My Year With The Sega Saturn

In my final year of college, I realized that I had surprisingly little knowledge on the Sega Saturn. Sure, I knew its top games and basic hardware, but not much else; especially compared to my knowledge of the Sega Genesis and Dreamcast. I decided I would dedicate my final year of college to the Saturn; buying games and reading all I could about the system. In doing so, not only did I learn all about the system, I also learned about game accessibility, the game industry, and myself.

I wanted to start off with a bang, so the first game I bought for my Saturn during this time was Virtual On, with its Twin Stick peripheral. I love playing Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram on my 360 and spiritual successor Gundam Extreme VS: Full Boost on my PS3, so I wanted to experience the origins of this type of mecha fighting game. I honestly wasn’t sure if I could even use the Twin Sticks (my toes reaching the triggers on the joysticks was a concern) but to my surprise, I could play very well. I never realized how much better Twin Sticks make Virtual On. Out of all the mecha games I’ve ever played, this felt like the most realistic one of them all thanks to the controls, graphics be damned.

At the same time I started playing Virtual On, I began to  really get into game accessibility. I bought an adapter to use Sega Saturn controllers on my computer because at one point, I was developing a PC game that used the Twin Stick peripheral. I eventually realized the market for PC gamers that use odd Saturn controllers was too small to even consider, but I did learn how to juggle multiple control schemes within one game. I had gamepad, twin stick, mouse, and keyboard control layouts all accounted for. It was fun figuring out how to balance a game for multiple inputs and helped me realize how different a game experience can be based on its input device. Multiple controller options are important in the world of game accessibility so it was awesome that the Sega Saturn was my entry point on learning how to implement multiple layouts. Sadly, I had to shelve the game to focus on game projects related to work or school, though I’m considering working on it again in the future.

The majority of Sega Saturn games I purchased during my final year were imported Capcom games. I grew up on Capcom arcade games and was delighted to see their arcade ports to the Saturn are incredible. I couldn’t believe how much better Vampire Savior plays on Saturn compared to Playstation. I wrote a featured article on Gamasutra back in March about colorblind inaccessibility in Saturn games and ragged on Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo because it was my favorite puzzle game on the system. It frustrated me that some people couldn’t play it although I saw someone recently modded the arcade and GBA versions to be colorblind-friendly which is awesome. I doubt my article influenced the modder at all but I’m happy to see the game is finally playable to more people! I may look into making the Saturn version accessible at some point if there’s demand.

On the topic of accessibility, I found out through a comment on my Gamasutra article that Sega required button remapping on Sega Saturn releases. And to my surprise, Sega’s documentation for Saturn developers indeed mentions button remapping. I was amazed an accessibility topic was embraced by a major game company back in the 90s, especially because I personally benefit from remapping. However, I did a small test and found neither Sonic R nor Sonic Jam have any kind of button remapping. While remapping might have been a priority at launch, it was later overlooked. Still, Sega mentioning remapping as good practice when games today still lack remapping gets my respect.

As my college days came to an end, I started reading every issue of Sega Saturn Magazine UK. I finished the last issue almost a year after I started (I took a long hiatus) and more than anything, this magazine contextualized the Saturn’s rise and fall for me. I never understood how many cool games the Saturn was getting every month despite the Nintendo 64 and Playstation crushing it overall. I loved reading interviews with the development teams responsible for the Sega arcade ports like Sega Rally Championship and Virtua Fighter 2. The positive attitude of the magazine, even in the Saturn’s demise at the end, was refreshing. I could tell the staff had a blast making each issue.

I’d say the coolest company highlighted by Sega Saturn Magazine UK had to be Lobotomy Software. Their work on porting Powerslave (Exhumed in the UK), Duke Nukem 3D, and Quake to the Saturn was nothing short of amazing. Initially when looking back on these ports, I wasn’t impressed. The games ran well below the 60 frames a second I’m used to today. But then I looked closer and realized Lobotomy did incredible work creating the best home ports of these PC classics, even adding additional levels and dynamic lighting not present in the original games. Their company culture also seemed appealing such as when a programmer made a small minigame called Death Tank that they not only spent most of their lunch breaks playing, but also put in Duke Nukem 3D! I wish Lobotomy stuck around during the Dreamcast era as I’m sure they would have brought excellent ports to the system.

I’m glad I spent a year focusing on Sega Saturn games. I’ve played many games and learned about company culture from various game studios, most of which no longer exist today. Hearing the Saturn’s rise and fall from multiple perspectives helped me contextualize its importance in the early days of 3D gaming. Not to mention my own game accessibility work started indirectly because of my interest the Saturn! I’ll never stop playing Sega Saturn, the system that goes beyond the stars and pierces the heavens.