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NeoGAF Official SEGA SATURN Community

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Digital Pinball: Necronomicon (1997, KAZe)

If you're a fan of pinball machines, Sega Saturn has you covered with no less than seven pinball games in its software library. Two of the best come from Japanese developer KAZe, who released the excellent Digital Pinball: Last Gladiators in 1995, which was followed two years later with a second installment titled Necronomicon that unfortunately never left Japan, most likely due to the Saturn's fading fortunes in the West. Today, the title has become a cult favorite among Saturn and pinball fans alike, and import prices have remained reasonable.

Digital Pinball: Necronomicon is a collection of several pinball machines with a common gothic heavy metal theme. All the boards are original designs but created to mimic real-life pinball as much as possible. You will find the usual assortment of flippers, bumpers and ramps, along with multiple pathways and targets. The designs are based on the 1990s pinball revival, in which designers took inspiration from videogames by incorporating multiple objectives and a final goal to "defeat" the machine. They even included a small video display to highlight important scoring events and add to the immersive experiences. Each of these elements are perfectly recreated by KAZe's software team.

Pinball physics has always been a major challenge for video and computer games, and most attempts have struggled to capture the nuances of weight and momentum, the pull of gravity, the feel of the pinball and how it interacts with its environment. KAZe succeeds superbly, and they may have mastered these elements better than, well, anyone. The balls in Digital Pinball have a real sense of weight and motion, and I hadn't realized until now just how floaty most video pinball games have been. It's just one of those things you learned to make your peace and accept, in hopes that programmers would one day figure it all out. Well, these coders have definitely cracked the mystery, and kudos to them for it.

The physics are so solid, in fact, that I'm almost immediately reminded just how terrible I am at real-life pinball. I usually lose my pinball within the first ten seconds and feel like an idiot. Thankfully, all of the Necronomicon tables incorporate a "frozen" feature that gives you back your ball if you lose too quickly. I think the game eventually just feels sorry for me and starts handing out multiballs and jackpots to help me feel better. Yeah, well, I don't need your pity. Okay, I kinda do.

One gameplay feature that I really enjoy are the board instructions, which are available when you pause the game and press the A button. These include a detailed map of the pinball board, the general rules, the conditions for triggering the multiball, the final goals and the high score table. It's a very nice feature to help keep you focused on your goals as you progress. It's quite possible that a hidden fourth table is unlocked once you "defeat" the main three, as KAZe had done previously with Last Gladiators, so having access to the instructions is highly valuable.

All of the graphics are rendered in Sega Saturn's "480/60" high resolution mode, meaning 704x480 resolution at 60 frames-per-second. Because of this, the playfield appears especially crisp, clean and clear, and the pinball physics are extra silky smooth. The boards are highly detailed yet uncluttered, and this avoids one of the major pitfalls of video pinball in that you can actually make out what's going on. You won't get lost trying to find where the ball is hiding. Positioning and precise shots are possible, and with a little practice you are able to hit those tricky ramps or target points with relative ease. The color palette is dark and subtle with primary and secondary colors, but natural, as though you are playing in a smokey bar late at night. The music is provided by rock guitarist John Petrucci of Dream Theater fame and perfectly fits Necronomicon's heavy metal theme. The music isn't especially memorable but it delivers as promised and die-hard fans will probably want to pick up this title just for the tunes.

The Digital Pinball series is an easy sell for pinball aficionados. If you're a fan of Last Gladiators, then you're in luck. Here's another set of pinball tables for you to enjoy. For Saturn fans, much of the game's appeal lies in the fact it remained in Japan, alongside the other 300 quality software titles that we were never allowed to play in the 1990s. Once again, I have no idea why this title was overlooked by American publishers. Oh, well. The internet and import retailers have solved that issue for us now.
 

B_Signal

Member
Is there a good, easy fix for the cartridge slot on a Saturn? Mine runs well but 4mb games are hit and miss, more miss generally
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
Is there a good, easy fix for the cartridge slot on a Saturn? Mine runs well but 4mb games are hit and miss, more miss generally
What's the issue? The slot can go bad but that's uncommon. Cheapest and easiest would be to skip the repair and just source a new console (they are still reasonable enough in price). Possible that the 4meg cart has gone bad but again, that's uncommon.

Which games in particular are giving you trouble? And do they boot but fail to allow expanded memory modes, or does the game fail to load entirely?
 

