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A Sega Saturn Retrospective: Sega's Underrated Console

Author: Stephen M Morin
30-May-2017

Category: Opinion

Over two decades ago, Sega released their ill-fated Sega Saturn, a console that was supposed to rival the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. This 2D powerhouse was poorly marketed and didn't survive until the end of the generation, but hordes of old school gamers will find many gems and unique titles on this near-forgotten platform. It remains one of the most underrated consoles of all time and is more elusive than ever.

A Sega Saturn Retrospective: Sega's Underrated Console

With the exception of the Sega Genesis, most of Sega's consoles and handheld devices were considered afterthoughts to the gaming devices released by Nintendo and Sony. The Dreamcast has developed a loyal following, but the Sega Saturn has remained one of gaming histories most cryptic and overlooked consoles. This is truly a shame since the Saturn had a diverse library and amazing titles to boot. It was a 2D powerhouse and a hardcore gamer's paradise. Most of you, like me, probably missed the Sega Saturn upon release and have lost the chance to play most of the titles people laud such as Panzer Dragoon Saga, Shining Force 3 or Guardian Heroes.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

Like the Sega CD before it, the Sega Saturn was released during the lifespan of the still popular Sega Genesis. It reached Japan in 1994 and the rest of the world in 1995. Despite early success in Japan, the console had a surprise release in the United States. This upset many retailers who actually dropped Sega from their sales lineup. On top of that, the $399 price tag was undercut by Sony who released the PlayStation for just $299. The Saturn was also battling the profitable Genesis and taking potential sales from the console as well as Sega itself. Then to add the cherry on top, games were initially released at a snail's pace, offering only six launch titles.

Sony announces their consoles price. 

All in all, poor marketing and a slow start really hurt the Saturn's chances of ever finding success in the west. Sonic X-treme, a 3D Sonic title was canceled and the Saturn simply lacked the 3D processing power that the N64 and PlayStation possessed and were showing off (late 3D Saturn games look a lot like early PlayStation games). The console had complex hardware to work with, giving developers a hard time to make games, and it was one of the last emulators to be successfully created and playable but still has some problems. Though a 32 bit system, it operated like a glorified 16-bit powerhouse that birthed some of the most beautiful 2D titles of all time.

A Sega Saturn Retrospective: Sega's Underrated Console Astal

Unfortunately, by 1998 the PlayStation was far outselling the Saturn, and the success of the Nintendo 64 added some extra nails in the coffin. Sega suffered a big financial loss and many of its employees in the U.S were laid off. Only twelve games were released in 1998 and the Saturn was officially finished--though it would last longer in Japan and Europe and have more lasting success--and the Dreamcast was released soon after its demise.

MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE SATURN

For some reason, the Sega Saturn keeps popping up in my life at random moments and I keep getting the urge to buy one. I actually owned a Saturn as a child, but I had only Tomb Raider and a racing game, and as soon as I got my PlayStation, the Sega Saturn was sold off, probably to buy a PlayStation game I wanted.

As I got more and more into platformers and RPGs and dug deeper into the world of gaming, it became clear that many die-hard fans of these genres loved the Sega Saturn. Series like Panzer Dragoon, Shining Force and other games such as Burning Rangers, Astal and Dragon Force kept emerging on lists of must play titles for the Saturn and nearly every great game was exclusive. I absolutely loved my PlayStation, but I knew I was missing out on a unique experience.

A Sega Saturn Retrospective: Sega's Underrated Console Panzer Dragoon Zwei

For a long time, I occasionally browsed Ebay to search prices, but I never had the funds to pick up an old Saturn. Then, I saw that Sega was releasing some classics on the PS3. I picked up Sonic CD and Nights Into Dreams hearing they were both great games. They were right. Both games were absolute gems. My desire to play the Saturn classics was revived, and I messaged Sega to inquire about any chance of a Panzer Dragoon remake or port. My wish was not granted. It turns out that Sega actually lost Panzer Dragoon Saga's source code.

Last year, I had another big urge to return to the Saturn: I visited Japan and bought a Japanese copy of Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon Zwei. There is a wonderful store in the Akihabara district of Tokyo called Super Potato that sells every old game and console imaginable (albeit in Japanese). Both games together only cost me about $30 USD.total. I was stoked. I downloaded the SSF emulator which was running pretty well in 2016 and managed to finish both games (they have minimal dialogue) and then I looked on Ebay and kissed my chances of ever trying Panzer Dragoon Saga goodbye. The price tag was over $500 and often running around $1000 dollars.

I went to one of my favorite Youtube channels, HeavyMetalJesus, and I found out that the Sega Saturn had become one of, if not the, most expensive console to collect for. A quick search on Ebay made this very apparent. Most of the great games were running for a low price of $50 and upwards of hundreds of dollars.

My dreams were dashed.

A Sega Saturn Retrospective: Sega's Underrated Console Shining Force 3

Then I found out about the Shining Force 3 translation project. For those who don't know, Shining Force 3 is divided into three scenarios (only one of which made it to the west). Some good folks translated the other scenarios and made a patch which can be used with the physical Japanese discs and a Saturn emulator. So I decided to get the first scenario (not cheap) and if I ever complete it, will buy an affordable Japanese copy of the other scenarios and enjoy them with the English patch.

