Magic Carpet (Sega Saturn)

Magic Carpet for Sega Saturn

Magic Carpet (1996, Bullfrog and Krisalis Software for Sega Saturn)

When I was a child, our family would receive stacks of computer floppy discs from the local Atari 8-bit users group containing new games that came without any instructions whatsoever. We had to learn how to play the games entirely on our own, often by just pressing buttons on the keyboard to see what would happen. This made for a serious challenge, and some games remained completely inscrutable to me (Quest For the Space Beagle and Alternate Reality are two excellent examples). Whenever we learned and mastered any computer games, there was a great sense of satisfaction at our patience and perseverance.

Bullfrog’s Magic Carpet reminds me very much of these experiences. I will not lie to you, this is not an easy game to learn. You cannot just pick up a controller and start mashing buttons and expect to get anywhere. There is a very steep learning curve and this world will not help you or provide any easy clues. Of course, you could just sit down and read the instruction manual, but who in the history of videogames has ever done that? Nobody, that’s who. A number of reviewers on websites and YouTube channels have walked away in complete frustration and confusion. Sorry, Timmy, you’re not at the video arcades this time. You can’t bluff your way through this.

Magic Carpet may seem overwhelming at first, but it is actually one of the best videogames of its era, a brilliant fusion of shoot-em-up and real-time strategy, Doom-Meets-Populous in an Arabian settting. It requires patience and practice to understand its play mechanics and control system, but once you have mastered the first couple stages, you’ll be running at full steam and ready for the real action that lies ahead.

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Burning Rangers (Sega Saturn)

Burning Rangers for Sega Saturn

Burning Rangers (1998, Sonic Team for Sega Saturn)

Burning Rangers is one of those great farewells that appears in a videogame system’s final days, one that celebrates its history and pushes its hardware to the absolute limit before developers move forward to new horizons. It is a masterful triumph that makes you thankful for the Sega Saturn, proud of its achievements, wistful and forgiving of its many struggles, sorry to witness an ignoble end, yet thankful to have experienced the journey. Here is Saturn’s Abbey Road farewell, where you take one last walk across the street barefoot, and sing to yourself, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

It is often said that this videogame really should have been released on Sega Dreamcast, which is not a knock on Saturn as much as an awareness of the directions Sonic Team would take in the following years and Sega’s optimistic, futuristic software hits to come. Burning Rangers carries the spirit of anticipation in its bones, a preview of exciting things to come, including Sonic Adventure and Phantasy Star Online, as well as providing an exciting experience in tself. Its tone is cheerful, upbeat and highly ambitious, like students at the cusp of their high school graduation.

I am also reminded how Sega just couldn’t catch a break in the 32-bit era, especially in the West. Saturn was written off before it was even released, and its first wave of software titles included the notoriously glitchy Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA, which doomed the system with a toxic reputation for poor 3D graphics that could never be shaken. Of course, Sega did themselves no favors by designing such a complicated machine, partly due to being flatfooted by Sony’s Playstation, partly due to their internal quirks for such things as dual-CPUs, specialized hardware chips and a graphics processor that rendered 3D quadrilateral polygons through a 2D sprite engine. But in the hands of skilled Assembly programmers, Saturn could truly sing and on rare occasions even surprise its critics.

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Impact Racing (Sega Saturn)

Impact Racing for Sega Saturn

Impact Racing (1996, Funcom for Sega Saturn)

Impact Racing is everything that I love about arcade videogames: color, flash, speed, dumb violence and lots of explosions. It’s pure digital sugar rush, like Jolt Cola and Pop Rocks shaken and stirred. It’s brash and loud and oh so very satisfying. This is the sort of thing that makes me miss Acclaim, who were videogames’ answer to trashy b-movies and were giants in the 1990s gaming scene. The business hasn’t been the same without them.

This game puts you behind the wheel of a series of classic muscle cars and then sets to race on a series of arcade courses against an endless army of rival cars and gangs, all of whom are gunning for you. Your cars are also armed with weapons, beginning with a machine gun and soon followed by a series of impressive weapons, including lasers, landmines, rockets, fire walls, and smart bombs. The setting is the standard dystopian future envisioned by 1980s science fiction and feels very much like a mashup of Mad Max and Steve Jackson’s Car Wars with maybe a little San Francisco Rush and Cruis’n USA just for kicks. This feels like something that Atari Games or Midway would have cooked up for the arcades.

