Welcome to the fourth and final installment on our series on Sega Saturn videogames with notable or impressive 3D graphics, involving either polygons or bitmap sprites. This list includes software titles released in North America, PAL regions of UK/Europe and Japan, ranging from well-known classics to the most obscure hidden gems.
So why the need for such a comprehensive rebuttal? Why did Saturn struggle and vanish so quickly?
More than any major console, Sega Saturn was crippled from the very start with a toxic reputation among software developers, industry insiders, retailers, gaming magazines and the general public. The hardware design was universally derided as a mess, a half-baked machine whose parts were thrown together in slap-dash fashion at the eleventh hour in response to the arrival of Sony’s new wonder machine, the Playstation. Saturn was seen as inferior in nearly every way that mattered in 1995, and while it was recognized for its superiority in the realm of traditional 2D graphics, such videogames were being pushed out the door by the same mob mentality, driven away as “obsolete” in the new age of realtime 3D polygon worlds.
Saturn was quickly branded the “Can’t Doo Three Dee” machine, a reputation partly earned by early rushed software (notably Daytona USA), but also due to inadequate and insufficient software development tools that held back many early games. Documentation was left untranslated from the original Japanese. The use of the Saturn’s multiple processors, including its twin Hitachi SH-2 CPUs, was not properly explained by Sega. Source code to Sega’s own games was never provided to developers, which would demonstrate how to create quality games on the system. Many software teams felt overwhelmed and frustrated, even going so far as to turn the second CPU off. As a result, a number of early third-party games looked sluggish, roughshod, half-baked and notably inferior to the highly impressive suite of launch games for Playstation.
For most gamers, Sega Saturn’s reputation was set in stone in 1995 and it never fully recovered. Despite a number of impressive first-party games like Panzer Dragoon, Worldwide Soccer and Virtua Fighter Remix, it would take until the Christmas season for the triple punch of Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Sega Rally Championship to turn heads and prove exactly what Saturn could achieve when understood and programmed properly. Unfortunately, any favorable attention quickly evaporated in 1996, as the spotlight shifted to Nintendo’s imminent invasion of the next-generation war, armed with a revolutionary new analog controller and the revolutionary Super Mario 64.
It’s a cruel irony that Sega found themselves ignored and left for dead just as software teams had managed to crack the hardware, providing many quality videogames that could run even with Playstation and sometimes even pull ahead. Saturn most definitely could “doo three dee,” despite the naysayers, but nobody was interested in looking anymore. In an industry obsessed with chasing the newest, hottest fad, Sega was yesterday’s news, shackled to an expensive albatross and sinking fast. By early 2001, the company would exit the hardware business entirely while barely avoiding bankruptcy, and Saturn would take much of the blame.
Whenever the topic of Sega Saturn arises, this story of chaos, disunion and eventual breakup is all that anyone ever wants to talk about. Not unlike the melodrama behind the making of The Beatles’ White Album in many ways, and maybe that’s the perfect comparison to be made. I’ve often made the comparison to The Velvet Underground, the legendary rock group that failed spectacularly in their day, only to inspire and spawn an entire generation of indie- and alternative-rock. But maybe Saturn is closer to the White Album: a giant, sprawling mass of good, bad and ugly, an endless reservoir of surprises and discoveries, a living encyclopedia of every genre in the form assembled into one place. It stands outside of time, somehow embracing the nostalgic past and avant-garde future equally, demanding to be respected long after its rivals have turned to dust.
If I handed you a $500 budget to buy any videogame system today, you would most likely choose a Sony Playstation 5, Microsoft Xbox One X or Nintendo Switch. That would be money well spent. But you would be much happier and wiser to spend that cash on a Sega Saturn. You know it. In your very bones, you know it.
What can I say? The heart wants what it wants. And the heart is always right.
Enemy Zero: Kenji Eno was a true maverick, creating unique gaming experiences unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. This 1997 masterwork fuses elements of full-motion video, first-person action and survival horror into a highly polished and suspenseful work. Presentation is simply flawless and stands as one of Saturn’s finest achivements in any genre.
Gungriffon 2: Take everything you loved about the original Gungriffon 2 and add more of everything: bigger enemies to fight, bigger explosions when targets are destroyed, bigger landscapes to explore and do battle. This sequel also supports the Virtual On dual joysticks and is one of the few Saturn games to use the link cable which allows two players to play on a separate television screen.
Road Rash: The beloved Sega Genesis combat racer comes to Saturn with a blistering fast 30fps graphics engine, taking bikers through crowded city street and rolling countryside hills, bashing rivals with clubs, running over pedestrians and avoiding the cops. And music by Soundgarden? Yay! Adapted from the 3DO classic and better in every way.
