Welcome to part three in our four-part Sega Saturn 3D showcase. In this episode, we dig a little deeper into the software library, highlighting a few popular hits, a number of Japanese imports, at least one PAL-exclusive title, one videogame that recently received an English-language fan translation, and one beloved classic that currently sells for more money than your first year of college.
One of the things I love so much about Sega Saturn is its seemingly inexhaustible supply of hidden gems and happy surprises that just pop out of nowhere. I don’t think anybody Stateside has ever heard of Seabass Fishing 2, Side Pocket 3 or World Cup France 98, much less imagined that they could be really fun and enjoyable and show off the console’s 3D hardware abilities so nicely. It makes one wonder just why Sega of America did such a poor job in selling the system, why they never effectively pushed back against the toxic meme that Saturn “can’t doo three dee.” An obsession with grungy visual designs that shunned color, a need to translate and publish Sony Playstation games that were never quite as good as the originals, a determination to shun anything that used 2D graphics–all of these were contributing factors that dug Saturn ever deeper into its hole.
The brutal truth about Generation Five is that most kids never looked at Saturn beyond its early 1995 titles, especially once the Playstation arrived on store shelves. They looked long enough to see that Ridge Racer, Battle Arena Toshinden, Warhawk and Wipeout looked better than Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter, Wing Arms and Cyber Speedway, and concluded that the harping critics were right: Sega Saturn was a broken mess of computer chips that couldn’t stand up to the competition. The Christmas triple-punch of Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Sega Rally Championship turned a few heads, but the console’s second-class reputation was already set in stone, and these visual masterworks were soon dismissed by the critics as lucky breaks that could only have been coded by Sega’s most skilled programmers.
Today, we can confidently say that what Saturn suffered from was a hardware design with a steep learning curve, a lack of proper development tools and documentation, and a gaming public with little patience and zero attention span, always hunting like sharks for the next big fix. By 1996, these issues were being overcome and many software teams were able to crack the Saturn hardware, and third-party titles reached a parity with their Playstation rivals. Unfortunately, this would occur just as Nintendo would arrive with their much-hyped next-generation console, the Nintendo 64, joined by what was being called “the greatest video game of all time”: the groundbreaking and revolutionary Super Mario 64. Once Mario hit the streets, it was game over for Sega, and the Gen-5 gaming market was simply not large enough to support three main consoles. Somebody had to bow out, and it wasn’t going to be Sony or Nintendo.
I think much of the reappraisal of Sega Saturn comes from our ability to finally, so many years after the bloody console war, carefully examine these software libraries, find all of these unknown gems and overlooked classics, only to realize just how good the system really was. Naturally, having access to the vast–and to many gamers, vastly superior–Japanese software library was a major turning point. Who knows what the kids might have said if they had seen Radiant Silvergun, Thunder Force 5, Dead or Alive, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, Grandia, Psychic Killer Taromaru, all of those great shoot-em-up and fighting games? And what about the PAL exclusives like World League Soccer 98, Jonah Lomu Rugby and Virtual Golf? Would Saturn have fared better? Would it have become more successful and sell more than two million units in North America (lower total sales than the Sega Master System, Atari 7800 or Lynx), or would the kids from 1997 brush it all aside, anyway, remembering those choppy Daytona graphics, repeating the eternal mantra: “Can’t Doo Three Dee, Can’t Doo Three Dee”?
Impossible to say. But I do think attitudes are slowly turning around, which is why Saturn is now, strangely enough, more popular than ever.
P.S. One short note about the screenshots: if they appear a touch on the fuzzy side, it’s because I captured them from YouTube videos, and there is always a degree of video compression at hand. Bear in mind that the images on a real Sega Saturn will be more clear, crisp and detailed. If you want me to sit down and carefully capture screenshots from my 13-inch Sony Trinitron television, well, you’re just gonna have to pay me.
And by the most amazing coincidence, I now have a Ko-Fi page.
World Series Baseball 2: Sega’s second Saturn baseball title features all the Major League Baseball stadiums (the first WSB included only four), as well as licensed teams & players. Presentation is extremely polished with polygon stadiums and digitized players that are smoothly animated, paired with the sounds of the crowds, umpires and announcers. It leans slightly towards the arcade side, but there’s nothing wrong with that is there?
Croc: Legend of the Gobbos: The 3D platforming genre–the direct children of Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider–didn’t start rolling until Saturn was dying out, but we have Argonaut’s charming and very challenging mascot game to demonstrate what might have been. Its world design is more linear than collect-a-thon and player controls are, well, a bit of an acquired taste, using Tomb Raider’s tank movements instead of Mario’s graceful dancing. Analog controller support is very welcome here.
