Sega’s favorite misunderstood game console celebrated the 20th anniversary of its U.S. release last week on May 11th.. No, it’s not the 32X… or the Sega CD. I’m talking about Sega’s 32-bit wonder, the Saturn. In honor of the occasion I hooked up the good ol’ black box, invited a friend over, and we played through a big handful of games from my collection. Eventually, we made our way to the anime styled action-RPG, Magic Knight Rayearth. We played through a few areas and enjoyed the nicely animated cutscenes, and it really got me thinking. The game is interesting. It’s interesting not only because it’s the last Saturn Game released in the U.S., but also because it it had such an early initial release in Japan. In fact, Rayearth was one of the 12 games announced when the the system was first unveiled back in June of 1994. This little factoid got me reflecting on the beginning and the end and I decided that in respect for the Saturn, one of my favorite game systems I would examine some stand out games from the beginning and end of the systems North American life cycle and touch light on what made them “Saturn” special along the way.
Magic Knight Rayearth, at the beginning and the end
The Sega Saturn had a pretty rocky launch here in the States. We’re talking fall and then skid down a gravel driveway rocky. Bad decisions were made and Sega paid for them throughout the ‘90s. Despite all of this, the Saturn managed to snag some quality titles that truly stood out during its formative first year and a half. These games showed off what the Saturn could uniquely do and well. It also showed that Sega still had that special touch which could produce wonderful games to play.
Panzer Dragoon was a launch title for the Saturn and it stood out as something special right away. The Saturn had a struggling, somewhat anemic launch lineup and yet Panzer Dragoon doesn’t really feel like a launch title. The Gameplay, art, music, even the narrative all work fantastically together. Every important component pulls its weight. The game’s overall design has a polish to it that’s impressive for a new IP right out of the gates, especially one emerging from a period of transition like the 2D-3D era. Sure the basic simplest core formula is basically Space Harrier cranked up a few notches, but that’s also kind of an endearing point. Panzer Dragoon takes a ten year old formula and evolves it so it feels fresh and exciting on the new hardware. The world of Panzer Dragoon is inspired and the enemies you encounter are richly unique. The creatures and worlds, and your journey flying through them, are enhanced with the custom graphics Team Andromeda put together. (they opted to make their own texture library and graphics whatsits instead of using the standard stuff Sega had available,) and the carefully crafted music and sound effects. The game was a showcase for Sega and it served that purpose well. Panzer Dragoon may not have aged perfectly and I’ll admit that its sequel Panzer Dragoon Zwei beats it on every level, but it still is a great point of interest on the Saturn.
Astal, while not a launch title for the system, was a very early release on the Saturn. Like Panzer Dragoon, Astal’s gameplay isn’t too original on the surface. In fact, when you boil it down to its bones, it is a fairly traditional action platformer kind of game. You jump, smash, run around, lather, rinse, repeat. Don’t get me wrong though. it still is special. The game is far from a mindless button mashing romp, in fact it’s quite competent. It’s just that Astal’s gameplay is overshadowed by its atmospheric qualities. The whole game is beautiful. What makes Astal special is that it uses the Saturn’s strengths to it’s advantage. The game was a very early release and it showed the gaming world that the Saturn could do something right and do it better that anyone else- 2D sprite based graphics. The lands you traverse in Astal are lush, colorful, and creative and characters have detail as the fluidly move about the screen. Controls never feel forced or sluggish, the music compliments the scene at hand, the whole package says “Look at me, play me, be curious of the Saturn.” Well, maybe not the box art. The U.S. Box Art was terrible. It actually may have turned some away. It’s disappointing because Astal never really sold well though the Saturn’s life. Still, sales don’t matter too much twenty years down the line. Quality speaks more over time.
Virtua Fighter 2 was a game that did much better in the sales department. However, it had a lot to live up to. Virtua Fighter 1 was available for home play on the Saturn and the 32X already and the arcade versions of both Virtua Fighter 1 and 2 were phenomenal hits. At that point in time any half-decent Virtua Fighter anything would sell but to keep momentum going and to do things right Sega had to work for it. The Arcade version of Street Fighter 2 was streets ahead of it’s predecessor graphically and the question was, can the AM2 development team pull off a port on the polygonally challenged, scrappy home console? well, yeah. they did. (Otherwise this segment would have gone to Guardian Heroes.) After some tinkering and making some subtle adjustments AM2 and the Saturn delivered. Virtua Fighter 2 is a great example of how good 3D graphics could be done on the platform when in the hands of talented people. The game runs at 60 frames per second and at a noticeably higher resolution than usual. To pull all this witchcraft and wizardry off AM2 had to use the dual processors and other unique hardware tricks such as complex texture mapping to its advantage. It’s safe to say that Virtua Fighter 2 was a major win for Sega and the Saturn.
The Saturn’s start isn’t remembered too fondly by gamers and members of the gaming press, and for the most part, that’s a fair assessment. There was so much mismanagement, so much overlooked that it’s understandable that people saw the Saturn as a downhill struggle from the start. However, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t any quality titles put out there by quality developers. these are just 3 examples of the good that continues to the very end.
Next time, I will go over some examples of the best games the Saturn had as it faded out in the North American market.