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.”

Continue reading “Virtua Fighter Remix (Sega Saturn)”

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.

Continue reading “Pebble Beach Golf Links (Sega Saturn)”

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.

Continue reading “Mass Destruction (1997, Sega Saturn)”

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.

Continue reading “Bug! (1995, Sega Saturn)”

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.

Continue reading “Decathlete (Sega Saturn)”

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.

Continue reading “Last Bronx (Sega Saturn)”

Fighting Vipers (Sega Saturn)

Fighting Vipers for Sega Saturn

Fighting Vipers (1996, Sega AM2 for Sega Saturn)

Fighting Vipers is the Motley Crue of videogames: flashy, trashy, wild and out of control. It’s similar in many ways to its sober cousin, Virtua Fighter 2, and welcomes new fans with familiar controls and promises of martial arts action. Then it quickly raids the liquor cabinet, smashes the hotel room, and drives a motorcycle through the window into the outdoor pool below, leaving you stuck with the bill. These cats have come to rock hard and burn out in a blaze of glory.

These are a great cast of characters. They all look like Prince and the Revolution from the Purple Rain era, with wild colored costumes, big hair and all full of energy and attitude. This was especially daring in the 1990s, which battered down with a Puritanical bent anything that resembled those horrible, decadent ’80s. These were the days of angst and two layers of flannel shirts, not neon hairspray and alcohol-fueled amphetamine blasts. We were halfway to Vegas when the drugs began to take hold… One fighter wears rollerblades. Another kid carries a skateboard like a weapon. Another dresses like an L.A. Rocker Dude and carries a v-neck guitar. Another wears a long, dark trench coat and a toothpick sneer. One fat bastard dresses in armor that makes him looking like a walking bowling alley (when he grabs and throws you into a wall, crashing pins are heard). And one female fighter looks like Private Vasquez from the movie Aliens.

The action in Fighting Vipers is very similar to Virtua Fighter, with punch-kick-guard controls and simple moves that belie a deep complexity based on a rock-paper-scissors system. Attack beats throw, throw beats guard, guard beats attack. With that solid foundation, AM2 pushes forward: the speed seems to be boosted a little, attacks are breezier and more immediate than in VF2. The action feels more immediate. Attack combos are more plentiful and fluid, especially for beginnings. Some specialized attacks can send opponents suddenly smashing into the back wall. Fighters knocked into the air can roll back to life before they hit the ground. Walls and cages surround the fighters who find themselves bouncing off when hit in a jarring motion, and it’s quite a kick.

Continue reading “Fighting Vipers (Sega Saturn)”

Dead or Alive (Sega Saturn)

Dead or Alive on Sega Saturn

Dead or Alive (1997, Tecmo and Team Ninja for Saturn)

Every Sega Saturn fan knows about Dead or Alive. We were absolutely thrilled by the 1996 arcade game, which used Sega’s Model 2 hardware board, and were doubly thrilled to learn it was coming home the following year. Then we were left hanging by Sega of America, as newly-installed CEO Bernie Stolar notoriously declared “Saturn is not our future.” Then he grabbed a shovel and began digging, and Saturn tried to crack a smile beneath another shovel load.

Why the bloody hell was this game not released? Yes, the Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 had thoroughly dominated the US videogame market by 1997, thanks to Super Mario 64, Goldeneye, Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy 7. But the Saturn wasn’t dead yet, and if it was dying, the cause was starvation. Gamers were left high and dry waiting for quality software that delivered on the early promises offered by that spectacular Christmas 1995 lineup of Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Sega Rally Championship. We had many great games in ’96 and ’97, but nothing could really match that peak, which was beginning to look insurmountable.

Then Team Ninja arrived and conquered that mountain with ease. They not only created an arcade fighting game that could equal Virtua Fighter 2’s “480/60” high resolution graphics, they may have surpassed it. And if you thought Dead or Alive was a one-time fluke, Go Go Goal was waiting in the wings to slap you upside the head a second time. These guys could make the Saturn sing and it was glorious.

Today, two decades later, this game still looks glorious. The opening CG movie, the character menu screen, the stages, the character design, every moment glows with pride. This game knows how to strut with its feathers held high. The animation is wonderfully fluid and natural, and can easily stand alongside its more sequels. Indeed, even though DOA 2 and 3 are vastly more advanced from a technology point of view, the core gameplay of the original is so solid, so focused, that it has hardly aged a day. There’s a reason why Tecmo included Saturn DOA 1 on the Xbox for Dead or Alive Ultimate.

