The Saturn: Sega’s Greatest Console

Ahhh the Sega Saturn. My beloved, underappreciated 32-bit Sega Saturn. In time, it would become the first truly successful CD based gaming console to market, although not without its growing pains. Rushed to stores just a few weeks ahead of its rival, the Sony PlayStation, the Japanese Saturn was released on November 22nd, 1994. Following suit the North American Saturn was launched nearly four months ahead of schedule in May 1995. Sadly, right off the bat sales for the North American Saturn started slow due to the awkward non-holiday release date, the $399.99 price point ($100 more than the PlayStation), the decision to only distribute units to a scant four select retailers and general consumer distrust of Sega after releasing several quickly dropped add-ons for the Sega Genesis including the Sega CD and 32X.

Yup. Typical Sega. Marketing blunders, bad retail, consumer, and publisher relations, and just all around dumb decisions. No surprises there, but believe it or not the Saturn lived on and even prospered despite it all. You see, a common misconception is that the Saturn was a failure. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While true the system’s performance in the marketplace paled in comparison to the Sony PlayStation, especially in North America, it is estimated that roughly 10 million Sega Saturn consoles were sold worldwide. For quite some time during the 32/64-bit console wars the Sega Saturn was firmly entrenched into second place. And the success in Japan was undeniable. If the Saturn was a failure then the Sega Genesis must also be considered a failure, because in Japan the Saturn was even more popular than the Genesis. An example being that while the PlayStation outsold Saturn consoles in Japan, the Saturn’s software sales were considerably higher than Sony’s were. I remember reading my GameFAN back in 1996, looking at the Japanese software charts, and marveling at how the comparatively smaller Saturn ownership was buying more games and producing more revenue than the significantly larger PlayStation user base. That’s not saying the PSX didn’t have good games. Far from it. But the Saturn had a higher quotient of good games to crap than its closest rival and those good games rocked so hard that Saturn owners were almost always forced into gleeful poverty. This reality caused the Saturn to be known as the system for the more dedicated or “hardcore” gamer, a perception that’s stuck with it down to this day, as compared to the PlayStation’s more casual gaming audience.

So what made the Saturn such a triumph? For one, its inventiveness. The system’s architecture and numerous original features thrust the Saturn to the forefront of innovation. From pioneering controller design with the 3D Analog pad to adding Internal Memory storage capabilities not only making memory cards unnecessary but also giving us an internal clock allowing for “real-time gaming” and special gameplay unlockables based on date and time. Plus Sega had the bravery to create the very first 1st-party developed and supported online gaming peripheral with their Sega NetLink. These advances Sega made with the Saturn in design and innovation, among others, were absolutely revolutionary and have had ripple effects right down to the consoles we love and enjoy today.


“The Saturn has one of the most impressive libraries of any gaming console ever.”

And the games? Fantastic. Simply put the Saturn has one of the most impressive libraries of any gaming console ever. It was a paradise for RPG fans with some of the best titles produced in the genre. We had the spawning of classic franchises like Grandia and Sakura Taisen. We had Working Designs bringing over a flurry of titles including Albert Odyssey and Magic Knight Rayearth. We had a total of FIVE new Shining games. We had more five-star quality Japanese-only RPGs than you can shake a stick at making the Saturn THE system for RPG imports. And the Saturn was a 2D fighting fan’s godsend giving us for the first time home conversions that were indeed, arcade perfect. The system came with a bountiful amount of video RAM which was later augmented by 1 and 4 MEG Cartridge expansions giving the console a distinct advantage when it came to 2D game engines. Anyone who has experienced the load-free, pixel perfect, spot on gameplay of X-Men Vs Street Fighter running on a Saturn can attest to the system’s 2D prowess. But when developers took advantage of both of the console’s twin CPUs, stellar 3D ports were possible too as evidenced by Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally, and Virtual On. Companies like Treasure and SNK produced phenomenal side-scrolling platformers and shooters that are today legendary. And Sega themselves brought the heat with some of the greatest games of all time. Fans are still fawning over classics like Sakura Taisen, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Dragon Force, and NiGHTS Into Dreams.

It is worth noting that, even with the incredible North American gaming library, over a third of the games we’re going to cover throughout this 5-Part feature are Japanese-only. The Saturn was the best and one of the easiest consoles for importing ever thanks to the simple purchase of the “Action Replay 4 in 1”, a cartridge which fits snuggly into the top port of the system, allowing for play of all single-disc Japanese games. This is essential, because if your mind is fixed narrowly on domestic releases there’s a good chance you’ll miss out on what was so exceptional about this console. Some of the best fighters, shooters, RPGs, etc. the system ever saw were never localized. But that silly little fact will not stop us from talking about them here.