Tunnel B-1: Created by NEON Software and published by Acclaim in the US, this first-person shooter lets you drive a low-riding hovercraft that barrels through dark, futuristic tunnels, destroying enemy installations and vehicles. A textbook example of style over substance, yes, but you can’t help but marvel at the style. Music by Turrican legend Chris Huelsbeck.
3D Baseball: Crystal Dynamics, the software house who rose to fame on 3DO, deliver this solid and highly enjoyable baseball simulation for Saturn. The polygon players are lean, mean and animate with a velvet smoothness, the ballparks are faithfully recreated and the game is packed with players, stats and management options.
Shellshock: Core delivers this excellent tank shoot-em-up that feels like a modernized, hip-hop child of Battlezone. Action is fast, engaging and always tense as you make your way through city buildings, over bridges and across forests in pursuit of rival tanks to destroy. Saturn fans will note the lack of any polygon zig-zags that plague the Playstation version.
Independence Day: This arcade-style airplane shooter, based on the 1996 blockbuster movie, was a hit on its own right on Playstation, but the lesser-seen Saturn version is better thanks to its use of VDP2 planes for the alien mothership and overall smoother performance. Designed by Radical Entertainment, the creators of NHL Powerplay 96 and NHL All-Star Hockey 98.
Hat Trick Hero S: Taito’s home adaptation of their arcade hit Hat Trick Hero ’95 is a freewheeling, almost comical take on soccer. It revels in its silliness with such touches as tacking referees, flaming kicks that knock over goalies and streakers who run across the field, disrupting play. Everything is presented with 2D digitized sprites and bright colors and looks marvelous.
Space Hulk: Highly compelling and thoughtful fusion of action and strategy set in the Warhammer universe and adapted from 3DO. The first-person perspective allows for truly tense moments as your squad hunts down gruesome alien monsters and the environments are suitably rustic, lived-in and spooky. Designed by Krisalis Software who also adapted Magic Carpet and Theme Park to Saturn.
Keriotosse: A frenetic and suitably zany multiplayer party game where four characters attempt to knock one another off a series of platforms and arenas. Visual design is highly impressive with nice polygon shading and a nice variety of stage designs that include usable objects like swings and see-saws. A perfect companion to a night of pizza and beer with friends.
Robo Pit: A robot fighting game where you construct your own robot from a large selection of parts–body, face, base, weapon arms–and then set them against rivals in a series of gladiator arenas. Graphics are stylish, almost minimalist in its designs, and the arenas feature obstacles and barriers that add variety to the gameplay.
Pandemonium: Legendary software duo Toys For Bob (Star Control, Skylanders) crafted this excellent “2.5D” action-platformer loaded with imaginative fantasy worlds and impressive visual f/x that include Gauroud shading and transparencies. Released in Japan under the name Magical Hoppers and replaced the grunge-era heroine with a cutie in a bunny suit.
Advanced World War: End of the Millennium: Sega’s 1997 installment of their long-running World War II simulations–the direct sequel to Iron Storm–boasts a revamped graphics engine with dazzling lighting effects, dual-layer map designs the predates Advance Wars DS, and amazing 3D polygon battle sequences. Only one small non-kosher problem: you can only play as the Nazis in campaign mode. What?!
Touge: King of the Spirits 2: Cave’s shows off their 3D racing chops with this compelling sequel to High Velocity. Improvements include smoother, more nimble gameplay, support for analog controllers and widescreen mode. The Japanese mountain environments are highly varied and packed with little details, the color design is luscious and it plays like a dream with Sega’s racing wheel.
Stellar Assault SS: This 1998 sequel to the obscure 32X space shooter looks gorgeous and plays like Star Fox mashed with Star Wars. The retro polygon design is balanced by extremely swift action that runs smooth as silk, and the game is peppered with scripted dialog sequences between battles. Retail copies are frightfully expensive but this is a Saturn experience not to be missed.
Greatest Nine 98: Summer Action: The final installment of Sega’s legendary World Series Baseball franchise continues to push the envelope, offering fully 3D visuals (the pitcher/batter screen on WSB98 used a 2D backdrop) and improved player models, all while retaining the spectacular gameplay you’ve come to expect. Does that make Summer Action the greatest baseball videogame ever? Let the debates begin!
Actua Golf: This is probably the best golf simulation on Saturn and another excellent showpiece for the console’s 3D superpowers. The visual design is highly polished with its combination of 3D landscapes and 2D objects such as trees and bushes. Additional touches include crowd sounds and play-by-play commentary that is relaxing and adds to the game’s overall charm.