WHY THE SATURN is GREAT

The Library

Without unnecessary comparisons such as 3D computing power and a sheer number of titles released, there are a lot of reasons to love the Sega Saturn. Some of the games look like 3D messes now, but it's undoubtedly one of the most unique consoles of all time and it had a rich and diverse selection of games.

For RPG fans, Shining Force 3, Dragon Force, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Albert Odyssey, and Magic Knight Rayearth among others comprise a very formidable list of JRPG's. These games were filled with a ton of polish and traditional Sega charm. Shining Force 3 is not the most beautiful game around, but the gameplay is top tier for a tactical RPG with all the great elements captured from its prequels, and Panzer Dragoon Saga is considered not only one of the greatest RPGs but also one of the greatest games of all time.

A Sega Saturn Retrospective: Sega's Underrated Console Albert Odyssey

Games like Astal, Guardian Heroes, and Clockwork Knight were all standout platformers. Astal is arguably one of the most gorgeous and lush 2D games ever created. On top of that Burning Rangers (a game in which I have had the pleasure to play) has one of the strangest concepts in gaming history, and is a ton of fun courtesy of the Sonic Team. Without a true Sonic game, Nights Into Dreams took the mantle and did a fantastic job at delivering a frantically fun platforming experience for people of all ages.

last but not least I am going to give a nod to the shooters on the Sega Saturn. Rail shooters such as Panzer Dragoon and Robo Cop were different than anything on Nintendo or Sony's consoles, and Panzer Dragoon has a lovely art design that shines even through the games crude 3D graphics (they also have amazing soundtracks). Radiant Silvergun is considered one of the best space shooters of all time (and also one of the best ways to drain your paycheck) but unfortunately only came out in Japan.

There are definitely games I have not mentioned such as Virtua Fighter and Daytona U.S.A; the diversity and quality of titles have been severely underrated for the Saturn, and most of that is probably because most of us never owned a Saturn and most of us cannot afford to collect for it.

2D Diamond Mine

A Sega Saturn Retrospective: Sega's Underrated Console Radiant Silvergun
The mid-late 90s were all about newfangled 3D games. 2D was a thing of the past, and the Saturn was, for the most part, a refinery for beautiful 2D games. Just check out Guardian Heroes, Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Radiant Silvergun (there are plenty of others). The Sega Saturn may have been behind in the times, but its 2D games had vivid colors and beautiful animations that no other console had managed to surpass by that point.

At that time these games may have paled in comparison to 3D titles on other consoles, but they have withstood the test of time, while many 3D games on the N64 and PlayStation are ugly and polygonal in comparison. While the PlayStation and N64 have many beautiful games, a number of the Saturn's best titles still offer very high playability and would make beautiful additions to anyone's vintage game collection.

Hardcore Gamers Paradise

A Sega Saturn Retrospective: Sega's Underrated Console Guardian Heroes

Part of what makes the Sega Saturn obscure next to the Genesis and Dreamcast is the lack of family friendly titles. The Genesis was synonymous with Sonic the Hedgehog and the Dreamcast had games like Crazy Taxi and Sonic Adventure to mascot for the consoles. The Sega Saturn remained relatively faceless in terms of advertising mascots or console sellers, and instead, offered a unique library more for hardcore gamers rather than casual gamers and families. 

Hardcore gamers may love the Saturn because the games have a ton of character and were often made for experienced gamers rather than parents looking for the best console for their child. There are definitely family friendly games such as Nights into Dreams and Virtua Fighter, but most of the fan favorites were niche titles that didn't market themselves so well to the masses but for gamers looking for a unique and immersive gaming experience. Even Nights into Dreams is an odd title with a strange gameplay design compared to Sonic, a game that had a very recognizable format of gameplay based on existing franchises.

A Sega Saturn Retrospective: Sega's Underrated Console Nights Into Dreams

But for gamers who like a challenge and in-depth gameplay, the Saturn has a ton of titles that offer a very different, immersive, and often challenging experience. The console definitely grabbed the attention of many hardcore gamers, and to this day, many retro gamers have a lot of love for the Saturn's library.  

WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE SATURN? 

I suspect most of the Saturn games will remain shrouded in mystery and remain out of reach, especially for the newer generation of gamers. Fortunately, the SSF is a very solid emulator that can easily play physical Saturn discs (do not download ISO files you do not own as this is illegal). Some of the best Saturn games have little dialogue and menu screens in English, so cheaper Japanese copies suffice. The Saturn keeps popping up among video game sites as an interesting failure with an intriguing and unique library. Hopefully, Sega doesn't completely forget the Saturn and may someday port or re-release more of their back catalog in the future. The video game world would be all the richer if games like Panzer Dragoon Saga or Radiant Silvergun were brought to fans for an affordable price and maybe with a cosmetic makeover.

A Sega Saturn Retrospective: Sega's Underrated Console Panzer Dragoon Saga

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