Virtua Fighter 2 is the greatest videogame ever made for Sega Saturn. It is the system’s greatest critical and commercial success, especially in Japan, where Sega was most successful, competing evenly against Sony for several years and even beating Nintendo. The arcade game was an enormous success that defined a standard in 3D martial arts games, and is probably Sega’s most successful franchise in its home country. This is their Led Zeppelin IV.
In the West, the Virtua Fighter series was less successful and never achieved more than cult status. Gamers were more accustomed to Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, which were far easier for beginners and casual players. Here’s the dirty little secret: most kids play fighting games by mashing buttons. If you mash buttons enough, the character on screen does something cool and interesting, and if you win and you’ll win. If you mash buttons and nothing interesting happens, then the game sucks and play something else. Tekken 3 was a huge hit because you could play Eddie Gordo and perform his amazing gymnastics routine by just mashing the kick buttons. Why do you think wrestling videogames have always been so popular? Because all you do is smash the controller with one hand while holding pizza with the other.
The Virtua Fighter series actively punishes button mashers. Instead, it introduces a new world of martial arts theory, including movement, timing, offense and defense. It has a steep learning curve. The game should probably come packaged with a textbook for studying movelists, frame data and flow charts. At its core, the game is rock-paper-scissors played at five times normal speed. Block beats Attack. Attack beats Throw. Throw beats Block. Added to this mix is something called “recovery time,” which is the time it takes your fighter to recover from a move. Now the eternal question: what will happen if my attack is blocked? Can my opponent attack or throw me during my recovery phase?
Virtua Cop is the third of Sega’s blockbuster trilogy that revitalized the Sega Saturn in Christmas 1995, giving the troubled system a second chance at life. Such an idea must sound strange, considering the machine was launched in May that year, but Sega found themselves reeling from Sony Playstation’s successful launch in September, as well as a solid year of negative press and foul rumors. Saturn was widely seen as a mistake, if not an outright failure, before it even arrived on store shelves. They needed a miracle to win back the public. Here is one of those three miracles.
AM2 was Sega’s marquee arcade game division, responsible for the company’s most beloved classics including Outrun, Space Harrier, Afterburner, Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Virtua Cop was released to arcades in 1994 and became another smash success. The Saturn conversion began the following year, utilizing the studio’s internally-developed Saturn Graphics Library to take full advantage of the hardware. The result is a practically flawless translation that far exceeded anybody’s expectations.
Shooting games have been a staple of arcades and amusement parks for decades, even before the arrival of the computer age. I remember seeing several very large and very old target-practice games at the Minnesota State Fair as a child, such as Keeney Air Raider, a gun game created in 1940 where you shoot down enemy aircraft. With the arrival of videogames, we saw many classic video target games such as Duck Hunt, Operation Wolf and Terminator 2. The technology was becoming ever more advanced, but the basic gameplay had never changed. A target moves along a screen, you shoot it and score points.
Choro Q Park is a charming little kart-style racing game that is based on those adorable little Penny Racer cars that were a fixture in my childhood. They were called “penny racers” because you could attach a penny to the trunk of the tiny cars and when you wind them up, they would spin around and zoom and do tricks. It was an easy gimmick but extremely popular with kids around the world. I know the kids here in the States would really have enjoyed playing this videogame adaptation.
It’s very easy to look at this game as another copy of Super Mario Kart, with its cartoony visual designs, boxy vehicles and looping, winding track designs. Choro Q Park isn’t on the same level as Nintendo’s classic series, and doesn’t really compete directly. Instead, it’s perfectly happy to play in its own little sandbox. The game takes place on a large island that features a number of stops, including racing arenas, a shop to purchase more vehicles, a garage and paint shop to store and customize your cars, a daily weather report, and a test track where you must first earn your driving license. The goal is to win races where you can earn money and new cars and trucks. Dozens of vehicles are available, each with their own unique handling and performance stats.
That is the thrust of the game. You play to collect penny racers and race with friends. There are a large number of race tracks spread across multiple locations, but there is no circuit mode where you compete for trophies ala Mario Kart. What makes these races novel is that you can change racers at various points along a race track. You select which car to use at each checkpoint, and you must choose wisely depending on the terrain, whether you’re racing on pavement or dirt, across straight paths or winding curves.
