The Video Game Critic's Console Reviews
Saturn (1995-1998)

Manufacturer: Sega
Format: CD
Controller Ports: 2
Save Capability: Internal Memory Storage, Memory Cartridge
Number of games: 245+
Video Output: RF, Composite, S-Video
Initial Price: $400

system

Cherished by its devoted fans but doomed to an early demise, the Saturn had too many cards stacked against it from the start. Fresh on the tails of its 32X fiasco, Sega desperately wanted to start anew with this full-fledged 32-bit system, but the damage had been done. Even seasoned gamers (like myself) were reluctant to give Sega the benefit of the doubt. In an ill-advised attempt to steal Sony's thunder, Sega released the Saturn several months ahead of the much-anticipated Sony Playstation launch. The Saturn's early games were less than compelling however, and when compared to the Playstation launch titles, the system looked overmatched. Sega attributed the slow start to the long learning curve necessary for developers to harness the awesome power of the system. It soon became apparent however that the Saturn's 3D graphic capabilities were substantially weaker than the Playstation's. In addition, the Saturn's dual-processor architecture was difficult to program, deterring many third-party publishers and delaying many high-profile games. The Saturn did eventually land some excellent titles, but by that time the Playstation had already pulled far ahead in the race. As the late 90's dawned, the Saturn slowly faded from the scene.

The Saturn console was substantially larger and sturdier than the Playstation, but lacked innovation. The system was the first (and probably the last) to accept both CDs and cartridges, but the role of the cartridge slot was never really clear. The Saturn used internal memory storage to save games, but it was so limited in space that most gamers required the optional memory cartridge. The black Saturn controller resembles its Genesis six-button counterpart, except the top buttons are complemented by a pair of shoulder buttons. With its conservative design and lukewarm launch lineup, the Saturn didn't make a lot of noise out of the gate.

Having been burned by Sega in the past, many third-party publishers balked at the Saturn. Most of the system's best titles were developed by Sega, including Panzer Dragoon, Virtual Cop 2, Burning Rangers, and Sega Rally. The Saturn's 3D visuals looked rough compared to the Playstation, but the system was lauded for its 2D prowess. In fact, many hardcore fighting fans prefer the Saturn versions of 2D brawlers like Street Fighter Alpha and Marvel Super Heroes. The Saturn is easy to collect games for, with many still available new and at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, the tall plastic cases that house the games are cheap and tend to crack, making it hard to find used titles in mint condition.

controller My personal memories of the Saturn involve my longtime buddy Eric, who opted for a Saturn over the Playstation for Christmas 1995. I had purchased a Playstation in November of that year, and for weeks I tried to convince Eric to go with the Playstation instead. He was convinced however that a Sega system would deliver far better sports titles, which he preferred. Unfortunately his assumption proved incorrect. The early Sega Saturn sports games were fairly awful, and Electronic Arts delayed its Saturn sports titles for months at a time. I still remember Eric calling EA out of desperation to obtain the latest release dates for upcoming games. Years later, Eric relented and bought himself a Playstation. Ironically, he gave me his Saturn, and I've been enjoying it ever since.

Console design: A-. Thick, heavy, black, and boxy, the Saturn's conservative design was a natural progression from Sega's Genesis/Sega CD combo. Unfortunately, the game-saving aspect of the system was not thought out very well. The internal memory storage was terribly limited, prompting Sega to release a memory cartridge that provided a far more generous amount of space. The front of the system featured two controller ports, with reset and power buttons residing on the top. Up to ten controllers could be attached to the system via the optional "multi-tap" accessories. A cartridge slot is situated behind the CD lid, but even Sega seemed confused about its purpose initially. Ultimately the slot was only used for memory cartridges and "cheat" devices such as the Gameshark and Pro Action Replay.

Console durability: A-. Despite its pop-top lid, the Saturn has proven to be a very sturdy machine, and its CD mechanism is better than most. The only problem I've ever heard about is how the internal memory can stop functioning over the years.

Controllers: C. Like the console itself, the Saturn controller was unremarkable. Basically an oversized version of the Genesis six-button controller, it also incorporated two shoulder buttons which I always thought felt somewhat squishy. In 1997, Sega would introduce a redesigned controller and package it with its new "Nights Into Dreams" game. Dubbed the "Saturn 3D Controller", it was oversized and round in shape, with improved shoulder buttons and a brand new analog control stick on the left side. The new controller was quite comfortable and backward compatible with old Saturn games. While it was introduced much too late in the Saturn's life cycle to have a significant impact, it did serve as a prototype of sorts for the forthcoming Dreamcast controller.

box Media: A. The CD media proved to be ideal, and most Saturn games exhibit acceptable load times.

Packaging: D. The long, plastic boxes used to house Saturn games look good, and Eric used to always mention how they made him feel like "he was getting something for his money". Unfortunately, the quality of the plastic is the absolute worst, and it breaks very easily. I can recall on more than one occasion when Eric became infuriated after buying a brand new $50 game at a store, only to get home and discover the case was cracked! Across the ocean, Japanese Saturn games were sold in standard CD cases, with a slick black and gold color scheme.

Games: C+. Despite getting off to a slow start, the Saturn compiled a respectable library of games, although it's modest in size compared to the Playstation's. Many 3D polygon titles tend to look somewhat ragged, but gems like Die Hard Arcade, Mass Destruction, and Daytona USA really hit the mark. The Saturn's sports selection took a while to get up to speed, but eventually offered terrific versions of popular titles like World Series Baseball and Madden Football. The Saturn is highly regarded for its excellent 2D games, including Night Warriors, Shinobi Legions, and In the Hunt. For hardcore collectors, a number of outstanding 2D shooters are available via import, including the legendary Radiant Silvergun. Remarkably, Sega's famous mascot Sonic the Hedgehog never made much of a splash on the Saturn. Apparently the system couldn't provide the horsepower to produce a legitimate high-speed, 3D Sonic title. Sonic Blast, Sonic R, and Sonic Jam were decent Saturn entries, but felt more like stopgap measures. Only when Sonic Adventure arrived on the Dreamcast in 1999 did the hedgehog truly fulfill his 3D destiny.

Graphics: C. Many early Saturn games looked clunky and were serious disappointments. Titles like Virtua Fighter 2 and Daytona USA paled compared to their arcade counterparts and equivalent Playstation titles like Battle Arena Toshinden and Ridge Racer. Although the games did improve with time, the quality of the 3D graphics never could match the Playstation, and most third-party titles (particularly sports games) looked and played better on the Playstation.

Audio: A. Making full use of its CD quality audio, the Saturn supports full Dolby Surround Sound.

Collectability: C+. The Saturn has a number of interesting and exclusive titles worth owning. The system itself is relatively inexpensive, although acquiring the best games can run into money. If you're into Japanese imports, you'll have a much wider selection of titles to choose from. It should be noted however, that although most import games can be run out of the box with "cheat" devices like the Gameshark, certain imports require additional memory provided by the Pro Action Replay Plus.

Innovations: Both a CD compartment and a cartridge slot, memory cartridge, 9 button controller
Pros and Cons:
+ Many fun exclusive titles
+ Systems durable and easy to acquire
+ Strong 2D game lineup
- Mediocre 3D visuals
- Cheap plastic packaging
- Best games can be expensive

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