I remember the one kid in my town who owned a Sega Saturn. I only visited his house a couple of times in my youth; so, while he was a pretty die-hard Sega fan, I only managed to spend a short amount of time with the machine. He only had about five games, most of which were just ports of PC or PlayStation games, and all of which didn’t interest me in the least. Like anyone else with a PlayStation in 1997, I assumed I was winning. I wanted nothing to do with the kiddy fare in Nintendo’s camp, either, and I felt sorry for anyone who made the mistake of siding with Sega around this time. In the 32-bit generation, there was an almost universal understanding that the Saturn had little to offer its owners.
It was a waste of money, a waste of a great company, and there wasn’t much for the system that you couldn’t find anywhere else. This was the truth I understood, it’s what we all understood as children of the PlayStation. This other kid, who believed in his Sega Saturn, had just made a horrible and confusing choice. I wasn’t completely immune to the Saturn’s highlights. I was a pretty avid reader of Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM), a magazine that would lend glowing reviews of the occasional Sega gem. There were tales of 2D tag-team fighters that would outperform their PlayStation siblings. Arcade-perfect ports of the hits I’d see at the Japanese arcade two towns over. There was a cornucopia of Japanese platformers and RPGs that were winning critics overseas, but would never grace North American shores. Also some sort of absurdly awful Sonic racing game.
Despite the few gems they’ve produced, Sonic Team have a long list of sins.
EGM was my window into a world I proudly pushed aside in favour of bandicoots and emo science fiction. It served as a constant validator that I had made the right choice all along. Short of the odd fantastic review for a Saturn game (a rarity) and the brief moments I spent with the system at my friend’s house, I basically ignored the thing for its entire life cycle. But there was something indescribably cool about late-era Sega products, and I only recently started to clue into it. So, let’s review why the Saturn was a failure, because there are some legitimate reasons for the spite levels associated with Sega around the time of the Saturn’s conception. For my money, I’d put my finger on the following issues:
It couldn’t handle the future:
Back in the mid-nineties, 3D was everything. That wasn’t to say that everything was in 3D, but it was a great draw in the next console cycle following the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. In order to pull in the kids, you needed to push some polygons. There’s no sugar-coating the specs, here. The Saturn just couldn’t churn out what the PlayStation could and had nowhere near the polygonal power of the Nintendo 64. Sega had produced a system that was already dated when it hit the shelves.
Its cult was diminishing:
The Sega Genesis was a remarkable success in terms of longevity. It managed to stay a major player in its peak years from 1989 to 1994, with the occasional dreg popping up in a year or two after in the form of Vectorman or some shit. Sensing its impending end well before then, it took the initiative in the form of an add-on. The Sega CD was reasonably successful, at least in terms of quality games (among a league of astonishingly awful FMV-action games).
It looked neat, though.
Just when its owners were becoming acquainted with excellent titles like Sonic CD, Snatcher and the Lunar series, Sega pulled the rug up and added yet another add-on in the form of the 32X. This was probably the most notoriously useless expansion in console history (quickly: name one game worth playing for the 32X without having to look anything up). To follow up an unmitigated disaster posing as a 32-bit system by immediately releasing yet another 32-bit system, it’s no surprise that few were inclined to believe in them. Worse yet…
Sweet merciful crap, that launch:
The Saturn’s launch had to have been the single most bungled system launch in history, short of the Gizmondo. It was like that scene from Titanic where that one guy said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be neato if we got to New York RIDICULOUSLY fast? I mean, wouldn’t that just be the coolest thing the world had ever seen?” The Saturn landed four months ahead of schedule, and it pissed off just about everyone.
It pissed off the developers who were readying their launch titles, only to have to speed up their efforts to try and meet the console’s ‘peak’ launch period, or miss that period altogether. It pissed off retailers when it only shipped consoles to a select few, leaving giants like KB Toys and Wal-Mart in the dust (the former of which dropped all Sega products from their shelves thereafter). And it pissed off the gaming public, because for all the cost and early brouhaha on Sega’s part, there just weren’t any good games. Even the packed-in Virtua Fighter was often regarded as an inferior port than that seen on the 32X. In short, nothing was ready. In its struggle for expediency, the Saturn hit the proverbial iceberg.
… Sure you are, little buddy.
