Sega’s fourth console, the 32-bit Saturn, was kind of like Vincent van Gogh: It produced some beautiful visuals, and it’s regarded far more warmly in death than it ever was in life. Despite its impressive 2D graphical capabilities and an impressive library of software, the system just never gained much traction in the U.S. You can chalk that up to several factors.
For starters, the Saturn didn’t exactly enjoy the most graceful launch in America. Sega decided to spring the system unexpected on U.S. gamers by announcing an immediate launch (months ahead of schedule) at E3 1995. Unfortunately, there weren’t many games available for the first few months of the Saturn’s life, and Sega’s decision to push the early launch with a limited number of retail partners soured merchants who were shut out until the original launch date arrived.
Secondly, Sega was seemingly caught flat-footed by the industry’s shift to 3D game design and polygonal graphics. The company had always pushed sprite-based design to its limit with innovations like the System 16 board and Super Scaler tech, yet somehow its engineers failed to foresee the industry’s move to polygons. The Saturn’s entire architecture was revamped late in development, with a second processor added in nearly the 11th hour to aid 3D rendering. The drawback was that this complex hardware made the system difficult to program for — and Sega’s decision to go with quadrilaterals instead of the triangles everyone else settled on made cross-platform development difficult.
The Saturn also launched as the most expensive console of its generation. At $399, it cost $100 more than the PlayStation and twice as much as the Nintendo 64. That made it a tough sell, especially when its anemic polygon-pushing power gave the appearance of Saturn being the weakest among its contemporaries.
Perhaps most critically, though, the Saturn simply lacked the robustness of its competitors’ libraries, at least in the U.S. Our Japanese counterparts enjoyed a wide selection of titles — from action and sports to RPG and simulation — but Sega inexplicably allowed many of the best Japanese-development games languish in their homeland. Many of those releases specifically showcased the Saturn’s nature as a 2D powerhouse; Sega of America, however, was conscious of the move to polygons and tried pushing their 3D wares… despite the fact that Saturn couldn’t do that style of graphics nearly as well as the competition.
All told, the Saturn sold only a few million units before being abruptly terminated by Sega a full year before its successor Dreamcast’s arrival. Yet the platform was host to dozens, maybe hundreds, of great games that still play well today thanks to their timeless design. Between the graceful aging of Saturn’s visuals and the “hidden” nature of much of its best software, it’s the ideal collector’s system: A treasure trove of masterpieces just waiting to be discovered…
Developer: Sonic Team | Publisher: Sega | U.S. Release: Aug. 21, 1996
Nintendo had Super Mario 64, which placed the platformer genre in wide-open 3D spaces. Sony had Crash Bandicoot, which turned the platformer into an over-the-shoulder run-and-jump experience. And Sega had NiGHTs, which went in its own direction: namely, up. NiGHTs took Sonic’s ring-centric action and flung it into the sky, sending players soaring through the air with graceful on-rails action that defined the concept of 2.5D games and inspired countless other masterpieces, like Namco’s Klonoa. Ignore the mediocre Wii sequel; the original NiGHTs is a classic.
Developer: Sonic Team | Publisher: Sega | U.S. Release: May 1998
Sonic Team’s final creation for Saturn was one of their most offbeat: In Burning Rangers, players take control of a team of futuristic firefighters battling raging infernos. A real technical marvel for the system, the game pushes the Saturn hardware enough that the machine strains visibly to keep up. Even so, its unique premise and high replayability (thanks to a random level generator and multiple playable characters) make it a must for Saturn fans.
Developer: Team Andromeda | Publisher: Sega | U.S. Release: Summer 1996 The original Panzer Dragoon was Saturn’s saving grace in its early days — the cool, unique game that fans could point to and say, “See? This is why I didn’t buy a PlayStation!” The sequel didn’t stray too far from the first game’s design, opting instead to simply improve on it with better graphics, bigger challenges, and refined play mechanics. It was a mature work that still holds up beautifully today.
Developer: Treasure | Publisher: Sega | U.S. Release: Jan. 25, 1996
The arcade beat-’em-up never really worked on consoles, because they were designed for chaotic cooperative play and built around a shallow pay-to-play philosophy. Guardian Heroes changed that, not only adding support for up to six players in its various modes but also incorporating a level-up mechanic that rewarded extensive play and experimentation. While it’s slated to hit Xbox Live Arcade later this year, the original is worth playing today.
Developer: Sega | Publisher: Working Designs | U.S. Release: Nov. 30, 1996
A dizzyingly complex strategy game whose depth is matched by its breadth. Players can choose to play as one of eight different nations, conquering neighboring countries while seeing to their kingdom’s internal affairs at the same time. Dragon Force was essentially a bigger, more visceral take on Koei’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, graced with a crisp localization by Working Designs.
