The Saturn will go down in history as one of the most troubled, and greatest, systems of all time.
-Greg Sewart, 1UP
Every once in a while hiccups happen. I know it and Sega knows it, but how one recovers from said hiccup is what really matters.
So today is Day 13 of our month-long Console Challenge series and in a last minute change of roster, we’re featuring the incredible, indelible, ineffably great Cheap Boss Attack for his take on the best games for the Sega Saturn. Despite his own things to care for, he made himself available to fill the gap and create an article for today (you’ll encounter him again later in the month!). This is the mark of someone who really loves to talk about games and the kind of person who just likes to help.
Cheap Boss Attack has been a really good friend to me and I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s been my mentor, my confidant, and my resource when I needed some specialized info. This listicle is even doubly special because I got my Sega Saturn from CBA himself! This was a system which possessed a lot of mystique for me as a teen and it’s awesome to have one of my own now. Obviously, I owe him a lot. TWRM wouldn’t be the same place without him. It is therefore with immense joy that I present to you the Sega Saturn Boss Attack… a Japanese-only rail shooter, naturally.
-The Well-Red Mage
“$299.” That was the only thing then Sony Computer Entertainment America President Steve Race said before leaving the stage, murderously stealing the thunder from Sega’s 32-bit, fifth generation console, the Saturn, at the first ever E3 in 1995. Riding high from the success of their 16-bit Genesis (Mega Drive, to the overseas crowd), Sega wrongfully anticipated their consumer’s willingness to pay $399 on launch day, but that wasn’t their only hiccup.
For starters, they butchered their relationship with major retailers by secretly shipping off 30,000 units to only a select few, which led KB Toys, Wal-mart, and Best Buy to simultaneously drop support of Sega’s products entirely. The Saturn was scheduled to release on September 2, 1995, but the Japanese division of Sega demanded it be stealth-released four months early on May 11th, in order to get the jump on Sony’s PlayStation. The only company ready for this abysmal decision, though, was Sega themselves, as third-party games just weren’t ready. So the Sega Saturn released early with just six games, all made by Sega, for $100 USD more than the PlayStation, while burning very important bridges along the way. Oh, and their iconic blue mascot from the 16-bit era that helped push Sega to new heights? He was never given a traditional release throughout the entire console generation. Needless to say, the Sega Saturn was destined for failure – and fail it did. Spectacularly.
Despite the Sega Saturn’s poor sales overall, the console itself was still home to a respectable library of quality video games. After all, the console did do fairly well in its native Japan with a higher install base than Nintendo’s N64. Sega was well known for the quality of their arcade cabinets, particularly Virtua Fighter, and the Saturn saw quite a few faithful ports as a result. A 4MB expanded RAM cartridge was later introduced as well, which made the Sega Saturn the best place to play Capcom’s 2D fighters until the Sega Dreamcast released in 1999. The 4MB RAM cart pushed games like X-Men vs. Street Fighter beyond the capability of Sony’s PlayStation.
But enough about the failed Saturn’s history. Let’s jump into what I feel are the 7 strongest games that showcased what the console was truly capable of.
#7. Sega Rally Championship
Although short on available cars and tracks by modern standards, Sega Rally Championship evolved the racing genre by introducing new handling physics, determined by the ground beneath the player’s tires. It was also directed by Kenji Sasaki of Ridge Racer fame, which was, at the time, the biggest racing franchise in Japan. Sega Rally Championship was a faithful arcade port on Sega’s home console, and while it certainly helped pioneer the rally racing subgenre, it also pushed racing games, as a whole, to new heights.
#6. Radiant Silvergun
The shoot-em-up genre’s popularity waned by the 32-bit generation, so much so that Treasure’s stellar Radiant Silvergun only released for the Sega Saturn in Japan until it became available digitally on the Xbox 360 in 2011. Perhaps the most common import among western collectors – it certainly was my first – Radiant Silvergun had great weapon variety, vibrant visuals, and incredible attention to level design. Its spiritual successor, Ikaruga, is also widely considered one of the best shmups of all time.
