Friday, December 19, 2008

Sega Saturn Guide

Welcome to the Next Level

Lately, the Saturn has seen resurgence amongst the retro-gaming crowd. The retro scene itself has been growing lately, with emulation and cheaper prices of older games providing a great way to jump in.

I'm not a Saturn expert, and I don't consider myself a "retro" gamer, as I just never really completely left my Saturn alone, but for anyone who is just entering the world inside of Neptune, there's a few things to know about the system, and hopefully, I can help out.

A little background info

The Saturn was designed as the next full-console follow-up to Sega's successful Genesis. Part of the planet naming code which included Mars (32X) and Neptune (A 32X/Genesis hybrid), the Saturn would be the only system to carry its code name. Originally developed in the hey-day of 2D gaming, the system was to be a 2D powerhouse, powered by a single processor. After having seen the 3D power of upcoming rival Sony's Playstation, Sega quickly shifted gears, adding in a second SH-2 processor at the last minute.

This led to the system's infamous "hard to program" reputation. Not only that, but developers were given few tools to get games up and running by the Saturn's launch date. To make matters even worse, as a "sneak attack," the launch date was moved forward unannounced at select retailers, leaving developers with little time to finish their games, and leaving other retailers out in the cold. It would do well to damage to Sega's reputation in the store front, with some chains, notably Kay-Bee Toys who chose to boycott Sega altogether, and with 3rd party developers, already reluctant with the relative failures of the 32X and Sega CD.

The Saturn initially seemed to be doing alright despite the setbacks, at least until the Playstation came around. Despite going toe-to-toe for a few months, the Saturn couldn't hold out against the better marketing, slightly higher visuals, and of course, Final Fantasy VII. Despite slowing sales and monetary loss, Sega continued to pump out ports of its popular arcade games, new exclusives, and other titles that, if not popular, were quality games waiting to be discovered.

Why bother?

The Saturn was home to several exclusive games at the time, many of which are still only available on the Saturn. Though not as ubiquitous as Playstation games, more popular Saturn games can still be had for just a few dollars, so despite certain exceptions, building a decent collection is still relatively cheap. Many haven't had the chance to play through the Saturn library, instead having a PS at the time. Unique games that are off the beaten path can be found on the system.

  • Arcade games: Fans of Sega's arcade line-up of the era (anything Model 2) will find many home conversions on the Saturn with added modes and extras.

  • 2D Powerhouse: Though facing stiff competition as 3D system, the Saturn was the superior 2D machine in the 32/64-bit era, with many of Capcom and SNK's fighters having arcade perfect ports on the system. That is not to say its 2D library is limited to fighters, though.

  • RPGs: I'll admit, I'm not much of an RPG player, but the Saturn has had several exclusive RPGs, and from what I've heard, they're pretty good, too.

  • Imports: If you're willing to import, there's even more games available for the Saturn, ranging from exclusive RPGs to one of the greatest shooters of all time.

System essentials

Sega Saturn - A bunch of games and no system won't do much good, so make sure to have one of these. The Saturn is commonly found in two flavors: the Model 1, which is noted for its oval-shaped buttons; and the Model 2, identified by its round buttons, a smaller version that was redesigned to reduce manufacturing costs later in the Saturn's life.

Controllers - The Saturn had several different controller styles made for it (I plan to do an article on the myriad of official choices later on), but the most common are:

  • Original - With a large plastic shell and bulky looks, these are probably the worst of the official control pads. Unfortunately, the shoulder buttons are pretty poor and tend to break easily.

  • Model 2 - These are included in the redesigned Model 2 Saturn and are generally sturdier and more comfortable than the original.

  • 3D Controller - At the time, Nights into Dreams was touted to be so revolutionary that it needed a new controller to play. Really, Sega had to jump on the analog boat with competitors Nintendo and Sony. This is a must-have, as most later games have analog support, and to use it will require this pad.

  • Stunner Gun - If you like to shoot things on the screen, this is the way to go. Even though the official gun lacks the features of 3rd party devices, on-screen, it is one of the most precise home light guns I have encountered.

Memory Card - Included with the Saturn is an internal memory feature, but with the right combination of games (Nights & VF2), it won't last long at all, making a memory card a necessity. In my opinion, there are two options to go for: either the official memory card, as this one seems to have the highest reliability rates on the console, or the Pro Action Replay 4 in 1. The Pro Action acts as several things, including an import device, memory card, and RAM expansion card for some 2D imports.

Read the Interact Memory Card Plus Review

Battery - Tired of having to put in the date every time you start the Saturn? Then, throw a battery in there. The Saturn takes a standard watch-size CR2032A battery that's available at drug and department stores everywhere. If your first Saturn is used, be sure to replace this first thing.