B_Signal

Member
What's the issue? The slot can go bad but that's uncommon. Cheapest and easiest would be to skip the repair and just source a new console (they are still reasonable enough in price). Possible that the 4meg cart has gone bad but again, that's uncommon.

Which games in particular are giving you trouble? And do they boot but fail to allow expanded memory modes, or does the game fail to load entirely?

I've had a few that have spotty cartridge slots. Tbh this is all because I saw Avengers and wanted to play Marvel Super Heroes :p I know it works without the cart, but it reminded me that both my official one and the unofficial one weren't being recognised (I get a japanese text screen and the only thing I recognise is "4mb", so presumably it's telling me I need to put one in)


edit: my pc is powerful enough to emulate the Saturn, I've just always struggled to find a reliable emulator, so I prefer just playing on the original hardware
 
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DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
Is there a good, easy fix for the cartridge slot on a Saturn? Mine runs well but 4mb games are hit and miss, more miss generally


This is a common problem for Sega Saturn owners, especially those who use the Action Replay cartridge which uses a thicker board. Fortunately, you can purchase a new cartridge slot and have that installed, and prices are very affordable.

Because of these cartridge slot issues, I always recommend using the Action Replay cart and leaving it in place. That cart includes the 4MB expansion, region override, memory saves and cheat codes, making it essential for all Saturn owners. The only time you would need to pop it out is if you wanted to play Metal Slug with the 1MB cart, which reduces the slowdown and provides the best results. There may be other examples of this, but I'm not currently aware of them.

In any case, my advice is to purchase the Action Replay cart and see if that works. If the connectors are working properly and the 1MB/4MB games are playing, then just leave the cart in its place and never touch it again. If you're still having issues, then order a new cartridge slot and have that installed.
 

B_Signal

Member
This is a common problem for Sega Saturn owners, especially those who use the Action Replay cartridge which uses a thicker board. Fortunately, you can purchase a new cartridge slot and have that installed, and prices are very affordable.

Because of these cartridge slot issues, I always recommend using the Action Replay cart and leaving it in place. That cart includes the 4MB expansion, region override, memory saves and cheat codes, making it essential for all Saturn owners. The only time you would need to pop it out is if you wanted to play Metal Slug with the 1MB cart, which reduces the slowdown and provides the best results. There may be other examples of this, but I'm not currently aware of them.

In any case, my advice is to purchase the Action Replay cart and see if that works. If the connectors are working properly and the 1MB/4MB games are playing, then just leave the cart in its place and never touch it again. If you're still having issues, then order a new cartridge slot and have that installed.


I'll test to make sure it's not just the cart, I've got an action replay one somewhere, the question is whether it's at my house or hidden away at my parent's somewhere :oops:
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus












Powerslave (1996, Lobotomy Software)

Powerslave is a towering masterpiece, a thrilling spectacle of action, adventure and atmosphere that grabs you by the throat and never lets go. It is a visual showcase for the Sega Saturn's 3D polygon powers, just as these new immersive worlds were beginning to overwhelm the gaming world, led by Super Mario 64, Tomb Raider and Quake. It is endlessly challenging in its quest, loaded with monsters to battle, worlds to explore and secrets to unlock. It includes a bonus mini-game that became a cult favorite in its own right. And it beat a certain beloved Nintendo franchise title to the punch by eight years.

That it was all but ignored in the West and especially the United States is nothing less than criminal. Most of the major gaming magzines ignored it entirely. Gamespot's Jeff Gerstmann wrote an infamous review that dismissed Powerslave as "Doom with a plot (sort of), a few camels, and the proverbial mother lode of jumping spiders. Yawn." Only Richard Ledbetter, editor of UK's Sega Saturn Magazine, championed this title at every opportunity, for which Lobotomy Software, the developers, were eternally grateful.

Powerslave (known as Exhumed in the UK and Seireki 1999: Pharaoh no Fukkatsu in Japan) puts you in the shoes of a mercenary who is dropped into the heart of Egypt, where you discover the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses. His ghost appears and instructs you to seek out his exhumed body and a number of holy relics which were stolen by a hostile alien force, then sets you on your quest to the neighboring villages, ruins and catacombs. You are first armed with a sword but quickly find a pistol, and during your journeys will discover a machine gun, bombs, flamethrowers and other power-ups. These weapons become part of your permanent arsenal, meaning that if you perish, you will respawn with the same weapons intact. This is a welcome change of pace from similar first-person shooters of its era.

