From Sega Retro
Revision as of 06:09, 12 February 2012 by Black Squirrel
The Sega Saturn (Japanese: セガサターン; Romaji: Sega Sataan), is a video game console manufactured by Sega, released as part of the fifth generation of video game consoles. It is the true successor to the Sega Mega Drive, as opposed to the Sega Mega CD and Sega 32X which were aimed at extending that console's lifespan. The Saturn was first released on November 22, 1994 in Japan, May 11, 1995 in North America, and July 8, 1995 in Europe.
The Sega Saturn is a "32-bit" compact disc-based system designed by Sega of Japan (as opposed to the 32X, another "32-bit" project led by Sega of America). Unlike the Mega Drive, the Saturn was specifically aimed at the Japanese market at first - the Mega Drive (and previous console attempts) had not been successful in that region and Sega wanted to reverse their fortunes. They largely succeeded in this goal and the Saturn became Sega's most successful console in Japan, but elsewhere the Saturn is seen as a commercial failure, struggling from day one to fight off the Sony PlayStation and eventually Nintendo 64. It would eventually be replaced with the Sega Dreamcast.
The Sega Saturn was designed by a group known as the Away Team, a 27-member team comprised of Sega employees from every aspect of hardware engineering, product development and marketing. Away Team was headded by Hideki Sato, who had also been responsible for designing Sega's other "main" consoles. The team worked for an entire two years exclusively on the project, in an attempt to get the console to launch with the some of the world's best hardware and software at the time.
Sega's global performance had been patchy up until this point - the Sega Master System was only truly popular in Europe and smaller markets such as Brazil and Taiwan, while the Sega Mega Drive had never been popular with Japanese audiences. Other ideas such as the Sega Game Gear and Sega Mega CD had been met with mixed opinons, and the Sega brand was starting to suffer as a result. Sega made the possibly unwise decision to focus mainly on the Japanese market, believing that majority of revenue would come from this region, and thus neglected many of the industy developments seen elsewhere.
The Saturn was designed with two CPUs and six other processors, making it extremely difficult to get the absoulute maximum performance out of the console. The parallel design was too complex for many game developers, but used extensively in US marketing in an attempt to prove the system was more powerful than the PlayStation. Yuji Naka is rumored to have claimed "only one in 100 programmers are good enough to get that kind of speed out of the Saturn".
The system was also not backwards compatible with earlier Sega consoles, essentially ending the lifespan of the Sega 32X and Sega Mega CD.
Third-party development was hindered by the lack of a useful Software Development Kit. Because of this, many Saturn games needed to be written in assembly language to achieve decent performance on the hardware. Frequently, programmers would only utilize one CPU to avoid some of the trouble in programming for the Saturn. In many ways, the Saturn was ahead of its time - most modern computers and consoles use multiple CPU "cores" today.
The main disadvantage of the dual CPU architecture was that both processors shared the same bus and had no dedicated memory of their own beyond a 4K on-chip cache, which could be configured as a 2K cache with 2K local RAM. This meant the second CPU would often have wait for the first CPU to finish, reducing its processing ability - as all data and program code for both CPUs was located in the same shared 2MB of main memory (DRAM and SDRAM). This unusual design was employed in the Sega 32X as well.
The Sega Saturn had several other wacky ideas, such as rendering its 3D geometry through quadrilaterals at a time when most industry tools used triangles. This led to problems when attempting to render triangluar geometry, but conversely was very good for 2D (or 2.5D) games. The hardware also lacked light sourcing and hardware video decompression support, the latter being a major disadvantage during a time when full-motion video was quite popular.
From a development standpoint the architectural design problems of the Saturn meant that it quickly started losing out on third-party support to the PlayStation; a main disadvantage of the Sega Saturn compared to the PlayStation was the lack of more flexible and correctly functioning hardware-aided transparency. Later games like Burning Rangers used specific software emulation to offer transparency effects.
A common misconception is that 3D capabilities were added as an afterthought to the Saturn to compete with the Sony PlayStation and later with the Nintendo 64. Its 3D display chip, VDP1, was a logical progression of the well established frame buffer-based sprite rendering hardware implemented in Sega's System 24 and System 32 arcade platforms.
The Japanese Saturn was rushed to the market, just six weeks ahead of its rival Sony PlayStation which led to very few games being available when the Saturn launched — Sega's Virtua Fighter, Sega/Micronet's WanChai Connection, Electronic Arts Victor's Mahjong Goku Tenjiku, Sunsoft's port of Myst, and Time Warner Interactive's Tama.
Nevertheless, 170,000 machines were sold the first day of the Japanese launch, and the Sega Saturn quickly surpassed the popularity of any Sega console released before it in Japan. Part of this success was due to adverts featuring Segata Sanshiro, who would travel around Japan and punish those who did not play their Sega Saturns. While Saturn systems were being outsold by PlayStation systems in Japan in 1995-1997, Sega actually sold more software for the Saturn during the same time period. The result was that in Japan the Saturn became the platform of choice for more dedicated gamers while the PlayStation had an audience comprised of more casual gamers who bought fewer titles.
Unlike other regions (bar Brazil), Japan had numerous Saturn models available within its lifespan of varying colours. It can be seen as one of the first systems to offer a choice in colour - a practise that would later be expanded on further by the Nintendo 64.