Learn more about the Saturn's battery.

Unique games

This is why you have the Saturn. You had your eye on that one game, and the only way to play it was on this console. So, here's some of the Saturn's most prominent series and exclusives. Note that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Burning Rangers - While Nights was to be the savior of the Saturn, Sonic Team's other project didn't catch on and drifted out of the limelight.

Read the Burning Rangers Review

Fighter's Megamix - Fighting Vipers and Virtua Fighter combine to create a smorgasbord of Sega. The real fun, however, is unlocking bonus characters from other Sega games, including Virtua Cop, Sonic the Fighters, and even Daytona USA.

Nights into Dreams - Though it spawned a Wii sequel years later, the original is still the better game and, outside of Japan, a Saturn exclusive.

Panzer Dragoon Saga - The entire series is reason to get a Saturn, but to this date, the Saga has only been released on this system. Granted, it's a costly addition to the collection, but it remains a Saturn exclusive nonetheless.

Read the Panzer Dragoon Saga Review

Sega Rally - While Daytona USA suffered from a rushed release, Sega Rally didn't have that problem. The game ported just fine and included improvements not found in the arcade, with extra modes and even an extra car.

Sonic Jam - Though it's just a compilation of the original Sega Genesis games (Sonic 1, 2, 3 and Knuckles), Jam finally brought Sonic to the world of 3D, if only as a tease. The Sonic World feature saw the dude running through the 3D Green Hills in what would later turn out to be the basis for Sonic Adventure.

Steep Slope Sliders - This snowboarding game was a hit on the Saturn, yet never saw release on another system.

Virtua Fighter 2 - At the time, this was _the fighting game. Beautiful 3D graphics and flawless game play transferred to the Saturn under the expertise of AM2's Yu Suzuki and remains one of the few Saturn games to run in its high-res mode. The Saturn release is the definitive home version of this game.

Virtual On - Huge robots battle it out in this one-on-one fighting game. A PC version is available, but short of importing the Japanese PS2 release, the Saturn is the way to go.

And that's only the beginning:

View a very unscientific look at the Saturn's highest-priced games.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fighting Vipers Review

Vipers is like the step-brother of Virtua Fighter. Though the two shared parents, FV was the neglected and less popular sibling, never really gaining the same status as its big brother. I remember, shortly after the Saturn was discontinued, seeing the game on sale for $1 at Toys 'R' Us. There were about 30 to 40 copies of the game amongst the stacks of discounted Sega merchandise. At the time, I felt a dollar was too much, especially since Fighter's Megamix had already taken care of my Vipers fix. But, was I right?

In the mid-90s, fighters were at their peak of popularity in the arcade. With the success of Virtua Fighter 2, Sega wanted to bring as many quarters as possible, so their famed AM2 development team went to work on a new brawler: Fighting Vipers. Vipers would keep the same simple 3-button layout as Virtua Fighter, but add a few new twists of its own.

This time, the characters come carrying weapons designed to inflict blunt-force trauma, like skateboards and guitars. To help counter these new smashing devices, every Viper has armor, with separate sections for the upper and lower body. The armor status is displayed by the character's names in the upper left and upper right corners of the screen. As the armor takes more damage, the display will go from green to yellow. Once it's yellow, armor can be spectacularly blown off with an armor-breaking move.Each character has a special attack designed specifically to blow the armor off of their opponent. Usually it's the last attack in a string of combos or a move that takes a moment to execute, making players have to figure out when it's safe or when a good time to use the move will be. Nail an opponent with the move and their upper or lower armor flies off, and an instant replay will show the action. With less armor, opponents are more susceptible to damage, but can move quicker to make up for it.

Nail an opponent with an armor breaker as the last hit of a match, and they 'll be sent flying through the walls that now surround each stage. All locations are enclosed and the Vipers will take advantage of that, using throws to punish opponents who get to close to the wall. No ring outs here, as walls can also be used in combos, bouncing enemies into and off the wall for even more damage.

When a character has been launched in the air, either through an attack or taking damage while jumping, they're now able to recover mid-flight. This'll let them land on the ground without taking any damage, but it does allow the opponent more time to potential juggle an attack - another trade-off and another spin on the Virtua formula.Overall, the action has been sped up. Everything moves faster in general, and recovery time in particular has been increased from Virtua Fighter. In doing so, the game seems to lose some of the strategy and timing that was integral to the VF series. Of course, there have always been players that mash buttons and hope for the best, but Vipers seems to cater more to this style of play. That's not to say time and strategy aren't important, just perhaps less so than in its big brother.

