Every game system out there has a range of games representing it and not all are equal. Some are addicting, some are forgettable, and some are just flat out terrible. Then beyond all of those are the golden games, the ones that take the system’s name and transform it. These games can bring a system glory, make or maintain a reputation, or become a mark for what a console or handheld truly was. They can show gamers everywhere what some hardware tried to be, what it excelled at, or if become a symbol of its triumphs and trials. As I’ve been selling and re-expanding my collection recently I have been reflecting on this, this spirit of gaming. I want to explore some of my memorable gaming pieces of hardware and find their spirit. Today I am starting with the Sega Saturn.
10) Enemy Zero (1996) & Real Sound Kaze No Regret (1997)
These two games are combined here for a couple reasons. First off, they came from the same developer, WARP. Both Enemy Zero and Real Sound: Kaze No Regret were brought to the Sega Saturn from similarly unconventional ways. Sadly, seeing as how Real Sound is entirely in Japanese I can’t give it enough time or experience to justify it’s own slot. These games are from mad maverick game designer Kenji Eno and represent the unconventional and subversive avenues Sega of Japan was exploring and attracting when trying to build up the Saturn there in the mid-90s. In Enemy Zero, time is split between a Myst-like exploration mode and FPS segments where all the enemies are invisible. To fight and survive you must rely on sound chimes to locate and exterminate your target. It’s as tense and exciting as the concept is unique. In Real Sound there are no graphics. There are no visuals at all. It’s a mystery adventure game done entirely in audio through a lush soundscape allowing players to get sucked in. Specific ques and prompts are mixed into the experience to guide players to respond with through the controller. I can’t think of anything else like this. Supposedly, if you know Japanese it’s a wild experience. The stories behind both of the games’ production and release are full of curve balls. Between threats and betrayals to Sony and advocacy and hardware donations to the blind…it’s nuts. It’s all a good representation of the creative, subversive,and experimental side Sega was coming into at the time, (you can check out my article on Kenji Eno for more) a place where the Saturn could find a home.
9) Bulk Slash (1997)
Bulk Slash is a game that often flies under the radar, especially since it never found a release outside of Japan. However, it strongly fits much of that “Sega style”many gamers know and love and showed it off as one of the most enjoyable 3D action games for the Sega Saturn system. The easiest way to describe Bulk Slash at a glance is a mix between Virtual On and Burning Rangers with more sparks of deviation and variance throughout each with goals and level design. Bulk Slash’s aesthetics and design scream mid 90s on the best way possible. Strong action, tight controls, a flare for campy drama all fit right at home with what Sega was putting out on the Saturn themselves. It’s rare for a third party developer, CAProductions in this case, to capture a headlining studios signature feel in regards to gameplay and style, let alone do it just as well if not better than the source. With great 3D visuals that were known to be extremely difficult to produce, Bulk Slash is perfectly at home on Saturn hardware and it’s strange to imgagine it anywhere else.
8) Virtua Fighter 2 (1995)
At the time of the Sega Saturn\s release Sega was a powerhouse in the arcades, (back when arcades still had power themselves.) They were kings, driven up higher with mega-hit Virtua Fighter and it’s bigger, better, vastly more impressive sequel Virtua Fighter 2 which was in arcades the same month the Saturn hit Japanese stores in 1994. Sega had to act quickly and strategically if they were going to prove that they could follow through with talk of bringing worldwide arcade hits into the home. Eyes were on Sega. Doubts were already in place with the Saturn’s hardware capabilities, and gamers were becoming more entranced with the Sony Playstation. But, in 1995 Sega proved they could fulfill their promise of Arcade-y goodness with a port of Virtua Fighter 2 that looked just about as good as the arcade original and played at a smooth 60 frames per second. This was done using some wizardry with textures and the dual CPU setup (that I don’t have time for explaining here,) utilizing the Saturn’s topsy-turvy design. Virtua Fighter 2 is one of the best cases of Sega doing things right,at the right time, getting much deserved good results.
