Sorry for the absence: I’ve been at a convention, and picked up some nasty con crud as a result.

Said con, however, did at least bring me closer to a topic I’ve been meaning to talk about for a while: the Sega Saturn. It was the first opportunity I’ve had to play an actual, physical Saturn, and only the second time I’ve played a Saturn game, the game in question this time around being Panzer Dragoon Zwei. As a game… well, it was fun if frustrating, the lack of analog control being a big problem with the D-pad having trouble moving the cursor fast enough, and the hit detection in general seeming poor. On the plus side, the graphics (for the era) are nice, and the game in general has this good, solid feel to it, the feel of a first-party project. I think I’d have a better time with it if I could play it for longer, possibly in one of the upgraded versions that allows analog control.

But this post isn’t really about Panzer Dragoon, although it’s a series I’ve always wanted to play. It’s about the Saturn in general, and how it became a semi-mythic fixture in my imagination, despite – or rather largely because of – the fact that I never played it at all.

Like most kids of the era, I had my brand loyalty. As long as there are competing consoles there will be console wars, but the console wars of the 90s were of an intensity not seen before or since. In the Beginning – where I define the Beginning to be the NES era because I’m not quite old enough to have played anything before then – there was Nintendo, and there was Sega. Or rather, there was Nintendo, because who really had a Master System? (I did, much later. But I never knew anyone for whom it was their primary console.) Then came the 16-bit era, and with it, two powerful consoles with divergent selling points. The SNES had the latest Mario game, and everyone loved Mario; but the portly plumber was slow, and the upstart Sonic had a fresher look. The SNES had F-Zero, StarFox, a bunch of weird neat games from Japan; the Genesis (or Mega Drive if you’re from Europe) had a stronger focus on action and sports titles, and lacked Nintendo’s censorship when it came to fighting games. Nintendo had a reputation for reliability; Sega had edge and style.

All in all, it was down to what genre of game you preferred, but the fights were vicious. Before Internet forums, before even arguments played out in the letters columns of magazines (and I read a lot of those, contributed to some), there was a clear line drawn through the two halves of kid-dom. Did you have a Nintendo or a Sega? Mario or Sonic?

For the kids who wanted to seem brash and aloof, Sega’s aggressive, bordering-on-creepy ads and too-cool-for-skool hero were a no-brainer choice. On the playground at least, Sega was the truly cool choice, even if the Sega kids secretly did enjoy a game of Mario. Those of us who sided with the SNES didn’t have many bragging points on our side: our love was in an appreciation of subtler things, of the quirky styles and exciting ideas coming out of Japan, of Squaresoft and their quest to craft the most intricate and expansive of fantasy worlds. They appealed to our hearts, but they didn’t garner many cool points. The war – this war that seemed so serious to us, that enveloped all of kid-dom – would be won on loyalty, not persuasive arguments. So we dug ourselves into the trenches, and swore never to touch a thing made by the Evil One.

Of course, we were kids, and we found ways to bend the rules. I refused to own a Mega Drive, but I did buy a Master System, when it got late enough into the console’s lifespan that it didn’t feel like a vote. I snuck to friends’ houses to play illicit games of Sonic 2 on their consoles, experienced the shady thrill of controlling Tails through a world half-understood, only parsed in these hurried glimpses. I even had those little ring-toss water games in Sonic varieties, hoping they would be a way to experience the fun of Sonic without selling out completely. (Spoilers: they weren’t.)

Green Hill Zone theme not included.

Time wore on, and the 16-bit generation sang its swansong – not without great mourning from me, but at least now I felt free and clear to buy a used Mega Drive with my pocket money, as a sort of grief assuager, and a bunch of games off the open market. And so the pattern continued: I would buy the enemy’s goods, but only once the current generation was done. (Besides, we were kids: we only had the ability to buy, or more likely have bought for us, one new console per generation. Thus morality aligned nicely with practicality.) Then the Schism happened – the one that split a small but loyal fanbase once more down the middle. Squaresoft’s partnership with Nintendo had ended, and those who wanted to continue the series would be forced to jump ship, to the ominous new kingdom of Sony. Some loved Square enough to make the jump. Others looked at Sony’s marketing, increasingly catering to an alien crowd – older, “cooler”, more mainstream kids, not the cartoon-loving nerds we were – and shuddered, fearing for the future of games in a world where fun was not enough.

I was one of the latter. Thus I redoubled my trench-digging, asked for a Nintendo 64 for Christmas, and refused to touch anything else.

It was strange, how I did all this without really, consciously realising it. Deep down I knew that there was no “war”, that one purchase here and there wasn’t going to drastically effect console sales, that my allegiance was only symbolic. It wasn’t even like I had a reputation to protect: I was pretty friendless at the time. But it mattered, and so the world outside Nintendo became a foreign country to me, appealing yet so distant from my reality that the idea of living there seemed unfathomable. With the price of consoles rising with each generation, a secondary one was as unreachable for us as the moon, and those sour grapes no doubt fuelled our brand loyalties. I knew I would never own a Saturn; I knew it so vividly that even today, long after console wars had become irrelevant to me, I’ve still never broken down and bought one. I believed so strongly that it was out of the question that I made that my reality.

I never realised that until now.

