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Platform / Sega Saturn

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From top to bottom: The international version of the Saturn; the model 1 Japanese Saturn; the model 2 Japanese Saturn

"Sega Sataan, shiro!"Translation

Launched on November 22, 1994note , the Sega Saturn was Sega's entry into the fifth console generation. It ultimately wound up being one of the many reasons they left the console market, although the company wouldn't succumb to its illness until 2001.

During their heyday, Sega promoted some add-ons for the Genesis/Mega Drive, namely the Sega CD and 32X. They had major performance issues and not a lot of good games on them, so many faithful Sega customers got burned. Fast forward to the release of their next stand-alone console, the Saturn. Facing off against one major competitor, Nintendo, was one thing, and one they could surmount by once again beating them to the market. A new contender, and one with loads of cash and third-party goodwill? Surprisingly, a big problem. But the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation would hardly be the only thorns in the side for the Saturn.

Once the North American ads (finally) started promoting it as a gaming system, one of them boasted about how the Saturn had two 32-bit processors while the PlayStation only had one. The irony is that those "two 32-bit processors" made the system far more difficult to develop for and played a major role in third-party companies favoring the PS1. Depending on which account you believe, Sega either slapped on a second CPU and graphics card, or planned the design from the start in order to be capable of both 2D and 3D, the former of which the PlayStation was notably less competent at. Not without precedent or prescience, because CPUs with multiple cores are the norm in video game consoles and PCs today; multiple CPUs were nothing new to veteran arcade developers like Sega, who had already been utilizing multiple processor units in their arcade games, and subsequently adapted the paradigm into the Saturn hardware and subsequently into the Saturn derived Titan Video (ST-V) arcade board. Back in the mid 90s, however, having entirely separate units just jacked-up the cost and the complexity of developing for the console. It was literally just individual processors with very little cross-talk between them.

The graphics card itself had technical issues that prevented developers from exploiting its full processing power. Unlike virtually every other 3D console (aside from the 3DO) or computer ever made, the Saturn used quadrilateral (rectangular) shapes in its 3D rendering rather than the more traditional triangles. While this had some unique advantages such as reduced texture warping and better representation of round objects, quadrilaterals were nothing short of nightmarish for developers to work with. Moreover, it made it impossible to directly port over games from the PS1 and N64. At the time of design though, there was no clear winner between quads and triangles. Sega simply bidded on the wrong horse. On paper, the Saturn should have topped the PS1 in terms of 3D graphics, but poor documentation on how to program graphics on a system with multiple processors such as the Saturn led to most Saturn ports not looking as good as the originals. Games like Sonic R (released late in the console's lifespan) and the canceled Virtua Fighter 3 port showed that the Saturn could do 3D very well in the right hands and with the right programmer tricks. 2D games were a different story since the Saturn was the only hardware capable of sprite-based graphics out of the box. (PS1 and N64 had to render flat polygons on a fixed plane.)

As typical for Sega, the console suffered from Right Hand Versus Left Hand turmoil and conflicts between Sega Enterprises in Japan and Sega of America. As most of the written material on the western internet was from the perspective Sega of America executives looking to shift blame, this lead to a heavily one-sided account presenting Sega's American branch as being victim of the irrational whims of its jealous Japanese parent. However, uncovered Japanese material and a 2023 leak of internal data made it obvious Sega of America was far from blameless in the system's misfortune.

As Sega of America had no input in the Saturn's design, the American branch was not enthusiastic for the console and saw the cartridge market as still being the way forward. To extend the Genesis's life, SOA pitched to the Japanese executives an add-on for the Sega Genesis capable of 3D rendering as a mean to counter the then much-hyped Atari Jaguar. Unfortunately, the resulting hardware, the 32X, proved to be a commercial disaster whose quick discontinuation eroded consumer and retailer trusts. Time and money wasted on the 32X took away from developing content that could've padded the famously anemic Saturn launch line-up. This was especially felt for on the American side: with many 32X projects canned, Sega of America had very few American games lined up for the Saturn, and the few that they did have were not much to write home about.