The US Saturn was also rushed to the market and released four months ahead of the scheduled release date to gain a lead on the release of the Sony PlayStation. This gave third party developers no time to get their games translated and out to market by launch; and the surprise of the rushed release meant only Sega titles were ready at the time of launch. This tactic, among other things, led to the Saturn failing in the marketplace in the US region.
Before word of the PlayStation's earlier release, the release day in the US was to be 'Saturnday' on September 2, 1995. Not only did the announcement of an early release take third-party software developers by surprise, it also meant that Sony would have more time to put some finishing touches on their PlayStation, draw up a well-planned strategy and learn from the pitfalls of the Saturn. This is seen by Sony's tactic on their release date when PlayStation slashed its price to $299, making it $100 cheaper than the Saturn. This move, along with much better marketing than that of Sega of America, wreaked havoc on the Saturn's place in the market and ultimately caused its downfall.
In May 1995, Sega launched the Saturn in the United States, a full 6 months ahead of schedule. This was announced at that year's E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), where Sega representatives were engaged in a public relations battle with Sony. Also, Sega chose to ship Saturn units only to selected retailers. This caused a great deal of animosity toward Sega from unselected companies, including Kay-Bee Toys.
Over time, Sega also changed its marketing strategy, and the successful rebellious advertising campaign of the Sega Mega Drive (for example, the Sega Scream television commercials) was toned down and exchanged for advertisements which took on a more conservative attitude.
Perhaps the biggest contribution to the system's failure was the distrust that gaming consumers were developing for Sega after a series of add-on peripherals to the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis in the US), the Mega CD and 32X, which were discontinued after only lukewarm support. The Sony PlayStation also had many more popular software titles much earlier in the race than Sega did, such as ports of Namco's Ridge Racer which was technologically superior to Sega's Saturn release of Daytona USA. Cost was also a factor, with the Saturn initially costing US $400 compared to the PlayStation at US $300.
Unfortunately, many of the games that made the Saturn so popular in Japan such as the Sakura Taisen series or many of the quirky anime style RPGs that sold well in Japan were never released elsewhere. Much of the reasoning behind this was due to policies put in place under the management of former Sega of America president Bernie Stolar, who believed that RPGs were never to have great commercial success in North America.
Sega's flagship character and mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, never made a particularly major Saturn appearance - an enhanced Mega Drive port, a racing game and a compilation of his major Mega Drive adventures were made, but only the racing game was exclusive and it was hardly a major title. In fact, the one truly major title (Sonic X-treme) wound up being canceled.
80,000 Saturn units were sold in North America before the PlayStation. 100,000 PlayStation units were sold within its first few days.
Once again the Sega Saturn was launched early in Europe - this time in July 1995, a few months before the PlayStation. Until this point, all Sega consoles supplied to Europe had been a success, thanks to little marketing and delayed releases from Nintendo, however newcomer Sony would not follow in Nintendo's footsteps, and gave the region a constant supply of new, high quality titles.
The momentum for Sony's console built up rapidly and consumers seemed less interested in Sega's console than in previous generations. However, Sega's console was kept in the UK race by the very well written Sega Saturn Magazine, with November 1998's Deep Fear being the last game to be released in this region.
Unlike previous consoles which require physical mod chips, the Saturn simply requires an Action Replay cartridge in order to run software from overseas. This made importing games from Japan a much easier process.
Like previous consoles, the Sega Saturn was distributed by Tectoy, and eventually adopted many of the colour schemes set out by Sega of Japan. Though not a commercial failure fewer Saturn games were released than Master System or Mega Drive games, with a vast number being US imports.
The Saturn was also released in South Korea by Samsung.
After the holiday shopping season in 1996 the Saturn had fallen far behind the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 in North America and Europe (while remaining competitive in Japan) and senior management at Sega wanted to produce a new platform get the jump on the next generation of systems ahead of their competitors. The result was that by E3 1997 Sega had already begun talk of the new system, code named Katana, which would eventually turn into the Sega Dreamcast.
As Sega started aggressively moving the Katana project forward it caused something of a rift between Sega and many third party developers. The Saturn was more than holding its own in the Japanese marketplace where the vast majority of Sega game development was based. As a result many Japanese developers saw little to no reason for Sega to rush another platform to the market, which would in the process, effectively kill the Saturn despite its large user base and many active development projects.
After another third place turnout during the Holiday season in 1997 a number of third party publishers started cancelling titles, as a result many games planned for a US Saturn release, including renowned titles such as Policenauts and Lunar The Silver Star Story. A chain reaction of cancellations rushed through the Saturn market transforming a seemingly promising 1998 schedule of North American releases to a small handful of titles. A similar situation happened in Europe.
The Saturn would be discontinued in late 1998 for Europe, April 3, 1999 in North America and 2000 in Japan (almost two years after the Dreamcast launched in that region).
Sega's history would damage the Dreamcast's reputation, with notable publishers such as Electronic Arts refusing to back the system, after making losses on the Saturn.
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 in the Super Nintendo, 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.
Dimensions (US/European model)
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 (Robotica explosions), later titles implemented software transparency to correctly render polygons (Dural in Virtua Fighter Kids).
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.
North American Packaging
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.