The Sega Saturn was released in November 1994 in Japan. It was the true follow-up to the Mega Drive (Genesis in the US), which was especially popular in Europe. The Saturn was 32-bit, CD-based, but also included a cartridge port. Essentially, the Saturn was a multimedia machine. It was the only next-generation machine to feature an Internet link, and in addition to its photo-CD and video CD peripherals, it could play any of over 900 available games titles, any audio CD or single, extended graphics CDs, storybooks, even digital karaoke, and could also be utilised, in a limited way, as a multimedia PC.
The Saturn's architecture was complex, to say the least. When the PlayStation was showcased in 1994, Sega were anxious about their machine's power, and returned to the labs to upgrade it. When it was released, there was a mixed reaction. True, it sold out and became the most popular console in the world, but some people saw the Saturn as a 'rush-job', and its early games outlined that. Virtua Fighter was converted from the Model 1 arcade board to the very capable Saturn, but it was hastily released, the resulting game being less stunning than it could have been. The Saturn was released in the West in the middle of 1995, but the more powerful software was still to come. The 'big three', being Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally Championship and Virtua Cop, were the main sellers for the Saturn as it entered 1996.
The software for the Saturn has just got better. NiGHTS showed what the Saturn was capable of in late 1996, and the deluge of racing, fighting and adventure games established the Saturn as the 'die-hard gamer's choice'.
In 1998, the Saturn was still very popular in the Far East, but its popularity waned in the West, not helped by the cutbacks at Sega and the lack of advertising. The import market is still the best place to pick up Saturn titles, because the official Western release lists disappeared over a year ago. However, the quality of software just getting better in its final year, despite the production costs. End of 1997 titles such as Quake (first console version), Duke Nukem 3D (best version) and Sonic R showed the real power and versatility of the Saturn, and winter/spring 1998 titles such as Burning Rangers, Winter Heat, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Grandia, Shining Force 3 and House Of The Dead just spoke volumes for the console, using high resolution graphics faster and more effectively than ever. Put simply, the Saturn was the most versatile console around, with a great software library (the best of the lot!), and despite the previous programming difficulties, it could regularly embarrass the other consoles in the video games war (as Duke Nukem 3D proved).
The technical specifications of the Saturn are as follows:
2 Hitachi 28.6MHz, 50-MIPS (total, for both
chips) SH2 32-bit RISC processors
Hitachi SH1 32-bit 20MHz RISC processor
VDP 1 32-bit video display processor
VDP 2 32-bit video display processor
Saturn Control Unit (SCU)
Motorola 68EC000 sound processor
Yamaha FH1 DSP sound processor
2 MB (16 Megabits) RAM
1.5 MB (12 Megabits) video RAM
0.5 MB (4 Megabits) audio RAM
0.5 MB (4 Megabits) CD-ROM cache
32KB non-volatile RAM (battery backup)
22.6MHz Yamaha FH1 24-bit digital signal
11.3MHz Motorola 68EC000 sound processor
32 PCM (pulse-code modulation) channels
8 FM channels
44.1KHz sampling rate
CD functions - play/pause, stop, rewind/fast forward, shuffle, intro-scan, 99-track programmable, repeat (one track, all tracks, point-to-point)
Effects - pitch, mid-channel suppression, reverb, volume amplification / suppression
Q-Sound and CyberSound compatibility
VDP 1 Foreground 32-bit video display
processor (Sprite, polygon, and geometry engine)
24-bit true-colour graphics
Transparent mesh polygons
@200,000 texture-mapped polygons per second
@500,000 flat-shaded polygons per second
Dual 256KB frame buffers for rotation and scaling effects
512KB cache for textures
VDP 2 32-bit background and scroll plane video display processor
Five simultaneous scrolling backgrounds
Two simultaneous rotating playfields
60 frames of animation per second NTSC (50 PAL)
32,768 simultaneous background colours
16.7 million colours
320 by 224, 640 by 224, 640 by 448, 720 by 576 resolution
