If you took a journey back in time to the early 90's, you could witness a console war of such proportions that contemporary clashes pale in comparison and can only be called petty squabbles. Two giants, Nintendo and Sega, fought for supremacy on the battlefields of the console market with the SNES and the Mega Drive/Genesis going head-to-head. Of course, as time passed, both companies were pressed to release successors to their systems, especially Sega whose image was tarnished by the less-than-spectacular CD add-on for their system. Sega is a peculiar company and such was its approach towards console development in the fifth, their penultimate generation of video game consoles. The need for new systems was increasing as both the SNES and the Mega Drive/Genesis were rapidly showing signs of aging. Knowing that their competitors, Nintendo and Sony, were already working on their consoles, Sega executives realized that they have to push a next generation system out, and they need to do it soon. As such, two projects were launched – Project Jupiter, started in 1993, which would later become the Sega Saturn, and Project Mars, started in 1994, which would culminate in the release of the Sega 32X, originally intended to be a Mega Drive/Genesis-based entry level next generation system able to satiate the need for 3D games before the Saturn is released, but eventually just another unsuccessful Mega Drive/Genesis add-on. This is the story of the former. The Hardware Sega Saturn Model 2 with the Model 2 Controller, image courtesy of Wikipedia.org Stylistically the Saturn takes many cues from its granddad – the Mega Drive/Genesis. Sharp and rounded edges, rectangles, circles and ovals are seamlessly blended into a big, sturdy-looking box – it’s clearly built to last and it looks bold. The controller ports are situated on its front face, all of the other ports are on the back of the system. On the top we can see the Power, Open and Reset buttons, the stylish, budging lid with a small window through which you can see the disc inside and a cartridge slot for expansions. The system has no memory card slots – it was one of the very first systems with on-board memory for save files, powered by a button battery held in a compartment at the back of the system. This memory makes the Saturn pretty collector-friendly – aside from a few games that required expansion RAM, the basic kit consisting of the cables, the controller and the system is all you’ll ever need to enjoy the gross majority of its library of games. The basic controller is very similar to that of the Mega Drive/Genesis, sporting seven function buttons labeled A, B, C, X, Y, Z and Start and a comfortable D-Pad. Additionally, the system has two shoulder buttons. Aside from the standard controller, the system also supports a variety of add-ons, both licensed by Sega and by third parties, including driving wheels, light guns, arcade controllers and joysticks, as well as the fabled 3D controller released later on which included an analog stick – the grandfather of the Dreamcast controller. If you like to customize your gaming experience, the Saturn will certainly cater to your needs. The Saturn was quite a powerhouse for its time. With the PlayStation looming over the horizon and Nintendo hard at work, Sega knew that nothing below par could possibly succeed on the market. Although originally the then Jupiter was supposed to be powered by a single SH-2 CPU, it was given an additional one, and later a second VDP as well, to ensure that whatever Sony had in-store could be matched or surpassed. The system became a PlayStation 3 of its time. With two CPU’s, two GPU’s and four additional processors you could only describe it in one way – immensely powerful, but heavily over-engineered. With the same breath it has to be said that it was also very much prophetic, as today multi-CPU, multi-GPU development is something we usually take for granted. From the graphics side of things, Saturn is wrongly assumed to be a 2D powerhouse, but a poor 3D machine. In fact, the Saturn trumped both the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation in sheer geometry rendering prowess out-of-the-box. The system was capable of pushing 500 000 flat-shaded polygons or 300 000 textured ones. In comparison, the PlayStation could render 360 000 flat-shaded or 180 000 textured poly's while the Nintendo 64 was able to render 150 000 flat-shaded polygons and around 100 000 textured ones using standard Nintendo microcode – it technically could render more than the Saturn, but it required customizing microcode or utilizing Turbo3D microcode which was outright banned by Nintendo. As far as 2D was concerned, the Saturn was a developer’s dream. With plenty of memory to store all the sprites, the option to expand this memory further via the cartridge slot and two co-processors dedicated to processing sprites and backgrounds, the system was capable of