Sega Saturn Appreciation and Emulation Thread

Wow, seems like I need a second OSSC only to devote all its available profile slots to the Saturn alone. :D
You're adjusting the sample rate right?

I mentioned this in the AV thread but you'll get good results with just the default sample rate for a lot less work. I took a look at the OSSC wiki and it should be labelled "Generic 4:3;" this way instead of trying to take 320 samples of a line that might have 256, 320, 352, 640, or 704 pixels you'll get (for line 4x for example) 1280 samples always, which since it's sampling analog will look equivalent to smooth scaling any original # of pixels out to 1280, and it will always be at the correct aspect ratio.
 
You're adjusting the sample rate right?

I mentioned this in the AV thread but you'll get good results with just the default sample rate for a lot less work. I took a look at the OSSC wiki and it should be labelled "Generic 4:3;" this way instead of trying to take 320 samples of a line that might have 256, 320, 352, 640, or 704 pixels you'll get (for line 4x for example) 1280 samples always, which since it's sampling analog will look equivalent to smooth scaling any original # of pixels out to 1280, and it will always be at the correct aspect ratio.
Yeah, I've been using generic 4:3 so far, and I just recently started experimenting with optim. modes. And that's because everything looks a bit slimmer than it should - circles become ovals, for example - with generic 4:3, on my 1080p monitors. With optimal settings, on the other hand, it all gets back to normal (i.e. round flowers in Sonic's Green Hill Zone, fatter sprites in Saturn's CAPCOM ports...), the horizontal mask can be set pixel-perfectly to crop out overscan, and PQ seems overall even better.
 
Yeah, I've been using generic 4:3 so far, and I just recently started experimenting with optim. modes. And that's because everything looks a bit slimmer than it should - circles become ovals, for example - with generic 4:3, on my 1080p monitors. With optimal settings, on the other hand, it all gets back to normal (i.e. round flowers in Sonic's Green Hill Zone, fatter sprites in Saturn's CAPCOM ports...), the horizontal mask can be set pixel-perfectly to crop out overscan, and PQ seems overall even better.
Little late replying but that's to be expected. The actual PAR of the 320 pixel wide mode for Genesis/PS1/Saturn is a bit skinny, they're not square pixels:

https://pineight.com/mw/index.php?title=Dot_clock_rates
Code:
Frequency	Exact frequency	PAR	Exact PAR	Devices
6.71 MHz	4725/704 MHz	0.91	32:35		Sega Genesis and PlayStation 320px mode,[36][5] very close to SIF
I'm not sure on what % of games account for this but I noticed a lot of PS1 games on my Vita looked messed up (too wide) run when assuming 1:1 PAR, but looked correct at 4:3 (Normal). I haven't messed around with accounting for this on Genesis/Saturn at all but I'd expect the same thing there.
 
Wow, that's ALOT of different settings to mess around, referencing the optimal timings.
So, just out of curiosity, is that what you do with your OSSC? Do you stick with generic 4:3 - so you can have a single profile for pretty much every system - and just accept the trade-off that some game may look off? Honest question, I'm not assuming that's wrong or bad in any way. I'm just trying to understand what's the best mode to go for, in order to 'simulate' what happens with CRT TVs and monitors, when you basically have to just center the frame with each system (or maybe not even that), once you're all set up with your display's service commands, and then forget about re-calibrating everything else.
 
In the two years since I've joined GAF and participated in this thread, I've met some really cool people, but this will be my last post. If anyone else is leaving and looking for a place to go, I recommend the Sega Saturn UK forums. They have a small but lively community with more than a few very knowledgeable fans who've been around for a long, long time. Alternatively, I run a general-Sega Discord channel called SegaNet that you're welcome to join. Of course, Saturn also gets a ton of discussion there too.

Wherever you guys go, I hope to see you again. Take care!
 
I didn't post since everything happened, but let's go, this is it.

This isn't a battle between forums, this isn't about killing GAF or anything like that.

If you think this is the point, then the point flies right over your head.

People are leaving by principles. People are leaving because they do not want to be represented here. People are leaving because they don't want to support a platform for which the owner does not reflect the image and values they want to share.

If you think this is just a forum for which the owner has nothing to gain, you're wrong. Being here and providing content creates traffic, traffic sees ad. Owner gains profit with ad revenue. If you don't want to support the owner of this platform, the best way to NOT help is by either quitting or not posting or visiting here in the future.

People leaving aren't doing it for fun, it's a form of protest, to make a statement that they do not accept or support the behavior of the owner.

That is most likely my final post here. I fucking loved NeoGAF for the 7 years I was here. I loved the communities, but now is the time to leave.

I deleted all my work here, saved everything and will transfer at the new place.

For those of you who stay, I wish you a nice continuation.

For those who migrate, see you on the other side. ;)
 
For those of you who stay, I wish you a nice continuation.

For those who migrate, see you on the other side. ;)
I'm sorry to see you leave, though I do understand your reasons. I have greatly enjoyed all of your contributions, especially the retro topics. Thank you, and I wish you well in the future.
 
I want to switch out my North American model 2 Saturn for a Japanese model 1.

1) Do I have to get a different SCART cable? I've heard Japanese and North American NTSC Saturns are wired for different outputs, and vaguely remember that 5V may be carried along a different line and fry something.

2) I have the 4mb Action Replay that allows me to play Japanese games, do I need to get a Japanese cart or will this work? I'd actually prefer to get a Japanese cart because it would look cooler.

3) Do controllers work on both consoles? I want to replace my regular 6 button controllers, but may want to use a North American fight stick.

4) Speaking of the Action Replay RAM carts, I also vaguely remember something about the 4mb one running games optimized for the 2mb one less well. Can anyone explain that, or am I totally off base? Is there an advantage to having both a 2mb and 4mb expansion cart for your Saturn?

Thanks for help with any of these questions!
 
I believe the voltage difference is with the European version of the Saturn. Both America and Japanese Saturn units use the same layout but I would seek another source on this as I just use S-video as my highest signal quality for my consoles. Controllers should work fine on both units and the action replay should do its job in either system. I don't know anything about question #4 but would like to hear more info on this as well.

This MLiG video might help you some more.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








It seems that the Sega Saturn Collectors Thread took a major hit after the October shakedown. Let's do what we can to bring it back. This is probably my all-time favorite thread on the NeoGAF forums.

Since the Winter Olympics are happening right now, I thought it would be best to share some photos of the always-excellent Winter Heat. This game was released in 1998 as the system was in its final days in the US, so I'm not sure if it received much attention at the time. Most gamers had abandoned the Saturn for PSX and Nintendo 64 by that point, aside from the diehards, I suppose, who were rewarded with some of the greatest titles in the system's library. Poor Saturn was just hitting its stride when the plug was pulled, and it needed another solid year on the market. Oh, well, that topic has been debated endlessly, and is a moot point by now.

Decathlete was a big hit for Saturn, and Winter Heat may be just a touch better. The developers certainly tried to stretch their wings and not simply offer another Track N' Field button-mashing, joystick-wrecking sports contest. These new events are more varied, more clever. There's a great variety in the controls and play mechanics.

The graphics are still bright, colorful and cleanly detailed in that Sega way. That was their look, and they completely owned it. Because the environments in Winter Heat are more visually detailed, however, the super-sharp 60fps framerate in Decathlete is reduced to 30fps. It probably couldn't be helped, and reflects the trade-offs of the era. The animation remains as superb as ever, the controls as swift and responsive. The graphics have that squarish, blocky Sega Saturn quality that we all know and love. Triangles may have won out, but there's a certain charm to quads.

What I really love about Winter Heat is the sense of humor. This game doesn't take itself very seriously. It's not trying to compete with Epyx. Many of these events feel like cartoonish distortions of the real sports, or videogame fan-fiction. Best part: the crashes. These crashes are spectacular, extremely painful to watch, and wildly hilarious. I'm thinking of the Ski Jump as a great example.

The US version is expensive, which is unusual for a Saturn sports title, but all of the 1998 releases are pricey. You'll be lucky to find a copy under $40. Meanwhile, the Japanese version can be found for $10-$20, including shipping. It features all the things that make Japanese Sega Saturn games awesome, like the smaller CD cases and full-color booklets. Best part: this version includes bonus features not seen in the US release, including art galleries, bonus characters, and the ability to complete by running or flying around. Again, it's goofy and good for a laugh.

These are social videogames, "casual" if you like. They're never meant to be taken seriously, and intended to be passed around at parties while you're reaching for that third pint of beer and second bowl of chips. For reasons I'll never understand, the Dreamcast sequel, Virtua Athlete 2000, wasn't half as much fun as Decathlete and Winter Heat; it took itself too seriously. All the athletes looked the same. They all had those weird detached steroid shoulders. The Saturn athletes look like refugees from an LSD-fueled anime convention. And God Bless 'Em for it.

Where are the Olympics videogames in 2018? Seriously, where did they go? Are all the Xbox and Playstation owners a bunch of serious killjoys? Somebody tell Sega/Sammy to bring this one back. Bring back the Saturn and Dreamcast, too, while yer at it.

I captured these screenshots from a YouTube video, probably running on an emulator, and using a scanline generator that makes the game look like it's running on a portable LCD screen. It's hard to find good Sega Saturn screenshots these days. If I had more time, I would take photos directly from my television. In any case, here they are, enjoy.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Steep Slope Sliders (1997, Cave for Saturn)

I snapped a series of photos this morning: Japanese release, model 2 Saturn w/composite, Sony Bravia HDTV. For Saturn, I tend to prefer composite over s-video, largely because the "fake transparency" effect is preserved, and I don't have to look at the ugly wire-mesh patterns, but also because the image quality is still very sharp. I'd say s-video is only a 10% improvement in image quality. And, as always, everything looks best on a CRT.

Steep Slope Sliders is one of my absolute favorite videogames, and easily my favorite snowboarding game. It just feels authentic. It just feels right, in its earth tones and blocky textures and fluid controls. I have always had the impression that Cave's programmers knew this sport in their bones. They understood the sub-culture, with its influences of punk, techno, rave and trip-hop, the reckless thrill-seeking. Best of all, the understood the solitude of the sport. This game was always criticized for lacking a two-player mode, where you could battle against a friend. But that's not the idea. In snowboarding, your only true friend and rival are the mountains themselves. It's just you and nature and silence...and maybe the funky beats in your Walkman.

You're not here to compete in some professional circuit. You're not here to compete for the Olympics. You're not here to win competitions and endorsements and fame and glory. You're here to surf the mountains, hills, forests and farms. You're here to better yourself, to find that one perfect spot to make that perfect jump and score the perfect trick. There is always room for improvement, always another hill or rock that you can use to perform that stunt.

Little details abound. See that screenshot above of the two teenagers whacking the metal sculpture with baseball bats? Hah! Take that, Nintendo. Another group of teens are playing basketball, while a couple skateboarders are riding around. I think I saw a young couple making out by a finish line. A dog chases you through his farm. Hot air balloons float by in the background. Snow blasts out from your board in thick patches.

The controls are what makes this game a classic. Jump, Grab, Flip, Turn. That's it. Using the shoulder buttons to shift your weight and move the board allows for some highly fluid turns in tight spaces. You'll quickly learn to add more moves to the longer jumps and learn how to improvise. It's really a rough draft for Tony Hawk Pro Skater, which forever set the standard for all "extreme" sports videogames to follow.

