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Sega Saturn

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


The Sega Saturn (セガサターン Sega Satān?) is a 32-bit video game console, first released on November 22, 1994 in Japan, May 11, 1995 in North America and July 8, 1995 in Europe.

The system was supported in North America and Europe until late 1998, and in Japan until the end of 2000. The last official game for the system, Yukyu Gensokyoku Perpetual Collection, was released by Mediaworks in December of that year.


Sega's 27-member Away Team, comprising employees from every aspect of hardware engineering, product development and marketing, worked exclusively for two years to ensure the Sega Saturn's hardware and design met the precise needs of both the U.S. and Japanese markets. The Saturn was a powerful machine for the time, but its design, with two CPUs and 6 other processors, made harnessing its power extremely difficult. Many of the ancillary chips in the system were "off of the shelf" components. This increased the complexity of the design since less custom hardware was used. Rumours suggest that the original design called for a single central processor (making for an excellent 2D gaming experience but with very limited 3D capability), but a second processor was added late in development to increase 3D performance.

Third-party development was further hindered by the initial lack of useful software libraries and development tools, requiring developers to write in assembly language to achieve decent performance. Programmers would often utilize only one CPU to simplify development in titles such as Alien Trilogy.

The main disadvantage of the dual CPU architecture was that both processors shared the same bus, and besides 4K of on-chip memory, all data and program code for both CPUs were located in the same shared 2 MB of main memory. This meant that without very careful division of processing, the second CPU would often have to wait while the first CPU was working, reducing its processing ability.

The hardware also lacked light sourcing and hardware video decompression support. Nevertheless, when properly utilized, the dual processors in the Saturn could produce impressive results such as the 1997 ports of Quake and Duke Nukem 3D by Lobotomy Software, and later games like Burning Rangers were able to achieve true transparency effects on hardware that used simple polygon stipples as a replacement for transparency effects in the past.

From a market viewpoint, the architectural design problems of the Saturn meant that it quickly lost third party support to the PlayStation. Unlike the Playstation's use of triangles as its basic geometric primitive, the Saturn rendered quadrilaterals. This proved a hindrance as most industry standard design tools were based around triangles, and multiplatform games were usually developed with triangles and the Playstation's larger market share in mind.

If used correctly the quadrilateral rendering of the Saturn would show less texture distortion than was common on Playstation titles, as demonstrated by several cross-platform titles such as Wipeout and Destruction Derby. The quadrilateral-focussed hardware and a 50% greater amount of video RAM also gave the Saturn an advantage for 2D game engines and attracted many developers of RPGs, arcade games and traditional 2D fighting games. A 4 MB RAM cart, released only in Japan, boosted available memory even further for games such as Capcom's X-Men Vs Street Fighter.

The unreleased Saturn version of Shenmue.
The unreleased Saturn version of Shenmue.

Tomb Raider was originally designed for the Saturn's quadrilateral-based hardware and as a result was incapable of displaying levels containing any triangular parts. This restriction remained in place for most of the 32-bit sequels. On the other hand, the quadrilateral ability allowed the Saturn to render First-person shooter games better than other consoles at the time, games like Quake, Powerslave, Duke Nukem 3D, HeXen. Also, the extra video RAM allowed larger levels than in PlayStation versions.

A true example of the Saturn's capability is widely considered to be the systems version of Shenmue, Yu Suzuki's multi-million dollar project that would eventually find a new home on the Saturn's successor, the Sega Dreamcast. Work on the title is believed to have been fairly complete, and several technical demos and gameplay footage have since been released to the public. The footage displays a system capable of producing fully rendered, entirely 3D locations and characters.

Performance in the marketplace

The optional analog controller that came packaged with NiGHTS Into Dreams.
The optional analog controller that came packaged with NiGHTS Into Dreams.


The Japanese Saturn was rushed to the market in November 1994, just a few weeks ahead of its rival, Sony's PlayStation. The difficulties in programming for the system along with the early release led to very few games being available at launch. Approximately 170,000 machines were sold the first day the console went on sale. Although the Saturn was outsold by the PlayStation in Japan between 1995 and 1997, Saturn software enjoyed higher sales, a fact boosted by their successful Segata Sanshiro advertising campaign, leading to the perception that the Saturn was the platform of choice for more dedicated gamers while the PlayStation had a more casual audience.[citation needed]

Many of the games that made the Saturn popular in Japan, such as the Sakura Taisen series and numerous quirky anime style RPGs, were never released in foreign territories due to policies put in place by then Sega of America president Bernie Stolar who believed that RPGs (or even most Japanese games in general) were not appealing to the North American audience.[citation needed]

North America

By the end of 1994 the 16-bit videogame era was in twilight in North America. Gamers were eagerly anticipating the new 32-bit machines from Japan. In early 1995 Sega president Tom Kalinske announced that the Saturn would launch in the U.S. on "Saturnday", (Saturday) September 2, 1995. This date was greatly anticipated by gamers and the media. It also allowed Sony to announce that the Playstation release date would be one week later on September 9, 1995.