Tadaima Wakusei Kaitakuchu: Translated loosely as “Let’s Develop a Planet,” this 1995 Altron realtime strategy game lets you colonize and build worlds with a trio of specialized robots that collect resources, build structures and attack your rivals. Graphics feature very nice lighting effects to simulate day/night and it all reminds you of Amiga classics like Mega Lo Mania and Populous.
Courier Crisis: This 3D action game has you racing a bike through crowded city streets to collect and deliver packages. It was derided by game magazines and critics upon release, but it appears prescient in the wake of Crazy Taxi and Grand Theft Auto and has aged very gracefully. The Saturn version is notably better looking than its Playstation cousin.
Darklight Conflict: May the classic epic space adventure never go out of style! This genre was once a staple of PC computer games and while the console experience is more streamlined and arcade-oriented than, say, Wing Commander or Elite, it’s a fantastic romp that all closet Trekkies and sci-fi nerds will gobble up. The lighting and shading effects are quite impressive, action is highly challenging and players will stay hooked for weeks.
Tennis Arena: Easily the best tennis videogame of Generation Five, although considering the competition…well, the genre is notorious for poorly-executed stinkers, so let’s not go there. Thankfully, this game combines solid controls and pacing with an inventive sense of style, sending you to play on tennis courses on such wild locales as ocean liners and Roman-era coliseums.
Night Striker S: Taito’s answer to Space Harrier was only brought home to Sega CD and Saturn, the latter easily being the definitive version with an additional gameplay mode and support for the analog Mission Stick. If you’re a fan of classic 2D sprite scaling effects, you’ll go gaga over this. All that’s needed is a coin slot and some Aladdin’s Castle tokens.
Chase HQ Plus SCI: Do you think that maybe Taito suffered from Sega envy in the 1980s? Their superb racing games Chase HQ and SCI both owe their very existence to Outrun, but adding in combat elements as your police officers shoot down or ram into wanted criminals. It’s a pure arcade sugar rush with 2D sprite scaling effects that look so effortless on Saturn.
J.League Pro Soccer Club o Tsukurou! 2: This installment in Sega’s popular “Let’s Make a Pro Soccer Team” franchise looks absolutely magnificent on Saturn and I do wish there was enough time to adapt this graphics engine into a future Worldwide Soccer sequel. Please note that this game is actually a management simulation where you build your own team, but do not control them on the field.
Willy Wombat: Westone, the geniuses behind the Wonder Boy/Monster World series takes a stab at bringing classic 2D videogames into the 3D polygon age with this enjoyable and visually solid effort. Gameplay is pure arcade fun but there’s a fair amount of puzzle solving as well, and the developers strike a good balance between the two. Unfairly overlooked at the time, it’s well worth your time today.
Dungeon Master Nexus: This fantastic update to the classic Atari ST dungeon-exploring RPG boasts a supremely confident 3D world and a host of gruesome monster designs. It all looks and plays so well that I’m left wondering why it has remained so obscure all these years. Don’t let the JP language barrier hold you back, just find a copy and start treasure hunting.
Dragon Master Silk: This 1997 dungeon-exploring RPG doesn’t quite reach the heights of Dungeon Master Nexus or Shining the Holy Ark, but is balanced by an extensive anime storyline and girly character designs that lean towards the racy side but stay firmly in PG-13 territory. This is the sort of videogame that Working Designs loved to pick up and localize, and it’s a shame they never had the chance.
NFL Quarterback Club 96: This installment of Iguana Entertainment’s popular franchise was Saturn’s only football title in 1995 (and not available on Playstation), and it’s a very welcome alternative to Madden, which, like Sega Sports, completely whiffed that season. It plays very well and looks great with polygon stadiums and pre-rendered sprite athletes. You can score a disc for less than five bucks today.
NFL Quarterback Club 97: The second (and final) installment of Iguana’s football franchise before finding its home on Nintendo 64, this sequel makes many improvements across the board, including smoother frame rate, improved animation and tighter execution. The player models are more detailed but chunkier and notably blockier. It’s not on the level of Madden, but as Billy Wilder famously wrote, nobody’s perfect.
Digital Dance Mix Volume 1: Namie Amuro: Finally, we have this unique tech demo created by the wizards at Sega AM2. It was reportedly made as a test run for realistic polygon animation and facial modeling which would be utilized in Shenmue and Virtua Fighter 3. There’s very little interaction, but what’s on display looks amazing and it leaves us hoping the legendary Saturn VF3 could one day finally surface. One can only dream.