The stages at first appear in a linear fashion, but you will immediately notice certain areas and platforms that you cannot reach, such as health and weapons upgrades. Some areas also include deep waterways that cannot be crossed. Every Super Mario veteran knows that something must lie on the other side, and surely enough, your character receives wardrobe upgrades that allow you to jump higher, float to the ground and breathe underwater. It is at this point that you realize the game world is non-linear and considerably more complex than you first realized. "Doom with spiders" this is not. When I discovered the magic sandals, I had already ventured through my third stage, uncovering a number of keys to specific doors, battled spiders, birds, mummies and Egyptian bird-men who hurled blue fireballs at me. Now I was able to take a giant leap across a large chasm in a previous stage, and I found myself jumping everywhere in search of new hidden platforms.

The level designs are nothing short of breathtaking, especially by 1996 standards. How quickly we forget that Quake was hailed as a technical marvel with its fully realized 3D worlds which were a step above Doom's sophisticated 2D bitmaps. Yet here is Lobotomy doing much the same with their celebrated Slave Driver engine. These worlds are fully polygonal with extensive use of 3D space. This is shown not only in the long cavernous drops and narrow bridges, but the secret underwater caverns and mountain passageways. One location takes place along a series of tall mountains and hills where you must constantly jump up tall steps and across deep ravines, all while dodging lava lakes, deadly fireballs and rolling boulders. One almost expects to find Donkey Kong throwing barrels at you at some point.

Powerslave's graphics blaze by at 30 frames-per-second, only slowing down in occasional moments where the screen is crowded with enemies or when navigating through large expansive areas. The pacing is far faster and movement more liquid than Quake, which takes a methodical, strategic approach while pushing Sega Saturn to its limits with all-polygon graphics. Here, the enemies and objects are all 2D sprites, which helps to keep the speed fairly high. Your character bobs and weaves with ease, and you can maneuver your way around any situation, especially with the 3D controller's analog features which was very welcome.

Even more impressive are the realtime lighting and shading effects, which not only includes outdoor light and shade, but indoor flames that illuminate a short distance in the darkness. Pottery and jars will briefly shine as they're destroyed, and explosive barrels will set off a chain reaction of fireworks. The hulking Egyptian bird-men with the fireballs are always a favorite, as the surrounding walls are lit in shades of red, orange and purple. More than any other title in the system's library to that point, Powerslave puts to bed the notion that Sega Saturn "can't do 3D," a cruel and lazy stereotype that haunted Sega from day one. Of course this machine can "doo three dee." Here's the proof.

Of course, what makes Powerslave a classic is its gameplay, not its graphics. The level designs are far closer to Mario and Lara Croft than typical FPS games, especially with the non-linear structure, quest for and extensive platforming jumps, as well as those item upgrades that allow access into previously hidden zones and hidden transmitter pieces that are required to reach the best ending. And what videogame immediately comes to mind when we mention such things? None other than Nintendo's Metroid. When you really get down to brass tacks, Powerslave is an Egyptian-themed 3D Metroid. Indeed, when Nintendo and Retro Studios created the 3D Metroid Prime, Sega Saturn fans would have every reason to feel a strong case of deja-vu, and maybe a small bit of satisfaction.

Finally, there is one more bonus feature that elevates Powerslave to the level of genius: the team dolls. These are Egyptian dolls that feature the digitized faces of the Lobotomy developers and are all hidden throughout the game world, greatly enhancing the replay value. There are no overt clues to alert where to find them, only through trial-and-error or extreme violence will you uncover them. Uncover all 23 dolls, and you will unlock two new features: Lobo Flight and Death Tank. Lobo Flight gives you the ability to fly, allowing you to explore every nook and cranny of the world without fear of falling. Death Tank is a simple yet brilliant mini-game where two tanks climb across mountains and lob missiles at one another. It even features a crudely drawn title screen and the voice of a small child that always leaves me laughing. It should be snuck into other videogames and movies as an Easter Egg, like the Wilhelm Scream, just to see if anybody is paying attention. Lobotomy later introduced an expanded version called Death Tank Zwei with Duke Nukem 3D and Quake, which has since become a cult classic.