To many of us on staff the Sega Saturn is the greatest videogame console ever made. Whether it’s the nostalgia, the innovations, or the undeniably awesome software library, we all have some of our fondest gaming memories sitting in front of our sleek black box. That’s why I have asked the staff to join me in celebrating the life and times of this ground-breaking console. Come with us on a 1-part for education 2-parts for fun journey as we go back in time taking a look at not only the dozens upon dozens of the system’s stellar games but also the features and technological advances that made the Sega Saturn one of the most revolutionary consoles of our time. The point is not to stir debate as to whether or not the Saturn was indeed Sega’s greatest console, but rather to rouse up interest in a system many North America gamers may have passed by, whatever the reasons. Maybe afterwards you too will partake of the gaming gods dripped nectar falling from the fruits of this console and become as totally smitten by it as the rest of us.

_Bebito Jackson


DAYTONA USA

ROOOOOOLLLLLLING START!!!!! The sounds that launched the Sega Saturn’s run would draw cackles of laughter in any generation. But during the summer of 1995, when Seal and Blues Traveler topped the music charts, all anybody in the Sega camp cared about was the opportunity to play one of the all-time great arcade games on a home console. People weren’t disappointed. Sure, the graphics could have been better, but for the most part, what they got at the arcades was what they got on the Saturn. And what they got was a semi-simple arcade translation with ridiculous amounts of replay value. While Daytona USA would be seen as an extremely limited game if it were released today instead of over a decade prior, this actually worked to the game’s advantage in a way. Yeah, there were only three tracks, but you knew them like the back of your hand. Everyone who’s played Daytona USA remembers passing Mount Sonic heading into the checkered flag on the Beginner stage, and most people remember the extreme difficulty of the Expert stage. You only had two cars to choose from, but you had the choice between manual and automatic transmission – did you really need anything else? And the soundtrack! What a soundtrack! If you bought Daytona USA along with the Saturn at launch, odds are good that the songs are still ingrained in your memory. One of the worst soundtracks you’ll ever hear, but in a good way. Still trying to figure out what “Daytona, let’s go away!” means? You’re not alone. Legions of Saturn fans are still pondering the same question, while telling their friends to “Try to go easy on the car!” and performing their renditions of the most distinctive “Game Over” jingle ever written. It wasn’t a perfect port, but it was a very significant one. Along with Virtua Fighter, Sega had an arsenal of arcade hits at launch, ready to be played at home. And although the initial version was trumped by countless remakes of the arcade title, the most memorable version of Daytona USA remains the game that many people bought the same day they bought their Saturns.
_Bryan Berg


VIRTUA FIGHTER 2

When first released, the Saturn came bundled with a free version of the original Virtua Fighter. And later, the system came with an updated version entitled Virtua Fighter Remix. Sega fans across this country were glad to have their favorite fighting series in all of its arcade glory, but they were still looking ahead. They wanted the next edition of the game they held so dear. They knew the Saturn could handle it, and they waited with baited breath. And of course, Sega delivered with Virtua Fighter 2.The game itself was arcade perfect. The updated graphics remained intact, and were a huge leap from the previous game. The polygon count was upped, giving the cast a more realistic look and feel. Facial features were more pronounced. Muscles looked to be defined, rather than simple blocks. Costume pieces could be knocked off more frequently, such as Pai’s hat and Kage’s mask. Character’s now had different body types. Lau looked a little older. Dural looked smoother and shinier. Hell, Jeffery got FAT. We had a FAT fighter in our midst, finally breaking away from what Wolf looked like! And with that, the fighters had more personality than before. Not only that, but the backgrounds looked more detailed and varied. Instead of generic fighting rings, we saw locales like the jungle, the city, and even ancient ruins. Add the fact that the characters now moved at 60 FPS, and you had a killer app graphically.

The game also is impressive musically. You had your choice of two different groups of tracks to fight to. The first came from the arcade, and sounds pretty improved on the Saturn console. The second included special remixed tracks exclusive to the console game. It’s just another awesome addition to an awesome fighting game.

Of course the real meat and potatoes of the game revolved around the addition of two new characters to the VF line-up. First there was Lion, who fights with the Mantis style. His quick strikes and nimble move set helped him to become a crafty, formidable foe. The other new character, and perhaps the favorite, was Shun Di, an elderly master of the Drunken Arts. He was truly the most unique character in the VF cast, with his unpredictable style and hilarious moves. He would drink during a match and look like he was relaxing, but could very easily pounce on you with a disjointed combo while you weren’t looking. All your favorites from the original VF also came back, and each contained new moves and techniques to take advantage of.