However, at the first Electronic Entertainment Expo E3 in May 1995, Kalinske announced that the "Saturnday" date was a ruse and that the system was being released nationwide by a few select retailers immediately. This surprise move shocked everyone in attendance (Sony most of all) and it appeared that Sega had a real opportunity to take a commanding lead in the 32-bit race by beating the Playstation to the market.

In reality the "surprise attack" launch backfired for Sega. The Saturn was released at a high price point of [USD]$400 (Sony announced a $300 price for the Playstation at E3). Sega set the price high to capitalize on sales from early adopters who were willing to pay a premium to have the first machines available. Traditionally most videogame hardware is sold at a loss to allow for a price point low enough for quick adoption. With Sega having the market all to itself, it saw no reason to sell the system at a loss when demand was high in the marketplace.

The early launch also made the independent software companies angry because most of the third party games were slated to be finished and released around the September 2nd launch date. The early launch of the Saturn prevented them from capitalizing on the momentum inherent in an anticipated, planned release. Essentially the only software available on the shelves at launch was software released by Sega which, to many people within the software industry, appeared to be a move calculated to bring more sales to Sega's software at the expense of its rivals.

In addition, the retailers who were not included in the early launch (most notably Wal-Mart and KB Toys) felt betrayed by Sega allowing their competition to profit on the Saturn at their expense. This resulted in Sega having difficulties with these distributors for the Saturn (and also for its successor, the Dreamcast). As an example: the leadership within KB Toys were so angered by Sega's actions that they refused to release the Saturn at all and even actually going as far as having some retailers removing anything Sega-related in stores, providing more retail space in many American shopping malls for the Saturn's competition instead.

By the time of the Playstation's release on September 9, 1995, the Saturn had sold approximately 80,000 systems. The Playstation sold over 100,000 units upon release in the U.S., a record at the time for a new system. Sega's dreams of early domination of the new generation of hardware were quickly forgotten as momentum behind the Playstation continued to build.

From 1995-1997 the Saturn became the "other" system, running a distant third behind the Playstation and the Nintendo 64. However, it was the preferred system for many arcade gamers who eagerly anticipated Sega's arcade classic games being ported to the system. Sales of the Saturn would generally spike as new arcade ports were released, then die off shortly thereafter. By the end of 1997 the third party releases for the system had dried up, and Sega's support was slowly fading as focus turned to the Dreamcast.


By the time the Saturn was released in Europe in early 1996 the Playstation's momentum was building rapidly. In addition, many anticipated the release of the Nintendo 64, slated for a worldwide launch later that year. Both of these factors caused the sales of the Saturn to trail the Playstation from the start.

End of Life

As price drops continued throughout the 32-bit era, the system board design of the Saturn wasn't as easy to condense in a cost saving manner and Sega fell behind on price drops offered by Nintendo and Sony. This forced Sega to "bundle" more software with the system in an attempt to make the more expensive Saturn compete with its rivals. Although the quality of the bundled software was high, gamers preferred to purchase a cheaper system from the competition and purchase game titles of their own choice instead.

The Saturn's Motherboard was complex and difficult to consolidate, making it expensive to produce
The Saturn's Motherboard was complex and difficult to consolidate, making it expensive to produce

By early 1997 the Saturn was trailing the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 in both North America and Europe to such an extent that senior management began planning a new platform and by E3 1997 had begun talk of the system that would become known as the Sega Dreamcast. As Sega started aggressively moving forward with that project, a rift developed between Sega and many of their third party developers and publishers. As the Saturn was popular in the Japanese marketplace, many Japanese developers saw little reason for Sega to rush another platform to market. As Sega began public discussion about their future platform to media barely two years after having launched the Saturn many gamers decided that the Saturn was already dead and sales quickly dropped as the console's life expectancy dropped substantially after Sega's public comments that "The Saturn is not our(their) future". This combined with Sega's reputation having pulled out on support rather quickly for both the Sega CD and 32X platforms led to a large chain reaction that quickly caused the platforms future to collapse. Many Saturn projects were cancelled in anticipation of the new console, the substancial drop in sales after Sega announced that they were working on a new platform and through developers and publishers frustration with Sega. In a magazine article involving Will Muscelli, he summed up the life cycle of the Sega Saturn as being "disappointing". Some major publishers such as Electronic Arts were so dismayed at Sega's early abandonment of the Saturn that they vowed not to support any Sega consoles in the future.

