Sega Saturn Appreciation and Emulation Thread

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Bug! (1995, Realtime Associates)

I bought a Sega Saturn in the summer of 1995, despite my best intentions never to do so. Like many gamers at that time, I was highly frustrated with Sega for their many bizarre and terrible hardware decisions in short succession, including Sega CD, Game Gear, CD-X, Nomad, Pico, Activator, Menacer, and worst of all, 32X. The crowning achievement, of course, was the Sega Saturn, which had been subjected to an endless stream of bad press and ugly rumors for the past year. We already knew the stories that would define the system: massively complex hardware design, a last-minute rush to pack in more processors to compete with Sony's Playstation, grumblings from software developers, and with the "surprise" May 1995 launch, the risible sentiments of crucial retailers, none of whom were happy. The knives and the shovels were out in force as everybody was smelling blood in the water.

At first, I viewed Saturn with wary eyes. After spying some demo stations at Toys 'R' Us and Funcoland, I slowly began to come around. Two software titles really jumped out at me. The first was Panzer Dragoon, a supremely visualized world of Moebius-inspired dragons, monsters and machines, offered as the next evolution of Space Harrier. The cinematic opening sequence was enough to win me over. The second game, and this really surprised me, was a 3D mascot platformer called Bug. After spending a couple weeks playing both titles, I made a rash decision: I packed up my entire videogame collection, including NES, Genesis and Super NES, along with a massive box of games and accessories, took everything to Funcoland, and traded everything in for a new Sega Saturn. I received $200 in store credit, which at the time was a big deal, but today would require at least one more zero at the end. I came home with Saturn, a demo disc, Virtua Fighter, Panzer Dragoon and Bug in tow. I was very, very happy. Eventually, I picked up Pebble Beach, Worldwide Soccer and Daytona, and loved them all.

I don't know if the appeal of those early Saturn games would appeal to players today. This is one of those times where "you just had to be there," when this stuff was the bleeding edge, blazing new trails for the future of videogames, whose possibilities seemed infinite. Much of the experience just fades with time, and this is doubly so with Bug. When this game was brand new, it represented the first great step forward for the medium. It was daring and new and full of possibility. Then Super Mario 64 dropped like a fifty-megaton hydrogen bomb, reducing everything else to ash. Such is life. The dinosaurs say hi.

Bug wasn't Saturn's first attempt to bring the 2D platformers into the third dimension; that honor fell upon Clockwork Knight, which used 3D polygons with 2D gameplay. But its visuals were just a glorified con job, as the entire game moved strictly left-to-right. It didn't even try any new ideas where it counted, and after the initial thrill wore off, you felt cheated. Sony Playstation launch games like Jumping Flash were far more dazzling and innovative, reinforcing the notion that Sega was caught behind the times, trying to relive the 16-bit era that was suddenly becoming very obsolete.

Where Clockwork Knight fails the promise of "next generation," Bug delivers the goods. It boldly moves into that third dimension, into and around and up and down and back again. The traditional platform level design is pushed in every direction possible, while still being, essentially, a platformer. Realtime Associates, the software development team, was trying to preserve the old paradigm while incorporating the new technology. And I think they did a very, very good job. Your character, the latest in an endless lineup of 1990s cartoon mascots, follows linear paths left-to-right, then into the screen, then up and around, looping over itself, then expanding the pathways into larger areas. He must dodge or attack giant bugs of all shapes and sizes and techniques. Some of them simply waddle forward. Some of them hop around or fly. A few of them really try to impress us by leaping into and out of the screen. There's a part where you walk down a pathway as hordes of crickets hop at you from the background, and it was quite a thrill in 1995. I have to admit, it still looks pretty impressive today.

The level designs are closest to Western game design theory, which in those days meant large, non-linear stages that play out like enormous mazes. Japanese stage designs were far more linear and focused, emphasizing the quick, immediate experience. The Western style proved more easily adaptable to the third dimension, as we see in this game. However, this does result in a general sameness and repetition, as each stage just bleeds into one another. It all begins to look the same, and if you've been playing for a long while, you begin to feel comfortably numb. This is Bug's biggest failing, and it's probably going to remain its biggest stumbling block, particularly when there is no way to save progress until you complete the entire game.

The graphics are a mixture of 3D polygons for the stage layouts and 2D pre-rendered CG sprites for the characters and objects. This followed on the heels of Donkey Kong Country, which dazzled everyone and seemed to kill off traditional sprite graphics for good. On Saturn, the vastly improved color palette results in highly detailed, lushly colored characters. They are also very impressively animated, and you can tell that the designers had a blast creating this impressive cast. As the star of the show (quite literally here), Bug gets all the best animations and quite a few snarky one-liners.

There's a lot of humor in Bug, with the voices and funny cracks like "Buuuug Juuuuice" that always makes me chuckle. The whole game world is actually a staged movie, where each world is a separate thematic sequence. A director cracks a slate board and shouts, "Action!" At other times, when you uncover an invincibility power-up, the director yells, "Cut! Bring in the stunt bug!" In comes Bug decked in blue. This game-as-movie theme was common in the late 16-bit era, and has always been an obsession with Western software developers, who have long ago decided that respect can only be found by pretending to be Hollywood movie directors.

One final thing I should say about Bug: it's extremely challenging, a lot tougher than I ever expected. I think I only got as far as the third world back in '95. Again, not being able to save my progress and just begin where I left off really burned me out. Today, I would just recommend using the level select code to skip ahead, which is how I was able to snap all these cool screenshots. But it you want a really meaty videogame, one that requires lots of time and patience and practice, well, you'll be in heaven.

Super Mario 64 wasn't interested in the old 2D action games. Nintendo just completely demolished the old paradigm and reinvented themselves as something entirely new. For many years, it worked, and the very idea of a 2D platformer was all but extinct. Many years later, Nintendo tried to bring the two worlds together, 2D and 3D, with Super Mario 3D Land and 3D World. It's very fascinating to see how Nintendo tried to pull that off. I wonder if they used Bug for inspiration? Shigeru Miyamoto must have been sneaking away some ideas, at least a few.
 

DT MEDIA

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Mass Destruction (1997, NMS Software)

Mass Destruction is perfectly named: a pure sugar rush of Pepsi and Pop Rocks, a dizzying assault of thrills and massive explosions. It is a pure arcade videogame from an era when kids suddenly wanted nothing to do with arcade games. Whatever. It's their loss.

The premise to this game is remarkably simple: you command an arsenal of three armored tanks in a series of military campaigns. You drive around in a calculated frenzy and shoot everything that moves. Then you back up and blow up everything that doesn't. You run over foot soldiers lobbing mortars at you. You outmaneuver and shoot down enemy tanks. You lob mortar cannons and machine guns at incoming helicopters. You fire rockets at enemy bunkers. And you throw fire on every structure in sight, smashing everything into rubble. It's all such glorious fun. It's like being a child again, playing in the front yard with toy soldiers and tanks.

Experienced gamers will be reminded of Electronic Arts' Strike series, which began with Desert Strike on Sega Genesis and continued with Soviet Strike on Saturn and Playstation. That series was excellent through and through, but its gameplay balance tilted towards simulation and strategy. Mass Destruction leans in the opposite direction, toward arcade action and speed. Which paradigm you prefer is really a matter of taste. Personally, I prefer the arcade model. I don't want to have to worry about managing fuel and ammunition reserves, or plotting the proper strategy for missions into enemy territory. I really just want to stomp around and break things.

Mass Destruction offers 24 missions across five campaigns, with at least ten additional secret missions that are unlocked if you explode the right buildings. Each stage takes place on an enormous overhead map, featuring valleys, cities, military bases, rivers, lakes, islands and patches of forests. You engage across winter and desert landscapes. Your goals are quite varied, from search-and-destroy missions to reconnaissance to full-scale rampages. One mission requires you to find sensitive documents that detail your army's future plans before they fall into enemy hands. Another mission requires you to destroy a series of communications dishes and anti-tank bunkers. Each of these objectives are tightly guarded by tanks, soldiers and planes.

I especially like the sight of bomber planes, shown only as a shadow moving across the ground, quickly followed by cluster bombs in its wake. The copters are especially tricky, weaving in and out, dodging your machine guns. I learned that I could knock them out by lobbing mortar shells. I'm not sure if that's how they're supposed to be used, but they do work.

Your tanks are massively overpowered, and your regular cannon can cause tremendous damage. High powered shells, mines, rockets and bombs can be collected among demolished buildings (which, of course, only encourages you to smash more things). My favorite weapon in the game, and I'm sure it's yours as well, is the flamethrower. A massively overpowered flamethrower that launches enormous plumes of fire that devour everything in sight.

Visually, Mass Destruction is a triumph on Sega Saturn. Everything is presented in the hallowed "480/60" high resolution mode, rendered with the combination of 3D polygons and 2D bitmaps that was the system's trademark. When that formula worked, it was magical, and it works here, with endless massive explosions, pieces and debris falling everywhere. There is an especially cool reflective effect over water that dazzles even today. The Sony Playstation version is visibly shakier and less confident by comparison, giving Sega a rare victory in the 32-bit war.

Mass Destruction plays very much like the classic Commodore Amiga games of old, with its thrilling action and endlessly engaging techno music, and I am reminded of the great promise of Saturn as "the ultimate arcade machine." A videogame like this was beyond the wildest dreams of the children of the Atari, NES and Genesis eras. Then Playstation arrived and a new paradigm suddenly emerged, leaving poor Sega fully exposed, heavily indebted, burned from too many failed products, and leading with a famously complicated system that was itself caught between two worlds, caught between 2D and 3D. It was a losing struggle, one that nobody could have possibly won. But what a glorious struggle. Let's go play another round and demolish a small town for kicks.
 
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DT MEDIA

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Pebble Beach Golf Links (1995, T&E Soft)

I think Pebble Beach Golf Links was the very first Sega Saturn game that I saw in action, at the Richfield, Minnesota Funcoland where I had frequently visited and even worked for a short spell (to this day, I cannot remember if I'm still technically employed there, and have dreams where I suddenly remember I have to finish my 20-year lunch break and get back to work). I was not impressed. Fortunately, after I had bought my Saturn and started collecting games, I picked up this game and was quickly won over. Within a few weeks, this became a very popular videogame at the house where I lived, sharing space with several other college students, many partygoers and a blender that was constantly grinding out pina coladas. I loved that house. Those were great memories.

What do I love most about this game? I think it has to be the music. The synth-based chiptunes are very catchy, bouncy and relaxing. The songs are very similar to music you'd hear on the Super NES in games like SimCity and Final Fantasy and Donkey Kong Country, but with the digital clarity and dynamics of Compact Disc. The Saturn's sound processors are given a major workout and it's all such a wonderful bliss-out. Mind you, I was always playing while downing those pina coladas by the pitcher, and always with twice the rum as the recipe requires. It all contributes to the wonder color of summer and autumn 1995, which were very warm and sunny. The music brings me back to those days of being 22 years old and free as a bird.

Pebble Beach Golf Links offers only one 18-hole course, which was still the standard in those days, but it's one of the greatest golf courses ever created. Gameplay options include stroke, skins and match play, practice, and watch mode. The main options are the Pebble Beach Open, which is spread across four days, and Tournament, which skips the qualifying rounds and gets straight to the action. Up to four players can compete, although for some reason the tournaments only allow three players. You can also create your own custom golfer and save your stats, which becomes very useful over time. Crowds will cheer as you break a personal record, such as longest drive or longest putt, and your handicap will automatically adapt to your performance.

The best feature in this game, of course, is the inclusion of PGA golfer Craig "The Walrus" Stadler, who appears in true Sega Sports fashion. He provides strategy tips on all 18 holes which are delivered in a very breezy, improvisational style that doesn't sound at all scripted. It's also very helpful advise, which is a tribute to the programmers. Stadler also plays along in the tournament modes, where he shows off his chops and offers a friendly competition. This is where the funniest moments occur, as Stadler frequently cuts in with pats on the back and cheerful digs. Sometimes he just comes off as a real jerk, especially when you completely botch that double bogey. "You need to practice a LOT MORE." Hey, shut up! Hmm, I should probably practice my comebacks a little more. Maybe another shot of rum will help with that.

Gameplay is standard for the genre, which means it plays nearly identically to every golf videogame since Access Software's Leaderboard Golf. You rotate your position, choose your club, adjust your foot stance, then use the curved power bar to make your swing. You can adjust gameplay options to simplify the golf swing if you're having trouble avoiding those sliced shots, which helps a lot. You're going to have your hands full navigating through these very challenging holes, which are full of sand traps, tall trees, the Pacific Ocean...and have I mentioned the heavy crosswinds? Yeah. Get used to having the winds suddenly kick up to over 20mph. Don't let Stadler see you knock your shot into the ocean. You'll never hear the end of it.

I really enjoy the look of Pebble Beach Golf Links, with its vivid colors and lush greens and blues. Yes, many of the digitized graphics would become very blocky at times, but that's to be expected. The digitized golfers look terrific and are well animated, especially Stadler. I think this is the best looking golf game for the system. For comparison, just look at Electronic Arts' PGA Tour Golf '97, which was dreary, grungy and grey. Actua Golf has nice polygon graphics but a shoddy frame rate. World Cup Golf has an interesting pre-rendered look that is unfortunately sterile and lifeless.

T&E Soft, the software developers, are best remembers as the creators of the Hydlide RPG series and about a hundred golf games. They released four other golf titles for the Saturn, three of which never left Japan. They're worth collecting if you're a fan of Pebble Beach and want to play some other courses. But none of them have Stadler. So what's the point?
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
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Worldwide Soccer: International Victory Goal (1995, Sega)

Worldwide Soccer was a launch title for Sega Saturn in the Summer of 1995, and it very quickly became one of my favorites. I enjoyed it nearly as much as Panzer Dragoon, which is really saying something. Here was a true showcase for the new system's powers, with bright, colorful graphics, smooth polygon and pre-rendered graphics, fast arcade action, and some classic 1980s guitar rock that sounded like it was escaped from the last Van Halen tour.

For reasons I've never understood, this game was almost completely ignored by the videogame magazines of the day (Next Generation gave it a paltry three out of five stars). They wouldn't give it the time of day. Much of that, I think, was due to the fact that most prozines hated having to deal with sports videogames, and reviews were usually dumped onto lowly freelancers or shoved away into the corner somewhere.

Saturn had already established a poor reputation, and yet here was a game that clearly refuted that, and pointed to a more promising future. Why wasn't Worldwide Soccer held up with pride? Why wasn't it hailed as a triumph? Even the fans seemed to fall silent, and the game faded quickly into obscurity.

That's really too bad, because this is an excellent arcade sports title that plays a very lean and mean game of soccer. You are given multiple tournament and season modes, including a penalty shootout mode that always worked at parties (it worked very well as a drinking game). There are a dozen worldwide teams that seem to play more or less the same, a number of play formations, the ability to substitute players, and a choice of multiple camera angles, including rotation and height. All of the action takes place at a single stadium, and the weather can either be sunny or cloudy. And, of course, you have your choice in classic "Sega Rock" tracks that are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

The controls are very nimble and responsive. You can pass and lob the ball fairly easily, and can kick the ball forward with a simple double-tap. The moves and attacks are very much a part of the 16-bit era, which would soon be surpassed by the legendary soccer games of the 32/64-bit era. It may seem a bit simple, but that simplicity has a purity that I enjoy. Worldwide Soccer does everything that it needs to do, it gets straight to the action and never gives you a moment to catch your breath.

Computer controlled players can put up a good fight, especially when the defense tightens up close to the net. The goalies are also fairly tough to stop, although you can abuse the head shots if you shoot at just the right angle. Choosing the right offensive or defensive formation is key, and there are times when it seems like I can score at will, while other times leave me gasping for air. And it goes without saying that matches are exponentially better with human opponents and teammates.

