Top: Western and Japanese Sega Saturn logos
Middle: Model 1 "Oval Button" NA console with model 1 controller
Bottom: Model 2 "Round Button" JP console and controller
|Type||Video game console|
|Generation||Fifth generation era|
|Units sold||9.5 million|
|CPU||2 × Hitachi SH-2 32-bit RISC (28.6 MHz)|
|Storage||Internal RAM, cartridge|
|Graphics||VDP1 & VDP2|
|Online services||Sega NetLink|
The Sega Saturn (セガサターン Sega Satān?) is a 32-bit fifth-generation video game console that was first released by Sega on November 22, 1994 in Japan, May 11, 1995 in North America and July 8, 1995 in Europe as the successor to the successful Sega Genesis. At the center of the Saturn is a dual-CPU architecture, with a total of eight processors. Its games are in CD-ROM format, and its game library contains a number of arcade ports as well as original titles.
Development of the Saturn began in the early 1990s, but significant changes were made to the system architecture late in development in response to the announcement of the Sony PlayStation. After the launch, Sega's upper management structure changed with the departures of chairman David Rosen and Sega of Japan CEO Hayao Nakayama from their roles in the American division, and Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske from the company altogether. This led to the additions of Shoichiro Irimajiri and Bernie Stolar to Sega of America, who guided the Saturn to its discontinuation in 1998 in North America, three years after its release. The failure of Sega's development teams to create a game in the Sonic the Hedgehog series, known in development as Sonic X-treme, was a contributing factor in the console's lack of success.
The Saturn sold 9.5 million units worldwide, and its installed base was over 6 million units in Japan, over 2 million in the United States, and over 970,000 in Western Europe. It is considered a commercial failure, contributing heavily to a $309 million loss for Sega by 1998, and another $450 million during 1998. Reception to the Saturn is mixed based on the console's game library and complex internal hardware. Sega's management has also been criticized for its decision-making on the system's development and cancellation.
Prior to development of the Saturn, the Sega Genesis was Sega's entry into the 16-bit era of video game consoles. It was released in Japan as the Mega Drive in 1988, North America in 1989, and Europe as the Mega Drive in 1990. In mid-1990, Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama hired Tom Kalinske as CEO of Sega of America. Kalinske developed a four-point plan for sales of the Genesis: cut the price of the console, create a U.S.-based team to develop games targeted at the American market, continue aggressive advertising campaigns, and pack Sonic the Hedgehog in with the console. The Japanese board of directors initially disapproved of the plan, but all four points were approved by Nakayama, who told Kalinske, "I hired you to make the decisions for Europe and the Americas, so go ahead and do it." Magazines praised Sonic as one of the greatest games yet made, and Sega's console finally took off as customers who had been waiting for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System decided to purchase a Genesis instead. However, the release of a CD-based add-on for the Genesis, the Sega CD (known as Mega-CD outside of North America), had been commercially disappointing.
Sega also experienced success with arcade games. The company's newest arcade system board in 1993, the Model 1, showcased 3D titles such as Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing, which impressed gamers. The Model 1 was an expensive system board, and bringing home releases of its games to the Genesis required more than its hardware could handle. Several alternatives helped to bring Sega's newest arcade games to the console, such as the Sega Virtua Processor chip used for Virtua Racing, and eventually the Sega 32X add-on.
After the release of the Genesis, Sega of Japan's research and development department began development on a new console in 1990, coined "GigaDrive" by Electronic Gaming Monthly. Drawn up to perform as a 2D console with some 3D capabilities, GigaDrive was designed for performance capabilities between those of Sega's System 32 and Model 1 arcade boards, would be powered by a single central processing unit (CPU), and would utilize CD-ROMs, similar to the Sega CD, for its games. However, GigaDrive would never make it to market.
According to Sega project manager Hideki Okamura, the Saturn project itself began with conception over two years before the system's release, and was named Saturn after the system's codename in development in Japan. At the release of the 3DO Interactive Multiplayer by The 3DO Company in 1993, Sega of America president Tom Kalinske claimed, "We have a more powerful machine waiting in the wings, but the time's not ready yet." In addition, Sega was concerned that the console marketplace may not have been ready for 3D technology.
In November 1993, Sony announced the release of the PlayStation. The PlayStation was intended to be a 3D-capable console, superior even to Sega's Model 1 arcade board. Observers indicated that Sony's new console appeared to be more powerful than the Saturn project. As a result of the announcement, Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama is said to have approached his research and development department team members and criticized them for allowing Sony to develop a console more powerful than theirs. According to a Sega of Japan employee, "There had been rumors, but Sony's announcement took a lot of people by surprise. It wasn't just the technology that worried people; it was the fact that Sony was planning to enter a market that Sega thought it would have completely to itself."
