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There was a time in days of yore when home console videogaming was dominated by a single name - Nintendo. But as the 8-bit generation waned a rising name was to make the coming 16-bit generation one of the best.
The "console wars" which were to follow were perhaps the most hotly contested of anytime in the history of home console videogaming. By the late 1980s SEGA had achieved pre-eminence in the home console market thanks to the SEGA Megadrive. The console was released as the Sega 'Genesis' in the all important North American market. The format introduced gamers to the platforming frenzy of Sonic the Hedgehog, and in the process reduced Nintendo's near 90% market dominance to a 35% share.
However, despite what were to become several years of success, or perhaps because of them, the question for SEGA became what next? Though capable of developing a host of brilliant games, as a company SEGA struggled to find a committed direction. Now the 32-bit generation was fast approaching and a new, potentially major player in the home console market was looming, Sony.
For a business that held such a prized reputation for innovation, Segaís initial approach to 32-bit technology was conservative. The Mega CD was a peripheral for the Mega Drive and Genesis designed to extend the life of the aging console, whilst also allowing SEGA to dabble in the new medium of the CD Rom format.
Despite many high profile releases, the Mega CD, and its all-in-one console variants, the Sega CDX and Multi-Mega, became regarded as something of a fad, and like all fads, the gaming public laid it aside as quickly as they had taken it up. The experience hurt SEGA and opened up a burgeoning divide between SEGA Japan and SEGA of America.
Sega of Japan had struggled for some time to sell the Mega Drive into the territory, and understandably wanted the company to move forward and release the next in its line of consoles. Meanwhile, Sega of America wanted to take advantage of the huge installed user base of the Megadrive and Genesis, and proposed an add-on to expand the graphic and sound capabilities and extend the life of the console.
The end result was that Sega attempted to pursue two technologies at the same time. Sega of America forged ahead with project Neptune, and plug in expansion, the 32X, while Sega of Japan embarked upon the creation of a full scale 32-bit console.
As events transpired the 32X expansion was to have a short production run, with most of its titles produced by uncredited third party developers contracted by Sega. The all-in-one Genesis and 32X console, The Sega Neptune, never made it to production. This apparent lack of faith to invest in its own technology was confirmed just seven months later when Sega of America cancelled the 32X - leaving those early adopters high and dry. After the lack of success endured by the Mega CD, the 32X served only to lower the gaming public's goodwill toward Sega even further, something that was compounded by the then CEO of Sega of America, Tom Kalinske's comment that the "32X was really a marketing ploy".
Meanwhile Sega of Japan was enjoying its own self-inflicted troubles.
The Coin-Op arm of Sega Japan had always been its most successful and profitable division. With the advent of 32-bit technology in the arcades, and the genius of Yu Suzuki and his AM2 team, Sega gained yet more success through such hit titles such as 'Daytona USA' and 'Virtua Fighter'.
With this in mind Sega of Japan deemed it logical that their next home console, 'Project Saturn' should serve as a platform for their arcade coin-op titles. Sega of America disagreed. Outside of Japan the coin-op gaming market had been in a slump for years and to Sega of America it seemed both an unwarranted and unnecessary risk to base their new 32-bit console's potential success on home ports of obscure arcade games.
Added to this were the technical issues surrounding the new console. The Saturn was intended to deliver arcade quality gaming, unfortunately the Model 2 technology which drove their arcade machines was neglected in favour of a true hotch potch of off the shelf components that were never designed to be mixed in such a fashion. The end result was a programmer's nightmare of two CPUs, two graphics chips and a myriad of other processors all thrown together on an oversized motherboard.
It was complex, it was costly to manufacture and delivered no significant edge over Segaís competition when it came to 3D graphics, including the newest combatant to the console wars - Sony and their first Playstation.
