I have a great enduring affection for classical or “retro” videogames of the 1980s and 1990s, the days of plugging a large box into a picture-tube television, renting games from the neighborhood videostore and dropping spare quarters into machines at the local mall. Those were the days of school children endlessly feuding with one another over whose home system was “better” or “more powerful,” the days when one would eagerly visit the nearest bookstore for the latest issues of splashy, loud and trashy videogame magazines. It was wild, colorful time to grow up and come of age.
If I were asked to name my all-time favorite games console or computer, I would probably name the Atari 8-bit home computers I owned as a boy and teenager. But if I were to name the machine I’ve played the most, the one with the largest software collection, the one that keeps my heart racing, there’s no question it would be Sega Saturn. One key reason for this is because of my love of its time, the days of “Generation Five,” when the videogame industry entered its awkward teenage years, embracing new frontiers of technology and innovations in design, a freewheeling sense of experimentation and anything-goes, where there was music in the cafes at night and music in the air.
A second key reason is a simple one: I always root for underdogs. And for a variety of reasons, real and imagined, Sega found themselves suddenly cast from the group of popular kids in Generation Five. Saturn was widely criticized, mocked, ridiculed and dismissed, pushed aside in favor of flashy new transfer student Sony Playstation, the all-varsity teen who could do no wrong and whose sins could be easily forgiven. Saturn was branded the “Can’t Doo Three Dee” machine, and any imperfections or missteps was immediately pounced upon as proof: Daytona USA, Battle Arena Toshinden Remix, Doom. Meanwhile, pretty boy Sony was a stumbling drunk who couldn’t draw a straight line to save his life, and suffered endless breakdowns from overheating, but nobody cared and such incidents were wished away.
Recently, the topic of “Saturn 3D Games” popped up on the NeoGAF forums, and so I decided to help set the record straight and offer examples of the console offering visuals that equalled, if not surpassed, its rivals. I only planned to list a handful of examples, but as the saying goes, the tale grew in the telling, and eventually I found myself with four volumes and over 120 videogame examples, which even then is not a complete listing.
Saturn “Can’t Doo Three Dee?” Please, spare me. This is a crank notion that seriously needs to go away. Even loyal Sega fans find themselves repeating the mantras out of habit. They need to stop doing that and finally embrace this machine as the great and powerful innovator it always has been. Here is the proof.
Please enjoy part one of our four-part Sega Saturn 3D Showcase:
Madden NFL 98: A game of milestones: the final Madden game for a Sega console, the final Madden to feature 2D character sprites before finally making to jump to polygons the following year. It plays remarkably well and holds it own all these years later, and everything runs buttery smooth, crisp and detailed. The fantasy stadiums are an especially nice touch.
Wipeout XL: Futuristic racing masterpiece comes to Saturn and it’s the equal of its Playstation cousin. Dazzling sense of design permeates every techno-soaked frame. Speed and tension are relentless and you always feel like you’re about to fly off the roller coaster rails at every turn. The Japanese release is very rarely seen by Saturn fans and that desperately needs to change.
Resident Evil: Capcom’s survival horror classic hasn’t aged a day. The use of pre-rendered backgrounds combined with polygon character models provide a brilliant cinematic style that sets the stage for the game’s iconic shock horror to work its magic. As always, this videogame looks best on a vintage CRT television with composite cables. Brilliant stuff.
J.League Go Go Goal: Tecmo’s arcade soccer game looks fantastic in action, blazing at 60 frames-per-second and boasting polygon arenas and athletes. How they pulled this stunt off, I’ll never know, but I will say that it shames nearly every Western-designed Saturn sports game for their sloppiness. While the gameplay doesn’t equal the genre’s best, this makes for one of the console’s finest show-off titles.
World League Soccer 98: Saturn’s best soccer game? Let the debates begin. There’s no question this is the best looking and most polished. The spectacular 3D visuals will leave your jaw hanging on the floor–just wait until you see those stomping crowds in the stands, and the motion capture animation of the athletes is just like buttah. This is easily the best PAL-exclusive Saturn game ever made.
J.League Jikkyou Honoo no Striker: This arcade-oriented entry in Konami’s famous soccer franchise looks terrific with smooth 30fps action and polygon characters. The gameplay is brisk and controls are responsive and matches play out with a breezy energy that always invites you back for one more run. If you like the 16-bit International Superstar Soccer games, you’ll love this one.
Pebble Beach Golf Links: You know what? I love this golf game and I don’t care what anyone else thinks. Yes, the giant pixelated trees are ugly as sin, but you cannot deny the vibrant color design and the use of digitized players. Craig Stadler steals the show and you wonder why he can’t appear in every video golf title. And the elevator music just soars. Yes, it’s cheesy and sounds like Chuck Mangione playing at the Country Kitchen. Embrace it. Love it.
