Sega Saturn

Sega Saturn

5th Generation Competitors
3DO Jaguar Nintendo 64 Playstation CD32 FM Towns Marty PC-FX Pippin Playdia Loopy
Region Release Date Discontinued Lifetime Sales
Japan 22nd November 1994  2000  6.26M
North America 11th May 1995 1998  2M
Europe 8th July 1995 1998  1M

The development of the Saturn was tumultuous.  Sega had tried to extend the life time of the Megadrive for as long as possible by adding new peripherals such as the Mega CD and 32X.  But this had caused confusion amongst the consumers and they started to panic.

The Saturn itself had gone through numerous design changes, initially it had been designed as a 2D machine, Sega hadn’t expected 3D to be a key selling point, considering it was barely taking off in the PC world.

But Sony had made it a key feature of the upcoming Playstation and whilst Sega didn’t consider Sony to be their primary competitor enough buzz in the media finally got though to the heads in Sega Japan to make them realise they had to react.

The redesigned Saturn was based on Sega’s existing Model 1 architecture, itself a groundbreaking 3D arcade system.  The architecture used the SH2 RISC Processor, a custom chip designed by Sega and Hitachi.  Whilst not a GPU in the sense we know it now, the chips made certain calculations faster.

For 3D to work it needed two of these chips and therefore so did the Saturn.  After Sony released the specs of the upcoming Playstation Sega were forced to add another chip, the VDP, to compete.

Whilst this was happening Sega of America were trying to draft their own system, this would use a custom chip created by SGI.  But Sega of Japan were uninterested in changing their plans and were largely dismissive of the team SGI sent to talk to them.

This cold-shoulder approach caused SGI to end their talks and they instead sold the solution to Nintendo and it became the basis of the Nintendo 64‘s Reality Processor.

In the end the Saturn became an 8 chip megalith.  The complexity was astounding and Sega were struggling to work with it internally just to create the tools that developers would need to make games.

At this point Sega decided to make the 32X add-on for the Megadrive.  This had some elements from the Saturn, including the Hitachi SH2’s.  But it would not be compatible with Saturn software and consumers were confused by the mixed messages they were getting.

The Saturn released in Japan to fairly positive sales.  Virtua Fighter pretty much sold the system and almost everyone buying a console bought it.

But in a move that would haunt Sega until they left the console market, they announced the North American release date of Saturday the 2nd of September 1995.  Nicknamed Saturnday this day was chosen to give western developers time to get to grips with the complex system and for retailers to prepare for stock.

But then, at the E3 event in May the head of Sega of America, Tom Kalinske, announced that the console would release immediately at a price of $399.  Even worse only a few retailers had stock, the rest would miss out of the traditionally high demand first day.

This news upset publishers and retailers.  The publishers had to rush development of their titles to get them ready, and most would miss release day by weeks.  The retailers who had not received stock were outraged, some announcing that they would never stock a Sega item ever again.

This was an almost perfect outcome for Sony, who were not frightened into moving their release date earlier, instead the head of Sony US came out and said one thing, $299, the price of the Playstation, before leaving the stage to universal applause.

Once developers had got used to the Saturn hardware they found out it was a powerful beast, but it was missing a few things that the Playstation had.  But it also didn’t suffer from the texture warping effect that Sony’s machine did.

The Saturn wasn’t a flop, as such.  It sold well enough, but it caused tremors in the industry that Sega never recovered from and had a large impact on the failure of their next system, the Dreamcast.

There are two conflicting accounts to how the date move happened, Sega of America said they were unaware of the date change until the day of the conference when Sega of Japan ordered them to announce it.

Sega of Japan say that SOA were well aware beforehand and were involved in the decision.

We may never know the absolute truth, but the fact remains that 3 retailers already had stock and an agreement to sell them the same day, that was not something that Sega of Japan could arrange and was definitely not something that could be arranged in a couple of hours.

Specs

Processor 2 x Hitachi SH2 RISC @ 28.6MHz
RAM 4MB
ROM 512K
Custom Chips VDP1 and VDP2 video processors
Video 32,768 Colours on screen from a palette of 16.8M
Audio 32 x Stereo 16 bit FM Synthesis Channels
Removable storage Double Speed CD Rom

Sega Saturn
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