There was an effort a few years ago to recreate Powerslave for the PC using modern technology. I certainly applaud the effort, but I must admit that I prefer the look of the Saturn original. I love its visuals, which are slightly chunky in that 240p sort of way, its rich color palette and detailed textures, its superb lighting effects that couldn't be reproduced in the (radically different) PC version, the rolling waves and transparent water effects that only work when you're using RF or Composite cables. It's like the artists drew with a slightly thicker paintbrush which adds to the impressionist designs. If you draw with too fine a brush, you lose the essence of the piece, its emotion and excitement. You lose part of what made the original so magical, which was its ability to inspire the imagination. Videogames always work best when they're slightly abstract. Photorealism kills all the mystery and all the romance.

Outstanding, magnificent work. Get your hands on this videogame by any means necessary.

P.S. I see that my NeoGAF rank has been upgraded to "GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus." Thanks! I didn't plan on writing all these Saturn essays, it just kinda happened.
 
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DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Shutokou Battle 97 Drift King (1997, Genki)

Sega Saturn had a pretty rough time with racing videogames. Its best titles all appeared in the system's first year, with Daytona USA, Virtua Racing, Wipeout and Sega Rally Championship. After that, quality titles became increasingly rare, and this became extremely frustrating to me during the Saturn era. I enjoyed The Need For Speed and Impact Racing and High Velocity, but felt very frustrated with Daytona USA Championship Circuit Edition, Manx TT and Touring Car Championship, all of which stumbled for varying reasons. What happened to the good driving games?

I really could have used Shutokou Battle 97 in my Saturn library. Here is a racing videogame with meat on its bones, one that I could devote a lot of time playing and mastering. This game puts you behind the wheel of a series of street cars as you race against rival drivers across the Tokyo highway system. You only battle one-on-one, but you are also driving through heavy traffic and must navigate around cars and trucks as you race through the roads, bridges and tunnels while trying to overtake your rival.

At the end of the race, you will receive money that can be spent on extensive upgrades to your car, which will dramatically improve its performance. As is typical for this sub-genre, your stock vehicles are a little stiff and sluggish when you first drive them, so the upgrades to the engine, tires and suspension will make a great difference, and you feel inspired to continue racing so that you can continue improving your car. Eventually, when certain conditions are met, you will be awarded more cars beyond the initial three. There are at least eight vehicles in the game and possibly more, ranging from sports cars to a VW Bug.

The course designs are quite excellent, modeled after their Tokyo counterparts, with plenty of curves, hills, overpasses and tunnels. I especially enjoy the sights of the buildings and skyscrapers along the highway, the lights and billboards hanging overhead, and the endless array of minivans and city buses that always get in your way. One course takes place entirely at night, with illuminated roads and bridges set against dimly lit buildings in the background. Another course takes place at sunset, and you see the sky change from blue to orange to dusk as you race, and the environment is lit and colored accordingly. The draw distance is respectable for its era, the 3D polygon graphics are extremely solid, detailed and colorful, all rendered convincingly at 30 frames-per-second.

The obvious comparison is made to Namco's Ridge Racer, and Saturn fans will be very happy to have a similar racing game in their library. Shutoko Battle's pacing is a bit slower, however, and leans closer to simulation than pure arcade action. An essential gameplay feature is the hand brake than enables drifting, and it's a bit more challenging to pull off than in Ridge Racer, Daytona or Sega Rally, but no less satisfying when successfully performed. I do have some issues with the way your car bounces against the side of the road or against passing vehicles, which can cause you to abruptly slow down (the extremely dry steering controls. It lacks the bounciness and speed of the genre's top names, but the cars have a proper sense of weight and momentum that is very welcome. As always, the 3D controller's analog steering is recommended for best results.

My one major beef with this game are the low number of closed circuit race tracks, only three. It feels a bit thin and I do wish Genki had included three or four more, especially given how many times you will be racing to upgrade your cars. This was an issue with the genre during the Fifth Generation, and only a small handful of titles offered more than a handful of courses.

Genki's Shutokou Battle series began on the Super Famicom and continued through to Saturn, Dreamcast and Playstation systems. The games involve high performance racing through Tokyo's Shuto Expressway, based on real-life illegal street car races. This underground culture also spawned manga comics, anime, videogames and movies, even inspiring The Fast and the Furious series. Sega fans will best remember the series as Tokyo Extreme Racer on Dreamcast, and if you're a fan of those videogames, you'll be pleasantly surprised by this one.
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
Another great pair of write-ups, DT MEDIA. Seems like you have a real love for the mid-90s era of racers, which was almost perfectly preserved on the Saturn library. Any particular favorites?