The Need For Speed: This arcade-oriented racing game, adapted from the 3DO, looks terrific with a velvet smooth 30fps, polygon vehicles and environments that feature ocean highways and city streets during morning, noon and night. Steering is swift and responsive with a slight tilt toward simulation realism, and the computer cars always put up a real fight. It’s easily one of the strongest driving titles for Saturn and one that’s still available at reasonable prices.
Deep Fear: Sega’s answer to Resident Evil (“Resident Evil on a Boat” would have been an honest title) appeared late in the system’s life in 1998 and features extensive CG animated movie scenes and considerable voice acting–all terrible, of course, but would we expect any less? Of course not. The polygon characters are endearing in that chunky Saturn way and the underwater motif allows for a variety of tensions to arise throughout the adventure. Good news for Japanese importers: everything is in English.
Wachenroeder: Another late release for Saturn, this 1998 Strategy-RPG presents a vividly realized cyberpunk world more often associated with Final Fantasy, a rich storyline and battles that switch between 2D sprites over 3D landscapes, and fully 3D fight sequences that show off flashy visual effects that rival the mighty Shining Force 3. Everything bristles with atmosphere and panache, Sega at its very best. This game desperately needs an English translation and re-release, if not by Sega then certainly by the fan community.
Die Hard Arcade: This polygon-based beat-em-up was a hit in the arcades and a rare success for a genre that had all but died out in Generation Five. The fun of the game comes from your immense number of attacks and throws, as well as the ability to grab almost any object to use as a weapon, from janitor brooms to grandfather clocks to rockets. The “quick-time events” help to break up the action nicely. If Sega ever brings back Fighters Megamix, these heroes absolutely must be added to the roster.
High Velocity: Mountain Racing Challenge: This one-on-one racing game from danmaku shoot-em-up masters Cave offers solid visuals and bold color design, but the real star of the show are the fantastic courses based on mountain roads in Japan, all climbing, falling, weaving and turning in every direction. It reminds me so much of driving along the steep hills in Duluth and I really wish there were more driving games like this. Seriously, go visit Duluth sometime and spend a day driving around. You’ll be amazed.
Iron Storm: Sega’s brilliant World War II military strategy simulation (part of a long-running series in Japan) features dramatic 3D battles where armies battle one another. Planes, tanks, cannons and soldiers fight in city streets, country vistas and green forests. It’s all so impressive and adds a level of immersion to what is a very cerebral, stoic genre of war games. Working Designs released this game in North America and they did an excellent job. As always, expect to pay a premium price for a complete-in-box copy.
Alien Trilogy: Acclaim was a very popular, yet completely trashy software publisher best known for Midway arcade games like NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat and WWF Wrestlemania, and here they surprise everyone with a brilliantly tense and accomplished first-person shooter based on the popular movie franchise. Visually nimble and light on its toes with a stable frame rate and monsters hiding around every corner. Closer to Doom than the atmospheric Alien Vs. Predator on Atari Jaguar, but still very satisfying and enjoyable.
Manx TT Superbike: Australian studio Tantalus did an excellent job bringing the Sega arcade hit home, and it’s easily the best motorbike racer on Saturn. The scenic locations, based on the Isle of Man, look great, as do the bikes which blaze with an adrenaline-fueled sense of urgency and aggression. It’s all so dangerous and fun. I just wish there were more than two measly courses. Seriously, only two courses?! Analog control is a must, especially the Arcade Racer steering wheel.
Scorcher: This gritty futuristic racer by Danish developers Zyrinx and publisher Scavenger has always earned raves for its dark atmospheric graphics and superb lighting effects akin to what you would see on Nintendo 64. Gameplay and controls are an acquired taste, which is being very generous, and feels Wipeout mashed together with Marble Madness. You’ll either love it or hate it. But there’s no denying the moody sense of style that permeates every frame.
A.M.O.K.: Another Scavenger presentation, courtesy of Los Angeles-based demoscene coders Lemon. You pilot a robot tank that sometimes doubles as a submarine and attack enemy bases and installations in pure hardcore arcade fashion. The environments are rendered by voxels and it’s a very interesting experiment, providing a terrific sense of depth and speed. There are only a handful of stages but each one is very long and very challenging. Two-player mode is just the icing on the cake.
World Cup France 98: Road to Win: This final installment of Sega’s Worldwide Soccer/Victory Goal franchise doesn’t rest on its laurels as one would expect. Instead, this game (finally!) introduces analog controller support while also refining the graphics, providing little details like raindrops hitting the ground during rainy matches. Gameplay is just as precise as ever and that balance between arcade action and measured realism is just like buttah. Longtime fans owe it to themselves to add this game to their library.