Developer: Sega AM2 | Publisher: Sega | U.S. Release: Dec. 1995
After the dud that was the original Saturn conversion of Virtua Fighter, the sequel was a welcome relief. A faithful rendition of the arcade game, VF2 on Saturn featured crisp, fast visuals and deeply nuanced game mechanics. Sega AM2 also added a plethora of tweaks and options to keep the home version interesting. While the original Tekken — touted as superior by PlayStation fans at the time — has aged terribly, VF2 remains engrossing today.
Developer: Hudson | Publisher: Hudson | U.S. Release: Aug. 22, 1997
The one Bomberman to rule them all. The only version of Hudson’s long-running franchise you’ll never need, Saturn Bomberman> upped the stakes by allowing up to 10 people to play together. Even at half-capacity, a Saturn Bomberman session is gleeful chaos. With a full roster, though, this is simply one of the most hilarious and challenging party games ever made, one that people still flock to (provided they can find enough multi-controller adaptors, of course).
Developer: Sega AM2 | Publisher: Sega | U.S. Release: Dec. 1995
Virtua Cop was kind of amazing back in its day — unlike previous light-gun shooters, it employed polygonal characters and environments to create a lively, dynamic shooting gallery experience. Though relatively simple compared to later shooters like Time Crisis 2, its basic formula of shooting things is timeless. Unfortunately, its tech isn’t; the Saturn’s light guns are useless with modern televisions, so be sure you have access to an old-fashioned CRT if you want to keep the peace, Sega style.
Developer: Sega AM3 | Publisher: Sega | U.S. Release: May 11, 1995
While some swear by Daytona USA as the definitive Saturn racer — probably because GAME OVER, YEAH! is still awesome — we’re throwing our weight behind the technically superior Sega Rally Championship. Where Daytona was clearly a rush job, Sega Rally was more polished and offered a more diverse selection of cars and environments. It looks rough by today’s standards, but you still can’t beat its white-knuckled sense of speed.
Developer: Treasure | Publisher: E.S.P. | Release: July 23, 1998 (Japan)
Along with Panzer Dragoon Saga, Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun is one of the absolute crown jewels of the Saturn — which makes it all the more infuriating that no one bothered to localize it for the U.S. It’s also a fairly uncommon game that normally sells for north of $100, which ought to push it into the “Selections for the Extraordinarily Wealthy” section, but Silvergun is so good that every Saturn fan needs to play it.
Silvergun is probably most remarkable for its unique weapon system, which eschews collectible power-ups in favor of giving you access to three weapons at all times, each of which can be combined in different pairings or all together as a powerful short-range sword. Also of note is the unique color-based scoring system, which Treasure expanded on in Ikaruga.
Treasure has indicated their intent to remake Silvergun for Xbox Live Arcade, which should offer American gamers their first real shot at experiencing this masterpiece. Until then, though, there are worse investments you could make than the Saturn original….
Developer: Victor | Publisher: Victor | Release: 1997 (Europe)
This sequel to obscure Sega CD shooter Keio Flying Squadron never made its way to the U.S., more’s the pity. While it ditched the forced scrolling and shooting in all but a few of its stages, it was a lush, colorful, and decidedly wacky platformer that exemplified the charm and visual prowess possessed by the best Saturn games–all in the form of a whimsical tribute to a classical Japan that never was.
Developer: Atlus | Publisher: Atlus | Release: Dec. 11, 1997 (Japan)
American gamers know Vanillaware for beautiful epics like Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade. But did you know that those adventures were built on the foundation established by a Japan-only Saturn classic called Princess Crown? While it lacked the depth and variety of its follow-ups, Princess Crown was compelling nevertheless, crammed with Vanillaware’s trademark graphics and fast-paced RPG-tinted action combat.
Developer: NCS | Publisher: NCS |Release: Feb. 21, 1997 (Japan)
Remember Cybernator? Target: Earth? Well, here’s the sequel: A Japan-only shooter that ups the complexity with enhanced mech customization options and more varied mission structures, including escort missions. Some fans prefer its 16-bit predecessors due to Assault Suit Leynos 2’s odd peculiarities–its targeting and weapon interfaces are especially odd–but it’s worth tracking down all the same.
Developer: Raizing | Publisher: Victor | Release: Feb. 7, 1997
If this list of must-have imports seems a little shooter-heavy, well, that’s because the Saturn was crammed with amazing imports that no one bothered to localize. Soukyugurentai is one of the best, vying with Radiant Silvergun for top marks in many fans’ best-of lists. An early example of the thumb-blistering “bullet hell” style shooter, Soukyugurentai is as tough to master as it is to pronounce. It’s a bit rare and sells for a mint these days, but it’s easily worth both the effort and price.