Of course, the two arcade videogames that serve as the main inspirations are Midway’s Spy Hunter and Atari’s Roadblasters, two of the greatest car combat games ever made, with emphasis on the “combat” half of the equation. Your primary goal is simply to survive to the finish line before time runs out. The catch is that you will never have enough time to reach that finish unless you destroy rival cars, which may result in a time bonus power-up. By the third stage, the time limits become shorter and shorter, requiring you to destroy more cars just to survive.

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Shutokou Battle 97 Drift King (Sega Saturn)

Shutokou Battle 97 Drift King for Sega Saturn

Shutokou Battle 97 Drift King (1997, Genki for Sega Saturn)

Sega Saturn had a pretty rough time with racing videogames. Its best titles all appeared in the system’s first year, with Daytona USA, Virtua Racing, Wipeout and Sega Rally Championship. After that, quality titles became increasingly rare, and this became extremely frustrating to me during the Saturn era. I enjoyed The Need For Speed and Impact Racing and High Velocity, but felt very frustrated with Daytona USA Championship Circuit Edition, Manx TT and Touring Car Championship, all of which stumbled for varying reasons. What happened to the good driving games?

I really could have used Shutokou Battle 97 in my Saturn library. Here is a racing videogame with meat on its bones, one that I could devote a lot of time playing and mastering. This game puts you behind the wheel of a series of street cars as you race against rival drivers across the Tokyo highway system. You only battle one-on-one, but you are also driving through heavy traffic and must navigate around cars and trucks as you race through the roads, bridges and tunnels while trying to overtake your rival.

At the end of the race, you will receive money that can be spent on extensive upgrades to your car, which will dramatically improve its performance. As is typical for this sub-genre, your stock vehicles are a little stiff and sluggish when you first drive them, so the upgrades to the engine, tires and suspension will make a great difference, and you feel inspired to continue racing so that you can continue improving your car. Eventually, when certain conditions are met, you will be awarded more cars beyond the initial three. There are at least eight vehicles in the game and possibly more, ranging from sports cars to a VW Bug.

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Powerslave (Sega Saturn)

Powerslave for Sega Saturn

Powerslave (1996, Lobotomy Software for Sega Saturn)

Powerslave is a towering masterpiece, a thrilling spectacle of action, adventure and atmosphere that grabs you by the throat and never lets go. It is a visual showcase for the Sega Saturn’s 3D polygon powers, just as these new immersive worlds were beginning to overwhelm the gaming world, led by Super Mario 64, Tomb Raider and Quake. It is endlessly challenging in its quest, loaded with monsters to battle, worlds to explore and secrets to unlock. It includes a bonus mini-game that became a cult favorite in its own right. And it beat a certain beloved Nintendo franchise title to the punch by eight years.

That it was all but ignored in the West and especially the United States is nothing less than criminal. Most of the major gaming magzines ignored it entirely. Gamespot’s Jeff Gerstmann wrote an infamous review that dismissed Powerslave as “Doom with a plot (sort of), a few camels, and the proverbial mother lode of jumping spiders. Yawn.” Only Richard Ledbetter, editor of UK’s Sega Saturn Magazine, championed this title at every opportunity, for which Lobotomy Software, the developers, were eternally grateful.

Powerslave (known as Exhumed in the UK and Seireki 1999: Pharaoh no Fukkatsu in Japan) puts you in the shoes of a mercenary who is dropped into the heart of Egypt, where you discover the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses. His ghost appears and instructs you to seek out his exhumed body and a number of holy relics which were stolen by a hostile alien force, then sets you on your quest to the neighboring villages, ruins and catacombs. You are first armed with a sword but quickly find a pistol, and during your journeys will discover a machine gun, bombs, flamethrowers and other power-ups. These weapons become part of your permanent arsenal, meaning that if you perish, you will respawn with the same weapons intact. This is a welcome change of pace from similar first-person shooters of its era.

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Myst (Sega Saturn)

Myst (1995, Cyan and Sunsoft for Sega Saturn)

If memory serves, I received a copy of Myst for a freelance writing assignment for a videogame magazine that only lasted a couple issues. I was curious about this computer game, which had become a mainstream sensation on the Macintosh but was met with open skepticism by the console gaming crowd. This wouldn’t have been my first choice for a Sega Saturn game to play, but since the software library in 1995 was so painfully thin, I picked up a notebook and pencil and slowly began to make myself through this fascinating and strange world.

