Sega Saturn: A Postmortem

June 28, 2006

In 1995, Sega was a well-established arcade game company with a respectable console and had just begun to lead the arcade 3D revolution, yet their entry into the 3d console world would be plagued by poor performance and awkward graphics. To compound their problems, their traditional rival, Nintendo, was seemingly replaced by dark horse Sony, who burst onto the scene with a more powerful system at a much lower price point than anyone expected.

[heading]Sega Stumbles into the Next Generation[/heading]

Sega had really led the way in 3d arcade games, with stunning titles like Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter, and Daytona USA. Of course there had been 3d games in the past, but quirky games like I, Robot didn’t appeal to most players, and even classics like Hard Drivin’ ran like molasses. Nintendo had brought 3d gaming home with Super FX chip games like Star Fox and Stunt Race FX.[[url=]1[/url]] Unfortunately, these first home games used a handful of flat-shaded polygons to create their 3D worlds, an effect which dated quickly. The additional cost of the FX chip in the games also drove up the price of the cartridges. Sega planned to take the lead from Nintendo by building a new 3D system.

Sega ran their different branches independently of each other, and their lack of internal cooperation often led to competing projects and wasted resources. Sega ran two projects for developing a next-generation 32-bit system.[[url=]2[/url]] The American offering was intended as an add-on to the existing Sega Genesis, which would give it enhanced graphics performance and 3d capabilities. The resulting product was the 32x, which did in fact do these things, but hit the scene so late that people already knew about the competing systems from Sony and, sadly, Sega of Japan. These systems were built brand new from the ground up, so there was no question that they would outperform the little add-on cart. 32x had a handful of games, but nothing really classic, and certainly was of little improvement over the Super FX games Nintendo had been selling. It was virtually stillborn, and the lack of decent sales would result in future ill-will towards Sega from a number of American retailers.

The Saturn, developed by Sega of Japan, was a different story. It was a brand new system with 2 CPUs and custom sound and video chips, all designed to handle larger, more colorful games and 3d.[[url=]3[/url]] It used CD storage by default, instead of using cartridges or requiring an extra CD add-on. Although at first this was mostly put to use in storing videos and other fluff, both Sega and their competitors knew that games were beginning to outgrow their cartridges. Sega looked poised to put in a good show in the new “next generation” wars.

Unfortunately, there were some serious downsides to Sega’s new machine. Before the days when anyone was talking about “multicore,” dual processors were things for servers and extremely high-end workstations. Nobody really knew how to develop for the 2 CPUs and numerous specialized sound and graphics chips in Sega’s machine. The lack of a solid SDK or good programming libraries for third parties generally turned developers off to the device. The machine also had lackluster 3d performance, and from the very beginning Sony and their licensees were able to churn out prettier games. Most notable was Sega’s murky and glitchy hardware transparencies, which were normally completely unused, leaving a tendency for large, blocky, and oddly non-transparent special effects.

To make matters worse, Sony managed to undercut Sega on price by releasing the Playstation at $299, while Sega was still trying to sell the Saturn at $399.[[url=]4[/url]] Price problems plagued the Saturn for its whole existence, as the array of chips on a Saturn motherboard stubbornly refused to be simplified or cut down in any way. Most manufacturers are able to simplify their hardware production as they gain more experience in manufacturing it, leading to lower costs and often alternate, cut down models. Sega was only able to make minimal returns in this area with the Saturn, which was devastating for them because the Saturn was the first console ever sold at a loss.[[url=]5[/url]]

One thing Sega fans waited for patiently was the first Saturn-exclusive Sonic the Hedgehog game. It never came. Although it would have probably had a minimal effect on system sales, it was very disappointing to many of the hardcore fans that the most Sonic they got was a collection of older Genesis games and an odd little racing game with some very bad pop-up issues. There was apparently a game in design using 2D sprites over 3D levels and supposedly in full 3D, but it was killed before development was finished.[[url=]6[/url]]

[heading]Big in Japan[/heading]

No matter what happened in the US market, the Saturn did fairly well in Japan. Sony’s Playstation was still #1 of its generation, but Sega had a respectable chunk of the industry to itself. Indeed, many of the best games for the machine were only available to Americans as imports.

