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Useful Notes / 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 


The Saturn, Sega's entry into The Fifth Generation of Console Video Games, had originally been intended to be a 2D multimedia gaming device and the system that would surpass their competitors. Unfortunately, so many things went wrong.

Developers had just gotten excited about polygonal graphics, and Sega realized their next system should have that. The irony is that it was their own Virtua Fighter that got developers excited. The problem was, the original Saturn design had 3D capabilities that were barely any better than those of the 32X, and the rumoured capabilities of the then-upcoming Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 would have left the Saturn eating dirt.

Instead of redesigning the system to make it powerful enough to handle 3D, Sega just slapped on a duplicate Central Processing Unit and a duplicate graphics card. This is retroactively ironic, because CPUs with multiple cores are the norm in video game consoles and PCs today; back in 1995, however, having entirely separate units just upped the cost and the complexity of the system. In addition to that, the graphics card itself had some technical issues – discussed in detail below. The complex hardware setup prevented most game programmers from exploiting its full processing power, though multiple CPUs were nothing new to veteran arcade game developers like Sega, who also adapted the Saturn hardware into their Titan Video (ST-V) arcade board.


While not ironic, the system was also suffering from a legacy of mismanagement from Sega, particularly a lack of communication between Sega of Japan and Sega of America. Sega of Japan launched the Saturn without telling Sega of America, so Sega of America created the 32X and got everyone on that bandwagon, took their money, and then they were told that the Sega Saturn was being released. The 32X was soon abandoned (and its price slashed 90%), which pissed Sega's customers off. This started a lack of trust between Sega and its Western fanbase that led to many of them skipping the Saturn (and eventually, the Dreamcast).

More consequential for the system's failure was its lack of a Killer App – i.e. a new Sonic the Hedgehog game that wasn't a Spinoff.note  This was also because of mismanagement and poor communication. Sonic Team over in Japan heard that the California-based crew developing Sonic X-treme was using the engine Sonic Team made for NiGHTS into Dreams.... Sonic Team complained, forcing the Sonic X-treme team to make a new engine from scratch, but they were not able to do so in the alloted time and the game was scrapped.note  That the creators of Sonic did not want a developer using their own engine to make a Sonic game is a mistake by itself. But it's also ironic in retrospect because, nowadays, a developer would be crazy to not use a preexisting engine if it fit their needs, due the rising cost of game development upon entering the seventh generation of consoles. Indeed, most recent Sonic games do exactly that, whether it be repurposing their own Rush engine or Wreaking Havok for better and for worse.


Perhaps worse for Sega from a global standpoint was their decision to hire Bernie Stolar, fresh from being fired by Sony Computer Entertainment America for his draconian and inconsistent policies, directly into the position of CEO for Sega of America upon the retirement of longtime head Tom Kalinske. Stolar proceeded to start up a "Five-Star game" policy (which in practice just allowed him to veto whatever he damn well wanted) and basically took the axe to the Saturn. His policies drove away almost all of the American third party developers, blocked a metric ton of high quality games from being released stateside due to his thinly veiled "no 2D" attitude – again ironic, considering that most of the 2D games were miles above the system's 3D games in terms of presentation and general quality – and downplayed the Saturn as being dead in the water, giving the finger to the relatively small but still sizable fanbase. This infuriated many within and outside the industry, considering Sega had spent years building up a reputation – especially in the previous console generation – of being very friendly, supportive, and open with third-party developers, at least in comparison to Nintendo.

From all that, Sega lost about $270 million on the Saturn, and the system sold just 11 million units worldwide. It did do well in Japan, mostly thanks to the great advertising campaign involving Segata Sanshiro, a judo master who beat the living crap of everyone who doesn't play Sega Saturn, and has a considerable library there (in Japan, the Saturn was the favorite console of its generation for bishoujo games and Visual Novel ports, in part because Sega was more permissive than Sony or Nintendo about releasing 18-rated games with nudity). Too bad Sega still doesn't see the point of localizing them or porting them to current systemsnote . They would find a great home on the Nintendo DS, Play Station Network, Xbox Live Arcade, Virtual Console and PC.

On the other hand, the relative lack of ports/remakes for Saturn games has made it a must-own Cult Classic system for hardcore retro-gamers, especially now that they can easily look up the good games on the Internet. Too bad said games usually don't come cheap.



  • 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 in Japan only) 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.


  • 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.
  • Unlike virtually every other 3D-capable console or computer ever made, the Saturn used quadrilateral (rectangular) shapes in its 3D rendering, rather than the more traditionally used triangles. While this had some notable advantages (reduced texture warping, better representation of round objects), quadrilaterals were nothing short of nightmarish to work with in games, even moreso when you considered how hard it was already to create games for the Saturn. Moreover, it made it impossible to do direct ports of games from the PlayStation and Nintendo 64.
  • Overall, the Saturn could potentially have topped the PlayStation in terms of 3D graphics, but poor understanding on how to program graphics on a system with multiple processors at the time led to most multi-port games looking not as good compared to versions on the Nintendo 64 or PlayStation. While the system didn't last long enough to prove one way or the other, later titles like Sonic R and the cancelled port of Virtua Fighter 3 showed that the Saturn could do 3D very well with the right developers and programming tricks.
  • 2D was another story, however, as the system was built initially with 2D in mind. The Saturn was (save for a few effects) a vastly superior 2D device to the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Unfortunately, the above-mentioned mismanagement at Sega Of America – which wrote 2D off completely – ensured that nearly all the games that showed the Saturn's strengths as a 2D system off never left Japan… unless it was a Capcom fighting game or a Neo Geo port.