Still, I was fascinated by the Saturn. The PlayStation, too, but then the PlayStation was everywhere; the Saturn, being the less heavily marketed of the two, felt more obscure, slightly mysterious. I began “deciding” in my head that, as for the also-rans, I preferred the Saturn over the PlayStation, even though I’d never played either. It was at least Sega, not some third, newer upstart, and the games did look cool. First-party titles that would never be ported to other machines, ever (or at least, within the Saturn’s lifetime) flowed from the fingertips of devs and onto magazine pages. NiGHTS. Panzer Dragoon. Virtual On. (Okay, that one was in the arcades. I had no idea!) Even Baku Baku Animal seemed intriguing when you had no way of playing it.

With only magazine articles and ads to go by, helped along by the vaguely otherworldly marketing campaigns that were popular at the time, I constructed a surreal idea of what I imagined these games to be like. Somewhere inside I knew they couldn’t match it, but that was part of the fun: if I couldn’t have them, I could pretend they were anything, untouchable treasures that would blow my mind and catapult me into a whle new reality. Ironically, through depriving myself of it for loyalty reasons, I unwittingly elevated Sega’s new console to a miracle machine in my head.

Part of me still does. Part of me never wants to go back and play those games, even now that I can; they’re better as intangibles. (I feel like this is a punchline I’ve taken far too long to get to.) Or are they? Panzer Dragoon Zwei‘s control scheme isn’t great, but playing games at a con isn’t the ideal experience, and I did get the feeling there was something special under the skin. If I sat with it for long enough, maybe I’d uncover wonders even greater than the ones in my imagination.

Or maybe imagining that is only setting me up to be let down.

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5 thoughts on “The Console I Never Owned: Sega’s Saturn

  1. “When it got late enough into the console’s lifespan not to feel like a vote.” I know exactly what you mean. Because I felt like that too– I hated being a traitor in the console wars for FFVII, but I would have been a bigger traitor not to follow it.

    It’s funny how loyalties can become so intense when they’re about the media you have access to, even when you have a general disdain for consumerism. You don’t really want to care about companies and products, but you want to care about your hobby and its future, to the point even of depriving yourself because of loyalties. I would have bought an N64 as well if I’d known of any decent RPGs for it, just because I was wistful and nostalgic about Nintendo. (By that time, I was a high-schooler overflowing with cash from a lucrative babysitting job I didn’t even want, thanks to parental ideas of “productivity”. The bigger concern was actually having the time to play all the games I bought when the PSX RPG market exploded.)

    I feel a lot better about the balance of things now that my favourite consoles are the DS/3DS. If we buy a PS4, I’m not neglecting my roots, because at the end of the day I prefer the fun-oriented market on handhelds to the graphics-oriented TV consoles, anyway.

    But yes, the Saturn felt a little mysterious because I didn’t know anyone who had such a thing, and all I ever heard about were expensive imports. It would have been hard for a Nintendo console to feel mysterious, even if my cousins hadn’t had one, because the simplicity and family-oriented nature of Mario feels very upfront and open. (Zelda might have been a different story, but only back when I hadn’t seen the less-serious, cartoony half of the franchise.)

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    1. Exactly, yeah. Nintendo is many things, but it isn’t mysterious. Zelda could be, but… the entire company profile of Nintendo really just screams openness and accessibility. Which I love, though it really did lead to me feeling like there was a Light Side and a Dark Side and that the other side was, while Evil, strangely compelling…

      But yeah, the N64 did not in any way have a good RPG lineup. I literally only remember one RPG for it other than the Paper Mario games, and that was Quest 64, which was universally panned… I feel like that was the era when RPG devs were really excited about how realistic they could make their games look and feel, and I kind of understand that because Square obviously weren’t comfortable with the limits of the SNES and have always really wanted to make movies, but as someone who would have still cared about the story even if the graphics were a chunky mess (hi, FF7), it’s still a little sad.

      And yes, definitely, about consumerism. It’s our nature to want sides to pick and teams to fight over; it just so happens that supporting our particular ones necessarily involves donating a lot of money to businesses…

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      1. To be entirely accurate, Kitase has always wanted to make movies, and he wasn’t in charge of directing until after the PSX move was made, if I have my facts straight. I think Sakaguchi just wanted to make games that were similar to Star Wars with trains the movies he liked.

        The funny thing about Square is that they combine a desire to be realistic enough to illustrate characters’ actual skin pores with a desire to make them wield weapons they couldn’t manipulate under real-world physics. (I’m not just talking about the size, but like… sheathing swords taller than they are, and gunblades with bullets that would hit the side of the blade.) At some point, they’re going to hit a limit where their animation can’t show the characters doing things in detail because they couldn’t realistically make the motions. (They’re not there yet, considering they’re still uninterested in animating objects changing hands, but it will happen if they continue pushing realism.)

        So I wonder how much of their desire to make things “realistic” was actually spawned by the abrupt coolness of dark, gritty, “reality is brown”-aesthetic games around that time. It wasn’t necessarily their aim beforehand, nor are some of the surreal worlds they attempt to create now.

        Or maybe not. Who knows.

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  2. Great read. I’ve played on a Saturn exactly twice – a bad version of a football game – and the console’s owner (the Rich Kid on my street growing up) absolutely blasted me when I said I preferred playing on my SNES. It was surreal how offended he was.

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