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Face-Off: Did the Saturn’s surprise launch doom it in the US?

[Editor’s note: In the Face-Off, the gloves come off, and we battle it out over controversial or long-debated SEGA topics. A word of caution, things may get testy, and some feelings will probably be hurt along the way. Once it’s done, voice your opinion in the comments and tell us who you think won the debate!]

Round 1: FIGHT

official-sega-saturn-magazine-001-003The Requiem:  Twenty years ago this month at the very first E3, SEGA announced the surprise, immediate release of the Saturn console in the United States, four months prior to its originally scheduled launch date. This shocking attempt on SEGA’s part to gain traction before the September release of Sony PlayStation was the first sad chapter in the Saturn’s troubled history in the United States. In hindsight, this decision was clearly a colossal misstep, one from which SEGA, in many respects, would never recover. But did this decision alone doom the Saturn console before it even had a chance?

Hell yes, it did! The surprise early launch was directly responsible for hardware shortages, botched marketing, a software drought that summer, and most importantly, the alienation of both important retail partners and third party developers.

It’s very endearing to think that nothing is ever truly broken beyond repair and that SEGA could still have found some way to make the Saturn a success in the US. I’m also sure that some will say that SEGA’s legacy of add-ons for the Genesis like the SEGA CD and the 32X confused and diluted their own fan base, possibly dooming the Saturn even before the launch. Those people are all misguided, delusional, and wrong.

All you have to do is look at Japan to prove my point. Despite SEGA’s Genesis system outselling the Super Nintendo in the Americas, both the Mega Drive and the Master System were absolutely trounced by their Nintendo counterparts in Japan. SEGA had almost no dedicated fan base in Japan on which to build success for the Saturn, yet the Saturn was their most successful system in Japan up to that point, and it was far more successful there than it was in the US. What was the unique, experimental variable? The horribly botched US launch.

That’s not to say that if SEGA had held to its original September 2 launch date that the Saturn would have ruled the so-called “5th Generation” of consoles in the US, but with a bigger launch lineup, a more focused marketing campaign and especially its retailer and third-party relationships intact, SEGA certainly would have had a much better shot at success. I’m sure my esteemed editor-in-chief is going to tell me I’m wrong, and if he does, he’s a feeble-minded imbecile… and a douche bag.

Despite what some people might think, Mario 64 sucks.
Despite what some people might think, Mario 64 sucks.


Chris: Wow, The Requiem, your first couple paragraphs actually came close to making some semblance of sense, but then it all came crashing down with talk of the SEGA 32X and some shit about the Master System in Japan.

Rather than taking the low-hanging fruit, let’s try to focus on the part that did make sense. So you seem to think just because SEGA decided to release the Saturn a few months early, that was a bad thing? Bah, I say it was more like an early Christmas! If you think the launch was so bad, then why did the Saturn have such a solid launch line-up?

I played Pilotwings 64 at launch. It sucked.
I played Pilotwings 64 at launch. It sucked.

For comparison’s sake, let’s put the Saturn’s launch line-up against one of its biggest rivals that generation – the Nintendo 64. When the N64 launched on Sept. 29, 1996, it came with an abysmal two games – Pilotwings 64 and Mario 64. For some reason, people seem to think Mario 64 was a good game. Well, they’re as wrong now as they were then, and Pilotwings 64 was a piece of crap too.

On the other hand, the Saturn’s launch on May 11, 1995, included Bug!, Clockwork Knight, Daytona USA, NHL All-Star Hockey, Panzer Dragoon, Virtua Fighter and Worldwide Soccer. It’s pretty clear which system had the better, more-well rounded library of games. It’s not SEGA’s fault that Toys “R” Us, KB Toys and K-Mart had too much stock of unsold, overpriced boxes of Panasonic 3DOs taking up space and not enough for the Saturn.

In retrospect, it’s easy to point the blame at SEGA for surprising its retail partners and third-party developers, but hey, the video game business is dog eat dog, and if you can’t handle an audible and getting shit done early, you probably won’t stay in business very long, just ask KB Toys.

