It was this week 20 years ago that Sega launched its Saturn console in the US, bringing forward the date by several months to beat the original PlayStation to market. Starved of software support and with only a few retailers on board, the ploy failed, and Sony’s machine marched to victory.
But the Saturn was a really interesting console, with dozens of great games that still hold up today. Occasionally, they turn up as digital downloads on PlayStation and Xbox consoles, but the best way to experience them is on the original machine – as long as you have some space under your TV.
The cheapest and easiest option is to pick up a UK PAL console on eBay for around £60-70 – they will often come with a few staple games like Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally and Nights into Dreams, and at least one controller. There are two drawbacks with this. First, you won’t be able to play imported Japanese games, which means you’ll miss out on quite a few cult 2D shooters and beat-’em-ups that never got a European release. Also, PAL televisions have a 50hz refresh rate as opposed to the 60hz on Japanese and US sets, so poorly converted titles will run slower and may have black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. However, many releases were carefully prepared for the European market, and Sega actually ironed out early bugs present in the original Japanese NTSC versions. It’s worth checking out retro gaming forums for advice on specific titles.
If you buy an imported Japanese machine, you’ll need a stepdown transformer so that you don’t blow your console up when you plug it in (Japanese voltage is 100v, in the UK our mains voltage is 240v), and a multi-region TV set. An easier option would be to buy an Action Replay or ST-Key cartridge, which allows you to play imported titles. You may also need to replace the internal battery, which is used for the machine’s built-in memory. Fortunately, that’s easy to do.
You’ll want to play games through a good cathode ray tube TV, or even better a CRT monitor like a Sony PVM or Trinitron, or a Hantarex ‘quadristandard’ set (available reasonably cheaply on eBay these days). If you’re determined to stick with a modern flatscreen display, and want to play lots of 2D games, I’d advise the purchase of a scan-line generator or a scaler like the Micom XRGB-mini Framemeister which will improve the visual output (although results will vary depending on your TV and the game itself). RGB Scart, RGB component, S-Video and composite connections are preferable to the default RF cable, and can all be bought online. I use Retro Gaming Cables for my older consoles, and they offer friendly advice on getting everything set up.
What to play
So what games should you buy? Well, there are staple titles that you absolutely have to own (that’s if you can find them – and afford them). The Virtua Fighter and Panzer Dragoon games, Sega Rally, Fighters Megamix, Burning Rangers, Nights, Shining Force III, Radiant Silvergun and Sega Worldwide Soccer are all great. Beyond these, the Saturn has perhaps the strongest line up of 2D shooters and fighting games in console history (and the standard Saturn controller is excellent for this genre). Capcom’s Street Fighter Alpha, XMen: Children of the Atom and Darkstalkers titles are all fabulous, as are SNK’s Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown and King of Fighters franchises.
For shooters, anything by Cave, Taoplan or Treasure is worth picking up. Radiant Silvergun, Battle Garegga, Batsugun (arguably the first bullet hell game), Darius and DoDonPachi are the key titles, but the excellent Racketboy site has a huge list of recommendations. There’s also a great rarity guide if you’re interesting in tracking down more hard-to-come-by titles.
Apart from the console itself, you can also pick up a multitap which lets you plug in up to six joypads (there’s a list of compatible games here, but the key draw is ten player Bomberman with two multitaps), and an excellent arcade stick, which will enhance all those 2D blasters and fighters. Sega also released its own analog stick, the 3D control pad, but only a handful of titles supported it – though one of these is the essential Sonic Team title Nights into Dreams, so it may well be worth hunting down. Oh, and you’ll definitely need a light gun if you have Virtua Cop.
The great thing is, Sega has a huge online community of fans and acolytes. Sites like Racketboy and Sega-16 are mines of information and have busy forums populated by friendly and knowledgeable enthusiasts. The Saturn may have failed, but it left behind almost 1,000 titles (over 250 of those for PAL territories), many of which are still worth discovering and playing in their original format. The only problem is, the Saturn is a powerful gateway drug to other similar contemporary systems. Before you know it, you’ll be clearing space for a Neo Geo, PC Engine and FM Towns Marty. The one part of the retro console experience you can’t buy on eBay is an understanding partner.