The famous Sega Saturn American “sneak launch” happened 24 years ago today. For the uninitiated, Sega had planned to launch its 32-bit Saturn console in America on September 2nd, 1995, a Saturday, which they dubbed “Saturnday.” Sega had released Saturn in Japan the previous November and was holding its own against Sony’s PlayStation console, but enthusiasm didn’t seem as high in the west. As it would turn out, Saturnday came early on May 11, 1995, the very first day of the very first E3. To the shock of many and delight of relatively few, Sega launched Saturn in the US with a limited amount of games via select retailers. It retailed for $399 with a pack-in game, Virtua Fighter, which wasn’t remotely the system seller it was in Japan, and $100 more than Sony’s machine would retail for. Sega didn’t make much of its nearly four month head start over Sony with the then-upstart nearly wiping out Sega’s lead at launch. Sony trounced Sega, and by 1997 Saturn was basically out of what could have been an interesting three-way race with PlayStation and Nintendo 64. While Saturn was basically dead in the west, Sega and third parties would continue supporting the system for a few more years in Japan, to the delight of Saturn fans in the west brave enough to import.
With its impressive 2D prowess, Saturn was nearly assured to fail as the 32-bit era represented a paradigm shift in gaming. 3D polygons were replacing 2D sprites, and while Saturn could do decent 3D, it was a powerful 2D machine at heart. The opposite was true of PlayStation as it set the standard for 3D at home, but could also do decent 2D. Nintendo 64 was similar in that regard being capable of compelling, if a little cloudy 3D, but not quite excelling at 2D titles. 2D simply wasn’t in style during that era, and it would take years for 2D to come back completely. Sony and Nintendo developed their respective systems wisely, while the internal disarray at Sega contributed to the internal disarray of Saturn’s chipset. Saturn’s internals were a mess according to most developers, particularly when it came to generating quality 3D graphics. Sega basically bolted on Saturn’s 3D capabilities late in the game, and they should have known better. After all, Sega was leading the way in 3D tech in the arcades with a string of landmark titles that would set the standard for generations to come.
If you were most interested in 3D games PlayStation and Nintendo 64 were the better buys, and it’s clear from sales data that 3D is what people wanted. If you were into 2D games Saturn was the place for you with no real alternatives. As it turned out, most of PlayStation and Nintendo 64’s best games were 3D while Saturn’s were 2D. While Sony and Nintendo are still players in the industry and made the right choices in terms of the capabilities of their respective systems, early 3D has not aged well while 2D titles of that era largely have.
While it may not be much consolation to Sega and third parties who supported Saturn, the Saturn library – 2D games on the system in particular – largely hold up by modern standards. High frame rates and decades of 2D refinement up to that point help the Saturn library soar above its contemporaries by today’s standards. Primitive 3D games on both PlayStation and Nintendo 64 helped get games to where they are today, but many of the games that made both systems successful are tough to love when they plod along at 20 frames per second or were created before the language of 3D interaction were more or less standardized.
When evaluating most of the biggest games on PlayStation and Nintendo 64 you need to keep the primitive 3D era in mind to begin to appreciate them. You need no excuses or qualifiers for Saturn’s best. Saturn may have been a financial disaster, but the games – 2D in particular – remain. Because of this, no system library of that era holds up better than Saturn’s.
Copyright © 2019 Rob Faraldi. All rights reserved.