The Saturn doesn't get enough credit. The poor thing trailed the Sony PlayStation for nearly its entire life, and Sega never recovered from the damage done there. I had a PlayStation first, and yes, I liked it a little better. But I also bought a Saturn and realized how underrated it was. The Saturn had excellent ports of Capcom and SNK arcade games. The Saturn had weird, cool little titles like Burning Rangers and Sakura Wars and the Panzer Dragoon series. The Saturn let you play import games with ease. The Saturn turned me into a bigger game geek than I had ever been before, and it made me enjoy that.
Plenty of websites took a look at the Saturn this week, and you’ll see no shortage of recommendations when it comes to the system’s best games. It’s easy to find a rundown of just about every notable Saturn release. And I don’t know if I could really say anything new if I just went on and on about Darkstalkers games or Steamgear Mash or Last Bronx.
So I won’t. Instead I’ll discuss three things that I remember about the Saturn and its under-appreciated library. Not one of these things really mattered in making the Saturn a magnificent sleeper system, but they were important to me. That's what counts.
THAT QUOTE ON THE COVER OF PANZER DRAGOON SAGA
The Panzer Dragoon series is the best thing to come out of the Saturn's short career, and Panzer Dragoon Saga is the best thing to come out of the Panzer Dragoon series. It takes the dragon-flying concept of its shooter forerunners and turns it into an skyborne RPG where random battles are welcome, primitive 3-D graphics actually suit the Moebius-derived wasteworld, and the boy-meets-mystic-girl concept plays out with uncommon style.
Panzer Dragoon Saga was among the last round of Saturn releases, all of which were hard to come by unless you reserved them or lucked into discounted copies at Meijer or Toys R Us. Of course, I put money down. It was clearly worth fifty bucks. It spanned four discs—one more than Final Fantasy VII! It had dragons! And hey, what’s that little starburst on the cover?
Everyone rapidly learns to distrust or outright ignore the breathless praise they see on movie posters and book jackets and DVD cases and video games. As a kid, I didn’t put much stock in any recommendation that wasn’t attached to Siskel and/or Ebert. In fact, I don’t think any piece of box-borne critical gushing really stayed with me, except for one: Next Generation saying Panzer Dragoon Saga was “unique, trailblazing, and wonderful.” Even if "unique" and "trailblazing" crowd together in their implications, something about the directness of the quote grabbed me.
The Saturn had the appeal of a cult classic. It was the loser system next to the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation, but that just made it all the more scrappy and likeable. Most of the Saturn’s library wasn’t very different from other consoles; you had fighting games, racing games, action games, and role-playing games littered with mandatory clichés. Every now and then, though, the Saturn would have something that you couldn't get anywhere else. Something unique, trailblazing, and perhaps even wonderful.
The cover of Panzer Dragoon Saga is a jumbled and confusing collage. It’s strange how the dragon’s horn-helm goes behind Edge’s neck while the lower piece of it goes in front of Azel’s head. Azel has a fairly interesting look for a genre where heroines are usually conventional vixens or meekly beautiful waifs, but the box art does her no favors. At least that little orange firework and its poorly aligned text tell the unclouded truth about Panzer Dragoon Saga. Even if we don’t believe the overheated quotes we read on covers, we appreciate it when they’re right.
As I get older and try to create things, I sometimes daydream about what critical plaudits might appear on, say, my sci-fantasy trilogy about extraterrestrial barbarians who communicate by farting. The triple crown of “unique, trailblazing, and wonderful” would be nice, but I'd settle for just one of those.
THE CYBERBOTS BOX-FLAP ART
Some people bought Saturns for Virtua Fighter 2, X-Men vs. Street Fighter, or NiGHTS. I bought one for Cyberbots. Capcom’s wonderfully animated mecha fighting game absorbed me when I caught it at an arcade test, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t find it anywhere else. But it came to the Saturn in Japan, and I knew I had to get one. Capcom wouldn’t bother with a U.S. release. Why should they, with the Saturn ailing and Cyberbots never a success in arcades? So I nabbed the import. It was the first time I’d bought a Japanese game, and the first time I’d bought the special edition of any game from any country.
The Cyberbots Limited Edition is very modest by today’s box-set standards. It has an artbook, a fold-out diorama, and a pretty box to hold them. My personal box is a little worn, but it's still intact. That includes the surprise just inside the flap.
It’s covered with little drawings of Capcom characters! There’s Sakura, being happy! And Zangief creeping out Ibuki while Mary Miyabi looks away in disdain! I’ve always liked Capcom’s characters and their propensity for showing up in unexpected places, and this is a precious example of that. It’s like a Capcom artist sneaked over and doodled on the box just for you. The elf puzzles me, though. I know my Capcom stuff, and yet I can’t figure out who he is. Ravel from King of Dragons would be my best guess.
Even the tiny flaps at the end have illustrations! One shows Poison, and the other has Sagat holding a Ryu doll. For those not up on Street Fighter lore, Ryu scarred Sagat's chest in a match, and now Sagat wants revenge. Yet Super Street Fighter IV shows a far more placid Sagat, one who views his rivalry with Ryu as a catalyst for personal growth. And here he’s clutching a stuffed Ryu. This means something. Perhaps he's going to avenge his handsome torso by selling Ryu toys and cutting his nemesis out of the profits. I'm sure Sakura would buy some.
MY LETTER ON SATURNWORLD.COM
My favorite professional Sega Saturn website was Saturnworld, a corner of what became IGN. It had little competition, but it was a comfort. Even as the Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation turned more heads, Saturn owners could take heart that their system was still important enough to have a full site with news, reviews, and even a section called “Hooked on Sonics.” Well, they could take heart until Saturnworld shut down in 1998. Before it signed off, I became a very small part of it by getting my opinion on the letters page. The site asked for everyone to spout off about a possible Saturn price drop. Here's what I said.
This was important to me back in 1997. I was slow to realize just what the Internet was, and I used it mostly for reading news and reviews. I knew there were forums and discussions groups and BBSes where you could post your own opinions, but I didn’t grasp that level of interaction. It wasn’t until game websites came along that I saw a thing I’d written right there on a website. I came up with a bunch of Top Ten lists for Ultra Game Players Online, and I thought it was pretty important that I spoke my anonymous mind about this Sega thing.
Reading it now, I’m amused at my naked enthusiasm. I wanted a Saturn, dammit, and I knew why. My eagerness fled in some cases: I didn’t like Shining the Holy Ark all that much, and Marvel Super Heroes and Virtual On were quickly eclipsed by other interests. I also find it strange that I talked up (and misspelled) Samurai Shodown IV. I don't recall being interested in it that much; I guess I just needed to think of an import title. Lastly, I was rather rude about the trio of free games that Sega offered: Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop, and Daytona USA. They’re all decent titles, no matter Daytona’s glitchy appearance. I just didn’t care about them when Cyberbots awaited.
I kept my promise. Sega really did drop the price to $129, and I rushed to the local Electronics Boutique and annoyed some clerk who had just marked down the store's only system. I became a happy Saturn owner, and I never stopped being one.