Speaking of techniques, once again the VF series proved itself to be better than the rest with its incredibly deep fighting system. You see, you simply couldn’t button-mash and expect to defeat all the opponents you came across. Each character had a unique move set, incredibly different and independent from each other. You had to learn each of a single character’s moves in order to completely master him/her. Akira was mostly based on defense and relied mainly on counters. Wolf and Jeffery both had techniques that relied on throws and power moves. Characters like Pai and Lion relied on speed and quick strikes in order to survive. And of course, there were the unique move sets of Shun Di and Kage that really added flavor to the game. Such deep characters, and the incredible combinations they were capable of, put competitors like Battle Arena Toshinden and Tekken to shame. This was perhaps the ULTIMATE Saturn fighter of its era. And we fans loved every waking moment of it.

_Alex Williams


SLAYERS ROYAL

This is the game I kicked off my Top 30 RPG Countdown with! I’m glad I have the chance to talk about it again here. Slayers Royal uses the license from the anime and manga series by the same name. All your favorites are here! Lina Inverse, Gourry Gabriev, Zelgadas, and Amelia. All voiced with their original anime actors (and there’s a LOT of voice acting in this game). Megumi Hayashibara even sings a brand new theme song! There’s also Naga the Serpent, making Slayers Royal the first time this character from the OAV encounters the Slayers from the TV series. All of these are great moment for hardcore fans, but what should really make fans happy, is that this is one of the few licensed games from an anime series that isn’t god awful. You’ve played most Robotech and Dragonball Z and Ghost in the Shell games right? TERRIBLE. But Slayers Royal is one of the best RPG’s ever made. It’s also one of the most original tactical RPG games ever made. Your characters start out maxed out. And as you play each battle, it’s actually the ENEMIES that get stronger. Your characters stats won’t be changing at all. You just keep encountering tougher and stronger villains and monsters, just like in the cartoon. This really changes how one plays this style of game. When leveling up and new powers/stats aren’t an option, you concentrate solely on combat strategy. I found this to be a breath of fresh air back in 1997, and it still holds true today. There is no cheap power-gaming or munchkin style gaming that tends to be common place in other Tactics RPG’s. You can’t do random battles and level your characters up to god like stats before actually finishing the main plot as if it was a cakewalk. No, you actually have to have some brains in your head to play Slayers Royal. Slayers Royal offered everything you could desire. Fully animated and voice cut scenes in large enough quantities to make it the Xenosaga of the Saturn, unlockables including music, bios on the characters, access to all the FMV, and more! With all these extras and two dozen excellent tactical skirmishes to play through, Slayers Royal will easily satisfy any tactical gaming fan for a long time to come. It’s just a pity the game is an import only, considering the Slayers anime has a very strong American fanbase. At least you can pick it up for 10-15 bucks on ebay though.
_Alex Lucard


SONIC JAM

Most gamers today will look at Sonic Mega Collection on the store shelf and think to themselves that this is the must-have compilation all Sonic fans must own. Therefore, most gamers are wrong. DEAD wrong. You see, there was another huge Sonic compilation released many years ago that puts this newer collection to shame. Sonic Jam was practically every Sonic fan’s dream realized. The game disc comes with the four most popular Genesis titles: Sonic 1, Sonic 2, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles. Also included are the three “lock-on” variants when you attached Sonic & Knuckles to any one of the previous three games. So in all, you had seven games to choose from. Note that all these games are the CORE of the Sonic franchise. There are no pansy pinball platformers to get in the way of the blast-processing giants. No weird isometric-3D games that slow our blue blur to a crawl. NO BULLSHIT. Just Sonic, Robotnik, Tails, Knuckles, and you to enjoy it. You’ll also notice that there were some incredible Saturn-only add-ons each of these games contained. Before starting each game, you were prompted with a menu that allowed you to do AWESOME things. You had the option of toggling between Easy and Normal modes. You could select your stage to start on, provided you cleared it already. You could do time attacks for each of the Stages/Acts in all the games. You could turn on the Spin Dash move in Sonic 1. All of this was done through a simple menu interface. And all of it ruled. But that’s not all. Also included entirely separate from the Genesis game compilation was a little mode called “Sonic World”. This mode offered gamers worldwide the first taste of what a three-dimensional Sonic the Hedgehog experience would be like. The main draw, however, was the fact you could see Sonic’s entire history in one place. You could read a detailed timeline including each and every Sonic release all over the world, perform a sound test with music from ALL the games, flip through a virtual art book, including concept art, and even view Japanese commercials for various Sonic games. You could also see the Sonic CD opening and closing movies in the original, unedited format, complete with original songs. THIS is why Sonic Jam is friggin’ amazing. And it’s also why any other Sonic collection doesn’t come close.
_Alex Williams