With Sega now publically saying they were working on a new console, sales for the Saturn substancially tapered off in the second half of 1997. This caused many games that were planned for a western Saturn release to be cancelled, including such highly anticipated titles such as Sonic X-treme, Policenauts and Lunar The Silver Star Story. A chain reaction of cancellations transformed a promising 1998 schedule of releases to a small handful of titles extending little beyond Panzer Dragoon Saga, Burning Rangers, Shining Force 3 and Magic Knight Rayearth — the only third party title released that year. Eventually the Saturn was discontinued in both Europe and North America in late 1998.

Saturn models

Asian models

In Japan Sega licensed the rights to produce Saturns to their hardware partners - Hitachi, who provided the CPUs and several other chips, and JVC who produced the CD drives for most models, although functionally identical Sanyo drives were sometimes used. SunSeibu released a model with a 7-CD changer for use in hotels. The concept of a multi-game player for hotel use is very common in Japan.

North American models

All North American models are black in color and were produced by Sega.

European/Australian models

European and Australian Saturns are identical as both regions share the same AC voltage and TV standard. There is no internal variation between PAL and SÉCAM machines as all were shipped with SCART leads. All models are black and externally quite similar to the North American variations. PAL and SECAM machines will have "PAL" next to the BIOS revision number on the system settings screen instead of "NTSC".

Game packaging


The inlay and spinecard for the Japanese release of Bubble Symphony - games were packaged in standard CD jewel cases
The inlay and spinecard for the Japanese release of Bubble Symphony - games were packaged in standard CD jewel cases

Japanese software is usually packaged in a standard CD jewel case with a spinecard - a three-fold piece of light cardboard that hugs the spine of the jewel case and is held in place by the overall shrinkwrap usually with a gold and black background and the Japanese Saturn logo and lettering printed vertically. Saturn collection games will have a red and white spinecard with white lettering, the Saturn Collection logo under that, and the 2,800 yen price featured prominently. Spinecards are valuable to collectors, and necessary if one wishes to sell the game as "complete". The spinecard bears the name of the title to which it is attached.

The game manual is included in place of liner notes and the cover will usually carry a bar similar in design to the spinecard and the Japanese rating, if there is one. The back card usually features artwork or screenshots from the game and a black bar at the bottom containing necessary legal information such as copyright notices.

Some games were packed in "double" CD cases or in a non-standard slightly thicker variant of the single case. The game Super Robot Wars F (a Japanese-only game produced by Banpresto) comes in a special jewel case, approximately 1 mm thicker, made necessary by its 54-page manual. Riglord Saga 2 uses a similar case for the same reason.

North America

The box for the North American release of Street Fighter Alpha 2, showing all vertical edges
The box for the North American release of Street Fighter Alpha 2, showing all vertical edges

In North America the existing tall, single hinged case design used for Sega CD games was adopted for Saturn titles. The cases incorporate a white spine containing a 30 degree stripe pattern in gray, with white outlined lettering displaying the words "Sega Saturn". The manual slides into the case in the same manner as the liner notes in a normal jewel case, and the cover often carries a back insert with information about the game. The manuals were substantially larger than standard CD manuals, and as a result had more room for art.

These cases had several problems:

  • Their sheer size made them vulnerable to cracking.
  • The mechanism that keeps the cover closed wears out quickly if the cover is opened and closed too much
  • There is sufficient empty space inside the case that if the CD comes loose of the case's spindle then it can easily suffer scratching or be shattered during case transportation. Some games (especially early in the system's life) came with a foam brick to keep the disc from falling off the spindle.

Games packaged with the system or a peripheral such as Virtua Fighter and NiGHTS Into Dreams often came in a standard CD Jewel case.


The box for the European release of Saturn Bomberman, showing all vertical edges
The box for the European release of Saturn Bomberman, showing all vertical edges

The European Saturn cases were custom designed and similar to a DVD case, composed of either a two piece clamshell enclosure held together by a single large piece of card comprising both the front and back covers and spine, or a single-piece plastic case with a paper insert detailing covers and spine underneath a flexible plastic outer window similar to a commercial VHS video case except in dimensions. Some titles, notably those from Electronic Arts featured an extended deeper version of the VHS style case.

When the case is opened the disk rests inside the case to the right of the hinge, while the booklet was placed to the left. Standard art design includes a solid black spine and white lettering displaying the words "Sega Saturn".

