2005-10-18 21:31:55 UTC
SEGA SATURN - The Pleasure and the Pain
by Greg Sewart
Back in 1985, when Nintendo successfully resurrected the videogame
industry in the U.S. with their Nintendo Entertainment System, it
didn't take long for other hardware manufacturers - both American and
Japanese - to enter the fray. Sega was one such manufacturer, releasing
their technologically superior Sega Master System soon after Nintendo
entered the market. They enjoyed about as much success as anyone
outside of Nintendo did back in those days, which is to say they
secured, at best, about 5% of the market.
Flash forward to 1993, where Sega's 16-bit Genesis has not only gained
ground, but by some accounts actually wrested a majority share of the
market away from Nintendo and their 16-bit SNES. Sega's rise from the
ashes and subsequent success can be attributed to two things: the
hiring of former Mattel toys executive Tom Kalinske, and Sega of
Japan's decision to let him do whatever he thought necessary to grow
Sega in the American marketplace.
In Kalinske's own words: "I went to Japan and told the board we had to
take Altered Beast out of the hardware, put our best title Sonic the
Hedgehog (which was joint US and Japan development) in, lower the
hardware price to $149.00, staff up in the U.S. and develop a lot more
American Sports and licensed titles, Provide large incentives for the
3rd Party community to support us, and take on Nintendo in our
advertising by making fun of them, telling the world that our Genesis
Games were better, and targeting teens not kids ( i.e. we became one of
the largest advertisers on MTV). The board talked in Japanese for about
an hour, at the end Nakayama -san said we don't agree with anything you
want to do and started to leave the room. I thought that was the
shortest CEO tenure in history, but he turned at the door and said "I
promised you a free hand so go ahead with your plans, we'll support
"Our sports titles along with EA's were great, our Strategy and Role
Playing Games targeted the older male, we had the hot licenses, and
Sonic was one of the best games ever made. In a short time we had a
50+% share of the console market."
But a series of horrible, often baffling decisions in the following
years would see Sega take a dramatic plunge from top videogame hardware
manufacturer to struggling also-ran, ultimately getting out of the
manufacturing business altogether. The beginning of the end, in most
fans' eyes, is the Sega Saturn.
What Went Wrong?
The Saturn was supposed to be Sega's big hit. Designed to finally keep
the home gaming experience authentic to that of the arcade, the Saturn
was based on Sega's System32 and Model 1 arcade hardware. Reports on
the system specs in late 1993 had developers drooling over the
possibilities, not to mention the power. The Saturn would be a sprite
manipulating monster, meaning amazing 2D games, while having some
moderate capabilities in the 3D arena. Considering the Saturn's sole
competition at that point was believed to be the 3DO Multiplayer,
everything seemed in place for Sega to continue their dominance of the
home console market.
And then everything went haywire. Sony, not willing to give up on the
game industry after its plans to manufacture a CD add-on for Nintendo's
SNES went south, had decided to re-invent their PS-X as a standalone
console. It too released its system's specifications to the public
immediately following Sega, and they were better than the proposed
Saturn in just about every single way. Sony promised more horsepower,
amazing 3D graphics capabilities, and most importantly, a super
user-friendly collection of system libraries, meaning game developers
would be able to concentrate more on design rather than manhandling the
system in an attempt to utilize its power.
"Everyone knew what the PlayStation architecture was to be; it was felt
to be superior, so everyone was waiting," says Kalinske, regarding the
loss of third-party support for the Saturn right from the get-go.
The stage was set. Sega was behind the eight ball. It turned out they
would remain there permanently.
Considering both systems were just a year away from launch, Sega
scrambled. Sega R&D was given the year to rebuild the Saturn into
something that had a chance of competing with Sony's proposed hardware.
With no time to build any sort of custom chip, the team had to rely on
throwing expensive, off-the-shelf parts at the Saturn in order to
compensate. The end result was a quite powerful, and quite difficult to
develop for dual-processor system. So much for the elegant, ultimate 2D
powerhouse Sega had planned to build.
Working Designs' Victor Ireland speaks from the perspective of a
third-party publisher: "[The Saturn] was really hard to develop for if
you wanted to take advantage of its parallel processing, and the tools
weren't very friendly. We were one of only a handful of developers in
the US that had a Japanese UNIX dev system because we were localizing
Japanese games. People doing it from scratch were using Windows/DOS
based dev kits from England. Neither was really all that friendly, and
we never got the system debugger working right on the UNIX system. When
you have an expensive console with tepid support from retail, it's
easier to justify going with the new guy that has a cheaper console
with bigger buzz. Developers went with Sony."
Upon the Japanese launch of both systems in late 1994, it seemed to
most folks that Sega had sidestepped the landmine that was the PS-X
(newly renamed the PlayStation), as Saturns were flying off the shelves
and, according to Sega, outselling Sony's hardware. The fact that
owning a Saturn was the only way to play the smash hit Virtua Fighter
at home didn't hurt, either.
