With the release of the 5th generation of consoles, videogames leaped into a new dimension. 3D games were now fully possible, and 2D games were looked at technically regressive and were lampooned as such in much of the gaming press. Not fully committing to that trend, Sega released the Sega Saturn as a console capable of great 2D graphics but only middling 3D.
Of the three major consoles in that generation, the Sega Saturn was the lowest seller and it is widely considered the weaker of the three. Anecdotally, I didn't see many people playing or owning the Saturn, nor did I see its games sold in any stores. Personally, I had both a PS1 and N64, so I never played a Saturn game before starting this review series.
Now that I played over 30 Sega Saturn games, culminating in choosing a top 10 list that was honestly harder to fill than any other console before it, I feel I am qualified enough to review the console as a whole.
The Sega Saturn's strongest asset was, unfortunately, something that was stigmatized back at the time and was not as widely utilized as it should have been. Many games with 2D graphics were not ported West, with those that were ported getting unfair criticism for being behind the time. As such, with the exception of a few games such as Dragon Force, the 2D capabilities of the console were rarely utilized.
We didn't see much like this
In a perfect world, developers would have doubled down on the console's unique strength, making the kind of 2D games that are universally admired. After all, games in the 16bit era are still admired today. Imagine what could have been done with a new Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger games on a system with more power.
Also, it's not surprising that the best-looking games in the system today are the ones heavily relying on 2D art since they aged gracefully while polygonal games mostly aged like crap.
Dual CPU Architecture:
While the Saturn's strength in 2D graphics was mostly little-utilized by choice, the Dual CPU architecture which should have been the secret to the Saturn's power as a console wasn't utilized by circumstance.
In the rare case where Sega itself correctly utilized the console's dual-core design, it was capable of producing great graphics that looked different to other consoles (like with Panzer Dragoon). In some cases, developers figured out ways to make more complex fighting games with the consoles, such as in the way Virtua Fighter 2 dedicates a single core to compute for each of the two characters.
That's more complex innards than any console at the time
Yet, like with the first strength, this one comes with a caveat. Simply put, not many developers bothered with the complexities of the console. Reportedly, Sega itself was poor at teaching other companies how to best utilize its own console's unique architecture, no doubt affecting the level of 3rd party support.
Strong Arcade Ports:
I am not sure at this point if Sega's proclivity with their Arcade ports should be counted as a strength or a weakness. Obviously, fans of Sega's arcade games will de be delighted that many of them were ported with only minor concessions to its home console. Yet, the fortunes of the console itself suggest that gamers as a whole did not care much for these arcade ports. After all, many of them were designed for limited playtime and were light in content.
Games like Sega Rally Championship was very good mechanically and visually. However, it featured only two cars and three racing tracks at a time where GT and Need For Speed were significantly pushing forward the racing genre.
In effect, Sega was successful in their attempt at recreating their Arcade games for the home market. Yet, their success came at the expense of making the kind of home console games that people were gravitating towards.
Weak 3rd Party Support:
While the Sega Genesis had weaker 3rd party support than the SNES, the Saturn had completely barren support. Eight of my top 10 games were bankrolled by Sega. Companies like Capcom and Konami had limited support for the console, which dwindled as the console's sales lagged behind the PS1.
The lack of such support meant that Sega had to shoulder most fo the game development burden themselves, which wasn't tenable as great game after great game was released on the PS1. Some consumer favorite genres were the most affected, as RPGs, Platformers, and Action-Adventure games all suffered on the console.
What was most vexing for Sega wouldn't be those genres, which was a competitive point for them but not a source of strength. Their worst nightmare must have been how they lost the sports scene to Sony as their Genesis sports franchises didn't migrate successfully to the Saturn.
Terrible Game Porting Strategy:
For some companies, it wouldn't be accurate to say that they didn't support the Saturn as much as to say that they didn't support the Saturn in the West. Capcom, for instance, has ported most of its fighting games to the console, but none of them were ported to North America. Yet, the issue wasn't contained with one or two companies.
Entire genres were ignored, like Shmups which the console was best at. Even Sega itself occasionally was reluctant to port some brilliant games like Dragon Force and Magic Knight Rayearth, prompting a 3rd party like Working Design to publish those games.
From what I gathered, Sega of America didn't think 2D games were desirable in any shape to the Western market, and their example was followed by other Japanese companies. As such, a score of games was never seen by owners of the console, most of which are better looking and better playing than the droves of 3D trash that was released for
It is easy to imagine how these games would have staved off the software drought the console was known for, and maybe encouraged more people to pick up the console, making a niche for itself even if it couldn't compete with Sony' behemoth.
Lack of Core Franchise Continuity:
The most baffling part about Sega's strategy with the Saturn is how they seemed to completely ignore all their success with the Genesis, failing to capitalize on any of their core franchises. Most egregiously, Sega's failed to develop a core Sonic game for their new home console, opting to make a new mascot game and character instead.
Other than Sonic, franchises such as Phantasy Star, Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, and Shinobi were either completely ignored, or simply received a token sequel that failed to build on the franchise's power. Neglecting their franchise's is almost criminally negligent, as no reasonable explanation can be made for it.
NiGHTS sold well but it was no replacment for Sonic
Perhaps, with their mindset fixated in replicating the Arcade experience, Sega thought that like in the Arcades, newer and more bombastic games garner the most attention. However, the home market behaves very differently, and people make purchasing decisions based on the establishment of trust. Brand management is a way of cultivating that trust, something Sega completely threw away by neglecting what they established with the Genesis.