While Sony may have ruled the 3D roost, fighting games were still a cultural craze in Japan. Sega’s superior 2d performance allowed them to offer much smoother and more accurate ports of Capcom and SNK’s hit titles. Although the Playstation could handle simple 2D fighters like the original Street Fighter Alpha, some of the later games would show missing animation frames and completely cut features like swapping characters in tag team games. Sega’s Saturn was not only better able to handle the games 2D graphics, but it also had a Japan-only memory extension cart (first in 1 meg, later 4 meg) that allowed it to support arcade accurate versions of complex games like Darkstalkers and Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. The Saturn rapidly became the system of choice for import fighter fans, but sadly none of these ports were ever released domestically.

Sega also had some brilliant strategy RPGs in the form of the Sakura Taisen games, which also worked in Japan’s love affair with cute female protagonists and a bit of dating sim. These games, along with many other RPGs, were not released in the US for fear that the market here would not have appreciated them.

But best of all, Japan had Segata Sanshiro, a large Judo thug who would beat the stuffing out of anyone who dared fail in their duty to play Sega Saturn at all times. He was large and impressive, and could occasionally blow a man up just by throwing him. Segata Sanshiro was one of Japan’s more memorable advertising mascots, eventually even spinning off his own Saturn game and finally going out with a spectacular sendoff (after saving the Sega headquarters from a huge missile fired by a raving lunatic, no less).

[heading]Enter Stolar[/heading]

“Bernie” Stolar was one of the most controversial figures in video gaming during his stay at Sega of America. A man with strong opinions and stronger words, he was both loved and hated by the gaming public. Mostly he is remembered as the man who put the ax to the Saturn in America.

Stolar actually began with Atari, but right before he joined Sega he had been the first president of SCEA. Despite the successful launch, he had made many unpopular licensing policies, including one that denied entry to any Japanese RPGs. He felt that the American audience had no interest in them, and the fact that most of them were 2D would make the Playstation look bad, considering its 3D capabilities were supposed to be its prime selling point.[[url=]7[/url]]

After the first big holiday successes of the Playstation, Bernie jumped ship to Sega where he continued (although in a less draconian way) his policy of restricting licenses from certain genres. He didn’t help his popularity among fans by denigrating the current system, and his statements about competitors were often clearly misguided and unsportsmanlike. Stolar made no secret of his lack of faith in the Saturn and push for the new next-generation Dreamcast.

Stolar was also famous for the row he created with 3rd party publisher Working Designs. Working Designs had ported over a few quality RPGs from Japan for the Sega CD and thought of themselves as a major contributor to the Sega cause, but at a trade show, they had not been given the normal space they were used to at the Sega area. There was a lot of fairly public back and forth squabbling, but Stolar was not about to apologize to a small RPG publishing house. In what many saw as a fit of prima-donna behaviour, Working Designs switched their efforts over exclusively to the PlayStation. The last game they released for the Saturn, Magic Knight Rayearth, came out very far behind schedule (it was actually the last Saturn game released). Many saw this as an intentional strike against Sega.

Despite having paved the way for the Dreamcast, Stolar was not around to see it hit the shelves. It seems Sega Japan had enough of his attitude, and he was canned right before the American launch. His memory stays on with us as the Stolarium item in Panzer Dragoon Saga, which is, oddly enough, one of his much-hated RPGs.


The Saturn, at least in the US was steamrollered by Sony’s (mostly) superior Playstation. Sega quickly responded with the Dreamcast, a much more powerful machine with sharp, bright graphics, a large and high-quality library, and many other features that would later become standards for the competition, including online gaming support and near-universal 480p. Unfortunately, Sega began by selling the machine at a loss, and although they managed to sell reasonably well at the start, the Dreamcast was quickly overrun by the PS2’s hype machine.

Looking back, it seems ironic that Sega, who led the way in 3D game development in the arcades, was unable to capitalize on that same trend at home. It’s also strange that multiple CPUs were one of the nails in Saturn’s coffin, when multicore CPUs have become the standard for the next-gen machines hitting the market now.

The Saturn may not have had such a good run in the US, but it certainly had a share of truly classic exclusive games. The Panzer Dragoon series brought a very unique sense of style and design to the 3d games genre, which many would argue has never been duplicated. Importers loved the machine for its arcade-perfect 2d fighter game ports, and Saturn Bomberman is still one of the most well-respected entrants in the series. Saturn may have been a commercial failure, but many of its die-hard fans will remember it well.