Sega's decision to focus on the Japanese market to make themselves successful there ended up working. Not only was the Saturn their best-selling console in Japan, but it managed to beat the Nintendo 64 (depending on the source, the Saturn either sold as low as 6 million or as high as 10 million units in Japan compared to the approximately 5.5 million N64s there). While the PlayStation would eventually overtake both, the Saturn would still receive much more third-party support than its Nintendo rival and remained a viable option up until its death in 1999. However, this hyper-focus on the Japanese market and generally poor management caused the Saturn to bomb in all other regions Sega had previously dominated — including the important North American market, which was the beginning of the end for Sega as a hardware manufacturer. By the time Sega repaired its relationship with their North American affiliates and ordered the Japanese office to cooperate with them note , it was too late. The time window to develop and release a Killer App for the Saturn was gone, and Sega's reputation in the West had been trashed almost beyond repair, as had their relationships with most developers and store chains. Most of the people who drove the Genesis/Mega Drive sales in the West had departed the company, leaving Sega of America a shell of its former self.

Another black eye for the console was, as noted above, the lack of a Killer App with international appeal, namely a new mainline Sonic the Hedgehog game. Sega initially bet on Virtua Fighter being the system seller since it showed off the system's 3D capabilities and sold well in Japan during the Saturn's launch period. They made it the pack-in game for America's launch expecting a repeat performance, but the game did not appeal much to western audiences. While the Saturn would be home to a number of Sonic the Hedgehog titles — specifically Sonic 3D Blast (which was a port of a Genesis game), the Mario Kart 64 wannabe Sonic R, and a compilation called Sonic Jam — an original platformer wasn't one of them. Sega Technical Institute were developing a 3D Sonic title ("Sonic X-treme"), but due to deadlines and various complications, the game became vaporware.

Due to a precipitous decline in 16-bits revenue, Sega imposed on the American branch an ill-conceived surprise launch for North America in May 1995, ahead of the officially-announced "Saturnday" (September 2, 1995). Both developers (including western developers contracted by Sega of America) and retailers were told about the surprise release at the same time as consumers. Third-party developers were unable to finish their games in time for the changed launch date, kneecapping the system's early lineup as a whole and leaving many developers screwed out of the money that could have been made from being there on "Saturnday". This also led to a game drought right after the Saturn's launch period (only two games came out in North America between May and September!), reinforcing the idea that the system was another half-baked Sega product like the Sega CD and 32X. Retailers, meanwhile, were caught with their pants down; they had to scrape by with limited supplies to advertise and sell for months, a time gap which Sony took ample advantage of. Walmart and KB Toys were so inconvenienced that they dropped the Saturn from their catalogues altogether. The Saturn also launched early in Europe (July 8), and sales suffered heavily in spite of Sega's historically strong presence in the region due to no one having time to advertise the thing.

The backlash was multi-pronged and immediate: At that year's E3 conference where Sega announced the early release and launch price, Sony rep Steve Race who next took the stage had the plum task of explaining that the PlayStation would cost a hundred dollars less than the $399 Saturn, and the crowd turned on Sega at once. This is literally the entire transcript of Sony's announcement: "two ninety-nine" ($299). The crowd went nuts, and suddenly it seemed better to wait a little more to spend less on the PS1.note  Not helping matters was Kalinske's famously brash public persona, which everyone in the industry had grown weary of, nor the fact that he blew off an exclusivity agreement for FIFA 96note , which would have at least kept a major license out of Sony's and Nintendo's hands for a year.

Due to a combination of the 32X's failure and rapidly declining 16-bits console games sales, the American branch had to order a massive writedown on unsold inventory, which was the main driver in Sega's consumer segment losses. Seeing how much money SOA was losing, new SOA chairman Shoichiro Irimajiri asked Sega of America president Tom Kalinske to restructure the branch toward profitability. Unimpressed with his progress a year after, he pressured Kalinske to resign, which he would in July 1996.

From a damage control standpoint, Sega of America couldn't have made a worse decision than hiring former Sony Computer Entertainment America exec Bernie Stolar to replace Kalinske. Having left Sony after they reshuffled SCEA's leadership, Stolar had a strong portfolio: he negotiated a Mortal Kombat 3 port for the PlayStation and had a relationship with Electronic Arts. Sega expected him to be as shrewd as Kalinske, so they gave him unprecedented freedom over their Western branch. As it turned out, Stolar wasn't interested in the Saturn due to its admittedly-poor design and rushed the development of the Dreamcast — giving the finger to the Saturn's small-but-sizeable fanbase and driving Sega's reputation further into the ground. Because of him, most of the games showing off the Saturn's superior 2D graphics never left Japan, apart from a few Capcom fighters and Neo Geo ports. Thus, Stolar's actions had continued to strain Sega's already damaged relationship with North American third-party developers within a few months. Which wasn't good considering that Nintendo had finally started to ease their restrictions on M-rated games, to say nothing of Sony having a stellar rep with third-parties and stealing Sega's identity of being the choice gaming console for the "mature" gamer.