The new characters match with the game setting as everyone is decked out in "extreme" wear. There's the Guns N Roses-influenced Raxel beating people with a Flying V; the schoolgirl Candy (Honey) strapped with a PVC skirt and top; Jane, a very butch and strong female - as well as an assortment of other X-game wannabes and weirdoes: rollerbladers, skateboarders, an evil dude, and the unfortunately named "B. M." Just like Virtua Fighter, characters have different sizes and abilities, usually with the big guys (and girls, here) being slow and powerful and the smaller ones being weaker and faster.

But there's one important character I haven't mentioned yet: Pepsi Man. Said cola guy was used to advertise Pepsi products in Japan, appearing when help was needed and giving folks a Pepsi in order to save the day. In Fighting Vipers, he does something similar. Occasionally, when an opponent beats you, instead of having to insert another credit, Pepsi Man will appear in the Pepsi challenge. Kick his ass and you get to continue your game for free. The bad news: Since Pepsi Man was only used in Japan, that means he's only available in the Japanese version of the game. It's a cheap import, though, since there were plenty of copies of Fighting Vipers to go around.Graphically, the game trades in the Saturn's VF2 high-res look for a lower resolutioned Gouraud-shaded one. Personally, I prefer the higher resolutions, but we do see real-time lighting pop up in this game. Basically, it looks like most other Saturn games.

The Saturn conversion does add a couple of nice new features. In addition to the arcade and versus modes, there's also team battle, where a group of characters is placed against another group. A training mode is available from the start to practice different moves and get their timing down. As a bonus, there's extra settings for a big-head and sped-up "hyper" mode. It's all topped off with a few secret characters, including previously mentioned Big Mauler and the walking, stuffed bear Kuma-chan.

All in all, Vipers is a solid game, but it doesn't have a whole lot of holding value. It's not that I don't like the game, it's just everything FV does has already been done better by Virtua Fighter 2. And for those who like the Vipers characters and feel, Fighter's Megamix has that covered, and then some.


Monday, December 8, 2008

Shenmue Santa

It's that time of the year again. It's December. Snow is falling (at least in my parts). And, after a good day of running around and searching for gifts, it's time to sit back by the fire and soak up the holiday spirit, Sega-style.

Of course, there's the obvious Christmas Nights, which should be peaking in price on ebay right now, but let's take a look at a different game - a game where a young man embarks on a journey to find out who really killed his father by talking to kittens, collecting toys... and finding sailors.

That's right, it's Shenmue and it's got a little holiday cheer. For whatever reason, the game always reminds me a bit of this time of year. Maybe it was the November 11th release date. Or maybe it's the late November to early January timeframe.

Most likely, it's this guy:With a Japanese Santa walking down the street reminding people to make a purchase at the local shops while Christmas music floats through a snow-covered Debouita, nothing says, "'Tis the season," quite like it.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Before Rez was Rez, it was K-Project. Then it was Project Eden. Then it became Vibes.

In March of 2008, Vibes leaked online. Dated 2001/06/01 (Build 036), it's really close to the final version of the game, with a few major differences. Of course, the most notable is the music. Adam Freeland's "Fear" from Area 5 is in the game with a slightly different arrangement, but the rest of the tunes are provided by Underworld. Pacing, enemy locations, and some backgrounds are different than the final. As expected, there is a little slowdown and a few bugs, but the game is completely playable. Although Areas 1 through 4 remain largely the same, Area 5 has seen the most changes before release. A different flavor of "Fear" is used, one that has repeating voice loops throughout. None of the text describing evolution is included in this level, instead just shuffling players from one spot to the next. After finishing Area 5, an "Area 5 logout" screen appears and transports players to Area 6 instead of going straight into the second round of bosses. No longer do the "Why are you here?" messages appear. Rather, explosions eventually reveal the names and forms of the upcoming bosses.Throughout this last Area, there is no music. Upon reaching Eden, the camera is located right up next to her instead of at a distance, making things quite trickier, as enemies fire from the front and rear. The level looks pretty much the same layout-wise, but the enemies themselves have changed. There are a lot of missiles flying around, fired from machines traveling along the tracks surrounding Eden. A bit different from the final, this time they are destroyed easily, instead of taking repeated shots before finally going down. Eventually, large orange orbs will appear and after several shots, they release fragments of Eden, who is gradually pieced back together.

Movies still appear showing her reconstruction, but they're longer and have different scenes in the background - a cell dividing, landing on the moon, and lots of landscapes, such as deserts, waterfalls, forests, and the like - all of which is stamped "Digital Film" in the corner.All in all, Vibes is an interesting glimpse into the past of Rez. It can be found pretty easily, with only a little digging and plays on a standard Dreamcast. If you're at all interested in Rez, this is definitely worth checking out.