Sega redesigned the Saturn in a short amount of time. Its new architecture was designed with two SH-2 processors, as well as two video display processors (VDP). According to Sega of Japan developer Kazuhiro Hamada, the SH-2 was chosen for cost and efficiency reasons. Its additional functions with its second VDP chip were designed to utilize effects similar to Mode 7 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). The new redesigned Saturn's hardware and 3D capabilities were improved beyond the Model 1 and approached Sega's new Model 2 arcade board, which had not yet launched.
As development of the Saturn continued into 1994, the Genesis was starting to lag in its capabilities when compared to its main rival, the SNES and its newer games Super Metroid and Donkey Kong Country. With a release date for the Saturn still uncertain, Sega began to develop a stop-gap solution that would bridge the gap between the Genesis and the Saturn, and would serve as a less expensive entry into the 32-bit era. The decision to create a new system was made by Nakayama. According to former Sega of America producer Scot Bayless, Nakayama was worried that the Saturn would not be available until after 1994, as well as the recent release of the Atari Jaguar, and as a result the direction given was to have this second release to market by the end of the year. The 32X would not be compatible with the Saturn, but Sega executive Richard Brudvik-Lindner pointed out that the 32X would play Genesis titles, and has the same system architecture as the Saturn. This was justified by Sega's statement that both platforms would run at the same time, and that the 32X would be aimed at players who could not afford the more expensive Saturn. According to Sega of America research and development head Joe Miller, the 32X served a role in assisting development teams for software to familiarize themselves with the dual SH-2 architecture also used on the Saturn.
Sega released the Saturn in Japan on November 22, 1994, at a price of JP¥44,800. Virtua Fighter, a popular game on the Model 1 arcade board, sold at a nearly 1:1 ratio with the Saturn hardware at launch and was seen as an important potential system-seller. Within the first two days, the system sold over 250,000 units. Meanwhile, the 32X was released on November 21, 1994 in North America, December 3, 1994 in Japan, and January 1995 in PAL territories, and was sold at less than half of what the Saturn's price would be at launch. Rapidly after the holiday season, however, interest in the 32X declined.
In early 1995, Sega of America president Tom Kalinske announced that the Saturn would launch in the U.S. on "Saturnday", (Saturday) September 2, 1995. Despite the upcoming new system, Kalinske was skeptical about the timing of the Saturn's launch, feeling that the 16-bit Genesis market was still strong and the newer 3DO and Atari Jaguar were not successful. Kalinske would not be successful in convincing Sega of Japan of this due to determination to beat the PlayStation to market and the recent failure of the 32X. At the first Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles on May 11, 1995, Kalinske gave a keynote presentation for the upcoming Saturn in which he revealed the release price at US$399, and described the features of the console. Kalinske also revealed that Sega had already shipped 30,000 Saturns to Toys "R" Us, Babbage's, Electronics Boutique, and Software Etc. for immediate release. In response to the surprise early Saturn launch in North America, Sony unveiled the retail price for the PlayStation, with speaker Steve Race taking the stage, saying "$299", and walking away. The crowd at E3 gave applause in response.
The Saturn's release in Europe also came before the previously announced North American date, on July 8, 1995, at a price of GB₤399.99. Because of the early launch, the Saturn had only six games available to start as most third party games were slated to be completed and rolled out around the original September 2 launch date. By September 1995, Sega of Japan had several ports of games from its popular Model 2 arcade board ready for release, including Virtua Cop, Sega Rally, and Virtua Fighter 2, helping sales for the Saturn. Kalinske unveiled more titles releases at E3 in 1996, including Sonic X-treme, Virtua Cop 2, and Nights into Dreams..., as well as the NetLink, a modem and Internet service.
