Sega Saturn at 25
The Sega Saturn was following on the huge success of the Mega Drive/Genesis in North America and Europe. The console had been a massive hit, establishing the Sega brand as a household name. However, on home soil in Japan it had fared less well.
Sega knew that the market it had been dominating along with Nintendo, was to be invaded by a newcomer, the Sony Playstation. The time had come for something new in the Sega catalogue.
That new idea arrived in the form of the Sega Saturn. The Saturn was designed to go head to head with Sony’s new console. It was released in Japan in November 1994, a month before the release of the Playstation.
Tom Kalinske Years
Virtua Fighter, a 3D fighting game that had proved successful in Japanese arcades, would be one of the first releases. It was a huge hit and whipped up anticipation for the Saturn. So much so that the Saturn would outstrip the success of its predecessor the Mega Drive in Japan by almost two consoles to one. Not only that but it would help the console to dominate the Playstation on home soil.
Tom Kalinske was the man charged with launching the Saturn in the U.S. Kalinske had previously been responsible for the huge success of the Genesis in the states. It had been his idea to bundle the console with Sonic the Hedgehog, luring consumers away from the rival Super Nintendo. He had a good working relationship with Sega Japan and crucially, their trust.
Despite this, for the North American launch Sega Japan pushed the early release tactic that had proved successful back home. This was against the wishes of Tom Kalinske. In fact, Kalinske actively campaigned to have the launch delayed. The Saturn was extremely low on launch titles in North America and Virtua Fighter was not the well established hit in the US that it had been in Japan.
Kalinske pushed for a later launch to produce more titles. He also had serious concerns about the hardware of the system. When he actively sourced a new graphics chip to improve Saturn performance he was rebuffed by the hardware engineers at Sega Japan. Instead, he sent the graphics chip company down the road to Nintendo who were building the N64 at the time.
The failed launch
In May 1995 the Saturn had it’s early launch at the L.A. electronics expo. This was the first mistake, angering any vendors who had not been informed and and many flat out refused to stock Sega products in the future.
As the surprise announcement was made and a $400 dollar price tag was announced, Sony followed it up by announcing the Playstation for $100 dollars cheaper. This was the second big mistake. Coupled with only 6 titles available on launch, it meant that in North America, the Saturn had started off on a very wrong foot.
Things would only get worse. Even a $50 million advertising campaign could not help. Due to the early launch and consequential lack of titles, the Playstation was boasting 17 games ready for release day. In fact, the Playstation would sell more units on release day than the Saturn had in the previous five months.
The negative publicity garnered by the Saturn was now huge. Electronic Arts, developers who had long worked on Sega’s flagship sports titles, left the company for Playstation. Kalinske would leave the company soon after to be replaced by Bernie Stolar. Stolar had been at Sony and was one of the executives who made the Playstation such a big deal.
The Bernie Stolar years
From the offset, Stolar had no interest in the Saturn. He knew the hardware was terrible but games were exceptional. His goal from the start was to provide quality titles over quantity. It was through this that the Saturn probably gained so many memorable titles for a console with such a small range and life.
Only two years after launch, Stolar admitted to the public that the Saturn would not be Sega’s future. The fate of the console was sealed and the company would now set it’s sites towards the last gasp, the Sega Dreamcast.
It would be fantastic to look back on the Saturn as a forgotten gem, particularly considering the quality of games it put out. But it’s business legacy was costly and was a major factor in the demise of Sega as a hardware manufacturer. In fact, it had a huge impact on their reputation in the eyes of the public. Stolar himself cited “”We had to change the attitude of retail to believe we were a serious player and because of the whole Saturn thing, retailers really hated Sega.”
Many of it’s arcade ports were fantastic, particularly its Capcom fighting games. Daytona USA took racing graphics to a level unseen before on a console. Yet the lack of huge franchise money spinners showed the heart of the company was not in the system. The darling child of the Mega Drive, Sonic the Hedgehog, was for instance notable by his absence.
The follow up Dreamcast would not be the money spinner Sega pinned it’s hopes on and they would later go on to produce only software. However, the legacy of the Saturn still lives on 25 years later. In an age when online gaming was just about to hit and P.C. gaming was at it’s peak, a console that was doomed from the start somehow managed to birth so many fruitful titles.
This article could not have been written without help from the following….
Thank you to Sega Retro for all images