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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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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