Myst was, and remains, a very interesting experience. You navigate through a series of pre-rendered environments by clicking a mouse icon, moving forward or changing direction, opening doors or pressing buttons. It’s a bit like walking through a series of surrealist postcards that either slide or dissolve away. The worlds are almost entirely unpopulated, aside from the occasional bird in the sky or moving mechanism, and one has the sense of visiting a world that was lived in but suddenly abandoned. Something has happened to the people who once lived here. But what?

Your first puzzle challenge is a simple one, to count the number of switch stations on Myst Island and then enter them into a machine located in an underground chamber nearby the docks. A video recording of a man appears who looks and sounds very much like Orson Welles, speaking to his wife about sabotage of books in his library. He suspects one of his sons of the deed, and warns his wife to find the other books in “places of protection,” then leaves.

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Digital Pinball: Necronomicon (Sega Saturn)

Digital Pinball: Necronomicon for Sega Saturn

Digital Pinball: Necronomicon (1997, KAZe for Sega Saturn)

If you’re a fan of pinball machines, Sega Saturn has you covered with no less than seven pinball games in its software library. Two of the best come from Japanese developer KAZe, who released the excellent Digital Pinball: Last Gladiators in 1995, which was followed two years later with a second installment titled Necronomicon that unfortunately never left Japan, most likely due to the Saturn’s fading fortunes in the West. Today, the title has become a cult favorite among Saturn and pinball fans alike, and import prices have remained reasonable.

Digital Pinball: Necronomicon is a collection of several pinball machines with a common gothic heavy metal theme. All the boards are original designs but created to mimic real-life pinball as much as possible. You will find the usual assortment of flippers, bumpers and ramps, along with multiple pathways and targets. The designs are based on the 1990s pinball revival, in which designers took inspiration from videogames by incorporating multiple objectives and a final goal to “defeat” the machine. They even included a small video display to highlight important scoring events and add to the immersive experiences. Each of these elements are perfectly recreated by KAZe’s software team.

Pinball physics has always been a major challenge for video and computer games, and most attempts have struggled to capture the nuances of weight and momentum, the pull of gravity, the feel of the pinball and how it interacts with its environment. KAZe succeeds superbly, and they may have mastered these elements better than, well, anyone. The balls in Digital Pinball have a real sense of weight and motion, and I hadn’t realized until now just how floaty most video pinball games have been. It’s just one of those things you learned to make your peace and accept, in hopes that programmers would one day figure it all out. Well, these coders have definitely cracked the mystery, and kudos to them for it.

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Rampage World Tour (Sega Saturn)

Rampage World Tour for Sega Saturn

Rampage World Tour (1997, Midway for Sega Saturn)

Rampage is one of those genius ideas for a videogame that everybody loves. You play as a classic movie monster who invades crowded cities and stomps everything flat. You punch holes in buildings, break windows, munch down on terrified locals, and smash everything in sight. There is no goal or purpose other than wanton mass destruction. It’s a great sugar rush, less satisfying in longer doses but perfect in short doses. This is the sort of arcade game you would play while waiting for the movie to start or the bus to arrive. It’s a terrific way to kill ten minutes.

Released in 1986, Rampage became a big hit in arcades and found its way to nearly every major home video and computer system of its day. A decade later, Midway returned with a sequel that upped the ante with new gameplay features and cities to destroy, and a new visual design that was inspired by clay animation. Rampage World Tour was another hit in arcades and found its way home to Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64. This time, however, the reception was far colder and more hostile. In the age of 3D polygons, simple 2D arcade videogames were cast aside as yesterday’s fad, and magazine critics were harsh and unforgiving. They wouldn’t give George, Lizzie and Ralph the time of day.

This sort of Puritanical hostility must seem shocking today, as 2D videogames have returned to the stage, sharing space equally with 3D polygon adventures. Rampage World Tour would be hailed as a retro triumph today by the same critics who denounced it two decades ago. But such are the fickle winds of fashion and hype. It’s their loss.

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Sega Ages Vol. 1 (Sega Saturn)

Sega Ages Vol. 1 for Sega Saturn

Sega Ages Vol. 1 (1997, Sega and Working Designs)

In Japan, Sega released a series of retrospective discs for Saturn called Sega Ages, featuring many of their most beloved classic arcade and console videogames. In 1997, a compilation of three titles was assembled and released in the West under the title Sega Ages Vol. 1. Unfortunately, as these things happen, time ran out on the Sega Saturn before future volumes could be released, including Phantasy Star, Fantasy Zone, Power Drift and Galaxy Force. Thankfully, what we were given is the absolute cream of the crop.

