The SEGA Saturn’s Last Christmas

SEGA’s decision to drop the Saturn more than a year before the UK launch of the Dreamcast – giving them little to no presence within Europe during that time – could be seen as a mercy killing. The much-maligned 32-bit system scraped through the first half of 1998 with very few third-party releases, forcing SEGA themselves to keep the console afloat and within the public’s eye.

To their credit, SEGA released some of the Saturn’s finest during its final hours, including Panzer Dragoon Saga – often perceived as the console’s answer to Final Fantasy VII – and the visually dazzling Burning Rangers from Sonic Team. Cult snowboarding sim Steep Slope Sliders and the out-sourced conversion of The House of The Dead were welcome additions too, but outside of imports, this assortment was pretty much all ’98 had to offer to Saturn loyalists.

Halfway into the year, the Saturn’s plug was pulled, with June’s survival horror adventure Deep Fear – mostly renowned today for its terrible voice acting – being the final release in Europe. The Official SEGA Saturn Magazine reviewed it alongside an obscure Japan-only beat’em up; the only other game released that month. This late in the system’s life, this wasn’t anything unusual.

The Saturn faded fast. Rewind to Christmas ’97 – just six months prior to Deep Fear’s release – and you’ll find a system in its prime. Winter ’97 saw a line-up of heavy hitters, including two titles from studios that had mastered the tricky-to-develop-for system. The Saturn never saw another onslaught of titles as heavy after this, making this festive period its last hurrah.

The line-up almost reads like a battle plan. Indeed, the last two surviving Saturn magazines even referred to it as such, formed of five big-name titles in October, and another five in November. December was, typically, a no-go for ’90s publishers, explaining as to why only FIFA 98: The Road to World Cup debuted that month.

October saw Resident Evil, Last Bronx, Duke Nukem 3D, Marvel Super Heroes, and Croc: Legend of the Gobbos. All five of these had, at some point, taken the cover of either Saturn Power and/or The Official SEGA Saturn Magazine.

While Resident Evil looked a little scruffy when placed next to its PSone counterpart, it did boast a new battle mode. SEGA’s 3D brawler Last Bronx was another impressive arcade conversion, going on to become a cult classic, while Capcom’s 2D Marvel Super Heroes went some way to make up for X-Men vs. Street Fighter’s absence in the West. Superior to X-Men: Children of the Atom in every way, the Saturn version also had the edge over the PSone port.

Lobotomy’s conversion of Duke Nukem 3D, published by GT Interactive, arrived a whole two months before the N64 and PSone versions. It was an impressive effort, pushing the system hard while maintaining a steady frame rate. Compared to earlier first-person shooters, such as Hexen and Alien Trilogy, the differences were night and day. 

Just one month after Duke Nukem 3D, Lobotomy released the even more ambitious Quake. It was the conversion that shouldn’t exist; the ’97 equivalent of DOOM Eternal on Switch. Rather than use a customised version of id Software’s Quake Engine, it instead utilised Lobotomy’s tried and tested SlaveDriver engine. Whereas Duke Nukem featured flat 2D enemies within 3D environments, everything in Quake was fully 3D. It was a huge undertaking not just for Lobotomy, but also for the humble Saturn as 3D had never been the system’s forte.

Proving that they were masters of the system, succeeding where others had failed, they pulled an admirable conversion out of the bag. It wasn’t without fault, partly due to frame-rate hiccups and rejigged levels, but it did boast coloured lighting – something even the PC version lacked.

Although Croc: Legend of the Gobbos still has its fans nowadays, the Saturn version is downplayed somewhat. The Saturn library had lacked a ‘true’ 3D platformer for quite some time. The N64 had Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie; the PSone Crash and Spyro. While these games took the limelight, the Saturn was left with such 2.5D side-scrollers as Clockwork Knight, Bug, Pandemonium, and the genre-defying NiGHTS: Into Dreams.

Until the release of Sonic Jam, which sported a 3D hub world, it was even speculated that the Saturn wasn’t able to host a full-on 3D platformer. Argonaut’s Croc – published by Fox, and originally pitched to Nintendo as a platformer starring Yoshi – silenced the naysayers, offering a 3D world to run amok in. SEGA even went on to say that if it had arrived on Saturn earlier, the system’s future may have been much brighter. 

November saw the release of another landmark title – Sonic R, the second Sonic game SEGA had entrusted to UK developer Traveller’s Tales, following Sonic 3D on Mega Drive. TT Games’ technical prowess had impressed SEGA on numerous occasions, and once again they worked their magic to provide an ambitious 3D racer showcasing effects once deemed “impossible” such as transparencies and reflective surfaces.

Sonic R was an odd mix of a platformer and a racer, with each level featuring hidden tokens and shortcuts that required a degree of exploration to uncover. Conesus nowadays is that it’s a bit ropey and lacking, but at the time it was the stuff of magic and dreams. Much like Quake, it silenced the critics and pushed the Saturn hard. 

SEGA also squeezed in SEGA Touring Car Championship during this busy period. It didn’t quite reach the same highs as SEGA Rally due to control issues (without the 3D controller, steering was considerably twitchy) but it was a lot more accessible thanks to a relaxed learning curve. It both looked and sounded the part too, with a raucous soundtrack.

For those looking for a mature and gritty adventure, there was Enemy Zero – a multi-disc FMV adventure SEGA had snatched from Sony, following disappointing sales of its predecessor D. By FMV game standards this was one of the better experiences thanks to a tense atmosphere and a bigger emphasis on puzzle-solving. Protagonist Laura went on to star in D2 – an early Dreamcast release.

This leaves us with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which was running late – its silver screen counterpart hit cinemas way back in July. Published by SEGA themselves (as opposed to EA, who handled the PSone version), it was a passable enough experience. Neither good nor bad, it only seemed to exist because the movie was making megabucks.

After a turbulent launch, the sketchy release schedule that followed, and several cancelled big-name titles, winter ’97 saw the Saturn finally hit its stride – a dozen eagerly awaited titles released in quick succession, which were able to match (and in some cases rival) anything on PSone. You could even see it as a noble sentiment, with SEGA more or less conceding defeat to the PSone and N64 by this point.

To top it all off, the December ’97 issue of The Official SEGA Saturn Magazine gave away the celebrated Christmas NiGHTS on a cover disc. It truly was the season of goodwill.

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