The level designs are sensational mashups of varying environments and themes, in that classic arcade videogame fashion. There's no logical reason why there should be a log cabin on the edge of a cliff, or why there should be a train in the middle of a mountain, or why a snowboarding run should suddenly dump into a highway. For that matter, why are you surfing over an endless asteroid belt or the Death Star Trench? Because it's awesome, that's why. The mountains in Steep Slope Sliders tower above you at menacing angles, and each helicopter drop is a rush. Cool Boarders and 1080 play like Disneyland rides, sanitary and safe and unbelievably effing dull. Try riding through rocky terrain and crowded forests in pitch-black darkness.

Best of all, I love Steep Slope Sliders because, at its heart, it's an underdog and a misfit. It's never interested in being a racing game, certainly not like its peers. It's not even really interested in most arcade game conventions like level progressions and competitions and gold medals. It's mostly interested in just surfing for fun, for its own sake. Well, that and ingesting Terence McKenna-levels of psychedelics while tripping on the sound test. Where else can you play as an alien, two different spaceships, a 2D bitmap stick figure and a dog, and then ride an intergalactic wire-frame half pipe on the dark side of the moon?
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
Quick update on Steep Slope Sliders. There was a rumor online that the Japanese release supported the 3D control pad. This is incorrect. This game does not support analog controls in any way. The only differences between the JP and US versions are the bonus characters ("Hero" in the Japanese disc is replaced with "Alien" in the West) and the title screen.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
I want to switch out my North American model 2 Saturn for a Japanese model 1.

1) Do I have to get a different SCART cable? I've heard Japanese and North American NTSC Saturns are wired for different outputs, and vaguely remember that 5V may be carried along a different line and fry something.

2) I have the 4mb Action Replay that allows me to play Japanese games, do I need to get a Japanese cart or will this work? I'd actually prefer to get a Japanese cart because it would look cooler.

3) Do controllers work on both consoles? I want to replace my regular 6 button controllers, but may want to use a North American fight stick.

4) Speaking of the Action Replay RAM carts, I also vaguely remember something about the 4mb one running games optimized for the 2mb one less well. Can anyone explain that, or am I totally off base? Is there an advantage to having both a 2mb and 4mb expansion cart for your Saturn?

Thanks for help with any of these questions!

All of the cables, controllers and accessories will work on any Saturn, regardless of region. I have never had any problems. The Action Replay cart will also work on a Japanese Saturn (I've been using mine for years). For memory expansion, there was only the 1MB and 4MB cartridges. The Action Replay is compatible with all games that require a RAM cart. There has been some debate whether Metal Slug runs more smoothly (and with less slowdown) with the 1MB cart than the Action Replay, but I haven't seen any hard evidence. This may just be another case of internet gossip.
 










Steep Slope Sliders (1997, Cave for Saturn)

I snapped a series of photos this morning: Japanese release, model 2 Saturn w/composite, Sony Bravia HDTV. For Saturn, I tend to prefer composite over s-video, largely because the "fake transparency" effect is preserved, and I don't have to look at the ugly wire-mesh patterns, but also because the image quality is still very sharp. I'd say s-video is only a 10% improvement in image quality. And, as always, everything looks best on a CRT.

Steep Slope Sliders is one of my absolute favorite videogames, and easily my favorite snowboarding game. It just feels authentic. It just feels right, in its earth tones and blocky textures and fluid controls. I have always had the impression that Cave's programmers knew this sport in their bones. They understood the sub-culture, with its influences of punk, techno, rave and trip-hop, the reckless thrill-seeking. Best of all, the understood the solitude of the sport. This game was always criticized for lacking a two-player mode, where you could battle against a friend. But that's not the idea. In snowboarding, your only true friend and rival are the mountains themselves. It's just you and nature and silence...and maybe the funky beats in your Walkman.

You're not here to compete in some professional circuit. You're not here to compete for the Olympics. You're not here to win competitions and endorsements and fame and glory. You're here to surf the mountains, hills, forests and farms. You're here to better yourself, to find that one perfect spot to make that perfect jump and score the perfect trick. There is always room for improvement, always another hill or rock that you can use to perform that stunt.

Little details abound. See that screenshot above of the two teenagers whacking the metal sculpture with baseball bats? Hah! Take that, Nintendo. Another group of teens are playing basketball, while a couple skateboarders are riding around. I think I saw a young couple making out by a finish line. A dog chases you through his farm. Hot air balloons float by in the background. Snow blasts out from your board in thick patches.

The controls are what makes this game a classic. Jump, Grab, Flip, Turn. That's it. Using the shoulder buttons to shift your weight and move the board allows for some highly fluid turns in tight spaces. You'll quickly learn to add more moves to the longer jumps and learn how to improvise. It's really a rough draft for Tony Hawk Pro Skater, which forever set the standard for all "extreme" sports videogames to follow.

The level designs are sensational mashups of varying environments and themes, in that classic arcade videogame fashion. There's no logical reason why there should be a log cabin on the edge of a cliff, or why there should be a train in the middle of a mountain, or why a snowboarding run should suddenly dump into a highway. For that matter, why are you surfing over an endless asteroid belt or the Death Star Trench? Because it's awesome, that's why. The mountains in Steep Slope Sliders tower above you at menacing angles, and each helicopter drop is a rush. Cool Boarders and 1080 play like Disneyland rides, sanitary and safe and unbelievably effing dull. Try riding through rocky terrain and crowded forests in pitch-black darkness.

Best of all, I love Steep Slope Sliders because, at its heart, it's an underdog and a misfit. It's never interested in being a racing game, certainly not like its peers. It's not even really interested in most arcade game conventions like level progressions and competitions and gold medals. It's mostly interested in just surfing for fun, for its own sake. Well, that and ingesting Terence McKenna-levels of psychedelics while tripping on the sound test. Where else can you play as an alien, two different spaceships, a 2D bitmap stick figure and a dog, and then ride an intergalactic wire-frame half pipe on the dark side of the moon?

I could never find this game at retail but I played the hell out of the demo that came with the UK saturn mag.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
Is there a legal way to play Bug! emulated? What would take to replay that elusive gem?

This is a notoriously touchy subject on NeoGAF, so I'll tread carefully. Saturn emulators should be perfectly capable of playing retail discs. A short look on Ebay shows that both Bug games are readily available. The Japanese versions also available, but in fewer numbers. Prices seem to range from $20-$40, and I'm seeing a couple Ebay auctions where the prices are still pretty low. Bug Too is more rare and prices hover around $50. In addition to these, there are a couple Bug demo discs that were released on the Saturn. Demo discs are still very cheap, which means the hard-core collectors haven't hoarded them yet.

Of course, in a sane world, Sega would already have reissued nearly every one of their published Saturn games. Bug might not have aged too well, but it was a worthy experiment in bringing 2D platformers into the 3D age. The series was buried the minute Mario and Lara Croft appeared, but you can still have a lot of fun.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus




Guardian Force (1998, Success for Saturn)

Guardian Force is one of my favorite arcade shoot-em-ups, produced by the same team responsible for the Cotton series. It was released in Japan in August 1998, after the console had already been killed in the US. Once again, we got robbed. I'm reminded a lot of arcade tank games like Assault and Vindicators and Iron Tank, where you're fighting and moving in all directions. There are many impressive weapons, enormous bosses and flashy explosions. This title is somewhat rare and extremely expensive. You'll probably have to sell a kidney or one of your kids if you want a retail copy.

I was thinking recently about how many great arcade-style games were on the Saturn, and how nearly all of them were either ignored or dismissed without even so much as a glance. Back in the early Genesis days, if you told me we would soon have arcade-perfect games in the home, I'd be thrilled. That's all I ever wanted. But once the Sony Playstation dropped, everything changed in a heartbeat. Suddenly, words like "2D" and "arcade" became absolutely toxic. You couldn't get arrested with a game like Guardian Force. These things happen. But it absolutely killed Sega. They were like a 1980s LA "rocker" band that suddenly found themselves unemployable in the grunge/hip-hop era. What are we supposed to do now?

Anyway, Guardian Force is quite excellent and one you should check out. It belongs on the "A" list alongside Radiant Silvergun, Souky, Dodonpachi, Batsugun, Battle Garegga, Shienryu and the two Cottons. I cannot believe that we never got to play any of these great videogames when they were new.

Japan Saturn and Western Saturn are almost like two different consoles. It's shocking how many great titles were never imported. Just because grunge and hip-hop are big doesn't mean rock dudes should be made to disappear. There's still an audience for that sound...right? Right? Bueller?
 
Last edited:

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus




Do you have a US copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga and a Japanese Saturn? If you are one of those gamers, then you'll know that the Action Replay cartridge doesn't seem to work with the game. If you load the disc, you'll see a message on the screen that says, "Please remove the cartridge." Unless you have modded your Saturn to override the region code, you're outta luck. Or so it seems...

Thankfully, with a little investigation, I found an Action Replay code that will enable you to play Panzer Saga on your Japanese console. Simply enter a new Master and Cheat code for the game, as shown in this instructions above, then boot with the codes enabled. The game will now play on your Saturn! The first screenshot shows Panzer Saga running on my Japanese Saturn, and it plays perfectly. Huzzah!
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Mega Man X4 (1997, Capcom)

Here are some screenshots from the always excellent Mega Man X4. This is a great showcase of 2D sprite graphics in the 32-bit era, and a great example of what we could have had if the polygons hadn't crashed the party. For Saturn fans, this is the best entry in the series, as Mega Man 8 and X3 were both 16-bit ports. This is the one time you really get to see the hardware flex its muscles.

By all accounts, the Saturn and Playstation versions are nearly identical. There are some background effects on a couple stages in the Saturn version that are missing from the PSX, and I understand the music looping is slightly different on each version. And, of course, the Saturn uses the "mesh" patterns for the spotlights in the opening stage, owing to the system's notoriously complicated way of mishandling transparencies. If you play with RF or Composite cables, it will appear smooth and you won't notice a thing. It only becomes an issue when you're using S-Video or anything above.

Two decades ago, I felt burned out on Mega Man, thanks to its countless sequels. Also, like many other gamers at the time, I was swept up in the polygon hype and couldn't be bothered to touch anything that looked, ugh..."16-bit". Today, however, I'm quite excited for classic arcade-style videogames, and am quite thankful that we Saturn owners got to play X4 at all. It's too bad the later sequels were PSX exclusives, but them's the brakes. Somewhere between Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye, the Saturn just dropped off the face of the earth, despite the fact that the games were getting better and better. The knives were out for Sega in those days, and nothing could have possibly changed that.

Checking on Ebay, I see retail copies of the Japanese version are going for $50, while the US version is pulling...$150?! Are you crazy?! You can find the Playstation version for less than ten bucks. Saturn collectors are getting hosed. Why they tolerate this remains a mystery for the ages.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus






J-League Go Go Goal! (1997, Tecmo)

My apologies for the blurriness in these photos. I snapped them of the game in action (cpu vs cpu) and tried my best to capture some good shots without everything becoming too blurry. I snapped the photos on my iPad where they were then cropped and uploaded to my iMac via "the cloud".

Sega Saturn has an almost limitless supply of hidden gems. I don't think anybody knows that this videogame even exists, which is crazy. This is a spectacular visual showcase for the system and surely boasts some of the finest graphics of the 32-bit era. Everything is presented in 480 "high res" mode, with a rock-solid 60 fps, large polygon characters who are wonderfully animated, and plenty of 1980s "Sega Rock" that is both cheesy and awesome. There isn't a hint of slowdown or polygon glitching anywhere, only when the camera gets too close to the nets, but that was common on all the 5th Gen consoles.

