|Fast facts on Sega Saturn|
|Variants: Sega Titan Video|
|Add-ons: Backup Memory, PriFun, Video CD Card, Extended RAM Cartridge, ROM Cartridge|
|Main processor: Hitachi SH-2|
The Sega Saturn (セガサターン), is a video game console manufactured by Sega and was the successor to the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis (as opposed to add-ons such as the Sega 32X and Mega-CD). Initially released in 1994, the Saturn was a 32-bit compact disc-based system, and was a key player in what is now widely known as the fifth generation of video game consoles. The Saturn was first released on November 22, 1994 in Japan, May 11, 1995 in North America, and July 8, 1995 in Europe.
Depending on where you live, the Saturn could be described as either Sega's most successful console of all time (Japan) or one of their biggest commercial failures (North America). Despite being powerful for its time, its complex hardware and inability to meet rapidly evolving consumer expectations and demands put it in a distant third place in the Western world, but a combination of 2D sprite games, 3D arcade ports and strong marketing campaigns made the Saturn the most successful Sega console in Japan. Estimates for the total number of Saturns sold worldwide range from 10 million to 17 million.
The Saturn's main competitors were Sony's PlayStation released just a week after the Saturn in Japan, and the Nintendo 64 from September 1996. Its arcade counterpart was the Sega Titan Video (ST-V) system. It was replaced by the Sega Dreamcast in late 1998.
The Sega Saturn is the successor to the Mega Drive, though as a video game system it is almost entirely different. It is a "32-bit" console, marketed in such a way that it appeared to be an evolution of the "16-bit" era of video gaming dominated by the Mega Drive and Super NES (which in turn succeeded the "8-bit" Master System and NES, respectively).
This description, however, was initially fabricated - Sega of Japan originally claimed the Saturn was a "64-bit" console and some within Sega even chose to call it an "128-bit" machine, a number arrived at by cumulating processors rather than simply picking the main CPU. Alternatively some areas of Sega simply went down the "multi-processor" route, refusing to get drawn into the perceived differences between 32-bit and 64-bit. This was incidentally the last video game generation where these so-called "bit wars" were considered to matter.
The system uses CD-ROMs as its primary choice of media. Though it contains a cartridge slot, this is not used for games, but rather backup memory or RAM cartridges. The former was to extend the space for save games beyond that of the Saturn's internal memory, while the latter was used to augment the Saturn's limited memory and to avoid long CD load times.
The Saturn has two controller ports, and the standard Saturn controller builds on that seen in the six button Sega Mega Drive controller. It adds two shoulder buttons, first seen on the Super NES controller, bringing the amount of buttons up to nine. The 3D Control Pad, released later with NiGHTS into Dreams, would supply the console with an analogue stick and analogue shoulder buttons, the latter later being used in the Sega Dreamcast before being adopted by Nintendo and Microsoft for their GameCube and Xbox consoles, respectively.
The Sega Saturn hardware combined features from several Sega arcade systems. The Saturn's geometry engine consists of three DSP math processors, two inside both Hitachi SH-2 CPU and one inside the SCU, which were all intended to be programmed in parallel using complex assembly language, similar to how Sega programmed 3D arcade games at the time. The VDP1 was based on the Sega Model series, with a quad polygon engine based on the Model 1, along with the Model 2's textured mapping capability. The VDP1 is capable of drawing more polygons than the Model 1, but less than the Model 2. The VDP2 was based on Sega System 32 technology (an evolution of Super Scaler technology). The VDP2's tiled infinite plane engine uses tilemap compression and a form of scanline/tiled rendering to draw large, detailed, 3D textured infinite planes (for things such as grounds, walls, ceilings, skies, etc.), with perspective correction and a virtually unlimited draw distance (and capable of effects such as transparency, parallax scrolling, water, fire, fog, heat haze, etc.), at a very high effective fillrate for its time. The VDP2 draws 3D infinite planes as large as 4096×4096 pixels at 30 FPS, equivalent to a fillrate of over 500 MPixels/s, significantly larger than what any console or PC hardware were capable of with polygons at the time. It requires 1 million texture-mapped polygons/sec, with 500 pixels per polygon, to draw a textured 4096×4096 infinite plane at 30 FPS; the Dreamcast was the first home system capable of doing this with polygons, as it was the first home system that exceeded 500 MPixels/s polygon fillrate (using tiled rendering).
