Welcome to part two of our four-part showcase of memorable 3D videogames for Sega Saturn. Once again, we will be taking a look at a variety of titles that were released in North America, Europe and Japan that demonstrate the console’s under-appreciated powers. This episode will include many of the most popular games in the Saturn library, the ones that most gamers think of whenever they remember Sega’s fifth-generation console, but will also showcase a number of third-party and import titles that you may have missed the first time around.
When writing these articles, I am constantly reminded of a famous phrase once spoken by Hiroshi Yamauchi, the former god-emperor of Nintendo. I’m paraphrasing a little, but the quote went something like this: “A games console is nothing more than a box you need to play Mario.” That may be the greatest and most profound statement ever said about videogames.
There are two meanings in that statement. First, Software is King, Queen and the Jack of Hearts. It is absolutely everything in this business, the alpha and omega, the beginning and world without end, amen. People don’t buy computers and videogame hardware just to admire the box. They don’t care about technology. They don’t care about technical specs or hardware designs. They only care about playing great videogames. They are not interested in technology, but what that technology can do for them.
Now the second meaning is more profound: Nobody Knows What’s Inside the Box. This is especially true when it comes to Sega Saturn, the Generation Five console cruelly smothered with a toxic reputation for poor performance and inferior technology compared to Sony and Nintendo. The system was almost immediately dismissed as second-rate by consumers and the gaming press, and once that reputation had settled, it was impossible to shake.
One of the great unspoken truths is that the average person has no idea how computers work. They might as well be run by little animals who live inside the casing and make wisecracks like The Flintstones. This is especially true in Gen-5, as home videogame hardware designs became immensely complex and complicated, featuring multiple specialized processors and experimental designs that varied greatly from one platform to the next. To that complexity, add a much steeper learning curve, greater emphasis on integrated software development tools, and the various challenges in using technology that was both cutting-edge and inadequate. The gaming industry was entering its awkward teenage years and it was going to be a glorious, pimply mess.
The kids had no idea how any of these machines worked. All they knew is that Sega forgot to put in the “3D Chip” and that’s why Virtua Fighter didn’t look as pretty as Battle Arena Toshinden, and that Sony had that really cool dinosaur demo, and that Super Mario 64 could never be done on the 32-bit systems because, well, “64” is a bigger number than “32.” Like, duh.
Oh, well, a little food for thought. Let’s take a look at some great videogames. Enjoy Sega Saturn 3D Showcase, Part Two:
Worldwide Soccer: International Victory Goal: This arcade-style soccer videogame was among the Saturn’s launch library in May 1995, offering a highly impressive experience that combines pre-rendered players, polygon stadiums and VDP2 ground planes. The speed appears to be running at 60 frames-per-second, visuals are wonderfully crisp (especially on CRT) and there are nice touches like the billboard animations when you score. And don’t forget the “Sega Rock” soundtrack that parties like it’s 1989.
Tempest 2000: Jeff “The Yak” Minter is one of the all-time great videogame design wizards, and this is his masterpiece, a brilliantly trippy update to the classic 1981 Atari arcade hit. It turned heads on Atari Jaguar and appears on Saturn in perfect condition, boasting wonderful 3D gameplay, a frenetic sense of tension, brilliant stage designs and some of the most memorable techno music you’ll ever hear. It’s an all-time classic that deserves and you should be playing it right now.
Panzer Dragoon: The standout star of Saturn’s 1995 launch, this sumptuous fantasy shoot-em-up brought us a dystopian fantasy world of mutant creatures, rival empires battling for control and a young man swept into adventure by an encounter with a flying dragon. Easily the most stylish and visually impressive of Saturn’s launch games and one that still holds its own today. Memorable moments: the opening CG cinema, the orchestral music, the amazing water effects…well, everything!
Virtua Fighter 2: The gold standard for 3D fighting games and Saturn’s finest hour, full stop. VF2 stunned all the naysayers and silenced all the critics when it arrived, delivering a near-perfect translation of a $30,000 arcade machine on a $300 home console. The 480/60 high resolution graphics still dazzle, as does the groundbreaking motion capture animation and immensely deep gameplay. Definitely not friendly to button mashers, but that’s one of many reasons why I love it so.
Virtua Cop: Sega AM2 brought light gun shoot-em-ups into the modern era with this instant classic, and once again proved just how powerful Saturn really was. I guess Sega remembered to put in that “3D Chip,” after all. The immersive 3D worlds and location-sensitive shooting (enemies react to where they were shot) take the genre to new heights, and Saturn makes it all look so easy. Order a couple pizzas for your friends, grab two guns and have a great time.
Sega Rally Championship: Even the harshest Saturn critic will tip their hat in respect to this magnificent conversion of the Sega AM3 off-road racing masterpiece. This game boasts a rock-solid 30fps, a richly complex physics engine, sumptuous color design and detailed textures across a variety of landscapes. Special note should be given to the soundtrack, a glorious fusion of rock, funk and jazz, with just a touch of winking humor to keep the mood cheery. This is probably Saturn’s most popular videogame and for good reason.