Changes at Sega
By the end of 1995, Sega was supporting five different consoles—Saturn, Genesis, Game Gear, Pico, and the Master System—as well as the Sega CD and Sega 32X add-ons. In Japan the Mega Drive had never been successful, and the Saturn was outselling Sony's PlayStation, so Sega Enterprises CEO Hayao Nakayama decided to force Sega of America to focus on the Saturn. While this made perfect sense for the Japanese market, it proved to be a disastrous move in North America and Europe: the market for Genesis games was much larger than for the Saturn, but Sega was left without the inventory or software to meet demand. By contrast, Nintendo concentrated on the 16-bit home console market, as well as its successful handheld, the Game Boy, and as a result Nintendo took in 42 percent of the video game market dollar share, despite not launching a 32-bit console to compete directly with Sony's PlayStation and Sega's Saturn. Due to Sega's decision to cut support to its 16-bit business to focus on the Saturn, Nintendo was able to capitalize by its continued focus on the SNES and the Game Boy from 1995 onward. While Sega was still able to capture 43 percent of the dollar share of the U.S. video game market as a whole, Nakayama's decision undercut the Sega of America executives.
CEO Tom Kalinske, who oversaw the rise of the Genesis in 1991, grew uninterested in the business and resigned. This was announced on July 15, 1996. Within the same week, David Rosen and Nakayama resigned from their positions over Sega of America, though they remained with the company. Nakayama assembled a new management team for Sega of America led by Shoichiro Irimajiri as chairman and CEO and Bernie Stolar as executive vice president in charge of product development and third-party relations. Stolar, however, was not supportive of the Saturn due to his belief that the hardware was poorly designed. Knowing that the Saturn had little support from third-party developers and hardware that was difficult to work with, Stolar emphasized quality games for the Saturn and prevented localization of some titles from Japan in order to improve the console's image in North America. This was accompanied by a lighter image that Sega was beginning to portray in its advertising, including removing the "Sega" scream and holding press events for the education industry. Marketing in Japan for the console had also changed, with the introduction of Segata Sanshiro as a character in Japanese advertisements for the console in 1997 and 1998. Temporarily abandoning his arcade roots, Yu Suzuki of Sega AM2 began developing several Saturn-exclusive games, including Fighters Megamix and Virtua Fighter RPG. Suzuki hoped the latter, "a revenge epic in the tradition of Chinese cinema", would be the Saturn's killer app. Development was eventually shifted to the Saturn's successor, the Dreamcast, as the game evolved into Shenmue.
Following the completion of Sonic & Knuckles in 1994, Sega began work on its next game in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Development of the game was started by Sega Technical Institute, a U.S.-based developer that had worked on several previous Sonic games. It was originally developed for several other Sega game consoles prior to the Sega Saturn, such as the Sega 32X. The game's design changed wildly and evolved beyond what the struggling Sega 32X was capable of, so the game was shifted to the Sega Saturn. The Saturn version of the project was initially developed separately by two teams in parallel starting in the second half of 1995. One team—led by designer Chris Senn and programmer Ofer Alon—was in charge of developing the main game engine, while the other team—led by programmer Chris Coffin—worked on the "free-roaming, ‘arena-style’" 3D boss engine. Senn and Alon's "fixed-camera side-scroller" with the ability "to move freely in all directions" was similar to Bug! and featured a fish-eye camera system (called the "Reflex Lens") that gave players a wide-angle view of the action. Levels appeared to move around Sonic.
In March 1996, Sega of Japan representatives, including CEO Hayao Nakayama went over to STI's headquarters to check up on the game's progress. They were unimpressed by the main game engine, although they had reportedly watched an outdated version. Conversely, they were so impressed by the boss engine that they requested the entire game be reworked to be like that instead. To achieve this in time for the strict December 1996 deadline, Coffin's team was moved into a place of isolation from further company politics and worked sixteen hours a day. Since their approach was similar to the Nights into Dreams... game engine, they requested access to it as a starting point. However, engine creator Yuji Naka reportedly threatened to leave the company if it was used.
Senn and Alon had initially continued on with their game engine, undeterred by their work's original rejection, hoping to pitch it Sega's PC division. However, it was eventually rejected again, prompting Alon to leave Sega. Meanwhile, Coffin—who had been overworking to get the project out—came down with pneumonia. This solidified the fact that the game could not be released in time and as a result the project was cancelled. For the 1996 holiday season, Sega instead decided to concentrate on a port of the Genesis title Sonic 3D Blast, and Sonic Team's Nights into Dreams... Sonic Team started work on an original 3D Sonic title for the Saturn (which eventually became Sonic Adventure), but development was ultimately shifted to the Dreamcast. According to Naka, remnants of the project can be seen in the compilation Sonic Jam.
