Thursday 5 October 2017

Sega Saturn: An Informal Beginner’s Guide for Beginners

It's only been a matter of days since the padlocks and chains were removed from the doors of the Saturn Junkyard, the dust was blown off the blogging machinery, and the old place swung into action once more. Since then we've had two articles sent to the 'Yard! One you've already seen, a very personal account of the effect receiving a Saturn had on one 14 year old back in 1996 (our Kev).
Today, It is my great pleasure to present to you  part one of :

"Sega Saturn: An Informal Beginners Guide For Beginners" by Facebook group member, Mr. Brian Vines.
His work is written in red, to ensure no one thinks I am attempting to pass it's excellence off as my own!

Part one discusses the hardware and gives some salient and economic advice to new and existing Saturn owners. Part two, to be showcased in a few days time, will cover the best Saturn software available without breaking the bank!

So you just bought a Sega Saturn - - Good for you.
Or perhaps you're considering getting one. Or perhaps you've always owned a Saturn, but have just remembered that fact until today. Or perhaps you despise the Sega Saturn, in which case I'm not sure why you are reading this, but kudos for expanding your horizons!

So now what? Where do you start with your brand new, state-of-the art, decades-old console? What should you expect? Would you like to kick off your Saturn library with some worthwhile games whilst still having some money left over for food? Any other useful tips to consider?

Well here's a bit of help. While this article is by no means comprehensive, you could consider it an informal starter's guide to help get the ball rolling on your new/future/forgotten/non-existent Sega Saturn home video game console. I'll briefly touch on various topics throughout this post, though nearly everything here could warrant it's own in-depth article to properly delve into the ins and outs of every aspect. There's also a lot I'm going to miss, including game pads and peripherals, hardware variations, emulation options, all of it's incredible RPGs, shoot 'em ups , and 'Bug!' - which may be the most glaring omission of all...


Just kidding! 'Bug!' SUCKS!

Anyway, to keep this post manageable, I'll barely scratch the surface on most of these topics, but will try to provide links  where I can , for additional information.
Let's start with the visuals. Despite the Saturn's retail box boasting it as "the ultimate gaming system" with promises of "unprecedented power" and "photorealistic 3D graphics", you'll want to temper your expectations when it comes to the Saturn's technical capabilities. The Saturn was an early 3D console, though that in itself was some kind of miracle. It was originally intended to be a 2D-centric system, until news of Sony's then upcoming PlayStation forced Sega's hand. This resulted in the addition of a last minute jury-rigged 2D/3D chipset which made Sega's 32 bit beast notoriously difficult to develop for.

This has a couple of implications for your expectations of the Saturn's capabilities:

First, the Saturn excels at producing gorgeous 2D, pixel-based graphics. Fans of Capcom and SNK fighting games can expect tons of eye candy, as the Saturn's versions of those games blow the doors off comparable ports for other consoles of it's era. The bottom line is that the Saturn pushes pixels like no one's business and this asset also carries over into some other genres including puzzle games, shoot 'em ups and platformers.

The other implication is the Saturn often falters with 3D visuals, which don't always hold up well against competing consoles of the time. let alone by modern standards. The Saturn's complicated architecture made it exceedingly difficult for all but the most experienced and dedicated developers to get the most out of it's capabilities. As a result, third parties rarely put their best foot forwards with the Saturn versions of the Saturn versions of their multi-platform games.

That's not to say the Saturn is inept in it's 3D capabilities, particularly as developers got a better grasp of the hardware later into the console's life. For example, the visual upgrade from the launch day ports of Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter, to later tiles like Sega Rally Championship and Virtua Fighter 2 is highly impressive. If you're not yet accustomed to the to the Saturn's 3D graphical style, the best I can describe it is the ambitiously colourful art design of many titles, often feels at odds with the limitations of the hardware, giving a sense that the crude textures and unstable polygons could implode at any second. The result was a distinctly vibrant, jagged and slightly warped visual aesthetic, that somehow melded perfectly with the bright, arcade style pf much of the Saturn's library, it actually gets pretty damn glorious once you get used to it.

For the Saturn's video output, you're best off connecting to a CRT display if you still own one, or are willing to lug one home from your local thrift store, flea market or car boot sale. Not only will a good CRT TV show off the Saturn's games in all of their retro glory, but will allow you  to use the Stunner gun peripheral, and take advantage of the console's impressive line up of light gun shooters. the light guns are not compatible with modern LCD. and plasma televisions, so that's one of the platforms cooler aspects you'll miss out on without a CRT.

