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.)
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.