Sega Ages includes perfect arcade translations of Space Harrier, Outrun and Afterburner, three arcade blockbusters created by Sega’s AM2, led by the legendary Yu Suzuki. This is where Suzuki-san built his reputation as a programmer and videogame designer, and he demonstrates his mastery of speed, motion and excitement. Arcade games were always seen as the descendants of carnivals and amusement parks, and Sukuki created three masterful thrill rides, digital roller coasters that blaze by in flashes of color and light, all set to rocking guitar riffs and endlessly catchy pop melodies. This is pure Sega at its finest.

Space Harrier is a shoot-em-up where you control a futuristic astronaut who carries an enormous laser cannon and flies through a series of highly surreal and hallucinogenic worlds that are one part Lewis Carrol, one part Peter Max and three parts LSD. You find yourself battling strange aliens, starships, giant stone heads and strange flying creatures across an endless array of checkerboard stages populated by boulders, trees, bushes and stone columns. Everything blazes by at such a clip that one barely has time to catch one’s breath, much less take in the scenery. And being this is a 1980s arcade videogame, the challenge is high and relentless. Your first few plays will probably last less than a minute. Practice and you will do much better and you’ll be owning the high score table before too long.

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Sonic R (1997, Traveller’s Tales for Sega Saturn)

Sonic R for Sega Saturn

Sonic R (1997, Traveller’s Tales for Sega Saturn)

Sonic R is without question the most divisive software title in the Sega Saturn library, one that is either loved or hated. Both camps have long since entrenched their positions over the years, and it is all but impossible that the debate will ever be settled. In the end, one simply learns to make peace with the stalemate and enjoy the ride as best you can.

Sega Saturn was notorious for lacking a proper Sonic the Hedgehog title, which was due to the combination of overly complicated hardware designs and bad timing, as the era of 2D videogames gave way to expansive 3D worlds. As we have discovered in the years since the Fifth Generation, it is far more difficult to successfully translate the traditional Sonic experience in 3D, certainly when compared to Nintendo’s iconic Mario. The proper balance has never been achieved, although many of us will argue that NiGHTS: Into Dreams achieved that perfect balance. But that title proved too quirky and surreal to achieve blockbuster success.

The unfortunate truth is that Sonic the Hedgehog is a creature of the 16-bit era, with four groundbreaking masterpieces — Sonic the Hedgehog (1991), Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992), Sonic CD (1993), Sonic 3 & Knuckles (1994) — that were followed by a very long and very uneven series of sequels, reinventions and spinoffs. The experience is all about speed and precision of control and exploiting the restrictions of the 2D realm. It just doesn’t work in 3D, not without significantly changing the formula, but Sega could never find a successful second act for its blue mascot.

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V.R. Virtua Racing (Sega Saturn)

V.R. Virtua Racing for Sega Saturn

V.R. Virtua Racing (1995, Time Warner Interactive for Sega Saturn)

I had a lot of fun playing Virtua Racing on Sega Saturn. I was a big fan of the arcade version, and while the home translations on Genesis and 32X had their quirks, they never quite captured the whole experience for me. This third attempt is much better, and I spent many chilly afternoons in the snowy winter of 1995. I wasn’t sure how well the experience would hold up when I played again for this review, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was still hooked. If I only had more time to kill, I’d definitely be on the couch, working my way through another marathon race or two.

V.R. Virtua Racing on Saturn wasn’t programmed by Sega, but instead handed to Time Warner Interactive, otherwise known as Atari Games/Tengen. These folks were some of the greatest American videogame designers of their era, with an endless supply of classic hits on arcade and home systems. For this home version, they wisely expand the arcade experience with a new career mode that offers a total of ten courses and five vehicle classes. You begin the lowest circuit, and after accumulating enough racing points, you can graduate to the next class, where the vehicles are faster and the drivers more aggressive. You begin with kart racers, which is surprisingly fun, then move up to stock cars, 1960s race cars, prototype cars and then the Formula-1 cars from the arcade.

You are free to choose any of the ten racetracks in career mode, and each race lasts ten laps. This feels almost torturous when you’re starting out with the karts, especially when you have already pulled ahead of the pack before the end of the first lap. It’s a bit monotonous here, but I promise that the action seriously picks up speed when you graduate to the stock cars. From that point forward, you’ll need those ten laps to catch up with the lead drivers. Heck, you’re going to struggle just to maintain a respectable position in fifth or sixth place. The rival cars are relentless and you’re going to have your hands full keeping them off your back bumper.

