5 Reasons the Sega Saturn is Cooler than the Playstation/Nintendo 64

Laser Time, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Playstation, anniversary

Sega released the Saturn in Japan 20 years ago today. in Japan. Their consoles were never really big in their Japanese homeland, and Sonic was (and remains) pretty much a non-factor. It was international markets that helped keep the Master System and the Genesis (or Mega Drive outside the US) viable.

But in a complete reversal of fortune, the Saturn found some success in Japan, even beating out the Nintendo 64 (though still lagging behind the PS1 after Final Fantasy VII blew up sales). In the rest of the world, however, the Saturn was a huge failure, planting the seed that would ultimately result in Sega getting out of the console business shortly after releasing the Dreamcast.

But you know what? While the Saturn wasn’t as globally popular as the Playstation or Nintendo 64, I still think it is way cooler than. Here are five reasons why “this is cool”.

1. It was a 2D powerhouse when the industry was moving to 3D polygonal graphics.

Laser Time, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Playstation, anniversary

It’s no secret that the Saturn was inferior to the Playstation and Nintendo 64 in terms of 3D graphics capabilities, with ports of Tomb Raider and Resident Evil looking less impressive than their Playstation counterparts. Sure, Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally, and Panzer Dragoon were important “graphical showpiece” titles, but they technically pale next to later Playstation titles like Gran Turismo. And ambitious games with large, sprawling worlds like Super Mario 64 seem unfeasible on the Saturn.

However, no one can deny that the Saturn’s 2D prowess trumped its competition (even the mighty Neo Geo). Its impressive 2D capabilities allowed it to have arcade-perfect ports of Capcom and Neo Geo fighting games (although they did require RAM carts to run them). Playstation ports had to cut down animation frames or outright features, like tagging in X-Men vs Street Fighter, to accommodate the console’s more modest 2D capacity. This made the Saturn a haven for fighting games: 2D because of the Saturn’s superior 2D capabilities, and 3D because of the popularity of Virtua Fighter, leading many developers to jump on the 3D fighter bandwagon.

Laser Time, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Playstation, anniversary
Nanatsu Kaze no Shima Monogatari

But it’s not just fighting games that had amazing 2D spritework. Games like Princess Crown (by the team who would eventually form Vanillaware), Astal, or more obscure ones like Nanatsu Kaze no Shima Monogatari, all look spectacular even today, showcasing the best of an art style at its zenith.

2. It has the best controller.

Laser Time, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Playstation, anniversary

Based on the Genesis’ 6-button controller, the Japanese Saturn controller improves the design with a flatter, more ergonomic body, plus two shoulder buttons. But it’s the superb D-pad that really makes this Saturn controller legendary. Its round shape makes inputting diagonals much easier, and the more pronounced base gives it great feedback, so you know exactly which direction you’re pressing. This makes it a perfect fit for the Saturn’s vast library of fighting and action games.

In other regions, however, the Saturn was bundled with a different controller–a much worse one. Rather than the more smoother, more ergonomic body of the Japanese controller, the US/EU controller was made more angular, more bulky, and thus more awkward. The shoulder buttons were mushy, and the D-pad made more concave, with oddly sharp edges. It is as awful and uncomfortable as it looks. Thankfully, Sega quickly replaced these bundled controllers with the Japanese controllers, which were painted black to match the US/PAL black console.

Laser Time, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Playstation, anniversary
The US/PAL controller is just atrocious.

The Japanese-style Saturn controller may not have been as revolutionary as the Nintendo 64 controller with its brand new analog sticks, but the N64 controller feels cumbersome today. It was just a necessary stepping stone to modern controller design.

The initial Playstation controller, on the other hand, has a more traditional design: 4 face buttons and 4 shoulder buttons instead of the 6 face and 2 shoulder on the Saturn. But the segmented D-pad just does not compare to the Saturn’s. That’s one reason why its design keeps resurging in 3rd-party controllers for newer consoles; even the new PS4 is planned to get its own Saturn-style controller.