As it turns out, however, Sega had only bought itself a stay of
As the late 1995 U.S. launch of both systems approached, Sega knew it
had a problem. Virtua Fighter wasn't nearly as popular in North America
as it was in the Land of the Rising Sun, and wouldn't likely drive a
successful system launch. It was at this point a fateful decision was
During the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May of 1995, both Sega and
Sony were expected to use their keynote address at the beginning of the
show to discuss their 32-bit systems, proposed price point, and planned
CEO of Sega of America - Tom Kalinske - took the stage first and
shocked the entire videogame world by informing everyone that the
Saturn's launch date was, in fact,
Sony's PlayStation specs simply spanked the Saturn's.
that day. Systems and a handful of games had been shipped to retailers
nationwide and would go on sale that morning with an MSRP of $399.99.
This was four months earlier than the "official" release date of Sept.
It seemed Sega had won the first battle as Sony Computer Entertainment
America President Steve Race took to the stage next to discuss his
plans for the PlayStation. After organizing a few pages and readying
what seemed like it would be a long, boring speech, he leaned forward
and said one thing, "U.S. $299." Once again Sony had beaten Sega at its
own game. The only up side was that the Saturn still had a head start
in the U.S. market, as Sony had no plans of pushing up the holiday 1995
Unfortunately, that opportunity was squandered when Sega released only
two more games between their surprise launch and what was to be the
system's official release in September. Apparently, the decision had
been made so late that not even Sega, let alone their third party
developers, could ready their games in time to take advantage of this
head start. When the PlayStation finally was released, Sega had to
resort to bundling in older games with the system in order to offset
the $100 price advantage of Sony's system.
"The surprise launch angered many retailers and didn't give some
customers enough time to save up. The way they handled things
throughout was a huge mess," recalls
Tom Kalinske -- the man who basically saved Sega with the Genesis --
would be stripped of all power and eventually leave Sega during the
Dave Zdyrko, whose site sega-saturn.com was widely regarded as the
pinnacle of Saturn fansites in its day. " Things like that, their poor
advertising efforts, and poor third party support really sent them on a
downward spiral as a hardware company that they weren't able to recover
Kalinske remembers it as a situation where Sega was basically backed
into a corner: " We all knew PlayStation was coming so we wanted to
pre-empt them. Japan basically ordered us to be on shelf in the Fall,
[so] I thought up the surprise launch as a way of generating excitement
and PR. However, the downside was not enough software was ready, which
was a significant problem, and the surprise benefited some retailers
but annoyed others who were either not included or didn't receive a
large enough initial allocation of hardware. On top of that, the price
was really too high. If we'd had a larger number of units to launch
correctly with all retailers, and if we'd had a few more software
titles, I think the result would have been significantly better. On the
other hand if we'd waited until PlayStation was in the market I think
the results would have been even worse."
By this time Tom Kalinske and his team, who had been so successful in
making Sega a relevant hardware company in North America, had been
pretty much stripped of all power, basically doing what Sega of Japan
told them to. By July of 1996, Kalinske had had enough, and resigned
his position as President of SoA, taking most of his executive staff
with him. In a show of support for Kalinske, Sega founder David Rosen
also left the company. Strangely, Hayao Nakayama, the man responsible
for almost all of the decisions being made at Sega, also resigned in
deference to his old friend, Rosen, though he did remain on the board.
Working Designs' always outspoken President, Victor Ireland: "I always
thought [Tom] was a fantastic public face for SEGA of America. He was
articulate, and knew his way around a TV interview. When he left, it
was definitely a loss for SEGA."
The following three years would see Sega's dramatic freefall from
industry leader to owning about 1% of the gaming market. Although Sega
itself constantly produced quality titles for the system, and somehow
managed to have a strong holiday season every year, the lack of
third-party support (thanks to difficult-to-program-for system
architecture) and the need to constantly drop the price of the system
was simply a deadly combination, and one that no system manufacturer
would be able to overcome.
More importantly, the decisions made during that time by Sega of Japan
(and to some extent, Sega of America under new leader Bernie Stolar)
took the fan-friendly image Kalinske had given Sega and basically
destroyed it, as Sega abruptly cut support for all systems but the
Saturn despite the millions of Genesis consoles still sitting in homes
around the world. A couple of years later, Stolar would pull a similar
stunt by publicly announcing that the Saturn was "not Sega's future"
while the system was still on the market, basically killing what little
support was left for the console.
"Bernie absolutely contributed to the early demise of the Saturn in the
US. He pushed for it." Says Ireland of Stolar pulling the rug out from
under Saturn fans. "Having seen the Dreamcast R&D, and either ignoring
or being naive about the reality of the timeline necessary to bring it
to market, he pushed to kill the Saturn so he could start over with
Dreamcast and "save" Sega.
