Confessions of a Sega Saturn Owner
So, what was it like owning that other 32 bit console in the mid 90s?

It is not easy being a middle child: just ask the Sega Saturn.

article image

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.

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.

The Verdict?

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.