Nights Into Dreams/Christmas Nights: Sonic Team’s highly original masterwork fuses together multiple genres–2D platformer, 3D platformer, racing game, time attack, virtual pet–into something truly unique, and one that requires time and multiple plays to truly appreciate. Every moment oozes brilliance and creativity, and you never quite know what’s going to happen next. I honestly don’t see how PSX or N64 could play this game. Double kudos for Christmas Nights, easily the greatest demo disc ever created.
Magic Carpet: Bullfrog’s highly ambitious and original fusion of Doom-Meets-Populous is a great technical achievement for its time, offering complex landscapes that morph and change in real time, while also filling the screen with countless monsters, genies, castles and giant spheres. The Japanese release offers analog control and refined graphics, and once you’ve played that version, there’s no going back to digital controls. We’ll forgive the short draw distance and wonder exactly when a modern remake will finally arrive.
Impact Racing: FunCom’s combat racer plays like an updated Spy Hunter and boasts a frenetic, smooth-as-silk graphics engine that would make Nintendo 64 fans jealous. The speed is relentless and the balance between racing and combat is nearly perfect. You will also notice the lack of background popup and nice transparency effects on smoke and explosions. A true underrated gem that flew under the radar but deserves a second look.
Choro Q Park: An adorably cute racer that will draw inevitable comparisons to Mario Kart, but has its own unique sense of style. There are a wide variety of varied courses and a large supply of cars to collect, the 3D polygon environments are solid and quite varied and there are lots of little cartoon effects that add to the charm. Saturn really needed more games with crossover appeal like this one, and it’s a shame that it was never given a proper Western release.
Sega Ages Vol. 1: Working Designs published this compilation of three Sega arcade classics–Outrun, Space Harrier and Afterburner–that were all released separately in Japan. For those eager to play 1980s arcade games, this collection is absolutely fantastic and you can’t possibly go wrong. And aren’t these sprite-based 3D visuals amazing? This technology was years ahead of anything seen in the home at the time. For the true experience, track down a Sega Mission Stick for pure analog-control bliss.
Shutokou Battle Drift King 97: Genki’s long-running Tokyo Highway Battle series includes this 1997 entry on Saturn, featuring long city streets and competitive racing. Presentation is highly polished and smooth, including long draw distances and action that runs at a solid 30fps. Compared to its PSX cousin, it looks just as good but doesn’t suffer from those horrible polygon zig-zags. Strange how nobody in the ’90s cared about Playstation zig-zags. Talk about your mulligans.
V.R. Virtua Racing: While I will freely admit this Atari Games/Tengen adaptation of the Sega racing classic lacks a bit of polish and refinement (there is some question whether the game uses only one of Saturn’s Hitachi CPUs), I wanted to include this game purely for its spectacular racetrack designs, including seven new courses created exclusively for this release. The flat-shaded polygon look has a certain retro style that modern players will appreciate and the gameplay is just as engaging as ever.
Daytona USA Circuit Edition: The original Daytona USA plays better (giant middle finger to all the haters out there), but this Japanese update–avoid the rushed and notably inferior Western release–boasts improved 30fps visuals, greater draw distances, day/night driving options, five courses, split-screen & link-up multiplayer modes, and a drum fill that totally rips off Led Zeppelin. Just be sure to replace the Eric Martin-penned songs with the original audio tracks.
Virtua Fighter Remix: The original Saturn Virtua Fighter became a whipping boy for its flat polygon designs and occasional polygon glitches, but this updated revision dramatically improves the presentation and adds texture mapping to the character designs while keeping the fantastic gameplay. Two questions that haunt me: why wasn’t this version the US Saturn pack-in game, and why wasn’t the standalone retail package released outside of Minnesota and Canada?
Fighters Megamix: Why should anybody care about Sega Saturn in the year 2021? Because it has Fighters Megamix, that’s why. This all-star fighting mashup of Virtua Fighter, Fighting Vipers and a rogue’s gallery of zany characters from the AM2 vaults, including, most famously, the Daytona USA race car. The infinitely deep combat and 60fps action are paired with some impressive lighting effects, and the action is so relentless and blistering that you’ll lose hours fighting against your friends without even noticing. A Saturn classic.
Mass Destruction: In a word: chaos. Pure, boundless, glorious chaos. You drive a tank across a variety of battlefields, cities and tundras and proceed to smash everything into rubble. This is one of those videogames where it’s more fun to burn down buildings than actually complete the missions, and with stunning 480/60 visuals and glorious water reflection effects, who can blame you? It all has such a wonderful Commodore Amiga vibe and you wish this game had spawned a dozen sequels by now.
Sonic R: The definitive love-or-hate videogame on Saturn, Sonic R will divide fans for its unconventional control scheme, Euro techno soundtrack and fusion of platforming with racing. Most everyone else will be amazed by the best 3D graphics on the system, including transparency, lighting, reflections and background fade-in effects with ease. Also, don’t tell your Nintendo friends, but this game’s “rainbow road” course is better than Mario Kart 64.