The graphics in Worldwide Soccer are extremely confident, packed with color, featuring pre-rendered players that look a touch pixelated on HDTV but really shine on a good CRT. We see here the strategy that Saturn programmers will use very effectively, with the VDP2 plane used for the ground, and polygons used to render the stands. As the players themselves are sprites and not polygons, the action remains an extremely fast and fluid 60 frames-per-second.

Mind you, when Sega unleashed Worldwide Soccer 97 the following year, we were well and truly blown away. It's easy to dismiss the first soccer game when its sequels are so much better, something that has no doubt added to the obscurity factor. On the other hand, the difference is visuals and gameplay means that you can collect the original and enjoy a game or two without things becoming redundant. Prices are also dirt-cheap, which is a great blessing for Sega Saturn fans who are expected to shell out ridiculous sums of money for videogames.

Really, the only thing I never liked about this game was the Westernized name, generic as always. "Victory Goal" always sounded better to my ears. Oh, well. This is pure Sega goodness that celebrates the company's arcade spirit. It's a cheerful box of sunshine that always lifts your spirits.
 

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Virtua Fighter Remix (1995, Sega AM2)

Like many Western gamers, I discovered Virtua Fighter in the arcades but struggled to understand its mechanics, which were far closer to true martial arts than the antics of Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat. When I bought a Sega Saturn in the summer of 1995, I sat down and tried to teach myself the game, which was always intriguing but slightly puzzling, out of reach. It took a fair amount of time to fully comprehend its depths, but once it finally clicked for me, I was hooked for life.

Virtua Fighter plays out like a very fast and precise contest of rock-paper-scissors. Two combatants face off in an arena and battle with an arsenal of punches, kicks, throws and blocks. Blocking beats attacking. Attacking beats throwing. Throwing beats blocking. Fireballs and over-the-top cartoon maneuvers were out. Fatalities were out. What remained was the pure essence of the sport, like a finely cut steak. Here, offense and defense are fairly balanced. Timing and patience are essential assets. Simply mashing buttons -- the way most kids played fighting videogames -- would get you killed. Precision and strategy would yield victories.

Gamers who grew up on the arcade games of the 1980s would recognize this gameplay, for it was the direct descendant of Karate Champ, which was created by Technos and published by Data East. I was personally more familiar with Archer Maclean's World Karate Championship on Atari 800, published by Epyx and featured a single-joystick control scheme that was surprisingly deep and intuitive. These titles were pure martial arts, focusing on bone-crunching punches and kicks, requiring strategy and good timing to win. Again, just wriggling the joystick or bashing buttons as fast as possible would never work. You'd just become a sitting duck.

Because of this, I suspect, Sega's Virtua Fighter series has remained more of a cult hit than its peers, and certainly compared to Japan where it became a blockbuster hit and almost single-handedly made Saturn a success in 1994 and 1995. Its sequels would become ever more complex, adding more layers to its strategic core, things like throw escapes, staggers, stumbles, sideways dodging and elevated floors. Most players, and this certainly includes the videogame magazines, could never get passed the "mashing" phase, and dismissed the series as little more than "punch-punch-punch-kick." In the hands of rookie players, yes, that is true. But for those who study the characters' moves and understood the timing of attacks and block recoveries, it's not "PPPK." It's "punch, then high- or mid-level kick, then dodge their counter-kick if they block and respond with a foot sweep."

What's great about the Virtua Fighter cast is the diversity. The father-daugher duo of Lau and Pai Chan employ Kung Fu lightning punches, but the father relies on powerful strikes while the daughter relies upon speed and balance, even reversing an opponent's attack. Siblings Jacky and Sarah Bryant employ Jeet Kun Do in different ways, with spinning punches or angled kicks. Jeffrey and Wolf use their sheer strength to overpower foes with many powerful and impressive throws. Kage Maru employs Ninjitsu acrobatics, including the deadly "ten foot toss". And Akira, the expert's character, utilizes fast strikes and brutal throws that are almost entirely his own. In the hands of a VF master, Akira is simply unstoppable.

The key to mastering Virtua Fighter lies in knowing not only your character's abilities, but your opponents as well. You have to know what attacks are best blocked or avoided, and what maneuvers are "punch countered" or "throw countered." You must be able to read your opponent's mind and anticipate their next move, so that you can duck that roundhouse kick, block that uppercut punch, or hop over that foot sweep. In this sense, Sega has given us the closest thing to a true martial arts simulation, while staying within the arcade tradition of speed and finesse.

The original arcade game was rendered entirely with flat-shaded polygons, which was an amazing technical feat in 1993. There was an almost cubist abstraction to the character designs, but the animation was so astonishingly fluid and natural, far beyond the hand-drawn sprites of Street Fighter 2 or the digitized graphics of Mortal Kombat. You could tell that you were seeing the future of videogames in front of your eyes. Meanwhile, Sony paid very close attention to Virtua Fighter's success, taking careful notes as they made careful plans, waiting for Sega and Nintendo to become intoxicated with their own arrogant laziness.

Virtua Fighter on the Sega Saturn has aged pretty terribly, with its notoriously glitchy graphics, particularly the arenas, which seemed to crumble or disappear at random. Back in 1995, most of us rarely noticed as we were too busy fighting one another, and, besides, this was a vast improvement over the 3DO and Atari Jaguar, to say nothing of the ancient Genesis and Super NES. Of course, once the Playstation dropped with Toshinden, the jig was up. But that was September, and this was May or June, and Sega had all the time in the world. In this one instance, Sega Japan was absolutely correct to launch their system early. They held the weaker cards and everybody knew it.

Thankfully, Sega AM2 had one ace up their sleeve, and it arrived in the mailbox just as Sony Playstation was set to launch: Virtua Fighter Remix. This game was freely given to all those who had sent in their Saturn registration cards. And what a gift! The classic martial arts gameplay was still fully intact, with over 700 moves and nine characters, but now the graphics were given a complete overhaul. The polygon characters were now fully texture mapped and boldly splashed with color. The arenas were also overhauled, the jagged glitches entirely removed. The floors were now sharper, cleaner, smoother.

Toshinden may have dazzled in 1995 with its gouraud shading and transparent polygons, but its character models are crude, its frame rate sluggish, its game mechanics cliched and sloppy. Virtua Fighter Remix looks cleaner, sharper, runs much faster and more precise, and -- most importantly -- plays significantly better. Its combat is far deeper and more strategic, rewarding practice and patience. These were the hallmarks we all associate with Sega in the 1990s.

Much of this is academic, of course. By Christmas, Virtua Fighter 2 had dropped and exploded, giving Saturn its greatest blockbuster smash hit and rendering all previous fighting games "obsolete." Of course, no videogame that is enjoyable is ever obsolete, but it has been a bit harder to go back to VF Remix after playing VF2, Fighting Vipers and Fighters Megamix, which are all significantly smoother and more evolved expressions of the original idea. Such is the way of things. Sgt. Pepper is more "evolved" than "Please Please Me. Blonde on Blonde is more "advanced" than The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. True fans will endlessly debate whether forward progress is good or bad or merely a cultural myth. The world goes on.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
Jan 7, 2018
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Daytona USA (1995, Sega AM2)

For detractors, Saturn Daytona was symbolic of everything that had gone wrong with Sega: the hubris, the arrogance, the lack of vision, the overconfidence. Compared to the Sony Playstation, which in 1995 could seemingly do no wrong, Daytona was a shambolic shambling of a mess, like a prize fighter who arrived at the title match half-asleep and stumbling drunk.

Let us clear the air all the complaints. This version of Daytona runs at 20 frames-per-second, one third the performance of the arcade. The graphics are rendered in a modest resolution, with thick lines, chunky vehicles and smudgy colors. No multiplayer option was available, only single player. And worst of all, the draw distance was surprisingly short, causing entire chunks of the environment to "pop up" during a race. Alongside Virtua Fighter's glitchy polygon graphics, here was convincing proof that Saturn was a wreck of a machine, and nowhere near the sleek and polished performance of the Playstation.

This game quickly became Sega's whipping boy among detractors in the press and the industry. Namco's Ridge Racer on Playstation, meanwhile, was smooth, fast, quick on its feet and nearly identical to the arcade. It was a showpiece for Playstation's 3D graphics and demonstrated the future of video games. In the arena of public opinion, there was no competition which game was better.

I've been hearing that schpiel since 1995. And to that, I say: you're outta yer damned minds.

Back in those days, I often made the comparison to Velma and Daphne. Daphne was the pretty one, the popular one, the girl who always got to sneak away with Fred in the back of the Mystery Machine van. But Velma was the smart one, and she had greater depth. She's the girl you really wanna take home.

Daytona USA is rough around the edges, there's no denying that. It's also a spectacular arcade racing game that captures the feel of its coin-op cousin better than any home translation that followed. The cars handle like greased lightning, fast and nimble and always bouncing. There's a great sense of speed and momentum in the movements, and a great sense of traction to the handling. Even the way the cars bounce on their suspensions feels just right. Powersliding is slightly challenging but an essential skill to master, and once you've made your way through a few races it becomes second nature.

There are three great gameplay features that Ridge Racer could never touch. One, Daytona's cars can take damage, from minor bumps and scrapes to full-on smashed frames. Two, the damage affects the cars' handling, which forces you to change your driving tactics (there's no time for a pit stop, so forget about that option). Three, there are crashes. Lots and lots of spectacular crashes.

One of the great thrills of Saturn Daytona is learning how to deliberately cause car crashes that turn into 20-car pileups. If can hit a car in just the right way and the right angle, you can cause him to swerve just a little, and if this happens in a very large crowd of cars, can trigger a massive chain reaction of crashes and collisions. My favorite moments in Daytona involve tackling that final turn at Sonic Mountain while dodging cars that are falling out of the sky in all directions. The trick is to play at the highest difficulty level and the highest computer AI level. Now the cars won't merely try to outrace you, they'll try to kill you. Game on.

Has there ever been a more perfectly balanced trio of race tracks than the once found in Daytona USA? Each course features subtleties and surprises, moments where you can sit back and relax, others where you must hit just the right spot at just the right speed. The "easy" track has that second turn that can surprise you if you're not paying attention, and Sonic Mountain which requires a powerslide right into the inside edge of the road. The "medium" track has a nasty s-curve just before entering the tunnel that easily end in rollover crashes, and a series of three powerslide turns waiting on the other side. The "hard" track is my absolute favorite of them all, requiring all of your skills and techniques to win. You're never more than two seconds away from danger at all times. It took me forever to master all the powerslide turns on the second half, as you hop from one highway to the next while driving around the pier.

Arcade mode is endless fun, but Saturn mode is where all the real action takes place, as you can unlock many hidden cars with their own performance and handling stats. Some work better than others, and I remember deliberately crashing at least one of them so they could drive better. And the best "hidden" car of them all: the horses. Have you ever raced a better vehicle than these horses? Of course not.

Finally, one cannot mention Daytona USA without praising the music, which is glorious, catchy and cheesy all at once. It's completely absurd and yet you're singing along with a stupid grin on your face. It's pure Sega. You should get yourself a Nakamichi cassette deck and start making mixtapes.
 
Likes: mechafan64

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
Jan 7, 2018
267
199
290
Chicago, IL
www.dtm-arts.com








Daytona USA: Circuit Edition (1997)

God Bless Sega. You can always count on them to screw it up in the clutch. It's a miracle they were ever successful in the first place.

Daytona USA on Sega Saturn is a spectacular arcade racing videogame that received no end of grief for its rough visuals, particularly the polygon "pop-up," low 20 frames-per-second performance (a low frame rate that was supposedly acceptable on Playstation and Nintendo 64, but that's neither here nor there) and lack of multiplayer modes. In 1997, Sega decided to silence the critics with a "revised and improved" Daytona, and in the process found themselves moving forward and backward at the same time and ending up right smack where they began.

First the good news. Daytona USA: Circuit Edition was programmed by the AM3 studio entirely from scratch, utilizing the graphics engine created for Sega Rally Championship. The visuals are a significant improvement over AM2's original translation, with a solid 30 frames-per-second performance and notable reduction in polygon "pop-up" that equals anything on the scene at that time. The visuals appear more refined and delicate, as though the artists were using a finer tip brush. The cars were redrawn to more closely resemble NASCAR stock cars. New additions included a new soundtrack, two new courses, multiplayer matches for split-screen, parallel "link up" and online play, and support for Sega's analog 3D controller.

If you were one of those poor suckers who complained endlessly about Daytona USA's rough visuals, this new edition will make you smile. It retains much of the look and style of the arcade and ably demonstrates the Saturn's hardware powers. It can run with any racing title on Sony Playstation or Nintendo 64 at the time, at least until Ridge Racer 4 dropped and Sony seriously began to pull away for good. The two-player modes are terrific and very welcome, especially if you're lucky enough to play in link-up or online modes.

Now the bad news. How do I put this kindly? Sega improved the graphics but completely screwed the pooch on everything else.

First, they wrecked the steering and handling. AM2 Daytona's cars were swift, nimble, and floated on the ground as they raced through the tracks. AM3 Daytona Circuit Edition's cars drive like cardboard boxes being scraped along asphalt. The idea I always had in my head was, these bastards took the wheels off these damn cars. Worse, the steering lost that immediacy in the digital controls, instead going for a momentum-based scheme that was popular for many home computer games in the 1980s and 1990s. It's not the left-right that you expect from digital controls, more like slow-moderate-fast as you hold down the steering. The analog controls, meanwhile, are faster and more responsive, but far too twitchy. It doesn't really feel like analog, only a faster digital. It's a shambling mess and it drives me up a wall.

Second, the computer cars were completely neutered. One of the great thrills of the original Saturn Daytona was the violent clashes between cars that would slam into one another, shove each other around, and deliberately start massive 20-car crashes. All of this has been taken away. Instead, the cars only randomly shift lanes, darting side to side but without any purpose. The timing isn't even correct, like the cars are just pasted onto the background.

Third, and this will really irk the fans, Sega wrecked the music. Instead of the catchy, tropical pop songs of the original, Circuit Edition replaced those songs with a collection of late '80s "L.A. Rock Dude" songs from Mr. Big singer Eric Martin. The songs are not only horribly out of date and about as welcome in 1997 as a bout of the chicken pox, they're poorly mixed with the backing instruments too quiet and compressed. Sega's obsession with this style of music works when they present it as semi-parody, as seen in Sega Rally or Crazy Taxi or Ferrari F355 Challenge. It doesn't work when you play it straight.

I once saw Mr. Big perform at Sega's stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in '93 or '94. "Everybody put your hands together! Clap your hands for Sega! Yaay!" Ugh, I thought to myself, what a bunch of corporate tools. Bill Hicks was right. Mind you, I was a bit grouchier in my late teens and early twenties, but the impression has stuck with me ever since.

The Japanese Circuit Edition fixed things somewhat by restoring the original Daytona songs, but they still sound different and a little off. Maybe it's just me. In any event, I don't enjoy having to go to the options menu and manually put the correct audio tracks onto the correct stages. It bugs me.

Fourth, the Saturn mode has been removed. No more 80-lap marathons on the Three Sixty course, and certainly no spectacular pileups. You only get to race the arcade modes with the standard times and number of laps. Isn't a revised edition supposed to add features and not remove them? What was AM3 thinking? Thank goodness the horses are still available.

Fifth, the new race tracks aren't very good. Perhaps I'm being grouchy and need my medications before being shuffled off to watch Matlock, but these new courses are lame and unbelievably boring. When Daytona veterans want a new challenge, they don't want another basic oval track. They want tracks that build upon the originals and push further. Instead, Sega played it safe with boring, dull designs. At least the dinosaur track features a train and some hot air balloons, but have you noticed that it's really just a remix of Sega Rally's forest course? Whoops.