3. This guy was the Saturn’s mascot. Meet SEGATA SANSHIRO!

Laser Time, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Playstation, anniversary

Based on Akira Kurosawa’s “Sugata Sanshiro,” Segata Sanshiro was the aturn’s crazy mascot, starring in a series of commercials that ran in Japan from 1997 to 98. His name is a pun that sounds like “Sega Saturn, shiro!”, which can mean both “You must play the Sega Saturn” and “Sega Saturn, white!”–a reference to the white Saturn that was introduced with this ad campaign. Unlike Takahashi Meijin (Hudsonsoft’s human mascot, star of the Adventure Island series, and a man with an impressive button-mashing skill), who advised children to play responsibly for only an hour a day and not get distracted from homework, Segata Sanshiro’s doctrine was way more hardcore. If he ever sees you not playing a Saturn, you’re dead. And he has no qualms about beating anyone up–even little kids.

Sadly, Segata Sanshiro bravely sacrificed his life to save SEGA’s headquarter building from a missile in the final commercial, protecting Sega and allowing them to launch the Saturn’s successor, the Dreamcast. Segata Sanshiro eventually got his own Saturn game, a rather crappy minigame collection based on his ads.

4. It’s a scrolling shooter heaven.

Laser Time, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Playstation, anniversary

Sega’s reputation as a top-class arcade developer meant that both arcade game fans and arcade developers wanted to get involved with the Saturn. So it was natural to see so many arcade ports on the console, and many of these ports were for scrolling shooters (aka shoot-em-ups or sh’mups).

The Saturn received plenty of scrolling shooters, with many being ports of relatively older shooter: Konami collections like Gradius, Parodius, and Twinbee, Thunder Force Goldpacks, Capcom Generation collections, and more one-off ports like Fantasy Zone, Metal Black, and Darius 2. The Saturn also got a few ports that were more contemporary, like Cave’s Donpachi, Treasure’s infamously expensive Radiant Silvergun, Taito’s Layer Section, and Raizing’s Soukyugurentai (published in Japan by EA of all people–it was a weird time).

Laser Time, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Playstation, anniversary
Purikura Daisekusen

What’s interesting about this era of shooters is that it was a transitional period for the genre, moving from mainstream to niche. This was also a time when 3D graphics were first implemented into scrolling shooters. All this lends to a huge variety of shooter-types on the Saturn. You want a good old-school shooter? Get the Salamander pack. A cute-em-up with weird physics mechanics? Get Cotton 2. Huge beautiful 2D sprites? Get Darius Gaiden. Bullet hell? Get Dodonpachi. A shooter with flashy 3D graphics and a rocking soundtrack? Get Thunder Force V. An isometric shooter/action game hybrid starring characters from the Power Instinct/Gōketsuji Ichizoku fighting game series? Get Purikura Daisekusen.

No console before or since has offered as much shooter variety as the Saturn. It’s too bad that most of these were import only, and that some are usually quite expensive today.

5. It has a ton of weird, cool import games that never got re-released on newer consoles.

Laser Time, Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, Playstation, anniversary

 

I think the main takeaway from all this is that the Saturn library of games (especially the Japanese one) is full of oddities. Some are genuine hidden gems (like Minnesota Fats Pool Legend, a genuinely great pool game), some are fun arcade romps (like Winter Heat), and some are super experimental survival-horror titles (like Enemy Zero). If you know your Japanese, you can play the Sakura Taisen strategy RPG-dating sim games, which were huge in Japan, or play all three parts of Shining Force III and experience the complete story (only one part got localized in US/PAL regions).