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Daytona USA: Circuit Edition (Sega Saturn)

Daytona USA Circuit Edition for Sega Saturn

Daytona USA: Circuit Edition (1997, Sega AM3 for Sega Saturn)

God Bless Sega. You can always count on them to screw it up in the clutch. It’s a miracle they were ever successful in the first place.

Daytona USA on Sega Saturn is a spectacular arcade racing videogame that received no end of grief for its rough visuals, particularly the polygon “pop-up,” low 20 frames-per-second performance (a low frame rate that was supposedly acceptable on Playstation and Nintendo 64, but that’s neither here nor there) and lack of multiplayer modes. In 1997, Sega decided to silence the critics with a “revised and improved” Daytona, and in the process found themselves moving forward and backward at the same time and ending up right smack where they began.

First the good news. Daytona USA: Circuit Edition was programmed by the AM3 studio entirely from scratch, utilizing the graphics engine created for Sega Rally Championship. The visuals are a significant improvement over AM2’s original translation, with a solid 30 frames-per-second performance and notable reduction in polygon “pop-up” that equals anything on the scene at that time. The visuals appear more refined and delicate, as though the artists were using a finer tip brush. The cars were redrawn to more closely resemble NASCAR stock cars. New additions included a new soundtrack, two new courses, multiplayer matches for split-screen, parallel “link up” and even online play, and support for Sega’s analog 3D controller.

If you were one of those poor suckers who complained endlessly about Daytona USA’s rough visuals, this new edition will make you smile. It retains much of the look and style of the arcade and ably demonstrates the Saturn’s hardware powers. It can run with any racing title on Sony Playstation or Nintendo 64 at the time, at least until Ridge Racer 4 dropped and Sony seriously began to pull away for good. The two-player modes are terrific and very welcome, especially if you’re lucky enough to play in link-up or online modes.

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Daytona USA (Sega Saturn)

Daytona USA for Sega Saturn

Daytona USA (1995, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

For detractors, Saturn Daytona was symbolic of everything that had gone wrong with Sega: the hubris, the arrogance, the lack of vision, the overconfidence. Compared to the Sony Playstation, which in 1995 could seemingly do no wrong, Daytona was a shambolic shambling of a mess, like a prize fighter who arrived at the title match half-asleep and stumbling drunk.

Let us clear the air all the complaints. This version of Daytona ran at 20 frames-per-second, one third the performance of the arcade. The graphics were rendered in a modest resolution, with thick lines, chunky vehicles and smudgy colors. No multiplayer option was available, only single player. And worst of all, the draw distance was surprisingly short, causing entire chunks of the environment to “pop up” during a race. Alongside Virtua Fighter’s glitchy polygon graphics, here was convincing proof that Saturn was a wreck of a machine, nowhere near the sleek and polished performance of Playstation.

This game quickly became Sega’s whipping boy among detractors in the press and the industry. Meanwhile, Namco’s Ridge Racer on Playstation ran smooth, fast, quick on its feet, nearly identical to the arcade. It was a showpiece for Playstation’s 3D graphics and demonstrated the future of video games. In the arena of public opinion, there was no competition which game was better.

I’ve been hearing that schpiel since 1995. And to that, I say: you’re outta yer damned minds.

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Worldwide Soccer: International Victory Goal (Sega Saturn)

Worldwide Soccer: International Victory Goal for Sega Saturn

Worldwide Soccer: International Victory Goal (1995, Sega for Sega Saturn)

Worldwide Soccer was a launch title for Sega Saturn in the Summer of 1995, and it very quickly became one of my favorites. I enjoyed it nearly as much as Panzer Dragoon, which is really saying something. Here was a true showcase for the new system’s powers, with bright, colorful graphics, smooth polygon and pre-rendered graphics, fast arcade action, and some classic 1980s guitar rock that sounded like it was escaped from the last Van Halen tour.

For reasons I’ve never understood, this game was almost completely ignored by the videogame magazines of the day (Next Generation gave it a paltry three out of five stars). They wouldn’t give it the time of day. Much of that, I think, was due to the fact that most prozines hated having to deal with sports videogames, and reviews were usually dumped onto lowly freelancers or shoved away into the corner somewhere.

Saturn had already established a poor reputation, and yet here was a game that clearly refuted that, and pointed to a more promising future. Why wasn’t Worldwide Soccer held up with pride? Why wasn’t it hailed as a triumph? Even the fans seemed to fall silent, and the game faded quickly into obscurity.