I've always had a pet theory that the hardware limitations of the 32/64-bit era were the motivation for so many spectacular course designs. Software developers were always mindful of the dreaded "pop-up" effect, and so designed their raceways with endless curves, dips, hills, tunnels and surprises. The goal was to keep you moving and shifting constantly, so that the illusion of a solid 3D world could be maintained. Once the hardware advanced enough where pop-up was no longer an issue, the raceways became as tasteless as mud. Elaborate roller coaster designs gave way to endless straight roads and modest turns. I can already drive on those roads in the real world. They're called Interstate Highways and they're unbelievably freaking boring.

Racing videogames peaked in this era because of the fantastic track designs as seen in Daytona USA, Sega Rally, Wipeout, F-Zero-X, Mario Kart 64 and the Ridge Racer series. It's been all downhill ever since.

Finally, Sixth, AM3 screwed up the crash animations. How the hell could you futz that up? The car now performs some weird barrel roll in midair that doesn't make any sense. It's far too floaty and lacks the bounciness of AM2 Daytona. It's embarrassing.

If you have to own a copy of Daytona USA Circuit Edition, buy the Japanese release as it's the more complete and polished edition. It's also fairly cheap, usually less than ten dollars. But then you could just pick up the original Saturn Daytona for that money and have a lot more fun. Graphics, shmaphics.
 
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V.R. Virtua Racing (1995, Time Warner Interactive)

I had a lot of fun playing Virtua Racing on Sega Saturn. I was a big fan of the arcade version, and while the home translations on Genesis and 32X had their quirks, they never quite captured the whole experience for me. This third attempt is much better, and I spent many chilly afternoons in the snowy winter of 1995. I wasn't sure how well the experience would hold up when I played again for this review, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was still hooked. If I only had more time to kill, I'd definitely be on the couch, working my way through another marathon race or two.

V.R. Virtua Racing on Saturn wasn't programmed by Sega, but instead handed to Time Warner Interactive, otherwise known as Atari Games/Tengen. These folks were some of the greatest American videogame designers of their era, with an endless supply of classic hits on arcade and home systems. For this home version, they wisely expand the arcade experience with a new career mode that offers a total of ten courses and five vehicle classes. You begin the lowest circuit, and after accumulating enough racing points, you can graduate to the next class, where the vehicles are faster and the drivers more aggressive. You begin with kart racers, which is surprisingly fun, then move up to stock cars, 1960s race cars, prototype cars and then the Formula-One cars from the arcade.

You are free to choose any of the ten racetracks in career mode, and each race lasts ten laps. This feels almost torturous when you're starting out with the karts, especially when you have already pulled ahead of the pack before the end of the first lap. It's a bit monotonous here, but I promise that the action seriously picks up speed when you graduate to the stock cars. From that point forward, you'll need those ten laps to catch up with the lead drivers. Heck, you're going to struggle just to maintain a respectable position in fifth or sixth place. The rival cars are relentless and you're going to have your hands full keeping them off your back bumper.

The track designs in this game are simply spectacular, and TW/Atari did an exemplary job understanding what made the original Sega courses work and built on those strengths. The Alpine course is my personal favorite, with a nice tunnel after the first turn and a series of corners you can just powerslide through like lightning. The Surfer, DIablo and Metropolis courses are also quite excellent, offering a fine balance in difficulty, twists and turns, dips and hills, and little touches like polygon Moai heads and snowmen that lie off the side of the road. You will have to master each course's unique qualities if you wish to win any races, and you'll learn to rely on the practice mode to work on perfecting those racing lines and lap times.

It's really the steering and controls that make Saturn Virtua Racing shine. There's a certain method to proper digital controls in racing videogames, with the right combination of traction and responsiveness, of being able to make a turn at top speed while knowing when to let your finger off the gas pedal and when to tap the brakes, and these programmers just nailed it. I also greatly enjoy the moments when you can send your vehicle flying over a hill, leaping over opposing cars. You can see the seeds of the San Francisco Rush series in these moments. Speed, precision, and just a little bit of good luck, it's all here.

The polygon visuals are a little rough and painted with thick brushstrokes, much like Sega's Daytona USA that same year. Because of this, it can be difficult to see the track ahead with in the two closest viewing angles. I try to use the second viewing angle whenever possible, such as the Metropolis course, but rely upon the third angle most of the time. Don't bother with the driver's seat view which is too smudgy to see properly, or the arial view which is set at a an overhead angle. Fortunately, the frame rate is solid without any choking or stuttering, and the polygon "pop-in" is kept at a respectable distance. That said, I would really like to see Sega offer a modern remake with true high resolution graphics and 60 frames-per-second while keeping the flat polygon art design. Just release it on Dreamcast with a four-player split screen and online play and I'll never ask for another thing again.

For me, Virtua Racing sits in my Saturn racing top three, alongside Daytona USA and Sega Rally. Thankfully, you can score a physical copy for little money, and the Japanese version is identical to the US one, even down to the English text and voiceovers. This title was given respectable reviews in the prozines back in '95, but hasn't kept up with most Saturn fans over the years. Yes, the graphics could have been a bit more refined, but once you've committed to the career mode and graduated to the second and third classes, you'll be hooked for life.
 
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Sonic R (1997, Traveller's Tales)

Sonic R is without question the most divisive software title in the Sega Saturn library, one that is either loved or hated. Both camps have long since entrenched their positions over the years, and it is all but impossible that the debate will ever be settled. In the end, one simply learns to make peace with the stalemate and enjoy the ride as best you can.

Sega Saturn was notorious for lacking a proper Sonic the Hedgehog title, which was due to the combination of overly complicated hardware designs and bad timing, as the era of 2D videogames gave way to expansive 3D worlds. As we have discovered in the years since the Fifth Generation, it is far more difficult to successfully translate the traditional Sonic experience in 3D, certainly when compared to Nintendo's iconic Mario. The proper balance has never been achieved, although many of us will argue that NiGHTS: Into Dreams achieved that perfect balance. But that title proved too quirky and surreal to achieve blockbuster success.

The unfortunate truth is that Sonic the Hedgehog is a creature of the 16-bit era, with four groundbreaking masterpieces -- Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992), Sonic CD (1993), Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1994) -- that were followed by a very long and very uneven series of sequels, reinventions and spinoffs. The experience is all about speed and precision of control and exploiting the restrictions of the 2D realm. It just doesn't work in 3D, not without significantly changing the formula, but Sega could never find a successful second act for its blue mascot.

Love it or hate it, I think Sonic R is one of the more interesting attempts at reinvention for the 3D polygon era. It's not quite a racing game and not quite a platformer, but borrows elements of both genres. You race as the characters including Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Sally and Dr. Robotnik across four sprawling stages. If you finish first, you will win a gold trophy. If you win gold on the four stages, a fifth course will become available.

I think a lot of players and reviewers gave up once they finished first place in the five courses, assuming they had seen all there was to see. The real challenge is not only to win the race, but win while collecting all the gold coins and chaos emeralds. Collecting all the coins will open up a second race on the same course against a hidden character; if you can beat that opponent, they will be unlocked and available to play. Collecting all the chaos emeralds will unlock Super Sonic. Achieving these feats requires you to really master the complex track designs, knowing when to use the right shortcuts and alternate pathways. If you can achieve these goals and master that perfect speedrun, congratulations.

If you can pull off that trick, give yourself a pat on the back, because you've achieved something truly special, and the reason for that is where my troubles begin. The controls are an absolute slop-bucket mess. The characters are prone to oversteering, sliding and skidding uncontrollably in many situations. Lateral movements are twitchy and require the tap-tap-tap approach of digital controls; analog controls are simply too loose to be of any use whatsoever. When entering turns, your character instead slides sideways, as though they are running on ice. You need to find a proper balance between using the joypad and the shoulder buttons, and it's a very tricky balance.

I have struggled with the controls on Sonic R for years, and on the times when everything clicks, it's quite enjoyable. When things aren't clicking, it's a nightmare. Where you come down on this issue largely depends on your patience and willingness to keep playing for hours and hours until you've mastered every twist and quirk of the steering as well as the complex interlocking pathways, bridges, hills and drops that make up the level designs. Again, you can see how Traveller's Tales, the software developers, tried to thread the needle between racing and platforming, between running as fast as possible and exploring your surroundings for secrets. Each level feels like three or four separate tracks were laid down on top of one another. It's both highly inspired and highly messy, very deliberately designed for extensive play sessions, and a very fitting metaphor for the Sega Saturn.

One area where everybody will agree are the graphics, which are absolutely sensational. The programmers achieved a number of highly impressive visual effects including a fade-in transparency effect to eliminate polygon "pop-up," polygon shading and light-sourcing, water reflections, environmental mapping and transparent polygons. Many of these visual effects are closer to what was seen on NIntendo 64, and was widely believed to be "impossible" on Saturn, which demonstrates that virtually anything can be achieved with skilled coding and enough time. Everything looks vivid and solid, especially the final stage that gives Mario Kart 64's Rainbow Road a serious run for its money.

Oh, and for the record, I really do enjoy the music. It's so very 1997, with its Euro-dance beats and infectious pop hooks that probably belonged in dance clubs instead of a videogame. That was the onion on the belt, the style at the time. Just as polygons had shoved out sprites, recorded pop tracks had shoved out "chiptune" computer songs. It was all part of the effort to make videogames "grow up" and shed its kiddie reputation, which has been an industry obsession for decades. Thank you very much, Puritanical Guilt.

Masterpiece, Train Wreck or Misunderstood, it probably doesn't matter. Sonic R is practically the definition of "review-proof." In any event, you owe it to yourself to play and see where you end up, either at the finish line with a gold trophy or the bottom of a lake kissing fish. Just don't pay the ridiculous extortion money being offered on the used games market for the US release. Beg, borrow or steal a copy from one of your friends or import the Japanese disc.
 
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Recently got my hands on a pair of good CRTs. Playing through the Saturn collection has been tremendous fun, especially 2D games where the colors just POP and the motion is snappier.

And it's the first time I've been able to play some of my shmups in Tate mode on a CRT. DoDonPachi and Layer Section are sooooo beautiful in Tate.

S-video seems to work well, but pretty soon I'll bite the bullet and transcode from SCART to composite, which I think will give me more color depth compared to S-video.

Glad to see there's a dedicated thread for Saturn fans!
 
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Myst (1995, Cyan and Sunsoft)

If memory serves, I received a copy of Myst for a freelance writing assignment for a videogame magazine that only lasted a couple issues. I was curious about this computer game, which had become a mainstream sensation on the Macintosh but was met with open skepticism by the console gaming crowd. This wouldn't have been my first choice for a Sega Saturn game to play, but since the software library in 1995 was so painfully thin, I picked up a notebook and pencil and slowly began to make myself through this fascinating and strange world.

Myst was, and remains, a very interesting experience. You navigate through a series of pre-rendered environments by clicking a mouse icon, moving forward or changing direction, opening doors or pressing buttons. It's a bit like walking through a series of surrealist postcards that either slide or dissolve away. The worlds are almost entirely unpopulated, aside from the occasional bird in the sky or moving mechanism, and one has the sense of visiting a world that was lived in but suddenly abandoned. Something has happened to the people who once lived here. But what?

Your first puzzle challenge is a simple one, to count the number of switch stations on Myst Island and then enter them into a machine located in an underground chamber nearby the docks. A video recording of a man appears who looks and sounds very much like Orson Welles, speaking to his wife about sabotage of books in his library. He suspects one of his sons of the deed, and warns his wife to find the other books in "places of protection," then leaves.

Exploring the surface, you discover a library where many books are available. Many have been burned beyond recognition, several others are available that will teach you about the history of this island and multiple other worlds. On two shelves, you will find a unique books that, when opened, features only a screen of static. A single page lies nearby, and when added to the book, fuses together. The static is now replaced with a scattered images of a man trapped inside, trying to communicate. A second book features another mysterious page and a second imprisoned man; these are the sons mentioned earlier.

These books are actually portals to other worlds, ones that were written into existence by the original author. You discover that you must travel into these worlds to locate more lost pages. With each page restored to the library books, the brothers tell their tale of imprisonment and betrayal. Each one accuses the other and implores your help, although neither appears fully trustworthy. Something is very wrong here. At the final climax, you will find yourself with a final page and a final dilemma: what became of the father, and which of these brothers should you release from their book?

Myst became a blockbuster success that captured the public's imagination in a way very few video and computer games have done. Its impact and influence spawned a new genre of interactive fiction, the next step in the evolutionary line dating back to Infocom text adventures and Lucasarts click-and-point adventures. Its worlds have an eerie beauty to them, familiar yet slightly alien and sprinkled with surrealist moments. A book morphs out of a wooden table. A pathway of clockwork gears grows out of a green sea. A tree becomes an elevator that towers high in the sky. A portrait on a wall twists and turns, revealing a hidden staircase. Strange creatures fly through the air in the distance. These worlds are rendered in that mid-1990s computer graphics style that is closer to geometric abstraction than realism, and this adds to their alien nature. The incidental music is sparse but highly effective and accentuate the mood perfectly; Minecraft obviously took a lot of inspiration in this realm from the Miller Brothers.

The puzzles may appear overly cryptic and incomprehensible at first, and it requires time to explore the worlds and understand the internal logic at play. Reading the books in the library is an absolute must, and you will need a notebook and pencil to write down all the clues. Patience and curiosity will be rewarded, and once you have discovered the first "linking book" to another world, everything will click into place. The puzzles have a perfectly clean and clear logic, which is the key to their understanding. Far too many adventure games would create obscure puzzles that never made any sense. Myst makes sense. You can unravel the mysteries using nothing more than your common sense and skills of perception.

Myst rarely appears on any Sega Saturn "greatest hits" list, but it remains an essential experience for all and comes with my highest recommendation.

(Update 11/2: Added new photos and slightly revised the text.)
 
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Rampage World Tour (1997, Midway)

Rampage is one of those genius ideas for a videogame that everybody loves. You play as a classic movie monster who invades crowded cities and stomps everything flat. You punch holes in buildings, break windows, munch down on terrified locals, and smash everything in sight. There is no goal or purpose other than wanton mass destruction. It's a great sugar rush, less satisfying in longer doses but perfect in short doses. This is the sort of arcade game you would play while waiting for the movie to start or the bus to arrive. It's a terrific way to kill ten minutes.

Released in 1986, Rampage became a big hit in arcades and found its way to nearly every major home video and computer system of its day. A decade later, Midway returned with a sequel that upped the ante with new gameplay features and cities to destroy, and a new visual design that was inspired by clay animation. Rampage World Tour was another hit in arcades and found its way home to Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64. This time, however, the reception was far colder and more hostile. In the age of 3D polygons, simple 2D arcade videogames were cast aside as yesterday's fad, and magazine critics were harsh and unforgiving. They wouldn't give George, Lizzie and Ralph the time of day.

This sort of Puritanical hostility must seem shocking today, as 2D videogames have returned to the stage, sharing space equally with 3D polygon adventures. Rampage World Tour would be hailed as a retro triumph today by the same critics who denounced it two decades ago. But such are the fickle winds of fashion and hype. It's their loss.

I consider World Tour to be a worthy sequel that builds upon the simple thrills of the original, adding just enough depth and variety to keep things interesting. Playing as the original monster trio, you are on a quest for revenge against the evil Scum Lab, the biotech company responsible for turning you into a monster. In addition to punching and climbing buildings, you now have the ability to kick, jump or stomp buildings, adding to the destruction. Kicking the sides of buildings may shake people loose from the windows, and jumping on rooftops can cause the entire structure to collapse. Some buildings also allow you to bounce over the steel beams for bonus points and extra damage.

By punching open windows, you can uncover bonus objects that, when eaten, are either good or bad. Some windows even reveal hidden objects that allow you to travel to hidden cities around the world, aiding you in your quest to destroy all the Scum Lab factories. In addition to these, you can also hop onto larger vehicles such as tanks and aircraft. Best of all, certain stages will feature toxic waste that will transform you into a hideous monster with super powers, enabling you to fly and smash everything with ease. Finally, there are a number of bonus stages, including one where you must eat as many amusement park tourists as possible.