Round 2

Ice Cube loved his SEGA Saturn.
Ice Cube loved his SEGA Saturn.

The Requiem:  F-ck, Chris. I mean, Jesus f-cking Christ. Most retailers didn’t sell the Saturn because SEGA chose to not send them any consoles for the early launch. There simply wasn’t enough stock to go around, and some trusted retail partners felt betrayed by SEGA’s decision. I guess all of those retailers managed to move their 3DO stock by the time the PlayStation came out? God, you’re such an intolerable f-cktard.

I noticed you didn’t touch the third-party issue. Way to turn a blind-eye, you brainless dolt. See that Saturn launch lineup? No third-party games! Many of SEGA’s third-party developers would have loved to have some games ready for the launch of the Saturn, as launch is a great time to move product. But the console came out four months ahead of schedule, and no third-party was kept in the loop. “Surprise, bitches!”

If you want to bash the N64, go ahead. I agree with you that the Saturn had a better launch lineup. However, the N64 suffered in the 5th Generation much like the Saturn did. It was more successful in the US than the Saturn, sure, but it was actually a very short-lived system. The N64 barely limped along after its first two or three years, kept afloat mostly by Nintendo’s continuously strong Game Boy sales (fueled by Pokemania). So yeah, bad comparison there, dickless.

Chris: You say the Saturn’s launch only featured first-party titles, eh? Well, what was Bug!? Sure, it was published by SEGA, but it was developed by those sexy dudes at Realtime Associates, which were not owned by SEGA. You should have known that since, ya know, we actually interviewed them on the site awhile back. Did you also know they had signed on to develop a Sonic game for the Saturn’s launch, but SEGA of Japan cancelled it because they were *cough* developing their own.

Despite SEGA publishing Bug!, it was actually a third-party release by Realtime Associates.
Despite SEGA publishing Bug!, it was actually a third-party release by Realtime Associates.

Anyway, look, we’re buddies, right? Let’s not let the fact that you obviously don’t know your SEGA history get in the way of our friendship. Let’s look beyond your ignorance and focus on the real reason the Saturn failed. No, it wasn’t because the launch.

To understand what doomed the Saturn, look no further than the this generation with the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. When the Xbox One was released, it was $100 more expensive than the PS4, and Sony’s new system raced out of the gate with a quick lead that is only gaining with each passing month, and it doesn’t look like the Xbox One will ever catch it.

The original PlayStation, like the PS4, was also developer friendly, which the Saturn, with its dual processors, was notoriously not. Don’t believe me, eh? Well, maybe you’ll believe Working Designs’ Victor Ireland.

“[The Saturn] was really hard to develop for if you wanted to take advantage of its parallel processing, and the tools weren’t very friendly. We were one of only a handful of developers in the US that had a Japanese UNIX dev system because we were localizing Japanese games. People doing it from scratch were using Windows/DOS based dev kits from England. Neither was really all that friendly, and we never got the system debugger working right on the UNIX system. When you have an expensive console with tepid support from retail, it’s easier to justify going with the new guy that has a cheaper console with bigger buzz. Developers went with Sony.”

So there you have it from a developer in the trenches taking grenades. Developers chose the PlayStation simply because it was cheaper and easier to develop for, and we all know that game consoles live and die by its software library.

The Saturn sold much better in Japan than anywhere else in the world.
The Saturn sold much better in Japan than anywhere else in the world.

Round 3

The Requiem:  … Except, as I said, the Saturn was still successful in Japan, so you can’t blame the development difficulties. Something differentiated the Saturn in the US and in Japan, and it was the friggin’ launch.

Ridge Racer was one of the PlayStation's most popular launch titles.
Ridge Racer was one of the PlayStation’s most popular launch titles.

You want to bend space and time and call Bug! a third-party game even though it was published by SEGA? By your logic, Gunstar Heroes is a third-party game. How much bull-shit must I wade through to make my point? By comparision, how many third-party games were available at the PlayStation’s launch? Really-real ones? Ridge Racer, NBA Jam TE, Rayman, Total Eclipse Turbo, and Street Fighter: the Movie, each by a different third-party publisher. That’s half of the damn launch lineup.