Continue reading “Dead or Alive (Sega Saturn)”

Baroque (Sega Saturn)

Baroque (1998, Sting Entertainment)

Baroque is a magnificent work of dark surrealism, horror and existential dread. It’s scarier than Resident Evil, more gothic than Quake. This game is like peering into a long nightmare from the depths of the unconscious, like peering into Purgatory or something worse. I dare you to play at night, sitting right in front of the couch, lights out, and no distractions. Play for an hour and then try to walk to bed without turning on all the lights. I dare you.

The game opens with an impressive CG sequence that raises mysteries and answers nothing. The setting appears to involve an apocalypse, a devastated wasteland, a hoard of disfigured mutants, friendly and hostile, dreamlike images of men in white lab coats, steampunk machinery. A face lies hidden inside a steel vat. Images of two lovers in embrace are twisted, distorted. On the horizon, an enormous towering mass of ball and steel, wire and rust beckons. You awaken in the ruins of a dead city, a desolation of metal, red lights and sand dunes. A large robed figure forbids entry into a building. Another creature with an enormously long neck cackles uncontrollably. A ghostly angel figure asks cryptic questions and hands you a weapon, invoking you to explore the depths of that great Neuro Tower in search of answers.

None of this makes sense, and that’s part of the design. Even if you understand Japanese, the dialog is darkly poetic, an endless series of suffering and lamentations. This place is probably where bad people go when they die. Everything is shrouded in dark shadow, illuminated only be occasional lighting, accompanied by the howling of winds and lost souls. Baroque is incomprehensible and very deliberately so. You are left feeling disoriented, confused, almost lost in a fog of amnesia. That sense of uncertainly will only accelerate once you enter the tower.

When you enter the tower, your goal is to descend over twenty levels in search of…what, exactly? Answers? Adventure? Cheap thrills? Have you ever felt tempted to explore an abandoned building that was supposedly haunted? That feeling in the pit of your stomach…that’s what this game is about, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.

Continue reading “Baroque (Sega Saturn)”

Savaki (Sega Saturn)

Savaki for Sega Saturn

Savaki (1998, Cygnus for Saturn)

Savaki appeared in the final months of the Sega Saturn in Japan in April of 1998, and it’s a highly polished title that demonstrates a great mastery of the hardware. It is a 3D polygon fighting game that leans heavily towards “simulation,” focusing on real-world martial arts while avoiding anything flashy or unrealistic. This focus on realism helps give this game a unique, original style that is very welcome. And for a system overloaded with so many fighting games, it becomes extremely challenging to stand out from the crowd. But Savaki stands out very nicely, even if it’s not for everyone.

This game revolves around specialized martial artists in an underground fighting circuit, probably taking place in some dingy mafia-run warehouse basement. The characters don’t have names; instead, they are designated by their fighting styles, including karate, boxing, muy thai, jeet kun do, tai kwon do and “freestyle,” which is the style employed by the extremely challenging and relentless final boss, a towering masked man in wrestler’s garb. I wonder if he’s related to the final boss from Pit Fighter?

Attacks are simple to learn, consisting of various punches and kicks that can be chained together in short combos. There are no throws or grapple techniques. Your defensive moves include blocking, “feint” moves that attempt to trick your opponent, and a move called “savaki” that can deflect an attack if timed properly. This was something that Virtua Fighter 3 dabbled with, and this game elevates it to a significant importance.

Continue reading “Savaki (Sega Saturn)”

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua (Sega Saturn)

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua for Sega Saturn

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua (1997, Sega for Saturn)

Let’s take a look at another excellent fighting game from Japan that deserved to be released in the USA. Indeed, this is the only 3D wrestling videogame for the Sega Saturn, and it’s a terrific showpiece that deserves a place in your library alongside Fighting Vipers and Fighters Megamix. All Japan Pro Wrestling is very affordable (as little as $10), highly playable, richly rewarding and guaranteed to add excitement to any social gathering.

While most wrestling games of the era seemed to rely on mashing buttons in hopes that something good will happen, this title is far more intelligent, complex and strategic. It plays like a cousin to Virtua Fighter, while incorporating the styles and techniques of the sport. Your moves consist of attacks, grabs and throws, with the ability to perform hold reversals and throw escapes. The controls are easy to grasp, and you can learn to chain attacks together, such as grabbing an opponent, changing the position, throwing him to the ground, picking him back up, then throwing him again, all to roaring crowds. You can even perform moves when close to the ropes, or perform flying turnbuckle moves, or even escape the ring, which is always a lot of fun.