The graphics use the pre-rendered CG style that was popular in the wake of Donkey Kong Country, and animated in a clay animation style that has appeared in arcade games from time to time (e.g. Trog, Primal Rage). Colors are bright and vivid, animation is extremely fluid and swift, and there is a lot of humorous moments that keep you smiling. Rampage never takes itself too seriously, which is a welcome relief to my eyes. I'm not really looking to reinvent the wheel or contemplate the universe. I just wanna break things and pummel tourist traps. And what's the harm in that?

Rampage World Tour is a good example of building upon a classic successfully, not merely copying the past but expanding upon its strengths. The Saturn release has become criminally expensive, because everything on Sega Saturn has become criminally expensive. You could just as well pick up the Nintendo 64 cartridge for the price of a sandwich, which is just as well as all home versions are identical. But then you wouldn't be able to use a Sega Saturn controller, which is half the reason you own this system in the first place. Once again, you are advised to beg, borrow or steal a copy from your friends until prices return to reasonable levels.
 

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Sega Ages Vol. 1 (1997, Sega and Working Designs)

In Japan, Sega released a series of retrospective discs for Saturn called Sega Ages, featuring many of their most beloved classic arcade and console videogames. In 1997, a compilation of three titles was assembled and released in the West under the title Sega Ages Vol. 1. Unfortunately, as these things happen, time ran out on the Sega Saturn before future volumes could be released, including Phantasy Star, Fantasy Zone, Power Drift and Galaxy Force. Thankfully, what we were given is the absolute cream of the crop.

Sega Ages includes perfect arcade translations of Space Harrier, Outrun and Afterburner, three arcade blockbusters created by Sega's AM2, led by the legendary Yu Suzuki. This is where Suzuki-san built his reputation as a programmer and videogame designer, and he demonstrates his mastery of speed, motion and excitement. Arcade games were always seen as the descendants of carnivals and amusement parks, and Sukuki created three masterful thrill rides, digital roller coasters that blaze by in flashes of color and light, all set to rocking guitar riffs and endlessly catchy pop melodies. This is pure Sega at its finest.

Space Harrier is a shoot-em-up where you control a futuristic astronaut who carries an enormous laser cannon and flies through a series of highly surreal and hallucinogenic worlds that are one part Lewis Carrol, one part Peter Max and three parts LSD. You find yourself battling strange aliens, starships, giant stone heads and strange flying creatures across an endless array of checkerboard stages populated by boulders, trees, bushes and stone columns. Everything blazes by at such a clip that one barely has time to catch one's breath, much less take in the scenery. And being this is a 1980s arcade videogame, the challenge is high and relentless. Your first few plays will probably last less than a minute. Practice and you will do much better and you'll be owning the high score table before too long.

Outrun is the seminal racing game that puts you behind the wheel of a red Ferrari as you race cross-country along long roads, winding curves, sudden dips and hills, through tunnels, forests and farmland, all while dodging heavy traffic and trying not to crash into something. Chances are that you will flip your vehicle into a billboard or roadside surf shop sooner or later. I always find myself getting caught by that sudden s-curve at the end of the first section. You will need to skillfully use the gearbox and let your foot off the gas pedal in order to avoid these crashes, yet you are also on a very strict time limit that pushes you to go faster, faster, all set to the greatest chiptunes Sega's musical wizards have ever composed.

Afterburner is a aerial combat game where you fly an F-14 fighter armed with machine guns and heat-seeking rockets, and you don't quite battle or race as much as you survive. Flying at a breathtaking speed, your jet can perform dizzying barrel rolls in order to avoid onslaughts of enemy missiles as you try to shoot down planes. In later stages, you will fly missions at sunset and night, dodge rocky canyons and attack ground targets, all while flying at mach speed. The arcade game even featured a deluxe cabinet that would tilt and turn in fully three dimensions. Surely, this is the most intense roller coaster trip of them all.

I remember a video arcade in downtown Duluth that had Afterburner, and it was the only place in town where you could play the game. The owners had a novel approach for inspiring the kids: they would give you free game tokens for every "A" and "B" you received on your report card. Needless to say, we were highly motivated to study hard and get good grades so we could play another round of Afterburner for free, even if I could never last more than five minutes to save my life before crashing and burning. That game took a lot of quarters and tokens from my pockets in those days.

Sega Ages features support for digital and analog controls, and Sega should be commended for going the extra mile in supporting their Mission Stick controller. Space Harrier, for example, used a centering analog joystick in the arcade, and this option is perfectly preserved in analog mode. Indeed, I would recommend scoring a Mission Stick just so that you can play Space Harrier and Afterburner as God and AM2 intended. Thankfully, the digital controls work perfectly fine and are my choice when playing with the standard controller.

The Japanese Sega Ages series only features a single game, but each disc includes an arranged soundtrack that was removed from the Western release. The prices are also somewhat lower, especially compared the US version that was released by Working Designs. Pretty much anything with a Working Designs logo will jack the price by at least one Benjamin, but if you have ever seen their package designs and artwork (Dragon Force is the perfect example), you would understand why collectors are completely gaga over having them. That said, even the Japanese titles are becoming expensive so you had better move fast.

I can't imagine any Sega Saturn library without Sega Ages. This is Sega at its absolute best, and for kids who grew up in the 1980s, the idea of playing the arcades at home is a dream come true. Just try playing these games on a Commodore 64 or NES or even a Sega Genesis to compare. You kids today are spoiled rotten. You have no idea how good you've got it.
 
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Digital Pinball: Necronomicon (1997, KAZe)

If you're a fan of pinball machines, Sega Saturn has you covered with no less than seven pinball games in its software library. Two of the best come from Japanese developer KAZe, who released the excellent Digital Pinball: Last Gladiators in 1995, which was followed two years later with a second installment titled Necronomicon that unfortunately never left Japan, most likely due to the Saturn's fading fortunes in the West. Today, the title has become a cult favorite among Saturn and pinball fans alike, and import prices have remained reasonable.

Digital Pinball: Necronomicon is a collection of several pinball machines with a common gothic heavy metal theme. All the boards are original designs but created to mimic real-life pinball as much as possible. You will find the usual assortment of flippers, bumpers and ramps, along with multiple pathways and targets. The designs are based on the 1990s pinball revival, in which designers took inspiration from videogames by incorporating multiple objectives and a final goal to "defeat" the machine. They even included a small video display to highlight important scoring events and add to the immersive experiences. Each of these elements are perfectly recreated by KAZe's software team.

Pinball physics has always been a major challenge for video and computer games, and most attempts have struggled to capture the nuances of weight and momentum, the pull of gravity, the feel of the pinball and how it interacts with its environment. KAZe succeeds superbly, and they may have mastered these elements better than, well, anyone. The balls in Digital Pinball have a real sense of weight and motion, and I hadn't realized until now just how floaty most video pinball games have been. It's just one of those things you learned to make your peace and accept, in hopes that programmers would one day figure it all out. Well, these coders have definitely cracked the mystery, and kudos to them for it.

The physics are so solid, in fact, that I'm almost immediately reminded just how terrible I am at real-life pinball. I usually lose my pinball within the first ten seconds and feel like an idiot. Thankfully, all of the Necronomicon tables incorporate a "frozen" feature that gives you back your ball if you lose too quickly. I think the game eventually just feels sorry for me and starts handing out multiballs and jackpots to help me feel better. Yeah, well, I don't need your pity. Okay, I kinda do.

One gameplay feature that I really enjoy are the board instructions, which are available when you pause the game and press the A button. These include a detailed map of the pinball board, the general rules, the conditions for triggering the multiball, the final goals and the high score table. It's a very nice feature to help keep you focused on your goals as you progress. It's quite possible that a hidden fourth table is unlocked once you "defeat" the main three, as KAZe had done previously with Last Gladiators, so having access to the instructions is highly valuable.

All of the graphics are rendered in Sega Saturn's "480/60" high resolution mode, meaning 704x480 resolution at 60 frames-per-second. Because of this, the playfield appears especially crisp, clean and clear, and the pinball physics are extra silky smooth. The boards are highly detailed yet uncluttered, and this avoids one of the major pitfalls of video pinball in that you can actually make out what's going on. You won't get lost trying to find where the ball is hiding. Positioning and precise shots are possible, and with a little practice you are able to hit those tricky ramps or target points with relative ease. The color palette is dark and subtle with primary and secondary colors, but natural, as though you are playing in a smokey bar late at night. The music is provided by rock guitarist John Petrucci of Dream Theater fame and perfectly fits Necronomicon's heavy metal theme. The music isn't especially memorable but it delivers as promised and die-hard fans will probably want to pick up this title just for the tunes.

The Digital Pinball series is an easy sell for pinball aficionados. If you're a fan of Last Gladiators, then you're in luck. Here's another set of pinball tables for you to enjoy. For Saturn fans, much of the game's appeal lies in the fact it remained in Japan, alongside the other 300 quality software titles that we were never allowed to play in the 1990s. Once again, I have no idea why this title was overlooked by American publishers. Oh, well. The internet and import retailers have solved that issue for us now.
 
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Is there a good, easy fix for the cartridge slot on a Saturn? Mine runs well but 4mb games are hit and miss, more miss generally
What's the issue? The slot can go bad but that's uncommon. Cheapest and easiest would be to skip the repair and just source a new console (they are still reasonable enough in price). Possible that the 4meg cart has gone bad but again, that's uncommon.

Which games in particular are giving you trouble? And do they boot but fail to allow expanded memory modes, or does the game fail to load entirely?
 
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What's the issue? The slot can go bad but that's uncommon. Cheapest and easiest would be to skip the repair and just source a new console (they are still reasonable enough in price). Possible that the 4meg cart has gone bad but again, that's uncommon.

Which games in particular are giving you trouble? And do they boot but fail to allow expanded memory modes, or does the game fail to load entirely?
I've had a few that have spotty cartridge slots. Tbh this is all because I saw Avengers and wanted to play Marvel Super Heroes :p I know it works without the cart, but it reminded me that both my official one and the unofficial one weren't being recognised (I get a japanese text screen and the only thing I recognise is "4mb", so presumably it's telling me I need to put one in)


edit: my pc is powerful enough to emulate the Saturn, I've just always struggled to find a reliable emulator, so I prefer just playing on the original hardware
 
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Is there a good, easy fix for the cartridge slot on a Saturn? Mine runs well but 4mb games are hit and miss, more miss generally

This is a common problem for Sega Saturn owners, especially those who use the Action Replay cartridge which uses a thicker board. Fortunately, you can purchase a new cartridge slot and have that installed, and prices are very affordable.

Because of these cartridge slot issues, I always recommend using the Action Replay cart and leaving it in place. That cart includes the 4MB expansion, region override, memory saves and cheat codes, making it essential for all Saturn owners. The only time you would need to pop it out is if you wanted to play Metal Slug with the 1MB cart, which reduces the slowdown and provides the best results. There may be other examples of this, but I'm not currently aware of them.

In any case, my advice is to purchase the Action Replay cart and see if that works. If the connectors are working properly and the 1MB/4MB games are playing, then just leave the cart in its place and never touch it again. If you're still having issues, then order a new cartridge slot and have that installed.
 
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This is a common problem for Sega Saturn owners, especially those who use the Action Replay cartridge which uses a thicker board. Fortunately, you can purchase a new cartridge slot and have that installed, and prices are very affordable.

Because of these cartridge slot issues, I always recommend using the Action Replay cart and leaving it in place. That cart includes the 4MB expansion, region override, memory saves and cheat codes, making it essential for all Saturn owners. The only time you would need to pop it out is if you wanted to play Metal Slug with the 1MB cart, which reduces the slowdown and provides the best results. There may be other examples of this, but I'm not currently aware of them.

In any case, my advice is to purchase the Action Replay cart and see if that works. If the connectors are working properly and the 1MB/4MB games are playing, then just leave the cart in its place and never touch it again. If you're still having issues, then order a new cartridge slot and have that installed.

I'll test to make sure it's not just the cart, I've got an action replay one somewhere, the question is whether it's at my house or hidden away at my parent's somewhere :oops:
 
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Powerslave (1996, Lobotomy Software)

Powerslave is a towering masterpiece, a thrilling spectacle of action, adventure and atmosphere that grabs you by the throat and never lets go. It is a visual showcase for the Sega Saturn's 3D polygon powers, just as these new immersive worlds were beginning to overwhelm the gaming world, led by Super Mario 64, Tomb Raider and Quake. It is endlessly challenging in its quest, loaded with monsters to battle, worlds to explore and secrets to unlock. It includes a bonus mini-game that became a cult favorite in its own right. And it beat a certain beloved Nintendo franchise title to the punch by eight years.

That it was all but ignored in the West and especially the United States is nothing less than criminal. Most of the major gaming magzines ignored it entirely. Gamespot's Jeff Gerstmann wrote an infamous review that dismissed Powerslave as "Doom with a plot (sort of), a few camels, and the proverbial mother lode of jumping spiders. Yawn." Only Richard Ledbetter, editor of UK's Sega Saturn Magazine, championed this title at every opportunity, for which Lobotomy Software, the developers, were eternally grateful.

Powerslave (known as Exhumed in the UK and Seireki 1999: Pharaoh no Fukkatsu in Japan) puts you in the shoes of a mercenary who is dropped into the heart of Egypt, where you discover the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses. His ghost appears and instructs you to seek out his exhumed body and a number of holy relics which were stolen by a hostile alien force, then sets you on your quest to the neighboring villages, ruins and catacombs. You are first armed with a sword but quickly find a pistol, and during your journeys will discover a machine gun, bombs, flamethrowers and other power-ups. These weapons become part of your permanent arsenal, meaning that if you perish, you will respawn with the same weapons intact. This is a welcome change of pace from similar first-person shooters of its era.

The stages at first appear in a linear fashion, but you will immediately notice certain areas and platforms that you cannot reach, such as health and weapons upgrades. Some areas also include deep waterways that cannot be crossed. Every Super Mario veteran knows that something must lie on the other side, and surely enough, your character receives wardrobe upgrades that allow you to jump higher, float to the ground and breathe underwater. It is at this point that you realize the game world is non-linear and considerably more complex than you first realized. "Doom with spiders" this is not. When I discovered the magic sandals, I had already ventured through my third stage, uncovering a number of keys to specific doors, battled spiders, birds, mummies and Egyptian bird-men who hurled blue fireballs at me. Now I was able to take a giant leap across a large chasm in a previous stage, and I found myself jumping everywhere in search of new hidden platforms.

The level designs are nothing short of breathtaking, especially by 1996 standards. How quickly we forget that Quake was hailed as a technical marvel with its fully realized 3D worlds which were a step above Doom's sophisticated 2D bitmaps. Yet here is Lobotomy doing much the same with their celebrated Slave Driver engine. These worlds are fully polygonal with extensive use of 3D space. This is shown not only in the long cavernous drops and narrow bridges, but the secret underwater caverns and mountain passageways. One location takes place along a series of tall mountains and hills where you must constantly jump up tall steps and across deep ravines, all while dodging lava lakes, deadly fireballs and rolling boulders. One almost expects to find Donkey Kong throwing barrels at you at some point.

Powerslave's graphics blaze by at 30 frames-per-second, only slowing down in occasional moments where the screen is crowded with enemies or when navigating through large expansive areas. The pacing is far faster and movement more liquid than Quake, which takes a methodical, strategic approach while pushing Sega Saturn to its limits with all-polygon graphics. Here, the enemies and objects are all 2D sprites, which helps to keep the speed fairly high. Your character bobs and weaves with ease, and you can maneuver your way around any situation, especially with the 3D controller's analog features which was very welcome.

Even more impressive are the realtime lighting and shading effects, which not only includes outdoor light and shade, but indoor flames that illuminate a short distance in the darkness. Pottery and jars will briefly shine as they're destroyed, and explosive barrels will set off a chain reaction of fireworks. The hulking Egyptian bird-men with the fireballs are always a favorite, as the surrounding walls are lit in shades of red, orange and purple. More than any other title in the system's library to that point, Powerslave puts to bed the notion that Sega Saturn "can't do 3D," a cruel and lazy stereotype that haunted Sega from day one. Of course this machine can "doo three dee." Here's the proof.