Developer: Team Andromeda | Publisher: Sega | U.S. Release: Aug. 21, 1996 | Average Price: $250
The most famous of Saturn’s rarities is also one of the most amazing and innovative RPGs of an era known for advancing that particular genre. Panzer Dragoon Saga arrived at the tail end of the Saturn’s life in the U.S. and shipped in limited quantities that hardly anyone bought (you could find the game for $20 at Toys R Us a few months later). But then word got out that it was a fantastic fusion of role-playing and rail-shooting with an immersive, atmospheric narrative, and suddenly everyone wanted it. Now, it’s probably the most beloved Saturn game of all time, justly venerated by its loyal fans. While considerably less rare than many of Saturn’s other pricey selections, Saga consistently sells for $200 or more simply on the strength of its reputation.
Developer / Publisher: Time Warner Interactive | Release: Jan. 17, 1997 (JP Only) | Average Price: $280 Possibly the single most expensive release for Saturn, Psychic Assassin Taromaru is said to have been released in a print run of roughly 7000 copies, making it genuinely rare. Unfortunately for us, it’s also said to be exceedingly awesome, with mind-bogglingly advanced 2.5D visuals and fascinatingly intricate play mechanics that combine the style of Castlevania with the feel of Gunstar Heroes. Might as well start planning out that second mortgage now; you’re gonna need it.
Developer / Publisher: Technosoft | Release: Nov. 22, 1996 (JP Only) | Average Price: $170
Since NEC never followed up the TurboGrafx-16 with a decent successor, that system’s legacy of amazing shoot-em-ups transferred instead to Saturn. Sega’s 32-bit powerhouse is a shooter fanatic’s dream, with the small caveat that some of the finest titles for the system are also some of the most expensive. Hyper Duel, for example, is a blazing space battle from the creators of Thunder Force, and some fans feel it even exceeds the standards of that franchise. Unfortunately, it also commands a price in the triple digits, so most of us will never experience its glory.
Developer: Camelot | Publisher: Sega | U.S. Release: May 31, 1998 | Average Price: $120
It’s crazy to think how much Shining Force III sells for these days, especially considering that it’s only one-third of a game! The U.S. never saw the second and third chapters of the game, as Saturn was officially discontinued by the time they launched. But as one of the final Sega-published games to see American release, Shining Force III (chapter one) was produced in small quantities and poorly distributed (and the localization was even worse). Still, a great game, if rather overpriced these days.
Developer: Capcom USA | Publisher: Capcom | Release: March 30, 2000 (JP Only) | Average Price: $150
One of the funny things about ultra-collectible rarities is that the most expensive games are rarely the best. The Saturn has a surprisingly high correlation between quality and rarity… and then there’s Final Fight Revenge. A weak attempt to turn Final Fight into a Street Fighter clone (which is funny, since Final Fight was originally pitched as a way to turn Street Fighter into a Double Dragon clone…), this U.S.-developed one-on-one fighter is as fun to play as it is gorgeous. Which is to say, not at all.
Developer/Publisher: Capcom | Release: March 4, 1998 (Japan)
A faithful rendition of Capcom’s two D&D-themed arcade brawlers, this compilation boasts truly gorgeous sprite work and accessible action with a pleasant layer of depth beneath the punch-happy surface. Like Guardian Heroes, the D&D games have a rudimentary leveling system. Unfortunately, the association with the D&D license means these titles are unlikely to ever see rerelease in any form ever again, making this import-only anthology your only means to experience them.
Developer: Sonic Team | Publisher: Sega | U.S. Release: Fall 1996
Arguably the best demo disc ever, Christmas NiGHTs isn’t just a teaser for Sega’s high-flying adventure game–it’s actually two entirely unique levels of play, complete with a standalone Christmas-themed story. The best part is that Christmas NiGHTs was given away for free along with a number of U.S. magazines, so it’s neither a rare nor expensive addition to your Saturn collection.
Developer/Publisher: Capcom | Release: Oct. 22, 1998 (Japan)
Before Marvel vs. Capcom, there was Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter — a warm-up battle of sorts. That fact alone should be enough to send most fighting fans scrambling to dig up a copy, but there’s more! It was only released in Japan due to its use of the 4MB RAM expansion (making it far better than the PlayStation version that did come to the U.S.), but on top of that Marvel is rumored to have actively suppressed imports of the game thanks to the inclusion of a playable character called Norimaro, a joke fighter based on a Japanese slapstick comedian.
Developer: Sega | Publisher: Working Designs | Release: Nov. 30, 1998 Magic Knight Rayearth has the distinction of being a template of sorts for Duke Nukem Forever. Publisher Working Designs announced the game before the Saturn’s launch, but ultimately it didn’t arrive in the U.S. until half a year after the system had officially been discontinued thanks to licensing issues (not to mentioned Working Designs’ compulsive habit of tweaking and enhancing their releases). That makes it the Saturn game to linger longest in development hell (Shenmue doesn’t count because it came out on Dreamcast).