"The sad thing about the choice made by him was that the Dreamcast
wasn't as close as he thought and killing the Saturn so early when it
was a viable platform left a gap until the Dreamcast was released and a
large bad taste with retailers and consumers. The platform started
badly and ended in disaster, and it didn't deserve it."
With the Genesis, Sega had lived the ultimate underdog success story,
knocking a complacent giant off its throne and becoming number one.
Suddenly, they found themselves making all the same mistakes as their
old nemesis, Nintendo had, by underestimating the scrappy, upstart Sony
Computer Entertainment. By the end of 1995, Sony had managed to sell
300,000 PlayStations in the U.S. in just three months, compared to the
120,000 Saturns Sega had managed to move in seven months. A year later,
Sony was looking about 2 million systems sold through to Sega's 900k.
By 1997, retailers were slashing the price of the Saturn hardware of
their own accord, just to dump what stock they had left.
By March of 1998, less than three years after the system was introduced
to the American market, Sega officially discontinued the Saturn. In the
five years between the announcement of the Saturn and its subsequent
death, Sega had lost the entire management team from the Genesis' glory
days, about 70% of its staff, and over $1.07 billion. They would not
return to the console market for another 18 months, this time with the
similarly ill-fated Dreamcast.
Fan's Eye View
Despite all the ridiculous politicking and general discord within Sega,
there were still some die-hard Saturn fans out there. Particularly on
the internet, where some pretty major Saturn fansites started popping
up to feed the ever-growing community of fanatical Saturn owners.
What's interesting about the Saturn community is that it pretty much
took care of itself. Importing games had, up until the Saturn's
release, been something only practiced by the hardest of the hardcore
gamers. This was "primarily because Sega did such a poor job of
bringing over many of the popular and hyped niche titles that came out
Gamers here weren't that happy with the amount of quality software
being released and were forced to import," according to Dave Zdyrko.
However, the game import market enjoyed a bit of a boom thanks to the
Saturn. Ask any old-school gamer today, and they'll likely tell you
their importing days began in the mid-90s, thanks to Sega's little
One of the main reasons the Saturn enjoyed the following it did was
simply because Sega as a development house was firing on all cylinders.
With a mixture of superb arcade conversions and creative, original
content that you could only get on the Saturn, it made the lack of
third party support on a system a bit easier to handle. It's very
similar to the position Nintendo finds itself in with the GameCube,
where legions of Nintendo fans will put up with a general lack of
support third-party wise in order to play the odd Nintendo-developed
There was another contributing factor, according to Zdyrko. "while the
mass market didn't appreciate in the face of the 3D explosion, there
are still plenty of diehard gamers out there that still appreciate 2D
games and the Saturn excelled at these kinds titles while Sony frowned
on the development of 2D games and thus the PlayStation offered much
less of them."
What was the reason behind the lack of great software coming out of
Sega of America? "If you mean development, this was because frankly the
U.S. R&D team fought against the architecture of Saturn for quite some
time," explains Kalinske, "fought for features that they thought would
make it better, and thus while hoping for the improvements in hardware
that didn't materialize, fell behind in development on the Saturn."
If there was one area where the Saturn was hurting, it was in the
sports arena. Electronic Arts' almost nonexistent Saturn library left
it to Sega to almost solely cover all the major sports on the console,
something the beleaguered U.S. development teams simply couldn't do.
That said, Sega's World Series Baseball and Soccer franchises were
second to none.
Unfortunately the most popular sport in America -- American football --
was sorely under-represented on the Saturn. It was so bad, in fact,
that the Saturn went at least one full season where the sole football
title was from Acclaim. And anyone who remembers Acclaim's Quarterback
Club series knows that's not a good thing.
Even when Sega announced they were killing off the Saturn after just
three short years in the U.S. market, fans scrambled to pick up the
final (and in some cases, the best) games for the system. The final few
Saturn releases went on to become some of the most sought-after eBay
videogame items, particularly the fantastic Panzer Dragoon Saga.
Perhaps the biggest mistake Sega made in the fans' eyes, though, was
cutting the umbilical so soon on the Saturn. Considering just before
then they abruptly cut support for every other established system in
their library (the Game Gear, Genesis, 32X, and Sega CD were still
viable consoles when Sega killed them) cemented Sega's reputation as a
console manufacturer that simply did not give a damn about their loyal
fans or the money they had invested in Sega's hardware.
In the end, the Saturn will go down in history as one of the most
troubled, and greatest, systems of all time. It was both Sega's shining
moment as a game developer, and their darkest hour as a console
manufacturer. It is both revered and reviled by gamers. "It got the
better developers thinking and designing with parallel-processing
architecture in mind for the first time," sums up Ireland. "I
definitely believe that the benefits of that shift are being seen in
games today. Sure, initial attempts were clumsy and not especially
efficient, but Saturn was the start of the future of console gaming."
here's the rest of it (the games)