Sega's history in the 1990s was pretty interesting. They started out a little weird with the Genesis, hit a hell of a stride with Sonic, and then the constant infighting of Sega of America and Sega of Japan made Sega a bit of a hard name to trust. Yes, the product was good, but it was also the product of a lot of behind-the-scenes BS.
Sega of America and Sega of Japan really did hate each other. Sega of Japan had moderate sucess with the SG-1000, Sega Mk3, Master System, and the Mega Drive, but it couldn't quite topple Nintendo or other developers like NEC. The Genesis really caught on in the US, however, once Sega of America's big Sonic The Hedgehog push happened. Sega of Japan thought the idea of cutting the price of the Genesis and bundling it with Sonic was foolish, and they were proven wrong. This event really turned both branches of Sega into rivals, each trying to one up the other. Their bickering led to two next-gen game consoles being developed at the same time: Sega of America had the 32X, Sega of Japan had the Sega Saturn.
Since the 32X was a pretty big failure, the Saturn was the console that brought Sega full-on into the 32-bit era.
The Saturn came out in 1994 in Japan, and was prepped for a September 1995 launch for the United States. However, Sega of Japan mandated that the system be released earlier so it could get a bigger lead on other consoles, notably the Sony Playstation. With little time to gather software, even less time to market the system, and with a good chunk of retailers in the dark about the plan until the last second, Sega released the Saturn in the US on May 11th, 1995, by announcing it in the middle of their press conference at E3.
Imagine if Sony did that back when the PS4 was yet to be released. There would have been riots. They also wouldn't have been able to keep the secret, but that's beside the point. Sega made a huge gamble with that announcement, and it screwed them.
The retailers that did get the console were faced with a small launch lineup and confused customers. It didn't help that despite the early launch being a direct attack on the Playstation, Sony still managed to win the day when they announced the MSRP of the PS1 at their own press conference. Guess what? It was a whole $100 cheaper. Sega's move alienated a lot of retailers. Ones like KB Toys refused to stock ANY Sega product because they were left out on the early release deal.
Developers who worked on the Saturn also found that it was incredibly hard to program on, since it rendered 3D visuals with quadrilaterals instead of triangles, like most 3D tech at the time. It didn't help that 3D was more or less an afterthought on the system, added in to compete with the Playstation on a higher level. The best games on the system don't even use 3D, for the most part.
As for games, the Saturn had a slow start. Virtua Fighter was bundled with the device, but it wasn't a very good version. Later Saturns came bundled with a three-pack of games: Virtua Fighter 2, Daytona USA, and Virtua Cop. All of those are awesome and well worth your time. Sonic Team made a bunch of non-Sonic games for the system, the best of which was Nights Into Dreams, a game where you fly around dreamscapes, collecting gems and stars. Basically, it was a speedrunning game with flight. Think of it like a flight-based Sonic with loop-around levels. Sonic Team also made Burning Rangers, a game that is very much a cult classic and also one that has not seen the light of day since its initial release on the Saturn.
The Saturn was also very, very kind to RPG fans. Games like Shining Force III and Panzer Dragoon Saga are legendary, and they're completely exclusive to the Saturn. PDS' four discs are loaded with RPG goodness, and it is well worth your time, moreso than a lot of RPGs out there.
The Saturn also had its share of ports, with stuff from the Genesis and Sega CD getting updated visuals (Mortal Kombat II, Corpse Killer, etc...) and PS1-era games like Gex and Croc getting nice Saturn versions, too. Some games even had slight differences between versions. For instance, Mega Man 8 on the Saturn includes Cut Man & Wood Man as bonus bosses, and Tengu Man's stage theme is completely different. Here's a clip from YouTube, courtesy of YouTuber PinkKittyRose:
Honestly, the Saturn was doomed from the start. It's unfortunate, because it's an excellent console.
Buying a Saturn with run you around $50-$70. Honestly, that's a lot of cash for just the console. Once you have it, you need some games.
And therein lies the problem.
The collector market for the Saturn is pretty damn expensive right now. Remember all of those awesome games I mentioned earlier? They're all pretty much $50-$100 each, and desired titles are expensive across the board. Panzer Dragoon Saga costs even more than that. It's insane. Bundled stuff like Virtua Fighter 2 and common titles like Daytona USA are still cheap, but they're abundant, so you'll probably be tripping over them when searching.
Are there solutions to the problem of availability? Yeah. Thankfully there are. Most of the great Saturn games have been re-released on other consoles, such as Nights Into Dreams, Fighting Vipers, Sonic R, Cyber Troopers Virtual On and the like. A lot of games are also multi-platform: You can find the PS1 versions of games like Mega Man X4 for significantly less than the price of the Saturn version. Still, there are a ton of games that never left the system: You can't exactly hop on to Xbox Live and download Burning Rangers, Mr. Bones, or Saturn Bomberman.
Now, you can import games for the system, but keep in mind that the Saturn, like other disc-based consoles, is region-locked. There is a workaround for that, though, and it's something that is a fairly recent innovation with the system: flashing an Action Replay cart with a ROM that allows your Saturn to play non-US games and *ahem* burned games. This video offers an explanation:
Now, I would like to stress that burning games that you don't own is technically illegal. You could make an argument that the system isn't making Sega any money on these games and a lot of the expensive games aren't available elsewhere, but at the end of the day, piracy is still piracy. I don't condone it. I do condone buying Japanese Saturn games, however. Some Japanese games were never released in the US, and some are cheaper than their English counterparts. Awesome stuff. The mod in the above video will allow you to play other-region games without issue.
Whew. Got all that?
The Sega Saturn is a hell of a machine. It didn't quite suceed in the marketplace (that's part of the reason why the games are so damn expensive), but a lot of the games on it are worth playing over and over.
Now, if anyone needs me, I'm going to load up Mega Man 8 and blaze through Tengu Man's stage, because that music has been stuck in my head all night.
Yeah. I own Mega Man 8.
It's in a game store right now. In a glass case. I saw it with my eyeballs.
I looked at it longingly.
Alright, so I don't own Mega Man 8 for the Saturn. However, I have it on the Playstation, and in all three version of Mega Man Anniversary Collection... So I totally own it!