You much of a puzzle fan? I feel that's a side of the Saturn's library that is often ignored.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
Another great pair of write-ups, DT MEDIA. Seems like you have a real love for the mid-90s era of racers, which was almost perfectly preserved on the Saturn library. Any particular favorites?

You much of a puzzle fan? I feel that's a side of the Saturn's library that is often ignored.


Thanks as always for the kind words. I probably wouldn't be working on this little writing project without the support from everyone, so it means a lot.

In answer to your comments, I have a great love for the racing games of the Fifth and Sixth Generations, those early years of 3D polygon graphics where the new technology allowed programmers and designers to create new immersive worlds, but hardware limitations required creative solutions to avoid visual glitching or frame rate chokes. As a result, we see some truly spectacular course designs in such games as Wipeout, Daytona USA, Sega Rally, Gran Turismo, Wave Race and Mario Kart. In later generations, the technology is powerful enough where "pop up" no longer exists, and we see race tracks that turn into long straight roads, almost like driving on the interstate. It's nowhere near as much fun for me. I miss the old crazy designs.

My favorite racing games from this period are on Sega Dreamcast, especially Hydro Thunder, San Francisco Rush 2049 and Crazy Taxi. I also have great love and affection for a Nintendo 64 title called Beetle Adventure Racing, which has some truly inspired course designs that feel like immersive rides at Universal Studios. Other favorites of mine would be F-Zero X, Sega Rally, Daytona USA, Virtua Racing (I really enjoy the Saturn tracks), and pretty much anything on the Dreamcast.

As for puzzle games, I do have a tall stack of Saturn puzzle games and I should write reviews on some of them. Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo is a classic, as we all know, but there are a lot of Japanese titles that are slightly obscure but very good. If you're a fan of the Puyo Puyo style of puzzlers, then you'll love what Saturn and Playstation have to offer. I always write my essays after fresh play sessions, so I'll have to play through my stack to see if anything really grabs my interest.
 

B_Signal

Member
DT MEDIA DT MEDIA if you haven't, you should give Baku Baku Animal a try, it's a travesty that it didn't become more of a series

I've found a bit of time to play about with my Saturn. I can't find my Action Replay cart, must me at my parents somewhere, in which case it's going to be there until at least Christmas :D
I've got a Sakura Wars memory cart though, amazingly it still works and has my old Shining Force save on there and a completed Panzer Dragoon Saga save. Anyway, the good/bad news is that it took a few attempts for the Saturn to recognise it, so it's not that my 4mb cart is fucked, so that's good news, but it does mean the cartridge slot is the problem
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
DT MEDIA DT MEDIA if you haven't, you should give Baku Baku Animal a try, it's a travesty that it didn't become more of a series
Funny. I was just playing this game against the CPU today. The pace gets super fast just a few matches in; I can barely keep up. The 3D models in it have aged terribly. Good thing the gameplay is still so entertaining.

Do you happen to know if character selection matters for the blocks you get or the garbage you send to your opponent?
 

B_Signal

Member
Funny. I was just playing this game against the CPU today. The pace gets super fast just a few matches in; I can barely keep up. The 3D models in it have aged terribly. Good thing the gameplay is still so entertaining.

Do you happen to know if character selection matters for the blocks you get or the garbage you send to your opponent?
It's been a while since I've played it, so I couldn't tell you, sorry
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR






Baku Baku Animal (1996, SEGA)

Inspired by DT MEDIA's initiative in this thread, here is Baku Baku Animal. I tried this puzzle title only a few years ago on a friend's arcade cabinet. While the crude 3D models were jarring to me at the time, underneath was a genuinely fun Vs puzzle game. I had to have it! After learning there was a port on the Saturn, I rushed to get a copy. Thankfully, it was (and still is) an inexpensive game to import from Japan. Western copies aren't prohibitively expensive either.