There are a number of gameplay innovations in this game: Reversals, Damage Levels, Broken Bones and Crowd Approval. Reversals enable you to escape nearly any grapple maneuver or throw, performed when an icon appears on-screen. Even the reversals themselves can be reversed (I’m reminded of the “hold” moves in Dead or Alive). As attacks can be strung together, you can disrupt your opponent’s rhythm if you know what you’re doing. Damage levels work like “special” meters in fighting games, in that it builds up as you successfully perform attacks. When you reach DM level 50 and 80, you can perform your most devastating and crowd-pleasing attacks. Broken Bones occur when you take too much damage in a specific region, such as your head, neck, back, arms or legs. A warning icon will occur when you’re in danger, and subsequent hits will result in broken bones. When two bones are broken, the referee will intervene and end the match. Finally, the crowd approval rewards showmanship and pizazz. It’s not enough to merely knock down your opponent and get a quick three-count. You have to win the crowd over with variety and style. As the excitement grows, the crowd will roar and chant your name, which is not only very cool, it makes it easier for you to pin your opponent (and harder to become pinned yourself).

Continue reading “All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua (Sega Saturn)”

World Series Baseball 98 (Sega Saturn)

World Series Baseball 98 (1997, Sega)

When you buy a Sega Saturn, the first videogame to get is the “3-in-1” package featuring Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop and Daytona. Then you get Sega Rally Championship. Then you get World Series Baseball 98.

I wrote about World Series Baseball 98 on one of my blogs three years ago, and more recently appeared in my book Pop Life. It stands as the finest baseball videogame ever created. I believed that two decades ago, and I still believe that today. Despite the advances in computer hardware and graphics powers, this title has never been surpassed, and still dominates the sport just like NHL 94 still dominates hockey games.

The genius to this game lies in its pitcher/batter duel. For the sport, this is the heart and soul of the game, but most videogame adaptations have reduced it to simple target practice. For the pitcher, you would simply press a button to throw the ball, and then waggle the joystick to move it in midair en route to the catcher’s mitt. For the batter, you simply press a button to swing the bat and try to hit the physics-defying ball. Nearly every single video baseball game going back to the Atari 2600 has copied this formula. In later years, software designers took away mid-air ball control in the name of “realism,” but the basics of the duel remained just that. Basic. Lacking all drama. Boring.

World Series Baseball 98 changes all of that. The pitcher chooses from his arsenal, aims the pitch during the windup, and lets it go. Available pitches are based on the real-life players’ skills, making their curveballs, sliders and sinkers very unique, and lose their effectiveness as the pitcher tires. One pitcher may have a monster slider that drops two feet at the last second, where another pitcher can barely make a wobble. Some curveballs hook, others slice. And as the pitcher’s arm tires, the more those pitches begin to straighten out and decay into a very modest “slowball” down the middle.

Continue reading “World Series Baseball 98 (Sega Saturn)”

Astra Superstars (Sega Saturn)

Astra Superstars for Sega Saturn

Astra Superstars (1998, Sunsoft and Santa Claus)

Wow! What a sensational videogame. I’m probably going to have brain seizures after playing this for more than an hour, but it’s totally worth it. I’ll be sent to the madhouse for sure, but I will have no regrets.

Sega Saturn has always been hailed as a behemoth for 2D videogames, but there were precious few examples in the USA to back up such boasts. We had Galactic Attack and Darius Gaiden and Street Fighter Alpha 2, all of which looked terrific and kept us glued to our television screens, but they weren’t exactly groundbreaking. They were the bigger and bolder cousins of what we played on Sega Genesis. We didn’t really see an example of a Saturn game that pushed its 2D powers the way games like Virtua Fighter 2, Burning Rangers and Quake were pushing the system’s 3D powers. But Astra Superstars delivers.

These are the best 2D graphics on the Sega Saturn. It’s certainly the loudest, the most brash, the most extreme, the most visually overwhelming. It doesn’t dazzle your senses, it assaults you from every direction, spins you like mad, knocks you to the ground, grabs your wallet and keys, then raids your fridge just for kicks. I’m not kidding when I bring up seizures. Marvel Super Heroes vs Street Fighter is probably its closest rival, in terms of animation quality and visual pizazz. But Capcom plays it straight, while Sunsoft and Santa Claus, the Astra software team, went completely gonzo. This is one videogame that truly deserves a Ralph Stedman cover illustration.