That’s really too bad, because this is an excellent arcade sports title that plays a very lean and mean game of soccer. You are given multiple tournament and season modes, including a penalty shootout mode that always worked at parties (it worked very well as a drinking game). There are a dozen worldwide teams that seem to play more or less the same, a number of play formations, the ability to substitute players, and a choice of multiple camera angles, including rotation and height. All of the action takes place at a single stadium, and the weather can either be sunny or cloudy. And, of course, you have your choice in classic “Sega Rock” tracks that are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

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Virtua Fighter Remix (Sega Saturn)

Virtua Fighter Remix for Sega Saturn

Virtua Fighter Remix (1995, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

Like many Western gamers, I discovered Virtua Fighter in the arcades but struggled to understand its mechanics, which were far closer to true martial arts than the antics of Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat. When I bought a Sega Saturn in the summer of 1995, I sat down and tried to teach myself the game, which was always intriguing but slightly puzzling, out of reach. It took a fair amount of time to fully comprehend its depths, but once it finally clicked for me, I was hooked for life.

Virtua Fighter plays out like a very fast and precise contest of rock-paper-scissors. Two combatants face off in an arena and battle with an arsenal of punches, kicks, throws and blocks. Blocking beats attacking. Attacking beats throwing. Throwing beats blocking. Fireballs and over-the-top cartoon maneuvers were out. Fatalities were out. What remained was the pure essence of the sport, like a finely cut steak. Here, offense and defense are fairly balanced. Timing and patience are essential assets. Simply mashing buttons — the way most kids played fighting videogames — would get you killed. Precision and strategy would yield victories.

Gamers who grew up on the arcade games of the 1980s would recognize this gameplay, for it was the direct descendant of Karate Champ, which was created by Technos and published by Data East. I was personally more familiar with Archer Maclean’s World Karate Championship on Atari 800, published by Epyx and featured a single-joystick control scheme that was surprisingly deep and intuitive. These titles were pure martial arts, focusing on bone-crunching punches and kicks, requiring strategy and good timing to win. Again, just wriggling the joystick or bashing buttons as fast as possible would never work. You’d just become a sitting duck.

Because of this, I suspect, Sega’s Virtua Fighter series has remained more of a cult hit than its peers, and certainly compared to Japan where it became a blockbuster hit and almost single-handedly made Saturn a success in 1994 and 1995. Its sequels would become ever more complex, adding more layers to its strategic core, things like throw escapes, staggers, stumbles, sideways dodging and elevated floors. Most players, and this certainly includes the videogame magazines, could never get passed the “mashing” phase, and dismissed the series as little more than “punch-punch-punch-kick.” In the hands of rookie players, yes, that is true. But for those who study the characters’ moves and understood the timing of attacks and block recoveries, it’s not “PPPK.” It’s “punch, then high- or mid-level kick, then dodge their counter-kick if they block and respond with a foot sweep.”

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Pebble Beach Golf Links (Sega Saturn)

Pebble Beach Golf Links for Sega Saturn

Pebble Beach Golf Links (1995, T&E Soft for Sega Saturn)

I think Pebble Beach Golf Links was the very first Sega Saturn game that I saw in action, at the Richfield, Minnesota Funcoland store where I had frequently visited and even worked for a short spell (to this day, I cannot remember if I’m still technically employed there, and have dreams where I suddenly remember I have to finish my 20-year lunch break and get back to work). I was not impressed. Fortunately, after I had bought my Saturn and started collecting games, I picked up this game and was quickly won over. Within a few weeks, this became a very popular videogame at the house where I lived, sharing space with several other college students, many partygoers and a blender that was constantly grinding out pina coladas. I loved that house. Those were great memories.

What do I love most about this game? I think it has to be the music. The synth-based chiptunes are very catchy, bouncy and relaxing. The songs are very similar to music you’d hear on the Super NES in games like SimCity and Final Fantasy and Donkey Kong Country, but with the digital clarity and dynamics of Compact Disc. The Saturn’s sound processors are given a major workout and it’s all such a wonderful bliss-out. Mind you, I was always playing while downing those pina coladas by the pitcher, and always with twice the rum as the recipe requires. It all contributes to the wonder color of summer and autumn 1995, which were very warm and sunny. The music brings me back to those days of being 22 years old and free as a bird.

Pebble Beach Golf Links offers only one 18-hole course, which was still the standard in those days, but it’s one of the greatest golf courses ever created. Gameplay options include stroke, skins and match play, practice, and watch mode. The main options are the Pebble Beach Open, which is spread across four days, and Tournament, which skips the qualifying rounds and gets straight to the action. Up to four players can compete, although for some reason the tournaments only allow three players. You can also create your own custom golfer and save your stats, which becomes very useful over time. Crowds will cheer as you break a personal record, such as longest drive or longest putt, and your handicap will automatically adapt to your performance.