Baku Baku Animal (or simply Baku Baku for the Western releases) is one of the many Saturn titles that hasn't resurfaced on a modern console or PC distribution service. It's a shame because the gameplay holds to this day. Fans of Puyo Puyo, Kururin Pa!, or Super Puzzle Fighter Turbo will find plenty to love here. You grapple with eight different tiles (nine if you include the gold coins): four animals and four food-types. Matching food blocks or animal blocks doesn't eliminate them. Similar to how Puzzle Fighter's gems must be activated with a Crash Gem, in Baku Baku Animal you must drop a dog next to bones, rabbits next to carrots, monkeys next to bananas, and pandas next to bamboo. The animal chews through all connected blocks of the matching food, clearing spaces and dropping down any blocks stacked on top. Potentially, this will lead to another animal coming into contact with their favorite food, continuing your chain. Not only does this clear your side of the board as the tile-drop speed increases (and it gets fast), but it sends blocks for your opponents to deal with. The higher your chain, the more blocks eaten, and the more animals activated results in more blocks sent over to your opponent's field. When you are forced to place a block that goes above the top of your field, you lose! Pretty standard puzzle rules, to be honest.

What's interesting is that there is no empty "garbage" a la Puyo Puyo nor do the attack blocks have a timer like in Puzzle Fighter. The blocks sent over can be used immediately and will sometimes (rarely) land on the corresponding animal, setting off a chain. Mistakes at the beginning of the match and early leads are easy to overcome later in the match as a result. It is harder to 1-hit-KO the opponent like you can in the two aforementioned titles. Speed is valuable. Creating strong combos is equally valuable, but the poor soul on the receiving end of a huge attack usually has a chance of crawling their way back. What I like to do is fill up my field about halfway and then I begin chaining combos. Early-match "pestering" does nothing more than provide your opponent with a few extra blocks to work with, so it is best to patiently build up a decent combo before going on the offensive.

Several publications gave Baku Baku Animal awards around the time of release (including Game of the Year from Computer Gaming World) and it scored well in reviews. It faded into obscurity after that, owed to the diminishing appeal of Vs puzzle games during the late 90s. I think the graphics also played some role in the limited popularity: the 3D character models are rather crude, instantly dating the game. The music is also nothing special. But on the other hand, the sound effects add a lot of charm to the game. I'm not sure what they're saying ("Muddamen! Ah!") when you send garbage but it's memorable. While there was a Game Gear port the same year and a Mobile port in 2002, Baku Baku Animal never really achieved mainstream success.

Vs mode is where Baku Baku Animal shines, in my opinion. The Arcade mode is plenty challenging but that is primarily due to how the tile-drop speed ramps up two stages in. It becomes less about defeating your opponent with good combos and more about simply surviving the speed. Every so often I'll boot up Arcade mode and fight through as many stages as I can, but I've never managed to beat it. The Saturn version also boasts a Ranking mode that I don't really mess around with, but it's there. VS mode is a better showcase for the combo system and core gameplay, in any case. Like any good Vs puzzle game, the concept is easy enough for a complete neophyte to grasp but has enough depth to reward repeated matches. Players with just a few games under their belt will usually destroy a new player who hasn't fully figured out the best way to stack up tiles in order to create combos. That's because new players tend to get overwhelmed by the tile-drop speed and the unusual method of popping blocks. I'd say it has a similar learning curve to Puzzle Fighter.

Seeing how the game license still belongs to SEGA, there's always a possibility for a port or a revival. However, most puzzle games from this era don't get re-released, so Baku Baku Animal may remain in the 90s Saturn puzzle-game graveyard for the foreseeable future. If you have a Saturn and a buddy who loves Vs puzzle games, this one is worth nabbing. And if you love Puzzle Fighter, this game is similar enough to appeal to your tastes but unique enough to be a worthy addition to your collection. The only downside is that the music is mediocre and the 3D models... well, you saw the screenshots... I guess it's charming, in a way, sort of like how early FMV games are "charming".

Fun fact: the name "Baku Baku" is Japanese onomatopoeia for "Chomp chomp".
 
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DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Impact Racing (1996, Funcom)

Impact Racing is everything that I love about arcade videogames: color, flash, speed, dumb violence and lots of explosions. It's pure digital sugar rush, like Jolt Cola and Pop Rocks shaken and stirred. It's brash and loud and oh so very satisfying. This is the sort of thing that makes me miss Acclaim, who were videogames' answer to trashy b-movies and were giants in the 1990s gaming scene. The business hasn't been the same without them.

