I'm not a big Sega person, but when I saw a SegaCD unit for cheap in a Goodwill, I had to grab it. I had this vision of playing all those weird FMV games I've seen so much about but never played. Alas, it was broken and I was forced to return it. But with the cash on hand, I snagged a Sega Saturn the very next day, and after replacing the cmos battery, it was as good as new!
While I keep up with gaming pretty well, all I really knew about the Saturn was that it was Sega's entry into the Playstation/N64 generation of game consoles. As such, that's about where I set my expectations.
Saturn First Impressions
The Saturn made an excellent first impression. It has a pretty nifty BIOS screen, and the cheap games I bought with it oozed 90s nostalgia. Daytona USA screamed 90s with the music and menus and it just made me smile!
The cheap sports games I bought alongside it were just as amazing, jam packed with low resolution FMVs and a mix of (mostly) 2D and 3D assets. Loading times were atrocious, the games were simple and I was loving it! The Sega Saturn controller is a bit strange after using modern controllers for years, but it did a well enough job at letting me play the games.
Hands on with the Saturn
Once the initial burst of 90s wore off, the limitations of the Saturn quickly came into focus. To get a good look at the Saturn, I spent way more than I'd care to admit at getting a decent library of games.
- Daytona USA
- Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition
- Wing Arms
- NFL Quarterback Club 96
- Grand Slam
- Nascar 98
- Virtua Cop
- Center Ring Boxing
- Mega Man 8
- Virtua Racer
Just as a clue in terms of pricing - Mega Man 8 cost almost double of all the other games combined. If you're going to be buying complete Saturn games, be aware that many of the cases are broken.
The bottom tab seems to be broken on almost every Saturn game I bought, sometimes from the front cover, sometimes the actual hole is broken off of the main part of the case. To get a case without damage costs almost twice as much for most games!
The Japanese Saturn games I have (not used in this article) do not suffer from this problem, as they use the same style jewel cases as the PS1 and Dreamcast. My best guess is that these cases are some kind of marketing disaster holdover from the SegaCD.
Nitpicking aside, this article is mostly about the games and emulation. There are three main emulators for the Sega Saturn that I'll be talking about some level throughout the article.
While SSF is considered the best by many guides, I'm not using it. It requires the use of a CD emulator that contains adware/spyware, and while I could probably defuse the program, I'm choosing not to. If the emulator doesn't care enough about its users to avoid an adware riddled program, then why should I go out of my way to use it? Is it too much to ask for some form of ISO support like almost every other emulator?
To be fair to it, I did try to use a standard CD emulator, but it doesn't support the features that SSF needs. So, I couldn't get any games running on SSF, but I did at least throw the Saturn BIOS at it. Emulation of that seemed solid enough but there obviously wasn't much to look at.
With SSF disqualified, I went forward with Mednafen and Yabause (along with uoYabause). I've had some exposure to Mednafen, though it was many years ago and mostly for netplay purposes. Since then, Mednafen has added many more cores, including an extremely popular (and accurate) PSX core and more recently a highly touted Sega Saturn core. It's actively developed and recently added features like savestates to the Saturn core along with bug fixes and other nifty changes.
Yabause I have little experience with either. My only time using it was to run it on Dolphin because I'm dumb. Yabause itself is dedicated Saturn emulator that's been around for a long-time and has several forks. It's usually recommended as a secondary emulator after SSF or Mednafen.
Regardless of what emulator I used, I had a difficult time getting them to load anything! If you dare give them a completely valid dump that you verified works on another emulator that they don't want, be prepared to try and guess what's wrong.
- Mednafen just says the file size is too big for the disc image, which is at least a clue toward what's wrong.
- Yabause runs the bios and acts like you've inserted an invalid CD, which makes sense if it can't detect it, but isn't especially helpful.
My only recourse is to maintain two sets of dumps, one for each of the emulators. I find this utterly ridiculous, especially after the troubles I went through with SSF. Talk about a bad first impression! I nearly abandoned the emulation part of this article before booting a single game. To assist users who maybe having the same problems as me, Yabause wants a single .bin alongside a single .cue style ISO. I have not yet gotten a multi-track .bin file to work in Yabause.
Mednafen is the opposite. It wants multi-track cue/bin files, with some being split into dozens tracks. If you feed it one with all the tracks combined into a single .bin, it will refuse to load it. In Mednafen's defense, this is how redump recommends ripping Saturn games, so I consider the ones dumped like this to be my "official" collection, and the other set to be temporary for testing Yabause.
