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20th Anniversary of the Amazing Sega Saturn Swansong

Author: Stephen M Morin
14-Feb-2018

Category: Opinion

It has been twenty years since 1998, one of the most iconic years in gaming history. PlayStation and Nintendo had their 32 and 64 bit consoles in full swing, and many franchises, like The Legend of Zelda and Metal Gear Solid, had key entries, but nearly forgotten is one of the best gaming lineups of all time; the Sega Saturn may have been on its deathbed but still released many paragon titles that completely defined the console. At the time, however, they came out almost unnoticed. Games like Panzer Dragoon Saga and Shining Force 3 highlighted one of the most frustrating and exciting years a console could have.

20th Anniversary of the Amazing Sega Saturn Swansong

twenty years gone: back to 1998

2018 is here, and with it comes another group of anniversaries in gaming history; the 20th anniversary of 1998, one of the most acclaimed years in gaming to some, brings to mind a lot of great games and a couple of the most popular consoles of all time. Games like Xenogears, Zelda Ocarina of Time, and Spyro the Dragon will get a lot of recognition this year, and a number of people demanding these games come back in some form of a remake, port, or HD title.

1998 was indeed a magical time in gaming history. Games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Metal Gear Solid propelled the PlayStation towards being the dominant home console, while Nintendo was releasing its first 3D Zelda game with Ocarina of Time, and Banjo Kazooie was a new icon for the company. It's almost been forgotten, but there was a third console still breathing under their opponent's success: the Sega Saturn was dying, but at the same time, releasing many of the console's finest games almost unobserved. Games like Shining Force 3, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Magic Knight Rayearth, and Burning Rangers etc. all headlined one of the greatest swansongs a console could ask for.

The Sega Saturn in 1998

Sega as a company was ailing by the time 1998 arrived, and the Sega Saturn had all but been abandoned. The Dreamcast had already been announced, and almost no finances and advertising were put into the final year of the Sega Saturn's lifespan. Some retailers weren't even selling Saturn games at all and many great titles would never get released outside of Japan. Only hardcore Sega fans were still onboard the Saturn's voyage (if you want to learn more about how the Sega Saturn got in such dire straits, check out this article, A Sega Saturn Retrospective). 

The hype had switched to the Dreamcast and even the Saturn's best titles like Panzer Dragoon Saga were released with a quiet fizzle as most gamers gravitated to the more stable N64 or PSX. The Saturn caused Sega to lose a lot of money, and some publishers were forced to rush games to see a release before the console faded away. Sega's internal team had shrunk, and they once again had to abandon a console and make a hastened jump to another platform: this time, it would be their final home console.

The Saturn lineup of 1998

Between all the regions, Sega Saturn released over 200 games in 1998. Some of these titles were the very best developers would make for the console and pushed the hardware to its limits; unfortunately, some of these games never even reached the western markets or did so with such limited shipments that most of the world would never get a chance to play some of the best video games of the late 1990s.

20th Anniversary of the Amazing Sega Saturn Swansong House of the Dead

We will look at five of the most influential and greatest 1998 releases, which are subjective but well regarded; other great games like Dragon Force 2, House of the Dead, and Deep Fear etc. were also a part of the epic swansong lineup but didn't quite stand out as much as other games. . 

1. Shining Force 3

Shining Force was one of the most iconic RPG series of the 1990s, especially for Sega fans who weren't treated to mainstream series like Final Fantasy or Zelda. Both Shining Force games on the Genesis were acclaimed RPGs for their fast-paced and strategic battles, and Shining Force 3 was one of the most anticipated RPGs for the Sega Saturn.

The total game is divided into three scenarios--only scenario 1 was released in the west--, and it follows the same grid-based style of combat as the prequels. All three of the combined scenarios complete a story that was told from multiple viewpoints. Saves can be transferred between games, and you see many of the same characters throughout all three scenarios.

20th Anniversary of the Amazing Sega Saturn Swansong SF3

Shining Force 3 may initially seem like more of the same, but the game implemented some amazing battle design thanks to Camelot's ingenuity. There are battles where you need to work around interactive elements. For example, one battle features a train that moves each turn and blocks you from saving refugees. Another battle features only two characters and you need to survive five turns before the rest of your party arrives to counter the ambush. Each battle potentially had a unique obstacle or set of rules to play by. 