Does the Playstation have its library of weird obscure unknown import games? Absolutely, but the thing is, the Playstation, Nintendo consoles, the TurboGrafx-16/PC-Engine, and even Sega’s own Genesis and Master System all have somewhat of a legacy support on newer consoles. What of Saturn games? Well, both the PS3/Xbox 360 have Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter 2, Virtual-On (which was only released in Japan), Fighting Vipers, and NiGHTS Into Dreams (which is technically the only real Saturn port of those since the other titles were based on the superior Sega Model 2 arcade version). Treasure managed to port Radiant Silvergun and Guardian Heroes onto Xbox Live…and that’s pretty much it. You may find a few more Saturn ports on PS2 under the Japan-only Sega Ages collections, like Panzer Dragoon, Last Bronx, or Dynamite Deka (AKA Die Hard Arcade), but as a whole, your choices are limited.

But that also means you can gain more from having a Saturn today then pretty much any other console, with its truly exclusive library of games. The Saturn may have been a console out of its time with its emphasis on 2D graphics and scrolling shooters, but with both 2D art and more arcade-style games resurging in the smaller indie-game space, it’s as if the Saturn was made to be played today. And that is cool.

Article by contributor Badr Alomair.

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24 thoughts on “5 Reasons the Sega Saturn is Cooler than the Playstation/Nintendo 64

  1. Some of the sweeping generalizations in this article are not going to make you any friends. Specially regarding the controller, which, even if we agree has the best D-pad ever designed. You still have a controller that is worthless for playing 3D, and even ignoring that, the button layout wasn’t good at all. 6 face buttons is cumbersome and not as intuitive as having 4. There’s a reason why for more than a decade now, the almost universal controller layout has consisted of 4 face buttons and 4 shoulder buttons.

    However! The overall message of your article is a really good one, highlighting the strengths of an oft overlooked and underappreciated console, and also making a really good care if why it holds up better today than the competition of its time. Being a machine specialized i n 2D might not have been the “cool” thing to do back then. But 2D games have a timelessness to them that 3D ones do not. So it’s definitely worth pointing that out.

    So thank you for posting this. Even if imperfect, it’s a very interesting read, and makes a pretty strong case for the Saturn as a console worth having nowadays, more so than it’s competitors.

      1. Hi, BladedFalcon. Thanks for reading and commenting on my article. I’m glad you liked it 🙂

        I was worried that my statements would have sounded too “generalized” but I was also afraid that introducing caveats to the titles may just make them too wordy. I mean, I’m not gonna lie, this whole article is just me gushing about my own personal preferences. And is no way absolute statements (except for the 2D being better part. That is proven beyond doubt).

        But even so, I think you are right that the Saturn controller is definitely not the best for everything, especially 3D games. God I do not want to use it to play DOOM or other First Person Shooters or any such complex 3D game on the console. But what I wanted to convey is that, for the console that the Saturn was, and when comparing it to the PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64 controllers, the Saturn controller felt like it better achieved its potential. And that’s partially because the Saturn’s more arcadey library demanded more from your controller than what you’d expect from say Final Fantasy 7 or Resident Evil 2 or Metal Gear Solid. And the Saturn controller delivered on that.

        In the same manner, the Nintendo 64 controller worked perfectly well with twitchy games like Super Mario 64. But I think today, right analogs are a necessity for 3D games that the N64 excelled at, like Super Mario 64. And I imagine that playing Super Mario 64 with right-analog camera control could make it better (I mean Super Mario Sunshine did have right-analog camera controls). But say the newest Street Fighter or Virtua Fighter or a cool new 2D indie scrolling shooter can all perfectly work with an Old Saturn controller hooked on a PS3 or PC without feeling like they miss anything.

        And about the 6 button thing, I think the reason modern controllers have 4 buttons instead of 6 is because of right analog sticks, which may take off some comfort space that could have been used for 2 extra buttons. But I’m just hypothesizing.

        I don’t know. Maybe I’m making up the criteria that are meant to support my argument. I guess all I wanted to say is that I like the Saturn controller a lot.