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Mass Destruction (1997, Sega Saturn)

Mass Destruction for Sega Saturn

Mass Destruction (1997, NMS Software for Sega Saturn)

Mass Destruction is perfectly named: a pure sugar rush of Pepsi and Pop Rocks, a dizzying assault of thrills and massive explosions. It is a pure arcade videogame from an era when kids suddenly wanted nothing to do with arcade games. Whatever. It’s their loss.

The premise to this game is remarkably simple: you command an arsenal of three armored tanks in a series of military campaigns. You drive around in a calculated frenzy and shoot everything that moves. Then you back up and blow up everything that doesn’t. You run over foot soldiers lobbing mortars at you. You outmaneuver and shoot down enemy tanks. You lob mortar cannons and machine guns at incoming helicopters. You fire rockets at enemy bunkers. And you throw fire on every structure in sight, smashing everything into rubble. It’s all such glorious fun. It’s like being a child again, playing in the front yard with toy soldiers and tanks.

Experienced gamers will be reminded of Electronic Arts’ Strike series, which began with Desert Strike on Sega Genesis and continued with Soviet Strike on Saturn and Playstation. That series was excellent through and through, but its gameplay balance tilted towards simulation and strategy. Mass Destruction leans in the opposite direction, toward arcade action and speed. Which paradigm you prefer is really a matter of taste. Personally, I prefer the arcade model. I don’t want to have to worry about managing fuel and ammunition reserves, or plotting the proper strategy for missions into enemy territory. I really just want to stomp around and break things.

Mass Destruction offers 24 missions across five campaigns, with at least ten additional secret missions that are unlocked if you explode the right buildings. Each stage takes place on an enormous overhead map, featuring valleys, cities, military bases, rivers, lakes, islands and patches of forests. You engage across winter and desert landscapes. Your goals are quite varied, from search-and-destroy missions to reconnaissance to full-scale rampages. One mission requires you to find sensitive documents that detail your army’s future plans before they fall into enemy hands. Another mission requires you to destroy a series of communications dishes and anti-tank bunkers. Each of these objectives are tightly guarded by tanks, soldiers and planes.

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Bug! (1995, Sega Saturn)

Bug! for Sega Saturn

Bug! (1995, Realtime Associates for Sega Saturn)

I bought a Sega Saturn in the summer of 1995, despite my best intentions never to do so. Like many gamers at that time, I was highly frustrated with Sega for their many bizarre and terrible hardware decisions in short succession, including Sega CD, Game Gear, CD-X, Nomad, Pico, Activator, Menacer, and worst of all, 32X. The crowning achievement, of course, was the Sega Saturn, which had been subjected to an endless stream of bad press and ugly rumors for the past year. We already knew the stories that would define the system: massively complex hardware design, a last-minute rush to pack in more processors to compete with Sony’s Playstation, grumblings from software developers, and with the “surprise” May 1995 launch, the risible sentiments of crucial retailers, none of whom were happy. The knives and the shovels were out in force as everybody was smelling blood in the water.

At first, I viewed Saturn with wary eyes. After spying some demo stations at Toys ‘R’ Us and Funcoland, I slowly began to come around. Two software titles really jumped out at me. The first was Panzer Dragoon, a supremely visualized world of Moebius-inspired dragons, monsters and machines, offered as the next evolution of Space Harrier. The cinematic opening sequence was enough to win me over. The second game, and this really surprised me, was a 3D mascot platformer called Bug. After spending a couple weeks playing both titles, I made a rash decision: I packed up my entire videogame collection, including NES, Genesis and Super NES, along with a massive box of games and accessories, took everything to Funcoland, and traded everything in for a new Sega Saturn. I received $200 in store credit, which at the time was a big deal, but today would require at least one more zero at the end. I came home with Saturn, a demo disc, Virtua Fighter, Panzer Dragoon and Bug in tow. I was very, very happy. Eventually, I picked up Pebble Beach, Worldwide Soccer and Daytona, and loved them all.

I don’t know if the appeal of those early Saturn games would appeal to players today. This is one of those times where “you just had to be there,” when this stuff was the bleeding edge, blazing new trails for the future of videogames, whose possibilities seemed infinite. Much of the experience just fades with time, and this is doubly so with Bug. When this game was brand new, it represented the first great step forward for the medium. It was daring and new and full of possibility. Then Super Mario 64 dropped like a fifty-megaton hydrogen bomb, reducing everything else to ash. Such is life. The dinosaurs say hi.