Scenario one is amazing but expensive, and Camelot was forced to rush the second and third installments due to the Saturn's demise. Luckily, these games can be enjoyed with a patch from Shining Force Central using a physical Japanese game disc; they usually run less than $30 USD online.

2. Radiant Silvergun

The Saturn is arguably the best console ever made if you are a fan of SHMUPS. There are a ton of great options ranging from affordable to ridiculously expensive, and many of them were never released outside of Japan. Radiant Silvergun fits both these parameters. It costs between $150-$300 for a copy online and can only be purchased as an import. 

It's usually considered the magnum opus of Saturn SHMUPS and was developed by Treasure, the same company that made many of the best SHMUPS of that era. It was a 2D vertical space shooter that featured fast-paced action, moving levels, and a stunning array of weaponry including a sword that could be swiped to destroy enemies staying to close to your ship. Players had to be fluid and quickly be able to work around obstacles and switch between weapons better fitted for certain opponents and areas.

20th Anniversary of the Amazing Sega Saturn Swansong Radiant Silvergun

Whether or not it's the best in its genre, it is an utterly gorgeous shooter that features insane action that would elate any shmup fan. The visuals were stunning and the soundtrack rocks. Luckily, players can download this on the Xbox 360 store and save themselves a couple hundred dollars if they wish to enjoy this legendary shooter. This game still has maintained its reputation as being one of the very best shmups of all time and doesn't feel very dated even after 20 years.  

3. Burning Rangers

Burning Rangers has to be one of the most interesting concepts found in a video game: it's centered around saving people instead of killing and follows an elite group of firefighters called "The Burning Rangers". It was developed by Sonic Team and was a fully 3D follow up to the popular Nights Into Dreams.

Burning Rangers was a frantic platformer that forced the player to search scorched locales (which included underwater and space) in the search of crystals to save civilians and put out fires. Going slowly was detrimental to the player since the fire would spread and make the infrastructure more unstable. There were bosses at the end of stages, weaponry to put out fires, and the players could jump high with jetpacks while doing some impressive maneuvers like backflips. The game was exciting, and combatting fire was the perfect display of heroism to counter the typical obsession games had with destroying foes.

20th Anniversary of the Amazing Sega Saturn Swansong Burning Rangers

There is no doubt that Burning Rangers is a unique game, but what blew people's minds about it was that the game used a fully voiced navigation system in place of the typical maps, and the game probably had the best 3D graphics on the console, implementing transparency effects and vibrant lighting effects as well as detailed polygonal character sprites. The game may look crude in many respects (especially now), but it took a weak 3D device and churned out a beautiful experience inside and out, even if flawed and short. Like all the other games on this list, it will be hard to find an English copy of Burning Rangers under $100.

4. Panzer Dragoon Saga

What's left to say about Panzer Dragoon Saga (PDS)? Most people think this is the quintessential Saturn game; it was an RPG that revolved around flying on dragons, encircling enemies to find weaknesses, and exploring a new world both in the air and on foot. It's a sequel that ditched most of the rail-shooter gameplay in favor of a deeper adventure/RPG experience and has become one of the biggest cult-titles of all time.

20th Anniversary of the Amazing Sega Saturn Swansong Panzer Dragoon Saga

This game supposedly had over 1500 pages of story that had to be trimmed down to fit the story onto the discs, and the characters lingered in gray morality that made them more interesting than the more common cookie-cutter heroes found in most other games.

Panzer Dragoon Saga was also fully 3D, spanned four discs, and had one of the most beautiful soundtracks ever made. Two members of the development team died in the span of its development, and it's probably the most stunning technical achievement of the Sega Saturn's.

I have admittedly never gotten to play this game; it can cost upwards of $700 online, and the source codes for the game have been lost. It's beloved by fans, forgotten by the masses, and arguably the very best game of 1998. It has never seen re-release since the Sega Saturn, and it seems it will take more than a prayer to get one. 

