Sega Saturn: The Beginner’s Guide
The RetroGaming 101 series is aimed at gamers who are just starting out in the classic gaming scene or are curious about an older console that they don’t know much about yet. Those of you that are especially knowledgeable about the featured console, I encourage you to add any information that you think would be beneficial into the comments section. If you are new to the featured console, and still have questions, you can also use the comments section and I will do my best to help you out.
This guide was originally published back in 2007, but I have expanded and updated it to get it up date and to the standards of our newer guides!
- After Sega’s giant success with the Genesis/Megadrive, the company want to get a jump on the 32-bit generation and beat newcomer Sony to the market.
- The Saturn was Sega’s third home video game console released in North America and was sold between 1995 and 1998.
- The Saturn ran into a number of issues leading up to its launch such as a betrayed fanbase (Sega CD and 32x failures), a surprise early launch date, and a high price of $400 USD (about $525 in today’s money).
- The Saturn’s 3D processor was added on as an afterthought to help it compete with the Playstation. Not only was it not quite as powerful as the PS1’s, but having two main processors in the Saturn made it much more challenging for game developers. This ultimately resulted in most games going to the Playstation.
- The Saturn’s “3D Controller” (bundled with NiGHTs Into Dreams) is one of the first controllers with an analog stick. There is some debate as to whether it was designed before the Nintendo 64 controller. (see more info in the Accessories section below)
- The Saturn may have been a commercial failure, but it remained a cherished console by its diehard fans.
- The Saturn’s lifespan was cut especially short because of the upcoming Sega Dreamcast — Sega’s final console release and a fresh start on taking a lot of the concepts they tried to implement with the Saturn to a new level.
- There are a number of Dreamcast games that made their start in development as Saturn games. Shenmue is the highest-profile example (It even featured a Sega Saturn console within the game’s world). There is even video footage of a development-phase version of Shenmue running on Saturn hardware.
- More Sega Saturn History from Wikipedia
- You may also wish to read Games That Defined The Sega Saturn
- The Saturn has one of the best 2D processors in 2D gaming.
- The console was blessed with many excellent old-school games such as 2D fighters, shooters, and platformers. Most of these 2D games that received Playstation ports were inferior in a number of ways.
- The Saturn also had a number of quirky and engaging games from Sega’s development houses that were never ported to other consoles. For the best examples, see The Best Sega Saturn Games For Today.
- The Saturn’s second-generation gamepad is still touted as one of the best controllers ever for old-school games. It is essential a more polished version of the six-button Genesis controller. It has a solid directional pad, a six button layout (great for fighters), along with trigger buttons and a comfortable fit.
- The Saturn also had an optional 1MB/4MB RAM Expansion cartridge that gave it more graphical capabilities over the Playstation. It allowed near-perfect ports of many of the hottest arcade titles while the Playstation had to cut out frames of animation and certain gameplay elements to be able to handle the game. (See list of games that support additional video RAM)
- With the Multi-Tap add-on, the Saturn can support up to 10 players on games like Saturn Bomberman. See the Saturn Multiplayer libary for additional titles
- The Saturn is one of the most well-built and durable game consoles of all time.
- As with the Playstation, load times can be rather long on the Saturn (however they are improved over the Sega CD and Neo-Geo CD).
- The Saturn had a small amount of game save memory. The memory is also lost when the internal battery dies. External memory cartridges are rare and have been relatively expensive.
- The 3D processing is not quite as impressive as later Playstaton games. However, some titles such as Virtua Fighter 2 and Dead or Alive are quite impressive considering the limitations of the system.
- Many third-party developers such as Electronic Arts left the Saturn platform early so many of the major titles went to the Playstation.
- The Saturn library is especially lacking in the RPG genre. There are only a few top-notch titles such as Shining Force III, Dragon Force, and some favorites from Working Designs.
|Standard Controller (First Gen)
Just like the with the Sega Genesis before it (and the Xbox that followed later), the Sega Saturn went through two major controller revisions. The original Saturn controller wasn’t necessarily bad, but it was a bit chunky. The designers seemed to want to make it more of an art piece for a their pricey new console.
|Standard Controller (Second Gen)
The second revision of the Saturn controller was a bit more like the 6-button Genesis controller with its lean, slimmer body, but with the shoulder buttons added. In the end, this second-generation Saturn controller is one of the favorite gamepads of all time among die-hard retro gamers. Assuming you don’t need an analog thumbstick, this controller is the peak of quality for a six-button layout controller – great for fighters if you don’t have the budget for a joystick.
A more modern example of this controller’s popularity is the USB remakes put out by Sega for the PS3 and PC that quickly sold out (and the cheaper replicas showing up on eBay).