Decathlete: Pure arcade action in the style of Track ‘N Field that shows off glorious 480/60 visuals and high-polygon models that run, jump and celebrate with panache and comic grace. It looks better than the Olympics videogames on Dreamcast, and plays better, too. Easily one of the finest visual showpieces for the system and a game that remains endlessly playable, especially when friends and family are included.
Fighting Vipers: A faster, trashier cousin to Virtua Fighter that joins the classic rock-paper-scissors martial arts action with 1980s glam-rock character designs, breakable armor, caged arenas that can be smashed apart, and in the JP release, the superhero Pepsiman. Everything runs at 60fps and boasts excellent lighting effects, especially on Jane’s stage. This gets overshadowed by Fighters Megamix but is still a terrific experience in its own right. C’mon, Pepsiman! He likes sunsets, what more do ya want?
Last Bronx: Sega AM3’s take on the fighting genre is fast, relentless, brutalist fun. Fights are short and smashing opponents with weapons is very satisfying fun, indeed. Graphics employ Saturn’s 480/60 high resolution with motion capture animation, but note the use of VDP2 planes to create ceilings on several stages. It’s the most convincing “fake” 3D effect seen anywhere and might be the best example of Saturn’s hybrid 2D/3D hardware design.
Dead or Alive: Virtua Fighter 2 may have the better character designs, but Tecmo’s fighting masterpiece has the better presentation: 480/60 high-res visuals, motion capture animation, polygon transparencies, weaponized “danger zones” that blast opponents sky-high and an innovative counter-reversal system that keeps fights tense and endlessly kinetic. Team Ninja loved this version so much that it appeared in DOA Ultimate on the original X-Box instead of the arcade version. How wild is that?
Baroque: A horror videogame classic, haunting and surreal and genuinely unnerving. The dystopian art design is magnificent, filled with derelict buildings, moody lighting and creepy monsters that will haunt your dreams. The superb and deeply moody lighting rivals Quake for sheer atmosphere, and the game’s story is surprisingly adult, addressing themes of madness, trauma and suicide. This is one of those games where you play in the dark with headphones just so you can give yourself nightmares.
Savaki: A realistic fighting game that boasts 60fps, realtime light sourcing, Gouraud shading, solid animation and rock solid graphics. And it was coded by one individual! If one single programmer could make Saturn sing so sweetly, why couldn’t so many Western developers? Maybe they just weren’t very good at their jobs. And why were we stuck with the likes of Rise of the Robots 2 and Criticom instead of this? We wuz robbed.
All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua: Masterful wrestling game that incorporates many ideas from Virtua Fighter, including cameos by Wolf and Jeffry, also incorporating clever ideas like winning over the crowd with razzle-dazzle to win matches. Graphics run at a butter 30fps, featuring nice shading effects, and the gameplay is just like buttah. The JP disc includes a large fold-out poster that details the moves and flowcharts, and it’s so very welcome.
World Series Baseball 98: The greatest baseball videogame that ever was made or ever will be made. That’s all there is to say about that. You should be playing WSB98 right now instead of the latest edition of MLB The Show, because, let’s face facts, the innovative and complex batter/pitcher duel has never been bettered. In addition, Sega’s polygon stadiums and players look excellent and there’s a genuine charm to that squarish, quad-based design that Saturn does so well.
Saturn Bomberman Fight: Supremely fun and addictive multiplayer party mayhem that deviates from the classic Bomberman formula while bringing it into the third dimension. Designed purely for multiplayer battles, this is probably the last truly inspired game in the franchise and you wish that Konami would pay a little more attention to what’s sitting inside the Hudson Soft vaults.
Zero Divide: The Final Conflict: Zoom’s third title in their robot fighting series (the first two were on Playstation) offers walled arenas, breakable armor, superb character animation, and everything runs perfectly at 60fps. In other words, it reminds you a lot of Fighting Vipers and Fighters Megamix, but with a lot more shine and polish. At this point, we’re ready to cede the entire 3D fighting genre to Saturn.
Goiken Muyou: Anarchy in the Nippon: And here is yet more evidence of Saturn’s mastery of the genre. This 3D fighter was designed by four famous professional Virtua Fighter players and boasts 480/60 graphics, infinite gameplay depth and slightly renegade, satiric character designs. And the game’s four designers also make an appearance as playable characters, which is always a nice touch. A personal favorite of mine, please pick up a copy before prices begin to skyrocket.
Burning Rangers: Sonic Team’s anime firefighting classic overloads so many visual effects at once–endless waves of transparent, fiery explosions, particle effects and collapsing floors–it threatens to burn your Saturn to ashes (which may have been the point all along). Look past the occasional glitches and drop-outs and note the sheer amount of dazzling visual effects and highly polished design–you can see the direct connection to Phantasy Star Online. There’s nothing quite like it before or since.
Winter Heat: Finally, this arcade sports sequel to Decathlete is the better of the two, with more compelling and varied events, some of which include four-player support. Visuals vary between 30fps and 60fps and a truly inspired sense of style to its environments and memorable cast of characters. One of Sega Saturn’s absolute finest moments. Why this series was never revived or kept alive remains a baffling mystery. But that’s Sega for ya.