Bokan to Ippatsu: Doronbo Kanpekiban (1997, Banpresto and Tatsunoko for Sega Saturn)
Bokan to Ippatsu: Doronbo Kanpekiban (translated as “Time Bokan: Doronbo Perfect Version) is a member of a videogame sub-genre known as “cute-em-ups,” which were popular in the 1990s on home systems such as the PC Engine/Turbografx-16 and Super NES. If you have ever seen Konami’s Parodious or Red Entertainment’s Air Zonk, you’ll have an idea of what to expect. These games are arcade shoot-em-ups that feature extremely colorful, cartoony graphics and a generally silly style that play out like a semi-parody of videogames.
Time Bokan is based on the 1977 Yatterman anime series from Tatsunoko in Japan, in which a bumbling villainous trio known as the Doronbo Gang are regularly thwarted by an assortment of comic book superheroes. Its tone is much closer to Hanna-Barbera cartoons than anything, and harkens back to a more innocent age of Japanese animation. This game puts you in the hands of the gang in their quest to defeat the Yatterman heroes and, well, shoot at a lot of cartoon pigs and robot contraptions. Before each stage, you are given a choice of zany vehicles that resemble Flintstone drag cars, camels, snails and birds, each with their own unique stats for firepower, mobility and shields. There’s a fair variety between them; it’s fun to play around to find a personal favorite, especially once you’ve collected a couple power-up icons that give you some impressive (and funny) weapons such as flying attack cats. Or are those supposed to be mice or bears? Whatever.
The action plays out in vertical-scrolling style that also pans sideways when you move. It also fills the entire screen, which is a very welcome change of pace from all the vertically-oriented shooters on Sega Saturn (you won’t have to lie down on the couch to play “tate” mode this time). Each stage is quite varied in their environments, from tropical green valleys to arctic glaciers, underwater oceans to futuristic city highways. There are also many obstacles in your way that you can shoot, such as trees and park benches and all those goofy pigs. It probably makes sense to fans of the cartoon show.
Question: Is Fighters Megamix the definitive Sega Saturn fighting game? Does it surpass the mighty Virtua Fighter 2? Let the debates begin.
Fighters Megamix is a perfect summary of everything I love about Sega: a bright and bold visual design, accessible gameplay that contains boundless depths, and a sense of humor that shows they never take themselves so seriously. They were always the renegades, the upstarts, the punks who crashed the party and spiked the punch. They were the risk-takers and casino gamblers whose debts eventually came to bury them alive. But what a wild crazy ride. Start another match, I’ll order pizza.
Most Saturn fans are very familiar with this game, which became a fan favorite among casual and diehard players alike and enjoys cult status to this day. It was only released on one other platform, the doomed Game.com handheld, and has never reappeared on any future console. Whenever Sega asks the fans which of their classic titles should be revived, my first answer is nearly always, “Megamix. Bring back Megamix.”
Fighters Megamix is a superb mashup of Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers that quickly morphs into a grand celebration of Sega AM2’s greatest hits. Players begin by playing the characters from the two major series, and as they progress, the bonus characters are revealed and quickly crash the party, each one zanier and more ridiculous than the last, each one more fun and exciting. Have you ever been to one of those college house parties that ends with the cops busting up the place? You can barely find your way to the door, your ears are ringing from the house band making noise, you’re hoping you don’t get nabbed by the fuzz…all in all, a great time is had by all. This videogame has that same sense of electricity and fun.
By nearly all accounts, Treasure’s Guardian Heroes is just about the greatest thing to happen to Sega Saturn, a 2D spectacular dazzles the eyes, ears and itchy trigger fingers of all players. Nearly all modern polls of Saturn’s finest games ranks this title among the very top, a defining classic for the system’s library. If you are a fan of arcade beat-em-ups like Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage, you’re going to love this game.
Back in 1996, however, the mood of the gaming public was very different. 2D videogames were as dead as leisure suits in the 1980s or synth pop in the 1990s. The entire art form was massively out of fashion, killed by new technologies such as pre-rendered CG and texture-mapped polygons. For gamers always hungry for the “next big thing,” sprite graphics were the kiss of death.
Sony successfully rode the new wave of 3D graphics to legendary success with their Playstation system, and Nintendo successfully established a new paradigm for 3D videogames with Super Mario 64, but Sega was hit hardest by this sea change. Their Saturn was envisioned as the best of both worlds, a continuation of the 2D arcade games of the Sega Genesis and an exploration of the new 3D frontier of arcade hits like Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Two decades later, this feels like a reasonable, almost cautious strategy, and if the winds of fashion had not blown so harshly, the Fifth Generation may have ended differently.