All-Star Baseball 97 Featuring Frank Thomas: Acclaim and Iguana Entertainment deliver an excellent baseball simulation that faithfully recreates all the MLB parks and provides convincing digitized replicas of the athletes. The presentation is highly polished and looks just as good as its later sequels on Nintendo 64 and Playstation. Overall, just a half-step behind Sega’s World Series Baseball 2 and a must for all sports fans.
Street Racer Extra: Ubisoft’s cartoonish racing game is an obvious Super Mario Kart knockoff, but don’t let that deter you from its many qualities, including the excellent and varied track designs that are tightly packed and relentlessly fast, as well as the humorous character designs. And the Saturn edition looks notably better than its Playstation cousin, boasting greater trackside detail and additional layers of clouds overhead.
Sega Ages: Power Drift: A near-flawless translation of the legendary 1988 Sega arcade racing game. Everything is presented with 2D sprites that are turned, twisted, rotated and bent into fully convincing 3D roller coaster course designs. It’s a fantastic showpiece for its era and the Saturn handles everything with ease. For pure arcade thrills, you can’t do much better than Power Drift. All that’s needed is a tilting seat like the arcade.
Seabass Fishing 1 & 2: Two highly accomplished and supremely impressive fishing games by Victor Interactive and A-Wave. The underwater scenes featuring battles against the fish rival anything you’ve played on Sega Dreamcast fishing games. I’m really quite impressed with the 3D polygon modeling, as well as the wide variety of fish you can catch. The first title was released in PAL territories (you lucky dogs) while the second stayed exclusively in Japan.
Soldnerschild: Koei’s Strategy-RPG offers battles with large armies that meet on the battlefield, very much in the style of Dragon Force, and also includes one-on-one showdowns between opposing generals that show off some nice polygon shading effects. There are also some nice story scenes between battles that help to fill out the plot. Character artwork created by Ayami Kojima of Castlevania fame. Saturn version is just a little more refined and confident than its PSX cousin. English fan translation, please?
Vandal Hearts: Konami’s Strategy-RPG was a hit on Sony Playstation, and this 1998 Saturn translation features some interesting variations, refinements and additions to the original formula. There certainly is a lot more blood flowing here. Visual design combines polygon environments with 2D bitmap sprites and it all blends together nicely. A new English translation should introduce this game to a new generation of fans.
Side Pocket 3: Now here’s one I’ll bet you never knew existed. The third installment in Data East’s popular series of pinball sims introduces 3D polygon graphics that are very stylish and polished and the gameplay reminds you of your favorite pool titles from the Commodore Amiga, only more so. Character models are also quite varied and look great. This is a real surprise and a true hidden gem worth discovering.
Thunderstrike 2: Core’s sequel to the Sega CD chopper combat game looks even better on Saturn, offering impressive polygon landscapes and endless explosions on land, sea and air. The action breezes by with a bold confidence and you cannot help but be swept away by the excitement. There are a number of copter shoot-em-ups on the system, most of them good. This one is easily the best.
Soviet Strike: EA’s fourth installment of their beloved Strike franchise looks terrific on Saturn, boasting better lighting effects and graphical details, as well as numerous bug fixes, over the Playstation version. The action lends itself more towards slow strategic planning than arcade speed, yet battles are no less intense of exciting when the explosions rain down from every direction. It’s a pity this franchise would soon be retired, because this is all smashing good fun.
Virtual Golf: Core is responsible for many classic videogames, but golf? This is a very welcome surprise. This PAL exclusive is highly engaging with a wonderful sense of color saturation and landscapes that are always packed with details like autumnal trees and onlooking fans. You feel all warm and fuzzy inside, like a shot of really good bourbon. Gameplay is equally enjoyable and fans of the genre will have no problem jumping right in and having a great time. Sadly, no Craig Stadler, but as they say, nobody’s perfect.
Murakoshi Masami no Bakuchou Nippon Rettou (村越正海の爆釣日本列島): Here is another fishing game that appeared late in Saturn’s life, and it looks absolutely stunning with its bold color design, amazingly detailed polygon models for fish and bait and a nicely pre-rendered fisherman. And note the wonderful VDP2 water effects that only Sega Saturn could accomplish. One of the finest and most hidden of hidden gems for the platform. Thankfully, prices are still very reasonable, but don’t be surprised if that suddenly changes. Better grab your copy now.
Psychic Killer Taromaru: Finally, we have another bona fide classic that combines 2D sprites with 3D environments in a way that only Sega Saturn can deliver. The locations lean heavily on Japanese history and mythology and consist of endless set-pieces where you battle an endless array of terrifying monsters and powerful bosses. The art assets merge together so perfectly and the experience is always engaging and very tough to beat. One massive downside: retail discs are extremely rare and are massively expensive. You might have to skip Junior year at college to pay for this. Or you could just burn a backup disc. Whatever floats your boat.