The Sega Saturn (セガサターン Sega Satān?) is a 32-bit fifth-generation home video game console that was developed by Sega and released on November 22, 1994 in Japan, May 11, 1995 in North America, and July 8, 1995 in Europe as the successor to the successful Sega Genesis. The Saturn has a dual-CPU architecture and eight processors. Its games are in CD-ROM format, and its game library contains several arcade ports as well as original titles.
Development of the Saturn began in 1992, the same year Sega’s groundbreaking 3D Model 1 arcade hardware debuted. Designed around a new CPU from Japanese electronics company Hitachi, another video display processor was incorporated into the system’s design in early 1994 to better compete with Sony’s forthcoming PlayStation. The Saturn was initially successful in Japan, but failed to sell in large numbers in the United States after its surprise May 1995 launch, four months before its scheduled release date. After the debut of the Nintendo 64 in late 1996, the Saturn rapidly lost market share in the U.S., where it was discontinued in 1998. Having sold 9.26 million units worldwide, the Saturn is considered a commercial failure. The failure of Sega’s development teams to release a game in the Sonic the Hedgehog series, known in development as Sonic X-treme, has been considered a factor in the console’s poor performance.
Although the system is remembered for several well-regarded games, including Nights into Dreams…, the Panzer Dragoon series, and the Virtua Fighter series, the Saturn’s reputation is mixed due to its complex hardware design and limited third-party support. Sega’s management has been criticized for its decision-making during the system’s development and cancellation.
Released in 1988, the Genesis (known as the Mega Drive in Europe and Japan) was Sega’s entry into the fourth generation of video game consoles. In mid-1990, Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama hired Tom Kalinske as president and CEO of Sega of America. Kalinske developed a four-point plan for sales of the Genesis: lower the price of the console, create a U.S.-based team to develop games targeted at the American market, continue aggressive advertising campaigns, and sell Sonic the Hedgehog with the console. The Japanese board of directors initially disapproved of the plan, but all four points were approved by Nakayama, who told Kalinske, “I hired you to make the decisions for Europe and the Americas, so go ahead and do it.” Magazines praised Sonic as one of the greatest games yet made, and Sega’s console finally took off as customers who had been waiting for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) decided to purchase a Genesis instead. However, the release of a CD-based add-on for the Genesis, the Sega CD (known as Mega-CD outside of North America), had been commercially disappointing.
Sega also experienced success with arcade games. In 1992 and 1993, the company’s new Sega Model 1 arcade system board showcased Sega AM2’s Virtua Racing and Virtua Fighter (the first 3D fighting game), which played a crucial role in popularizing 3D polygonal graphics. In particular, Virtua Fighter garnered praise for its simple three-button control scheme, with the game’s strategy coming from the intuitively observed differences between characters that felt and acted differently rather than the more ornate combos of two-dimensional competitors. Despite its crude visuals—with characters composed of fewer than 1,200 polygons—Virtua Fighter‘s fluid animation and relatively realistic depiction of distinct fighting styles gave its combatants a lifelike presence considered impossible to replicate with sprites. The Model 1 was an expensive system board, and bringing home releases of its games to the Genesis required more than its hardware could handle. Several alternatives helped to bring Sega’s newest arcade games to the console, such as the Sega Virtua Processor chip used for Virtua Racing, and eventually the Sega 32X add-on.
Development of the Saturn was supervised by Hideki Sato, Sega’s director and deputy general manager of research and development. According to Sega project manager Hideki Okamura, the Saturn project started over two years before the system was showcased at the Tokyo Toy Show in June 1994. The name “Saturn” was initially the system’s codename during development in Japan, but was eventually chosen as the official product name. In 1993, Sega and Japanese electronics company Hitachi formed a joint venture to develop a new CPU for the Saturn, which resulted in the creation of the “SuperH RISC Engine” (or SH-2) later that year. The Saturn was ultimately designed around a dual-SH2 configuration. According to Kazuhiro Hamada, Sega’s section chief for Saturn development during the system’s conception, “the SH-2 was chosen for reasons of cost and efficiency. The chip has a calculation system similar to a DSP [digital signal processor], but we realized that a single CPU would not be enough to calculate a 3D world.” Although the Saturn’s design was largely finished before the end of 1993, reports in early 1994 of the technical capabilities of Sony’s upcoming PlayStation console prompted Sega to include another video display processor (VDP) to improve the system’s 2D performance and texture-mapping. CD-ROM-based and cartridge-only versions of the Saturn hardware were considered for simultaneous release at one point during the system’s development, but this idea was discarded due to concerns over the lower quality and higher price of cartridge-based games.
According to Kalinske, Sega of America “fought against the architecture of Saturn for quite some time”. Seeking an alternative graphics chip for the Saturn, Kalinske attempted to broker a deal with Silicon Graphics, but Sega Enterprises rejected the proposal. Silicon Graphics subsequently collaborated with Nintendo on the Nintendo 64. Kalinske, Sony Electronic Publishing’s Olaf Olafsson, and Sony America’s Micky Schulhof had previously discussed development of a joint “Sega/Sony hardware system”, which never came to fruition due to Sega’s desire to create hardware that could accommodate both 2D and 3D visuals and Sony’s competing notion of focusing entirely on 3D technology. Publicly, Kalinske defended the Saturn’s design: “Our people feel that they need the multiprocessing to be able to bring to the home what we’re doing next year in the arcades.”
In 1993, Sega restructured its internal studios in preparation for the Saturn’s launch. To ensure high-quality 3D games would be available early in the Saturn’s life, and to create a more energetic working environment, developers from Sega’s arcade division were instructed to create console games. New teams, such as Panzer Dragoon developer Team Andromeda, were formed during this time.
In January 1994, Sega began to develop an add-on for the Genesis, the Sega 32X, which would serve as a less-expensive entry into the 32-bit era. The decision to create the add-on was made by Nakayama and widely supported by Sega of America employees. According to former Sega of America producer Scot Bayless, Nakayama was worried that the Saturn would not be available until after 1994 and that the recently released Atari Jaguar would reduce Sega’s hardware sales. As a result, Nakayama ordered his engineers to have the system ready for launch by the end of the year. The 32X would not be compatible with the Saturn, but Sega executive Richard Brudvik-Lindner pointed out that the 32X would play Genesis titles, and had the same system architecture as the Saturn. This was justified by Sega’s statement that both platforms would run at the same time, and that the 32X would be aimed at players who could not afford the more expensive Saturn. According to Sega of America research and development head Joe Miller, the 32X served a role in assisting development teams to familiarize themselves with the dual SH-2 architecture also used in the Saturn. Because both machines shared many of the same parts and were preparing to launch around the same time, tensions emerged between Sega of America and Sega Enterprises when the Saturn was given priority.