20 years ago today, one of the weirdest consoles we’ve seen hit the market: The Sega Saturn.
Looking at the image above, if you haven’t seen the Saturn before, it might not look that weird at a glance – disc tray, six buttons on the controller, black plastic. Nothing too bizarre there.
It’s how Sega got to the Saturn that’s strange.
Sega was riding high on the wild success of the Sega Genesis at the time. Sega of America had taken the Mega Drive, renamed Genesis in the United States, from a tiny also-ran to an equal player against the Super Nintendo. Sega was, of course, looking for the next big thing. Sega of America’s president Tom Kalinske courted Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Olaf Olafsson first, almost reaching a deal to cooperate on a new console. That fell through, just as Sony’s negotiations with Nintendo had before that. When Kalinkse brought the idea to the board at Sega of Japan, they weren’t interested in working with the guys who make Walkman stereos (kids, ask your parents what a Walkman is).
Then, Sega of America pursued Silicon Graphics and the ultra powerful, cheap graphics chip they were working on. That deal fell through for roughly the same reason: Sega of Japan didn’t want the upstart Sega of America making the decisions for them. SGI went on to supply the chip for the Nintendo 64.
Instead, Sega went with their own, internally developed hardware. Sega was right with Sony on the decision to use a disc instead of a cartridge, but they didn’t get the memo on polygons. The Saturn was designed to push sprites, 2D images, like crazy, but couldn’t handle 3D images the way the PlayStation could. Yes, the original PlayStation was pretty powerful at one point. As Sony pushed the future of gaming forward with the PlayStation, eventually accompanied by the Nintendo 64, the Saturn was left in the dust. It’s not that the sprite-based games were bad, of course. They just didn’t have the same fresh appeal.
Sega of America was never keen on the system, right from the beginning. Japan had already forced them to release the ill-advised, poorly-designed 32X, a cartridge-based 32-bit add-on for the Sega Genesis. Kalinske knew right from the start the device was a stinker, and it’d be tough to find anyone that disagreed with him, even back then. Then came the Saturn.
Sega of America had planned out a marketing strategy sure to get it moving despite the lackluster power and backwards-thinking hardware design. This was Sega of America’s real strength, after all. They had Saturnday – that’s Saturday, September 2, 1995 – setup as the release day. They’d done great with Sonic 2sday and other huge coordinated launches before that. Then Sega of Japan popped up again, frantically worried about the PlayStation. “Hey, listen,” they said. “We’re going to release it right now. Like, right now.”
Sega announced at E3 that year that the Saturn was on shelves that very day, for $399. Sony announced a $299 price-point later that same day.
The Saturn had its share of games, though: Guardian Heroes, Panzer Dragoon Saga (everyone says it’s good, no one has played it), Virtual On, tons of great 2d and 3d fighting games, Nights into Dreams and Dragon Force are some of the games I can think of off the top of my head.
While Sega would end up making one more console with the Sega Dreamcast – once again underpowered, but populated with a library of great games – they would ultimately end up leaving the business of console manufacturing all together.
As we remember our old friend Sega, now on their way out of even making games themselves as they focus on mobile content, we can look back on this weird system as the beginning of a slow, painful decline for a once great company. But we shouldn’t forget all those great games that hit the system, either.