As we approach the supposed pinnacle of Saturn videogames, we still see the familiar issues plaguing the console in its top 20-11 games as per the Retro Sanctuary list. At this stage, it should only be natural that there are at least two obviously great games, which Dragon Force and Shining Force III are undoubtedly so. Yet, for the remaining eight, three games were never released outside of Japan, and five games which position is arguable in the list, either because there is a better port somewhere else or simply because the game has aged badly even if it was considered very good in the past.
Usually, at the end of my console review cycle, I choose a list of my top 10 games for the console. I know that I am going to struggle to choose my list for the Saturn, and it's not going to be because of an abundance of options.
20- Hyper Duel (1996): Japan-Only
Here is another Japan-only Shmup that raised the envy of genre fans in the US. Made by the same developers of the renowned Thunder Force series, this was a Shmup with significant pedigree behind it. Expectedly, the graphics are top-notch 2D sprites over great backgrounds, showcasing the abilities of the Saturn at producing some of the best 2D graphics at the time.
Fans of the genre generally regard Hyper Duel is an excellent game. Retooled for the Saturn, the game performs and looks even better than it did for the arcade, with slick gameplay that never stuttered despite the huge number of bullets and enemies that could be on the screen at any given time.
19- Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter (1998): Japan-Only
Like with many fighters in this list, the superior Saturn version was not ported west at the same time that the lacking PS1 versions were. In comparison to that version, the Saturn port was an almost frame-perfect port of the Arcade version.
As for the game itself, this was a sequel to the X-Men vs. Capcom fighting game that started the Marvel vs. Capcom fighting series that is well-loved today. It still has the same frantic action and stylistic combo systems the series is known for, and it would have been a natural hit for the Saturn owners if they ever got the chance.
18- Soukyugurentai (1997): Japan-Only
Here is the third Japan-only game on the list in a row. At this point, it is clear that even if the Saturn had many great games, many of them were simply not ported west. This is stranger in this game's case, as it was actually published by Electronic Arts in Japan, but the plan for a Wester port under the name "Terra Diver" was probably canceled due to the low performance of the console in the states.
What fans of the genre missed was another excellent vertical shooter, but with an emphasis on two-plane combat. This meant that besides fighting enemies on-screen, you also needed to concentrate separately on the enemies in the background, which you can tag with laser missiles and destroy. It's frantic at times, but not to the level of a Bullet Hell Shmup.
As expected fro masters of the genre, the graphics are crisp 2D, and the presentation is excellent in general. Although some would comment that the music is a bit subdued when compared to other games of the genre.
17- Virtua Cop 2 (1996):
Although the Sega Saturn is known for its good arcade port, I wouldn't say that Virtua Cop 2 is a good example of that. The Arcade game is known for its great visuals at the time and its non-stop exciting action. Both characteristics are downgraded in the Saturn port. Mainly, without a rail-gun attachment, aiming can become an exercise in frustration.
In summary, we end up with an inferior Arcade port of a game that is clearly made for arcades. The fun in Virtua Cop has always been in experiencing its amazing set-pieces and action in an Arcade parlor while aiming those cheap plastic guns. Lacking any story content and with inferior gameplay, the experience isn't the same on a home console.
As you may have gathered from the rather lengthy genre description, this is a game that defies categorization, as it is nearly entirely unique in the combination of things it does. Basically, you control one of six nations, each vying for total control. As the leader, you recruit generals and mobilize troops in what appears to be a real-time grand strategy game. However, once two forces collide, the action goes into a real-time tactical decision-making battle, as each force moves while you can pause the action to change tactics or deploy special moves. All of this is tied through a progression mode and story that is closer to RPGs than traditional strategy games.
Adding to this unique and addicting gameplay loops is an honestly amazing presentation. Taking advantage of the console's 2D capabilities, all generals and soldiers are represented by well-detailed sprites, which looks great when you have 200 hundred of them battling each other while an anime special move cleaves through the battlefield.