supporting 2D games of arcade quality with ease. Much like the Nintendo 64, the Saturn was also capable of rendering graphics at what was then considered “high resolution”. While the PlayStation mostly outputted at 320x240 with some exceptions at 640x480, the Nintendo 64 reached 640x480 without breaking a sweat and the Sega Saturn could output video at 640x480 and beyond at circa 60 FPS. This allowed for never-seen-before fluidity of motion and crisp graphics, as seen in the Saturn port of Virtua Fighter 2 which runs at a staggering resolution of 704x480 (NTSC)/704x512 (PAL) at 57.5 FPS – it’s something you just have to see for yourself. "The Saturn Cannot Triforce" With so much horsepower at their fingertips, why did developers complain in regards to Saturn game development? There’s a number of reasons which I’ll briefly explore. Firstly, the system was very exotic, the complex architecture posed a difficulty for developers and often required engines to be re-coded from the ground up to squeeze the most out of the peculiar hardware. Programming for multiple processors was not commonplace at the time and it didn’t help that both CPU’s utilized the same bus and as such could not access memory registers at the same time - to combat this problem, each of the processors was given 4kB of cache memory. Yu Suzuki, the mind behind the Virtua Fighter series commented on this problem saying that “Only 1 out of 100 programmers are good enough” to utilize both effectively, and history proves his assertion to be true. Saturn development was difficult and to push the system to its limits, developers had to learn how to parallelize their code. Unfortunately, this was not something they particularly wanted to do, which is why plenty of Saturn games simply use only one of the two processors, keeping the other one sleeping soundly. Secondly, at the time of its release, the Saturn lacked in software libraries and development tools – this hindered development as it required programmers to experiment. The problem was later mended by Sega by releasing standardized 3D libraries wrapped into an OS. Unfortunately, there were some other issues which could not be mended by software and sprang from the Saturn’s design. The Saturn did not support UV coordinates which caused texture clipping issues, but more importantly, the “Saturn Cannot Triforce”, or rather, the “Saturn Cannot Triangle” in general. The system was designed in an era when 3D development was still in its infancy and development standards were not yet set in stone. It was designed to render quadrilateral polygons, not triangular polygons which we use today - it was this attribute of the hardware that gave Virtua Fighter its specific, blocky, yet endearing style. To generate a triangular face, the developers had to “waste” one vertice by setting its position to “0,0,0” - by doing so, they could render quadrilateral faces which appeared to be triangular. This forced developers to re-work their textures and made multiplatform development more time-consuming. In some games, this provided a better approximation of perspective and lowering the total polygon count in comparison to other platforms – rectangular faces could be generated as one quadrilateral instead of two triangles. In other games where triangles could not be replaced, it caused issues, as seen in the Sega Saturn port of Tomb Raider by Core Design. If that wasn't enough problems, the VDP's of the Saturn were aged and complicated to use, especially for hardware-accelerated effects such as transparency or light sources, while the other two systems could render them perfectly fine. As such, the Saturn had to make-due with frame buffer tricks and other programming work-arounds. The Saturn also had no means of hardware-based video decompression, which posed difficulties when using FMV's. "But Foxi, the Saturn has No Games!" That was all history and hardware talk – hardly good reasons to own a video game system. What really matters for gamers are the games and unfortunately, in this regard the Saturn is often overlooked – wrongly so. The Saturn has plenty of games, 596 of them in fact, and a slew of them are exclusives with an arcade flair rarely seen on any other system – a trademark of the machine. These few are specifically worth your attention, but I’m merely touching the tip of the ice berg – the platform has loads more to offer. Burning Rangers Burning Rangers is a game about as peculiar as the system it’s on. It’s an action game in which we take charge of one of the firefighters of the future, the titular Burning Rangers, and venture into the depths of buildings ablaze, rescuing hostages and putting down fires in the rhythm of the catchy soundtrack. Interestingly, you are not given any form of a map to aid you in your exploration – instead, you have to listen to the instructions of your navigator while simultaneously using your sense of hearing to avoid traps. It’s one of those games that you have to try at least once – it’s very original, very entertaining, very arcade-like and well-suited for the Saturn. Panzer Dragoon Zwei Imagine you were to play StarFox, except instead of the spaceships you were flying on dragons. Yup, huge primordial beasts floating way up in the air, and you’re riding one. It’s a sequel to the Saturn’s launch title Panzer Dragoon, featuring numerous engine improvements, buttery freamerates, addicting, fast-paced gameplay and beautiful, high resolution graphics. This game literally could not be any cooler, and with the upcoming spiritual successor entitled Crimson Dragon on its way to the XBox One, it’s worth to have a go at this game and see where it all came from. Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition ROLLING STAAAART! Yep, it’s that game – it’s Daytona USA, the arcade-est of all arcade racing games. This reworked edition of the game includes an improved engine with reduced pop-in and 3D Controller compatibility, additional cars, tracks and the same, beloved soundtrack along with its remixes. If you like arcade racers, you’ll like Daytona USA - a lot. Virtua Cop 2 If you ever wished to be a cop with infinite ammunition and loads of crooks to shoot, Virtua Cop 2 will help you realize those dreams of total carnage. From bank robberies to intense car chases, the game has it all and it will keep you on the edge of your seat all the way through. It’s one of the best rail shooters ever made – it’s fast-paced, it has a great soundtrack, it has bosses, it has a variety of weapons, in short, it has everything a rail shooter fan needs to squee in glee. NiGHTS into Dreams… You can’t even begin to talk about the Sega Saturn without talking about NiGHTS. If Super Mario 64 was Nintendo’s vision on how the player is supposed to move in 3D space then NiGHTS was Sega’s. In short, the game is about Nightopia and Nightmare, two parts of the dream world and the struggle against Nightmare as it tries to take over and eventually seep into the real world. Elliot and Claris, the protagonists of the game take command of Nights, a Nightmaren creature created by the evil Wizeman who betrayed his master as it learned of his plot to take over the world and do their best to save both realms… which involves flying through hoops. The game is as fun as it is bizzare and it does give the player an odd sense of flight, if that makes sense. This game was bundled with the 3D Controller and uses it extensively, but it can be played with the standard Saturn gamepad as well. Why Did it Fail? There’s a number of reasons why the Saturn failed commercially. Despite the development difficulties, the Sega Saturn managed to enjoy a consistent flow of video game releases which only slowed down close to its discontinuation date, most its problems actually laid in the system’s marketing as well as in Sega's previous, unusccessful hardware ventures. Originally the 32X and the Saturn were supposed to be sold concurrently, the 32X being the low-end, entry level machine and the Saturn being the high-end "true" next generation system. Unfortunately, the 32X never reached a sustainable level of popularity and was subsequently canned. Neither the 32X nor the Sega CD/Mega CD were successful on the market which caused doubts in the minds of Sega's customers. People didn't know if this was the real deal, if the Saturn was going to be supported or not and whether or not it will be canned in a few months, and those doubts severely stalled hardware sales. The Saturn was pretty successful on its home turf in Japan but failed miserably outside of it, quickly losing momentum to the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. The marketing miscommunication was particularly harmful to it in North America, where during E3 1995, Sega of America’s president Tom Kalinske announced that the system was available in stores effective immediately instead of sticking by the planned date of 2nd of September 1995, dubbed “Saturnday”. With little games and consoles in stock, retailers simply weren’t ready to begin distributing the machine and some were so downright offended by this move that they refused to distribute it at all. In Europe, the release date was far too close to the PlayStation’s, effectively diverting attention from Sega’s system. Poor marketing led to losing ground to the competition – the Saturn never enjoyed the popularity of its predecessor. The Saturn’s saving grace was its homeland – Japan, where Segata Sanshiro, the console’s mascot karateka went viral and effectively marketed it nation-wide – God bless his soul, may he rest in peace. Emulation, Backups and Homebrew There are two Sega Saturn emulators available online – the multi-platform Yabause and PC-only SSF, the latter being almost perfectly accurate. That being said, the Saturn is a particularly difficult system to emulate – there’s nothing quite like owning the