TrueMotion, Cinepak and MPEG compatible (MPEG through extra hardware)
Intelligent Double-Speed CD-ROM
320KB per second data transfer speed
150KB per second audio transfer speed Audio CD compatible
CD single (8cm CD) compatible
Video CD, Photo CD, Electronic Books, digital karaoke (optional)
Up to 4 MB memory cartridges for game save (optional)
Up to 4 MB extended RAM cartridges to facilitate better game conversion
High-speed serial communications port
Internal 32-bit expansion port
Internal multi-AV port for video CD (MPEG) adaptor
Composite video/stereo (standard)
NTSC RF (optional)
S-Video compatible (optional)
RGB compatible (optional)
HDTV (High-Definition Television) compatible (optional)
Analogue (or 3D thumb control) pad
NetLink 28.8kbps Internet Modem
MIDI keyboard link for sound development
The capabilities above are just the tip of the ice-berg. Using effective software the Saturn could use transparent polygons, which allowed for beautiful effects like fire and mist. Also, multiple layers allowed for rippling waterscapes and complex flash-fires. Pop-up susceptible polygons could be replaced by transparent polygons as in Sonic R (12 levels of transparency were achieved), so there is no pop-up whatsoever. Raytraced graphics were possible, notably the reflective R and Sonic head on Sonic R. Panzer Dragoon Saga featured a multitude of beautiful waterscapes with ripples. Burning Rangers boasted amazing translucent flash-fires. The list went on and on. Yet, most people tended to ignore the machine in favour for the PlayStation.
The Saturn, although adequate at 3D polygon graphics, was the most capable console around (except the Dreamcast) for 2D graphics. Sprites could be as large as the screen, with unlimited sprites plus translucency, rotation and scaling. The advent of RAM cartridges allowed the Saturn to extend its graphics capabilities even further, and arcade-perfect conversions of 2D games were possible where they are unfeasible and impractical for other machines. New-generation games such as X-Men vs. Street Fighter were exact conversions of the coin-op originals, and featured many enhancements, a task no other console could even approach at that time.
The Saturn was the ONLY machine with the video memory to enable 16 million colours in high-resolution, despite the fact that it is limited from going even higher with its spare video memory. These capabilities are especially useful when viewing Photo CDs with the optional adaptor. The Saturn's processing power far outclasses the PlayStation, and it has a faster CD drive. With all of these advantages, the Saturn is certainly faster and more flexible.
The Saturn had the best all-round sound system, with 16-bit digital stereo sound from CDs or from its DSP interface, plus a 24-bit digital processor (which allows various effects, like reverb) and Q-Sound compatibility for surround sound. The console can also utilise Dolby Surround (in games like FIFA '98). Chip music, especially using InVision Interactive's CyberSound system, is used to great effect, especially in NiGHTS, Shining Force 3 and Panzer Dragoon Saga.
The video capabilities of the Saturn are pretty average, but its compatibility with the TrueMotion compression system allows VHS-quality full-screen video at 30 frames per second (NTSC), with no noticeable disk-blanking whatsoever. The Saturn MPEG card allows the aforementioned capabilities but there was a growing library of MPEG video CDs, especially in the US.
The above capabilities of the Saturn prove that it should have been a major player in the world console war, and was more than capable at creating stunning games.
The bitter pill to swallow was the abandonment of the Saturn by nearly all third-party companies. EIDOS stated that the Saturn was not capable of producing any of its titles, yet first-party games such as Burning Rangers which resemble Tomb Raider 2 far surpass such games with the graphical wizardry and fluidity of movement.
Put it simply, the Saturn was the most "extreme" console, and deserved better support. It had plenty of shelf life left. Let's just hope that Sega heed the consumer warnings for Dreamcast...
Worldwide sales figures: approx. 8 million units
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