After the launch of the Nintendo 64, sales of the Saturn and Sega's 32-bit software were sharply reduced. As of August 1997, Sony controlled 47 percent of the console market, Nintendo controlled 40 percent, and Sega controlled only 12 percent. Neither price cuts nor high profile game releases were proving fruitful to the Saturn's success. As a result, the console market of the Saturn was dominated by the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64, leaving the Saturn behind. At E3 in 1997, Bernie Stolar stated during his keynote that "The Saturn is not our future..." which some have cited as an example of the Osborne effect. Combined with Sega's recent history of short-lived consoles, particularly the Sega CD and 32X which were considered ill-conceived "stop-gaps" that turned off gamers and developers alike, Sega's reputation was also damaged by the announcement. Sega announced its final games for the North American market on March 14, 1998, and by its discontinuation had sold 2 million Saturn consoles in the region, compared to 10.75 million PlayStation consoles sold by Sony at that time. The Saturn would last longer in Japan and Europe. In Japan, the console sold 6 million units, compared to the 3.5 million of Sega's previous console, the Genesis. 971,000 consoles were sold in Europe by the beginning of 1998.
Selling only 9.5 million units worldwide, the Saturn is considered a commercial failure. By March 1998, Sega reported losses of $309 million on the Saturn, and had begun to focus on a new developmental project, the Dreamcast. According to Stolar, his decision to abandon the Saturn was due to Sega's losses and his desire to rebuild with a new team. During 1998, Sega took an additional $450 million loss. Though Sega announced the Saturn's successor as "Dural" (later "Katana", then Dreamcast) on May 21, 1998, information about the new console was leaked to the public before the last Saturn games made it to the shelves. The Dreamcast would later be released on November 20, 1998 in Japan and in the fall of 1999 in North America.
Featuring a total of eight processors, the Sega Saturn's main central processing units are two Hitachi SH-2 chips clocked at 28.6 MHz. It also contains a Motorola 68EC000 running at 11.3 MHz as a sound controller, a sound processor capable of up to 32 sound channels with both FM and PCM sampling at a maximum rate of 44.1 kHz, as well as two video display processors. The system's disc drive is a double-speed CD-ROM drive, and it also contains a cartridge slot for memory expansion. It contains 16 Mbit of work random-access memory (RAM), as well as 12 Mbit video RAM and 4 Mbit of RAM for sound functions. Its video output, provided by a stereo AV cable, displays at a resolution of 320 x 224 and is capable of displaying up to 16.77 million colors simultaneously. Physically, the Saturn measures 260 mm × 230 mm × 83 mm (10 in × 9.1 in × 3.3 in). The Saturn was sold packaged with an instruction manual, one control pad, a stereo AV cable, and its 100V AC power supply, with a power consumption of approximately 15W.
Unlike the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 which used triangles as their basic geometric primitive, the Saturn rendered quadrilaterals with forward texture mapping. This proved to be a hindrance because most of the industry's standard design tools were based on triangles, with independent texture UV coordinates specified per vertex. One of the challenges brought forth by quadrilateral-based rendering was problems with textured surfaces containing triangles. In order to make a triangular-shaped object, rendering had a fourth side with a length of zero. This technique proved problematic as it caused texture distortion and required careful reworking to achieve the desired appearance—Sega provided tools for remapping textures from UV space into rectangular tiles. These complications can be seen in the Saturn version of Tomb Raider.
Several different models of the Saturn were produced in Japan. An updated model in a recolored light gray was released in Japan at a price of ¥20,000 in order to reduce the system's cost. A limited release of a "skeleton" model was also released to commemorate the release of Derby Stallion on the system. Two models were also released by third parties: Hitachi released a model known as the "Hi-Saturn", while JVC released the "V-Saturn". An unreleased prototype known as the Sega Pluto was also created, and features a built-in NetLink modem.
A number of accessories were created for the Saturn. Its controller came in various color schemes to match each model of the console. A wireless version powered by AA batteries utilizes infrared signal to connect to the console. Designed to work with Nights into Dreams..., the 3D Pad is a fully functional controller that includes both a control pad and an analog stick for directional input. Sega also released several versions of arcade sticks as peripherals, including the Virtua Stick, the Virtua Stick Pro, the Mission Analog Stick, and the Twin Stick. Sega also created a light gun peripheral known as the "Virtua Gun" for use with shooting games such as Virtua Cop and The Guardian, as well as a wheel for racing games known as the Arcade Racer. The Play Cable allows for two Saturn consoles to be connected for multiplayer gaming across two screens, while a multitap allows up to six players to play games on the same console. RAM cartridges expand the amount of memory in the system, Other accessories include a keyboard, mouse, floppy disk drive, and movie card.