Another disadvantage of HDTVs is how challenging they make getting a decent image quality from many retro consoles, the Saturn included. A regular composite cable, (if your TV has such an input) produces a  dreadfully blurry picture on its own. Whilst a stand alone RGB SCART cable will fare better,  most American TVs never had RGB as a connection standard. Whilst I'm not aware of any affordable ways to make the Saturn look great, on your HDTV, you can usually hit good enough territory by routing an RGB SCART cable through an HDMI converter. These are pretty cheap and offer a significantly clearer image than composite or S-Video cables, but it's not a perfect solution: it still produces some blur and artifacting, particularly on larger HD displays. Also, some of these converters seem to lock the image at 16.9 aspect ratio, which can be irksome. But overall SCART via HDMI is a highly affordable option  that should work for most people.

Beyond that, you could shell out a few hundred bucks for a Framemeister, open source scan converter, or another high end video processor/upscaler-- which will certainly work wonders for image quality-- but for the purposes of this article, I'm focusing on the thriftier ways to get started with the Saturn, particularly in the light of this next point...

If you've spent any time browsing eBay or retro games shops recently, you'll notice that Sega Saturn games are goddamn expensive. The niche nature of the console-- combining relatively low print runs, with few  quality emulation alternatives--has lead to ridiculous asking prices for many of the Saturn's most beloved titles. Not helping matters are widespread accounts of "disc rot" where Saturn discs deteriorate over time, threatening to further exacerbate the scarcity of rarer titles. Supposedly this issue is made worse by humidity, so if you store your library in a cool, dry environment, and avoid stacking your discs (so they don't risk  rubbing together) that could help preserve your Saturn collection.

Amassing your personal library of quintessential Saturn games will be a costly endeavour, so you should prepare to take out another mortgage depending on how seriously you take Sega Saturn collecting! Fortunately there are a few things you can do to make building a respectable library a bit less financially damaging, and the first thing to do is look Eastward.

For many high profile Saturn games, know that the Japanese versions are far more affordable than the Western versions of most titles. The Saturn was relatively successful in Japan and it's games had higher production runs, so it largely avoided the scarcity issues that plague the US and |PAL versions of most titles. Even better the arcade-centric nature of many stand out titles means you can still fully enjoy them without missing out on critical story beats or basic instruction details. You can save a ton of money by opting for the Japanese versions of games like Bomberman Saturn, House Of The Dead or Sonic Jam over their exceedingly expensive Western counterparts.

The Saturn makes playing imports remarkably easy-- with a little upfront investment. For this, I highly recommend getting an Action Replay 4in1 4M Plus memory cartridge. It's not terribly expensive and its probably the most useful Saturn peripheral that you can buy that isn't a controller.
Not only does this device bypass the console's region lock, it also provides a bulk of back up storage space for game saves and a nifty RAM boost for some games, including some Capcom and SNK fighting titles which require extra memory.

A quick word of warning: The Saturn's memory cartridge port is not the console's most durable component. Particularly with third party carts which may be slightly larger than the metal slot. Try not to insert or remove the cartridges too often as the port will wear out very quickly.

Additionally, you can run back up discs by either installing a mod chip, modifying a memory cartridge with PseudoSaturn/PseudoSaturnKai or by using a disc swapping technique, though I'm hesitant to recommend that last option to avoid accelerating the demise of your disc drive. These are particularly useful as there are a number of fan created translation patches for Japanese only titles such as Policenauts, Dragon Force II and Shining Force III (scenarios two and three, Western regions only received part one, and many more. These are fantastic fan projects that help make many of the Saturn's more elusive Japanese titles, far more accessible to English speakers.

Another quick note about the Saturn's memory. The Saturn actually uses a 3 Volt CR2032 battery to power storage for game saves and for the time/date internally within the console. If you're buying a Saturn now there's almost a certainty that this battery will be dead. Fortunately, they are incredibly easy to swap and there is a port at the back for easy removal.

Next Time! The Games!


fatherkrishna said...

Superb article Brian! Thank you so much for sharing your insight!

itsstillthinking said...

Nice one! if you want to talk about the homebrew scene in some of your articles i would recommend starting here at this amazing new 3d project

NebachadnezzaR said...

itsstillthinking, that's pretty cool! I may write something about that if no one else picks it up