Stupidly, Sega would continue with this trend with the Dreamcast, where core franchises developed or expanded-upon during the Saturn's run were completely ignored. No new game in the Shining Force and Panzer Dragoon franchises was developed for that console (nor did they continue much with their new best-selling mascot).
Top Three Genres:
The most striking thing about the Saturn's top three genres is that few would disagree about them and that most of the games in those genres were never ported West. Yet, a thriving fan community has worked in porting and localizing most of these game overs the years, and the limited success of the console in Japan is partly due to games in these genres.
With its amazing 2D graphical abilities, the Saturn was capable of making gorgeous looking 2D shooters while utilizing its power to make more stuff happen on-screen. As such, Shmups enjoyed a great renaissance on the console, not only releasing a lot of games but developing as a genre as well.
For instance, more bullets and more enemies could render on-screen at once, and as such subgenres like Bullet Hells were born.
I actually survived this attack
The console is full of both deeply competent Shmups and more innovative attempts at the genre. Games like Batsugun and Hyper Duel are still enjoyed today, but the genre's pinnacle is undoubtedly Radiant Silvergun, which took the genre to a new level with its progression system and crazy but still perfectly doable boss-focused gameplay.
Another genre benefitting from the console's 2D chops (but seeing little of that benefit West) is the Fighting genre. Both Capcom and SNK ported a lot of their fighting games on the system, and those games performed nearly as good as the arcades. However, despite performing better than the PS1 Western ports, these games rarely if ever left Japan.
Games such as Samurai Shodown 4 and Street Fighter Alpha 3 were released on the system, both playing beautifully and getting some love in their home country. The entire genre's library is very respectable, and the console could have carved a niche out of that genre alone.
Instead, only 3D fighting games were ported west. Ironically, these games that were ported are honestly outclassed by the 3D fighting games of the PS1. In my opinion, Tekken 3 is much better than Virtua Fighter 2, and Soul Calibur is miles better than whatever the hell Last Bronx was.
I think I already said all that needs to be said regarding Sega's arcade fetish.
The best Arcade ports were Fighting games and Shmups
Top Three Publishers:
It goes without saying that the platform holder is usually one of the top publishers as well. However, it is ridiculous how much Sega was doing singlehandedly to publish games for its system, at least in the west. Just take a cursory look at my full reviews list and you will notice that nearly half of those hundred games were either made or published by Sega (or both).
To be exact, 38 games out of a hundred were published by Sega. If you remove the 20 or more games that were never ported out of Japan, then Sega is responsible for publishing over half of the best games on the Saturn. More importantly, eight of the games in my top 10 list were bankrolled by Sega.
Sega-published games spanned all genres, from platformers to fighting games. However, their focus heavily leaned towards porting their own Arcade catalog, and they did not focus on publishing some of the RPGs they commissioned back in Japan.
I was debating between putting Capcom or SNK in this spot. Both have ported a big number of fighting games to the console as well as some other titles. However, it became clear that Capcom deserves the spot because they at least ported some games West. After all, even if it was later remade and as such was no factor in my reviews, the original Resident Evil made it to the console with some upgrades.
Furthermore, Capcom did a good job of porting two Mega Man games, even if their port of X4 wasn't as good as the PS1 version their port of Mega Man 8 was the best version of the game (not by virtue of omitting the terrible voice acting though).
Working Designs get the final spot not for the prolificacy as a publisher, they only published six games for the Saturn, but for the impact and importance of the games they published. They were one of the few publishers in the market injecting a different kind of content to the market, offering players a different experience than the majority of other Saturn games.
Mainly known for localizing and publishing RPGs, the majority of their Saturn output were actually games developed at the behest of Sega, but ones that were not ported west due to their shortsighted sales strategy. Games like Shining Wisdom and Magic Knight Rayearth have only released west because of Working Designs intervention.
For me, the game that cements their place as one of the most important Sega Saturn publishers is clearly Dragon Force. Not only is it one of the best games in the system, but it is also one of the few that showcases the console's strong 2D graphics while offering something unique to the console.
The Sega Saturn was a complicated console developed based on a faulty premise and then executed badly. Sega's focus on porting the Arcade experience home was out of step with what consumers wanted in their home consoles. In addition to that, consumers largely gravitated towards more expansive 3D games, which the console wasn't entirely suited for. Choosing to compete head to head with Sony in that front, Sega neglected to build a niche that focused on its console's strongest assets and instead relied on its weakest point. Further to that, Sega apparently didn't understand itself how to utilize the console's complicated architecture, and as such couldn't support 3rd part developers working on the system.
However, this pales in comparison to the way Sega abandoned their previous success with the Genesis as they failed to capitalize on the IPs that made it a popular system. The fact that Sega didn't develop a core Sonic game is baffling, with the racing spin-off, Sonic R, being a colossal mess.
Still, in spite of Sega's strategy, the console managed to redeem itself with some of its games. The Shmup genre had a renaissance in Japan, and the Arcade ports were excellent for those who liked those games. Ironically, the Sega teams that did some of the best games on the console were later ostracized by the company. Team Andromeda who made Panzer Dragoon and Camelot Software who made Shining Force both made their last games for Sega on this system.
I think the Saturn was a clear downgrade from the Genesis
I think the fate of Team Andromeda and Camelot Software encapsulates the fate of the system, the system's shining stars forgotten by its manufacturer but remembered by its loyal fans.