By 1998, around the time the machine was basically dead in the water, I began developing a mild fascination. There were RPGs that I wanted to play, there were controllers that I’d never held, and there was that apparently superior port of X-Men Vs. Street Fighter making waves in the rapidly diminishing world of 2D gaming. However, aside from the one friend I mentioned, I don’t think I know anyone else who owned the Saturn during its run; again, that was part of the appeal for me. After all, if the gaming press that touted its strengths until well after its demise were to be believed, some of the best games ever made came out on the Saturn. Maybe more classic games than the Nintendo 64. Maybe more than the PlayStation. Maybe, but I didn’t know yet. How could I? Who even had one of these things?
Even that Saturn kid who lived in my town refused to let me borrow his machine. Then again, I probably would have done the same thing. There’s an identity with cult gaming that doesn’t lend itself well to sharing. Turbografx, Neo-Geo, Colecovision… The Saturn was part of a cult who knew and swore their consoles to be secretly superior, and the rest of the world would never know. Nor should they try. As far as the rest of the world knew, the thing totally sucked.
I found my Saturn at a Vancouver flea market open on Saturdays to a consumer base of kleptomaniacs, drug addicts and kitsch-hounds. Almost every table consisted of stolen goods in giant piles, from motor tools to shoes to Gillette Fusion cartridges to video games. There were a few dedicated video game tables and one in particular that specialized in rare and unusual systems and accessories. I kind of freaked when I saw it. I didn’t know if I’d ever get to play the thing again in my life. For me, it was a hell of a find. Very few others gave a shit. They knew what most “knew” growing up: That the Saturn sucked. That the Saturn was completely inferior to the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. That the Saturn screwed over anyone who ever picked one up.
I bought it for twenty dollars. It smelled like crack pipes and mothballs.
For whatever fucked up reason, the first game I sought out was one that I knew to be among the absolute worst. To this day, I still can’t explain my draw to Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game. Everything has become entrenched in far too many layers of irony in my world of retro video gaming that good has become bad, and bad has become kitschy, even with the absolute worst. And we are dealing with the absolute worst, here. It’s a wonder why my mind tends to shift toward Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game when I think about the Saturn’s beginnings. Not exclusive to the Saturn, and not indicative of being definitively ‘Sega’ in any way. It wasn’t even a launch title. However, when I think of the first year of the Saturn, I like to think of the absolute bottom of the barrel.
Street Fighter: TM: TG was part of an unfortunate era of fighting games that flooded the market in the wake of Mortal Kombat’s success. These games attempted to capture the look of Midway’s digitized graphics without effective motion capture. It’s even worse coming from a franchise that prided itself on its animation and artwork, and all the other components that make Street Fighter ‘Street Fighter,’ and not Mortal Kombat. Of course, we’re dealing with a movie license, and in the mind of the mid-nineties game developer, creating a licensed game without digitized graphics would be impossible.
Van Damme’s rippling musculature would never allow it.
In that way, Capcom really had to violate their own principles and follow Kombat’s design to make this project work. Of course, that line of thinking would presume that this game had any right to exist at all. It took me at least a few beers to gain any enjoyment out of it and that was only after I clued into an important fact. That is to say, I was playing a game where digitized versions of Raul Julia and Kylie Minogue kicked each other to bloody death. Which makes my profoundly tacky mind deliriously happy, ever so briefly. That’s not a compliment to the game. I don’t know what it is.
Of course Street Fighter: TM: TG is shit, but if all of this is a search for a metaphor to describe this particular forgotten realm of gaming, perhaps picking one of the worst of the worst is appropriate enough. The Saturn came out of the gate with nothing to offer, which was a concept that the world that grew up with Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were unfamiliar with. Within the year, it was a certified disaster.
My plan is to spend the next year or so playing as many milestone Saturn titles as I can, be they good or bad. As much as I was Nintendo’s buttboy during the 8 and 16-bit era, I’ve always thought Sega was pretty ‘cool’ in that hip, cult-Sega way ever since the Dreamcast. I want to play everything that ever won a gold award in my old issues of EGM, everything that the PlayStation couldn’t do better, everything that auctions for absurdly high prices on eBay, everything on record that might be especially terrible, everything in shiny, gold lettering with anime characters posing on the cover, and anything else I can get my hands on.
The world of retro gaming is intrinsically cult, and ardent Saturn cultists have insisted for years that their system was a true classic. I’d like to know if they were right. Cults believe some pretty wacky things, after all.