The summer of 1996 brought gamers both the Nintendo 64 (in Japan – fall release in the US) and the release of a hot new property on the Saturn: NiGHTS into Dreams. Much like the new N64 controller, NiGHTS made use of an analog joystick on the controller. Since the standard Saturn controller wasn’t equipped with one, the game launched with the “3D Controller” bundled with it. The circular shape seems a bit odd when compared with its peers, but it was a fine controller. If you look at the layout, you can see that it is essentially the foundation for the Sega Dreamcast controller (just change the shape a bit, get rid of two of the face buttons and add a VMU slot)
The Sega Saturn is one of the best consoles for 2D fighters and Sega was one of the few companies to make first-party 6-button arcade-style joyticks. And while it was a step up from its console predecessors like the NES Advantage and the Genesis arcade stick, the Virtua Stick isn’t quite up to the standards from the modern products from Hori. Even though it does not have arcade-quality components, it does the job for non-competitive gaming – a nice step up from a standard controller.
|Virtua Stick Pro
This beauty is a Japanese exclusive and is a step up from the standard Virtua Stick in many ways. The hardware is much more in line with the arcades. The joystick mechanism is from Seimitsu and the buttons are more in line with what you would expect from a Hori or Agetec stick. It also features two sets of controls that are set up just like an arcade cabinet. It does plug into both controller ports on the Saturn, but you can’t get a better fighting setup for your Saturn. This controller is still a great collectors item today, so be prepared to pay some nice cash for one.
These controllers are specifically design for the game Virtual On, which is basically a fast-paced 3D area fighting game featuring mechs. (Watch a video of the game to get a better idea) The controller makes it much more of an arcade-like experience and makes quite a huge difference in the game. Those that enjoy the series typically invest in the controller. They make for a nice collector’s piece as well. If you get a Saturn-to-Dreamcast adapter, you can also use them for the Dreamcast Virtual On game as well.
|Virtua Gun / Stunner
Because of a decreased interest in light gun game and the Columbine shooting the Saturn was the last major console to have a first-party light gun. The Virtua Gun was sold separately, but also as a bundle with Virtua Cop. If you’d like to learn how to upgrade the gun to a full-arcade quality, gun check out this guide.
Just like with the fighting sticks, Sega took the extra effort to come out with a first-party steering wheel. And like the Virtua Stick, it isn’t the highest quality, but it gets the job done and looks slick and consistent with the Saturn’s great design aesthetic.
Wrapping up the lineup of first-party controllers that aim for bringing home an arcade experience is the Mission Stick. The obvious reason for the stick is flight simulators, but it is actually a popular for other Saturn games like Panzer Dragoon, Stellar Assault, GunGriffon, Afterburner, or Space Harrier.
The are a handful of great games that support lots of extra players (Saturn Bomberman being a fan-favorite). If you want to have more than two controllers hooked up to your Saturn, you can use one or two Multi-Taps to add up to 10 more controllers. (each supports 6 controllers – however, Saturn Bomberman “only” supports 10 players)
The Dreamcast was the first console to popularize online gameplay on a console, but Sega tinkered with the concepts with the Saturn Netlink system. It was only supported by a few games, but this modem was the foundation – a dialup modem that plugged into the expansion cart slot
Not required for much, but if you wanted to surf online on your Saturn, a Mouse comes in handy. It can also be used on light gun shooters Virtua Cop, Virtua Cop 2, and The House of the Dead.
|Netlink Keyboard Adapter
And to go along with the mouse, you can also get this keyboard adapter. Since this is the mid-90s we’re talking about, this is for a PS/2 connection instead of the USB that we are used to now.
Here’s a great PC-inspired add-on for you! This rare Japanese periphial lets you save game data on a standard Floppy Disk. You can copy standard game saves to it (but the Backup Memory cart below is a lot more practical) and some games such as the Japanese version of Panzer Dragoon Saga, Dazeamon 2’s shmup construction kit support it directly.
There are a few different cartridge expansion options. The official Backup Memory cartridge is only for storing game saves. This is rather important if you are an RPG fan as the built-in Saturn storage is rather limited.
|Video RAM Expansion Cartridge
These cartridges were either included with certain Japanese imports that required them or sold separately from a third-party. They gave the Saturn an extra boost of video memory (kinda like a video card upgrade for your computer without upgrading the GPU) that was required for some of the high-end arcade ports from Capcom or SNK (like X-Men vs Street Fighter, King of Fighters and Metal Slug) The result were 2D arcade ports that blew the Playstation versions away.
|Action Replay Cartridge
These third party cartridges offer the best of the features in one package – especially if you get the Action Replay 4M Plus model. This model will boot imports (although you will need a modchip or swap trick to boot burned discs), has 4MB of video ram, has game save space and has some cheats built-in.
|Video CD Card / Movie Card
This Japanese add-on is essentially a daughtercard that plug into the Saturn in the area where the battery door is in the back of the console. It allows the Saturn to play Video CDs (VCD / White Book Standard) and also lets it play higher-quality full motion video in games (typically for cutscenes). Lunar Complete is one game that best makes use if the VCD card. The US version of Gungriffon (for the intro video) and the Japanese import, Sakura Taisen Hanagumi Tsushin utilizes it as well.
|Electronic Book Operator & Photo CD Operators
These two software discs were released in Japan and Europe and let the Saturn view the two types of media they are named after. The Electronic Book Operator allows the Saturn to read eBooks in the EB, EB-G or EB-XA disc formats (sorry no Kindle support…) The Photo CD Operator lets the Saturn view up to 100 starndard Photo CD images with some nice viewing options.