Astra Superstars is a 2D arcade fighting game featuring a very colorful cast of cartoonish characters with zany names like Lettuce, Maron, Coco, Rouge, Fooly. Their designs are completely, wonderfully ridiculous, either playing off or drowning in anime stereotypes. You have the spiky-haired hero, the stone-faced samurai warrior, a hulking giant with Charlie Brown hair, a small girl dressed as Santa, and two “hot chicks” whose wardrobes come straight from the Yandy summer catalog. Because, why not? We’re already overwhelming your teenage male hormones enough as it is.

Continue reading “Astra Superstars (Sega Saturn)”

Zero Divide: The Final Conflict (Saturn)

Zero Divide: The Final Conflict for Sega Saturn

Zero Divide: The Final Conflict (1997, Zoom)

Continuing our look at Sega Saturn games, here is another outstanding 3D polygon fighter that pushes the hardware very well. This is the third title in the Zero Divide series, which began on the Sony Playstation. I really enjoyed the first game in 1995, much more than Toshinden and Tekken 1, both of which were, IMHO, massively overrated. Zero Divide had better gameplay and cool robot designs. As Mark Bussler would say, all that’s needed now are flamethrowers.

Zero Divide 3 takes advantage of the Saturn hardware, using both SH-2 CPUs (“SH-2” is prominently featured on the title screen), and it has also been reported that this games also uses the SCU DSP to crunch extra polygons, which was only used in a few titles late in the system’s life (Burning Rangers, Panzer Dragoon Saga and Shining Force 3 are other examples). Graphics are presented in 480/60 “high res” mode, and everything is very sharp and cleanly detailed. Many of the arenas also feature polygon walls and there are also some polygon objects in the background. The robot fighters are very interesting. They have very subtle lighting effects when they move. In addition, the robots’ armor shells can be broken apart, revealing the inner skin that is gauraud shaded. It’s all very impressive.

The animations are very fluid, controls are swift and responsive. Gameplay is another copy of Sega’s Virtua Fighter, which is a Saturn standard (if you’re a VF freak, this is the greatest console ever made). You have buttons for guard, punk, kick and evade, with the usual set of canned combos and opportunities for “rolled” combos when you knock an opponent into the air. There are also throw reversals, which is always very welcome. Finally, you can be knocked off the edge of the stage platform, hanging on the ledge by one hand.

Continue reading “Zero Divide: The Final Conflict (Saturn)”

Sokko Seitokai: Sonic Council (Sega Saturn)

Sokko Seitokai: Sonic Council for Sega Saturn

Sokko Seitokai: Sonic Council (1998, Banpresto and SIMS)

Here we come to another one of my favorite fighting videogames for Sega Saturn, the highly skillful and polished Sokko Seitokai. The name translates as “Hasty Student Council” (“Sonic Council” is a bit of a pun) and features the usual assortment of anime high school students and teachers who battle one another in school gymnasiums, playgrounds, video arcades and city streets. According to a Japanese fan site, this game was intended as a spoof or satire of manga comics, as well as similarly-themed games like Asuka 120%. It was developed by SIMS Co, a very successful Sega subsidiary that was formed to bolster the Master System library in Europe, and was extremely prolific through the Dreamcast era before becoming independent in 2004. In the last decade, they are known for creating fishing games. Lots of fishing games. This certainly explains “Sonic Council,” if nothing else.

Sonic Council is extremely polished title, with its sizable character roster, large collection of special moves and super attacks that can result in massive 15-hit combos. The rhythm and flow is far closer to SNK than Capcom, and I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that SIMS was responsible for the Saturn translations of Fatal Fury 3 and Samurai Shodown 3, both of which were released previously. In order to create a good brawler, a software team usually needs a couple titles under their belt. First-time efforts usually fall flat. Kasumi Ninja, anyone?

The character designs are very impressive, pencil thin and scrawny but animated with extremely fluid motion. Their standing animations seem to be drawn on “ones”, which is highly impressive for the Saturn era. According to the GDRI database, a company named Digimotion was responsible for these designs, and I’ve also managed to find at least a couple comic books featuring these characters that were published in the following years. In addition, Gamest Magazine also played a role in the making of this game. One source cited their role as “supervisor,” but it has never been revealed exactly what that means. It may have been nothing more than a glorified celebrity endorsement/tie-in. We would have to dig up some 1998 issues of the magazine to search for clues.