        Cheers and sorry about writing all of this. I love a stimulating discussion, as long as it’s a civil one 🙂

    1. i disagree. 6 face buttons is the absolute pinnacle of 2D controller design. It’s why the Genesis 6 button and Saturn controller are my favorite 2D controllers of all time. All six buttons are easily accesible and usable, especially for fighting games, the intuitiveness of using your 3 middle fingers for the buttons (like I did) and just slidng your finger up or down for the top row made co trolling games so much easier and better. Also works well if using thumbs. And the only reason not ideal for 3D games is not analog stick. Sure beats the hell out of the first PS controller. You should try one. It is a joy to play with.

    2. Sorry but no. There are a lot of people like me who dislike the Four button layout when playing fighters like Vampire Hunter. I will have to get a USB converter to use me Model2 on the PS3/4. Just look at the official Street Fighter Controller by Capcom, it’s basically a Model2 so there is your “superior”.

    3. Another one for a polite “You’re wrong” on the controller issue. You are absolutely correct that it wouldn’t be the best for 3D, but it represents the pinnacle of control for 2D gaming. I settled for the Genesis 6-buttons for my emulation purposes, but I am seriously considering an upgrade. There has never been a better 2D controller.

  2. What I learned (though already knew really) from this article: Sega at some point in their career forgot how to market for America. Man I was a Nintendo fan as a kid. Castlevania, Ducktales, Megaman, Mario 3, River City; shit rocked. Until blast processing changed my life. I was converted and never looked back. Sega died eventually and time and time again I pull for them to get it done and mostly for naught. Especially Sonic’s sad state of affairs. Sigh.

    1. The history of the Saturn’s failure is EXHAUSTIVELY laid out in the pretty good book Service Games: The rise and fall of Sega. I recommend gamers at least skim through it.

      I’ve just been trudging through the Saturn era. The problem at the time was that Nakayama (then Sega’s president in Japan) made a series of horrible decisions about how the American market should be run, unilaterally walking all over SOA president Tom Kalinske. There was so much arrogance due to the fact that the Saturn was actually doing very well initially, that Nakayama pretty much made every mistake he could possibly make. It was the ripples of his decision making that ended Sega in the console business. For crying out loud, he ordered that the Saturn was to be ‘secretly’ released in the US 6 months early, with only a handful of games. When they got the stores, the retailers were like, “What the hell is this?”

    1. Except it isn’t really a secret to anyone that’s into games that the Dreamcast is actually pretty great. (In fact, I think it’s sales were pretty decent as well, it’s just that SEGA had fucked up so bad before that nothing short of a Wii-level phenomenon could have saved them, and that was never going to happen.) Whereas the Saturn is often maligned and overlooked by most. Myself included.

      1. Yep. I love my Dreamcast (obviously, from my avatar) but I think the awesomeness of the Dreamcast is pretty much known fact all across the US, Europe, and other places around the world with good English comprehension.

        Maybe I can do a Dreamcast one when its 20th anniversary hits or something (which is just about 4 year away).

  3. While i am a huge sega fan, I had no idea about the japan only controllers (i usually just use my nights 3d monstrosity) gots to get on the ebay and look for those. You’re not kidding about the 2D graphics though, just put in Dragon Force and that game is still looks pretty damn fine with zero slowdown despite hundreds of little sprites running around.

  4. Panzer Dragoon Saga should be in this article. As a Saturn owner, I have Panzer Dragoon Saga AND Radiant Silvergun. I loved that little black box.

  5. I love the Saturn and played the crap out of mine. Maybe in my top five all time consoles. And the cool thing about import games is that you can play them on an American Saturn if you have a Game Shark and do a little trick at start up (hold down X-Y-Z and press start).

  6. During the nineties i used to sell pirated PSX games in order to be able to afford original sega saturn games. Saturn was always the superior console. My launch saturn still works. My first PSX lasted a year or so.

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