Saturn vs. PlayStation

For discussion of Lunar: Eternal Blue, the remake of Lunar 2 for Saturn/Playstation and all its translations
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Imperial Knight
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Re: Saturn vs. PlayStation

Post by Imperial Knight »

Kizyr wrote: Thu Nov 12, 2020 2:27 am I'm not sure how true this is, but one often-cited thing about the Saturn is that it was designed for 2D graphics and arcade ports of existing Sega properties, while Playstation was designed more for 3D. That's often given as a reason why Saturn didn't make it when games started going much more 3D and things like sprite rendering were less important. That would explain some of the better look of the Saturn version since, well, Lunar is still a 2D game.

I'm honestly not sure how much of this is really accurate, and how much is just analysis after-the-fact looking for justifications. There was a lot during those console war eras that got tossed around as factoids that weren't really accurate (or more commonly just didn't matter).

That's not to say the Saturn version didn't look better, or sound better (I think it certainly did), but that it often got chalked up to the relative strengths/weaknesses of each console, and that's the part I'm not so sure about anymore.
Since I last posted in this topic I started listening to They Create Worlds, a video game history podcast co-hosted by Alex Smith, who is in the process of writing a three part history of gaming (the first part of which has been published). Smith has conducted research using many primary and secondary sources, interviewed many industry figures, and in the process dispelled a number of common myths about gaming history. All of which is not, of course, to say that anything he says should be taken as the gospel truth, but it is at least the result of extensive research and not just a regurgitating of conventional wisdom or console war arguments.

The podcast did a series of episodes on the Nintendo/Sega rivalry which talked about the development of the Saturn. The discussion more or less confirmed the story of Saturn being designed around 2D graphics, with 3D tacked on later in development. As Smith tells it, when Sega started development on the Saturn they believed that 3D graphics at a practical cost for building a console were too far off for Saturn and that the best course of action was to focus on giving the system the best 2D capabilities possible. It was seeing early tech demos of the PlayStation that convinced Sega they needed acceptable 3D capabilities for Saturn. Nintendo was working on the 3D focused hardware that would become the Nintendo 64, but that wasn't expected to be ready until at least a year after Saturn would be. What spooked them about the PlayStation was that it had good enough 3D capabilities for the time and was going to be ready around the same time as Saturn. At that point Sega approached Hitachi about speeding up the SH-2 processor that was to be Saturn's CPU to give the boost in power they'd need for 3D graphics. Hitachi told them they couldn't do that without significant delays but they did offer up the alternative of linking two SH-2s together. This is the solution Sega went with and it worked after a fashion, but at the cost of making an already complex architecture (the system had already been planned to have two video display processors) even more complex.

Anecdotally I remember reading gaming magazines around this time and the consensus was that early PlayStation games looked more impressive than early Saturn games, with reports that developers were struggling with how to best use the system and even statements from Sega referring to a learning curve for the hardware.

This was a pretty volatile time in the video game industry and there's certainly a lot of interesting stories from back then. For instance, it's fairly well known that the PlayStation evolved out of the canceled SNES CD-ROM project, but somewhat less well known that Silicon Graphics Incorporated first approached Sega about building a console around their tech and some people at Sega (notably including Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske) were interested but the two sides never reached a deal. SGI then went on to make a deal with Nintendo instead, where their tech became the heart of the N64.

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Re: Saturn vs. PlayStation

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I don't have much to add but, wow, that is a lot of fascinating context!

It explains a lot, some of what I suspected, but much more that I just didn't know about. One missing piece that stands out, especially one that back as a kid in 1996 I had no way of really understanding, is how much of this was really trying to cut in front of the competition in specific ways based on predictions about the industry. I vaguely recall the Saturn being released earlier than I expected, which I thought was to cut in front of competition from the PS, but knowing now that the architecture was an attempt to try to release sooner and have some of the capabilities of both the N64 and PS is interesting.
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Imperial Knight
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Re: Saturn vs. PlayStation

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Specifically in North America the Saturn had a surprise early launch in May 1995 during E3 to get a jump on the PlayStation, which would launch in September (Saturn was originally scheduled to launch in September as well). In the end this backfired on Sega as the move angered the retailers who weren't included in the early launch (including big names like Walmart), and developers were also caught off guard so very few games were available until September anyway. Sega hoped the buzz of an early launch would be a real difference maker, but Sony ended up generating plenty of buzz of their own by announcing (in a one-word presentation) that the PlayStation would retail for $299, compared to Saturn's $399.



So, yes, as you've surmised Sega in this era was especially concerned with how they could position themselves relative to the competition. Another example of this would be 32X, which was something of a response to Jaguar and 3DO launching in 1993. Sega was afraid these systems would kill the Genesis market they had worked so hard to build, and whose momentum they wanted to build on for the Saturn launch. Jaguar especially terrified Sega because it was aggressively priced ($249.99 at launch, compared to an eye-popping $699.99 for 3DO). The idea was to get something out quickly that would function as a souped-up Genesis to keep the platform viable until Sega could transition to Saturn. As it turned out Sega needn't have worried about Jaguar, which turned out to be a major flop (3DO did a bit better, but not well enough to be any real threat) and of course the 32X ended up performing disastrously.

One thing I had never quite understood was Sega's strategy for Saturn and 32X, where they positioned the former as a "high end" console and the latter as the "mass market" 32-bit system. I'd have to think that played a role in poor third-party support for 32X, since if you wanted to do something cutting edge you'd develop for Saturn (or a competitor) and if you wanted to sell to Genesis owners you could sell to all of them by making a plain Genesis game rather than a 32X game. A bit of insight that Smith had was that Sega's original expectation was that 32X would be ready well before Saturn and thus would have time to grow in the marketplace before being displaced by Saturn. Ultimately 32X didn't end up ready until Saturn was already launching in Japan (and thus perceived as just around the corner in America and Europe). In this light the "high end/mass market" thing appears to be Sega trying to make the best of an awkward situation rather than a premeditated strategy.

I think this was a very difficult console transition to manage, much more so than 8-bit to 16-bit, because there were two big technical questions to wrestle with (2D vs. 3D and cartridges vs. CDs). Sega somewhat struggled with both questions. I discussed the 2D/3D issue in my previous post, and they were initially unsure whether to make Saturn CD-based, cartridge based, or to accommodate both in some way. They were hardly alone in doing so, as pretty much every console maker came up with their own mix of answers to the two questions, and often after quite a bit of push and pull (see Nintendo's early explorations into CD-ROM). Ultimately it was Sony who came up with the most successful solution from the standpoint of the market.

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