Steep Slope Sliders: Cave’s 1997 snowboarding classic remains the gold standard for the genre thanks to its intuitive control scheme that perfectly anticipates Tony Hawk Pro Skater, but the fantastic course designs are the real star of the show. Bonus points for the esoteric electronica soundtrack. Double bonus points for the excellent replay mode that lets you edit videos of your runs. Love it, love it, love it.
Shining Force 3 Trilogy: Adventure epic that shows off Saturn’s hardware powers to their fullest. There are pre-rendered sprites, polygon characters, amazing lighting effects, wonderful scenery, and a story told from multiple points of view. Glorious, polished, pristine perfection. The entire trilogy has now been translated into English and is an absolute must-play for all Sega and Shining Force fans.
Sega Ages: Galaxy Force 2: Outstanding translation of the legendary Sega arcade classic, presenting some of the best 3D sprite graphics you’ll ever see. It’s a pure arcade game meant for short ten-minute bursts, but, oh, what an amazing ten minutes. Kudus to Appaloosa for their amazing work on bringing the coin-op home.
Grandia: Grandia is one of those videogame that Saturn was born to play. Every moment is a wondrous labor of love and the fusion of complex polygon environments with bitmap anime characters has never been surpassed. And let us marvel at those dazzling VDP2 water effects that nobody, even today, can replicate. Ranked second in the 2000 Sega Saturn Magazine JP poll of greatest Saturn videogames.
Virtua Fighter Kids: Cutesy version of Virtua Fighter 2 boasts 480/60 (480i resolution, 60fps speed) high-resolution graphics, realistic motion capture maneuvers and impressive facial animations. Fighting games like this became Saturn’s specialty and it’s easy to see why after playing a couple matches.
Tomb Raider: Tomb Raider is more easily identified with Sony Playstation, but dedicated fans will discover the Saturn version offers many advantages, such as the excellent distorted water effects (Saturn does water better than anyone), greater draw distance, rich color tones and high contrast lighting effects. The sense of lonely isolation and mystery remains as potent as ever, and this remains a 3D landmark title worth playing.
Jonah Lomu Rugby: Terrific rendition of rugby that’s fast, furious & easily playable, even for those who aren’t familiar with the sport. Everything looks great and runs smoothly with polygon arenas and bitmap players, the speed is brisk and relentless and you wish there were only more sports games of this quality on Saturn. It all plays out like a 3D Sensible Soccer, which is honestly one of the highest praises anyone can give.
Mobile Suit Gundam Side Story Trilogy: Fantastic trio of first-person mech shooters, offering relentless arcade action and a superb sense of speed. Your robots float and dance with liquid grace, and the boundless pixel art explosions are a wonder to behold. Once again, observe how Japanese programmers with mastery of Assembly coding could make Saturn sing so sweetly. Get the entire trilogy before the prices explode.
Sonic Jam: Sonic World: A glorified tech demo that uses all the Saturn’s hardware tricks, combining polygons, sprites and VDP2 planes to perfection, finally showing us what a 3D Sonic the Hedgehog could look like. As always, we wish there were more, but it set the stage for Sonic Adventure, which was designed first for Saturn and then moved to Dreamcast.
NHL All-Star Hockey 98: Created by Radical Entertainment and a sequel to the equally brilliant NHL Powerplay 96. Motion capture animation and player models are solid, gameplay is responsive and the computer AI is quite sophisticated. It certainly betters EA’s surprisingly lackluster NHL 97/98 on Saturn, and the less said of that hideous 1995 NHL All-Star Hockey (no relation to this classic), the better.
K-1 Fighting Illusion: This kickboxing game features highly impressive 3D arenas with people in chairs and banners along the rafters, in addition to the fighters. There are some excellent Gouraud shading and lighting effects as well, some nice visual effects before matches, and gameplay is tremendously solid. There’s even a behind-the-boxer view that Punch-Out fans are sure to enjoy.
Gungriffon: Game Arts really outdid themselves with this killer mech shoot-em-up. Your robot has a genuine sense of weight and power, and you really feel like you’re stomping a 50-ton beast through forests and frozen tundras. The night vision stages are particularly impressive, as is the varieties in environments and missions. It’s followed by a JP-exclusive sequel that’s just as good, but there’s something about the original that can’t be beat.
Virtual On: Sega AM3’s arcade robot fighter just crackles with energy and excitement. Matches are blazingly fast, action is relentless and danger is everywhere. The polygon visuals are superb and the transparent explosions never fail to excite. Gameplay feels like a combination of a martial-arts fighter and a shoot-em-up, and it’s endlessly addictive with friends. A remarkable technical feat for Saturn.
NBA Action 98: If you’re a fan of the NBA 2K franchise, look no further, because here is where it all began. It’s amazing how many elements are already present on the Saturn original, including maneuvers, strategy formations and smooth animations. And it all plays so well that after a couple games, you’ll probably never want to play anything else. An absolute must-have.