5. Magic Knight Rayearth 

Magic Knight Rayearth was an action RPG that was inspired by the anime series. It was one of the original 12 games announced for the Sega Saturn in 1994, but it ended up being the final western release for the console in December 1998. Its claim to fame was that it centered around three characters instead of one. You could switch between them at any time, and each had a unique weapon with its own abilities that could defeat certain enemies more easily or assist with a puzzle.

The game got mixed reviews, and the long delay made the game feel dated in 1998--how often do you see a supposed launch title become the final release? Working Designs (famous for the Lunar remakes on PSX) was hired to localize the game for North America. Part of the source code was lost and had to be completely rebuilt from the ground up, and there was a dilemma in getting the Japanese theme song. All in all, the delay endured the entire lifespan of the Saturn, but  Magic Knight Rayearth did finally see the light of day.

20th Anniversary of the Amazing Sega Saturn Swansong Magic Knight Rayearth

It's hard to say exactly what this game's legacy is. It's a solid 2D action RPG that had a great localization, thanks to Working Designs, and ended up being another good addition to the impressive Sega Saturn RPG roster. Most notably, collectors adore this game, because very limited shipments were made, and the game usually costs more than $300 online.

The Sega Saturn in 2018

It's been 20 years since the demise of the Saturn, and it remains one of the most obscure consoles of all time. Many of the best games haven't seen any form of a re-release, and the future of games like PDS and Burning Rangers seem bleak, to say the least.

Shining Force 3 is lucky to have been translated by fans which makes it very easy to play on an emulator or a Sega Saturn with the action replay. The patch is an easy install, and the game is still a lot of fun to play today. It would still be surprising to see Shining Force 3 surface before a remake of the more accessible prequels. 

Radiant Silver was ported to the Xbox 360, and many other classic Sega shmups have seen a re-release on Steam and console e-shops (most recently Gunbird on Nintendo Switch), so it is possible Radiant Silvergun could surface again for a new generation of gamers.

Sonic has starred in many games over the last twenty years, and even Nights Into Dreams saw a remake on the PS3, Steam, and the Xbox 360. Yuji Naka, producer of Burning Rangers, did say a sequel was possible in the future, but a lot of time has passed since those statements, and Burning Rangers has faded into obscurity.  The songs from Burning Rangers have appeared in different Sega games, and Nights was revived, so not all hope is lost for an HD remake of some kind. 
 
 20th Anniversary of the Amazing Sega Saturn Swansong Nights

PDS would probably be the most highly anticipated remake of any of these games but also the most difficult. The source code has been lost, and the development team struggled to finish the game in the first place. The first two Panzer Dragoon games may need to be tested in the modern market before PDS would even be considered, and Sega has been quiet on the future of the series as a whole--Panzer Dragoon Orta was the most recent game in the series. It was released in 2002.

Magic Knight Rayearth is also unlikely to resurface. The anime and games were popular in the 1990s in Japan, but the game wasn't nearly as well received in the west, and the original localization team, Working Designs, has been defunct for over a decade. It seems Magic Knight Rayearth will likely remain an esoteric and pricey title that will charm collectors and evade the common gamers for years to come, if not forever. 

Despite the 20th anniversary of so many great Saturn games, PDS is likely to be the only game on this list to get any serious attention. The PSX and N64 will again take the spotlight, but the Sega Saturn does deserve some recognition for the developers who struggled to make these games, and for the games themselves, which were unfairly forgotten and deserve a larger audience. 

The Future 

Things are not entirely hopeless for Sega fans or Saturn fans. Shenmue 3 comes out this year, a series that originated on the Dreamcast, and Sega Forever has been giving us a lot of great Genesis games for free on our mobile devices. Sega gas talked about releasing its entire back catalog, including games on consoles outside of the Sega Genesis.

20th Anniversary of the Amazing Sega Saturn Swansong Shenmue 3
Sega has also officially endorsed Retro-Bit with development for old Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast hardware, and If sales do well for these old games and hardware, Sega will be more encouraged to give us more of their back-catalog, hopefully including Saturn games which are far too often an afterthought to the Genesis and even the Dreamcast. Hopefully, gamers will embrace some of these products and encourage Sega to release some of the Saturn games that haven't surfaced in a couple decades.




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