There are 17 soccer teams from Japan's J-League, complete with logos and team colors. You have substitutions, a host of strategies and formations, and a wide variety of moves. There are four different stadiums that look more or less the same (less variety than Worldwide Soccer 97/98). There are exhibition and season modes, options for four players, and the game uses the 3D controller very nicely.

Gameplay is extremely solid. This is very much an "arcade" style soccer game, with endless air kicks and tackles and shots that hit the goal pipe. The computer is pretty ruthless, and you'll learn that few penalties are handed out, so you can play rougher than usual. While I still believe WWS 97/98 is the pinaccle of Saturn soccer games, this one comes close, and after a couple matches and a few pints of beer, well, anything is possible.

Essentially, Go Go Goal plays like a Saturn version of Virtua Striker. I have no idea how Tecmo pulled off these graphics. These are Dreamcast graphics. Are those arenas really polygons or VDP2 planes? If these are 2D backgrounds, then it's the best 3D fakery in the system's library, surpassing even Dead or Alive and Last Bronx. It looks like 3D polygons to my eyes, but I keep searching intensely to find the man behind the curtain. The best thing I can say is that it doesn't matter. The arena stands look 3D, and that's all that matters.

This game goes for peanuts these days, like most sports games (WWS98 is getting pricey, however). I strongly advise grabbing a copy before the YouTube shows find this hidden gems and the Ebay scammers jack up the prices. Get it. You'll love it.
 
Last edited:

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Goiken Muyou: Anarchy in the Nippon (1997, KSS)

There have been days when I have openly wondered if Sega of America was deliberately trying to kill the Saturn. How could they leave so many great videogames in Japan without even considering a US release? In the late 1990s, we gamers were already aware of Radiant Silvergun, X-Men vs Street Fighter, Grandia and Dead or Alive. Years later, and to our great shock, we discovered just how many Saturn classics were left in Japan to fade into obscurity. It's absolutely scandalous.

Anarchy in the Nippon is a masterful example of a lost Sega Saturn classic. If you're a fan of Virtua Fighter 2 and similar fighting games, you'll absolutely love this one. According to Segagaga Domain, this game was created by a team of former Sega AM2 programmers who founded their own software studio, with the assistance of four professional VF tournament fighters: Bun Bun Maru, Shinjuku Jacky, Ikebukuro Sarah and Kashiwa Jeffrey. You even get to play them as bonus characters in the game and they're great fun, each having their own martial arts techniques and moves.

Everything on the screen looks just fantastic, even on a modern HDTV but especially on a CRT display. Graphics are displayed in Saturn's celebrated "480/60" high resolution mode, with extremely fluid character animation and some truly inspired designs. The developers began with standard Japanese "street gang" archetypes (complete with 1950s Elvis hair) and then seemingly grabbed random strangers off the street, including a middle aged woman dressed in a psychedelic-tinged ballerina's tutu and a middle-aged salaryman dressed in a suit or apron. Matches take place in a variety of outdoor urban settings including city squares, parks, rooftops and the docks. These stages take place on endless planes instead of Virtua Fighter's square platforms, and may remind you of Namco's Tekken series.

Anarchy's fighting engine is based upon the Virtua Fighter series, using the familiar guard-punch-kick system, also adding an evade as seen in Fighters Megamix and Virtua Fighter 3. Each fighter has a large roster of attacks, throws and reversals. Many of these are derived from Sega's seminal series, while many represent the new directions the software team wanted to go. One fighter is very clearly a "Bruce Lee" archetype, while the middle aged woman might remind you of a funnier version of Tekken's Eddie Gordo. The other street fighters have a unique array of techniques without being devoted to a specific martial art. The large brawler character lacks the amazing throws of VF's Jeffry and Wolf, but he does have one cool move where he throws you into the air and then punches your back when you land.

The game carries a renegade punk rock spirit in its bones, partly tongue in cheek, partly serious. You almost expect to find the Ramones as surprise cameos. Matches are suitably fast and intense, but definitely aimed towards experienced VF players. Remember that four "tatsujin" tournament gamers were involved in the development of this title. Because of this, beginners will face a steeper learning curve than, say, Fighters Megamix. Thankfully, there is a tutorial mode that allows you to learn all the moves and techniques.

Gameplay options include a normal (arcade) mode, a survival mode where you battle with one life, a mode where you only face the tatsujin gamers, two-player and team battle modes, and the aforementioned training mode. A watch mode is available when you want to just show off the game (and your Sega Saturn) to your friends. The most interesting mode is one where you "create" a fighter and train them...I think. It's kinda like the Tomodachis or Sonic Adventure Chaos, where they fight on their own...I think. It's very detailed and complex, and I'm still trying to learn my way through it. I do wish my understanding of Japanese was better.

Anarchy in the Nippon is a killer fighting game, certainly belonging to the "A" list of 3D fighting titles in the Sega Saturn library. It was followed up by a sequel on Sony Playstation, but that game seemed to lack all the fun and rebelliousness of the original, as though the developers took themselves too seriously. What happened to the shop owner who pokes people in the butt and hops on their shoulders? Oh, well. Copies of this game are available for very low prices, often as low as $10. Consider that your incentive to pick up your copy as soon as possible.

(Update 5/29: Revised the text.)
 
Last edited:

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited (1997, Fill-In-Cafe)

Now we come to one of my all-time favorite Sega Saturn videogames. Asuka 120% Burning Fest Limited is an intensely fast and furious martial arts fighting game that rivals the best efforts from Capcom, SNK or Sega. There are a dozen characters with their own unique moves, lots of furious attacks, throws, reversals, crazy mega-hit combos and miraculous come-from-behind victories. Matches are furiously competitive and exciting for players of all skill levels.

The premise of the game is that there is a Japanese all-girl high school where students engage in an annual fighting tournament known as the "Club Rivalry Budget Contest Mega Fight." The featured clubs include chemistry, kendo, karate, gymnastics, tennis, baseball, wrestling and cheerleading. Each character uses attacks unique to their club and this adds to a great amount of variety among the cast.

The character designs and animations are absolutely gorgeous. The fighters are just the right size, suitably large, filled with color and detail. Their lines curve and flow gracefully, and look terrific in motion. The key drawings are wonderfully posed, natural yet slightly cartoonish in the limbs. I am reminded how Japanese animators can create skillful art with fewer drawings than Western animators, and these skills carried over very successfully into videogames.

Asuka's fighting engine is simple but carries a lot of depth while using only three buttons (and the C button is really A+B). This allows players to jump into the action quickly and easily. Rookies will be successful by mashing buttons and trying Street Fighter quarter-turn combos. More skilled players will take advantage of the counters and reversals, which reward good timing over technique. Attacks can be reversed and combos can be "cancelled" into special attacks with ease. Experts will master the fine art of creating mammoth 20-hit air combos that just lay the smack down.

Graphics, again, are quite excellent and show off Sega Saturn's 2D powers. There are some very impressive visual effects, including some polygon flashes and sprite transparencies, lots of exploding red and blue flames. The screen shakes when players are slammed to the ground, just like Mike Haggar's piledrivers in Final Fight. The backgrounds are not static and not animated, which is the game's only fault, but the action is so intense, you'll barely notice. Music is a collection of chirpy and cheerful anime songs that will stick in your head, as students chant out "Ganbare!" whenever someone pulls off a big hit or combo.

Most "girly" or "bishojo" fighters are pretty terrible, as they are more interested in exploitation and eye candy than solid videogame design. Asuka 120% is not only a great exception, it's one of the best 2D martial arts titles on the system. Whenever I really get the itch to play Sega Saturn, I often find myself reaching for Asuka before any of the Capcom or SNK fighters, including the 4MB blockbusters. There's a freewheeling sense of speed and fun, a real sense of freedom. It's satisfying and frustrating in just the right measures.

Fill-In-Cafe are the developers behind Asuka 120%. The series began on FM Towns and Sharp X68000 home computers, later migrating to the PC Engine CD-ROM, Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation. All are essentially reworkings and revisions of the basic premise, with nearly all the same characters and basic gameplay techniques. The Saturn "Limited" is widely considered by fans to be the series' best and remains a beloved cult classic.

I see the prices on this game are creeping up a bit, hovering almost $50 on Ebay. It was stable at $30 a couple years ago. If you love fighting videogames, or anime high school chicks, or cartoon violence, you'll love this one. Highly, highly recommended.

(Update 5/29: Changed a couple screenshots and revised the text.)
 
Last edited:

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Zero Divide: The Final Conflict (1997, Zoom)

Continuing our look at high-res Sega Saturn games, here is another outstanding 3D polygon fighter that pushes the hardware very well. This is the third title in the Zero Divide series, which began on the Sony Playstation. I really enjoyed the first game in 1995, much more than Toshinden and Tekken 1, both of which were, IMHO, massively overrated to my eyes. Zero Divide had better gameplay and better character designs. As Mark Bussler would say, all that's needed now are flamethrowers.

Zero Divide 3 takes full advantage of the Saturn hardware, using both SH-2 CPUs, both Video Display Processors, and also uses the SCU Digital Signal Processor to crunch extra polygons. The DSP featured prominently in the system's later and most advanced 3D games (examples include Dead or Alive, Fighters Megamix, Burning Rangers, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Quake and Shining Force 3). Graphics are presented in 480/60 "high res" mode, with character designs that are very sharp and cleanly detailed, recognizable yet slightly abstract. The arenas feature a variety of designs and shapes, including polygon walls and objects floating in the background (the walls appear more solid than in Sega's own efforts).

The robot fighters are very interesting, as they move very smoothly and display very subtle lighting effects when they move. In addition, the robots' armor shells can be broken apart in part or in whole, revealing an inner pulsating skin that is gouraud shaded. Once the outer armor is broken, that part of the body is more vulnerable to attacks, adding to the strategy and tension of each match.

Gameplay is another copy of Sega's Virtua Fighter, which is a Saturn standard (if you're a VF freak, this is the greatest console ever made). You have buttons for guard, punk, kick and evade, with the usual set of canned combos and opportunities for "rolled" combos when you knock an opponent into the air. There are also throw reversals, which is always very welcome. Finally, you can be knocked off the edge of the platform, hanging onto the ledge by one hand for dear life. Matches can be very fast and intense, rewarding a thorough knowledge of your large arsenal of moves and revealing a considerable depth. Again, this is all part of the Sega playbook, and perhaps it might have seemed a touch derivative at the time, but remains very welcome to this fan. Frankly, we needed more brawlers like VF.

Players have freedom in choosing which opponents to face as they travel through the solar system in search of the final opponent. That showdown, when it arrives, is highly satisfying and also displays a degree of tragedy, as the robot wishes to be defeated and seek freedom in death. At least, that was my interpretation of what happens, so I may be wrong about this.

One really cool thing is that when you pause the game, the screen rotates in a Matrix-style "bullet time" fashion, enabling you to see the fighters, broken parts, and effects suspended in mid-air. More videogames could stand to offer cool pause screens.

Zero Divide: The Final Conflict comes highly recommended. The game features a tutorial mode, a story mode that chronicles the two previous Zero Divide episodes, two bonus mini-games, thirteen characters, including the two final bosses and a very large cartoon cat as the "joke" character. Copies are a little more difficult to find than Dead or Alive or Anarchy in the Nippon, but prices remain very affordable at $20. This series has always remained obscure, awaiting a new audience to bring it back to life.

(Update 5/29: Revised the essay.)
 
