SEGA SATURN, SHIRO!
In the pantheon of failed video game machines, few remain as divisive and paradoxical as 32-bit super machine, the Sega Saturn. The Saturn, Sega's second, more-well-known yet somehow less-discussed 32-bit game machine, exists in a unique position in the history of video games. A paradox of expectations, average retro-gamer looking to get into the Saturn experiences many conflicting conversations when discussing the Saturn's legacy. While the Saturn was unambiguously a commercial failure - a very distant 3rd at 10 million world wide sales compared to the 40 million the N64 saw and the 102 million the PSX saw - it's critical reception has only gotten better with age. Similarly, while the Saturn remained a generally unexplored, niche gaming system compared to its contemporaries, given the context in which the Saturn was released (coming off of a monstrous 16-bit generation where Sega was a major player, and, at times, the majority player), by virtue of the name Sega being attached to the machine, it was still noticeably higher profile than, say, the 3DO or Atari Jaguar. And, because, despite their slumping market value in the mid-90's, Sega was still one of the premiere developers in the world, the Saturn is afforded a library that has more clout than a system of the Saturn's stature can normally muster up. What we end up with today is a niche console with relative mainstream awareness, a commercial failure with a critically successful library, and a legacy that, over 15 years later, is still fluid and changing, with the public conversation on the console being far from over. Of all of Sega's consoles, the Saturn is probably the console which is still the most interesting to talk about.In the beginning...
As with all Sega consoles that followed the Genesis that were not named the Dreamcast, the development and launch of the Saturn itself seems to overshadow discussions of the merit of the console itself. The narrative of Sega's post-genesis succession is largely cemented in public consciousness today, but for the sake of this topic it still bares repeating, if only to give context into how and why the Saturn failed. To understand the conditions which birthed the Saturn, one must grasp the duality of Sega at this point in time. Going back to about 1993, Sega was very much a company divided. Sega of America and Sega of Japan were at odds with one another, while at the same time, Sega's home consumer market was shrinking in contrast to Sega's arcade division, which was entering a golden age for the company.
The home consumer market belonged primarily to Sega of America, and years prior, this was the branch of the company, as well as the marketplace, which had saved the company from bankruptcy. While the Sega Mega Drive failed in japan, pulling a distant 3rd place finish to the Super Famicom (SNES) and PC Engine Duo (Turbo Duo), in the west, off the back of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega had managed the unthinkable - they had sustained over 50% of the home video game marketplace, dethroning Nintendo as the top video game producer in the world, even without Japan's support. And, though sales in this division were slowing by 1994, this was the division that was the backbone of the entire company.
By contrast, the Arcade division belonged primarily to Sega of Japan, headlined by the spectacular AM2 division. By 1994, AM2 had clearly entered a golden period for the company, producing among the greatest hits in Sega's star-studded history. Commercial and critical smash hits such as Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter, both produced on Sega's legendary Model 1 board, only added fuel to a fierce rivalry between Sega's US branch and Sega's Japanese branch. The Japanese branch was incredibly frustrated by their position within the company. Their branch was responsible for the biggest hits in the company, yet the power lied overseas with the US Branch, who despite lesser output, still controlled the companies fate via marketshare. So long as the Genesis remained alive, Sega of Japan was doomed to play second fiddle.
At this point in time, it was clear that the Model 1 arcade board was a vision into the company's future, and thus plans were put into place to produce a home console equivalent that would bring the Model 1 feel home, similar to how the System 16 inspired the Sega Genesis (to a degree). And, much like the transition from System 16 to genesis, the transition from Model 1 to home console was expected to result in slightly downgraded visuals, as a compromise to offset the cost of expensive arcade hardware. And thus, the two branches of the company produced their own successors to the Genesis, each with a completely different goal in mind.
The US branch produced, of course, the 32X. A spectacular failure that has been much discussed, the 32X was conceived with a very western-centric goal in mind - to extend the lifeline of the Sega Genesis, which still held over 40% of the marketshare at the time. The 32X, despite being a target for various Model 1 ports such as Super Star Wars Arcade, Virtua Racing Deluxe, and Virtua Fighter 1, was actually a fair bit closer to the Sega System 24 arcade board of the time (which allowed for spectacular arcade ports, like Afterburner).
It was a miserable flop.