The final insult: Stolar cancelled development of any Role Playing Games on the console just as Final Fantasy VII ignited the JRPG craze in the west, robbing the Saturn of the niche appeal which would later factor in part of the PlayStation Portable and PlayStation Vita's post-mortem Cult Classic reputations. His later efforts to promote the Dreamcast were more successful; nevertheless, Stolar was fired from Sega of America shortly before its 1999 release in North America.

On the other side of the Pacific, Isao Okawa succeeded Hayao Nakayama as president of Sega and caused further tensions. While Sega remained profitable during the Saturn's run, the system's exceptionally poor performance led to declining revenue that greatly affected their American branch and forced them to lay off employees in 1997. This eventually culminated in the 1998 fiscal year, where the company reported nearly $270 million in losses. The Saturn only sold 11 million units worldwide, compared to the almost 34 million N64s and over 100 million PS1s. It barely blipped on the market's radar.

So, as you can see, pride was essentially a major factor into why the console didn't do as well as it should've at a time the company's branches really needed to work together, when they instead focused more on fighting each other than the growing competition. What's more, it's too bad Sega didn't see the point of localizing said games or porting any of its North American titles to the Dreamcast, although the Saturn's complex architecture made that easier said than done. Furthermore, due to the general disarray at Sega at the time, the source codes for many of those games (including Panzer Dragoon Saga) have been lost. And the games themselves usually don't come cheap on eBay, thanks in no small part to the console developing a very dedicated cult following in later years, not to mention many late era games that DID make it over received insultingly low print runs (including, you guessed it, Panzer Dragoon Saga, which even had an ad lampshading it). While ports and remakes of some of these games would at least find homes on the Nintendo DS, Play Station Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and PC, a great many have not received re-releases. To make matters worse, Emulation of the Saturn remains difficult due to its complex architecture.note 

Despite the console's poor performance in the west, it has since become a considerable Cult Classic among Retro Gaming enthusiasts, with many of its exclusive titles, such as NiGHTS into Dreams…, Bulk Slash, and Panzer Dragoon Saga being rediscovered decades after release.



  • Two Hitachi SH-2 32 Bit RISC CPUs at 28.63 MHz each.
  • Hitachi SH-1 32 bit RISC processor (controlling the CD-ROM).
  • Two 32 bit video display processors running at 7.1590 MHz on NTSC Systems, 6.7116 MHz for PAL Systems).
  • Custom Saturn Control Unit (SCU) with DSP for geometry processing and DMA controller running at 14.3 MHz.
  • Motorola 68EC000 Sound controller running at 11.3 MHz.
  • Sound processor, "Sega Custom Sound Processor" (SCSP), running at 22.6 MHz.
  • Hitachi 4-bit MCU, "System Manager & Peripheral Control" (SMPC). Likely used for handling input devices like the controller ports and the expansion slot.

As can be seen, the system was really processor-heavy. Not a good thing in that day, when developers were just starting to grasp 3D graphics.


  • Each CPU has 4 KB of RAM Cache.
  • 2 MB main RAM, 1.5 MB Video RAM. The Extended RAM Cartridge (released exclusively in Japan) added 1 MB or 4 MB to the main RAM.
  • 512 KB sound memory.
  • 512 KB CD buffer, which helped ensure smooth loading, if not fast loading.
  • 32 KB save memory with the battery backup. A 128 KB or 512 KB memory cart could be added to supplement this.


  • Actually an evolution of the Mega Drive/Genesis' VDP (complete with backwards compatibility for MD/Genesis and Master System graphics modes). The first VDP is generally used for foreground sprites and 3D polygons while the second is used for background graphics. Advanced stuff for its time, but also added to the complexity of programming for the system.
  • Compared to the PlayStation and Nintendo 64, the Saturn worked on quadrilaterals (quads) instead of triangles as the 3D primitive. This is likely where the evolutionary step of the VDP comes from. Think of a quad like a sprite, but any sort of transformation/distortion effect can be applied to it. It's similar to the SNES's Mode 7, but acting on anything instead of just a single background layer. However, this came with several quirks:
    • The VDP could not map any arbitrary part of the texture to the quad. The entire texture was applied to the quad, which means the texture was distorted with any transformations done on the quad. One technique that this quirk makes impossible is environment mapping, which is used in reflection effects.
    • This also made transparency unusable if the quad was squished down to a triangle. The quad is drawn line-by-line with relation to the quad, which has the issue that pixels get overdrawn. If a transparency effect is applied, that transparency gets added, corrupting the original intent.
  • While the system was listed as having 200,000 fully-textured polygons per second, barely half that could be done in real-time games. Still, that was an impressive amount for the time.