Rush released to get the drop on Sony and despite initial, albeit patchy success, the life of the Saturn was to prove a short, altogether messy affair. Sega of Japan had been right to bank on their coin-op conversions, Virtua Fighter and its sequel becoming must have titles in Japan, makign the console a complete sell out for many months, and by far Segaís most successfull console in their home territory.
However, the Saturn was despised by most third party developers and openly hated by the incoming CEO of Sega of America, Bernie Stoler who infamously remarked, "The Saturn is not our future.Ē at 1997s E3 event. The Saturn seemed destined to round out a trilogy of failure for SEGA following upon the heels of the Mega CD and the 32X.
But things are never that straightforward.
Unable to match either the advertising budget of Sony or the sheer quantity of titles the Playstation released to the market, Sega's own inhouse game developers concentrated upon the only thing they could - quality. Along the way they were joined by a handful of quality third party developers and together they delivered to gamers some of the best titles ever produced for a home console.
Games such asRadiant Silvergun or Panzer Dragoon Saga now hold an almost mythic status amongst Retrogamers, somewhat ironic given how few people have ever actually played these games, but word of mouth is a powerful thing and no reputation grows without a foundation in fact.
What other console can boast the possibly the best 2D Shoot-em-up of all time, Radiant Silvergun? Along with arguably one of the best role playing games of all time, Panzer Dragoon Saga?
Throw in near masterpieces likeNiGHTs into Dreams and Policenauts (an early effort from Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima) along with quality titles like Astal, Burning Rangers, Shining Force 3, Guardian Heroes, and its little surprise the console still has such a strong following.
Other favourites of mine include Iron Storm, Keio 2 Flying Squadron, Princess Crown, Waku Waku 7 not to mention the more than decent ports of Daytona USA, SEGA Rally Championship and of course Virtua Fighter 2 - the premier 3D Fighter of the entire 32-bit generation. Once you get started, itís amazing how many great games were made for the Saturn, and unlike Nintendo consoles, itís not all the first party titles which are best. With the likes of such one off wonders of a Mr Bones or Three Dirty Dwarves plus several of the best 2D Fighters, Street Fighter Alpha series, Marvel Super Heroes, X-Men Children of the Atom, no true gamer could say the Saturn isnít a console truly worth owning.
That is not to say the Saturn was devoid of dross, there are hundreds of obscure Japanese releases, however Sega kindly filtered those games into tidy Western releases, leaving us with a games library of just 240 PAL and 245 NTSC US titles, most of which are well worth experiencing.
Perhaps that is why the Saturn has been undergoing something of a revival in recent years, because quality shows and quality lasts, something even Bernie Stoler acknowledges about the Saturn, "The games were obviously terrific...Ē
High praise from the man considered responsible for killing the Saturn, which came at the end of 1998. The last PAL release was Deep Fear and the last NTSC US game was Magic Knight Rayearth. In fact such was the hurry to abandon the Saturn that SEGA of America released just five games in the North American market for the whole of 1998; Panzer Dragoon Saga, Burning Rangers, Dragon Force, House Of The Dead and Magic Knight Rayearth. All of these titles are among the Saturn's best games but by then only the most diehard of Saturn fans were still paying attention.
Itís sad today to acknowledge that the Sega Saturn could have been so much more. Their brilliant 3D pad brought analogue control to the system, and Sega proposed (and later cancelled outside of Japan) a hard disk drive, floppy disk drive, mouse and keyboard. The official modem which was released sold very poorly, but with the right software, could have jump started the online gaming revolution, and been a vital shot in the art for the dying format. The Saturn's cartridge port was capable of providing Rom based gaming, and its 128MB Ram expansion capacity was never fully exploited. Undeterred by previous failures with their SC3000, Segaís ambition was to have the Saturn cross the frontier from home videogaming console to defacto home computer. It wasn't to be.
The keyboard and mouse, along with the cordless controllers were carried over to the Saturn's successor - the world's first fully internet ready home videogaming console, theDreamcast. But that is a tale for another time.