DRAGON FORCE

Every so often there comes a game that totally changes how we view a genre. A game that tweaks the genre in such a way that it has never been done before. A game that is as original as it is fun to play and manages to give you an amazing story, gameplay, and also graphics and music. A game that is all around incredible and almost completely flaw free.For anyone that has played it, Dragon Force would be that game.

See, this is about the time Sega got f*cking stupid. They didn’t release Dragon Force. They didn’t bring over the other two parts of Shining Force 3. They didn’t bring over Sakura Taisen 1 or 2. They pissed off Working Designs with Magic Knight Rayearth. And that doesn’t even go into what they did with the Dreamcast. Sigh.

But thank god for Working Designs and them bringing us one of the most fantastic games ever made. It’s interesting that you either seem to be totally clueless about this game, or are raving batshit fanatical about it. The lowest I have ever seen this game rated was an 8.0. It’s been called the system seller for the Saturn by Gamespot. Worshiped by fans world wide as one of the best strategic RPG’s in terms of game play and story. It is easily a hundred hours long, and with so many stories and playable kingdoms, you could play just this game for a YEAR, and neither be bored or have done all 100% of the game. It is that amazing. And complex. And deep. And I’m going to shut up now so I can actually talk about the game before I start drooling.


“Thank god for Working Designs and them bringing us one of the most fantastic games ever made. “

In Dragon Force the game is a combination of RISK and Ogre Tactics. The goal is to unify the world under the banner of your Kingdom’s Ruler. But even once that is accomplished, the game is only half done. You have 8 kingdom/rulers to choose from, although only six are available when you first play the game. You have Wein, the pretty blonde boy guy that is the ‘ideal’ choice, of Highland. You have Teiris of the Elvish Kingdom Palemoon and is by far the worst in the game in terms of difficulty and troops. You have my favorite Junon of Tristan, who looks the coolest and is pretty grim, and Junon starts off with harpies, my favorite army. There is the Master Monk Mikhal of Izumo, the Samurai Leon of Topaz, and the Beastman Gongos of Bozack, who is my second favorite character to play as, because of his unintentional comic relief. The two other leaders/kingdoms you can play as once you have beaten the game are Reinhart of Tradnor, who is basically a demigod and I find him annoying and as he has mage troops and is in the center of the game world, he has a hard task set ahead for him. Then there is the vile Goldark of Fandaria who is mean, powerful and it’s an interesting scenario to play as the character YOU THINK is the main baddie in the game for the longest period of time.

The plot of the game is that your ruler must unite the land by creating the Dragon Force (which just happens that each member of this elite group will turn out to be the leader of each of the other 7 countries). The Dragon Force must be formed to prevent the rebirth of the God of Destruction Marduk. Funny that Marduk was the good guy in Sumerian Religion and was the one that killed Tiamat. But now in this game he’s the evil Dragon God. Silly Working Designs and their wacky translation. Besides that main thread there are tons of subplots specific to each ruler. Some have people directly out to assassinate them. Some have bitter old enemies out for revenge. Some even have romance in their storyline. The game is incredibly diverse and easily could be considered 8 games with the same gameplay. You know, like Final Fantasy games. Except with gameplay that is actually GOOD. Hee. I never ever get sick of cheap jabs like that.

What else makes the game amazing is that you have your Ruler, along with potentially dozens of generals and THOUSANDS of troops. Yes. Put your tongue back in your mouth. Thousands. And I mean that literally. Each general can command up to a maximum of 100 troops. And You start off with roughly half a dozen generals and it just grows from there. I can’t even begin to describe to you how amazing it is the first time you play this game to see 100 zombies battling 100 Magicians, or a horde of Harpies doing battle with a Legion of Samurai. Just watching the battles is so engrossing, you may forget to use your general at first.

The strategy is much like Rock, Paper, Scissors with some troops being strong against one type but weak against another. However, other things come into play, such as your general’s abilities and magic, and also the terrain you are on. Harpies, are in my opinion the best type of troop save for the hidden magical ones you can get later, but NEVER EVER USE THEM IN A FOREST terrain. Trust me on this.