7) Street Fighter Zero/Alpha 3 (1998)
At first glance it might seem that this game is a really strange choice for this list. It’s not a Saturn exclusive, it got a wider release on every other platform it was released on. Even the Saturn’s successor, the Sega Dreamcast got a version of this, BEFORE the Saturn did! So why bother? Well, everything I just said is a contributing reason, really. Despite all of those factors, Street Fighter Zero/Alpha 3 for the Saturn is simply the best home conversion port, at least untilmore modern arcade ports came along. If you think about it all, it does make sense. It was known that the Saturn’s strengths were in 2D gaming from the start, but it’s more than that. The Saturn was downright MASTERFUL with 2D visuals, and this game is one of the ultimate showcases of it. It’s fast, the graphics are done with phenomenal color and animation, the Saturn controller is perfect for fighting games, and when utilizing the Sega Saturn 4 MB Ram expansion Cart what the Saturn puts out is better than good. It’s great. There’s something just so satisfying about it that even at the end of the line when retailers and Sega themselves were shoving the Saturn out to pasture that the system shines, unmatched, at what it was originally built to do. It’s no secret that the Saturn’s 3D capabilities were hastily implemented and last in line for its generation, and while that is unfortunate, the Saturn had more to offer. In the end though, those flaws and shortcomings can’t hide the strengths Sega fans see as special.
6) Shining Force III (Scenarios I, II, & III)
I wrestled for a long time over if this spot should belong to Shining Force III or Panzer Dragoon Saga. Both are amazing games, flagship titles for the system, and swan song releases, great gifts for Saturn owners in the west as the system died young. In the end, I had to give the spot to Shining Force III, not just because it doesn’t seem to come up as much, but because it got a lesser treatment outside of Japan that is so very indicative of the Saturn’s reception and lifespan outside of it’s mother region. For those not in the know, the Shining games are something of a legacy series. It enjoyed fan and critical acclaim on the Sega Genesis, Game Gear, and Sega CD. Shining Force III is no exception. Gameplay, story, and design are all wonderful. With all this in mind it’s a real shame, (though not a surprise,) that Shining Force III got a heavily cut release in the west with only part one of three getting officially translated. On top of that, Sega of America even altered plot points and other elements needed to try to hide the fact that what was being sent out was a incomplete experience. What we got is far from bad on it’s own, but it’s not what was intended. It leaves players wanting more, A trait Saturn fans new and old will come to know. Luckily, Scenario’s II & III, (as well as a retranslated Scenario I) have been put out into the ether by some fans so sigh no more Sega retro gamers. Go give it a shot.
5) Princess Crown (1997)
There are several games written about here that never got a western release, and out of all of them, this is one I think I would’ve have loved to have here in English the most personally. And as I start let me me be clear right now for a second. A significantly large part of why Princess Crown is on this list is because of it’s visuals. Don’t get me wrong, the game is great fun and I know that graphics don’t make a game, but they can certainly help. The world and characters in Princess Crown are so vivid, charismatic, and well animated that it totally sucks you in. The game is an action RPG and a spiritual predecessor to Odin’s Sphere. It really shows, many great elements of that game originate here. If you thought that game was charming and fun you have Princess Crown to thank. Not only does it show off the Saturn, but it’s a great example of a type of game Saturn owners were starved with over here. Princess Crown is a bittersweet symbol of the whole Saturn experience: It’s perfect for the platform and a fun time, but it was kept from my hemisphere and as a result further shaped an ominous shadow of the Saturn console.
4) Burning Rangers (1998)
Burning Rangers is an utterly impressive use, (and in a weird way technical misuse,) of the Sega Saturn, coming out right before the very end. Burning Rangers is a landmark release with several effects and features previously thought impossible to perform on the Saturn hardware, including heavy use of transparencies, a solely voice directed navigation system, and special lighting effects. Because of this, it really turned heads with Saturn fans still holding on before the end later in 1998. The game’s playful vibe and quirky rescue and platforming elements make it almost feel more like a Dreamcast era game than a Saturn one. To accomplish this programmers had to really use parts and pathways of the system in ways they had never been used before, such as having certain, unrelated processors pick up slack and balance for others when necessary. It really is an example of art out of adversity. That being said, the game isn’t perfect. At times it can even feel somewhat unfinished. For example, collision detection can be wonky, there are graphical glitches here and there, and you will encounter slowdown. Despite this, Burning Rangers is something to remember and enjoy as a game and a story in Sega and Saturn history.