Notable Games/Series:

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  • Alliterative Title: The full name of the console.
  • Americans Hate Tingle: In a complete inversion of what happened with the Mega Drive/Genesis, the Saturn was a success in Japan (where it holds the record as Sega's best selling console of all time), while being a flop pretty much everywhere else.
  • Bald Women: One magazine ad features a woman with rings surrounding her denuded scalp. Likewise, the promotional video (see below) starts off with a bald (and nude) lady with rings encircling her head. Considering how shocking the trope can be, it's a good way to attract attention and invoke the image of Saturn.
  • Christmas Rushed: The Sega Saturn release in America was pushed forward in an attempt to get a lead on Sony's (then) new console; the PlayStation. This backfired, however, as developers weren't told (or weren't told soon enough), leaving pretty much nothing (at least, nothing that also wasn't rushed) to actually play on it until four months later, when it was supposed to launch.
    • Indeed, many retailers were caught by surprise as well: many of them had to scrape by with limited supplies to sell for months, and Sony took advantage of this while preparing for their own launch. In fact, it so angered KB Toys that they actually dropped Sega Saturn from their catalogue altogether.
    • A lot of developers were also turned off, as they had "Saturnday" (September 9) as the target date of completion for their games and were hoping they could get a piece of the inevitable Launch Day Craze.
    • The backfire was also notable for how immediate it was: at the conference where Sega announced the early release and launch price, the Sony representative who took the stage next only had to say that Playstation's launch price of $299 (a hundred dollars less than the Saturn) to make the crowd completely turn on the Saturn.
  • Create Your Own Villain: One of Sega's initial plans for their next-gen system involved a 3D graphics chip designed by Silicon Graphics. Unfortunately, this deal was crafted by Sega of America, and was quickly shot down when they brought it to Sega of Japan, entirely because of Sega of Japan's resentment towards the much greater success of their American colleagues. This naturally upset Silicon Graphics, who had invested considerable resources into the design. When they asked Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske what they should do after the deal fell through, Kalinske suggested they take it to another video game company, which they did, and their chip became the basis for the Nintendo 64.
  • Creator Killer: The Saturn fiasco and Stolar's detractors led to Sega firing him from the Sonic Studio, and he never got back into the main video game industry; he immediately jumped to Mattel.
  • Dada Ad: The initial promotional video for the Saturn, clocking in at 9 minutes, infamous for not making any sense at all.
  • Damn You, Muscle Memory!: The Japanese Sega Saturn controller was designed very similar to the Mega Drive's six button control pad, and was quite comfortable to use. The launch controller for the U.S. Saturn, on the other hand, was almost as badly designed as the "Duke" (the original Xbox controller), with a bulky, lumpy shape, an uncomfortable concave d-pad, bumpy buttons and cheaply made shoulder buttons to use. It was quickly abandoned for the much preferred Japanese design.
  • Ghost in the Machine: What seems to be the point of the 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. Because that's what you want to happen when you play a game console.
  • Irony: Once the Saturn's American ads finally started advertising it as a gaming system, one of them boasted about how the system 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 PS.
    • Even more harsh is that this design choice is often credited (or at least helping) in the move to multiple processors for consoles in the present... except the Saturn implemented it in such a way that it was literally all separate processors with very little cross-talk between them, thus making it difficult to work with. Nice going, Sega!
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Despite his numerous missteps, one of the reasons Bernie Stolar didn't give the Saturn much support was because he believed that it was poorly designed. As you've read above, the Saturn, while impressive sounding on paper, was not designed very well and was one of the reasons third-party developers didn't give it support.
  • 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".
    • 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 console's commercial failure there.
  • No Export for You: A large quantity of games and peripherals released in Japan only, 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…
  • 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.
    • The original western Saturn controller inexplicably ditched the smooth, comfortable pad of the original Japanese controller for a bulky, lumpy mess of a gamepad for no explicable reason. The Concave D-Pad was murder on a thumb, as were the bumpy thick buttons, and the cheaply made shoulder buttons were highly prone to failure. Sega quickly wised up and replaced this pad with the original controller design as the default pad for the console.
  • Scapegoat Creator: Bernie Stolar, often blamed for the downfall of the Saturn in America. As you can probably guess…
    • Misblamed: While Stolar is very much responsible for not allowing many Japanese games into the west and pushing the Dreamcast to be released, the rest of Sega of America (including whoever was hired to market the system in the U.S., see below) are just as guilty. In addition, by the time Stolar came, the Sega Saturn was already losing the market and most of the games he refused to allow official releases were niche genres in the US such as Shmups and dating sims. On the other hand, Stolar's vetoing of Eastern RPGs on the console just as Final Fantasy VII was kicking off the JRPG craze in the west, while giving sports titles (a genre that was waning in popularity at that time) a free pass instead, is said to be one of the main reasons the Saturn failed.
    • Stolar's predecessor Tom Kalinske, who ironically was the man that brought Sega out of the dark ages and into the spotlight, is just as much to blame, as it was he who set off the system's stealth launch - the outcome of which is documented above. Not helping matters was his notoriously smug public persona, which people were rapidly growing tired of.
  • Take That!: Like the Genesis before it, the US ads for the Saturn frequently took snipes at the competition. The commercial for NiGHTS into Dreams... is an example, dissing the PlayStation 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 at the then-released Nintendo 64, 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 Were They Selling Again?: The marketing team for the Saturn in the U.S. didn't quite make it well known they were advertising a video game system, let alone the Saturn.