With all of that finally out of the way, let's get to the meat of things and look at the games.
Daytona USA and Daytona USA Championship Circuit Edition
Daytona USA was a must play for me. The family owned bowling center I all but grew up in had a Daytona 2 arcade cabinet, and after putting in countless quarters I discovered the panel on the back was loose and I could hit the switch to insert credits without money. As such... I played it a lot before it was replaced with a less interesting game.
During that time, I got really good at the game, memorized all the tracks and could win on any of them. I still remember finally beating the combined super course after weeks of trying and sitting exhausted as the credits played out.
Compared to the thrill of sitting in that plastic orange seat, holding onto that heavily worn down wheel and flying through the (then) beautiful courses, Daytona USA for the Saturn was a bit of a disappointment. That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, as there was still arcade goodness to be found!
Daytona USA is a port of the original arcade Daytona USA. The Super Model 2 Arcade Unit was much more powerful than the Saturn, thus the people porting the game had to do quite the job to get it running. The graphics have been stripped down greatly in every regard.
Not all is lost! The soundtrack is still fantastic and the game does bring the arcade classic to your home console, even if it's hard to see with such a terrible draw distance.
The draw distance and frame-rate actually make the game a lot more difficult, as the more complicated tracks will have a lot of blind turns that are fully rendered far ahead of time on the Arcade version. At 20 FPS, judging speed and distance is a pain, and it's still liable to lag even more when there are tons of cars on the screen.
Championship Circuit Edition released a year later and was a second port of Daytona USA. Many of the biggest complaints I had about Daytona USA were fixed, with a much improved draw distance and frame-rate. As an added bonus, you get more tracks, multiplayer, and other features to keep you coming back.
A third variant also saw store shelves and added networking support so players could race with their own screens. While I'd have loved to give that a try, setting it up was far too expensive to justify. If you're interested in it, there are some videos online showing it in action.
Daytona USA: Championship Circuit Edition is an easy recommendation if you want a fun game to pop in once in a while to show off the Saturn to friends. While the Dreamcast has a far superior port of Daytona USA, I actually find it more interesting to see the multiple efforts to squeeze it onto the Saturn's meager hardware.
We're going to get into a bit of a touchy subject with these emulators right away. Daytona USA is a launch title, and both Yabause and Mednafen more or less take care of business. There aren't any graphical issues, sound issues, or anything that most people would say are flaws...
But, neither of them accurately bring the full Saturn experience to my computer. The frame rate is much higher on the emulators and loading times are cut down to nearly nothing. Now this would be fantastic as a feature to make the games play better, but after digging through the emulators I couldn't find any way to make the timings more accurate. While many people won't care, I definitely do.
In terms of undeniable bugs, Championship Circuit Edition does have a notable, if fairly minor issue in both emulators. The cars are slightly offset of the track map.
For those who want performance, Mednafen wiped the floor with Yabause, able to maintain more than full speed on all of the tracks while Yabause struggled. Yabause does have the option of using OpenGL to greatly increase performance, but it ends up losing some graphics, such as the car shadows.
NFL Quarterback Club 96
This game is really something else. I let two AIs go at each other for a full game, and they managed to accumulate negative 216 yards in a 7 - 0 snooze fest. Running the ball is useless, making the game very unbalanced.
This feels like it could be a genesis game except for a barely 3D field, football, and goalposts. Even with just that, the Saturn likes to lag when it zooms out to show the field.
The best part of the game are FMVs that will interrupt most plays to show a referee's call on the play. While the game does allow you to disable them, features like these show how desperation to use the Saturn's full abilities could actually make a game worse. They are worth a pretty good laugh, though.
I also discovered a neat game bug, where if you put the camera too far into the end-zone, you'll encounter some garbage graphics that randomly spawns out of nowhere! This only seems to happen on console.
Yabause had significant issues emulating this game, but nothing that made it too unplayable. The sprites would have some garbage around them and the end-zones had some texturing issues. Also, if you need performance you're out of luck this time, OpenGL falls flat on its face with the field getting a mind of its own.
Mednafen fared much better, with only some annoying flickering during some of the intro FMVs.
Much like with the football game, we have 2D players on top of a 3D field. Honestly, this game looks way better than the football game with more detailed sprites and much more detail in the stadium and backgrounds. The game does look pretty good in spots.