Sega of Japan made little effort to support the 32X. The incentive for the branch to provide games for the machine just was not there - Japan resented Sega of America's success and saw little reason to keep the Mega Drive around. At the same time the 32X was in development, Sega of Japan had been producing their own 32-bit machine. Essentially a cross between the System 32 and Model 1 arcade boards, the Saturn, then dubbed Aurora, would be the system Sega of Japan placed all their bets upon. Utilizing 2 SH2 CPUs - twice that of the 32X - the Saturn was intended to be an arcade machine in a box. Incredibly powerful 2D hardware complimented similarly powerful audio hardware to produce a console that was to be the king of arcade ports.Failure to Launch
By mid-'95, the situation in the west had dramatically shifted. Though the Saturn had already launched in Japan, it remained unlaunched in America and Europe as the 32X languished in sales. The Saturn, in truth, was not ready for world-wide commercial launch, as a few unforeseen instances had occurred between the Saturn's conception and the middle of 1995 that dramatically shifted the gaming climate. First, Sega's own arcade technology had progressed much quicker than anticipated. Upon it's creation, the Model 1 was earth shattering. It was well beyond anything else on the market. A year later, however, the Model 1 had been surpassed by the Model 2, which provided much better graphics. Suddenly targeting the model 1's output for the saturn made the machine look dated.
To compound matters, the Saturn was a 2D beast at heart, and every aspect of the machine reflected this, even the 3D bits of the system. Unlike what would eventually go on to become the standard unit for anything built in 3D, the 3-point polygon, the saturn instead relied on quads - polygons made up of at least 4 points. This was done because the saturn's "polygons" were in fact just 2D textures that were warped, rotated, and stretched into the correct shape, and because the Model 1 arcade board used quads as well. As time would go on, 3-point polygons would become the standard, giving Saturn games a very odd, very unique look. Furthermore, since 3-point polygons became the standard, all tools made that would later make games creation easier were built around this standard - so none of them were compatible with the saturn. All sorts of modeling tools were the same way. Because of the decision to go with warped quads as the basic polygon, absolutely every tool had to be custom made for the saturn.
Finally, Sony had shown its hand. At E3 1995, Sony showcased a machine with 3D capabilities which were much closer to Sega's Model 2 board in look than the Saturn. And they had announced a cheaper price than the saturn as well - $199 vs the $399 the saturn would retail for. Now, in actuality, the Playstation and Saturn were much closer machines than anyone really knew, the initial perception was that the Playstation was a full step ahead of the Saturn, which sort of set this per-conceived notion that the Saturn was much weaker, an image the Saturn never managed to shrug off.
In an effort to turn the tides, Sega surprise-launched the Saturn in may of 1995 without many games, and only at select retailers. Outlets such as Walmart were so pissed that they never, ever carried saturn stuff. The port of Virtua Fighter which accompanied the Saturn - a model 1 game - was so flawed that many consider the 32X version to be superior, only slightly sacrificing graphics for a much better draw distance. One by one, the games on the saturn at launch were trounced by superior playstation titles - Daytona USA was a miserable port compared to Ridge Racer and Virtua Fighter was poor compared to Tekken. While these earlier games were closer to tech demos than actual games, they cemented the opinion that the Saturn was a much lower class machine. From launch, the Saturn was essentially dead in the water. The public paid attention to it only really during that one launch window, and wrote it off.Commercial Disaster
Much has been said about Sega's initial public image with the Saturn - about how people saw it as premature, underpowered hardware - and how that turned the tide for Sony early in the format war. And, while that is true, what isn't discussed enough is Sega's reaction to this negative public perception. Sega left each region to their own devices to brand and market the saturn however they saw fit, and all 3 regions went with wildly different approaches.
Sega of Japan enjoyed the most success, where the Saturn is seen as a successful console. Compared to the rest of the world, the Saturn was downright mainstream in japan, far more so than any Sega console before. In this regard, Sega of Japan's strategy with the saturn was a success - Japan once again was producing the best games, and it had the best sales. The japanese marketing for the Saturn was superb. The branding of the Saturn, the actual Sega Saturn logo, is more elaborate, and more eye catching than in any other region:
This logo adorned everything from the console to the cases themselves. Games came in jewel cases with elaborate spin cards attached:
The Sega Saturn also had an absurdly popular commercial ad campaign revolving around a fictional character named Segata Sanshiro, a karate expert who has dedicated his life to all things sega, and forcing a decadent public into playing Sega Saturn. His name is a pun on the phrase Sega Saturn, Shiro!
meaning "You must play Sega Saturn!" In Japan, these ads were popular enough to spawn a Segata Sanshiro game for the saturn itself. And years later, these commercials are probably the enduring legacy of the Sega Saturn in japan, as they've become synonymous with the system around the internet. A sample:
However, no matter how correct or appropriate the Japanese branding and marketing of the Saturn was for that region, the handling of the saturn outside of japan was so appalling that it virtually negated all the efforts of Sega of Japan.