This game puts you behind the wheel of a series of classic muscle cars and then sets to race on a series of arcade courses against an endless army of rival cars and gangs, all of whom are gunning for you. Your cars are also armed with weapons, beginning with a machine gun and soon followed by a series of impressive weapons, including lasers, landmines, rockets, fire walls, and smart bombs. The setting is the standard dystopian future envisioned by 1980s science fiction and feels very much like a mashup of Mad Max and Steve Jackson's Car Wars with maybe a little San Francisco Rush and Cruis'n USA just for kicks. This feels like something that Atari Games or Midway would have cooked up for the arcades.

Of course, the two arcade videogames that serve as the main inspirations are Midway's Spy Hunter and Atari's Roadblasters, two of the greatest car combat games ever made, with emphasis on the "combat" half of the equation. Your primary goal is simply to survive to the finish line before time runs out. The catch is that you will never have enough time to reach that finish unless you destroy rival cars, which may result in a time bonus power-up. By the third stage, the time limits become shorter and shorter, requiring you to destroy more cars just to survive.

In addition, you need to upgrade the weapons on your vehicle before the roads become far too rough to survive. To do that, you will need to destroy a set number of cars in a stage in order to reach one of many bonus stages, which are a series of long enclosed loops where you must destroy a set number of cars to receive the weapon upgrade. This was actually quite challenging for me, as these drivers suddenly become a lot smarter and craftier, trying their best to avoid you and burn out the clock. Once I finally succeeded the first time and received new laser cannons, it was very satisfying and helped make my life on the highways a lot easier. On my last play-through, I also received the rockets, which can destroy cars in a single fiery flash.

Impact Racing is blazingly fast and everything just screams at top speed. The first time I played, I was struck by how swift and smooth the game engine was running, without any notable hiccups or slowdowns. Much of this, I think, is due to the track designs which are very narrow and long, full of hills, curves and tunnels. The roads are roughly two car lengths wide, and this will cause you to bump into walls and railings until you get the hang of tap-tap-tapping the steering wheel and mastering those drifts on the heavy turns. The packaging boasts of 12 race tracks, but I also understand that the real number is far smaller, but boosted by mirror-reverse and nighttime variations. It is of no concern, as the roads play out like Cruis'n USA's winding open roads rather than closed-circuit courses and contain enough surprises to keep you on your toes.

When it comes to third-party titles on Sega Saturn, there were two broad assumptions made by nearly everyone at the time: Saturn can't do 3D graphics, and the Playstation version is always superior. I think this title challenges both assumptions. The 3D polygon engine in Impact Racing is extremely fast, detailed and varied, and can easily stand up to anything on the Fifth Generation systems. As for the Playstation version, I think the Saturn if equal if not a little better. Sony may have the better fire and smoke effects due to their much-loved transparency effects, but the graphics are constantly wobbly and bendy in that Playstation manner. Look, I love the PSX as much as anybody, but that machine couldn't draw a straight line to save its life. Saturn's environments look far more stable and solid, thanks to its use of quads instead of triangles.

As always, this is water under the bridge, and Nintendo 64 fans will be content to roll their eyes and boast about the powers of proper Z-buffering, then go back to playing Goldeneye while laughing at the rest of us. Fair enough.
 
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DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
Another car-combat game that I've never heard of. Thanks for the write-up, DT MEDIA DT MEDIA

I've added a few racing games to my Saturn wishlist and this looks fun enough to make the cut. Gotta love those mid-90s racers!
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Magic Carpet (1996, Bullfrog and Krisalis Software)

When I was a child, our family would receive stacks of computer floppy discs from the local Atari 8-bit users group containing new games that came without any instructions whatsoever. We had to learn how to play the games entirely on our own, often by just pressing buttons on the keyboard to see what would happen. This made for a serious challenge, and some games remained completely inscrutable to me (Quest For the Space Beagle and Alternate Reality are two excellent examples). Whenever we learned and mastered any computer games, there was a great sense of satisfaction at our patience and perseverance.

Bullfrog's Magic Carpet reminds me very much of these experiences. I will not lie to you, this is not an easy game to learn. You cannot just pick up a controller and start mashing buttons and expect to get anywhere. There is a very steep learning curve and this world will not help you or provide any easy clues. Of course, you could just sit down and read the instruction manual, but who in the history of videogames has ever done that? Nobody, that's who. A number of reviewers on websites and YouTube channels have walked away in complete frustration and confusion. Sorry, Timmy, you're not at the video arcades this time. You can't bluff your way through this.