Last edited:

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Dinosaur Island (1997, Game Arts)

Game Arts was one of the most successful software developers for Saturn, with Grandia, Lunar and Gun Griffon to their credit. Here is another brilliant gem, but sadly very obscure and unknown. Dino Island is an "interactive cartoon" that plays out like those "choose your own adventure" books from the 1980s. It's not a traditional videogame in the sense that there are no goals or objectives or challenges. You're really just watching a very entertaining and funny anime program.

Why should any of this matter? Because everything you see has been created using the Saturn graphics hardware, not FMV or MPEG. Because of this, the visuals are sharp, crisp and very colorful. Game Arts previously experimented with this technique with Yumimi Mix on Sega CD, which was later ported to the Saturn largely as-is. On Sega CD, the visuals were mostly still-shots; on Saturn, the animation is as lush and fluid as any television production. It looks nearly indistinguishable from cels.

The story takes place on an island that is populated by humans and a host of friendly dinosaurs. The people have learned to tame the animals by playing music, either using them for work or pets, kinda like The Flintstones. The main characters are a trio of high school students who attend a musical school for training dinos, and largely involve their various comical hijinks. The tone is always upbeat, cheerful and benign, layered with a lot of goofy Japanese anime humor.

On occasion, the story will pause and present you with a list of choices. These options may include deciding which musical instrument will be played in class, or which fireworks will be set off at a festival. I don't think this largely changes the overall plot, but results in variations on specific comic scenes, and it adds a great deal of "replay value," as you will want to see all of the different story threads. There are multiple endings that are based on your decisions, but, again, there is no "bad" ending or a "game over." You are not expected to follow any specific path, only to enjoy the show and all of its possibilities.

I really enjoy Dino Island and consider it one of my favorite Japanese Saturn games. It shows off the system's amazing 2D superpowers and always impresses. Even if you don't understand Japanese, you can follow pretty easily and laugh at all the goofy cartoon humor. I especially enjoy the nods to home video, such as the pause icon shown in an above screenshot. You can also fast forward and rewind the show, and once you've reached the ending, you can watch the entire program uninterrupted as a pure cartoon.

I enjoy the era of experimental videogames that emerged at the dawn of the CD-ROM era, when software studios were willing to try new ideas and push the medium beyond its arcade roots. I wish we could see that creative spirit emerge once again, but the videogame industry is far too insulated these days, and designers are far too obsessed with validating themselves to Mommy and Daddy, passing themselves off as wannabe movie directors. Game Arts really opened the door with their mini-genre of interactive cartoons, and it's one that should be explored further.

Collectors can find this game for $20 or less, making it very affordable as far as Saturn titles go. Be careful, as there is a second title called "Dino Island Yokoku Hen," which is actually a demo disc that was released before the full version. According to Segagaga Domain, this disc features a 10-minute video sequence explaining the Dino World characters and world, and also features a very nice sound and music test. The two covers are nearly identical, so be careful to grab the correct version. Or you could just collect both. That also works.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Quake (1997, Lobotomy Software)

Thank God for Lobotomy Software. Ezra Dreisbach was a programming genius on the Saturn. Powerslave and Duke Nukem 3D are two of the finest first-person shooters of the Fifth Generation, and provided Saturn with desperately needed credibility with 3D polygon graphics. Quake is the final installment of the trilogy, and also its masterpiece.

One has to be forgiving when playing FPS videogames from that era, as technology has grown by leaps and bounds ever since. If you demand 60 fps and dual-analog controls (or PC keyboard-mouse controls), you're going to have a rough time. You must make your peace with the limitations of the era, which means 10-20 frames-per-second and single-analog controller. It's really not that difficult; you played the hell out of Goldeneye and never once complained. You'll be fine.

The Saturn 3D controller is quite excellent for this game, featuring a very comfortable and responsive analog stick and analog triggers that allow you to sneak along Quake's dark caverns, shadowy castles and monster-infested dungeons. Movement is swift and precise, and I manage to navigate fairly easily, dispatching grunts and dogs and hideous creepy things. Mind you, I also find myself quickly outgunned just as quickly, but I have nobody else to blame but myself.

By late 1997 standards, Saturn Quake is a minor miracle. Its polygon graphics, complex architectural and level designs, and copious amounts of impressive lighting effects push the hardware to its limits. These worlds are dark, rusty, gritty and brutally violent. It's all such a wonderful nightmare, and it is to the game's credit that this visual style works so well. Quake on Nintendo 64 may be "more powerful," but it doesn't look nearly as convincing. That game is like a Disneyland kiddie ride compared to Lobotomy's translation.

What really wows me are the lighting effects. I tried to show a few examples in my screenshots, from the building lights to flickering candlelights to the orange flash of your machine guns. A special armor power-up paints the nearby environments in a harsh blue light. Underwater passageways are painted in green shade. Hidden hazmat suits paint everything in a green filter. The illuminated fireballs in Powerslave and flashing explosions in Duke Nukem seem primitive by comparison. I like the way Saturn handles lighting effects. It's nowhere as smooth and refined as the lighting effects seen on Sony Playstation, but it's never as gaudy, either. It fits a game like Quake perfectly.

As I've already hinted at, Quake is very challenging and difficult. Stealth and strategy are required survival skills. If you go barreling into rooms like it's Doom, you're going to be cut down very quickly. You will also need to find the many secret rooms to uncover badly-needed armor and weapon upgrades. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, I have to fight tooth and nail for every square inch. You're not going to become bored with this videogame anytime soon.

For many years, I have often said that Sega Saturn needed another year or two on the market, especially in the West. By late 1997 and early 1998, programmers were finally beginning to truly master the hardware, resulting in an amazing string of high quality hits. Could Saturn have reached the heights seen on the Playstation in games like Ridge Racer 4, Tony Hawk Pro Skater, Spyro the Dragon and Metal Gear Solid? Probably not. But Sega might have kept things close, and they might have surprised us. The legendary Shenmue demo offers this very promise. Whether this notoriously complicated console could finally deliver on those promises will remain an unsolved mystery.

We all know that Saturn was an enormously, and needlessly, complicated beast, but one thing has always fascinated me. Nearly every programmer who worked with the machine hated working on it. But what have they done since then? What has Dreisbach done in the last 20 years? What has Yu Suzuki or Yuji Naka done since the Dreamcast died? What ever happened to Game Arts, Tecmo, Technosoft? Adversity creates art. Plenty creates complacence. Hand a painter only a dozen colors and watch them create the Mona Lisa. Hand that same painter a thousand colors and what does that produce? Velvet Elvis and cuckoo clocks.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Mighty Hits (1997, Altron)

Back in the 1990s, when Sega and Namco had their great arcade rivalry going, there was one Namco title that was never answered by Sega: Point Blank, a comical, lighthearted light gun shoot-em-up throwback to amusement parks and carnival rides. It was a welcome alternative to the gritty, violent worlds of Time Crisis and Virtua Cop, and remains a beloved series to this day. Why Sega never responded in kind has always remained a mystery to me.

Well, wouldn’t ya know it, a third party software house named Altron filled in the void for Sega Saturn with the decidedly fun and trippy Mighty Hits. This arcade-styled shoot-em-up appeared in 1996, and mimics the comical mini-game format of Point Blank. The one major difference is that the game follows a “Wild West” motif, featuring a cast of block-shaped cowboys and outlaws who send you on a series of target-shooting contests.

The Saturn is a great console for gun games, featuring Sega’s outstanding home conversions of Virtua Cop 1 and 2 and The House of the Dead, and two Atari Games arcade hits, Alien 51 and Maximum Force, that I and my coworkers at the Dinkytown Pizza Hut played endlessly every weekend. Mighty Hits is a fine addition to this hallowed fraternity and fans of the genre will have a terrific time.

I haven’t counted all of the mini-games, since I’m still not sure if I’ve seen them all. There are over a dozen that I’ve discovered, all extremely varied and creative. Among your tasks, you must shoot a penguin free from a frozen iceberg; guide a balloon hang glider to safety by shooting the balloons; hit the correct face cards among a falling deck; shooting eggs that quickly reproduce across the screen; hit blocks to complete a picture; hunt down bumblebees that hide behind sunflowers; place a single shot through three moving clocks; various memory tests; and so on.

The art design in Mighty Hits was clearly inspired by one or two drug-fueled benders. First you being with the Wild West gunslingers, and before you know it, the colors become weird, the contests become more bizarre and surreal, and before you know it, the circus clowns are bounding around, juggling balls that resemble jeweled faberge eggs. Graphics are an interesting mix of 3D polygons, 2D bitmaps and pre-rendered CG, painted with vibrant psychedelic colors. It’s a fun little carnival world, a zap-gun Fellini for tots.

One interesting thing to note is that each stage features a hidden bonus points, usually one of the extra targets on-screen. I’m not too sure yet what accumulating these mean, but you may be rewarded by freely choosing your next few stages (instead of shooting the moving targets and guessing). At the end of the game, you are graded on your skills and rewarded with some funny CG animation clips.

Mighty Hits works as a single-player game, but it’s very clearly meant for multiplayer. This is more of a freewheeling party game than Sega’s arcade titles, and it’s both accessible and challenging enough to keep friends coming back for another go. Alcohol is almost certainly a requirement. Have I mentioned that eight players can compete in the tournament mode? If you’re a Sega Saturn fan, congratulations. You’ve found your new go-to drinking game. Stock up on shot glasses and nachos.

P.S. Sega fans in America had a very difficult time in the 32/64-bit era, as Saturn struggled poorly against Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64. In the years following the system’s demise, we discovered the staggering number of genre masterpieces, visual showpieces and hidden gems that were left in Japan. I never could understand that. Would a game like Mighty Hits have turned the tide? No, probably not, but it could have become a minor hit and turned a few heads. I’m not kidding when I describe Mighty Hits as a party drinking game. Copies are widely available of eBay for $10-$20. Pick up a copy and see for yourself. Nachos are extra.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Saturn Bomberman Fight! (1997, Hudson Soft)

If Saturn Bomberman is Blood on the Tracks, then Saturn Bomberman Fight is Desire: swift, bold, adventurous, wholly unique, and the last great triumph before it all goes south. This game dramatically reinvents its classic formula for the polygon age by stripping down to the very core of what makes the series so great. It's all about frenetic action, surprise kills, massive explosions, and screwing over your friends.

Gone are the sprawling single-player worlds; multiplayer is the sole focus in this game. The single-player mode is really just a practice space for the battle and survival modes, a way to learn a new host of moves and techniques. The arenas, likewise, are a collection of 3D stages with hills, valleys, and bridges, each offering different opportunities to gang up on one another. Graphics are an impressive mix of polygons for the stages and players, with bitmap sprites used for powerups, bombs, explosions and backgrounds. There are also some nice cartoon clips at the beginning and end, which is always welcome.

When you play, expect to hit the ground running. Your player-characters have the ability to pick up, throw or kick bombs right at the start. In addition, a double-jump becomes an essential tool for dodging explosions great and small. A number of mystery cards can be discovered during the match which can either boost or hurt your abilities. You might be able to stack three bombs in a stack, or you might lose the ability to jump, or your controls might be reversed.

One nice addition is the horse, who replaces the dinosaurs from previous episodes. He's a lot closer to Yoshi, as he can eat bombs and runs off in a panic when hit. And just like Super Mario World, if you get hit, you can just hop back on top. To be honest, this little horse is probably too overpowered, which is probably why Hudson only allows one on the playing field. The idea is that everyone will fight tooth and nail to steal that animal and win the match. He who controls the horse will win the war.

