Three Irrelevant Things About The Sega Saturn

The Sega Saturn turns twenty years old today, November 22. That’s going by the launch date in Japan and not the sudden and problematic American debut. No matter where you pinpoint the console’s birth, it’s a favorite of mine.

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.

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.

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 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.

Time of Eve-rors

Animation mistakes are inevitable. They’re also amusing. Some fans laughed over a braid whiffing through Elsa’s arm during that big musical number in Disney’s Frozen. Others got angry about it, and that was doubly hilarious. After all, such mistakes are everywhere, from gleaming cinematic treasures to those dollar-bin knockoff cartoons seemingly composted of nothing but animation mistakes. Mike Toole put up a column and a Tumblr dedicated to anime gaffes, and this feed shows us that you’ll find goofs in just about every big-budget animated film.

But hey, those little slip-ups seldom harm the story. A security guard’s misshapen arm or a magical schoolgirl’s chameleon eyes won’t confuse the audience that much. At most, a few kids might wonder why Brawn and Windcharger show up in the background of third-season Transformers episodes even though they died horrifically in the movie. Then their parents can explain that cartoons are not always perfect and shatter one key childhood illusion.

My favorite animation error comes in Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s Time of Eve, and it may be the only time that such a mistake altered the entire context of a scene.

Time of Eve, or Eve no Jikan, is a six-part series set in a future where androids can pretty much look human—so much so that they wear legally mandated hologram halos. The TV even runs commercials admonishing citizens not to fall in love with machines. Average teenager Rikuo notices some odd datestamps surrounding his family’s house-bot, Sammy, and he and his friend Misaki track the mystery to a café called Time of Eve. Inside, androids discard their halos and act like regular humans, leaving newcomers like Rikuo and Masaki unable to tell just who’s a robot and who’s a meatform.

The series twists through the guessing game with a gentle humor, wrapping character vignettes in awkward moments and upbeat music. It’s mostly a goof on the Asimovian ideals of robot behavior and society’s desperate attempts to keep its creations from being too much like the hu-man, and I almost wonder if there’s a point about women’s rights circling further down. Either way, it’s a great little series.

Time of Eve is also an Original Net Animation, a neologism for those anime productions that premiere online. Its look is clean and competent, but it clearly wasn’t given a movie's budget. So some animation gaffes happen.

One of Time of Eve’s android patrons is Akiko, who’s a gleeful chatterbox in the café and just another somber, dutiful drone outside of it. Rikuo and Masaki get their first surprise of the series upon spotting Akiko wandering their school with a 3-D halo over her head. At the end of the fourth episode, they spy her again as she walks past their classroom and grins almost imperceptibly.

As she plods down the hall, her hologram halo is gone. Masaki and Rikuo aren't shocked, but the same doesn’t go for Kayo, a classmate with a rather obvious crush on Masaki. She stands there, stupefied.

Upon this Original Net Animation’s first airing, some viewers debated: was Akiko deliberately messing with her fleshbag friends, or did the animators simply forget about her glowing headgear? Will Kayo report her for breaking a latter-day Law of Robotics? For answers, let’s check the final version of Time of Eve.

Yep, it was an animation error. Akiko wears her holo-halo in the final cut, and Kayo is now merely shocked at the implication that the guy she likes is more into robot women. Could be worse. He could be married to a dating simulator on his Nintendo 3DS.

The movie version of Time of Eve, having recently enjoyed a successful Kickstarter, also gives Akiko the halo. Strangely, it removes Kayo from the entire storyline. She’s mentioned only in a snippet of hallway gossip.

Of course, one can’t make too much of this. As with most glaring errors, Time of Eve’s DVD release fixed the mistake. But it’s the only case where I remember an animation glitch affecting narrative implications. So I’m justified in bringing it up, right? Right?

Oh well. If nothing else, it’s an excuse to talk about Time of Eve.

Cry On Over

No video game ever made me cry. Nope, not one. Many games get to me in some way, because I’m a big, sappy, hopeless mark when it comes to full-bore blasts of melodrama. Yet I have a hard time remembering any game, book, movie, song, comic, painting, sculpture, water ballet, or 15th-century Italian woodcut that’s brought me to tears. I suspect I’m just not built to sob over fiction and art. That part of me prefers that I just sulk around gobsmacked and despondent.

I don’t think I would’ve wept over Cry On, but I wish I could’ve found out.

