Sega’s Demise – The Sega Saturn Part 1
The 32 bit era is possibly one of my favorite in gaming – and for a number of reasons. The first were the games. There were some incredible titles released on all 3 of the major competing consoles (Sega’s Saturn, Sony’s Playstation, and Nintendo’s N64). The era also marks when I was first starting to learn about how consoles and computers actually were put together and worked too. The last and perhaps most important is that this era teaches us a good set of lessons of what can happen to a console developer if they make a series of wrong decisions.
The 16 bit era was largely over, and while there were a few big titles still being released, all eyes were on the next generation. The Sega CD and 32X had both been failures (although the Sega CD / Mega CD at least had somewhat respectable sales), and honestly we were all drooling over games like Virtua Fighter in the arcades.
The Sega Saturn was released to all the world by late July of 1995, the US got the system in May, while Japan got their hands on the Saturn in November, 1994! The system was released with a few titles that were note-worthy. Chief among them Sega’s own Virtua Fighter, Daytona USA and Panzer Dragoon. There were murmurs of doubt on launch though – especially from VF and Daytona. Both games were of poor graphical quality. VF in particular had terrible textures and graphics compared to the arcade version, and Daytona had various sacrifices too.
That didn’t stop consumers rushing out to buy it though. I pretty much managed to convince my parents to grab one for me at Christmas (1995), and boy was I excited. I don’t know if I was simply unlucky, or if it was a running theme with launch models but my system would choose to power up only about 50 percent of the time. The other 50 percent of the time it would give a blinking power light. I’d already bought Virtua Cop and Virtua Fighter – along with another control pad. So there I was, needing to send the system back shortly after I had it. I wasn’t deterred, I just wanted to play it all the more though.
I did wonder why a few magazines (not the Saturn exclusive ones) were so down on VF though when I finally got my Saturn back, to me – it looked incredible. My friend and I were playing it, and my goodness – it was astounding. Little did I know there were a number of technical issues buried inside the black plastic box.
Saturn – Complicated Hardware
Yu Suzuki himself (Creator of titles like Virtua Fighter and Shenmu) said that he’d have preferred a more elegant solution to the Saturn’s hardware. Indeed he is quoted in saying “One very fast central processor would be preferable. I don’t think all programmers have the ability to program two CPUs—most can only get about one-and-a-half times the speed you can get from one SH-2. I think that only 1 in 100 programmers are good enough to get this kind of speed [nearly double] out of the Saturn.”
So what on earth was wrong? Well, Sony were wooing developers with a very easy to program games console. The Playstation 1 was simple to program for, with a single CPU design, with a powerful GPU. The system lacked in certain ways (such as total RAM) but generally, developers found it a snap to be able to create code for. This wasn’t the case for the Saturn. Many who played both machines will tell you the same story – the Saturn rocked at 2d. 2d games on the Saturn were substantially better than the PS, thanks to hardware better capable of 2d and more RAM. The Playstation meanwhile had been designed to be a 3d monster.
Sega had gotten wind of how powerful the PS1 was turning out to be, and at the last minute changed their mind on the spec. They were forced to add a second CPU and VDP (video processing), along with a slew of other components. Furthermore, not on were these components off the shelf, they weren’t designed to work together well. Both CPU’s were sharing the same System Bus, and were left unable to access memory registers simultaneously. This meant that was CPU was always waiting while the other accessed the System’s Ram. There was 4KB of Cache tied to each CPU, but this rather tiny amount (the system had 2.5MB of ram) was critical in keeping a high system performance. To further add insult to injury for developers, Sega’s support to them was well… crap. Its programs tools were lacking, and it wasn’t until later that Sega developed decent tools and started handing them out.
Certain games, such as Tomb Raider made some of the 3d graphical shortcomings rather painful to witness. Triangles were the standard used by the Nintendo 64 and Sony’s Playstation, while the Saturn didn’t want any of that – quadrilaterals were where it was it. Most of the industry’s standard design tools were based on triangles, with independent texture UV coordinates specified per vertex. One of the challenges brought forth by quadrilateral-based rendering was problems textured surfaces containing triangles. In order to make a triangular shaped object, rendering had a fourth side with a length of zero. This technique proved problematic as it caused texture distortion and required careful reworking to achieve the desired appearance – Sega provided tools for remapping textures from UV space into rectangular tiles.
