So far in this series of ‘what if‘ articles, we have looked at four system, that while interesting and unique in their own rights never really had a serious chance at taking the gaming world by storm. But the next system on this list was billed as no pretender to the throne. A powerful, 32-bit console that would capitalize on the success of its predecessor and defeat both its now bitter rival and an upstart newcomer. The Sega Saturn was to be the king. One of the most anticipated video game consoles of all time with nearly unimaginable levels of promise. But, it was never meant to be and the Saturn is now remembered as one of the key reasons behind Sega’s fall from grace. But what if it hadn’t played out that way. What if the Saturn was the hit it was always meant to be?
Before diving into speculation, let’s have a quick rundown of what befell the Sega Saturn. Despite the success of the Genesis, Sega was far from a unified front in the early 1990’s. The American branch, which was largely responsible for the system’s success was intent on supporting the Genesis further while Sega’s Japanese branch (and HQ) was more focused on the future as the Genesis (or Mega Drive) had not been the success in its homeland they had hoped it would be. This led to a serious lack of focus and even internal strife at Sega and resulted in a constant stream of add-ons and peripherals for the Genesis like the Sega-CD and 32X that did nothing but confused consumers. However, unknown to the Sega USA employees, their parent company was hard at work prepping the next generation of Sega hardware.
The Saturn promised many things. For one, it would completely ditch the 16-bit base needed to power the Sega-CD and 32X and be a full-fledged 5th generation console, designed to compete with Sony’s upcoming PlayStation and Nintendo’s then mysterious ‘Project Reality’. The initial public demand was high as the PlayStation was still an unproven brand and Nintendo’s new console was still a long way’s off, so the prospect of a ready-to-go 32-bit console from a trusted brand was exciting. However, all that good will was nearly completely destroyed at the very first E3 expo in 1995 when Sega announced that the Sega Saturn would release months earlier than planned and was ‘out now!’. This caused a rush to stores to find the system (many stores didn’t have it or weren’t informed of the surprise launch) and a glut of games (only two games were complete by the time the Saturn launched and no others would release for months). This couples with Sony undercutting the Saturn’s price by $100 seemingly doomed the console from day one and it was never able to recover, selling an estimated 8.82 million consoles compared to Nintendo’s 32.93 and Sony’s 104.25 million units.
So what would a Saturn dominant world look like? Well the simplest idea that comes to mind is that it would have essentially replaced the PlayStation as the console of choice for third-party developers. CD’s had quickly eclipsed cartridges as the way to go, owing to their vastly reduced costs when compared to a typical game cartridge. If lets say the PlayStation project had been canned (which it almost was) its likely many more budget conscious companies would have supported the Saturn over the Nintendo 64. Square and Konami have even gone on record saying that some of their biggest games of the era (Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid) were just financially unreasonable to bring over to that system, meaning they would have hit the Saturn and helped that system build its own following.
Of course though, you can’t have a successful Sega console without a strong lineup of first party games to go along with it. And while the real life Saturn absolutely dropped the ball in this regard (though Panzer Dragoon Saga is pretty great) the system suffered greatly from not having any recognizable Sega mascots gracing its 32-bits. Games like Ecco the Dolphin, Ristar, Vectorman and Comix Zone sequels would be a must but the most important thing would be getting a full-fledged, 3D Sonic game onto the system to compete with Nintendo’s Super Mario 64 and later Rare’s 3D platformers. Sonic Xtreme may not have made it out of development but its absence was felt sharply on the Saturn, so having a Sonic game (or two) would have helped the system immensely and might even have allowed Sega to iron out some the kinks in 3D Sonic’s gameplay sooner rather than later.
But the most important aspect of a world in which the Saturn would have been a success is that it likely would have solidified Sega’s position and not left them in such a vulnerable spot when they released their ‘hail Mary’ Dreamcast system in 1999. The failed launch of the Saturn and its subsequent failure in the market is well documented as one of the main reasons why Sega became a third-party developer and publisher in the early 2000’s, so if that system had been a hit it stands to reason we would have gotten more Sega consoles down the road.
That being said, that might not necessarily be a good thing. The Dreamcast (while a commercial failure itself) was beloved by fans for its innovations and unique ideas and many gamers consider the early 2000’s to be Sega’s best days as a creator of unique and original content. So maybe, if the Saturn had been a hit we never would have gotten some of our more recent favorites from Sega, especially when it comes to more experimental games like Crazy Taxi, Shenmue and Jet Set Radio.
The Sega Saturn is not a particularly fondly remembered console. It didn’t have the memorable titles as the Genesis nor the unique sensibilities of the Dreamcast and most gamers (especially Sega fans) remember it as the system that practically signed their favorite game company’s death warrant. That being said, its hard to find a more interesting story out there than the one of the Saturn. A console that people wanted until Sega completely bungled the launch and failed to support it adequately. We may never know what the world would have been like had the Sega Saturn been a hit but throughout this whole series, its likely that this would have been the biggest change to the industry overall.