Making us weep was, believe it or not, the goal of Cry On. Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi hoped that the game would make players cry, both in joy and sorrow, and so great was his ambition that he put it right there in the title. Cry On wasn’t a weird side project, either. Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker studio announced it late in 2005, with publisher AQ Interactive and developer Cavia on board. Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu signed up for the soundtrack, the illustrations came from Drakengard artist Kimihiko Fujisaka, and the budget hovered around $8.5 million.

Cry On promised more than wailing and rending of garments, of course. Described as an action-RPG, it showed a world not that different from a rudimentary Final Fantasy spread of medieval mythic scenery speckled with airships and other machine anachronisms. Here humans live alongside Bogles, glazed golems that transform from small totemic statues to fearsome giants. A particularly intelligent Bogle partners with the game’s heroine, a young woman named Sally.

Players were to control Sally, but the Bogle may have been the real star. According to interviews, the little ceramic gremlin would ride on Sally’s shoulder as she explores and solves those environmental puzzles that every action game demands somehow. Yet the Bogle would transform into its larger incarnation, changing its general form each time, and it could accessorize itself with rubble and other debris. The Bogle would handle much of the fighting, though Sally does have that knife on her.

Cry On never showed itself in public. When AQ Interactive announced the game’s cancellation in 2008, no one had seen a single screenshot of it. Magazine previews offered Fujisaka’s artwork and websites turned up further illustrations (some of which may not even be from Cry On), but the game itself remains a mystery. It’s entirely possible that it didn’t get far off the ground, that it existed mostly in planning documents and Sakaguchi’s imagination while the developer worked on other projects. Or perhaps it really did make all who saw it sob as though they were characters beholding a statue in an awful Randian fantasy series, and Sakaguchi decided to destroy it for the good of all humankind.

It’s true that Cry On came from developers unproven. Cavia, for one, has a sketchy catalog. Their licensed games are mediocre, Bullet Witch seldom sees praise, and even fans of the first two Drakengards caution people against actually playing them (though I think the second one is unfairly denigrated). Mistwalker was coming off two RPGs: Blue Dragon aimed for unremarkable kiddie fare and found it, while Lost Odyssey tried for mature territory and…well, it made it halfway. The short stories are nice.

I think there’s more to Cry On, though. For one thing, the concept sounds intriguing; it’s a bit like Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom mixed with Shadow of the Colossus. Maybe it's even a precursor to The Last Guardian. Besides, the names involved would do better after Cry On’s demise. Cavia had few good games behind them but a great one ahead. Their last release, Nier, is a roughly excellent action title with plenty of ideas—most of them good! Mistwalker improved as well. They turned to the Nintendo-backed The Last Story for their next big project, and I really enjoyed its fusion of fairy-tale plotting and quick, messy battles. If Cry On had been anything like either game, I would’ve liked it.

Did anything survive Cry On’s demise? Well, Sakaguchi really had a thing for crying around that time, so he worked it into his original plan for The Last Story. The heroine, Calista, is your usual half-meek, half-rebellious princess in the final game, but in the original outline she was blind and constantly shedding tears of blood. Sakaguchi changed that.

Something firmer emerged: Fujisaka became the go-to artist for Mistwalker projects after Cry On. He was the main illustrator for The Last Story, and his work is everywhere in Terra Battle, Mistwalker’s brand-new smartphone strategy-RPG. It’s surprisingly enjoyable for a game where one shuffles around character tiles to enact battles, and it does a lot within that simple interface. I’d discuss it further, but it’s free to play and doesn’t even bother you much about its paid extras. You can go try it right now!

Terra Battle also makes me wonder. Fujisaka drew a lot of fantasy staples for it: lizards, rock-people, beastfolk, robot spiders, giant scorpions, and of course, archers who wear revealing, full-length dresses into the thick of combat. One older gentleman, Jennish, even resembles Octa, the elderly horndog Disciple from Drakengard 3. Did Fujisaka sneak Sally and her Bogle companion into Terra Battle with a similar flourish? I wouldn’t mind if he did. Canceled games rarely get second chances, and I think Cry On deserved one.

Halloween Moods

I wanted to do this for a good while.

Over the past month, Dinosaur Dracula readers have posted Halloween Mood Tables of all sorts. I liked the idea, but I didn’t have that much in the way of Halloween decorations or scary movies. So I improvised with Darkstalkers stuff and Ghosts 'N Goblins, and I stretched the definition of just what a scary movie means (I even used Titanic: The Animated Movie, which is scary in several ways). Here’s a less moody version if you want a better look at the accessories!