To understand how big a role advertising played in Sega's history, all one has to do is look back on the days when they became the top dog. Aggressive, "I'm better than you are" advertising was Sega's bread and butter during the formative days of the video game industry. From the get go, Sega marketed their Genesis with a very confrontational series of ads aimed directly at Nintendo:
The choice of all the imagery in this early advertising was focused directly onto an edgy image. They aligned themselves with sports megastars, music icons, disney legends. They spat in the eye of the current champion, Nintendo, and screamed "I'm here!" And it worked. Sega built this entire brand off of this edgy energy they created. It ultimately personified itself as the Sega Scream seen in so many ads throughout the years:Sega Scream Video
When Sega of Japan launched the saturn and effectively took control back of the company, they ignored the culture which had created the success of the Genesis in the west. Thus, with the launch of the Sega Saturn, the west saw a vast departure from the way Sega marketed itself.
Sega's tone abruptly shifted from an edgy tone towards something a bit more art-crowd. The early launch-era advertising for the saturn featured surrealist print ads and promotional videos, along with bits of the grotesque:Kinda gross
Europe faired a bit better in comparison. Europe had developed a sort of dark mystic about the Sega brand during the Mega Drive days, and their commercials reflected a darker tone, as seen in this Mega CD promotional video:Mega CD video
Europe also had better branding. Saturn games came in cases that are roughly the same size and shape as DVD boxes, with a black spine:
These hold up great and look fairly modern against Playstation and Nintendo 64 branding. They're also very sturdy. In all, Europe's handling of the saturn was passible. It certainly left a lot to be desired, but it didn't offend too badly.
The handling of the Sega Saturn in North America, however, was unacceptable. Beginning with the branding of the Saturn. Both Europe and North America share the same font and logo for the Sega Saturn. Europe branded the Saturn with black as it's primary color:
While in the US, the main branding color for the saturn was goddamn white:
That font, and that logo, look miserable on white. It's astounding that somebody could have looked at these assets and decided that it looked most appealing on white! This isn't to say anything about the actual logo and font themselves - they look amateurish and hastily thrown together. The font, when written on the sides of the boxes, looks almost like comic sans when set against a white background because of how thin the lines look. It's one of the ugliest visual designs I've seen in a long time.
Now, Sega also borrowed the branding mechanism from the previous line of games in America, where-in the spines of each case were striped with slightly darker shades of the branding color. This meant that Genesis games had ugly red and maroon stripes, Sega CD games had awesome blue and navy stripes, game gear games had alright purple and violet stripes, and 32X games had unique yellow and gold stripes. Now, given that the Saturn's brand color was white, this resulted in White and gray stripes. What a goddamn travesty:
Another glaring problem with the branding is that they're still using those annoyingly fragile, unique-and-special-snowflake giant CD case that they used with the Sega CD. Anybody who has experienced one of these knows how fragile and difficult to replace they are. Throw all this together and you wind up with one terrible brand for a game console that already has a serious image problem.
After the still-birth launch of the Saturn, Sega abandoned their weird and disgusting advertising style and tried to force a hardcore image. These strange, slightly combative, yet still surreal advertisements did little for the saturn's image:Commercial 2Commercial 3
By around mid 1996 to early 1997, Sega had reverted back to it's earlier marketing strategies from the Genesis days. A slightly more refined style, with the classic sega scream, and a generally great bundling option is probably what made the few people who remember the final days of the saturn perk up:
Commercial 2Commercial 3
The final US advertising was bizarre and centered around the SEGA: Hard Stuff ad campaign
Sega's handling of the Saturn started off piss poor in the US and gradually grew to be merely terrible. It made zero impact in the public consciousness' opinion of the saturn, and that the most successful ad campaign for the system surrounded what was essentially a white flag for the console is all one needs to know to sum up Sega of America's commitment to the Saturn. Bernie Stolar's "The Saturn is not our future" comment sort of cemented any lingering thoughts gamer's had about Sega trying to turn the console's fortunes around. I believe the surprise launch of the system forced Sega to rush together an ad campaign that was unfocused and untested. Put up against sony's URNot(Red)E campaign, Sega never had a chance.