- Games That Defined the Sega Saturn – If you want to check out the games that made the biggest impact on the original Saturn demographic, this guide will take you through the biggest titles.
- The Best Saturn Games for Today – These are the games that I would most recommend you looking into (if you can afford them all) as they are the most timeless titles and often the best exclusives.
- The Best Sega Saturn Games Under $25 – If you need a good place to start your collection on a budget, this list should be your first stop. It will cover most of the Saturn essentials.
- Sega Saturn Hidden Gems – If you’ve already got the most popular games under your belt, this Hidden Gems list will help you expand into the best under-appreciated games
- 2D Shooters / Shmups – The Saturn is a must-own for hardcore shmup fans as there are so many great arcade ports and console exclusives
- 2D Fighters – Fighters are another great reason to own a Saturn — there’s even some great exclusives to be had/
- Multiplayer Games – The Saturn can be great for multiplayer if you have a Multi-Tap (see above in the accessories section)
- Rarest and Most Valuable Saturn Games – Be on the lookout for these valuable titles
- Homebrew Games – there’s actually a pretty good Saturn Homebrew community to look into
- The US Sega Saturn releases use the same type of cases as the Sega CD games. They are large, proprietary plastic cases that can break over time. They are beginning to become more valuable and hard to find. Because of this, some collectors are using DVD cases with custom artwork to store their games.
- Imports are a rather important aspect of Saturn collecting, so be sure to check the section below and don’t be afraid the look into some of the great Japanese games out there
- The Saturn had strong support in Japan also provided collectors with a wealth of excellent games to choose from when almost everyone else had given up on the system.
- A mod chip by itself does not allow for booting of imports.
- There are were originally three different ways to boot imports: an Action Replay Cartridge, a Sega Saturn Modchip or Swap Trick teamed with region-patched games, or a specific hardware modification to enable imports.
- Another newer option to playing imported Japanese games on your Sega Saturn is the region free BIOS. A region free BIOS was developed based on the Japanese BIOS that allows the booting of Japanese or American games. It also replaces the American splash screen with the, much cooler, Japanese one. However, the region free BIOS does not effect video modes or CD-R booting, so other modification is required if one wants that functionality.
- It is worth mentioning that some PAL games have issues running at 60hz on North American & Japanese consoles.
Playing Backups / CD-Rs
- Obviously, this can be a grey area, but between playing homebrew, giving options for playing imports (see above), and for helping preserve originals of the increasingly valuable Saturn games, we thought we should share the proper info.
- There are only two ways of playing CD-Rs on a Saturn: The Swap Trick and a Mod Chip
- Mod Chip installation isn’t too hard if you have a Model 2 32-pin Saturn. The only problem is, it can be hard to tell for sure the type of Saturn you have (or are shopping for) without opening it up. Round buttons (as opposed to oval buttons) are a good bet, but you might still end up with a 64-pin Saturn or one with a Sanyo Board. It is possible to install on these other models, but it is not recommended (and Racketboy doesn’t provide support for these models other than the guides I just linked to)
- The Swap Trick is ideal for Model 1 Saturns, but it is possible to eventually cause damage to the CD drive if you aren’t the best at pulling the game out at just the right time. Proceed with caution.
- If you would prefer to play your Saturn games on your PC instead of the actual console, you may need to wait a bit longer for perfect compatibility. While you may get to have a handful of games playable if you have a modern PC, many games are quite glitchy if playable at all.
- If you want to emulate on the PC, you best bet is probably SSF — check out our writeup on this emulator
- Other available emulators include Satourne, Saturnin, Yabause, and the hacked GiriGiri emulator.
- A Saturn console is relatively inexpensive, but the value of the consoles has been gradually increasing the last couple of years. More people are discovering the great games that are only availible on the Saturn and snatching them up on eBay. You can usually find one around the $50 range.
- There are a few of the more common games that can be found for a few dollars, but most of the more popular games are becoming collectors items. Many of the most worthwhile games are now ranging from $25 to the $100 ballpark.
- To find the best Saturn games on a budget, read The Cheapest Sega Saturn Games Worth Your Time.