You want to talk SEGA history? Fine. That $100 price difference? Yeah, it was announced in tandem with the early launch. Sony got the benefit of answering SEGA’s $400 price point, and they undercut them with their PlayStation. You don’t think a few more months to feel things out might have changed SEGA’s plans, especially if they discovered Sony’s PlayStation was set at the $300 mark?

You want to talk site history by throwing that Realtime Associates interview in my face, too? Go ahead. I remember a certain interview from around the time Console Wars was released, in which Tom Kalinske himself regarded the early Saturn launch as the biggest mistake SEGA ever made.

If you disagree… you must… hate… Tom Kalinske. You don’t hate Tom Kalinske, do you, Chris?

Oh, and you’re a soulless brain-leach who sucks exclusively on the lobes of idiots.

The man, the myth and the mother flippin' legend!
The man, the myth and the mother flippin’ legend!

Chris: The Requiem, you son of a bitch. You know damn well Tom Kalinske is my favorite American who’s ever lived. Who do you think I celebrate on President’s Day? It ain’t George Washington or Abe Lincoln, I’ll tell ya that. In fact, I proudly wear my “What Would Tom Kalinske Do?” braided bracelet on my wrist to this day. Anytime one of you assholes on the site comes up with some stupid idea for an article, I just look down at my wrist, see that W.W.K.D. bracelet and launch into a curse-filled tirade that only a man of Kalinske’s fortitude and American know-how could muster.

So you think the Saturn was “successful” in Japan, eh? Well, I guess if you compared it to its paltry 1.5 million sales in North America, you could say make that argument, but it only sold about 6 million units in Japan compared to the PlayStation’s 9.3 billion units (give or take a few billion). In truth, the PlayStation kicked the Saturn’s ass just as hard in Japan as it did anywhere else in the world, so “success” and “Saturn” is a very relative.

And yeah, the PlayStation had bigger third-party support at its launch compared to the Saturn, but out of those, only Ridge Racer and Total Eclipse Turbo were PlayStation exclusive. In fact, Total Eclipse was previously released on the mighty 3DO, and the Saturn got Total Eclipse Turbo’s sequel Solar Eclipse later on. Moreover, the PlayStation arguably didn’t have a system seller at launch, although Ridge Racer and Battle Arena Toshinden were both solid titles, but were certainly not better than the collective bad-assery that was Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter and Panzer Dragoon.

Virtua Cop was released around the same time as the PlayStation in North America.
Virtua Cop was released around the same time as the PlayStation in North America.

My point in all this is that the PlayStation’s software library at its launch wasn’t as strong as the offerings the Saturn had in September 1995, which, by then, had games like Virtua Cop, Virtua Racing, Shinobi Legions, SimCity 2000 and soon after SEGA Rally Championship. Why is this important? Because it proves that unlike what you claimed, the Saturn did, in fact, have plenty of games, at least initially, to compete against the PlayStation, despite its surprise launch.

It was only later when developers settled onto their preferred development platform (ie the PlayStation) that the software edge shifted into the PlayStation’s favor. The Saturn didn’t lose because of an early release; it lost because it was overpriced and lacked enough compelling third-party software due to costly development kits that required more development time than its PlayStation counterpart.

Alright, SEGA Nerds, here’s where you come in. Do you think The Requiem is right and the Saturn’s early launch was the main reason for its demise, or do you agree with Chris that a higher price and lack of continued third-party support was why it failed to compete with the PlayStation? Let us know in the comments below. The loser has to eat a bag of poo!

The Requiem

Having grown up with a SEGA Master System, The Requiem has been a lifelong SEGA fan. Favorite SEGA games include: Gunstar Heroes, Shinobi III, the House of the Dead: Overkill, Jet Set Radio, & Alex Kidd in Miracle World. Other game favorites include: Super Metroid (SNES), Tempest 2000 (Atari Jaguar), Mortal Kombat (Arcade) and Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery (iOS). The Requiem exists digitally as @UnboundRequiem on Twitter.

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