The Saturn was known for its difficult 3D development environment (especially for third-party developers), including its complex parallel processing hardware architecture, requiring familiarity with assembly language, lack of an operating system, and initial lack of C language support, useful development tools and graphics software libraries. The VDP1 rendered quad polygons, which, despite being used by the most powerful gaming system at the time (Sega Model 2 arcade system), was not industry standard for 3D graphics, compared to the more widely used triangle polygons. The VDP1 also had issues with transparency (see Errata below). The VDP2's tiled infinite plane engine, which could draw large 3D infinite planes with a much higher draw distance, texture details and effective fillrate than polygons at the time, was unfamiliar to most developers who relied on polygons to construct 3D planes. Sega's first-party 3D games often utilized both CPU, the DSP, and/or both VDP, but the hardware's complexity and difficult 3D development environment led to most third-party developers only utilizing a single CPU and the VDP1, just a portion of the Saturn's power, for 3D games. While the VDP2 was under-utilized for 3D games, it was frequently used for 2D games, where the VDP1 draws sprites and the VDP2 draws scrolling backgrounds.
In comparison to the rival PS1, the Saturn is more powerful overall. The Saturn has more raw computational power and faster pixel drawing; the PS1 can only draw pixels through its polygon engine, whereas the Saturn can draw pixels directly with its processors, giving it more programming flexibility. When both SH-2 and the SCU DSP are used in parallel, the Saturn is capable of 160 MIPS and 85 million fixed-point operations/sec, faster than the PS1's GTE (66 MIPS); when programmed well, the Saturn's parallel geometry engine can calculate more 3D polygon geometry than the PS1. The PS1's GPU has a higher polygon fillrate (30 MPixels/s in 15-bit color) than the VDP1 (28 MPixels/s in 15-bit color), while the VDP2 has a significantly higher effective tile fillrate (500 MPixels/s); if the VDP2 is used for drawing infinite planes, this frees up the VDP1's polygons for other 3D assets, whereas the PS1 needs to draw many polygons to construct 3D planes (with very limited draw distance compared to the VDP2). The PS1 has more effective polygon transparency than the VDP1, while the VDP2 has more effective transparency than the PS1. The VDP1's quad polygons are drawn with edge anti‑aliasing (for smoother edges) and forward texture mapping (with limited perspective correction), while the VDP2's infinite planes are drawn with true perspective correction, whereas the PS1's triangle polygons have aliased edges and are drawn with affine texture mapping which lacks perspective correction (resulting in perspective distortion and texture warping). The PS1's straightforward hardware architecture, triangle polygons, development tools and effective C language support made it easier for developers to program 3D graphics. When it came to 2D graphics, on the other hand, the Saturn's combination of a VDP1 sprite framebuffer and VDP2 parallax scrolling backgrounds made it both more powerful and straightforward to program 2D graphics, compared to the PS1 which draws all 2D graphics to a single framebuffer.
The Saturn's VDP1 was the basis for Nvidia's first graphics processor, the NV1, which was one of the first 3D graphics accelerators on PC, released in 1995. Like the Saturn, it uses quad polygons and supports forward texture mapping with limited perspective correction, and several Saturn ports are available for it. However, the NV1 has a fillrate of 12.5 MPixels/s and a rendering performance of 50,000 polygons/sec, less than the VDP1's 28.4375–57.2728 MPixels/s fillrate and 500,000 polygons/sec rendering performance. In comparison, the most powerful PC graphics card of 1995, Yamaha's Tasmania 3D, which was based on triangle polygons, had a 25 MPixels/s fillrate and 300,000 polygons/sec rendering throughput, more than the NV1, but less than the Saturn and PlayStation.
There are a variety of Sega Saturn models of different shapes and colours, as well as novelty units, such as the Game & Car Navi HiSaturn. Differences between systems are not as drastic as seen with the Sega Mega Drive - the same basic feature set and component designs were used throughout the console's lifespan in all regions.
