Running in Circles on a Deserted Planet

A look back at the Saturn, and some Sega history that they'd probably like to forget.

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I doubt anyone outside of Sega HQ will be celebrating this weekend, but it was this time two years ago that Sega surprised everyone in the industry at the first Electronic Entertainment Expo by launching the Saturn in the US - five months ahead of the scheduled date. It was amazing that Sega could secretly prepare an early launch without anyone knowing. Yet, they had. I bought into the initial surprise and hype, picking up a Saturn that day, May 11. I still have the receipt, too.

During the first five months of its release, new software titles were few and far between. Major third-party licensees instead turned their focus towards Sony, after having been left in the dark about Sega's secret system release. Led to believe that the system would launch in September, no licensees had software even close to being ready. By the time Sega released its own new games, it was too late to catch the PlayStation's fire.

Today, Sega continues to limp along with the Saturn, and for all intents and purposes have thrown in the towel. The Saturn remains at an MSRP of $199, and third party software support is drying up fast. If Sega didn't have the support of the few third parties that are still releasing new titles (Working Designs and Eidos among the two most prominent), there would be few or no big-name games aside from what Sega produces themselves.

In the days of the NES, Sega's Master System was a distant competitor to Nintendo's juggernaut. The NES, it seemed, could not be stopped. Nintendo's system had tons of licensees, games, and popularity that couldn't be matched. Nintendo's complete and utter dominance of the market made it hard to believe that Sega, who up to this point had captured very little of the video game market, could actually beat Nintendo. In 1989, Sega stepped into the 16-bit market with the Genesis. This time, Sega introduced the system themselves (the Master System had been handled by toy maker Tonka, with dismal results) and supported the system with their own brand of arcade games and original titles.

At that time of the Genesis launch, Nintendo had become complacent with their 8-bit success and scoffed at the suggestion that Sega's 16-bit system could pose a threat. Yet, Sega successfully paired catchy advertising ("Sega Does What Nintendon't") with arcade translations that were above and beyond anything that Nintendo's 8-bit machine could do. Still, the Genesis was expensive at $199 and had no recognizable character like Nintendo did. Sega's own Alex Kidd didn't have quite the appeal that Mario had, and it would take a great game with a recognizable character to put the Genesis over the top. That character was Sonic the Hedgehog.

I remember the first time I played Sonic the Hedgehog. I was mesmerized - the graphics were amazing compared to that of any Mario game, and the character was immediately identifiable. Sonic was the key that opened up the 16-bit market to Sega. The Genesis began to sell in droves, and third-party licensees signed on left and right. Electronic Arts first stepped into the console business with the Genesis, beginning a line of sports games that have since been updated almost yearly. Sega had finally done what would have been thought impossible a year earlier - beaten Nintendo at their own game.

That is, until Nintendo released their 16-bit entry, the Super Nintendo. There was never a clear winner in the 16-bit race, but in its last days Nintendo regained the upper hand. When Sega attempted to add-on the Genesis with the Sega CD and the 32X, it fumbled the ball. They split their Genesis audience into sections, and couldn't support them all. Customers burned by the 32X just six months before the launch of the Saturn weren't about to buy in to the new $400 Sega system. Sega misjudged their 32X stopgap, and instead ended up disappointing people instead of gaining fans.

It was two years ago, and Sega's outlook was great. Sure, there had been problems with the 32X and the Sega CD - but this one was going to be different. Now, the Saturn is a distant third to Sony and Nintendo. It's not because there's a lack of quality software on the system - if that were the only thing that "made" a video game system, the Saturn might still be on top. It took too long for Sega to bring Sonic to their 32-bit system (and only now do we get a Sonic Collection), and mistakes made early on in the Saturn's life cost them the 32-bit market. One can only hope that their past mistakes will be left behind with the release of Sega's next system.

If you're a Saturn owner, take some time this weekend to sit down and play a game or two of Virtua Fighter - the game that launched the US Saturn in 1995 - and wish the Saturn a happy second birthday.

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