3) Panzer Dragoon (1995)
Panzer Dragoon was a launch title for the Sega Saturn in the west and it is pretty much unanimously agreed on that it was the most memorable and impressive title available when the Saturn was unleashed onto the U.S. public in 1995. With impressive graphics, music, and a gorgeous fantasy post-apocalyptic art design mixed with a very classic shooter style it was easy that this game would be memorable for years to come. Panzer Dragoon represents a hopeful beginning for Saturn fans and it led the way for two excellent sequels that created a most wanted trilogy for the system. From the start of it’s development, Panzer Dragoon was made to suit the Saturn itself, not toy with the hardware in a way that didn’t suit the game or the overall development process. It’s funny, Panzer Dragoon started the way as a bright sign and the last in it’s trilogy, the RPG Panzer Dragoon Saga. While the original set a mood and an idea of the Saturn out of the gate, Sagafittingly was the game that took the most graceful bow as the Saturn faded away. It’s strange to imagine the Saturn without this one that started so much.
2) NiGHTS into Dreams (1996)
NiGHTS might be the most iconic and memorable game for the Sega Saturn system. It’s unique, charming, and is really everything it sets out to be. It’s an icon of gaming in the mid 90 and set a new measure of creativity for Sega at the time. It’s the full package. Sonic Team made a smart decision making NiGHTS their debut release for the Saturn over Sonic. It set a fresh coat of paint for the canvas. With a new whimsical tone, colorful characters and a rich world to soak in it is no wonder that NiGHTS quickly became the mascot for the Saturn. Yuji Naka and his team at Sega set to capture the free, smooth feeling of flight with this game and they did it with the aid of the new analog controller. It’s one of those few games you don’t feel yourself as you play it, you’re a part of it. So much love went into this game, so much hope for what would come in the future,you can palpably feel it. Even if that feeling didn’t linger for Sega throughout the Saturn’s lifespan, it can still be felt today as players float on through their dreams.
1) Sakura Taisen (1996)
Sakura Taisen, or Sakura Wars, is without a doubt one of the biggest icons for the Sega Saturn, despite none of the games for the Saturn ever seeing the light of day outside of Japan. The series simply was, and is, a phenomenon. Sakura Wars is a visual Novel dating sim/Tactical RPG mix. Both sides of play greatly affect each other and can affect how details of the game progress forward. The thing is, Sakura Taisen isn’t just girly harem time with some smashing robots, (did I mention your squad fights steam punk robots against a demonic force in 1920’s Japan? crazy, right?) it’s actually really good! The game plays and feels somewhere in between the Growlanser and Persona titles which share these elements in big ways. With great characters, accessible social and battle systems, and an engaging story, Sega gave the Saturn a series that mixed two niche genres wonderfully in every sense. While it attracted that crowd the Saturn had already won over, it brought in a whole new crew of gamers that just wanted to enjoy the experience. Sega dug roots in passionate smaller circles and drew in the curious and brought them all on board the Saturn by mixing things never meshed before, and doing it with love. In this process they made high quality software, grew brand loyalty, and made a zillion dollars off of media and gaming spin-offs. Sakura Wars is more than a curiosity, it’s a facet of the Sega Saturn’s identity. It’s niche, it’s creative, it’s classic and stylish at the same time, it delighted Japan and dumbfounded the west; It is the Sega Saturn.
Here are a few games that almost made my definitive list but missed the cut for one reason or another
- Vampire Savior (Darkstalkers 3)
- Saturn Bomberman
- Panzer Dragoon Saga
- Radiant Silvergun
What Games do you think are part of the spirit of the Sega Saturn? Do you like/dislike/ are dumbfounded by my choices here? Leave a comment and start a discussion!