This game actually has an early form of modern sports game commentary, with a play-by-play announcer. Aside from an Intro FMV, the game also has animations play on the Jumbotron when certain things happen in-game, which is a lot less annoying that the referee showing up every other play in Quarterback Club.
This is a game that works fine in both emulators, but at the same time is problematic due to their limitations.
I highly recommend you play this game on console because both Saturn Emulators have a lot of input latency. Consider that playing the console through my capture card was less latency than either emulator.
I've seen recommendations on r/emulation to use a different frontend to reduce input latency, but, I'm not going to increase my scope any bigger for the purposes of this article. Of the two emulators, it seems like Mednafen has lower latency, but I didn't do any actual measuring. It just was easier to time the pitches overall there.
Center Ring Boxing
I thought this game was going to be terrible. The first time I played it, I got frustrated and gave up after just a few minutes. Later on, I played it more, learned what it wanted me to do and still disliked it. Strangely enough, after a while I got into the flow of a match and found it to be pretty tolerable.
I played this game with a friend watching and in this case our opinions differed. I thought the game looked really bad, but he thought they did a great job on the character models considering the limitations of the Saturn. I'll leave it up to you to have an opinion.
Even if you think the character models are decent, it comes at the cost of pretty much any other graphics. The crowd is pretty much non-existent, most of the background is a solid black, and the framerate can still tank if everything manages to get on screen at once.
The controls are the biggest problem. Movement is difficult, moves have incredibly long warmup and cooldown frame windows, and the button combinations are a bit awkward to hit to access some of the stronger moves. The easy control scheme helps a bit, but, even when all the moves have their own button it's still a chore to play. As a neat aside, the game does feature a ton of different camera angles, including my personal favorite, Crotch Person View
Joking aside, the game actually works and sometimes the fights manage to have a nice ebb and flow, forcing you to switch strategies depending on who has the advantage. It's more than I can say about most of the boxing games I've played over the years.
The emulators do a pretty serviceable job once again. There are no obvious visual glitches, and because the game didn't lag much on console, it behaved roughly the same overall. I recorded a fight in emulator and it honestly looks pretty spot on with how it played on console.
The only noticeable thing was weird graphics on the main menu. If you haven't played the game on console you may think the flickering untextured characters were a glitch, but no. That's actually how they look.
Wing Arms is probably the most interesting of the games I got.
It's better than the sports games by a healthy margin, but still a very flawed game in some respects.
This game has a ton of pre-rendered footage, and honestly it's great. These eye-popping, awkwardly animated scenes look so silly yet it's fun to imagine 90s gamers thinking they looked badass back in the day. And nonsensically enough they decided not to pre-render one scene and it turned out even better. Enjoy.
I don't know how something like this happened, but I'm eternally grateful that it did. Aside from that, the game actually looks damn good for a Saturn title. The draw distance is absolutely fantastic compared to the competition and the framerate is solid most of the time.
Upon closer examination, you start to see the sacrifices developers made in order to achieve those merits. The objects in the distance are untextured and made of very few polygons. This was a problem in games of the era, but, what makes it so frustrating here is that it impacts the gameplay, too!
The bases that you're periodically asked to attack have weakpoints on them. These weakpoints do not render until you're extremely close. You can shoot the base all you want and not do any damage unless you hit the turrets placed around it.
After you figure out where the turrets are placed, the bases are easy to take out.
In terms of scope, the game actually has three separate terrains: Mountain, City, and Ocean. No matter what map your on, the base terrain is flat and all that's added are some details on top of it. City ends up looking the best because the lack of detail is harder to spot. Mountain... well...
If you're looking to show off the Saturn, Wing Arms is an excellent tech demo and not all that horrible to play. As a game to seek out and buy, it's hard to recommend. While there are multiple planes, each campaign is exactly the same and only lasts 40 Minutes assuming you don't run out of lives. On the positive side of things, if you have a Sega Saturn Flight Stick, you're in luck, as this is one of the few games to support it!
This is a game where I really have to bring up timings again. The game on console is almost constantly running slower than it should be. During the final boss fight, it regularly tanks down to single digit frames per second!
On an emulator, while the game does slow down during a few of the boss fights, it's not nearly as much or as often as on console. If you're just looking to play this game without caring about console accuracy, this probably thrills you. For me, it's a bit disappointing, and I'd love to now if there was a setting to bring me closer to the console timings.
In terms of glitches, Mednafen had some garbage on the edge of the FMVs, but did a very good job overall.
Yabause has the same garbage on the edge of the FMV as Mednafen, but overall looks fine... until you get in game.