These cases had several problems:

  • The cardboard hinges wore out very quickly
  • The spindles which held the discs in place wore out very quickly, causing discs to move around in the cases in transit and scratch
  • There was nothing holding the manual in place; as the manuals were often heavy, with several languages, it was difficult to close the cases without the manual falling out of place.
  • The mechanism for closing the cases wore out very quickly and was very ineffective to begin with

Technical specifications


  • Two Hitachi SuperH-2 7604 32-Bit RISC processors at 28.63 MHz (50-MIPS) - each has 4 kB on-chip cache, of which 2 kB can alternatively be used as directly addressable RAM
  • SH-1 32-bit RISC processor (controlling the CD-ROM)
  • Custom VDP 1 32-bit video display processor (running at 7.1590 MHz on NTSC Systems, 6.7116 MHz for PAL Systems)
  • Custom VDP 2 32-bit video display processor (running at 7.1590 MHz on NTSC Systems, 6.7116 MHz for PAL Systems)
  • Custom Saturn Control Unit (SCU) with DSP for geometry processing and DMA controller (running at 14.3 MHz)
  • Motorola 68EC000 sound controller (running at 11.3 MHz / 1,5 MIPS)
  • Yamaha FH1 DSP sound processor, "Sega Custom Sound Processor" (SCSP), running at 22.6 MHz
  • Hitachi 4-bit MCU, "System Manager & Peripheral Control" (SMPC)


  • 1 MB (8 Megabits) SDRAM
  • 1 MB (8 Megabits) DRAM, combined with SDRAM to make the main 2 MB memory area
  • 1.5MB (12 Megabits) VRAM
  • 4K VDP2 on-chip color RAM
  • 512KB (4 Megabits) audio RAM
  • 512KB (4 Megabits) CD-ROM cache
  • 32KB nonvolatile RAM (battery backup)
  • 512KB (4 Megabits) BIOS ROM


  • Saturn Custom Sound Processor


  • VDP1 32-bit video display processor
  • VDP2 32-bit background and scroll plane video display processor


  • Saturn double-speed CD-ROM drive


  • Two 7-bit bidirectional parallel I/O ports (controller ports)
  • High-speed serial communications port (Both SH2 SCI channels and SCSP MIDI, also used for the Serial port)
  • Cartridge connector
  • Internal expansion port for MPEG adapter card
  • Composite video/stereo (standard)
  • NTSC/PAL RF (optional RF adapter required)
  • S-Video compatible (separate cable required)
  • RGB compatible (separate cable required)
  • EDTV compatible (separate cable required)
  • Hi-Vision (separate cable required)

While the Saturn is capable of VGA (progressive/non-interlaced) video, no software ever used this mode and the system cannot force software to run in this mode. Some development systems had VGA ports, but no consumer units ever offered this or other high-res functionality.

Power source

  • AC120 volts; 60 Hz (US)
  • AC240 volts; 50 Hz (EU)
  • AC100 volts; 60 Hz (JP)
  • 3 volt lithium battery to power non-volatile RAM and SMPC internal real-time clock
  • Power Consumption: 25 W

Dimensions (US/European model)

  • Width: 260 mm (10.2 in)
  • Length: 230 mm (9.0 in)
  • Height: 83 mm (3.2 in)


VDP1 transparency rendering quirk causes strips of pixels to be rewritten to framebuffer for 2-point (scaled) and 4-point (quadrangle) "sprites", applying the transparency effect multiple times. Rarely seen in commercial games (Robotica explosions), later titles implemented software transparency via direct framebuffer access to correctly render polygons (Dural in Virtua Fighter Kids).

Another technique developed for pseudo-hardware transparency was to rasterize polygons using one or two pixel tall sprites with transparency enabled to fill in horizontal spans. Because 2 of the 4 quadrangle points were identical, there was no framebuffer rewrite during rendering.

Marketing techniques

In 1996, Sega started a marketing campaign that featured a beautiful naked woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. It used screenshots from the games to cover her private parts. It was very successful, and EGM selected the campaign as the best ad during the 1997 Buyer's Guide.

A device resembling a Saturn appears briefly in Neon Genesis Evangelion episode 23, with a Sega-badged TV. Sega was a sponsor of the program and the movies, but it is unclear why it was not featured more often or more prominently.

See also

  • List of Sega Saturn games

External links

  • Sega Saturn News!
  • Sega Saturn Slim DVD Covers!
  • Sega Saturn Review Archive
  • SegaFans - Sega Saturn commercial featuring Segata Sanshiro, reviews, and other resources.
  • Sega Breaks the Saturn Pad - #23 on Gamespy's 25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming.
  • Sega Jumps the Gun, Gets Shot - #4 on Gamespy's 25 Dumbest Moments in Gaming.
  • Sega Saturn Magazine - Reviews featuring a large amount of screenshots and editorials.
  • Sega Saturn the Pleasure and the Pain - After ten years, a look back on Sega's third home system.
  • SegaBase - Comprehensive history of this system
  • NFG Games: HiSaturn Navi
  • NFG Games: Samsung Saturn
  • NFG Games: SunSeibu Hotel Saturn
  • The Hardware Book - hardware specs and connector pinouts


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