The most notable additions to this game are the life meter (meaning you can take multiple hits before being knocked out), the special meter (that fills as you damage enemies...or maybe when you take damage) and the super-bombs, which are awarded when your special meter is filled. There are two sizes of super-bomb, ranging from "massive explosion" to "thermonuclear meltdown," and it's always a thrill to toss one into a crowded area and watch your friends try to scramble away in a panic.

Matches are incredibly fierce and fast-paced. Everything flashes by at breakneck speed, and there are moments when it feels like the entire playfield is on fire. Because it probably is. These stages are notably smaller than the battle stages in previous Bomberman games, which adds to the claustrophobic tension. Thankfully, there are far fewer breakable blocks this time around, and plenty of room to run and jump around. You won't be wasting the first thirty seconds of the match just blasting an open passageway so you can move around, as always happened before. Bomberman Fight skips the courtship and gets straight to the action -- WAM BAM Thank You Ma-am.

It's easy to think of Saturn Bomberman Fight as "the last great Bomberman game." It's almost certainly the last time that Hudson took any risks with the franchise, which includes the two 3D entries on Nintendo 64 that were unfairly panned. When Bomberman arrived on the Sega Dreamcast, it was back to the boring old 2D square stages and putt-putt pacing, and it was steadily downhill ever since. Unfortunately, as Dylan fans all know, Desire was quickly followed by Street Legal, the Fundamentalist Trilogy and years of lost, drug-fueled hazy wanderings in the desert of mediocrity and banality. And we all remember what Bill Hicks said about banality and mediocrity.

I love Saturn Bomberman Fight. It's smashing good fun, looks wonderful, especially on a picture tube television with the RF cables. Once again, American Sega Saturn fans got royally screwed. In my less sober moments, I'll even rank Fight as my favorite Bomberman, even though I know in my bones that its immediate predecessor is the true masterpiece. If you search eBay, you can find a copy of for as little as $20, to as much as You're Outta Yer Damned Minds.
 
Last edited:



Saturn Bomberman Fight! (1997, Hudson Soft)

...In my less sober moments, I'll even rank Fight as my favorite Bomberman, even though I know in my bones that its immediate predecessor is the true masterpiece. If you search eBay, you can find a copy of for as little as $20, to as much as You're Outta Yer Damned Minds.
I stumbled across my Japanese Saturn sitting, as-new, in its box yesterday whilst I was moving some things around in my house yesterday. I just read through your posts and now I feel guilty about leaving it there (hahah). I think this weekend might have to be a "Sega Saturn" weekend for me. It's become like a neglected best friend that I haven't seen in far too long :p. Fantastic posts mate, keep them coming.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








I wanted to share these screenshots of Saturn Bomberman Fight that I took back in 2007 on a 19" RCA TV with an American Saturn connected via RF cables. I mentioned RF at the end of my previous post, so before you all collectively roll your eyes, I wanted to show you some examples. Enjoy!
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Sokko Seitokai: Sonic Council (1998, Banpresto and SIMS)

Here we come to another one of my favorite fighting videogames for Sega Saturn, the highly skillful and polished Sokko Seitokai. The name translates as "Hasty Student Council" ("Sonic Council" is a bit of a pun) and features the usual assortment of anime high school students and teachers who battle one another in school gymnasiums, playgrounds, video arcades and city streets. According to a Japanese fan site, this game was intended as a spoof or satire of manga comics, as well as similarly-themed games like Asuka 120%. It was developed by SIMS Co, a very successful Sega subsidiary that was formed to bolster the Master System library in Europe, and was extremely prolific through the Dreamcast era before becoming independent in 2004. In the last decade, they are known for creating fishing games. Lots of fishing games. This certainly explains "Sonic Council," if nothing else.

Sonic Council is extremely polished title, with its sizable character roster, large collection of special moves and super attacks that can result in massive 15-hit combos. The rhythm and flow is far closer to SNK than Capcom, and I wasn't at all surprised to discover that SIMS was responsible for the Saturn translations of Fatal Fury 3 and Samurai Shodown 3, both of which were released previously. In order to create a good brawler, a software team usually needs a couple titles under their belt. First-time efforts usually fall flat. Kasumi Ninja, anyone?

The character designs are very impressive, pencil thin but animated with extremely fluid motion. Their standing animations seem to be drawn on "ones", which is highly impressive for the Saturn era. According to the GDRI database, a company named Digimotion was responsible for these designs, and I've also managed to find at least a couple comic books featuring these characters that were published in the following years. In addition, Gamest Magazine also played a role in the making of this game. One source cited their role as "supervisor," but it has never been revealed exactly what that means. It may have been nothing more than a glorified celebrity endorsement/tie-in. We would have to dig up some 1998 issues of the magazine to search for clues.

One thing I should say about Sonic Council: it's very tough. The computer will kick you around like a tin can if you don't know what the hell you're doing. Practicing your moves in the tutorial mode is a must, and you're also going to need a players' guide from GameFAQs. Fortunately, the special moves usually involve standard joystick rotations, along with some double-tap attacks and throws. You'll get the hang of things soon enough, but expect to hit the ground running. This videogame is not interested in winning you over slowly. It intends to beat you like a gong.

Visually, Sonic Council looks terrific. The characters are a bit shorter than you'd expect, especially after playing Asuka 120% of Astra Superstars. The fluid animation, however, more than makes up for it, as does the impressive stage designs and animated crowds. I was very impressed by the "sonic wave" effects that roll out whenever a major attack is joined. There are also a couple characters with flames that dissipate heat if you look very closely. It's subtle, especially on a CRT television, but very cool. This game has a quiet confidence in its bones. The programmers don't feel the need to beat you over the head in order to be heard. Well, except for those seizure-inducing flash effects when you pull off a "special attack" KO. That's also cool.

This videogame is very obscure among Western Saturn fans. It has managed to hang under the radar while bigger names hog all the attention. If Sonic Council were published by SNK, it would today be hailed as a minor classic of the genre. Instead, it was published by Banpresto with no announcement as to its developers or their pedigree. Because of this, the game has remained overlooked. Whatever. This is one of the best 2D fighters on the system.

Prices on eBay are lower than you would expect, currently hovering in the $30-$40 range. There are fewer copies floating around, but its obscurity has helped keep the prices sane. If one or two prominent video review shows were to feature Sonic Council, the eBay scammers would immediately jack the price to over $100. I strongly advise grabbing yourself a copy before that happens.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Astra Superstars (1998, Sunsoft and Santa Claus)

Wow! What a sensational videogame. I'm probably going to have brain seizures after playing this for more than an hour, but it's totally worth it. I'll be sent to the madhouse for sure, but I will have no regrets.

Sega Saturn has always been hailed as a behemoth for 2D videogames, but there were precious few examples in the USA to back up such boasts. We had Galactic Attack and Darius Gaiden and Street Fighter Alpha 2, all of which looked terrific and kept us glued to our television screens, but they weren't exactly groundbreaking. They were the bigger and bolder cousins of what we played on Sega Genesis. We didn't really see an example of a Saturn game that pushed its 2D powers the way games like Virtua Fighter 2, Burning Rangers and Quake were pushing the system's 3D powers. But Astra Superstars delivers.

These are the best 2D graphics on the Sega Saturn. It's certainly the loudest, the most brash, the most extreme, the most visually overwhelming. It doesn't dazzle your senses, it assaults you from every direction, spins you like mad, knocks you to the ground, grabs your wallet and keys, then raids your fridge just for kicks. I'm not kidding when I bring up seizures. Marvel Super Heroes vs Street Fighter is probably its closest rival, in terms of animation quality and visual pizazz. But Capcom plays it straight, while Sunsoft and Santa Claus, the Astra software team, went completely gonzo. This is one videogame that truly deserves a Ralph Stedman cover illustration.

Astra Superstars is a 2D arcade fighting game featuring a very colorful cast of cartoonish characters with zany names like Lettuce, Maron, Coco, Rouge, Fooly. Their designs are completely, wonderfully ridiculous, either playing off or drowning in anime stereotypes. You have the spiky-haired hero, the stone-faced samurai warrior, a hulking giant with Charlie Brown hair, a small girl dressed as Santa, and two "hot chicks" whose wardrobes come straight from the Yandy summer catalog. Because, why not? We're already overwhelming your teenage male hormones enough as it is.

The game plays out like a simplified Street Fighter, with the standard six-button layout and "special" and "super" attacks that are performed with simple button presses. There are no complex joystick rotations or button combinations. The fighting system is versatile but extremely simple to use, and it's extremely satisfying to unleash a series of attacks that literally knock your opponent around the screen like a tennis ball. Because of this, Astra Superstars has a reputation for being friendly to "button mashers." To which I say, fantastic, thank you very much, and it's about damned time.

One rarely-discussed reason why video arcades withered and died out in the late 1990s is that everything became focused squarely on the "hardcore" or tournament players at the expense of everybody else. Every shoot-em-up was made specifically for those who could master Dodonpachi in their sleep. Every fighting game was made specifically for those who could pull off a Stun Palm of Doom blindfolded. But where did that leave the rest of us? Here's a quick ProTip: most gamers' only strategy in fighting games was to smash the buttons as fast as possible, and hope that something cool happens. Beer and alcohol were also present at most of these get-togethers, so we had to function with our brains half-underwater and our eyesight rolling endlessly.

Astra Superstars is just as rich and complex as anything created by Capcom or SNK (the floating concept is wonderfully played, as you hurl and bounce your way in all directions while staying grounded in a closed space), but this time anyone can pull off those super-flashy moves. It's welcoming and liberating and makes for a lot of fun. Capcom did something very similar with the Wiimote controls on Tatsunoko vs Capcom, which is another breath of fresh air that desperately needs to be copied.

The graphics in this game follow a unique style, one I'd like to call "Spaz-Tastic Cartoon Overdose." Characters bend, twist, warp and distort when performing attacks and receiving hits. Sometimes they become dizzy and fall unconscious. Sometimes they panic and suddenly realize they're floating in the air, their feet scrambling in a panic. The greatest effects are reserved for the "super" attacks, as the screen explodes in a psychedlic cataclysm of color, flash and line drawings. Backgrounds also pulsate and pixelate, and you even see a few wireframe polygon effects. One character assaults you with Christmas presents. Another drops a moon-sized peach on your head. Another transforms into a giant monster who fills half the screen.

There are at least four bonus characters to face once you've defeated your main opponents, including a stick figure pencil drawing that has to be one of the all-time great "joke" characters. He perfectly fits the Astra Superstars style, and I can't imagine the game without him. I'd like to see him go up against the Daytona car from Fighters Megamix and that big round cat from Zero Divide. We need more guys like him. Heck, we need more videogames like this. I cannot believe Astra Superstars was never considered for a Western release. This game would have sold. Heck, it would sell today. Tell Sunsoft to release this game on the Nintendo Switch immediately. Then hire Stedman to draw the cover art.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










World Series Baseball 98 (1997, Sega)

When you buy a Sega Saturn, the first videogame to get is the "3-in-1" package featuring Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Daytona. Then you get Sega Rally Championship. Then you get World Series Baseball 98.

I wrote about World Series Baseball 98 on one of my blogs three years ago, and more recently appeared in my book Pop Life. It stands as the finest baseball videogame ever created. I believed that two decades ago, and I still believe that today. Despite the advances in computer hardware and graphics powers, this title has never been surpassed, and still dominates the sport just like NHL 94 still dominates hockey games.