While it may look like it's raining, that's actually a ton of visual garbage and it's extremely hard to see or play the game. The game doesn't crash, but it's still left completely unplayable. While I should have just moved onto the next game, I kept messing with the emulator hoping to at least affect the glitches.
After exhausting Yabause's options, I decided to give uoYabause a spin and see if maybe the improved OpenGL rendering there would prove key. While uoYabause is designed for phones, featuring an ARM recompiler and an improved OpenGLES backend, I was hopeful that maybe it'd be able to run this game.
Despite low expectations, it managed to do even worse than I expected. Nothing 3D renders, meaning that many scenes are left broken. The game doesn't crash, but with no enemies to shoot, no sky or ground rendering, you're left flying blind.
After some poking around, I realized that uoYabause has more or less left the software renderer to rot. After testing several games, I came to the conclusion that it's a broken pile of garbage they don't really care to maintain. Much like Dolphin's software renderer.
Instead, they have put all their eggs into the hardware rendering basket, and to their credit it performs better than the OpenGL backend in mainline Yabause. That's not saying much.
After that amazing sight, I was hyped to see how uoYabause would fare in-game, but it disappointed me one last time for good measure and crashed before loading the actual level.
I really can't recommend uoYabause for anything outside of Android. It's a lot buggier, it likes to have audio errors when switching games, and the increase in performance doesn't matter much when the games don't really work. I know I only showed Wing Arms here, but I did try it across the rest of my library and found these kinds of situations were common.
Changing Things Up
Now for the most expensive (and hopefully illuminating) part of the article. We're going to change the rules a bit; we're no longer going to be comparing just console and emulator. Now we're mostly going to be comparing Saturn games to their Playstation counterparts, while still noting any emulation issues along the way.
While we already know how history played out, can the multi-platform titles of the day stand tall on the Sega Saturn?
NOTE: Because this article is primarily about the Sega Saturn, I will not be using any Playstation emulators. All Playstation footage was recorded from a PS2 using component cables, only because my composite cables were giving me significant interference on the signal. I bought S-video cables for my Saturn to try and make the signal quality gap as little as possible.
Mega Man 8 - Anniversary Collector's Edition
Mega Man 8 is a game that looks and feels like a legitimate console game. It avoids all of the pitfalls of being a game released on Saturn, mostly because it doesn't require a ton of 3D horsepower to run!
Ignoring some signal quality differences, the Playstation and Saturn versions of Mega Man 8 more or less look identical. While there are some loading time differences here or there, it's not enough to really affect the experience.
While the Saturn controller has a different layout than the Playstation controller, the game plays fine regardless. You can even customize the controls a bit in the options if they don't suite you, so there's not much of an advantage to either console here.
In terms of graphics, one of the most commonly cited weaknesses of the Sega Saturn is its inability to do transparency. In Mega Man 8, it's obvious that developers were forced to work around this limitation by using checkerboarded empty dots on things that were meant to be see-through.
Except, I took that screenshot from the Playstation version. While the Playstation version was technically released first, Sony was strongly against 2D games on the PS1, especially in the western market. Perhaps sensing the friction, it seems that the Saturn version saw a bit more love.
Mega Man 8 doesn't rely on anything that would compromise the Saturn version against the PS1 version. Transparent smoke flickers instead of fading away, explosive bits flicker, and UI elements are checker-boarded on both versions of the game.
On top of that, some features were made exclusive to the Sega Saturn version. Some music differences were present, but that's only notable because the Playstation version ended up being so dominant. I honestly prefer the PS1 soundtrack after playing through both. There's some bonus concept art missing from the Playstation version and two hidden bosses are only available in the Saturn version.
Because the Saturn flopped so hard, it's extremely expensive to pick up a copy of Mega Man 8 for Saturn. If you have the money to burn, it's a neat collector's item and a very slightly better version of the game. And considering the limited library on the Saturn, it's one of the better titles you can get.
As a note - Playstation emulators do a fine job on Mega Man 8.
Saturn Emulators also do a pretty good job on Mega Man 8. The only nitpick is that the image is so clear, the fake transparency used throughout the game is a lot more obvious than on console. That's not exactly the emulators problem, and can be solved with some filters if you're into those.
The other note is that there is a bit more input latency than I'd prefer for a game like this. It's still very playable, but the infamous "Jump Jump, Slide Slide" section can be annoying. Using a controller can help with latency (a common thing in emulators on Windows, mGBA shares this trait.) That brings it to slightly more latency as my capture card, which I previously measured as roughly three to four frames of latency when working on a project for Dolphin.
