of casual fans that just wanted the same old same old. Burning Rangers was not a game that set the world on fire (god, what a horrible pun), but it is not a bad way to spend a couple of bored afternoon hours, either. It is not a classic, and it is not garbage: it is what it is, which is an enjoyable, if not somewhat forgettable, high concept title that succeeds more than it falters.
This is a game that had some MAJOR problems. For starters, who in the hell even wanted a sequel to Bug! To begin with? Are there not ENOUGH crappy third rate platform game mascots as it is? Sheesh, like we NEED another Gex or Bubsy on the market. . .
Anyway, since Sega did not trot out a 3D Sonic title for the Saturn, they ATTEMPTED to placate us with this affront to God. It is not often that you can use the terms Sega, Shitty and Platform in the same sentence (unless you are talking about there post Dreamcast releases, of course), but I will be ten kinds of damned if Bugged Too! Is not one of the most shockingly lackluster Sega made titles I have ever played. . . And that is coming from a guy that actually LIKED The Flogian Brothers and Billy Hatcher!
Where to begin on this chunk of shit? Is it the fact that it tries WAY too hard with the smart ass humor? Is it the fact that the titular character is a green hued piece of crap lacking any sort of personality whatsoever? Is it the unfathomably horrific camera that leads you into blind jumping TIME and TIME again, or the hideous controls that make TURNING around harder than beating Mike Tyson in Punch-Out!!, or is it the fact that the game is so graphically poor that you cannot even TELL what it is that you are supposed to be looking at? This game is so blocky and jagged that you are better off squinting your eyes and mashing a Genesis controller in front of a Magic Eye painting: it is virtually the same visual, only mashing buttons while staring at a poster might actually get you a RESPONSE of some kind.
I really wanted to like this game. It is not the worst game I have ever played, and as long as you have a LOT of patience and time on your hands (not to mention the ability to differentiate pastel colored blobs from equally nondescript textures), you MAY find something redeeming about the game. . .somewhere.
If you have absolutely NOTHING else to do, you might be able to roll with this game. If not. . .steer VERY clear of it.
Three Dirty Dwarves
Believe it or not, this game was made by the same guys responsible for the Ecco games. If nothing else, you can certainly say that those guys have RANGE when it comes to crafting platform titles.
This was another game that merged 2D and 3D game play. The 2D animation was very well done, probably on par with whatever animated shows were on MTV at the time. Every now and then, the game would shift to a quasi 3D camera, usually for boss fights.
The game was loaded with irreverent humor. If you liked Ren and Stimpy or Earthworm Jim, you probably would have liked this game. You played as three characters simultaneously, all of whom had different attacks based around sporting gimmicks. One was a bowler, one was a baseball slugger and one was a rifleman: at certain junctures, you would have to switch between them to get past obstacles, so it was sort of a spiritual successor to The Lost Vikings, in a way.
The game had really great music, and the character design was awesome. For example, one of the enemies in the game is a robot that throws dogs at you, and another is a living, breathing gymnasium that pukes barbells at you. The game definitely had the goods as far as the visuals came, but the game play was ultimately lacking. The biggest problem I found with the title was the fact that you could not control the characters as a triad: that means you had to pause the game, switch characters, and move each member of your team manually. To say such a feature got old quick would be a pretty big understatement. It was also a pretty damn frustrating game, too, since the enemies required a gajillion hits to defeat. Factor that with the character switching, and you have yourself a recipe for virtual tedium.
All in all, this was a pretty entertaining little game, and one that I can safely say I got my fifteen dollars worth with. Hey, you would be amazed what kind of stuff you would find in the value bins at KB Toys circa 1998. . .
SCUD The Disposable Assassin
This game was absolutely HORRIBLE. In fact, it may very well be the WORST ten bucks I have ever spent. . . TO THIS DAY.
This game simply should not have been released. In addition to being buggy as all hell, the title was pretty much broken in the game play department. Half the time, the shoot button did not work: at first, I thought it was a short circuit in my controller, but as it turns out, the game IS that shoddily made.
The graphics were horrible, and hardly better than a SNES title like Lobo or Rise of the Robots. The sound was PARTICULARLY atrocious, especially considering the fact that the machine was capable of CD worthy audio. SCUD is just a lackluster title in all regards, which is sad really, because it was one of my favorite comics of the late 90s.
The game was notable because it consisted of both game pad and light gun play, making it sort of like a 32 bit cousin to Bayou Billy. The thing is, I never HAD the light gun for the Saturn, So I was stuck playing the first level OVER AND OVER. . . And it NEVER got any less frustrating and boring.
Long story short: I was better off spending my ten bucks on a five dollar bill than I was this affront to gaming. W
ell, that should pretty much summarize why the Saturn was a gargantuan failure on Sega s part. Pretty much every misstep you could make with a console can be demonstrated with the Saturn, and while most of the games I did play on it were quite good, the fact of the matter is the market saturation of the system was downright laughable. Seriously, I put a whopping TEN different games in my machine over its life cycle, which is probably the lowest ratio of games-to-console for any system I have owned outside of the Atari Jaguar.
A lot of people said that the Dreamcast lead to Sega s demise: ultimately, it was the Saturn that really served as the iceberg the S.S. Sega crashed into, as it absolutely decimated its North American and European market shares. The Saturn was a console with a lot of potential, and if you can overlook all of the squandered what-could-have-been, you can probably chalk up the Saturn as a pretty damned solid little machine. The problem is, when you compare what could have been to what we ENDED up with. . . Hell, you cannot help but feel a little saddened by the way the system turned out.
As far as Sega consoles go, I would have to say that the Saturn is probably the least favorite of the ones I owned (please keep in mind, I never owned a 32X or Master System. . . So yeah). It had some great games on it, but overall, it was a pretty disappointing offering from the big S, and fundamentally, the marketing mistake that ended up killing the company as a hardware manufacturer.
I enjoyed my Saturn, and I definitely relish the fact that I had a chance to get my hands on a console that a lot of people may never got the opportunity to play. That being said, there is no mistaking that the PS1 and N64 were FAR superior consoles, and if you ended up picking the Saturn in the 32-64 bit era, you were going to end up rather disappointed, especially considering the top notch titles the other two systems were receiving on pretty much a monthly basis. Expectations were great, and the delivery was simply OK: like most middle children, the Saturn was content on being marginal, when its younger and older brothers excelled.
James Swift is a twenty something writer currently residing in the metro Atlanta area. His first book, How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College, is currently available through I-Universe Publishing.