Like Genesis, Saturn also had an Internet-based gaming service. The Sega NetLink was a 28.8k modem that fit into the cartridge slot in the Saturn for direct dial multiplayer. In Japan a now defunct pay-to-play service was used. It could also be used for web browsing and for sending email. The NetLink functioned with five games: Daytona USA, Duke Nukem 3D, Saturn Bomberman, Sega Rally, and Virtual On. According to Joe Miller, NetLink was designed for different purposes than Sega Channel, Sega's most recent network service for the Genesis.
The Sega Saturn's games came in CD-ROM format. As with previous systems, much of the library came from arcade ports, leveraging the popularity of Sega's arcade titles such as Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop, and Sega Rally. Original games created for the Saturn have established a cult following beyond the lifetime of the console, such as Panzer Dragoon, Burning Rangers, and Nights into Dreams... Due to the cancellation of Sonic X-treme, the system lacks a dedicated title in the Sonic the Hedgehog series, containing only the compilation Sonic Jam, a port of Sonic 3D Blast, and a racing game called Sonic R. The Sakura Wars series proved to be a "major boon" for the system in Japan, but did not see a Western release.
The Saturn had technically impressive hardware at the time of its release, but its complex design, with two CPUs and six other processors, made harnessing this power difficult for developers accustomed to conventional programming. The biggest disadvantage was that both CPUs shared the same bus and were unable to access system memory at the same time. Making full use of the 4 kB of cache memory in each CPU was critical to maintaining performance. One example of how the Saturn was utilized was with Virtua Fighter's use of one CPU for each character. Many of the Saturn's developers, such as Lobotomy Software programmer Ezra Dreisbach, found it difficult to develop for compared to the PlayStation because of its more complex graphics hardware. In order to port Duke Nukem 3D and PowerSlave to the Saturn, Lobotomy Software had to almost entirely rewrite the Build engine to take advantage of the Saturn's unconventional hardware. Third-party development was initially hindered by the lack of useful software libraries and development tools, requiring developers to write in assembly language to achieve good performance. During early Saturn development, programming in assembly could offer a two to fivefold speed increase over C language. Sega responded to these criticisms by writing new graphics libraries which were claimed to help make development easier. These libraries were presented as a new operating system by Sega of Japan.
At the time of its release, Famicom Tsūshin scored the Sega Saturn console 24 out of 40 possible points. In December 1995, Next Generation scored the system with three and a half stars out of a possible five, highlighting Sega's marketing as a strength but highlighting the system's complexity as a weakness. Electronic Gaming Monthly's 1996 Buyer's Guide had four reviewers score the Saturn 8, 6, 7, and 8 out of 10; these scores were inferior to those of the PlayStation, which was scored 9, 10, 9, and 9 in the same review. By 1998, Electronic Gaming Monthly's scores had diminished to more mixed reviews, with reviewers citing the lack of titles for the system as a major issue. According to EGM reviewer Crispin Boyer, "the Saturn is the only system that can thrill me one month and totally disappoint me the next."
Retrospective feedback of the Saturn is mixed, but generally praises its game library. Douglass C. Perry of Gamasutra notes that the Saturn "had soured many gamers on Sega products". In 2009, video game website IGN chose the Saturn to be their 18th best video game console of all time, praising its unique game library. According to the reviewers, "While the Saturn ended up losing the popularity contest to both Sony and Nintendo it was host to a library of classic titles that epitomize the early days of SEGA's innovation in software. NiGHTS into Dreams, the Virtua Fighter and Panzer Dragoon series are all examples of exclusive titles that made the console a fan favorite." Retro Gamer's Damien McFerran has also praised the uniqueness of the game library, stating "Even today, despite the widespread availability of sequels and re-releases on other formats, the Sega Saturn is still a worthwhile investment for those who appreciate the unique gameplay styles of the companies that supported it."
Some criticism has befallen Sega's management in both creation and handling of the Saturn as the reasons for its faults. McFerran criticizes Sega's management at the time of the Saturn's development, claiming that they had "fallen out of touch with both the demands of the market and the industry." Bernie Stolar has also taken some criticism for his decision to end support for the Saturn. According to Travis Fahs of IGN, "Stolar's decision to abandon the Saturn made him a villain to many SEGA fans, but he had more vision than most gave him credit for. SEGA had a lot of work to do before they'd be ready for the next battle, and it was better to regroup than to enter the next fight battered and bruised. Dreamcast would be Stolar's redemption." Stolar himself has defended his decision, stating "I felt Saturn was hurting the company more than helping it. That was a battle that we weren't going to win."
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