The genius to this game lies in its pitcher/batter duel. For the sport, this is the heart and soul of the game, but most videogame adaptations have reduced it to simple target practice. For the pitcher, you would simply press a button to throw the ball, and then waggle the joystick to move it in midair en route to the catcher's mitt. For the batter, you simply press a button to swing the bat and try to hit the physics-defying ball. Nearly every single video baseball game going back to the Atari 2600 has copied this formula. In later years, software designers took away mid-air ball control in the name of "realism," but the basics of the duel remained just that. Basic. Lacking all drama. Boring.

World Series Baseball 98 changes all of that. The pitcher chooses from his arsenal, aims the pitch during the windup, and lets it go. Available pitches are based on the real-life players' skills, making their curveballs, sliders and sinkers very unique, and lose their effectiveness as the pitcher tires. One pitcher may have a monster slider that drops two feet at the last second, where another pitcher can barely make a wobble. Some curveballs hook, others slice. And as the pitcher's arm tires, the more those pitches begin to straighten out and decay into a very modest "slowball" down the middle.

The batter, meanwhile, has two methods of attack. His first option is the "traditional" method. He can attempt to follow the pitch with the cursor just like all the other baseball games. You may swing and miss, or you may swing and get only a piece of the ball, resulting in easy pop-ups or grounders. However, if you are quick, your cursor will "lock on" at the correct destination. The guarantees a stronger swing and a more powerful hit. With practice, you can find a strategic balance between the two, where skillful swings can result in fly balls, grounders or curves, depending on where that cursor strikes.

The batter's second option is something we shall call "the quadrants". The batter's box is broken into four equal quadrants, and each player has their unique "hot" and "cold" zones. "Hot" zones result in stronger swings, while "cold" zones result in weaker ones. By selecting a quadrant before the pitch is thrown, the batter will focus his attention on that area. If the pitch travels towards that quadrant, the batter will achieve a more powerful "lock" on the ball, guaranteeing the most powerful hit of all. These are essentially the "power" swings, the ones most likely to result in doubles, triples and home runs. On the other hand, if the batter guesses the wrong quadrant, he regains control over the basic cursor, but with only a fraction of time left to attempt a swing. These swings usually result in short panic attacks, especially when you're staring down that third strike.

Here lies the genius of Sega's design. We now have a true pitcher/batter duel, one that becomes a series of strategic and increasingly tense mind games and shootouts. No longer do you swing at every pitch, or just throw the ball wildly. Now you must think of the long game. The pitcher must lure batters away from their comfort zones, away from power swings that could result in home runs. His strategy is to keep his opponent guessing, trying to make him willing to swing at a bad pitch. For the batter, the strategy is to control the tempo of the duel, work to wear the pitcher down, drag that count as long as possible, play for time and wait for the perfect moment to strike. Too many pitches result in tired arms. Tired arms result in fat gopher balls. Gopher balls become easy pickings for "lock on" power swings that now can occur on any quadrant, resulting in huge hits and grand slams.

Your offensive strategy is to know when to use your weak (cursor) and normal (lock-on) swings, and when to aim for the power swings (quadrants). Get a hit, get a man on base, then try for a bunt or steal. It's difficult to move around those bases, and home runs are thankfully uncommon. You need to work on singles and doubles and hustle your butt off. Likewise, your defensive strategy depends on knowing how long to keep your starters on the mound, and when to bring in the relievers, and how to respond to specific batters (southpaws are a nightmare). And you must know how deep or how shallow to move your outfielders, and hustle to catch those balls and make those double plays.

World Series Baseball 98 looks absolutely sensational by 1997 standards, with graphics that rival anything seen on the Saturn (or Playstation and Nintendo 64, for that matter). The players are all rendered in polygons, are very large and include many impressive animations. All of the baseball stadiums are recreated in impressive detail, and Sega got the dimensions right, which was always a bigger problem with video baseball than you'd realize. Everything looks very detailed and colorful, but also very clean. Quads look good on these players. Is this running in one of the 480 high resolution mode? Perhaps.

One unsung quality of this game is the audio, which features a highly professional play-by-play commentary (and not just by 1997 standards) and voice announcements for all the players. There are some nice embellishments for the star players that remind me of Marsh Nelson announcing "Kirrrrrby Puuuuucket" at Twins games (God Rest Their Souls). Umpire calls are short and, more importantly, not irritating. Sound effects are highly satisfying, from the thick crack of the bat on the power swings to the crackle of foul balls. The music fits the mood and is always catchy, giving me warm memories of the Genesis days.

Just this morning, I played a quick cpu-vs-cpu game for the purpose of taking these screenshots, an exhibition match with Minnesota Twins at Chicago Cubs. On the very first pitch in the first inning, Chuck Knoblauch cracked a home run into the left field stands, giving the Twins an easy lead that was soon widened to 2-0. After several quick innings, the Cubs meticulously clawed their way back, earning one run here, one run there, doing it the old fashioned way by rounding the bases. A home run by Sammy Sosa gave Chicago the lead with 3-2 in the eighth inning.

At the top of the ninth, with one out, the Twins had one out with the tying runner on third. A fastball was connected by a pop fly to the infield. Two outs. It all comes down to this. Matt Lawton at the plate. A pitch. Ball. Another pitch that goes outside and low. Ball Two. Then something miraculous happens. A third pitch comes right down the middle. Lawton swings. The ball is chipped, bounces backwards towards the catcher. He drops the ball, which then rolls back to the wall. Sudden shock as jaws drop. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! RUN, YOU FOOL, RUN!!

Lawton sprints towards first base as the tying run races towards home plate. The catcher chases after the ball, grabs it, spins around, fires a bullet to first base at the last possible second.

OUT!

Any programmer can simulate a sport. It takes truly gifted minds to create true drama. World Series Baseball 98 has that in spades. God Bless Sega.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua (1997, Sega)

Let's take a look at another excellent fighting game from Japan that deserved to be released in the USA. Indeed, this is the only 3D wrestling videogame for the Sega Saturn, and it's a terrific showpiece that deserves a place in your library alongside Fighting Vipers and Fighters Megamix. All Japan Pro Wrestling is very affordable (as little as $10), highly playable, richly rewarding and guaranteed to add excitement to any social gathering.

While most wrestling games of the era seemed to rely on mashing buttons in hopes that something good will happen, this title is far more intelligent, complex and strategic. It plays like a cousin to Virtua Fighter, while incorporating the styles and techniques of the sport. Your moves consist of attacks, grabs and throws, with the ability to perform hold reversals and throw escapes. The controls are easy to grasp, and you can learn to chain attacks together, such as grabbing an opponent, changing the position, throwing him to the ground, picking him back up, then throwing him again, all to roaring crowds. You can even perform moves when close to the ropes, or perform flying turnbuckle moves, or even escape the ring, which is always a lot of fun.

There are a number of gameplay innovations in this game: Reversals, Damage Levels, Broken Bones and Crowd Approval. Reversals enable you to escape nearly any grapple maneuver or throw, performed when an icon appears on-screen. Even the reversals themselves can be reversed (I'm reminded of the "hold" moves in Dead or Alive). As attacks can be strung together, you can disrupt your opponent's rhythm if you know what you're doing. Damage levels work like "special" meters in fighting games, in that it builds up as you successfully perform attacks. When you reach DM level 50 and 80, you can perform your most devastating and crowd-pleasing attacks. Broken Bones occur when you take too much damage in a specific region, such as your head, neck, back, arms or legs. A warning icon will occur when you're in danger, and subsequent hits will result in broken bones. When two bones are broken, the referee will intervene and end the match. Finally, the crowd approval rewards showmanship and pizazz. It's not enough to merely knock down your opponent and get a quick three-count. You have to win the crowd over with variety and style. As the excitement grows, the crowd will roar and chant your name, which is not only very cool, it makes it easier for you to pin your opponent (and harder to become pinned yourself).

As the title indicates, this is based on the All Japan Pro Wrestling League, which was founded in 1972. The cast of characters include a mix of Japanese and American wrestlers, all motion captured and wonderfully animated with a balletic grace. It's quite something to see, a tone poem of grace and violence. If you're like me, you'll skip all the real-life wrestlers and play as Jeffry and Wolf from Virtua Fighter, who make a very welcome cameo appearance. They fit like a glove, especially Jeffry, who takes to wrestling like a duck to water. It's fascinating that both characters are based on real fighters ("Bear Killer" Willie Williams and Jim Steele), which is probably why they work so well here. You can perform all the major attacks, grabs and throws from Virtua Fighter 3, and these are some of the most satisfying attacks in the game.

The graphics are highly polished and smooth, moving at a rock solid 30 frames-per-second, and feels like a further refinement from Fighters Megamix. The characters feel meaty and solid, with a subtle degree of shading and lighting. The arena and ring are a highly impressive mix of 3D polygons and 2D bitmaps, with digitized crowd in the background. All Japan Pro Wrestling is highly impressive not just by Saturn standards; this game can compete against the wrestling games on Nintendo 64.

Yes, I can understand that licensing would have made things more expensive for Sega of America, either to secure a WWF or WCW license, or to simply import the AJPW players. Whatever. Once again, Bernie Stolar choked. Wrestling videogames were huge during the 32/64-bit era, as any teenager or college student at the time will tell you. The Nintendo 64 had a virtual lock on the genre. Saturn could have had a piece of that action.

This game was followed by the two Giant Gram titles on Dreamcast, which continue the tradition, but also sacrifice some of the strategic gameplay in favor of a faster, more arcade-oriented style. All three are must-haves for fighting and wrestling game fans, but I have a gnawing feeling in my gut telling me the Saturn original is the best.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Savaki (1998, Cygnus)

Savaki appeared in the final months of the Sega Saturn in Japan in April of 1998, and it's a highly polished title that demonstrates a great mastery of the hardware. It is a 3D polygon fighting game that leans heavily towards "simulation," focusing on real-world martial arts while avoiding anything flashy or unrealistic. This focus on realism helps give this game a unique, original style that is very welcome. And for a system overloaded with so many fighting games, it becomes extremely challenging to stand out from the crowd. But Savaki stands out very nicely, even if it's not for everyone.

This game revolves around specialized martial artists in an underground fighting circuit, probably taking place in some dingy mafia-run warehouse basement. The characters don't have names; instead, they are designated by their fighting styles, including karate, boxing, muy thai, jeet kun do, tai kwon do and "freestyle," which is the style employed by the extremely challenging and relentless final boss, a towering masked man in wrestler's garb. I wonder if he's related to the final boss from Pit Fighter?

Attacks are simple to learn, consisting of various punches and kicks that can be chained together in short combos. There are no throws or grapple techniques. Your defensive moves include blocking, "feint" moves that attempt to trick your opponent, and a move called "savaki" that can deflect an attack if timed properly. This was something that Virtua Fighter 3 dabbled with, and this game elevates it to a significant importance.

Successful play involves not only learning the rhythm of your attacks (as well as your opponent), but understanding that defense and psychology is equally important. Mashing buttons will not work for more than a couple rounds. Very quickly, the fights become extremely fast and challenging, and you must employ skilled technique to survive.

Visually, Savaki looks magnificent, employing smooth action at 60 frames-per-second, polygon shading, light sourcing, particle effects and a caged arena that combines 3D polygons with 2D VDP2 bitmaps. If there is one complaint to offer, it's that there is only one arena, but this is perhaps part of the game's "Fight Club" theme and was intended as such. Audio consists of solid effects for punches and kicks, and a looping crowd that cheers you on without becoming overly distracting.

