The Legacy of the Sega Saturn

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By: Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)

The newest installment of the E3 legacy is not too far away. For nerds like myself, every year is like a Willy Wonka chocolate factory of awesome gaming news and memorable events, and this year – with the new Nintendo Switch and PS4 Pro on the market and Xbox’s Scorpion on the horizon – doesn’t appear to be any different.

But not all are candy bars and gobstoppers. Major companies have been known to lay a goose egg at the event on one of the biggest stages of the year. Sony in 2006 (“$599 US Dollars!”), regarded among many as the worst conference ever; Nintendo in 2008 (the ridiculously embarrassing Wii Music); and Microsoft (garbage like Kinectimals in 2010) can’t escape putting on a stinker a stinker. And we won’t even talk about the cringy crapfest Ubisoft poops out every year.

However, one of the biggest fails in E3 history happened not by any of these companies, but by Sega instead. Let’s talk about the high points and low lights of a system that got off to a horrible start, sold very badly, but is beloved by many in the retro gaming community, the Sega Saturn, and why a good console launch makes all the difference. With E3 2017 on the horizon, it is a perfect time to talk about the console that owes a lot of its legacy to a notorious beginning at an E3 that will live forever as the beginning of the real end to a gaming dynasty.

E3 into Nightmares


After the humiliating flop that was the Genesis add-on Sega 32X, Sega needed a hit. Its glory days of the storied 16-bit “Console Wars” with Nintendo behind them, they bruised their reputation with the Sega CD and 32X – both of which were expensive and had very limited support. (Although I personally really liked the Sega CD, but that’s another story.) The Sega Saturn is what they hitched their hopes to, but the impending arrival of the next generation of systems had Sega scared. Not only was there Nintendo’s Ultra 64 – a 64-bit system that would later be known as the Nintendo 64 – but the real hype was squarely behind a newcomer to the industry: Sony and their PlayStation. Sega’s Saturn and Sony’s PlayStation were both 32-bit machines, but one of those consoles was clearly not like the other. While the PlayStation was a console with 3D gaming and environments in mind, the Saturn was built to be a 2D powerhouse, meaning fighters from Capcom and such would run better on Saturn, but almost everything else – from Tomb Raider to Resident Evil – would perform better on PlayStation.

A dueling war of launch dates was set: Saturn would come out in North America on September 2, 1995 (dubbed “Sega Saturn Saturday”), with PlayStation arriving a week later on September 9th. But Sega had a trick up its E3 sleeve.

At the May event, Sega’s conference was first where the Saturn was touted as being a powerhouse with an extensive catalog of arcade hits that could easily be ported over to it. It would launch at a pretty steep price of $399 ($449 if bundled with Virtua Fighter), but then the other shoe dropped: it was announced that the Saturn was in stores that day for purchase, a full four months ahead of its planned launch. Sony’s response of announcing their lower price of $299 easily trumped Sega’s bitter surprise.

Shunned


The early launch did nothing but make Sega appear afraid of Sony – and it was understandable why. PlayStation would come with an exclusive port of Mortal Kombat 3 as a huge system seller and other titles like Battle Arena Toshinden that exhibited its power. With the Saturn being in stores suddenly without warning, it alienated developers who didn’t have games ready as they were prepared for a September launch. Saturn launched in only four select retailers as well – leading many to feel offended and shunned. Some, including Kay*Bee Toys, went so far as to remove Sega from their shelves all together.

The head start did nothing as Sega only managed to sell roughly about 120,000 consoles in four months, while the launch of the PlayStation topped that in one weekend. And it put Sega into a hole that it could never dig itself out of.

Saturn, We Hardly Knew Ye


The Saturn had very few titles in its first few months due to that early launch, but one in particular, Panzer Dragoon, showed a bit of promise at what the system could do. The game was unique and visually dazzling for that time, going beyond what other launch titles like Pebble Beach Golf Links, Bug, and Daytona USA (which suffered for horrendous pop-up graphics) offered to prod people to buy the Saturn. Sega made the awful decision to put a demo disc on the $399 bare bones console that consisted of all pre-recorded video footage and no actual playable demos. That holiday season would bring about a round of first party titles that positioned the Saturn to be in the same conversation as the PlayStation; games like Sega Rally Championship, Virtua Cop, and crown jewel Virtua Fighter 2 packed a punch, indeed.