#5. Saturn Bomberman
The Sega Saturn may not have introduced the explosive multiplayer antics of Bomberman to the gaming populace, but it’s certainly home to one of its best iterations. Aptly titled Saturn Bomberman, it’s similar enough to just about any of the other entries, but back in 1997 it impressed gamers and critics alike with its online multiplayer mode (via Sega WebLink) and the ability to play locally with up to 10 players using the multitap peripheral.
#4. Guardian Heroes
The 2nd Treasure game on the list, Guardian Heroes is a 2D RPG/beat-em-up hybrid with branching storylines, multiple endings, and upgradable character stats. In addition to its novel sense of depth for a genre mostly known for sucking up quarters at the arcade, Guardian Heroes breaks the mold by offering three different lanes (foreground, middle, and background) that can be switched between mid-combat to avoid attacks and defeat enemies, along with a spirit/god battling narrative of overcoming incredible odds. I remember having a ton of fun with this one back on the Saturn, as well as the remastered release on the Xbox 360 in 2011.
#3. X-Men vs. Street Fighter
Another Japan-only release, X-Men vs. Street Fighter pioneered the Marvel vs. Capcom series with its tag team-focused combat mechanics and legendary roster of fighters. While the game eventually made its way to other territories outside of Japan on Sony’s PlayStation, its core tag feature was completely neutered in order for it to run properly – which it still didn’t do very well. Thanks to the 4MB RAM expansion cartridge, the Japan-only Saturn version (which released a year prior) was a near-faithful arcade port with the tag feature still intact, making it the only version worth playing. If you were a fan of Capcom’s brand of fighting games back in the 90s, you knew more than anyone that the Sega Saturn was the best place to play them outside of your local arcade.
#2. Nights into Dreams
Widely regarded as one of, if not the best Sega Saturn game of all time, Sonic Team’s Nights into Dreams is a beautiful (for its time) 3D game that takes place on a 2D plane. As the titular flying jester, Nights, you enter the dreams of Claris and Elliot with the objective of floating through rings and collecting energy to defeat the evil Wizeman and save Nightopia. Its wonderful music and scenery worked in tandem with the game’s almost dreamlike locomotion, accentuated by the (sometimes) packed-in Saturn 3D Controller that offered full analog support. Nights into Dreams went on to spawn a smaller Christmas-themed mini-game called Christmas Nights that was given away free with other titles (or packed into new console purchases), as well as a traditional sequel, Nights: Journey of Dreams, on Nintendo’s Wii in 2007.
#1. Panzer Dragoon Saga
For the purpose of this list, I only wanted to include one game from each series. That ended up being pretty simple until I reached the #1 spot. Panzer Dragoon was a fantastic introduction to the dragon-riding rail shooter and its sequel, Panzer Dragoon II: Zwei, improved on the formula by adding ground missions to the mix. Panzer Dragoon Saga, however, expanded exponentially by turning the rail shooter into a full-fledged, multi-disc spanning role-playing game. The rail shooting combat is still present, but the folks at Team Andromeda let players explore the world and experience an epic tale on the Sega Saturn. Unfortunately, this was a time when Sega lacked faith in the RPG genre’s ability to succeed in the West, and very few copies of the game were printed for distribution. As a result, the demand far exceeded the supply and Panzer Dragoon Saga went on to become one of the most sought-after RPGs of all time. It’s almost ironic that Sega’s poor vision not only damned the best game on their home console, but the future of the Saturn as a whole.
Honorable mentions go out to the aforementioned rail shooter sequel Panzer Dragoon II: Zwei, the fantasy RTS Dragon Force, the absolutely wonderful Treasure Zelda-like Albert Odyssey, the nearly arcade perfect ports of Virtua Fighter 2 and Virtua Cop 2, the mech fighter Virtual On, the final game released for the console in North America and fantastic magical girl RPG Magic Knight Rayearth, the isometric action RPG Dark Savior, and the superior home ports of Street Fighter Alpha 3 and X-Men: Children of the Atom, thanks to the 4MB RAM expansion.
Much like the Sega Dreamcast, the Saturn’s failure is largely the result of Sega’s unfortunate business decisions. Both consoles, however, have their respective cult followings who found plenty to love through both console generations. The Saturn was largely outclassed by the PlayStation, but hopefully the seven games listed above prove that there were more than enough reasons to own both.