And it gets even better because there are roughly a DOZEN types of troops. Soldiers, Calvary, Mages, Samurai, Archer, Monks, Harpies, Beasts, Dragons, Zombies, Sirens, and a Ninja even has an army of ghost ninjas! That’s REAL ULTIMATE POWER right there. It’s a high fantasy gamer’s wet dream right here. The only thing missing are Ogres, Kender, and Werewolves. And just when you think they couldn’t do anymore, I have to remind you of the generals. Remember those? The leaders of your armies. Well they aren’t always the same as your troop type. And there are even MORE types of generals then there are troops. Fighters, Knights, Samurai, Monks, Beasts, Ninjas, Thieves, Magicians, Druids, Priests, Dragon Men, Vampires, Zombies, and Succubi. So we have 14 types of generals, and 12 troops. Each with their own individual strengths and talents! Imagine the combinations thank you very much. And the strategy involved to create the best army you can. I dream of a MMORPG in the Dragon Force world using the same type of setup. It would be amazing.

There are also tons of stats that matter in this game, from a general’s ability to command a specific type of troop, to how loyal the general is to the PC. This latter is a great example, because the more loyal they are to your General, the less likely they are to die. See, when a general is defeated in combat, one of two things will happen. They will either die, and in Dragon Force death is permanent. No revive or resurrection spells here. The other option is that become merely injured and must rest at your main castle for a specific amount of time.

Man, I still have so many more game mechanics to go into. The options of recruiting a ton of generals, or just have a few sky high powerful ones from lots of leveling up. The only problem with that option is obviously that your generals may be bad ass but if they die and don’t have a high enough loyalty rating, you’re f*cked in the end stages of the game. You can fortify castles to make them even more powerful against invaders, and this also finds you rare items or raise your maximum troop levels. And speaking of troops, you have to recruit them. By sitting in your castle, you can draw more of the kind of troop you want to draw to your general(s). And before you ask, no, you can’t mix and match troops. Although that would be one hell of a battle on screen while you watch.

And the strategy. Oh wow. There are hidden tricks like the “pause your game when the ravaged and beaten computer opponent tries to leave, then send out your troops and BAM! Instant rebattle killing those cowards that tried to retreat.” There’s the Trojan horse attempt, where you have a massive general that doesn’t NEED troops and the computer AI tries to take him on because it registers it has superior numbers. There is the hit and run approach to various castles by sending in 3 generals and their armies, then retreat, send in a fresh army and repeat. The retreating armies get to heal and get more troops and the computer is slaughtered. It’s incredible and I can’t think of a better full blown war scenario out there for any system at any time. It even beats Koei games like Romance or Ambition.

The music is incredible and worthy of purchasing the soundtrack of, if such a thing is available. The graphics are impressive, but also cartoony. But it’s not the appearance so much as the fact that you can have 202 characters running around the screen each with their only AI doing massive combat. Before Dragon Force, such a thing wasn’t even remotely thought of, and even now games like Destiny Warriors are a second rate version of the magnificence of all you can do with your army, from formational tactics to spells by your general. The animated cut scenes are amazing, especially for the Saturn. Dragon Force is truly a game that can do no wrong. Hell, even while writing this I wonder if I ranked it too low in my own personal top 30 countdown.

No amount of space afforded to me here can really impress upon you how incredible Dragon Force is. It’s a game that is so intricate, you need to play it to truly understand the scope of what you are dealing with. The plot(s) are gripping, the gameplay is easy to learn but takes a while to master, and there are some tough puzzles, especially after you have unified the world into your own personal empire.

Oh, and there are four different versions of the game that you can buy. By that I mean the picture on each CD. I have the Red Dragon copy, which is supposedly the rarest. I remember the day I bought it at the Mall of America with my GF at the time and the people at the store crowded around to see which copy I got. None there had ever seen the Red Dragon version. The other three were some pretty unspectacular artwork in my opinion. So if you can get a copy and you have choice, go for the Dragon artwork, not the character art.

By far one of Sega’s best games (although to be honest there are three more Sega games past this one on the list) and is easily the best work Victor Ireland’s crew over at Working Designs has done in terms of localizing and publishing a game that many thought would be Japan only forever. Kudos to them for bringing it over.

Dragon Force is so detailed and well thought out, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone NOT to be wowed by this game. If you ever wondered why the Saturn was vastly under-rated by the average gamer, Dragon Force is all you need to shut the nay-sayers up. And sadly with Sega being Sega, with the first two being so popular, I doubt we’ll ever see a Dragon Force 3. Arrrgh.

_Alex Lucard