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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 

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Launched on November 22, 1994, the Sega Saturn was Sega's entry into the fifth console generation. It ultimately wound up being the reason 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. It was originally intended to be a 2D gaming platform which would surpass Sega's competitors. However, the industry was getting jazzed about Polygonal Graphics, and Sega realized their next console should include just that. After all, it was Sega's own arcade fighter Virtua Fighter which set the standard. The problem is that the original Saturn model was barely better than the failed 32X in that regard, never mind the rumored capabilities of the then-upcoming PlayStation and Nintendo 64, for that matter. Nintendo and Sony would have left the Saturn eating dirt.

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Once the U.S. 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. Instead of redesigning the console to make it powerful enough to handle 3D, Sega just slapped on a duplicate CPU and graphics card. Not as dumb as it sounds, 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 adapted the Saturn hardware into their Titan Video (ST-V) arcade board. Back in 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.

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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 notable 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. On paper, the Saturn should have topped the PS1 in terms of 3D graphics, but poor understanding on how to program graphics on a system with multiple processors 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 cancelled 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 console was specifically built with 2D in mind.

As typical for Sega, the console suffered from Right Hand Versus Left Hand turmoil and miscommunication between Sega Enterprises in Japan and Sega of America. The Japanese branch developed the Saturn without even telling the American branch, and in fears that the Saturn wouldn't be ready for a late '94 launch (it would), suggested the latter develop what would become the 32X as a countermeasure to the Atari Jaguar, which they would, only to abandon the add-on (and slashed its price 90%) once the Saturn announcement dropped. Americans weren't amused, and most consumers opted to skip the Saturn and later the Sega Dreamcast. Also, Sega of America's greater acclaim with the Genesis/Mega Drive sowed resentment and jealousy over in the Japanese offices: set on proving that they could do better, they refused to accept any help or ideas from their American counterparts on improving the Saturn design, and occasionally outright sabotaged their efforts since Sega wanted sole credit if the Saturn was successful at home. One of Sega's initial plans for their next-gen system involved a 3D graphics chip designed by Silicon Graphics. However, this deal was crafted by Sega of America, so it was quickly shot down when they presented it to Sega, which pissed off SG since they had sunk considerable resources into the design. When they asked Sega of America president and CEO Tom Kalinske what they should do, he suggested they take it to another gaming company, which they did: their chip became the basis for the Nintendo 64. Both consoles ended up losing ground to the PlayStation, but the N64 moved a lot more product than the Saturn.

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 U.S. 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. Nowadays, a developer would be crazy not to use a pre-existing engine for multiple projects if it fit their needs due the rising costs of game development: for example, the "Hedgehog Engine" created for later Sonic games would see use in everything from MMOs, to tactical RPGs, to even puzzle games. But all of the behind-the-scenes stories about Naka paint him as an ambitious man who alienated the other creative minds at Sega. This video series covers the X-treme comedy in detail.

Tom Kalinske, who was responsible for the international success of the Genesis/Mega Drive and brought Sega out of the dark ages, knew the Saturn was doomed to failure in the West, even if his Japanese employers didn't. His request to delay the international launch so they could build a substantial software library to better compete with Sony was not only ignored, but he was ordered to release the console even earlier than originally planned. Kalinske knew that this was a terrible idea, and had already handed in his notice by the time he announced the surprise same day release, so he wouldn't be around to suffer the consequences of dropping a lemon onto the public. And the consequences were dire.

Both developers 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" (September 2, 1995). 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 catalogs altogether. The Saturn launched even earlier 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: "$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 96,note  which would have at least kept a major license out of Sony's and Nintendo's hands for a year.

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-sizable 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 U.S. 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. Another own-goal on Sega's part was stupidly trying to force the Saturn brand and not spread things around. They mothballed the still-profitable Genesis/Mega Drive and Game Gear, which Majesco (of BloodRayne and Cooking Mama fame) then scooped up and sold shortly thereafter.

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 then 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 U.S. 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 (most notably 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, and Emulation of the Saturn remains difficult due to its complex architecture.note 


Specs:

Processors

  • 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.

Memory

  • 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.

Graphics

  • 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. 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 abitrary 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.
  • 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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Tropes:

  • 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. It was a flop pretty much everywhere else for a variety of reasons.
  • Dada Ad: The marketing team for the Saturn in the U.S. 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 U.S. 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. Because that's what you want to happen when you play a game console.
  • 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's commercial failure there.
  • No Export for You: A large quantity of games and peripherals were only 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.
  • 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 stupidly 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 shitty controller.
  • Take That!:
    • Like the Genesis before it, the U.S. 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 Japan were working on a revised version of the Saturn codenamed Pluto, which could have potentially saved the console in the U.S. 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 the U.S.
    • 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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