Of course, what makes Powerslave a classic is its gameplay, not its graphics. The level designs are far closer to Mario and Lara Croft than typical FPS games, especially with the non-linear structure, quest for and extensive platforming jumps, as well as those item upgrades that allow access into previously hidden zones and hidden transmitter pieces that are required to reach the best ending. And what videogame immediately comes to mind when we mention such things? None other than Nintendo's Metroid. When you really get down to brass tacks, Powerslave is an Egyptian-themed 3D Metroid. Indeed, when Nintendo and Retro Studios created the 3D Metroid Prime, Sega Saturn fans would have every reason to feel a strong case of deja-vu, and maybe a small bit of satisfaction.

Finally, there is one more bonus feature that elevates Powerslave to the level of genius: the team dolls. These are Egyptian dolls that feature the digitized faces of the Lobotomy developers and are all hidden throughout the game world, greatly enhancing the replay value. There are no overt clues to alert where to find them, only through trial-and-error or extreme violence will you uncover them. Uncover all 23 dolls, and you will unlock two new features: Lobo Flight and Death Tank. Lobo Flight gives you the ability to fly, allowing you to explore every nook and cranny of the world without fear of falling. Death Tank is a simple yet brilliant mini-game where two tanks climb across mountains and lob missiles at one another. It even features a crudely drawn title screen and the voice of a small child that always leaves me laughing. It should be snuck into other videogames and movies as an Easter Egg, like the Wilhelm Scream, just to see if anybody is paying attention. Lobotomy later introduced an expanded version called Death Tank Zwei with Duke Nukem 3D and Quake, which has since become a cult classic.

There was an effort a few years ago to recreate Powerslave for the PC using modern technology. I certainly applaud the effort, but I must admit that I prefer the look of the Saturn original. I love its visuals, which are slightly chunky in that 240p sort of way, its rich color palette and detailed textures, its superb lighting effects that couldn't be reproduced in the (radically different) PC version, the rolling waves and transparent water effects that only work when you're using RF or Composite cables. It's like the artists drew with a slightly thicker paintbrush which adds to the impressionist designs. If you draw with too fine a brush, you lose the essence of the piece, its emotion and excitement. You lose part of what made the original so magical, which was its ability to inspire the imagination. Videogames always work best when they're slightly abstract. Photorealism kills all the mystery and all the romance.

Outstanding, magnificent work. Get your hands on this videogame by any means necessary.

P.S. I see that my NeoGAF rank has been upgraded to "GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus." Thanks! I didn't plan on writing all these Saturn essays, it just kinda happened.
 
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Shutokou Battle 97 Drift King (1997, Genki)

Sega Saturn had a pretty rough time with racing videogames. Its best titles all appeared in the system's first year, with Daytona USA, Virtua Racing, Wipeout and Sega Rally Championship. After that, quality titles became increasingly rare, and this became extremely frustrating to me during the Saturn era. I enjoyed The Need For Speed and Impact Racing and High Velocity, but felt very frustrated with Daytona USA Championship Circuit Edition, Manx TT and Touring Car Championship, all of which stumbled for varying reasons. What happened to the good driving games?

I really could have used Shutokou Battle 97 in my Saturn library. Here is a racing videogame with meat on its bones, one that I could devote a lot of time playing and mastering. This game puts you behind the wheel of a series of street cars as you race against rival drivers across the Tokyo highway system. You only battle one-on-one, but you are also driving through heavy traffic and must navigate around cars and trucks as you race through the roads, bridges and tunnels while trying to overtake your rival.

At the end of the race, you will receive money that can be spent on extensive upgrades to your car, which will dramatically improve its performance. As is typical for this sub-genre, your stock vehicles are a little stiff and sluggish when you first drive them, so the upgrades to the engine, tires and suspension will make a great difference, and you feel inspired to continue racing so that you can continue improving your car. Eventually, when certain conditions are met, you will be awarded more cars beyond the initial three. There are at least eight vehicles in the game and possibly more, ranging from sports cars to a VW Bug.

The course designs are quite excellent, modeled after their Tokyo counterparts, with plenty of curves, hills, overpasses and tunnels. I especially enjoy the sights of the buildings and skyscrapers along the highway, the lights and billboards hanging overhead, and the endless array of minivans and city buses that always get in your way. One course takes place entirely at night, with illuminated roads and bridges set against dimly lit buildings in the background. Another course takes place at sunset, and you see the sky change from blue to orange to dusk as you race, and the environment is lit and colored accordingly. The draw distance is respectable for its era, the 3D polygon graphics are extremely solid, detailed and colorful, all rendered convincingly at 30 frames-per-second.

The obvious comparison is made to Namco's Ridge Racer, and Saturn fans will be very happy to have a similar racing game in their library. Shutoko Battle's pacing is a bit slower, however, and leans closer to simulation than pure arcade action. An essential gameplay feature is the hand brake than enables drifting, and it's a bit more challenging to pull off than in Ridge Racer, Daytona or Sega Rally, but no less satisfying when successfully performed. I do have some issues with the way your car bounces against the side of the road or against passing vehicles, which can cause you to abruptly slow down (the extremely dry steering controls. It lacks the bounciness and speed of the genre's top names, but the cars have a proper sense of weight and momentum that is very welcome. As always, the 3D controller's analog steering is recommended for best results.

My one major beef with this game are the low number of closed circuit race tracks, only three. It feels a bit thin and I do wish Genki had included three or four more, especially given how many times you will be racing to upgrade your cars. This was an issue with the genre during the Fifth Generation, and only a small handful of titles offered more than a handful of courses.

Genki's Shutokou Battle series began on the Super Famicom and continued through to Saturn, Dreamcast and Playstation systems. The games involve high performance racing through Tokyo's Shuto Expressway, based on real-life illegal street car races. This underground culture also spawned manga comics, anime, videogames and movies, even inspiring The Fast and the Furious series. Sega fans will best remember the series as Tokyo Extreme Racer on Dreamcast, and if you're a fan of those videogames, you'll be pleasantly surprised by this one.
 

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Another great pair of write-ups, DT MEDIA. Seems like you have a real love for the mid-90s era of racers, which was almost perfectly preserved on the Saturn library. Any particular favorites?

You much of a puzzle fan? I feel that's a side of the Saturn's library that is often ignored.

Thanks as always for the kind words. I probably wouldn't be working on this little writing project without the support from everyone, so it means a lot.

In answer to your comments, I have a great love for the racing games of the Fifth and Sixth Generations, those early years of 3D polygon graphics where the new technology allowed programmers and designers to create new immersive worlds, but hardware limitations required creative solutions to avoid visual glitching or frame rate chokes. As a result, we see some truly spectacular course designs in such games as Wipeout, Daytona USA, Sega Rally, Gran Turismo, Wave Race and Mario Kart. In later generations, the technology is powerful enough where "pop up" no longer exists, and we see race tracks that turn into long straight roads, almost like driving on the interstate. It's nowhere near as much fun for me. I miss the old crazy designs.

My favorite racing games from this period are on Sega Dreamcast, especially Hydro Thunder, San Francisco Rush 2049 and Crazy Taxi. I also have great love and affection for a Nintendo 64 title called Beetle Adventure Racing, which has some truly inspired course designs that feel like immersive rides at Universal Studios. Other favorites of mine would be F-Zero X, Sega Rally, Daytona USA, Virtua Racing (I really enjoy the Saturn tracks), and pretty much anything on the Dreamcast.

As for puzzle games, I do have a tall stack of Saturn puzzle games and I should write reviews on some of them. Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo is a classic, as we all know, but there are a lot of Japanese titles that are slightly obscure but very good. If you're a fan of the Puyo Puyo style of puzzlers, then you'll love what Saturn and Playstation have to offer. I always write my essays after fresh play sessions, so I'll have to play through my stack to see if anything really grabs my interest.
 
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@DT MEDIA if you haven't, you should give Baku Baku Animal a try, it's a travesty that it didn't become more of a series

I've found a bit of time to play about with my Saturn. I can't find my Action Replay cart, must me at my parents somewhere, in which case it's going to be there until at least Christmas :D
I've got a Sakura Wars memory cart though, amazingly it still works and has my old Shining Force save on there and a completed Panzer Dragoon Saga save. Anyway, the good/bad news is that it took a few attempts for the Saturn to recognise it, so it's not that my 4mb cart is fucked, so that's good news, but it does mean the cartridge slot is the problem
 
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@DT MEDIA if you haven't, you should give Baku Baku Animal a try, it's a travesty that it didn't become more of a series
Funny. I was just playing this game against the CPU today. The pace gets super fast just a few matches in; I can barely keep up. The 3D models in it have aged terribly. Good thing the gameplay is still so entertaining.

Do you happen to know if character selection matters for the blocks you get or the garbage you send to your opponent?
 
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Funny. I was just playing this game against the CPU today. The pace gets super fast just a few matches in; I can barely keep up. The 3D models in it have aged terribly. Good thing the gameplay is still so entertaining.

Do you happen to know if character selection matters for the blocks you get or the garbage you send to your opponent?
It's been a while since I've played it, so I couldn't tell you, sorry
 
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Baku Baku Animal (1996, SEGA)

Inspired by DT MEDIA's initiative in this thread, here is Baku Baku Animal. I tried this puzzle title only a few years ago on a friend's arcade cabinet. While the crude 3D models were jarring to me at the time, underneath was a genuinely fun Vs puzzle game. I had to have it! After learning there was a port on the Saturn, I rushed to get a copy. Thankfully, it was (and still is) an inexpensive game to import from Japan. Western copies aren't prohibitively expensive either.

Baku Baku Animal (or simply Baku Baku for the Western releases) is one of the many Saturn titles that hasn't resurfaced on a modern console or PC distribution service. It's a shame because the gameplay holds to this day. Fans of Puyo Puyo, Kururin Pa!, or Super Puzzle Fighter Turbo will find plenty to love here. You grapple with eight different tiles (nine if you include the gold coins): four animals and four food-types. Matching food blocks or animal blocks doesn't eliminate them. Similar to how Puzzle Fighter's gems must be activated with a Crash Gem, in Baku Baku Animal you must drop a dog next to bones, rabbits next to carrots, monkeys next to bananas, and pandas next to bamboo. The animal chews through all connected blocks of the matching food, clearing spaces and dropping down any blocks stacked on top. Potentially, this will lead to another animal coming into contact with their favorite food, continuing your chain. Not only does this clear your side of the board as the tile-drop speed increases (and it gets fast), but it sends blocks for your opponents to deal with. The higher your chain, the more blocks eaten, and the more animals activated results in more blocks sent over to your opponent's field. When you are forced to place a block that goes above the top of your field, you lose! Pretty standard puzzle rules, to be honest.

What's interesting is that there is no empty "garbage" a la Puyo Puyo nor do the attack blocks have a timer like in Puzzle Fighter. The blocks sent over can be used immediately and will sometimes (rarely) land on the corresponding animal, setting off a chain. Mistakes at the beginning of the match and early leads are easy to overcome later in the match as a result. It is harder to 1-hit-KO the opponent like you can in the two aforementioned titles. Speed is valuable. Creating strong combos is equally valuable, but the poor soul on the receiving end of a huge attack usually has a chance of crawling their way back. What I like to do is fill up my field about halfway and then I begin chaining combos. Early-match "pestering" does nothing more than provide your opponent with a few extra blocks to work with, so it is best to patiently build up a decent combo before going on the offensive.

Several publications gave Baku Baku Animal awards around the time of release (including Game of the Year from Computer Gaming World) and it scored well in reviews. It faded into obscurity after that, owed to the diminishing appeal of Vs puzzle games during the late 90s. I think the graphics also played some role in the limited popularity: the 3D character models are rather crude, instantly dating the game. The music is also nothing special. But on the other hand, the sound effects add a lot of charm to the game. I'm not sure what they're saying ("Muddamen! Ah!") when you send garbage but it's memorable. While there was a Game Gear port the same year and a Mobile port in 2002, Baku Baku Animal never really achieved mainstream success.

Vs mode is where Baku Baku Animal shines, in my opinion. The Arcade mode is plenty challenging but that is primarily due to how the tile-drop speed ramps up two stages in. It becomes less about defeating your opponent with good combos and more about simply surviving the speed. Every so often I'll boot up Arcade mode and fight through as many stages as I can, but I've never managed to beat it. The Saturn version also boasts a Ranking mode that I don't really mess around with, but it's there. VS mode is a better showcase for the combo system and core gameplay, in any case. Like any good Vs puzzle game, the concept is easy enough for a complete neophyte to grasp but has enough depth to reward repeated matches. Players with just a few games under their belt will usually destroy a new player who hasn't fully figured out the best way to stack up tiles in order to create combos. That's because new players tend to get overwhelmed by the tile-drop speed and the unusual method of popping blocks. I'd say it has a similar learning curve to Puzzle Fighter.

Seeing how the game license still belongs to SEGA, there's always a possibility for a port or a revival. However, most puzzle games from this era don't get re-released, so Baku Baku Animal may remain in the 90s Saturn puzzle-game graveyard for the foreseeable future. If you have a Saturn and a buddy who loves Vs puzzle games, this one is worth nabbing. And if you love Puzzle Fighter, this game is similar enough to appeal to your tastes but unique enough to be a worthy addition to your collection. The only downside is that the music is mediocre and the 3D models... well, you saw the screenshots... I guess it's charming, in a way, sort of like how early FMV games are "charming".

Fun fact: the name "Baku Baku" is Japanese onomatopoeia for "Chomp chomp".
 
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Impact Racing (1996, Funcom)

Impact Racing is everything that I love about arcade videogames: color, flash, speed, dumb violence and lots of explosions. It's pure digital sugar rush, like Jolt Cola and Pop Rocks shaken and stirred. It's brash and loud and oh so very satisfying. This is the sort of thing that makes me miss Acclaim, who were videogames' answer to trashy b-movies and were giants in the 1990s gaming scene. The business hasn't been the same without them.

This game puts you behind the wheel of a series of classic muscle cars and then sets to race on a series of arcade courses against an endless army of rival cars and gangs, all of whom are gunning for you. Your cars are also armed with weapons, beginning with a machine gun and soon followed by a series of impressive weapons, including lasers, landmines, rockets, fire walls, and smart bombs. The setting is the standard dystopian future envisioned by 1980s science fiction and feels very much like a mashup of Mad Max and Steve Jackson's Car Wars with maybe a little San Francisco Rush and Cruis'n USA just for kicks. This feels like something that Atari Games or Midway would have cooked up for the arcades.

Of course, the two arcade videogames that serve as the main inspirations are Midway's Spy Hunter and Atari's Roadblasters, two of the greatest car combat games ever made, with emphasis on the "combat" half of the equation. Your primary goal is simply to survive to the finish line before time runs out. The catch is that you will never have enough time to reach that finish unless you destroy rival cars, which may result in a time bonus power-up. By the third stage, the time limits become shorter and shorter, requiring you to destroy more cars just to survive.

In addition, you need to upgrade the weapons on your vehicle before the roads become far too rough to survive. To do that, you will need to destroy a set number of cars in a stage in order to reach one of many bonus stages, which are a series of long enclosed loops where you must destroy a set number of cars to receive the weapon upgrade. This was actually quite challenging for me, as these drivers suddenly become a lot smarter and craftier, trying their best to avoid you and burn out the clock. Once I finally succeeded the first time and received new laser cannons, it was very satisfying and helped make my life on the highways a lot easier. On my last play-through, I also received the rockets, which can destroy cars in a single fiery flash.