Bulk Slash: Many years ago, I once had a young female say to me, “I think you’re amazingly gorgeous.” Those words apply perfectly to this anime mech shoot-em-up which boasts excellent stage designs, boundless explosions, tight controls and a real sense of old-school fun. This is the very definition of arcade fun. And are you aware that a new English fan translation is in the works, including new voice acting? Yes, yes, yes!
Thunder Force 5: Technosoft crafts a technical masterwork and proves what makes Saturn so special, combining 3D polygons with 2D bitmaps and pre-rendered sprites, along with a host of dazzling visual effects that leap off the screen and music that rockets out the speakers. If Thunder Force 4 was the Led Zeppelin IV of the franchise, this is definitely its Houses of the Holy. If that makes any sense.
Dark Savior: Isometric Action-RPG from the creators of Landstalker and Ladystalker. The art design is absolutely brilliant, combining 3D polygons and 2D sprites in a style that feels like comic books come to life. Everything is thick and weighty and the gameplay never fails to impress. The storyline follows multiple branching paths, which reminds me of all those “choose your own adventure” books I read as a child.
Panzer Dragoon Saga: What else is there to say? It’s Panzer Freaking Saga. That’s all you really need to know. All one has to say is, “Panzer Freaking Saga,” and anyone within earshot will immediately understand. No other words are necessary. It’s probably the finest fantasy role-playing game ever made, certainly the moodiest and most atmospheric, and one of the best reasons to own a Sega Saturn.
Panzer Dragoon Zwei: This might be the best technical 3D showpiece for Sega Saturn, a videogame where everything comes together perfectly. There are so many magnificent moments: the young dragon’s first flying leap over a cliff, a frenetic race through a forest, a chase over a platform that rests atop a giant underground lake. It’s all so inspired and brilliant.
Shining the Holy Ark: This must be the finest dungeon crawler of Generation Five, and if there is a better one out there, I don’t wanna know. Holy Ark offers a richly detailed & involving world you’ll love to explore, with a surprising amount of variety in locations and goals. You’re not just drudging through endless caves. I love the art design, especially the pre-rendered characters who just crackle and glow with personality.
Wipeout: A futuristic racing classic. The visuals are slightly below the Playstation original–lower frame rate, missing transparency effects, missing licensed music–but I say the controls & vehicle collision physics are better. The track designs are absolutely legendary and demonstrate why Gen-5 marks the creative peak for racing videogames, and the sense of style so perfectly encapsulates ’90s Euro-techno culture.
The House of the Dead: Crazy hard, but crazy fun and you’re grateful for the trip. You’ll never get a moment’s rest and there’s danger and exciting zaps lurking at every single step. A heavily criticized arcade translation, but I say the haters are out of their damned minds. Get over the chunky Minecraft textures, grab two light guns, buy the ticket, enjoy the ride.
Virtua Cop 2: Spectacular recreation of the Sega AM2 arcade hit. Honestly, I have no idea how Yu Suzuki’s programmers pulled off this Saturn conversion. Those cats ran with Hitachi Assembly code and Kentucky bourbon in their veins and mad dreams in their hearts. I still think the subway train chase sequence is the greatest videogame action scene ever conceived. What a great thrill ride!
Radiant Silvergun: Another videogame that needs swear words added to the title: Radiant Freaking Silvergun. Treasure made their bones pushing console hardware beyond its perceived limits and making it all look so easy. Surely, this must be one of their finest examples of such wizardry. This is the sort of Saturn 3D showpiece that is uttered in hushed, reverent tones, almost like prayer.
Powerslave: Lobotomy Trilogy Part One. This first-person adventure beat Metroid Prime to the punch by six years, boasting a non-linear game world and stages littered with secrets, multiple exits and countless hidden pathways. Visuals are spectacular from start to finish with amazing lighting effects and a wide variety of environments, enemies and surprises. And this Saturn original stomps all over its Playstation cousin.
Duke Nukem 3D: Lobotomy Trilogy Part Two. Faster and more direct than Powerslave, more linear, and certainly a lot harder. The colors and lighting effects never fail to dazzle, and the analog controls are an absolute dream (and an absolute must). Once again, Ezra Dreisbach makes it all look like child’s play. And did you know that you can still play online matches via direct dialup? Surprise!
Quake: Lobotomy Trilogy Part Three. The darkest and most gothic of the three, maybe the hardest, certainly the spookiest and most tense. Sensational use of lighting, mood & dread, so full of dark shadows and nightmarish monsters. There’s a hardness to this world that haunts your dreams and lingers in your bones. And this Saturn version is so much better than the Nintendo 64 Quake that it makes your teeth hurt.
Worldwide Soccer 97/98: Finally, the premier soccer franchise on Sega Saturn that still looks and plays like a dreamboat. Supremely stable 30fps action and lifelike animation, combined with the detailed polygon arenas and little touches like flags in the stands. Play-by-play commentary by Gary Bloom is brilliant for its time and gameplay is full of little surprise moments and bits of improvisation that define all the greatest video sports games.