A history of videogame hardware: Sega Saturn


Year: 1994 Manufacturer: Sega Original Cost: ¥44,800

In a reversal of the Mega Drive’s fortunes, in Japan, where 2D shoot ’em ups and fighting games were still fashionable, the Saturn enjoyed far greater success than its forebear. While the seeds of Sega’s retreat from the game hardware business were sowed here, a clutch of important and enduring classics also grew from its fertile creative soil.The story of Sega’s Saturn is often told as a tragedy: the tale of a console born too late, a 2D powerhouse released just as the gaming world popped into 3D. In the West, Sega’s follow-up to the Mega Drive was without doubt a wretched failure, losing the company much of the ground and goodwill its 16-bit machine had clawed from Nintendo.

Sega’s plans for the Saturn were drawn up in 1992, under the codename Giga Drive. The decision was made to use CD-ROM technology for its games, and the machine was specifically designed to better the 3DO, the only other 32- bit console available at the time. The internal architecture was based on Sega’s Model 1 arcade hardware, adapted by its creator Hideki Sato and his team. A number of prototypes were built in 1993 and, as the team approached a design they were happy with, the name was changed from Giga Drive to Aurora and, finally, Saturn.

However, this machine was very different to the one that would launch almost two years later. In December 1993, almost a year before the Saturn’s planned launch, Sony revealed the system specifications of Ken Kutaragi’s PlayStation project. These alluded to 3D graphical capabilities that matched Sega’s cutting edge arcade hardware, and the capacity to handle complex 2D processing, too.

When Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama obtained a copy of the PlayStation system specs and compared them to those of his company’s Saturn prototype he called an emergency meeting with his R&D department. One staff member reportedly said of the meeting that his boss was “the maddest I’ve ever seen him”. Nakayama was furious at the way in which Sony had bettered his own machine. Sato was charged by Nakayama to ‘fix’ the Saturn so it could compete with the PlayStation. With less than a year till launch, Sato handpicked a team of 27 Sega engineers to start work. There was no time to commission a new chip for the machine, so Sega was forced to look to existing components. The team opted for a dual-processor architecture, despite the fact that Sega’s US head Tom Kalinske had contacted Silicon Graphics, one of the companies behind the PlayStation’s 3D capabilities, to research a simpler single chip design. Allegedly, Nakayama opted for the dual-processor design as a favour to an old golfing buddy at Hitachi.

This feature is an extract from Simon Parkin’s book, An Illustrated History of 151 Videogames.

The use of dual processors was key to the Saturn’s effectiveness at 2D graphics and relative failure at 3D graphics. Polygonal generation could only be handled through manipulation of the sprite engine, and as a result struggled with texture transparency and playfield rotation, effects that the PlayStation excelled in. While teams familiar with parallel programming could produce surprising results, few developers had this sort of experience.

Despite the troubles in the months leading up to November 1994, the system’s Japanese launch was a success, thanks largely to the release of Virtua Fighter, Sega’s arcade fighting game hit. By Christmas day 500,000 units had been sold, 60 per cent more than Sony had managed with its PlayStation. But the US launch in May 2005 was a disaster. The day Sega announced the price point of $399 (£249); Sony announced the PlayStation would cost $100 less.

Released into just four retail chains, before the dry summer period for the games industry, the Saturn’s lack of a strong launch line-up was clear. The machine’s challenging internal architecture was causing developers huge delays, allowing Sony to take a clear lead.

A year later, the members of Sega’s US marketing team were fired, with Sega of America’s president, Tom Kalinske, handing in his resignation more than a month later. The collapse of Sega in the West meant that many of the system’s best games were never released outside Japan. In a 3D world, Sega’s 2D powerhouse seemed anachronistic at launch.

  • Jake Murrin

    What an interesting combination of several different rumors, conspiracy theories, and memes about the Saturn’s development.

    “Gigadrive” was a 1990 rumor from an EGM gossip column, which referred to an all-2D machine, most likely the Sega CD. Far from being cheaply constructed with “off-the-shelf” components like the Dreamcast, nearly everything in the Saturn is custom. As publicly confirmed by Sega and Hitachi on numerous occasions, the SH-2 was a joint venture specially commissioned for and designed around the Saturn. According to project manager Hideki Okamura, “Saturn” was the system’s codename, although it was retained for the final product. The dual SH-2 architecture was finalized long before the end of 1993, and thus easily used for the 32X project starting in early January 1994. The gaming press documented that the Saturn featured at least seven processors by October 1993, including the not-yet-ready SH-2 (and presumably the SH-1 that controls the CD-ROM drive), one visual display processor, and (in a September 1993 New York Times announcement) custom sound chips from Yamaha (the SCU DSP is also mentioned in Hitachi patents from this period).

    There is evidence that Sega added the second VDP (and some additional RAM) late in development (probably after Sony’s January 1994 tech demo), and that this redesign caused many to fear the Saturn would be delayed past its winter 1994 deadline, although in the end it still beat the PlayStation to market. However, the Saturn was always intended to be a 3D system somewhere between the Model 1 and Model 2 arcade boards (and had exceptional ports of Sega Rally, Virtua Cop, and even 60 FPS Virtua Fighter 2 with better-than-arcade resolution, not to mention a $299 price tag, not long after PlayStation arrived in North America), with surprisingly (for all the revisionist Internet conspiracy theories) consistent rumored stats always hovering around 28 MHz (needless to say, beyond the capabilities of a normal SH-1). Sega did not redesign an all-2D “Gigadrive” (for that is the original version of the rumor) into the Saturn by frantically cramming off-the-shell chips into the machine, and there is precious little evidence the SH-2 was chosen (for that is the original version of the rumor) or more accurately developed as a favor to Nakayama’s golfing buddy (although in a more metaphorical sense one might say that is true enough). They simply doubled down on the Saturn’s already superior 2D capabilities after learning more about Sony’s 3D powerhouse (or perhaps they were scared by Sony’s typical, massively exaggerated vaporware), although the VDP2 also helps with texture mapping.

    Addendum: Both the PlayStation and the Saturn fake 3D with sprites, but only the PlayStation has a dedicated Geometry Transfer Engine. The SCU DSP and VDP1 are both integral to the Saturn’s 3D capabilities. The dual processor design was neither the key to the Saturn’s 2D prowess nor the cause of its relative lack of finesse with 3D environments.