Impact Racing is blazingly fast and everything just screams at top speed. The first time I played, I was struck by how swift and smooth the game engine was running, without any notable hiccups or slowdowns. Much of this, I think, is due to the track designs which are very narrow and long, full of hills, curves and tunnels. The roads are roughly two car lengths wide, and this will cause you to bump into walls and railings until you get the hang of tap-tap-tapping the steering wheel and mastering those drifts on the heavy turns. The packaging boasts of 12 race tracks, but I also understand that the real number is far smaller, but boosted by mirror-reverse and nighttime variations. It is of no concern, as the roads play out like Cruis'n USA's winding open roads rather than closed-circuit courses and contain enough surprises to keep you on your toes.

When it comes to third-party titles on Sega Saturn, there were two broad assumptions made by nearly everyone at the time: Saturn can't do 3D graphics, and the Playstation version is always superior. I think this title challenges both assumptions. The 3D polygon engine in Impact Racing is extremely fast, detailed and varied, and can easily stand up to anything on the Fifth Generation systems. As for the Playstation version, I think the Saturn if equal if not a little better. Sony may have the better fire and smoke effects due to their much-loved transparency effects, but the graphics are constantly wobbly and bendy in that Playstation manner. Look, I love the PSX as much as anybody, but that machine couldn't draw a straight line to save its life. Saturn's environments look far more stable and solid, thanks to its use of quads instead of triangles.

As always, this is water under the bridge, and Nintendo 64 fans will be content to roll their eyes and boast about the powers of proper Z-buffering, then go back to playing Goldeneye while laughing at the rest of us. Fair enough.
 
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Magic Carpet (1996, Bullfrog and Krisalis Software)

When I was a child, our family would receive stacks of computer floppy discs from the local Atari 8-bit users group containing new games that came without any instructions whatsoever. We had to learn how to play the games entirely on our own, often by just pressing buttons on the keyboard to see what would happen. This made for a serious challenge, and some games remained completely inscrutable to me (Quest For the Space Beagle and Alternate Reality are two excellent examples). Whenever we learned and mastered any computer games, there was a great sense of satisfaction at our patience and perseverance.

Bullfrog's Magic Carpet reminds me very much of these experiences. I will not lie to you, this is not an easy game to learn. You cannot just pick up a controller and start mashing buttons and expect to get anywhere. There is a very steep learning curve and this world will not help you or provide any easy clues. Of course, you could just sit down and read the instruction manual, but who in the history of videogames has ever done that? Nobody, that's who. A number of reviewers on websites and YouTube channels have walked away in complete frustration and confusion. Sorry, Timmy, you're not at the video arcades this time. You can't bluff your way through this.

Magic Carpet may seem overwhelming at first, but it is actually one of the best videogames of its era, a brilliant fusion of shoot-em-up and real-time strategy, Doom-Meets-Populous in an Arabian settting. It requires patience and practice to understand its play mechanics and control system, but once you have mastered the first couple stages, you'll be running at full steam and ready for the real action that lies ahead.

Let me explain how the game plays. You play an Ali Baba type who flies a magic carpet and utilizes a number of magic spells. You begin with only two spells, "fireball" and "possess." Your goal is to collect mana or magic energy. The more mana you collect, the more abilities you can use. You use the fireballs to attack monsters that roam the world, such as birds, bees, flying dragons, skeleton armies, archers, water genies and giant sand worms. When you destroy these enemies, they leave behind orange spheres. You use the "possess" spell to convert them into mana. Now you will need a place to store these mana, and if you fly around you will find a red urn which contains a "castle" spell. Use this spell to create and upgrade your home castle, and hot air balloons will appear to collect those blue mana spheres. If you are killed, you will respawn at your castle instead of beginning all over again. Once you have collected a set amount of mana, you will "bring balance to the world" and clear the stage. There are 70 stages in total, based on the original PC release and expansion pack, each becoming increasingly diverse and challenging.

In addition, you will notice towns and tent villages with people walking about. You use the possess spell to plant your flag onto their buildings, turning them into allies. This will also result in increased mana, and these tribes will either build new buildings, explore the world or join your side in the battle against the monsters. The people will also defend your castle from attack. Conversely, if you decide to attack the villagers, they will become hostile and attack you on sight. You also have the freedom to just wipe them out completely (reminds me a lot of Ozark Software's classic Seven Cities of Gold), which can be good for a cheap laugh, but it's a dumb strategy. You're going to need allies in this increasingly hostile world.

The first couple stages are fairly simple, as you only have to deal with the birds and giant Ohmu worms, and the mana requirements are fairly low. You can upgrade your castle fairly easily, with a very impressive morphing effect at the turrets and walls grow out of the earth. There are also a number of locations and stone structures that may contain surprises, such as red urns (which contain new power-up spells), mana spheres or monsters. Your main map (L+R buttons) will show you these locations to explore, and you'll learn to rely on that map for your overall strategy. On one stage, a red urn lies in the middle of a small forest in the mountains. When you fly to grab that urn, a swarm of killer bees pop out and proceed to beat you senseless. I think my solution was just to burn down the forest and try to take those bastards out, then lure the survivors over the ocean where I could pick them off one by one. In another stage, flying through a forest caused a volcano to suddenly explode out of the ground and erupt fireballs, killing me instantly.

Finally, if that isn't enough, you will also have to face rival Ali Baba wizards who also fly magic carpets, build castles, battle monsters and "collect" mana. And by "collect," I mean that they steal your stash, turning the mana spheres to their team color. They might also attack your castle or attack you, while you can do likewise. The first couple times you meet these rival players, you can dispose of them fairly easily, but once they have enough power to build a level-four castle and wield more powerful attacks, you'll have to be choosier. As the game progresses, you will encounter as many as eight players, and you will need their help in fighting back swarms of dragons, bees and that army of the undead that has completely overwhelmed the beach. Strategy requires knowing when to leave them alone to fight the war, and when to kill them and steal their spells and castles.

Again, as a recap, the goal of Magic Carpet is: 1) destroy monsters, 2) convert the red mana spheres to your team color, 3) build and upgrade your home castle, 4) discover new power-ups via the red urns, and 5) don't let the other Ali Babas steal your stash. It sounds easy but requires real practice and planning to defeat enemies, much like Goldeneye 007 (which shares the same control system). Stealth and strategy is much more effective than barreling everywhere at full speed. You have to pick and choose your targets and goals.

The tempo in Magic Carpet begins slowly, but by stages five and six is blasting at a furious pace, as you are facing swarms of enemies from all directions at once. It's as intense as anything in Doom and highly challenging, as you have to manage your mana resources, protect your castle from attacks, keep an eye on those other Ali Babas (those jerks), and try not to get killed by all the monsters. And don't forget to search for those red urns; I can't imagine getting anywhere without the machine gun fireballs, shields or lightning bolts.

Visually, this videogame has dated in many respects, particularly with the relatively short draw distance and heavy reliance on fog as well as the Goldeneye controls, which is never as good as KBM (keyboard and mouse) or modern dual-analog controls. You can tell that you're playing a PC game from 1993. Look closer, however, and you will notice impressive visual touches that were highly ambitious for 1994-96 and still hold up today: real-time landscape morphing effects; a wide variety of trees, structures, villagers and monsters; earth that takes damage from fireballs and worms; trees that can be set on fire; rolling ocean waves. All of this is accomplished while maintaining a respectable frame rate that competes with any similar title of the era.

Magic Carpet was ported to Saturn and Playstation and are both nearly identical to one another, while also offering an extra layer of polish and color over its PC cousin. Sony's version has some nice gouraud shading on the buildings but some really tacky polygon shading on the clouds. The water effects are very impressive and smooth. Sega's version lacks the gouraud shading and the water is less impressive, but its 2D bitmaps and textures appear slightly more colorful and detailed. Best of all, the Japanese Saturn version, released six months after its Western counterparts, adds analog controller support, which is nothing short of awesome.

(P.S. I came back and heavily revised/rewrote this essay, and is much better now. Like Hemmingway said, the first draft of everything stinks.)
 
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Good ol' Magic Carpet. I played the PC version back in the day. What a weird, wonderful game! Like you pointed out, it was a bizarre mix of strategy and shooting. I would always get slaughtered in the later levels which is a shame because the land alteration was very cool. Gotta love the genre mashups from the mid-90s.
 
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Burning Rangers (1998, Sonic Team)

Burning Rangers is one of those great farewells that appears in a videogame system's final days, one that celebrates its history and pushes its hardware to the absolute limit. It is the final celebratory hurrah before developers and publishers move on to the next exciting project. It is a masterful triumph that makes you thankful for the Sega Saturn, slightly wistful to remember its many struggles, but happy to see it through to the end. Here is its great, final triumph, its Abbey Road farewell, its Blonde on Blonde before the motorcycle crash. Whatever.

It is often said that this game should really have been released on the Sega Dreamcast, and that's not a knock on the Saturn so much as an awareness of the directions Sonic Team would take in the following years and Sega's optimistic, futuristic software hits to come. This is preview of exciting things to come, including Sonic Adventure and Phantasy Star Online, as well as an exciting experience itself.

I am also reminded that Sega just couldn't catch a break in the 32-bit era, especially in the West. Saturn was written off before it was even released, and the first wave of software titles included the notoriously glitchy Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA, which doomed the system with a toxic reputation for poor 3D graphics that could never be shaken. Of course, Sega did themselves no favors by designing such a complicated machine, partly due to being flatfooted by Sony's Playstation, partly due to their internal quirks for such things as dual-CPUs, specialized hardware chips and a graphics processor that rendered 3D quadrilateral polygons through a 2D sprite engine. But in the hands of skilled Assembly programmers, Saturn could truly sing.

Burning Rangers pushes the Saturn hardware harder than any title ever released. It not only uses the dual CPUs and the two Video Display Processors to great effect, it also utilizes the SCU DSP chip to crunch more polygons (a technique only seen in a handful of late Saturn titles, including Quake, Shining Force 3 and Panzer Dragoon Saga). The efforts pay off handsomely. The environments feature amazingly complex and detailed architectural designs, including buildings with multiple floors, railings, pipes, transparent flooring, collapsing platforms, large tanks of undulating water, tunnels and 3D platforms. Everything is illuminated in gouraud shading and multiple layers of light sourcing of different colors and intensities, from blinding lights to complete darkness. And through it all, endless waves of explosions, flame and fire. There are times when it seems as though the entire screen is melting down four ways at once, and it's a miracle that smoke isn't coming out of my Saturn. Sometimes I wonder if Sonic Team really wanted to burn the console down to ashes, either as a fiery farewell or as a massive middle finger. Probably both.

The game is set in a futuristic world of space-bound anime firefighters who wear flashy outfits like they're on route to a 22nd Century rave party. They travel to space stations and interglactic outposts to battle fires and rescue hostages who are trapped by the flames. You play as one of two rookies who have just passed basic training and are now thrust into the middle of a mission aboard a space station that quickly spirals out of control. You are armed with a laser gun that extinguishes flames and the occasional backdraft, and also dispatch wayward robots from time to time. Your goal is to rescue civilians who are hidden inside the many rooms and corridors. Some of them are easily seen, while others are hidden. After your mission is over, you may receive emails from rescued civilians that will flesh out the overall story arc. You can even rescue the members of Sonic Team if you're so lucky.

One element that is especially innovative is the navigation system. You are never given a map of your environment; instead, your team navigator will communicate with you directly, telling you where the next objective lies, whether that be a control panel that restores power, a device that will unlock critical doors, or the location of trapped civilians. I've had to rely on her aid when I've become lost, which happens more than I'm willing to admit. In addition, you will hear constant chatter from your teammates as they relay their adventures, often providing you clues to the overall state of things. At one point, I even saw one of my teammates through a transparent floor as she boasted about who would reach the finish first. All of this adds to the atmosphere of the world and makes it feel more lived-in and less like a videogame obstacle course. For these reasons, the US retail release has become one of Saturn's most expensive titles, while the Japanese release remains far more affordable.

There's a strong Sonic the Hedgehog vibe in Burning Rangers, from the loading screens to a boss battle that reappears later in Sonic Adventure. The strongest example are the red gems, which appear when you put out fires with your laser pistol. These serve the same role as Sonic's rings, and when you are hit or damaged, those gems will fly out in similar fashion, leaving you unshielded and vulnerable. I find myself scrambling through open flames to get those shiny things back, and often feel like a sucker for acting so desperately. Sega really knew how to ramp up the tension that way.

One wouldn't think that a firefighting videogame would be exciting, and goodness knows there have been many attempts made over the years: Towering Inferno on Atari 2600 VCS, The Ignition Factor on Super NES, Fahrenheit on Sega CD, the infamous Duelin' Firemen on 3DO. Burning Rangers perfectly captures that sense of danger and dread, where walls can erupt in flame at any moment, where rooms can suddenly erupt in a frenzy of explosions, and even the floors themselves can buckle and collapse. All the while, the structural integrity of the space station endlessly deteriorates as the fires grow, increasing the chances of a massive backdraft as that number rises towards 100 percent. You may feel confident that you can reach the final goal, but add in a couple major power outages, a room with detonating gas canisters, and a couple collapsed floors that leave you disoriented, and you'll be reaching panic status soon enough. And once that structural number crosses 90 percent, all hell begins to break loose. It's all so massively chaotic, a brilliant use of a time limit that I haven't seen anywhere else.

Burning Rangers is relatively short, with only four major missions. Within that framework, you will traverse on land, under water and even in a spaceship (one of the great visual showpieces of the game). The final climactic battle takes place in a 3D platform environment not unlike if Mario followed Terence McKenna's advice and consumed a heroic dose of magic mushrooms. After you complete a stage, you are graded for your time and number of possible hostages rescued, much like NiGHTS: Into Dreams. Repeat play reveals that the level designs are randomly generated, which greatly enhances the replay value.

That said, count me among those who would have loved to see an enhanced version of this game released on Sega Dreamcast. But didn't we already get that in Phantasy Star Online? It seems fitting that Burning Rangers would never appear again. It's belongs to the Saturn with all its glorious designs and, yes, all of its visual glitches, which are nowhere near as bad as some people would have you believe. Personally, I prefer creativity and ambition over polish. I want to see game consoles and software developers alike pushed to their absolute limits, then pushed just a little further.

What made Sega great was their ability to defy convention, take great and terrible risks, and push themselves to their limits to prove their genius. They caught so much flak for their hardware, but it was those very machines that inspired the greatness. "You should get out of the business," they said. You should become a software company and make games for Sony and Nintendo," they said. Look at where that got 'em. In 1998, gamers couldn't get rid of Sega Saturn fast enough. Today, you'd kill everyone on your block to bring Saturn back.

(Update 5/18: I wasn't happy with yesterday's screenshots, so I snapped a whole bunch of new ones this morning. Looks much better!)
 
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Batsugun (1996, Toaplan and Gazelle)

In the 1980s, Japanese arcade developers Toaplan established themselves as the masters of the shoot-em-up, unleashing one genre masterpiece after another: Twin Cobra, Fire Shark, Hellfire, Zero Wing, Truxton. By the end of the decade and with the arrival of the 16-bit generation, they were at the peak of their powers.

In the early 1990s, however, spaceship shoot-em-ups were eclipsed by the Street Fighter 2 craze, and Toaplan’s finances faded. The company declared bankruptcy in 1994, and its many skilled programmers and designers carried on the tradition with their own studios: Cave, Takumi, Gazelle, Raizing/8ing. Before splitting up, they created one last masterpiece in 1993 called Batsugun, and it would define nearly every scrolling arcade shooter that followed.

Batsugun marks the birth of the danmaku or “bullet hell” shooter; its name comes from the curtains of enemy bullets that fill the screen and overwhelm players. Personally, I’m not a fan of the genre, which would bog down in programmers’ obsessions with elaborate floral bullet patterns at the expense of speed or excitement. The thrilling roller coaster rides became bogged down in traffic jams, intended only for the most diehard of fans.

In the hands of Toaplan, however, “bullet hell” means one thing: absolute, overwhelming, glorious chaos. Have you ever noticed how every spaceship shooter gives you a massive firepower advantage over your opponents? Now the enemy is armed with the same weapons as you. The aliens have emerged from the galactic arms race as equals, raising the stakes as every you progress.