When I reviewed the game I noted how I started my review series to discover gems like these, and how ironic that this is a gem I knew about when I say my distant cousins play it as a kid, but I never knew its name or even the console they were playing at the time. You can be sure that I won't be forgetting about this game any time soon
15- Saturn Bomberman (1997):
There is little that needs to be said about this game. It's Bomberman for the Sega Saturn, an excellent multiplayer game with nearly unchanged gameplay from its iterations on the 16bit consoles, even retaining the 2D sprite looks to an excellent effect.
For single-player only gamers, there is a small but fun single-player campaign that can be finished in under 2 hours (it actually expects you to finish it, as there is no save or password system). Frankly, I think it is telling regarding the library of the Sega Saturn that Retro Sanctuary put a Bomberman game at number 14 in the list when it wasn't even placed in the top 100 for the other two 5th generation consoles. To be fair to the series, there are actually excellent Bomberman games on both the N64 and PS1, and I am sure there are games on those lists that deserve to be replaced by them.
14- Duke Nukem 3D (1997):
Here is an FPS that looked better and controlled better on the PC. Other than the fact that it was an honestly amazing technical achievement to make a relatively looking port of the game on the Saturn, there is little that recommends the game.
I don't know why the editors at Retro Sanctuary persist in putting these inferior ports of PC games on the list.
13- Fighters Megamix
Fighting Megamix is basically a cross-over fighting game of various 3D sega properties but mainly takes its characters from the well-known Virtua Fighters and the little-known Fighting Vipers franchises. Like both those games, this is a 3D fighting game with early polygonal models. While the characters are acceptable looking, the environments are drab and resemble no physical space known to man.
I think that early 3D fighters have aged terribly, and Fighting Megamix doesn't dispel that notion. The controls are nearly as clunky as the fighting, and I simply don't dig the fighting styles or characters in show. It doesn't help that there is no story in the single-player mode, unlike other 3D fighters at the time like the Tekken series.
Ultimately, I cared as much for the characters as for the graphics and the gameplay, very little. The best thing about the game is the joke characters you can unlock if you spend the time; "kid" versions of key characters and the Hornet car from the Daytona racing series.
12- Wipeout 2097 (1997):
Fans of Wipeout swear by its fast-paced racing and focus on speed over complex track layouts and turns, and they wouldn't have been disappointing by this competent port of the PS1 game. That is if they didn't have the option to play the original on the PS1. Despite being a decent port by any standard, it is still a downgrade in performance.
The game itself is a high-speed racer with a futuristic setting, more like the F-Zero series rather than GTR or Need for Speed. The graphics, music, and gameplay are all conducive for that kind of focus, but less so with the Saturn version that it was for the PS1.
Here is a masterpiece that shows both the best and the worst that the Saturn could offer. That sentiment may sound weird when you consider the fact that Shining Force III may be the best game in its illustrious franchise, and is by all objective measures a great game. Retaining the excellent TRPG tactical gameplay that made its predecessors on the Genesis such good games while evolving its story, this is a game that truly jumped to the next generation.
Yet, you can see the worst Sega strategies in when you consider the initially huge ambition of Camelot Software when developing this game. Basically, the Shining Force III that Western audiences are familiar with is simply the first of three scenarios that were released in Japan. Each scenario covered the journey of one of the three heroes, showing the central conflict from their perspective. This didn't only allow for simply more of the same excellent gameplay, but also for a richer and more complex story to be developed around those multiple perspectives.
However, by the time Shining Force III came out, it appears that Sega of America was willing to cut their losses and simply port the first game West, leaving fans of the series and those who played the game with an incomplete ending. Honestly, I understand their decision at the time, as it was clear in 1998 that the Sega Saturn was failing miserably in the US.
Thankfully, the fan community has come together to translate the second and third scenarios, and their work is very well-done. Also, even if you are not interested in playing those translations, I do think that the first scenario does work well as a stand-alone game, even if the ending may feel a little bit abrupt.
This report is a consolidated review of the top 100 list by Retro Sanctuary. It features the reviews I made for the list but also has a brief paragraph about each game on the list that I didn't review. For games without an official review, the opinions I express are purely based on some little playing time and general research about the game and its reception at the time.