According to research, Savaki was programmed by a single individual, Kozo Nishio, who was also the programmer of the 1996 Saturn/Playstation robot fighting game Robo Pit. He clearly understood how to maximize the Saturn hardware, something that very few programmers of the day could boast. Hardly anyone outside of Japan ever properly knew what to make of Sega's massive box of processors and chips. Hardly anyone even bothered to put in the time to learn, usually just turning off the second SH-2 CPU and struggling to work with Sega's crummy C compiler instead of working in Assembly language. Oh, well, whatever, nevermind. All water under the bridge.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus














Baroque (1998, Sting Entertainment)

Baroque is a magnificent work of dark surrealism, horror and existential dread. It's scarier than Resident Evil, more gothic than Quake. This game is like peering into a long nightmare from the depths of the unconscious, like peering into Purgatory or something worse. I dare you to play at night, sitting right in front of the couch, lights out, and no distractions. Play for an hour and then try to walk to bed without turning on all the lights. I dare you.

The game opens with an impressive CG sequence that raises mysteries and answers nothing. The setting appears to involve an apocalypse, a devastated wasteland, a hoard of disfigured mutants, friendly and hostile, and dreamlike images of men in white lab coats, steampunk machinery, and a face hidden inside a steel vat. Images of two lovers in embrace are twisted, distorted. On the horizon, an enormous towering mass of ball and steel, wire and rust beckons. You awaken in the metal ruins of a nearby city, a desolation of metal, red lights and sand dunes. A large robed figure forbids entry into a building. Another creature with an enormously long neck cackles uncontrollably. A ghostly angel figure asks cryptic questions and hands you a weapon, invoking you to explore the depths of that great Neuro Tower in search of answers.

None of this makes sense, and that's part of the design. Even if you understand Japanese, the dialog is darkly poetic, an endless series of suffering and lamentations. This place is probably where bad people go when they die. Everything is shrouded in dark shadow, illuminated only be occasional lighting, accompanied by the howling of winds and lost souls. Baroque is incomprehensible and very deliberately so. You are left feeling disoriented, confused, almost lost in a fog of amnesia. That sense of uncertainly will only accelerate once you enter the tower.

When you enter the tower, your goal is to descend over twenty levels in search of...what, exactly? Answers? Adventure? Cheap thrills? Have you ever felt tempted to explore an abandoned building that was supposedly haunted? That feeling in the pit of your stomach...that's what this game is about, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.

At its heart, Baroque is a "Rogue-like" adventure game, patterned after the legendary computer game Rogue, which was defined purely by randomness. Every time you enter the Neuro Tower, the floors are different. One room may be eerily quiet, while the next is pulsating with throbbing, disgusting monsters and mutated freaks. Crucial items such as weapons, coats, and food may be in abundance or absent. You may find a sword that spits fire, or you find nothing and have to rely on your fists as your health steadily drains away.

And the most chilling cut of all: if you are killed, you will lose everything, absolutely everything. You will have to begin all over again. At the end of a stage, you are given the option to save your progress, but you can only use that save state once. After that, you're on your own. This not only adds a tremendous amount of tension the further you progress (Minecraft's "expert" mode pulls the very same mind trip on you), it also adds to that sense of disorientation and existential despair. You are born into a nightmare, you struggle to survive, you die, mysteries are revealed as you cross over, and then you awake again, cursed to live through the nightmare again. Baroque is like Groundhog Day for H.R. Giger freaks.

Baroque is a videogame that is loaded with style and atmosphere. When it's not moody, it's creepy. When it's not creepy, it's unsettling. When it's not unsettling, it's scaring the hell out of you. Expect a lot of cheap shocks. Remember that dog in Resident Evil? Yeah, Sting remembers. The last videogame that spooked me as much was Minecraft and it's endless dark caverns crawling with Zombies and Skeletons and Creepers who always put the zap on you the moment you've let your guard down. Fascinating how both titles employ a first-person view and randomized level designs.

The graphics are absolutely sensational. Which is to say, they're highly effective: rough and rusted, slow and brooding, heavy on the shadows, and illuminated by patches of red, white and green. It looks a lot like Lobotomy's Quake, only less refined, but retaining all the grit and grime. Here is one example why the 32-bit graphics of the Saturn/Playstation era are so effective when done right. If you doubt me, then take a look at the Playstation 2/Nintendo Wii remake, which "improves" the graphics by removing everything that made them great in the first place. You don't want smooth wall textures, bright lights, long draw distances, smooth frame rates or polygon anime dolls. You want ugly, roughshod buildings that look like they're about to completely collapse. You want haunting mood lighting. You want grotesque creatures that are pre-rendered sprites (ala Donkey Kong Country). You want the uncanny, not the uncanny valley.

I can't think of a single horror videogame that sticks in my gut the way Baroque does, that gnaws at me and leaves me checking the back of my couch for monsters. I'm probably going to have nightmares tonight. I may have to sleep with a cross and a copy of the Roman Ritual of 1614 under my pillow.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Dead or Alive (1997, Tecmo and Team Ninja)

Every Sega Saturn fan knows about Dead or Alive. We were absolutely thrilled by the 1996 arcade game, which used Sega's Model 2 hardware board, and were doubly thrilled to learn it was coming home the following year. Then we were left hanging by Sega of America, as newly-installed CEO Bernie Stolar notoriously declared "Saturn is not our future." Then he grabbed a shovel and began digging, and Saturn tried to crack a smile beneath another shovel load.

Why the bloody hell was this game not released? Yes, the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 had thoroughly dominated the US videogame market by 1997, thanks to Super Mario 64, Goldeneye, Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy 7. But the Saturn wasn't dead yet, and if it was dying, the cause was starvation. Gamers were left high and dry waiting for quality software that delivered on the early promises offered by that spectacular Christmas 1995 lineup of Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Sega Rally Championship. We had many great games in '96 and '97, but nothing could really match that peak, which was beginning to look insurmountable.

Then Team Ninja arrived and conquered that mountain with ease. They not only created an arcade fighting game that could equal Virtua Fighter 2's "480/60" high resolution graphics, they may have surpassed it. And if you thought Dead or Alive was a one-time fluke, Go Go Goal was waiting in the wings to slap you upside the head a second time. These guys could make the Saturn sing and it was glorious.

Today, two decades later, this game still looks glorious. The opening CG movie, the character menu screen, the stages, the character design, every moment glows with pride. This game knows how to strut with its feathers held high. The animation is wonderfully fluid and natural, and can easily stand alongside its more sequels. Indeed, even though DOA 2 and 3 are vastly more advanced from a technology point of view, the core gameplay of the original is so solid, so focused, that it has hardly aged a day. There's a reason why Tecmo included Saturn DOA 1 on the Xbox for Dead or Alive Ultimate.

The fighting system in Dead or Alive follows the Virtua Fighter formula, with PKG buttons and a series of "canned" and "rolled" combos. The rhythm and tempo, however, is slightly different, focusing more on short, quick attacks that often result in multi-hit combos. You will find yourself on your back in the blink of an eye. The speed is very fast, and you must study your character's moves and flow charts closely if you wish to have any chance at winning more than a couple matches. The computer opponents in arcade mode is especially brutal. You'll get your butt handed to you on Lei Fang's stage two.

Two gameplay innovations that define this classic: "hold" reversals and danger zones. The holds involve use of the guard button to repel an attack and can be used offensively or defensively, either by pushing the opponent aside or retaliating with a quick grab-and-punch. Sega dabbled with this idea in the Virtua Fighter series, but Tecmo made it universal for all characters, much like Namco would later do with Soul Calibur. The danger zones are an explosive perimeter that surrounds the fighting ring. When knocked down in this zone, your fighter is detonated by an explosive and shot into the air, allowing for more free hits.

Many of the characters lean hard on Chinese martial arts, offering many techniques and styles that are different from Sega's franchises. You can tell that Team Ninja worked hard to distinguish themselves, which pays off handsomely. Yes, I find myself going for Jann Lee's Bruce Lee's copycat moves, but Lei Fang's Tai Chi maneuvers are always hard to anticipate. Ryu Hayabusa's (yay, Ninja Gaiden!) gymnastics set him apart from Kage Maru, and Gen Fu's short-range strikes are nothing like Shun Di's drunken kung fu.

One thing that really impresses me in Dead or Alive are the backgrounds. The graphics are a mix of 3D polygons and 2D bitmaps, much like Sega's brawlers, but I think Tecmo does it better here. They do a better job of faking the 3D effect by keeping the camera perspective slightly lower, and, more importantly, drawing the backgrounds with perspective distortion. It's very convincing in the heat of battle. Also, the backgrounds feature pre-rendered graphics, which look especially sharp. I'm thinking of Ryu's mountain stage and Bayman's military hangar. And Zach's stage with the beach and fiery sunset that evokes memories of Rygar? Genius.

Finally, I need to bring up one infamous topic: the bouncing breasts. These giant balloons defy all gravity and logic and are guaranteed to make every sexually frustrated teenage boy swoon. Poor saps. Whenever I play this game, the first thing I do is turn that off. It's distracting and stupid, and, frankly, embarrassing. This was a joke, right? Itagaki might as well have hung a sign around his neck that says, "I'm a virgin and I live with my parents."
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Last Bronx (1997, Sega AM3)

Of Sega's 3D arcade fighting videogames -- Virtua Fighter Remix, Virtua Fighter 2, Fighting Vipers, Fighters Megamix -- Last Bronx is the weakest title of the bunch. Only the original Virtua Fighter, notoriously plagued with programming growing pains, would rank lower in my opinion. This isn't to say that it's a poor game, as it's actually quite good. I just find myself reaching for another title on my shelf when I need my martial arts fix. I'm not sure why this is.

Last Bronx was created by Sega AM3. They gave us Sega Rally Championship, Virtua On, Decathlete and Winter Kings, terrific games, all. They're great at creating genre classics that feel fresh and innovative. Here, they create a world of underground criminals in Tokyo who belong to rival gangs and beat each other senseless with large, bulky weapons. Stage designs include airports, empty warehouse districts, and city rooftops. A young man wearing steampunk goggles may be behind all the violence. Fast violence and cheap thrills await.

The game is presented in Saturn's "480/60" high resolution, and there's no question that it looks very nice. It probably looks better on a CRT television, as there are many moments where graphics display "interlaced" effects that can be seen on an HDTV. Characters are very large and well animated. Stages once again employ a mixture of 3D polygons and 2D bitmaps, this time also including short fences around the perimeter. Sega AM3 especially wows us with two indoor stages that take place within a parking garage and subway station. The combination of ceilings, perspective-distorted walls and stationary objects create a stunning recreation of a 3D world in 2D, thanks to the Saturn's VDP2 processor. It's even more effective than Dead or Alive, and never fails to dazzle.

I'm trying to think about what holds this game back from greatness, and I struggle to remember my experiences with it in the late 1990s, before Namco's Soul Calibur arrived on Dreamcast and blew all our minds. Now that is how you make a weapon-based fighting game, one that flows and gels, where the weapons are an extension of the characters' bodies. Last Bronx never gels the same way. There's a distinct clunkiness to its combat; the fighters don't dance or sway with athletic grace. Instead, they just beat one another down with large sticks. Sometimes it feels very satisfying, especially when you mount a great comeback victory. At other times, it feels very two-dimensional, very up-and-down.

One thing that really irritates me is how so many attacks push your opponent away from you. Many fights result in the players kept at arms' length, and it's difficult to get up close. You're just left to poke-poke-poke at one another from a distance. And since there are no reversals or parrying moves, we lack the tension felt in Dead or Alive or Soul Calibur or the Virtua Fighter series. That interaction and balance just isn't there. There isn't enough defense, or enough throws. The lack of a sideways dodge is especially surprising. This feels like a step back from where the genre had progressed during the 32/64-bit era.