Batsugun begins easily enough, much like the shoot-em-ups of the period. Enemy spaceships fly in the usual formations, aquatic ships sail over alien waters, bunkers aim and fire their cannons. This is all standard procedure and even beginners will successfully clear the first stage. Then the speed begins to pick up in stage two and tension begins to rise. And rise. And rise. Aerial and ground formations hurl at you from all directions, in all shapes and sizes. Bosses become larger and more dangerous. By the third stage, you are flying at breakneck speeds and desperately clinging on to life.

Your own fleet of six spaceships (three for players one and two), each with their own unique offensive weapons, are armed with a tremendous firepower potential. An intriguing RPG-like system is introduced, where you gain experience points with each kill. Achieve a set amount of experience points, and your weapons will immediately evolve into another stage of intensity. This is very helpful; as the game becomes more intense and challenging, you will discover that you have not lost all your weapons after being shot down. You won’t be sent back to using a cheap pea shooter, which in most cases would mean certain doom.

Batsugun is a very short videogame, only five stages, but I feel this is a virtue. Like the great early Ramones albums, Batsugun is lean and mean and ready to assault you without missing a beat. Seven or eight stages would become exhaustive and repetitive. Toaplan always understood the right amount of balance for their shooters, and knew just when to end the song.

The Saturn version of Batsugun, released in Japan in 1996 by the former Toaplan crew at Gazelle, is as brilliant as you'd expect: superb, all blistering hypercolored visuals, smooth animation, booming bass explosions. The music is superb and filled with melodic hooks and bouncy chiptune beats, like all the classic Toaplan games. I’m reminded of their classics on Sega Genesis such as Truxton and Fire Shark and smile.

In addition to the arcade mode, an additional “special edition” is also included which features remixed graphics, a smaller “hitbox” for your ship, a shield that protects you from enemy fire, more powerful smart bombs, and additional scoring items such as cartoon pigs. After completing stage five, the game loops back to the beginning but at a higher difficulty setting, with added waves of enemy machine gun bullets, requiring you to defeat the final boss a second time. This version is actually based on an arcade upgrade that was never released due to Toaplan’s bankruptcy.

You have the choice of playing with a standard perspective (either scaled scaled out or zoomed in close), or “tate” mode that turns the game ninety degrees to its side. This recreates the vertical orientation of the arcade and perfectly preserves the graphics with no loss of fidelity. In addition, you can even tilt the joypad controls and play the game as a side scroller. Personally, I just lie down on the couch and play with the vertical controls. These gameplay options are standard with nearly all arcade shoot-em-ups on Sega Saturn and is wholly welcome.

Sega Saturn is beloved today largely because of its wonderful 2D videogames, and especially its large library of arcade shooters. Batsugun is one of my favorites and one that I enjoy playing again and again. It has a much more forgiving difficulty curve than its peers, is wonderfully fast and fluid, is vibrantly colorful in that classic pixel art style, and just booms through stereo speakers. How I do miss Toaplan. They guys were legends.
 
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Batsugun (1996, Toaplan and Gazelle)

In the 1980s, Japanese arcade developers Toaplan established themselves as the masters of the shoot-em-up, unleashing one genre masterpiece after another: Twin Cobra, Fire Shark, Hellfire, Zero Wing, Truxton. By the end of the decade and with the arrival of the 16-bit generation, they were at the peak of their powers.

In the early 1990s, however, spaceship shoot-em-ups were eclipsed by the Street Fighter 2 craze, and Toaplan’s finances faded. The company declared bankruptcy in 1994, and its many skilled programmers and designers carried on the tradition with their own studios: Cave, Takumi, Gazelle, Raizing/8ing. Before splitting up, they created one last masterpiece in 1993 called Batsugun, and it would define nearly every scrolling arcade shooter that followed.

Batsugun marks the birth of the danmaku or “bullet hell” shooter; its name comes from the curtains of enemy bullets that fill the screen and overwhelm players. Personally, I’m not a fan of the genre, which would bog down in programmers’ obsessions with elaborate floral bullet patterns at the expense of speed or excitement. The thrilling roller coaster rides became bogged down in traffic jams, intended only for the most diehard of fans.

In the hands of Toaplan, however, “bullet hell” means one thing: absolute, overwhelming, glorious chaos. Have you ever noticed how every spaceship shooter gives you a massive firepower advantage over your opponents? Now the enemy is armed with the same weapons as you. The aliens have emerged from the galactic arms race as equals, raising the stakes as every you progress.

Batsugun begins easily enough, much like the shoot-em-ups of the period. Enemy spaceships fly in the usual formations, aquatic ships sail over alien waters, bunkers aim and fire their cannons. This is all standard procedure and even beginners will successfully clear the first stage. Then the speed begins to pick up in stage two and tension begins to rise. And rise. And rise. Aerial and ground formations hurl at you from all directions, in all shapes and sizes. Bosses become larger and more dangerous. By the third stage, you are flying at breakneck speeds and desperately clinging on to life.

Your own fleet of six spaceships (three for players one and two), each with their own unique offensive weapons, are armed with a tremendous firepower potential. An intriguing RPG-like system is introduced, where you gain experience points with each kill. Achieve a set amount of experience points, and your weapons will immediately evolve into another stage of intensity. This is very helpful; as the game becomes more intense and challenging, you will discover that you have not lost all your weapons after being shot down. You won’t be sent back to using a cheap pea shooter, which in most cases would mean certain doom.

Batsugun is a very short videogame, only five stages, but I feel this is a virtue. Like the great early Ramones albums, Batsugun is lean and mean and ready to assault you without missing a beat. Seven or eight stages would become exhaustive and repetitive. Toaplan always understood the right amount of balance for their shooters, and knew just when to end the song.

The Saturn version of Batsugun, released in Japan in 1996 by the former Toaplan crew at Gazelle, is as brilliant as you'd expect: superb, all blistering hypercolored visuals, smooth animation, booming bass explosions. The music is superb and filled with melodic hooks and bouncy chiptune beats, like all the classic Toaplan games. I’m reminded of their classics on Sega Genesis such as Truxton and Fire Shark and smile.

In addition to the arcade mode, an additional “special edition” is also included which features remixed graphics, a smaller “hitbox” for your ship, a shield that protects you from enemy fire, more powerful smart bombs, and additional scoring items such as cartoon pigs. After completing stage five, the game loops back to the beginning but at a higher difficulty setting, with added waves of enemy machine gun bullets, requiring you to defeat the final boss a second time. This version is actually based on an arcade upgrade that was never released due to Toaplan’s bankruptcy.

You have the choice of playing with a standard perspective (either scaled scaled out or zoomed in close), or “tate” mode that turns the game ninety degrees to its side. This recreates the vertical orientation of the arcade and perfectly preserves the graphics with no loss of fidelity. In addition, you can even tilt the joypad controls and play the game as a side scroller. Personally, I just lie down on the couch and play with the vertical controls. These gameplay options are standard with nearly all arcade shoot-em-ups on Sega Saturn and is wholly welcome.

Sega Saturn is beloved today largely because of its wonderful 2D videogames, and especially its large library of arcade shooters. Batsugun is one of my favorites and one that I enjoy playing again and again. It has a much more forgiving difficulty curve than its peers, is wonderfully fast and fluid, is vibrantly colorful in that classic pixel art style, and just booms through stereo speakers. How I do miss Toaplan. They guys were legends.
Another great write up on a Saturn classic that I am yet to play! Cheers mate. I was so over the 2D shooter genre in the 90s that a lot of the Saturn's library passed me by at the time. More recently I have rediscovered my love for the genre and I've really begun to appreciate that aspect of the Saturn's library. It was such amazing system.
 
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Super Tempo (1998, Red Entertainment and Aspect)

Thank God for Red Entertainment and their madcap stubbornness. I have no idea what inspired them to create a wildly goofy, genre-hopping 2D videogame, a style all but extinct in the year of groundbreaking 3D hits like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life and Tony Hawk Pro Skater. I am very thankful that this team of artists stuck to their guns, defied the winds of popular trends and crafted this wickedly inspired little gem that has a perfect home on Sega Saturn.

Red is best known as the creators of Bonk's Adventure on the Turbografx-16, which spawned five sequels on that system and multiple appearances on NES, Super NES and arcades. The games are known for their skillful, inventive level designs and a wicked, irreverent sense of humor that extended to the terrific cartoon character designs and animations. In 1995, they teamed up with Sega for the excellent mascot title Tempo for the ill-fated 32X; a Game Gear sequel, Tempo, Jr. was developed by Sega offshoot studio SIMS. For Sega Saturn, the studio teamed up with software studio Aspect and pulled out all the stops on Saturn, creating the finest genre title for the system.

This videogame puts you in the roles of the Tempo and his girlfriend Katy on a quest to rescue the Prince of Music World from Planet Technotch (according to Hardcore Gaming 101, at least). It's visual design is wildly colorful and cartoonish, with wonderfully fluid animation drawn entirely on 1's and 2's. The character designs are wonderfully surreal and zany, like an anime cousin to Ren & Stimpy or Animaniacs. The music and audio incorporates cartoon sound effects that were ripped right out of the Hanna-Barbera vaults.

Super Tempo is a glorious example of 2D games in the 32-bit era, with a tremendous sense of freedom and boundless surprises. At one moment, you are running in a standard 2D platforming environment. The next, you are engaging a robot boss in a bodybuilder's muscle-flexing competition. In one stage, you are in a haunted graveyard, escorting the spirits of an animal band to their stage. In another, you are flying in a side-scrolling shoot-em-up against icons of black-and-white arcade videogames from the 1970s. The next, you fly a house steered by a Pegasus unicorn through outer space, navigating through starry nights, giant mines, sheet music, cheerleaders and portraits of Beethoven. In one scene, as you battle a giant robot chicken, your character is transformed into a buxom anime femme fatale with boxing gloves. In another, your character is transformed into a cartoon steroid freak who is accompanied by flying cows and sounds of yodeling, which eventually drives him so crazed that he pops like a balloon and returns to normal. One boss fight is resolved by giving your opponent a kiss.

The sheer wild unpredictability is Super Tempo's great strength. When playing for this review, I can confidently report that I never knew what to expect next. Every five minutes would yield another surprise or sight gag. For example, in the very first stage, you dive through a small pond, dodging frogs and pollywogs, then jump up onto the side of a wooden platform. You climb up and walk left, just over the pond, and discover...well, there is no way I'm spoiling that surprise. You'll also get a kick out of the video arcade mini-games, a long vertical climb across a series of gears and boulders followed by one nasty puzzle at the top, and the final boss battle that again changes genres, this time a 3D shooter in the vein of Konami's classic Gyruss. This randomness is probably the greatest challenge of the game, always keeping you on your toes, guessing what you're supposed to do next.

In addition to your main quest, there are numerous secret bonus rooms that can be discovered, many of which contain some trippy visuals of geometric shapes and floral patters as you blow cartoon notes out of a horn. There are also many collectible items to find, some of which are easily found and others that are very sneakily hidden. Some are even awarded at the end of each stage, and afterward you admire all your collected toys. At the end of the game, your collection is tallied up and you receive one of twelve ending screens.

Super Tempo has such a wonderful spirit of creativity and fun that it reminds you of why you play videogames. It always leaves a shocked smile on my face, and a sense of, "Did that just happen? How did they come up with that?" Great job. That'll do, Red. That'll do.
 
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Here are some photos of Batsugun on Saturn that I took back in 2007. This is using a US Saturn w/RF cable on a 19-inch Magnavox CRT. The camera was a Canon digital camera with a 3.2 megapixel resolution, pretty meager by today's standards but it was a lot of fun. RF cables result in a bit more color bleeding, but the picture quality on most picture tube TVs are still superior to modern HDTVs in my opinion. That said, there's something to be said of playing Sega Saturn via S-Video cables. The only downside is that you'll get that "mesh pattern" effect for faked transparency effects.

Anyway, enjoy the photos, and feel free to steal or borrow any of my screenshots for your own use. I wanted to create a library of Saturn photos that showed the games as they were meant to be seen, not over-pixelated through HD emulators.
 

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Shienryu (1997, Warashi)

Sega Saturn is blessed with a thousand great shoot-em-ups. Shienryu is one of the genre's best titles and a personal favorite of mine. It boasts excellent graphics, superb weapons, endless waves of enemies and boss battles that are challenging yet never overwhelming. It delivers everything you expect from a quality shooter, and if it never offers any new ideas, you're more than happy to buy the ticket and take the ride.

This game will probably remind you of Seibu Kaihatsu's classic Raiden, especially in the visual design that includes enemy ships that shatter into tiny fragments when destroyed, and the slow rolling fireballs left in their wake. Your spaceship is also very similar to the ships in Raiden with its red coat of paint. Even the architectural designs are very similar in many respects, as you battle on land, sea, air and outer space, as you take the fight to the aliens' home worlds.

I am most reminded of Toaplan's classic shoot-em-ups such as Fire Shark and Truxton and their perfectly balanced sense of pacing, timing and layout designs. Shienryu has a late-1980s groove and could have easily been a product of the 16-bit era. By 1997, it's positively retro in is pacing and structure, which is more laid back than the frantic, over-the-top danmaku ("bullet hell") titles that consumed the genre. The challenge lies not in avoiding impossible waves of bullets, but in navigating the ballet of spaceships, tanks, turrets, giant mechs, starships, and massive bosses that are quite the challenge to defeat. This game is far more accessible to most players, not just the diehard experts, which is very welcome. I can play this disc at any time and blast through a few stages without breaking much of a sweat.

Your weapons included the usual assortment of spread-shot bullets, rockets and homing lasers, again in the classic Toaplan mold. Each of the three main weapons also has its own smart bomb which adds to the variety, although I prefer the transparent blue beam the most, if just for the cool visual effects. Your weapons can be powered up to an impressive but not overwhelming level. You never reach a point where you are significantly more powerful than the enemy fleets, and the challenge always remains more or less constant. Bosses are impressively large and foreboding and need to be dismantled piece by piece, eventually giving way to a massive series of explosions.

Shienryu was released to arcades on Sega's Titan hardware system, which was based on the Sega Saturn, and this enables for a perfect home translation. Graphics are crisp, vibrant and varied, with a highly impressive color palette that saves its best artwork for the latter space-bound stages. Explosion animations are extremely fluid, again pointing directly to Raiden, and it's always fun to see tanks or aircraft shatter into a hundred tiny pieces. There are an impressive number of sprites on screen, with rolling attack waves from above and below, but the hardware is never really pushed as hard as the genre's top titles.

Warashi, the software developers, were not interested in reinventing the wheel or pushing the limits of the Sega Saturn. They only wanted to create a great shoot-em-up in the vein of the genre's golden age, and they succeed admirably. If you're someone who feels overwhelmed by Dodonpachi or Battle Garegga or Souky, then this videogame is perfect for you. As always, you have the option of playing in standard or "tate" view, with or without sideways controls. Everything looks great on a large television screen, and I can think of far worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon. Grab two Saturn controllers, a couple beers and some nachos and you'll have a great time.

(Update 5/21: I snapped some new screenshots that are brighter and cleaner. The previous photos were washed out because I forgot to close the window blind when taking my shots. Whoops!)
 
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This game will probably remind you of Seibu Kaihatsu's classic Raiden, especially in the visual design that includes enemy ships that shatter into tiny fragments when destroyed, and the slow rolling fireballs left in their wake
I am most reminded of Toaplan's classic shoot-em-ups such as Fire Shark and Truxton and their perfectly balanced sense of pacing, timing and layout designs.
This game is far more accessible to most players, not just the diehard experts, which is very welcome. I can play this disc at any time and blast through a few stages without breaking much of a sweat.
Grab two Saturn controllers, a couple beers and some nachos and you'll have a great time.
Sold. Fantastic review. If this was a new release, I would have thrown down $100 just on the basis of these quotes :D. 1997 was such an epic year for gaming on all platforms.