Continue reading “Sokko Seitokai: Sonic Council (Sega Saturn)”

Saturn Bomberman Fight! (1997, Sega Saturn)

Saturn Bomberman Fight! for Sega Saturn

Saturn Bomberman Fight! (1997, Hudson Soft)

If Saturn Bomberman is Blood on the Tracks, then Saturn Bomberman Fight is Desire: swift, bold, adventurous, wholly unique, and the last great triumph before it all goes south. This game dramatically reinvents its classic formula for the polygon age by stripping down to the very core of what makes the series so great. It’s all about frenetic action, surprise kills, massive explosions, and screwing over your friends.

Gone are the sprawling single-player worlds; multiplayer is the sole focus in this game. The single-player mode is really just a practice space for the battle and survival modes, a way to learn a new host of moves and techniques. The arenas, likewise, are a collection of 3D stages with hills, valleys, and bridges, each offering different opportunities to gang up on one another. Graphics are an impressive mix of polygons for the stages and players, with bitmap sprites used for powerups, bombs, explosions and backgrounds. There are also some nice cartoon clips at the beginning and end, which is always welcome.

When you play, expect to hit the ground running. Your player-characters have the ability to pick up, throw or kick bombs right at the start. In addition, a double-jump becomes an essential tool for dodging explosions great and small. A number of mystery cards can be discovered during the match which can either boost or hurt your abilities. You might be able to stack three bombs in a stack, or you might lose the ability to jump, or your controls might be reversed.

One nice addition is the horse, who replaces the dinosaurs from previous episodes. He’s a lot closer to Yoshi, as he can eat bombs and runs off in a panic when hit. And just like Super Mario World, if you get hit, you can just hop back on top. To be honest, this little horse is probably too overpowered, which is probably why Hudson only allows one on the playing field. The idea is that everyone will fight tooth and nail to steal that animal and win the match. He who controls the horse will win the war.

Continue reading “Saturn Bomberman Fight! (1997, Sega Saturn)”

Steep Slope Sliders (Sega Saturn)

Steep Slope Sliders for Sega Saturn

Steep Slope Sliders (1997, Cave for Saturn)

Steep Slope Sliders is one of my absolute favorite videogames for Sega Saturn, and easily my favorite snowboarding game. It just feels authentic. This is how the perfect snowy winter day feels, in its earth tones and blocky textures and puffy snow. And the board feels just right, as you twist and turn and dance down the side of a mountain. I have always had the impression that Cave’s programmers felt this sport in their bones, too. They understood the sub-culture, with its fusion of 1960s surf, 1970s skatepunk, 1980s techno, 1990s rave and trip-hop. They understood the teenage rebellion, the reckless thrill-seeking, the freedom of expression, the art. You’re Jackson Pollack riding the paintbrush down a mile-long canvas. All of these, they felt in their bones.

Best of all, Cave’s team understood the solitude of the sport. This game was always criticized for lacking a two-player mode where you could battle against a friend, or career mode where you compete for status, endorsements and your face on a Wheaties box. But that’s not the idea. In snowboarding, your only true friend and rival are the mountains themselves. It’s just you and nature and silence, and maybe that cassette tape copy of Bocanada playing in your Walkman.

Why are you here? What’s the point? You’re not here to compete in some professional circuit. You’re not here to compete for the Olympics. You’re not here to win competitions and endorsements and fame and glory. You’re here to live in the moment — “the felt presence of immediate experience.” You are here to surf the mountains, hills, forests and farms. You’re here to better yourself, to find that one perfect spot to make that perfect jump and score the perfect trick. There is always room for improvement, always another hill or rock that you can use to perform that stunt. That is why you exist.

Steep Slope Sliders is a videogame where you are dropped out of a moving helicopter onto mountains and are left to your own devices. Conratulations, kid, welcome to the world. Now do something with yourself before the trip ends.

Continue reading “Steep Slope Sliders (Sega Saturn)”

J-League Go Go Goal! (Sega Saturn)

J-League Go Go Goal! for Sega Saturn

J-League Go Go Goal! (1997, Tecmo)

J-League Go Go Goal is a sports videogame released by Tecmo for the Sega Saturn in Japan in 1997. This was the developer’s second title for the system, soon to be followed by the legendary Dead or Alive. This title arrived during a golden age for soccer games, and in its best moments can rival the genre’s best efforts.