They did have their advantage, such as better approximation of perspective in some instances – certain games such as Wipeout demonstrated this. Clipping on the Saturn was also terrible, and it had huge issues with transparencies. Good programmers could get around it, but it wasn’t simple.
The 3DO and the Amiga CD32 were obviously not contenders by this point – and the it was obvious there were only three consoles on peoples minds. Sega’s Saturn, the Sony Playstation and finally Nintendo’s 64. Sega had decided to push for an early launch – its plan was simple and in theory sound – to get the drop on Sony and Nintendo and get a swoop on the market. The problem with this plan was simple – many games just weren’t ready. The reasons the magazines and games journalists were bashing Daytona and Virtua Fighter for the Saturn was quite simply that the games weren’t polished. Many third part developers hadn’t time to get their titles out either – and missed the launch window.
In Japan the system was launched 6 weeks ahead of schedule, while in the US it was launched 6 months early. This early launch left many games developers no time to translate their Japanese titles from to English, and was one of the reasons the Saturn’s launch lineup looked so strange in the US. Developers weren’t the only ones surprised – Sony were too. They’d little time to think of a counter strategy, and I remember the buzz when Sony decided to cut the price point of the Playstation on launch day – to only $299 in the US. This was a $100 difference between Sega’s system and Sony’s.
There were a number of things going against the Saturn before it’d even seen the light of day – the first was Sega’s past history. Sega had all too quickly abandoned the unpopular 32X and the Sega Mega CD, but also the still popular Genesis was receiving less and less support. Many expected Sega to continue to support the system for awhile after the Saturn’s release, but the support from first party games especially dried up. The millions who still owned a Mega Drive / Genesis and were waiting for Christmas to roll around to choose a system felt they’d be left in the lurch. They already felt angry that they’d bought systems that were effectively DOA (especially the 32X, which unlike the CD had only 1 or 2 good games for it, unlike the Sega CD, which had several classic releases).
Another issue is Sega changed marketing strategy – the rebellious image Sega had created through hype and marketing was left behind, and in its place more subtle adverts replaced it. It’s worthy of note that in the UK at least, especially later on some of the adverts were almost insulting. Sega would run “adverts” which would show an incredible game – but point out it was ALREADY released in Japan and we’d have to wait and then we could maybe compete with the Japanese gamers to be as good as them. Not exactly smooth marketing, considering internet gaming wasn’t exactly as it is now, and the prospect of waiting 3 – 6 months for a game to be released was frustrating enough, let alone snippets of it playing on TV to be told that others were already enjoying it.
The Saturn by this point had a series of issues – lack of 3d hardware (or at least, difficult to use to its fullest potential), $100 higher price point than the Playstation, worse looking games on launch (thanks to it being rushed). Worst of all, loss of faith from some of its original customers thanks to the fiasco of cutting support too early for the Genesis and the shoddy treatment of 32X and Sega CD.
Another strange decision – No Sonic on launch. Indeed, the system would go through its entire life without seeing a Sonic released on the system, at least an original one. Several ports were made, and one title (Sonic Jam( allowed a very cool 3d sonic to wander around fully 3d world. It looked very impressive (using I believe a build of the Nights into Dreams engine), but nothing more was made. The 3d sections were just a mini game to pretty much tie in the ability to play older sonic games – which many Saturn owners already had, thanks to likely sticking with Sega after the Genesis. Sure there were nice bonuses, including better music – but who cares. The 3d was fantastic, but that’s it? Well there was also Sonic 3d Blast (also available on the Genesis and PC), and Sonic Racing. No ‘proper’ Sonic game. Indeed, it went through several stages of development – including a new engine, but the title never ended up emerging.
Many believe it was a HUGE mistake for Sega to not release a Sonic on launch – even if it’d be a 2d sonic that featured better graphics and sound. Something – anything to remind fans of the reason they’d purchased the Mega Drive / Genesis.
Part three coming soon.