real deal, at least in my opinion. As for the Backups... The Sega Saturn features a rather interesting anti-piracy measure. The discs, aside from the data and music sections, feature a special ring burned into them. This ring cannot be replicated on a standard CD burner as it’s more like an image on the surface of the disc than actual data. This however can be countered by performing a swap trick using an original Saturn game – once the ring is read, most games will work perfectly fine. The only modification required is taping down the button responsible for detecting whether the lid is open or closed – all you need is a screwdriver and a bit of duct tape. If you don’t want to bother with swapping or don’t want to stress the motor too much, Sega Saturn modchips are available online and affordable – they won’t set you back more than $30-40. The modchip will feed the system with the security ring data when it requests it, nullifying the problem. That being said, it will not make the system region free - your burnt backups will have to match your system's region, so use Saturn Region Patcher to make sure that they match. You can also disable the check using a Sega Saturn System Disc – there are two available online, coded KD01 and KD02 for first and third-party games respectively. By booting those with a swap trick, you can disable the security check entirely for all subsequent reboots of the system until you power it off fully. Compatibility is spotty, but it’s still worth a try. As far as Homebrew for the system is concerned the Saturn's scene is rather small, but it does see periodical releases despite the system's complexity. The Saturn was fortunate enough to be the subject of an annual coding contest called C4 which ran between 2005 and 2007 and resulted in a couple interesting pieces being released. The Homebrew library of the system includes a Sega Master System emulator SMS Plus, a Sierra AGI emulator Sarien, an Atari 2600 emulator by VBT, a FinalBurn Alpha port, a couple of interesting homebrew games such as Virtua Mario and a slew of demos. When dealing with Sega Saturn homebrew, it's worth to download a special tool called Atlas by The Rockin'-B. Atlas allows you to pack up to 50 Saturn games, applications and demos onto one disc, greatly facilitating booting and minimizing disc-shuffling. The video above contains entries from the 2006 C4 contest, it's worth a look. If for whatever reason you are interested in Sega Saturn software development today, Game Basic might be a tool to your liking. The set consists of a special cable, a disc with PC tools, a Saturn disc and two hefty instruction booklets with everything you needed to know about coding for the platform. Unfortunately, it beats me where you could find one of those today, so it's more of an interesting tidbit. That being said, the Game Basic kit gave birth to a large number of fun homebrew pieces, including Virtua Mario. Seeing that you're unlikely to find the above kit easily aside from the occasional, rare EBay auctions, I'm afraid that the only other option is plowing through the numerous tomes of documentation about the system - there's quite a bit of it online, along with the proper tools of the trade. What do I Need With it? If you’re planning on playing original import games, you might want to purchase an Action Replay cartridge. It features an additional RAM pack which allows for compatibility with the few titles that need more memory than the stock Saturn provides, memory for additional save states, cheat codes for various games but most importantly, a region unlocker allowing you to boot games from any region on your system. If you don’t want to bother with one, you can use Saturn Region Patcher to change the game’s region and burn backup discs with ease. If imports are not your thing, the basic set is more than sufficient to provide you with hours upon hours of fun. But Foxi, Would I *Really* Want One? Do you like unique games? If you answered “yes” then you should open a new tab in your browser and start looking for one already. The Saturn is available cheaply and for a system which didn’t sell too many units, there’s a vast number of various revisions available. Ideally you’d want a Model 1 since it features a drive access light, making disc swapping a breeze to perform, but if you plan on only playing original copies, the world is your oyster – there’s revisions a-plenty, especially Japanese ones, both from Sega themselves as well as from Hitachi and Samsung. With its library of exclusive games and its arcade feel, the Saturn is definitely a console you won’t regret buying. It’s a piece of gaming history and although it was an underdog in its respective generation, today it has a lot to offer to retro game collectors. There’s just nothing quite like the Saturn out there and its advertising campaign was true to its word – the Saturn is ready for the future, and that future is now.