Sega Saturn has an almost limitless supply of hidden gems. I don’t think anybody knows that this videogame even exists, which is crazy. Here lies a spectacular visual showcase for the system that surely boasts some of the finest graphics of the 32-bit era. Everything is presented in 704 x 480 “high resolution” mode, with a rock-solid 60 frames-per-second, large wonderfully animated polygon characters, and an overdose of 1980s “Sega Rock” that is both cheesy and awesome. The presentation is extremely polished, from team logos to the menus to the stadiums, without a hint of slowdown or polygon glitching anywhere to be seen.

There are 17 soccer teams from Japan’s J-League, complete with logos and team colors. You have substitutions, a host of strategies and formations, and a variety of kicks and maneuvers. You can play in four different stadiums that look more or less the same (less variety than Worldwide Soccer 97/98). There are exhibition and season modes, options for four players, and the Saturn 3D controller is used very nicely.

Gameplay is extremely solid. This is very much an “arcade” style soccer game, with endless air kicks and tackles and shots that always hit the goal pipe and then bounce back. The computer is a ruthless opponent, and you will quickly learn that few penalties are handed out, so you can play rough. The gameplay lacks the strategy and subtlety of Worldwide Soccer 97/98, which to my mind stands as the gold standard of Saturn sports games. Tecmo doesn’t quite reach those heights, but they come close, and if you play a couple matches with friends over pints of beer, well, this could become your new favorite. Anything is possible.

Continue reading “J-League Go Go Goal! (Sega Saturn)”

Asuka 120% Burning Festival Limited (Sega Saturn)

Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited for Sega Saturn

Asuka 120% Burning Fest. Limited (1997, Fill-In-Cafe)

Now we come to one of my all-time favorite Sega Saturn videogames. Asuka 120% is a series that began on FM Towns and SharpX68000 and later migrated to PC Engine CD-ROM, Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. The Saturn edition is widely considered the series’ best. This is an intensely fast and furious fighting game that rivals the best from Capcom and SNK. There are a dozen characters with their own unique moves (representing different high school clubs such as chemistry, ballet, tennis, cheerleading and wrestling), lots of furious attacks, reversals, crazy multi-hit combos and miraculous come-from-behind victories.

The character designs and animations are absolutely gorgeous. The lines curve and flow gracefully, and look terrific in motion. The fighters are just the right size, filled with color and move just like buttah. I had a lot of fun taking screenshots for this game (using the “2P watch” mode).

The fighting engine is simple but carries a lot of depth, allowing easy counters and reversals, and it’s easy to cancel combos into specials with ease. In fact, you can do pretty well just by mashing buttons, which is good for novice players. Experts will learn the proper skills and master the art of those 20-hit air combos. Battles are always intense and victory is never assured for anyone.

Continue reading “Asuka 120% Burning Festival Limited (Sega Saturn)”

Dinosaur Island (Sega Saturn)

Dinosaur Island for Sega Saturn

Dinosaur Island (1997, Game Arts for Sega Saturn)

Game Arts was one of the most successful software developers for Saturn, with Grandia, Lunar and Gun Griffon to their credit. Here is another brilliant gem, but sadly very obscure and unknown. Dino Island is an “interactive cartoon” that plays out like those “choose your own adventure” books from the 1980s. It’s not a traditional videogame in the sense that there are no goals or objectives or challenges. You’re really just watching a very entertaining and funny anime program.

Why should any of this matter? Because everything you see has been created using the Saturn graphics hardware, not FMV or MPEG. Because of this, the visuals are sharp, crisp and very colorful. Game Arts previously experimented with this technique with Yumimi Mix on Sega CD, which was later ported to the Saturn largely as-is. On Sega CD, the visuals were mostly still-shots; on Saturn, the animation is as lush and fluid as any television production. It looks nearly indistinguishable from cels.

The story takes place on an island that is populated by humans and a host of friendly dinosaurs. The people have learned to tame the animals by playing music, either using them for work or pets, kinda like The Flintstones. The main characters are a trio of high school students who attend a musical school for training dinos, and largely involve their various comical hijinks. The tone is always upbeat, cheerful and benign, layered with a lot of goofy Japanese anime humor.

Continue reading “Dinosaur Island (Sega Saturn)”