Add-ons and Peripherals

  • 3D Pad: A redesigned controller that came with an analog stick for 3D games. Was made for NiGHTS into Dreams…, but it can be used by other games.
  • RAM Expansion Cart: A cart that expanded the system's available RAM for certain games specifically programmed for it. Initially only came in a 1 MB version, but a (mostly) backwards-compatible 4 MB version was also released. Utilized almost exclusively by ports of arcade fighting games to increase the animation quality and/or reduce load times. The cart was only released in Japan, but it is not region locked in any way and still compatible with the NA/PAL versions of games and consoles.
  • VideoCD Playback card: A cart that has a built-in MPEG-1 accelerator inside, allowing the playback of VideoCDs, but can also be used by games to play back FMV. It plugs into the expansion port on the back of the Saturn instead and thus can be used in tandem with a RAM Expansion Cart. Third party versions may also support Photo CDs.
  • Sega NetLink: An online service that allowed for network play for select games and internet browsing. Required a 28.8k modem accessory to use.


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  • Alliterative Title: The full name of the console.
  • Americans Hate Tingle: In a complete inversion of what happened with the Genesis/Mega Drive, the Saturn was a success in Japan, where it holds the record as Sega's top-selling console of all time, with most of the Cult Classic titles being exclusive to the country. It was a flop pretty much everywhere else for a variety of reasons.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: One of the main reasons for the console's failure was that it was too complicated for its own good. It had two 32-bit processors, which sounds impressive, but they weren't properly linked together and required extreme technical knowledge to get anywhere with. The quadrangular polygons on paper would strongly reduce the effect of texture warping and give better representation for round objects, but required extra work for any porting jobs and made modelling even more difficult due to the entire industry already being used to triangular polygons. Finally, the two VDP chips were extremely sophisticated and allowed the system to handle backgrounds and polygon and sprite mixtures easier (as seen in games like Bulk Slash), but resulted in further complexity and difficult with transparency effects. All this resulted in games generally looking and running worse, despite the system being technically superior in most ways to the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. However, a few developers got over this handicap, with later games for the system such as Panzer Dragoon Saga, PowerSlave, Last Bronx, and the unreleased beta (yes, that is running on hardware) of Shenmue showcasing its potential.
  • Dada Ad: The marketing team for the Saturn in North America didn't quite make it known they were advertising a video game system—let alone the Saturn. The initial promo video for the Saturn, clocking in at 9 minutes, is notorious for not making any sense at all.
  • Damn You, Muscle Memory!: The Japanese Saturn controller had a very similar design to the Genesis'/Mega Drive's six-button control pad, so it was fairly comfortable to use. The launch controller for the North American Saturn was almost as badly-designed as the Original Xbox's "Duke" controller, with a bulky shape, an uncomfortable concave d-pad, and fragile shoulder buttons. It was quickly abandoned for the sleeker Japanese design.
  • Dueling Works: Sony and Namco had great success with their respective Ridge Racer and Tekken franchises, which were essentially ripoffs of Sega's Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter. Tekken in particular had much-cooler characters with their own lore, and it's still going strong today.
  • Ghost in the Machine: What seems to be the point of the American launch ad, titled "Theater of the Eye", although it wasn't exclusively the mind portrayed. It focuses on how the Sega Saturn will make you weep uncontrollably, lose your hearing, have a nervous breakdown, and also make your bowels move violently.
  • Keep Circulating the Tapes: The Saturn has to be hit the hardest with this out of all major video game consoles. Due to its architecture, Saturn emulation is notoriously difficult even on high end, top of the line PCs. Additionally, a lot of the Saturn games SEGA themselves have made have long since had their source code lost, making porting them to PC a much more challenging task since the code would be need to be reworked from the ground up. And that's even if SEGA themselves still see any value in it, as SEGA themselves largely tend to ignore the Saturn when discussing their consoles. So far, the only inhouse port of a Saturn game has been NiGHTS into Dreams…, with any other remake either having been outsourced or an officially endorsed Fan Remake, such as the case for Panzer Dragoon.
  • Meaningful Name: The Sega Saturn's name has two possible meanings:
