Much has been written about Sega's 3rd (internationally-released, stand-alone) home console. Not a lot of it, in the English-as-first-language world at least, has been the most positive reading. Alas, this is RetroGameGeeks! The spanner in the works of your typical retrobate site. It's all about the Sega Saturn, baby! So let's get this thing underway...
Originally released late 1994 in Japan, following with North American and PAL releases during '95, the Sega Saturn was another result of what could be seen as Sega as a whole losing their minds. But, in a good way. Trust me. It was developed alongside the console add-on that became the 32X, but for Sega of Japan at least, was always considered to be the premiere console. Top-end price, top-end games and the true entry into the now-called fifth generation of video games consoles. It became just that, but without the overall success that was expected.
The war between Sega of Japan and Sega of America was at its height during this time (as mentioned in the accompanying 32X intro here on RGG). Both sides of the company had their own ways and own reasons on how to push the unit. SUPRISE LAUNCH! No, no. More on that later.
The Saturn was released under pressure of the hype for Sony's entry into the marketplace with a minor success of a console known as the PlayStation. Although business as usual for Sega of Japan, the Saturn actually proved a lot more successful in that region than their past consoles, which screens the Saturn's history to be that full of head-scratching backwardness. This is only accentuated by the fact it bombed in Europe - the once unofficial land of Sega. E3 1995 will forever remain the time of "oh, dear god" in the console and Sega's American legacy.
The surprise launch was in hope of pulling the rug out from beneath Sony by announcing the previously hyped 'Saturday' launch date was false and that the console was available with six titles in select retailers across the 'States. Trouble is, it was at a high price and Sony countered with a console that was to launch a $100 cheaper. However, that was far from the worst part. They managed to anger practically all their signed-up third party developers and retailers who were all unaware of this surprise. A huge misstep is an understatement. But all this is practically the only real negatives one can pin on the console, as the console itself? Well...
It's awesome! The Saturn is very much known as the other console Sega made for the hardcore market, or has at least gained that with its cult-like fan base over the years. Rightly so. Near-arcade perfect ports, some of the prettiest 2D titles ever seen and many a unique game bulked the library of the console. A console that, when all regions are taken into accounts, has a library where quality overrides quantity and shovelware is at the very least amount. Beautiful, I tells ya!
The trouble for many a developer with the Saturn is just how to programme for the thing. A strong reason as to why homebrew is very miniscule on the Saturn to this day in comparison to its popularity. Sega jammed this bad boy so full of confounding tech that it made the unitiated cry. Basically, the opposite of the PlayStation in that regard. Also, a likely reason to why the Saturn was always difficult to price-cut without massive compromise.
So, what's in it, then? Well that would be the following, dear reader(s): the Saturn chipset included dual 32-bit RISC Hitachi SH2 CPU's rocking 28.5Mhz with a RISC SH1 clocked at 20Mhz. Memory-wise it contained 4mbit Audio RAM, 16mbit Work RAM, 156kbit Backup RAM, 12mbit Video RAM, 4mbit CD Buffer and a 4mb IPL ROM (dassa lorra mem!). RAM and ROM could even be bolstered further with select cartridges. Yikes! It should also be noted that Sega didn't play no triangles, in that - quadz be what dem bout. Think 3DO over PlayStation. Sound wise thurr be 32-channel PCM and 8-channel FM stereo. Being a CD-ROM (plus CD-+G) media based console, audio was always glorious on the Saturn. If you don't think you've seen so many colours, how about having 16.7mill shoved in your face. That's Sega, baby! Sega were so proud of the tech specs of the Saturn they happily slapped them anywhere willing to list back in the day. The console is also a brick-house. Thing don't break. Could survive an apocalypse. Seriously.
Now the best part of all this - the games! When taking the global library into account (getting a Japanese Saturn with a multi-region cart is a must!) Sega pretty much had you covered on all bases here. The 32-bit era, for better or worse, was a signalling of the end for 2D gaming here in the west but it was where the Saturn shined regardless. For fans of updated side-scrolling style the ever-beautiful Astal is a perfect example of what the Saturn did better than the rest, you back that with the (arguably) best conversion of Earthworm Jim 2 and the incredibly deep (near genre-defying) masterpiece from Treasure that was Guardian Heroes and you get the idea of just why so many people love the console. To bolster the allusion of the hardcore market love-in; the Saturn was also home to the hottest fighting titles around. From the 2D perspective you had SNK climbing in bed with Sega to deliver fantastic ports of their top franchises (great for anyone who cant afford a Neo Geo) such as the immortal King of Fighters. Capcom also hit the ball way out of the park with the Saturn conversions of their then-current Street Fighter Alpha series and Marvel games, which play so much better on Sega's console in comparison to the PlayStation that it aint even funny.
The Saturn controller (MkII version in NA/EU) only went further in proving it made sense to make the Saturn the must-have for any true fight fan. From the 3D standpoint, the PlayStation had the Tekken franchise exclusively, but Sega pulled their old tricks by unleashing Virtua Fighter on their 32-Bit beast and while the original version was rushed then followed by the Remix version: Virtua Fighter 2 remains the top pick for anybody who likes technique over button-bash flash. A gorgeous looking gem of the time that plays just as well today as it did back then. Alongside VF, little diamonds like Fighting Vipers and Fighters MegaMix were also released. Much like the Dreamcast that followed, the Saturn was also home to many a great shooter, but none more legendary than Radiant Silvergun. Many of the main multiplat games of the day were featured on the Saturn as well to varying degree of success: Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Loaded, Doom, etc. But its the exclusives that keep you coming back for more, of that there’s no doubt.
Other notable titles? *deep breath* Can you say...Burning Rangers, Panzer Dragoon (whole damn series is ridiculously great), Virtua Cop, House of the Dead, Clockwork Knight (1 and 2), Bug!, Deep Fear, Saturn Bomberman (one of the best of its series), Shinobi X, Baku Baku, Daytona USA, Sega Rally (franchise), Virtual On, the Sega Ages series...You get the point. Titles for days and hours upon hours of fun is to be had. To write-off the Saturn from a pure gaming standpoint would be beyond ridiculous. If you're a fan of RPG's (which I am not, sorry) then I'm sure a fellow admin here can wax lyrical for a time about the exclusive selection of gems you can get your hands on from the land of the rising sun.
My first experience of the Saturn was walking into a game shop over town and seeing it on display playing NiGHTS Into Dreams. My mind was officially blown that day (and wouldn't recover for a while, before getting blown a second time round with the demo of Sonic Adventure - cheers, Sega). Unfortunately, yet probably rightly so looking back; my father denied me a Saturn so it became a unicorn of consoles for me. None of my friends owned one, it was all PlayStation's. But there was a mystique in the Saturn that to this day can't be denied that just suckered me right in.
A few years later myself and a friend bought one second hand for a tenner. I played Guardian Heroes. The rest is history with me. But everyone has their own Saturn story and I hope that this intro is guide enough for you just to blow the cash on one right away. You wont regret it. After all, it is the Sega GigaDrive. Do 'em proud!