1996 brought a year of questionable decisions from Sega. For a system that had no Sonic the Hedgehog game on it, Sega and Sonic Team seemed in no rush to put its best selling franchise on the struggling 32-bitter. Instead, their big summer title was NiGHTS into Dreams, and it was promoted as a 3D magical journey – even coming with its own special controller. In reality, it was an on-rails 2.5D adventure, but I felt it was the high point of the Saturn library. It was inventive, and, indeed, magical. Incidentally, it’s quasi-spinoff Christmas NiGHTS included a playable Sonic who jumped around on land instead of flying as the other characters did, making it his first true 3D taste. (Sonic also made a cameo in Bug a year earlier).

A glimpse into Sega’s innovation, though, saw the light that year. An add-on, the Sega Saturn Netlink, was a 28.8k dial up modem (which was fast in 1996) that could be plugged into the cartridge slot and would allow Internet and email access. Accessories included an adaptor that enabled you to use a full PC keyboard, and a mouse. This essentially made Sega’s Saturn the first home console by a major company to offer online capability. The promise of online gaming would come for the following year.

A console resign and Sega managed to drop the price to $199 that summer, matching the prices of PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 – but this decision would come back to haunt them in the following year. For the time being, Sega made the very weird decision to do a quick and dirty port of Genesis title Sonic 3D Blast and promote that as Sonic’s debut game on the Saturn. That winter, Sega bundled three top selling games – Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop, and Daytona USA – to give away to people who purchased the system that holiday, and the promo lasted through the next year.

In 1997, the questionable decisions continued, but were more harmful as the Saturn fell further and further behind its competition. Sega pushed out two Sonic titles that drew direct inspiration from rival Mario – an “All-Stars”-like compilation of Sonic’s 16-bit games called Sonic Jam and a racing game entitled Sonic R. Neither caused much of a wave. Online gaming came to the Netlink – but it ended up being direct dial connections over a telephone line as opposed to the rumored gaming server…and only five games supported it (including Duke Nukem 3D and Bomberman). The early makings of online score competition occurred here, though, as non-Netlink playable games were enabled to allow high scores and such by uploaded to a message board so other users could download them and play against them.

While Nintendo and Sony further dropped their console prices to $149, Sega kept the Saturn at $199 due to the higher cost of manufacturing the system – with the bundle of three games from the past Christmas used as the excuse to balance out the difference in consumer cost. A port of Resident Evil made its way to the Saturn that fall and while it added new costumes, a new enemy, and a hidden exclusive battle mode, it also drew unkind comparisons graphically to the PlayStation version from a year and a half earlier.

A couple months into 1998, the Saturn was finally put out of its misery and the final four first party games were announced for the system. Although the games were pretty impressive – Burning Rangers (from Sonic Team), Panzer Dragoon Saga, arcade shooter House of the Dead, and RPG Shining Force III – they obviously did nothing for sales, and were even rumored to have pressings of less than 100,000 copies. A sad end to a console from a company that had a world of momentum just four years earlier.

Legacy


While that was enough drama that it could seem like it spanned a decade, the Saturn lasted not even a full three years in North America. From the aforementioned E3 launch in May of 1995 to its final games in March/April 1998, Saturn sold around two million consoles in the United States. Saturn had more success in Japan where its 5.5 million sales outpaced the Nintendo 64 there, but it lagged far behind PlayStation in all territories. While it brought a handful of great innovations to the industry such as “online” gaming, it’s easy to forget that Christmas NiGHTS was the first game to change appearance and theme based on date using an internal clock, which is something games like Animal Crossing today have become known for.

I firmly believe that if the Saturn had a better launch, it would have had a better fate. It still wouldn’t have dethroned the PlayStation, but I think it would have been a more competitive racehorse for second. The pressure of bringing surprise to E3 sunk it before it even had a chance, making it virtually DOA solely based on a horrendous launch.

But the Saturn has a number of fans today, and it is looked back upon very fondly. And there is a reason for it. Much like the recently failed Wii U, the Saturn had a number of quality games for it and its small user base makes people feel like a real community. Finding someone else who owned and loved (or owns and loves) a Saturn is an amazing experience and an instant bond is formed. The Saturn was home to the beginning of two franchises in Panzer Dragoon and NiGHTS that remain very beloved today. Sadly, it is the failure of the Saturn that cursed Sega’s Dreamcast and ended the company’s time as a console maker.

I loved the Saturn, and I loved what it brought to the table. It represents a time in life that I actually became serious about games and the industry. I actively began to seek out news on upcoming games, participated in fanboy wars (as most youngins do), and I started to look at a new game launch as a major event to put on my calendar. The Saturn helped turn me into the nerd I am today. And for that, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for it.


    One Comment

  1. nicky cMay 20th, 2017 at 1:07 pm

    🙂

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