First seen on launch day in Japan (1994-11-22), the HST-3200 (later revised and released as the HST-3210, although the differences aside from a BIOS update are not fully understood), commonly referred to as the "grey Saturn" (although during development it had a metallic finish), was the basis for all Sega Saturns released between the Japanese launch and early 1996. These Saturns use blue "oval" buttons, mounted to black plastic at the front of the unit, and have both "power" and "access" LEDs similar to the Sega Mega-CD.
The Saturn saw variants produced by Hitachi and Victor as the HiSaturn and V-Saturn respectively, though aside from altered BIOSes and aesthetics (and bundles/pricing) these do not deviate much from the Sega designs. Novelty value sees these models worth slightly more in pre-owned markets - fewer were produced than the Sega models, but compatibility rates are much the same.
Overseas versions are physically identical (save for region encoding), but use black plastic throughout.
Released in March 1996, the HST-3220 stands as the only significant change to the Saturn's design, although functionality wise, the only feature omitted is the "access" LED seen in previous models. Reportedly the change in colour scheme was made to appeal to younger and female demographics.
These "white" Saturns likely cost less to produce (they were certainly sold for a lot less in Japan), but from a user perspective the change is largely negligible - the console is roughly the same size and has no problems running any Saturn software. White Saturns opt for grey "circle" power and reset buttons and a pink "open" button for lifting the lid.
It is rumoured, though not proven, that the HST-3220 has a faster disc reading time than its earlier counterparts, meaning quicker loading screens in games.
When brought overseas the console continued to be shipped only in black, although the North American and European models have different coloured buttons. In 1998 Sega started releasing special versions of these consoles with semi-transparent plastic under the "This is cool" brand - only 30,000 units were produced. Again aside from aesthetic differences the consoles are interchangeable.
Some of the Japanese colour designs were also brought to Brazil.
|1.00||Sega Saturn (Japan)||1.00 (Asian Saturn) (info) (444 kB)|
|1.00a||Sega Saturn (NA & EU)||1.00a (NA & EU Saturn) (info) (444 kB)|
|1.003||Sega Saturn Devkit (Japan)||1.003 (Asian Devkit) (info) (441 kB)|
|1.01||Sega Saturn (Japan), HiSaturn (Japan), V-Saturn (Japan)||1.01 (Asian Saturn) (info) (438 kB)|
|1.01 (Asian HiSaturn) (info) (438 kB)|
|1.01 (Asian V-Saturn) (info) (438 kB)|
|1.01a||Sega Saturn (NA & EU)||1.01a (NA & EU Saturn) (info) (444 kB)|
|1.02||HiSaturn (Japan)||1.02 (JP HiSaturn) (info) (423 kB)|
|1.03||HiSaturn Navi (Japan)||1.03 (JP HiSaturn Navi) (info) (423 kB)|
VDP1 transparency rendering quirk causes strips of pixels to be rewritten to framebuffer for 2-point (scaled) and 4-point (quadrangle) "sprites", applying the transparency effect multiple times. Rarely seen in commercial games (e.g. Robotica explosions), later titles implemented software transparency to correctly render transparent polygons (e.g. Dural in Virtua Fighter Kids).
The VDP1 supports per-pixel transparency between different polygons/sprites in the VDP1 framebuffer, or between VDP1 and VDP2 layers, but not both at the same time, with the VDP2's transparency overriding the VDP1's transparency. In addition, the VDP1 takes six times longer to draw transparent pixels than opaque pixels. The VDP2, in comparison, has no issues with transparency, nor does the use of transparency affect the VDP2's performance.
There are several ways to overcome the VDP1's transparency issues. The most common method used by Saturn games is to fake transparency with dithering, using a mesh that gets blended by a television's Composite or S-Video cable. Another method is to use the VDP2's hardware transparency, by using a VDP2 bitmap layer as an additional transparent framebuffer, copying transparent assets from the VDP1 framebuffer to a VDP2 bitmap framebuffer layer (e.g. the transparent polygons in Burning Rangers). Another method is software transparency, programming the CPU with software code.