Sega Saturn is blessed with a thousand great shoot-em-ups. Shienryu (“Purple Flame Dragon”) is one of the genre’s best titles and a personal favorite of mine. It boasts excellent graphics, superb weapons, endless waves of enemies and boss battles that are challenging yet never overwhelming. It delivers everything you expect from a quality shooter, and if it never offers any new ideas, you’re more than happy to buy the ticket and take the ride.
This game will probably remind you of Seibu Kaihatsu’s classic Raiden, especially in the visual design that includes enemy ships that shatter into tiny fragments when destroyed, and the slow rolling fireballs left in their wake. Your spaceship is also very similar to the ships in Raiden with its red coat of paint. Even the architectural designs are very similar in many respects, as you battle on land, sea, air and outer space, as you take the fight to the aliens’ home worlds.
I am most reminded of Toaplan’s classic shoot-em-ups such as Fire Shark and Truxton and their perfectly balanced sense of pacing, timing and layout designs. Shienryu has a late-1980s groove and could have easily been a product of the 16-bit era. By 1997, it’s positively retro in is pacing and structure, which is more laid back than the frantic, over-the-top danmaku (“bullet hell”) titles that consumed the genre. The challenge lies not in avoiding impossible waves of bullets, but in navigating the ballet of spaceships, tanks, turrets, giant mechs, starships, and massive bosses that are quite the challenge to defeat. This game is far more accessible to most players, not just the diehard experts, which is very welcome. I can play this disc at any time and blast through a few stages without breaking much of a sweat.
Super Tempo (1998, Red Entertainment and Aspect for Sega Saturn)
Thank God for Red Entertainment and their madcap stubbornness. I have no idea what inspired them to create a wildly goofy, genre-hopping 2D videogame, a style all but extinct in the year of groundbreaking 3D hits like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life and Tony Hawk Pro Skater. I am very thankful that this team of artists stuck to their guns, defied the winds of popular trends and crafted this wickedly inspired little gem.
Super Tempo puts you in the roles of the Tempo and his girlfriend Katy on a quest to rescue the Prince of Music World from Planet Technotch (according to Hardcore Gaming 101, at least). It’s visual design is wildly colorful and cartoonish, with wonderfully fluid animation drawn on 1’s and 2’s. The character designs are wonderfully surreal and zany, like an anime cousin to Ren & Stimpy or Animaniacs. The music and audio incorporates cartoon sound effects that were ripped right out of the Hanna-Barbera vaults.
Red is best known as the creators of Bonk’s Adventure on the Turbografx-16, which spawned five sequels on that system and multiple appearances on NES, Super NES and arcades. The games are known for their skillful, inventive level designs and a wicked, irreverent sense of humor that extended to the terrific cartoon character designs and animations. In 1995, they teamed up with Sega for the excellent mascot title Tempo for the ill-fated 32X; a Game Gear sequel, Tempo, Jr. was developed by Sega offshoot studio SIMS. For Sega Saturn, the studio teamed up with software studio Aspect and pulled out all the stops on Saturn, creating the finest genre title for the system.
Batsugun (1996, Toaplan and Gazelle for Sega Saturn)
In the 1980s, Japanese arcade developers Toaplan established themselves as the masters of the shoot-em-up, unleashing one genre masterpiece after another: Twin Cobra, Fire Shark, Hellfire, Zero Wing, Truxton. By the end of the decade and with the arrival of the 16-bit generation, they were at the peak of their powers.
In the early 1990s, however, spaceship shoot-em-ups were eclipsed by the Street Fighter 2 craze, and Toaplan’s finances faded. The company declared bankruptcy in 1994, and its many skilled programmers and designers carried on the tradition with their own studios: Cave, Takumi, Gazelle, Raizing/8ing. Before splitting up, they created one last masterpiece in 1993 called Batsugun, and it would define nearly every scrolling arcade shooter that followed.
Batsugun marks the birth of the danmaku or “bullet hell” shooter; its name comes from the curtains of enemy bullets that fill the screen and overwhelm players. Personally, I’m not a fan of the genre, which would bog down in programmers’ obsessions with elaborate floral bullet patterns at the expense of speed or excitement. The thrilling roller coaster rides became bogged down in traffic jams, intended only for the most diehard of fans.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.