    • It was Sega's sixth stand-alone home console, following the SG-1000, SG-1000 II, the Sega Mark III, the Master System (Mark IV) and the Mega Drive (Mark V). Saturn is, of course, the sixth planet in the solar system, making it the "Mark VI" (this ignores that the SG-1000 II was just an external redesign of the original SG-1000 and not a new system, that the Master System was an external redesign of the Mark III originally for western markets and also not a new system, and the entire existence of the Master System II, which is yet another external redesign of the same hardware as the Mark III/Master System. Not to mention that the Genesis was also given a mid-life redesign).
    • It's a reference to other Sega platforms developed after the Genesis with planetary themed codenames, which included the Mercury (Game Gear), Venus (Genesis Nomad), Mars (Genesis 32X) and the unreleased Jupiter (a scrapped prototype to the Saturn). Other scrapped platforms with planetary codenames included the Neptune (a hybrid Genesis/32X console) and the Pluto (an unreleased redesign of the Sega Saturn with a built-in modem adapter).
  • Moe Anthropomorphism: The Sega Saturn has a Sega Hard Girls representative with the same name. Sega Saturn is one of the three main characters (along with Dreamcast and Mega Drive), but she is the Butt-Monkey of them, likely referencing the console's own Troubled Production, particularly outside Japan. She also refuses to visit America, referencing her namesake's commercial failure there.
  • No Export for You: A large quantity of games and peripherals were released in Japan exclusively, including the RAM expansion cartridges and their compatible titles, which included arcade perfect ports of X-Men vs. Street Fighter and Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter. And that's not even getting into all the 2D games and JRPGs (3D or otherwise) that didn't meet Bernie Stolar's strict standards by virtue of not being action or sports games. Thankfully, games from any region can be played by inserting the Action Replay Plus cartridge, so it's all just a matter of importing the games themselves.
  • Product Facelift:
    • The Saturn went through two versions with minor cosmetic differences, with the original having oval-shaped power and reset buttons while the second model has round buttons. There is also a small difference between the first versions of the Japanese Saturn and the later version that originally shipped to other markets (the original gray Saturns had a vent on the right side of the console and internally placed the power supply on the top half of the shell instead of on the bottom - the vent being the ventilation for the top-mounted power supply).
    • The western Saturn ditched the smooth, comfortable pad of the original Japanese controller for an ugly, lumpy mess. The concave D-pad was murder on a thumb, as were the rounded buttons, and the cheaply-made shoulder buttons were highly-prone to breakage. Sega quickly wised up and replaced this pad with the original controller design as the default pad, but by then, most players had demo'ed the games using a more cumbersome controller.
  • Sprite/Polygon Mix: In addition to the typical mix of 2D sprites juxtaposed against 3D models common to the generation, the Saturn was able to juxtapose sprites and 3D polygons in more seamless and inventive ways (e.g. Radiant Silvergun).
  • Take That!:
    • Like the Genesis before it, the North American ads for the Saturn frequently called out the competition. The commercial for NiGHTS is one such example, dissing the PS1 as unable to handle a game like it due to only having one processor. It tops off the ad by having a PS1 thrown off a skyscraper.
      "Fly, Plaything, fly. You're not ready."
    • Another Saturn commercial took shots (literally) at the then-released N64, referring to it as "Pretendo," and mocking it for its then-small library. The commercial ends with the N64 being used for skeet shooting.
  • What Could Have Been:
    • Sega Enterprises in Japan were working on a revised version of the Saturn codenamed Pluto, which could have potentially saved the console in the North American market. The idea was to integrate a lot of the discrete components into a single ASIC, which would have reduced the price of the console considerably, as well as introduce a built-in modem for Sega to push online play. It was scrapped for reasons unknown, but most fans agree that it’s because, like the 32X and the original Saturn, the Saturn 2 was being developed in parallel with the Dreamcast, and the latter looked more promising in the end. It's also likely that the console was shot down by Bernie Stolar on principle, as its primary goal was to reduce the price of the Saturn in North America.
    • According to this Game Hut video, the choice of having a Motorola 68000 CPU to drive the sound chip was to enable the possibility of backwards compatibility with Sega Genesis games. However, the idea was ditched sometime in the development of the Saturn.


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Segata Sanshiro

Foolish children who play baseball over Sega Saturn should be punished!

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