Just be warned that some of the more difficult platforming challenges may be a bit awkward in emulator.
Head to head in a 3D title put out by EA sports in the 90s, could the Saturn stand up to the Playstation?
While it puts up a pretty good effort, the Saturn just can't compare to the Playstation in a 3D title. It's immediately noticeable the Saturn is going to struggle - on the Playstation, the menus are crisp and responsive while on the Saturn, they are choppy and regularly miss inputs. Loading times end up a lot worse on the Saturn, sometimes taking over twice as long as my Playstation 2 (without the speedup loadtimes feature for PS1 games.)
While that may just be developer incompetence, the actual game does work and plays about the same on both consoles. In fact despite its limitations, Nascar 98 is one of the nicer looking 3D Saturn games I have.
In terms of features, the Playstation heavily relies on transparency for much of the graphics. Saturn version is forced to either drop these elements or completely black them out.
On the other side of things, Nascar 98 is an average looking PS1 title at best. The Saturn version has less polygons, a worse framerate, and missing transparency effects. But it does have all the features, even the multiplayer mode! To do that, it strips down the game to the bare minimum for graphics.
Nascar 98 is a port, so, it can run at a much better frame rate on the Playstation version with more power. Thus, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Saturn emulators unlock that same potential, bringing us a solid 30 FPS no matter how much lag it'd have on console.
Loadtimes are also way too fast. Loading typically takes 27 seconds on console, where as Mednafen usually loads a track in 8 seconds.
I did not notice any visual or audio issues in my time with this game, and it is fairly well emulated other than those timing issues.
My Thoughts on Saturn Emulation
After spending nearly three months with the Saturn, I can confidently say that it's not worth going out of your way to emulate Saturn games. Unless you have something you absolutely must play, there's just too many hurdles and difficulties to recommend it. Experienced users who are more than willing to bang their heads can get some value from it because the actual emulators are actually pretty good once you figure everything out.
You're going to want a fairly beefy machine. My Core i5-3570K had no problems running the games full speed most of the time, but, considering when I disabled the frame-limiter, I was maybe hitting 150%, I could see many user's computers struggling here when they can run other emulators of more modern consoles.
Mednafen really impressed me with solid emulation overall and clearly outclassed Yabause in my test cases. It also supports the disc format that redump.org considers correct and is even faster than Yabause in the games I did experience slowdown. It's under active development and has even improved soundly since I started this article. I definitely recommend giving Mednafen a spin if you're going to get into Saturn emulation.
Yabause isn't a pushover though, and definitely has a more pleasing UI for casual users. The problem is that Yabause's performance and accuracy didn't live up to expectations. On top of that, tons of features didn't work as advertised. Full-screen cut off a ton of graphics, touching anything while a game was running risked crashing the emulator and it doesn't even support the disc format recommended for archiving.
That said, Yabause isn't a bad emulator either and I can definitely see using for spot cases when the other emulators fail.
uoYabause on the other hand is not ready for mainstream use. If you're looking for a great way to play Saturn games on the go, look elsewhere. If you understand that this is a work-in-progress and you will run into issues, then you'll probably be able to get some enjoyment out of it, especially on phones.
The fact it runs as well as it does on Android devices is very impressive, and if they manage to make things more accurate, it could potentially be an option for people on weaker computers. The potential is there for something special, it's just yet to be seen if it will attain it.
My Thoughts on the Saturn
With inferior graphics, a lackluster library, and a high price, the Sega Saturn bombed without much fanfare. Everything good about the console is just offset by how weak it is compared to the rest of the generation. It feels like the power it has is wasted because it's not strong enough to really do full 3D adventures like its competition.
I just didn't get what Sega was thinking making a console like this... until a friend pointed me in the right direction.
Since the Genesis, Sega had been making incremental improvements to the console with add-ons. The Sega CD gave it CD Music and FMVs, the 32x gave it more power to do visual effects like scaling and output better 3D graphics! The Saturn puts those ideas together with a bit more power, able to do basic 3D, CD music and FMVs fairly well. If we look at Virtua Racing, a game that came out on the Genesis, 32x, and Saturn, you can see them slowly make their way toward modern graphics.
The problem was that while Sega was busy taking baby steps, Sony and Nintendo made the leap. Thus, the Saturn was left behind as the 3D age took hold of gamers across the world.