Happy Halloween, folks! Play Darkstalkers games if you got ‘em! And, uh, if you’re old enough.

Little Things: Ninja Combat

I remember it with perfect and disquieting clarity: a line from an early 1990s issue of GamePro. A writeup about a new arcade game stated “the all-girl round is imaginative, and it starts with a surprise that we can’t reveal here, but watch out! These women are MEAN!”

This evocation of feminine mystery must have lodged deep within my borderline-teenage brain, because it stayed with me long after I forgot even the title of the game it was talking about. I recalled only that it was some side-scrolling brawler, and the arcades of the 1990s practically used those to prop open doors and whack cockroaches. Well over a decade later, I remembered that curious phrase and finally figured out that it described Ninja Combat for the Neo Geo.

The second stage of Ninja Combat leads the player to a group of women menaced by the game’s generic ninja. They even call for help with a plaintive sound effect. And you, as the hero, clearly should rescue these women just as you would a kidnapped president.

Then comes the surprise. Once you advance, the terrified hostages reveal themselves to be disguised ninja women and attack you. I’m not sure why the Gamepro blurb connoted this as “mean,” but I'll say this much: it would have surprised my younger self. Hostages were a cliche in arcade games even back in 1991, but we were used to freeing them for bonus points, whether it was the children in Moonwalker or the stone-encased citizens of Black Tiger (all of whom were old men for some reason). It’s a tradition that lives on today in any arcade light-gun shooter where unfortunate civilians cringe and dash through zombie outbreaks or anti-terrorist firefights. These citizens are inevitably mowed down by unwary younger players, who learn that shooting the innocent costs soldiers or police officers only a chunk of life meter. Or a few weeks of paid leave until the investigation clears them.

Ninja Combat isn’t very good. It’s the sort of primitive arcade title that gave the Neo Geo a reputation for mediocre games costing $200 and lasting about forty-five minutes. Yet it’s not without some invention. Enemy mid-bosses become playable characters once defeated, the cutscenes have some hysterical acting, and the enemy ninja include such novelties as harpy ninja, fan ninja, and burly executioner ninja whose Klansman-like hoods weren’t changed to appease North American audiences.

Is there more to Ninja Combat's little joke about captive damsels in arcade brawlers? Is it subtly telling us that the concept of helpless, imperiled women pleading for rescue is an outdated and chauvinistic ideal, and that those who accept it do so to their ninja-swamped misfortune?

Probably not.

Rygarfield Returns

I'm afraid that Rygarfield has not yet emerged as this century’s hottest new comic strip. At first I didn’t know what the problem might be. It has everything kids like: video games, webcomics based on video games, and ironic Garfield humor. Then I realized what was wrong. Rygarfield had only one panel instead of the multi-panel format used by every good comic that isn't The Far Side!

Now Rygarfield is the complete work that it should have been at the start. It also delivers biting commentary about cats and the marginal secrets of old NES games. It's like Howard and Nester meets Heathcliff!

Good Box Art: Advance Wars

Remember when I used to write about awful box art? Well, I actually updated the old gallery with an entry on Wing of Alnam. Lots of people discuss bizarre game cover illustrations these days, but as far as I can tell, nobody's taken a crack at this one just yet. Besides, I enjoy pretending that the last ten years haven’t happened.

I also want to highlight good box art—the stuff that sells a game better than any panting laudatory quotes or pre-order gadgetry ever could. I’ll start, in no way alphabetically, with Intelligent Systems and Nintendo’s original Advance Wars.

Advance Wars is a game of jovial strategy, a game where little rounded helicopters and puttering tanks and squat, rifle-toting troops clash in big colorful battlefields. And the cover illustration captures it perfectly. Three young heroes commandeer a tank and rush into battle with such energy that the treads lift off the churned concrete. Andy, an Orange Star officer, mans the controls with a maniacal cartoon grin. It’s all a good taste of what’s inside Advance Wars.

Yet Advance Wars, like many outwardly cute video games, is rather depressing when you think about it too hard. The most disposable pieces of any Advance army, as Andore Jr. eloquently points out, are the humble soldiers in your basic infantry units, and at least a few of them are guaranteed death every time they rise to attack or defend. Advance Wars may be precious and gleeful, but it’s still about wars.

This brings me to my favorite part of the cover. Andy may brim with gusto as he guns that tank toward victory, but his companions don’t. Max wears a look of grim caution, while Sami stares numbly before her. Because they know.