Bug wasn’t Saturn’s first attempt to bring the 2D platformers into the third dimension; that honor fell upon Clockwork Knight, which used 3D polygons with 2D gameplay. But its visuals were just a glorified con job, as the entire game moved strictly left-to-right. It didn’t even try any new ideas where it counted, and after the initial thrill wore off, you felt cheated. Sony Playstation launch games like Jumping Flash were far more dazzling and innovative, reinforcing the notion that Sega was caught behind the times, trying to relive the 16-bit era that was suddenly becoming very obsolete.

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Decathlete (Sega Saturn)

Decathlete for Sega Saturn

Decathlete (1996, Sega AM3 for Sega Saturn)

Decathlete is vintage Sega: cheerful, full of energy and packed with irreverent humor. It reminds me of the glory days of the Genesis as well as the triumphant revival with Dreamcast. It was a rare moment of confidence for the famously troubled Saturn, like a rare moment of Beatles unity during the making of The White Album. How I wish there were more moments such as this. If you own a Saturn, this title is an absolute must.

Olympics videogames have been a regular staple since Konami’s seminal Track ‘N Field conquered video arcades and home systems. It established a template for the genre that has been followed almost religiously ever since. The only great exception was Epyx, whose Summer Games delivered a more thoughtful, strategic sports game, where complex joystick controls and careful timing superseded button mashing. Today, we would probably call it a “simulation”, one that demonstrated the growing divide between arcades and home computers. That’s a discussion for another day, but it’s interesting to note that as the Nintendo Entertainment System resurrected the dedicated game console, Konami’s formula for video Olympics was followed instead of Epyx. It has been thus ever since.

Decathlete is the creation of Sega’s AM3, who would later follow up with Winter Heat a couple years later. They hold closely to the classic Track ‘N Field formula, with a series of short sporting events with fast action and simple controls. The action is limited to two buttons (the joystick is employed only in the 1500m dash), and “run” and “action” buttons. It’s a nice tribute to Konami that they map “run” to both the A and C buttons on the Saturn controller; if you use Sega’s arcade joystick, you can use the old ‘pencil” or “comb” trick to flip those buttons as fast as possible. The “action” button is used for specific tasks such as jumping or throwing; in the pole vaulting event, you must use the same button to lower your pole, lift yourself up and push your body over the top bar.

In Sega’s hands, these Olympic events employ a combination of speed and careful timing. To run the hurdles, you must be especially precise in your jumps, or else you will quickly stumble and fall (as you can see from the above screenshot, I’m terrible at this event). In the Shot Put and Discus events, you must release your held object at just the right moment, and hold the button just long enough to achieve the ideal angle. Again, all of this follows the Konami formula, but the execution is flawless.

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Last Bronx (Sega Saturn)

Last Bronx for Sega Saturn

Last Bronx (1997, Sega AM3 for Saturn)

Of Sega’s 3D arcade fighting videogames — Virtua Fighter Remix, Virtua Fighter 2, Fighting Vipers, Fighters Megamix — Last Bronx is the weakest title of the bunch. Only the original Virtua Fighter, notoriously plagued with programming growing pains, would rank lower in my opinion. This isn’t to say that it’s a poor game, as it’s actually quite good. I just find myself reaching for another title on my shelf when I need my martial arts fix. I’m not sure why this is.

Last Bronx was created by Sega AM3. They gave us Sega Rally Championship, Virtua On, Decathlete and Winter Kings, terrific games, all. They’re great at creating genre classics that feel fresh and innovative. Here, they create a world of underground criminals in Tokyo who belong to rival gangs and beat each other senseless with large, bulky weapons. Stage designs include airports, empty warehouse districts, and city rooftops. A young man wearing steampunk goggles may be behind all the violence. Fast violence and cheap thrills await.

The game is presented in Saturn’s “480/60” high resolution, and there’s no question that it looks very nice. It probably looks better on a CRT television, as there are many moments where graphics display “interlaced” effects that can be seen on an HDTV. Characters are very large and well animated. Stages once again employ a mixture of 3D polygons and 2D bitmaps, this time also including short fences around the perimeter. Sega AM3 especially wows us with two indoor stages that take place within a parking garage and subway station. The combination of ceilings, perspective-distorted walls and stationary objects create a stunning recreation of a 3D world in 2D, thanks to the Saturn’s VDP2 processor. It’s even more effective than Dead or Alive, and never fails to dazzle.

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