Edit: After checking eBay prices



I guess that I'll be playing a backup of this then. :(
 
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Sold. Fantastic review. If this was a new release, I would have thrown down $100 just on the basis of these quotes :D. 1997 was such an epic year for gaming on all platforms.

Edit: After checking eBay prices



I guess that I'll be playing a backup of this then. :(
If you insist on a physical copy and have a compatible PS2, Simple 2000 Series -- Double Shienryu is a more affordable option to buy the game. Plus, it comes with Shienryu 2.
 
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If you insist on a physical copy and have a compatible PS2, Simple 2000 Series -- Double Shienryu is a more affordable option to buy the game. Plus, it comes with Shienryu 2.
You sir, are a legend. Thank you for sharing your gaming knowledge mate. I love physical games and the eBay price for that is much more reasonable. Whilst I prefer to shoot things in 2D on a Sega Saturn, my PS2 is my next best choice.
 
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Original Arcade Character Select screen vs Saturn Character Select




Twinkle Star Sprites (1997, ADK)

My time with the Saturn version of this bizarre shmup started a year ago when I imported a copy from Japan. However, Twinkle Star is a game I've played in the arcades since pre-adolescence. I was never great at the game, to be truthful, yet the colorful graphics and unique gameplay always stuck with me. There were a handful of places around town that had a copy but it was not a popular title. Over the years, the number of cabinets (and arcades) in my area with a copy of Twinkle Star dwindled to nothing. As a long-time fan of the title, I looked into home ports of Twinkle Star for my own collection but never pulled the trigger. The original arcade, AES, and Neo Geo CD options were already outside of my price range by that time. In the late 90s, I didn't own a Saturn nor did I think to import a copy.

My passion for the title lay dormant until I got a chance to play the arcade version on a friend's Neo Geo MVS cabinet many years later. I was hooked and knew that I needed to search for a viable home release. Surely, many years later, Twinkle Star would be more easily available, right? Well... no, not really. PS2's ADK Damashii -- which contains a port of Twinkle Star's arcade version -- is a good option but has become expensive nowadays, too, so I settled for the Sony PSN digital version early last year. For what it's worth, the PSN Digital copy of ADK Damashii is the cheapest way to get Twinkle Star Sprites without resorting to emulators or burned copies. My friends and I spent many uproarious nights hammering away at that game, devising strategies and rivalries. I fell in love with the game all over again. A Neo Geo version was still out of the question, financially-speaking, but what about SEGA Saturn? I'd already built up a healthy collection of fighters, shmups, and puzzle games for the system. Perhaps the Saturn version of Twinkle Star Sprites was worth it?

Well, it is. I'd argue that it is the best version of the title, in fact. But before I get into that, a bit about how the game works: two players indirectly fight one another by shooting, charging, and dodging slews of shoot 'em up enemies sent from the top of the screen. The enemies are speedy enough to pose a threat. When you shoot them, you send bullets over to your opponent's side of the field. However, they can shoot your bullets (or catch them in a chain-explosion) and send them back over to you. This back-and-forth dynamic almost feels like tennis or volleyball.



It's supremely fun. Against the CPU, the fun peeks its head through the clouds on occasion. The mechanics are sound, thankfully, so even against the computer you'll have a fun time. The game puts on a challenge, especially in the later stages of Story mode. But it is in a 2-player battle where Twinkle Star Sprites comes alive and shows its spirit. Battles can end in moments -- it's common for a newbie to be crushed within just 10 seconds -- or they can stretch on for what feels like an eternity (still, just two or three minutes total). Main shot, bombs, charge shot, movement speed, Specials, and 'Boss Summon' all differ based on the character you've selected. Therefore, players will gravitate toward the characters who embody their own playstyle, learning the strengths and limitations of their character. This feels more like a fighting game in that respect, whereas in most shmups the ship selection doesn't make a big difference.

Twinkle Star Sprites is also very simple, something that works in its favor. Everything in context, right? Well, during that era shmups were becoming much more complicated. In that context, Twinkle Star almost feels like a step backwards. Unlike other shmups of the '90s, you don't have to manage Rank or memorize a route or micro-dodge thick curtains of bullets or upgrade your shot in Twinkle Star Sprites. The gameplay is stripped down to the bare essentials of the shmup genre: dodge incoming fire while shooting clusters of enemies. This framework, though simple, provides ample variety and nuance in 2-player battles. A die-hard shmup fan may overlook the game due to the apparent lack of nuance while more casual gamers might not give it any attention at all. Unfortunate, but that's the nature of our hobby. Once players get their hands on the game, though, it is easy to understand and easy to get addicted.

My favorite character is the Mecha-cat 'Kesubei'. His shot is mediocre and his Special is easily dodged. However, he has a powerful short-ranged punching combo, a fast movement speed, and a good Boss Summon. I find it much easier to survive with him compared to any other character. One friend uses 'Tribbles' (Nanja Monja) or 'Pencil Witches' (Pentell). For another friend, the main character 'Bunny girl' (Load Ran) is the best. Another friend swaps between 'Pig Girl' (Yan Yanyang) and 'The Griffon Bros' (Griffon, amusingly). We'll occasionally step outside of our preferences to see what the other characters can do. However, once the competition gets heated we revert back to our 'mains' and duke it out, often for several hours into the night. Each character boasts their own nuances, making the character select screen (nearly) as nail-biting as the game itself. After all, your character choice is just as much about what Special attacks and Boss Summons you're sending to your opponent, not merely about your own ability to survive the fight. As such, it pays to pay attention to what each character can do so that you know what you'll be defending against in the upcoming match.

What makes the Saturn version particularly special? I mean, at this point you're thoroughly convinced that Twinkle Star Sprites is an awesome game, but is the Saturn version (which has gotten expensive in recent months) worth pursuing? If you're a big fan of the series, yes I think it is. The Saturn version is a deluxe two-disc release. Inside the jewel case is a full-color manual and a second disc full of character sketches, art, videos, and other random things that I couldn't read because I don't read Japanese. The game itself also received a number of enhancements like an auto-fire button, an animated introduction, remastered music, and the small (but very helpful) inclusion of a rule that allows you to carry your Power Gauge over to the next round. The biggest addition is a Saturn-exclusive mode. Since this additional mode introduces several more stages and several more characters, this makes the Saturn version the definitive version of the game, beating even the PS2 and Dreamcast ports.



The only knocks I can level against the game would be the occasional slowdown and the loading times. The first issue is pretty common in the shmup genre but may be something that discourages new players. To a shmup fan, the only sort of bad slowdown is inconsistent slowdown. As long as the slowdown is consistent and fair, shmup players tend to look at it as a boon not a curse (since it is easier to dodge thick patterns of bullets). Twinkle Star's Arcade mode does suffer from some slowdown when the screen fills up with dozens of bullets, but since this is fairly applied to both sides of the screen it doesn't interfere with the competitive spirit of the game. The Saturn-specific mode (which also includes Vs mode) has an option to disabled slowdown entirely.,This provides players with the option between an authentic port of the Arcade version and an enhanced Saturn version. Works for me! The loading times aren't bad, but having played this game for hours upon hours on a genuine Neo Geo cab (which uses an arcade PCB and Neo Geo cartridge) the load times in the Saturn version are noticably longer than I'm used to. Does it hinder the game? No, not really, but it is worth pointing out.

As I mentioned before, the cheapest way of getting a copy of Twinkle Star Sprites would be to look into a digital copy. It's available on the ADK Damashii collection and is likely available on Steam as well. However, for the most feature-complete version of the game the SEGA Saturn version still rules the roost. The extra modes and superior soundtrack are particular highlights for me. And if you can, please try to hook this up via S-Video or SCART and play on a genuine CRT. The pixel art in Twinkle Star can only be done justice on such a screen.

If your SEGA Saturn still gets a lot of mileage as a multiplayer console in your household, take a serious look at Twinkle Star Sprites. The franchise has never been popular and yet it is routinely featured in side-tournaments and online streams.
 
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240p in TATE mode apparently, which is still much better than most arcade compilations on the PS2 with their terrible 480i and bilinear filtering.
The Double Shienryu collection on PS2 has a tate mode? 240p would be preferred anyway since that's what most shmups ran in during the 90s. Interlaced = the enemy of shmups.
 
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The original Shienryu has a Options menu from where you can choose several vertical display modes. I haven't personally checked if it's truly 240p as the internet says, but I've tested Espgaluda which indeed does 240p in tate mode, so it's very likely to be true.
I'll definitely have to check it out when I get home. I have a CRT turned on its side so it's worth knowing which shmups do or don't support Tate mode.
 
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Original Arcade Character Select screen vs Saturn Character Select




Twinkle Star Sprites (1997, ADK)

My time with the Saturn version of this bizarre shmup started a year ago when I imported a copy from Japan. However, Twinkle Star is a game I've played in the arcades since pre-adolescence. I was never great at the game, to be truthful, yet the colorful graphics and unique gameplay always stuck with me. There were a handful of places around town that had a copy but it was not a popular title. Over the years, the number of cabinets (and arcades) in my area with a copy of Twinkle Star dwindled to nothing. As a long-time fan of the title, I looked into home ports of Twinkle Star for my own collection but never pulled the trigger. The original arcade, AES, and Neo Geo CD options were already outside of my price range by that time. In the late 90s, I didn't own a Saturn nor did I think to import a copy.

My passion for the title lay dormant until I got a chance to play the arcade version on a friend's Neo Geo MVS cabinet many years later. I was hooked and knew that I needed to search for a viable home release. Surely, many years later, Twinkle Star would be more easily available, right? Well... no, not really. PS2's ADK Damashii -- which contains a port of Twinkle Star's arcade version -- is a good option but has become expensive nowadays, too, so I settled for the Sony PSN digital version early last year. For what it's worth, the PSN Digital copy of ADK Damashii is the cheapest way to get Twinkle Star Sprites without resorting to emulators or burned copies. My friends and I spent many uproarious nights hammering away at that game, devising strategies and rivalries. I fell in love with the game all over again. A Neo Geo version was still out of the question, financially-speaking, but what about SEGA Saturn? I'd already built up a healthy collection of fighters, shmups, and puzzle games for the system. Perhaps the Saturn version of Twinkle Star Sprites was worth it?

Well, it is. I'd argue that it is the best version of the title, in fact. But before I get into that, a bit about how the game works: two players indirectly fight one another by shooting, charging, and dodging slews of shoot 'em up enemies sent from the top of the screen. The enemies are speedy enough to pose a threat. When you shoot them, you send bullets over to your opponent's side of the field. However, they can shoot your bullets (or catch them in a chain-explosion) and send them back over to you. This back-and-forth dynamic almost feels like tennis or volleyball.



It's supremely fun. Against the CPU, the fun peeks its head through the clouds on occasion. The mechanics are sound, thankfully, so even against the computer you'll have a fun time. The game puts on a challenge, especially in the later stages of Story mode. But it is in a 2-player battle where Twinkle Star Sprites comes alive and shows its spirit. Battles can end in moments -- it's common for a newbie to be crushed within just 10 seconds -- or they can stretch on for what feels like an eternity (still, just two or three minutes total). Main shot, bombs, charge shot, movement speed, Specials, and 'Boss Summon' all differ based on the character you've selected. Therefore, players will gravitate toward the characters who embody their own playstyle, learning the strengths and limitations of their character. This feels more like a fighting game in that respect, whereas in most shmups the ship selection doesn't make a big difference.

Twinkle Star Sprites is also very simple, something that works in its favor. Everything in context, right? Well, during that era shmups were becoming much more complicated. In that context, Twinkle Star almost feels like a step backwards. Unlike other shmups of the '90s, you don't have to manage Rank or memorize a route or micro-dodge thick curtains of bullets or upgrade your shot in Twinkle Star Sprites. The gameplay is stripped down to the bare essentials of the shmup genre: dodge incoming fire while shooting clusters of enemies. This framework, though simple, provides ample variety and nuance in 2-player battles. A die-hard shmup fan may overlook the game due to the apparent lack of nuance while more casual gamers might not give it any attention at all. Unfortunate, but that's the nature of our hobby. Once players get their hands on the game, though, it is easy to understand and easy to get addicted.

My favorite character is the Mecha-cat 'Kesubei'. His shot is mediocre and his Special is easily dodged. However, he has a powerful short-ranged punching combo, a fast movement speed, and a good Boss Summon. I find it much easier to survive with him compared to any other character. One friend uses 'Tribbles' (Nanja Monja) or 'Pencil Witches' (Pentell). For another friend, the main character 'Bunny girl' (Load Ran) is the best. Another friend swaps between 'Pig Girl' (Yan Yanyang) and 'The Griffon Bros' (Griffon, amusingly). We'll occasionally step outside of our preferences to see what the other characters can do. However, once the competition gets heated we revert back to our 'mains' and duke it out, often for several hours into the night. Each character boasts their own nuances, making the character select screen (nearly) as nail-biting as the game itself. After all, your character choice is just as much about what Special attacks and Boss Summons you're sending to your opponent, not merely about your own ability to survive the fight. As such, it pays to pay attention to what each character can do so that you know what you'll be defending against in the upcoming match.

What makes the Saturn version particularly special? I mean, at this point you're thoroughly convinced that Twinkle Star Sprites is an awesome game, but is the Saturn version (which has gotten expensive in recent months) worth pursuing? If you're a big fan of the series, yes I think it is. The Saturn version is a deluxe two-disc release. Inside the jewel case is a full-color manual and a second disc full of character sketches, art, videos, and other random things that I couldn't read because I don't read Japanese. The game itself also received a number of enhancements like an auto-fire button, an animated introduction, remastered music, and the small (but very helpful) inclusion of a rule that allows you to carry your Power Gauge over to the next round. The biggest addition is a Saturn-exclusive mode. Since this additional mode introduces several more stages and several more characters, this makes the Saturn version the definitive version of the game, beating even the PS2 and Dreamcast ports.



The only knocks I can level against the game would be the occasional slowdown and the loading times. The first issue is pretty common in the shmup genre but may be something that discourages new players. To a shmup fan, the only sort of bad slowdown is inconsistent slowdown. As long as the slowdown is consistent and fair, shmup players tend to look at it as a boon not a curse (since it is easier to dodge thick patterns of bullets). Twinkle Star's Arcade mode does suffer from some slowdown when the screen fills up with dozens of bullets, but since this is fairly applied to both sides of the screen it doesn't interfere with the competitive spirit of the game. The Saturn-specific mode (which also includes Vs mode) has an option to disabled slowdown entirely.,This provides players with the option between an authentic port of the Arcade version and an enhanced Saturn version. Works for me! The loading times aren't bad, but having played this game for hours upon hours on a genuine Neo Geo cab (which uses an arcade PCB and Neo Geo cartridge) the load times in the Saturn version are noticably longer than I'm used to. Does it hinder the game? No, not really, but it is worth pointing out.

As I mentioned before, the cheapest way of getting a copy of Twinkle Star Sprites would be to look into a digital copy. It's available on the ADK Damashii collection and is likely available on Steam as well. However, for the most feature-complete version of the game the SEGA Saturn version still rules the roost. The extra modes and superior soundtrack are particular highlights for me. And if you can, please try to hook this up via S-Video or SCART and play on a genuine CRT. The pixel art in Twinkle Star can only be done justice on such a screen.

If your SEGA Saturn still gets a lot of mileage as a multiplayer console in your household, take a serious look at Twinkle Star Sprites. The franchise has never been popular and yet it is routinely featured in side-tournaments and online streams.

This is a really terrific essay on Twinkle Star Sprites. I was eyeing this disc in my library today while prepping my next batch of reviews, as I've always enjoyed the game, but I never fully understood its mechanics and often felt that I was missing something. I should sit down and play one of these days.

I'm looking forward to your next essay review, as well as any stories or discussions by the NeoGAF crew. We need more Saturn fans over here.