The character graphics have an urban grittiness to them, and they're highly original when compared to the genre. I do enjoy that. I really like Kurosawa, a gangster who wears an purple suit and an Elvis Presley sneer, and Yoko, who dresses in SWAT fatigues and a baseball hat. The rest of the cast tries too hard to look like comic book heroes, and there's not much personality to them. They're largely defined by their weapons, and that's the problem. There's really no difference between one weapon and another in terms of style and technique. It's all the same punch-punch-punch.

Also, since I'm on this rant, is it just me, or do the polygon characters look blocky and low-rez? The flat color tones, thick lines and chunky limbs are surprisingly jarring. After playing for a while, I swapped in Anarchy in the Nippon just to compare, and was immediately struck by the smooth, refined and colorful character designs. AM3 might counter by suggesting this was all part of the game's urban design aesthetic. Maybe they'd have a point. Maybe not.

I'm probably being a bit harsh. I do enjoy Last Bronx when the mood strikes. It can be good in fits and starts. I should also point out that I own a copy of the Japanese version, which is notably glitchier than its American counterpart. Sega had a nasty reputation of rushing software titles to market before they were ready, and it contributed greatly to Saturn's terrible reputation for 3D graphics. If you're building a software library, I strongly recommend finding the later release. Sega Rally and Tomb Raider in Japan, Daytona USA and Last Bronx in the US. That sort of thing.

No doubt Last Bronx suffers from being on a system with such a strong lineup of fighting games. When you have to compete against AM2, DOA, Anarchy, Zero Divide and Savaki, it's almost impossible to keep up, especially when your design team is unfamiliar with the genre. If this game were released on the Nintendo 64, diehard fanboys would be howling about it every single day for the last twenty years. It's all a matter of perspective.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Fighting Vipers (1996, Sega AM2)

Fighting Vipers is the Motley Crue of videogames: flashy, trashy, wild and out of control. It's similar in many ways to its sober cousin, Virtua Fighter 2, and welcomes new fans with familiar controls and promises of martial arts action. Then it quickly raids the liquor cabinet, smashes the hotel room, and drives a motorcycle through the window into the outdoor pool below, leaving you stuck with the bill. These cats have come to rock hard and burn out in a blaze of glory.

These are a great cast of characters. They all look like Prince and the Revolution from the Purple Rain era, with wild colored costumes, big hair and all full of energy and attitude. This was especially daring in the 1990s, which battered down with a Puritanical bent anything that resembled those horrible, decadent '80s. These were the days of angst and two layers of flannel shirts, not neon hairspray and alcohol-fueled amphetamine blasts. We were halfway to Vegas when the drugs began to take hold... One fighter wears rollerblades. Another kid carries a skateboard like a weapon. Another dresses like an L.A. Rocker Dude and carries a v-neck guitar. Another wears a long, dark trench coat and a toothpick sneer. One fat bastard dresses in armor that makes him looking like a walking bowling alley (when he grabs and throws you into a wall, crashing pins are heard). And one female fighter looks like Private Vasquez from the movie Aliens.

The action in Fighting Vipers is very similar to Virtua Fighter, with punch-kick-guard controls and simple moves that belie a deep complexity based on a rock-paper-scissors system. Attack beats throw, throw beats guard, guard beats attack. With that solid foundation, AM2 pushes forward: the speed seems to be boosted a little, attacks are breezier and more immediate than in VF2. The action feels more immediate. Attack combos are more plentiful and fluid, especially for beginnings. Some specialized attacks can send opponents suddenly smashing into the back wall. Fighters knocked into the air can roll back to life before they hit the ground. Walls and cages surround the fighters who find themselves bouncing off when hit in a jarring motion, and it's quite a kick.

The armor is an especially cool touch. All of the Vipers can lose their armored shells if they absorb too many ultra-powerful hits, sending pieces flailing in all directions as the camera goes for multiple replay angles. More 1980s cliches. These armor breaks aren't just titillation for the boys, showing the slutty girls in their g-strings, they make the victims more vulnerable to damage. This adds a bit of danger to your game, and might cause you to step back and play a little more defense.

The best part of the game? The finishing moves, which send the opposing fighter through a shattered wall, splintering a dozen times over. It's a great thrill to knock away at one another, then finish your foe off by hurling them into the horizon. Add in the breakable armor, cage combos and hurling attacks, and you have a terrific brawl on your hands.

The Saturn version of Fighting Vipers is very close to the arcade, if not quite up to the level of VF2. The graphics are rendered in "240" standard definition, but this trade-off enables AM2 to create some excellent gauraud shading and realtime light sourcing effects. At the time, this was a new frontier for home videogames, and it was a race between Sony Playstation and Saturn to determine who could champion the coolest effects. This was a fight that Sony easily won, and in retrospect, Sega should have stuck to their strong hand, which has always been clear and clean high resolution graphics. That said, the visual effects in this game are highly impressive, and demonstrated that Sega could compete. Jane's boxing ring stage is the most impressive, with four sets of different colored lights that switch off during fights. Thankfully, the 60 frames-per-second that is Sega's trademark is perfectly preserved. Such a feat was rare in the Fifth Generation, and Sega never got enough credit for that. I never understood why.

The Japanese version of Fighting Vipers includes one of the all-time great bonus characters: Pepsiman, a Japanese spokesmodel for the soda giant. He appeared in his own commercials and at least one videogame on the Playstation (it was a cheap gimmick, but a fun one). In this game, he's a perfect fit, full of fast and flashy moves and some cool winning poses. He might be a little too powerful, but maybe he's just closer to my style. It's a shame that he was removed from the American version. Thankfully, the other two bonus characters, the final boss and a giant bear balloon, are retained. The bear, especially, is seen as a "joke" character, but that's half the fun of these sort of videogames. Heck, half the bonus characters in Fighters Megamix were "joke" characters, and nobody seemed to mind. Be honest, when you fire up that game, you play as the Daytona race car. We all know it.

I can't fully explain why this game has become obscure, almost forgotten, all these years later. Perhaps Megamix simply filled the void and became the default Saturn 3D fighting game, leaving most casual players uninterested in anything else. Perhaps the lack of any further sequels (Fighting Vipers 2 is even more obscure) is another reason. I think Sega had a lot of killer ideas for this title. They were trying to bridge the gap between the strict and strategic Virtua Fighter with the more immediate 2D fighters from Capcom and SNK. I think they succeeded, and I wish they would revisit that success again.

Of the two Saturn versions, the Japanese disc is the one to get. You can't go without Pepsiman. Also, the US disc costs three times as much. Whatever. You need to save that money for cheap booze and '80s rock mixtapes. Life is short, kids. Rock on.
 
Last edited:
It's really too bad that the Sega of today has absolutely nothing in common with the Sega of the Saturn/Dreamcast era. It's effectively almost like the Atari name, releasing generic Genesis compilations time after time, or milking Sonic for yet another ho-hum round.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Decathlete (1996, Sega AM3)

Decathlete is vintage Sega: cheerful, full of energy and packed with irreverent humor. It reminds me of the glory days of the Genesis as well as the triumphant revival with Dreamcast. It was a rare moment of confidence for the famously troubled Saturn, like a rare moment of Beatles unity during the making of The White Album. How I wish there were more moments such as this. If you own a Saturn, this title is an absolute must.

Olympics videogames have been a regular staple since Konami's seminal Track 'N Field conquered video arcades and home systems. It established a template for the genre that has been followed almost religiously ever since. The only great exception was Epyx, whose Summer Games delivered a more thoughtful, strategic sports game, where complex joystick controls and careful timing superseded button mashing. Today, we would probably call it a "simulation", one that demonstrated the growing divide between arcades and home computers. That's a discussion for another day, but it's interesting to note that as the Nintendo Entertainment System resurrected the dedicated game console, Konami's formula for video Olympics was followed instead of Epyx. It has been thus ever since.

Decathlete is the creation of Sega's AM3, who would later follow up with Winter Heat a couple years later. They hold closely to the classic Track 'N Field formula, with a series of short sporting events with fast action and simple controls. The action is limited to two buttons (the joystick is employed only in the 1500m dash), and "run" and "action" buttons. It's a nice tribute to Konami that they map "run" to both the A and C buttons on the Saturn controller; if you use Sega's arcade joystick, you can use the old 'pencil" or "comb" trick to flip those buttons as fast as possible. The "action" button is used for specific tasks such as jumping or throwing; in the pole vaulting event, you must use the same button to lower your pole, lift yourself up and push your body over the top bar.

In Sega's hands, these Olympic events employ a combination of speed and careful timing. To run the hurdles, you must be especially precise in your jumps, or else you will quickly stumble and fall (as you can see from the above screenshot, I'm terrible at this event). In the Shot Put and Discus events, you must release your held object at just the right moment, and hold the button just long enough to achieve the ideal angle. Again, all of this follows the Konami formula, but the execution is flawless.

You can play all ten events spread across two days, which then awards you a final score and a medal ranking. You can also play an arcade mode, in which you must reach a minimum score in each event in order to proceed to the next. You can also compete in a single event and practice on your technique. Goodness knows I need to practice the pole vault, because I absolutely stink.

The Japanese version of Decathlete has an added bonus character who is awarded if you score over 8000 points in the 2-day Olympics competition, Mankichi Kazami, who is a character from the Yoshihiro Yamada manga comic, "Decathalon." With smooth, pale skin and big cartoon eyes, he's a lot of fun to play. He reminds me a little of Lupin the 3rd, and he's a nice addition to the cast. Sadly, he was removed from the US and UK editions of the game.

The character designs are absolutely smashing, pure 1990s Sega. The athletes are a wildly colorful bunch, sporting ridiculous costumes and wild haircuts. They're the best thing about this game, and it's equally fun to see nearly all of them return in Winter Heat. Why did Sega remove them from Virtua Athlete on the Dreamcast? Wasn't that game just a dreadful bore, a colossal snooze-fest? Playing Virtua Athlete is like being drowned in chamomile tea while watching TV golf after overdosing on sleeping pills. And why was this so? The character designs were terrible. That wacky cartoon cast from Decathlete had completely disappeared, and with them all the spit and spark went with them.

Visually, Decathlete is presented in the Saturn's "480/60" graphics, meaning 704x480 resolution at 60 frames per second. This was always the system's true ace card, the one reliable trick that was nearly impossible on Sony Playstation or Nintendo 64. Here, Sega could boast of next-generation supremacy and stand tall without looking over their shoulder or feeling embarrassed. The character models are rendered in superb 3D polygons (note how their limbs are perfectly seamless, another rare feat for its time), and the stadium environment is presented in multilayered 2D bitmaps. Everything is presented in wonderfully lush and richly saturated color tones that are slightly cartoonish but entirely believable. You look at this game in action and think to yourself, this is how videogames should look. If this title were to suddenly appear on, say, Playstation 4, you wouldn't want the graphics to change at all. What would be the point? What is there to improve, really?

Well, that's a bit of a stretch. You would want to make some improvements. But not much. There's a part of me that believes that videogame graphics really peaked with the Sega Model 2, and everything ever since has just been sugar, frosting and glitter on the cake.

If there is any complaint about Decathlete, it's that only two human players can compete together. There is absolutely no reason why four players can't be present, especially when only a few events show all the competitors together. Thankfully, AM3 fixed this issue with Winter Heat, but they also had to cut the frame rate and resolution to "standard" 240/30. So perhaps that was the necessary tradeoff. Oh, well. I remember playing Track 'N Field on the family Atari 800XL long ago. By that standard, I have no reason to complain today. This is paradise.