Japanese Saturn software usually came packaged in standard jewel cases, much like music CDs. They also came with spinecards - three-fold pieces of light cardboard that hug the spine of the jewel case. These are very valuable for collectors who wish to claim a game is "complete". The spinecard also indicates that the CD is for use with a Sega Saturn console - specifically Japanese NTSC systems. There were also jewel case quad CD cases, and a variant of the single case which was slightly thicker and VERY hard to replace.
Most of the time the spinecard will have a gold and black background with the Japanese Saturn logo and lettering printed vertically. Saturn collection games will have red and white spinecard with white lettering, the Saturn Collection logo under that, and the 2,800 yen price featured prominently. Manual is included with the cover seen through the front of the jewel case. The left side of the manual will usually have a bar similar in design to the spinecard. The Japanese SEGA rating, if there is one, will be included on the manual front (usually on one of the corners). There is also the insert on the back which may feature artwork or screenshots from the game. A black bar on the bottom of the insert contains information much like the spinecard, licensing information, et cetera.
The Japanese packaging was adopted in smaller Asian markets such as South Korea and China.
The US used much larger jewel cases identical to the US Sega Mega-CD jewel cases, since many of these were in fact leftover Sega CD jewel cases. The US case has a white spine containing a 30 degree stripe pattern in gray, with white outlined lettering displaying the words "Sega Saturn". Oddly some US packaging seems to have taken a step backwards in terms of aesthetics - with minimal front artwork almost akin to the Sega Master System.
There are many flaws with the US packaging:
European cases come in two variants, both designed and engineered by Sega. One has a strong plastic design similar to the cases used with the Mega Drive and Master System (but taller, thinner and slightly more secure). The other feels far cheaper, being literally two pieces of plastic held together by a cardboard cover. Though the former was more preferred by the consumer, the latter was more common as it was cheaper to produce.
Both European cases has a solid black spine, with white lettering displaying the words "Sega Saturn". The manual slides in the case just like a normal jewel case and there is a back insert with information about the game. Like the American cases they are still too big and can lead to discs moving about and becoming scratched, though this may be to compensate for large multi-language manuals.
Some European boxes were wrapped in a transparent plastic shell after manufacture for extra security.
Brazilian games were packaged in cardboard boxes, with a CD sleeve inside to keep the disc secure.
The Saturn is notoriously hard to emulate due to its complex architecture (dual processors, etc.), but three notable emulators do exist:
Software that plays files in the Saturn Sound Format, which stores audio ripped from games, does so through emulation of the audio-related code only.
US (Who? 15 second variant)
UK (launch; long)
UK (launch; short)
|Sega Home Video Game Systems|
|SG-1000||SG-1000 II||Mega Drive||Mega Drive II|
|SC-3000||Mega-CD||Mega-CD II||Genesis 3|
|Sega Mark III||Saturn|
|Master System||Master System II|
|Sega Saturn Hardware|
|Saturn Variations||Sega Saturn consoles (HiSaturn, V-Saturn, etc.) | North America | Europe | Brazil | Asia|
|Console Add-ons||Backup Memory | Sega PriFun | Video CD Card | Extended RAM Cartridge | ROM Cartridge|
|Game Controllers||Standard gamepad | 3D Control Pad | Arcade Racer Joystick | Infrared Control Pad | Sega Mission Stick | Shuttle Mouse | Twin Stick | Virtua Gun | Virtua Stick | Virtua Stick Pro|
|Online Services/Add-ons||NetLink Internet Modem (NetLink Keyboard | NetLink Keyboard Adapter | NetLink Mouse) | Saturn Modem (Floppy Drive | Keyboard)|
|Connector Cables||21 Pin RGB Cable | Monaural AV Cable | RF Unit | Stereo AV Cable | S-Video Cable | Taisen Cable|
|Development Hardware||Programming Box | Sound Box | E7000 | CartDev | SNASM2 | Saturn Address Checker | PSY-Q Development System|
|Misc. Hardware||6 Player Adaptor | Action Replay | Action Replay Plus | Pro Action Replay | SBom Multitap | S-S Promoter|