Magic Carpet may seem overwhelming at first, but it is actually one of the best videogames of its era, a brilliant fusion of shoot-em-up and real-time strategy, Doom-Meets-Populous in an Arabian settting. It requires patience and practice to understand its play mechanics and control system, but once you have mastered the first couple stages, you'll be running at full steam and ready for the real action that lies ahead.

Let me explain how the game plays. You play an Ali Baba type who flies a magic carpet and utilizes a number of magic spells. You begin with only two spells, "fireball" and "possess." Your goal is to collect mana or magic energy. The more mana you collect, the more abilities you can use. You use the fireballs to attack monsters that roam the world, such as birds, bees, flying dragons, skeleton armies, archers, water genies and giant sand worms. When you destroy these enemies, they leave behind orange spheres. You use the "possess" spell to convert them into mana. Now you will need a place to store these mana, and if you fly around you will find a red urn which contains a "castle" spell. Use this spell to create and upgrade your home castle, and hot air balloons will appear to collect those blue mana spheres. If you are killed, you will respawn at your castle instead of beginning all over again. Once you have collected a set amount of mana, you will "bring balance to the world" and clear the stage. There are 70 stages in total, based on the original PC release and expansion pack, each becoming increasingly diverse and challenging.

In addition, you will notice towns and tent villages with people walking about. You use the possess spell to plant your flag onto their buildings, turning them into allies. This will also result in increased mana, and these tribes will either build new buildings, explore the world or join your side in the battle against the monsters. The people will also defend your castle from attack. Conversely, if you decide to attack the villagers, they will become hostile and attack you on sight. You also have the freedom to just wipe them out completely (reminds me a lot of Ozark Software's classic Seven Cities of Gold), which can be good for a cheap laugh, but it's a dumb strategy. You're going to need allies in this increasingly hostile world.

The first couple stages are fairly simple, as you only have to deal with the birds and giant Ohmu worms, and the mana requirements are fairly low. You can upgrade your castle fairly easily, with a very impressive morphing effect at the turrets and walls grow out of the earth. There are also a number of locations and stone structures that may contain surprises, such as red urns (which contain new power-up spells), mana spheres or monsters. Your main map (L+R buttons) will show you these locations to explore, and you'll learn to rely on that map for your overall strategy. On one stage, a red urn lies in the middle of a small forest in the mountains. When you fly to grab that urn, a swarm of killer bees pop out and proceed to beat you senseless. I think my solution was just to burn down the forest and try to take those bastards out, then lure the survivors over the ocean where I could pick them off one by one. In another stage, flying through a forest caused a volcano to suddenly explode out of the ground and erupt fireballs, killing me instantly.

Finally, if that isn't enough, you will also have to face rival Ali Baba wizards who also fly magic carpets, build castles, battle monsters and "collect" mana. And by "collect," I mean that they steal your stash, turning the mana spheres to their team color. They might also attack your castle or attack you, while you can do likewise. The first couple times you meet these rival players, you can dispose of them fairly easily, but once they have enough power to build a level-four castle and wield more powerful attacks, you'll have to be choosier. As the game progresses, you will encounter as many as eight players, and you will need their help in fighting back swarms of dragons, bees and that army of the undead that has completely overwhelmed the beach. Strategy requires knowing when to leave them alone to fight the war, and when to kill them and steal their spells and castles.

Again, as a recap, the goal of Magic Carpet is: 1) destroy monsters, 2) convert the red mana spheres to your team color, 3) build and upgrade your home castle, 4) discover new power-ups via the red urns, and 5) don't let the other Ali Babas steal your stash. It sounds easy but requires real practice and planning to defeat enemies, much like Goldeneye 007 (which shares the same control system). Stealth and strategy is much more effective than barreling everywhere at full speed. You have to pick and choose your targets and goals.

The tempo in Magic Carpet begins slowly, but by stages five and six is blasting at a furious pace, as you are facing swarms of enemies from all directions at once. It's as intense as anything in Doom and highly challenging, as you have to manage your mana resources, protect your castle from attacks, keep an eye on those other Ali Babas (those jerks), and try not to get killed by all the monsters. And don't forget to search for those red urns; I can't imagine getting anywhere without the machine gun fireballs, shields or lightning bolts.

Visually, this videogame has dated in many respects, particularly with the relatively short draw distance and heavy reliance on fog as well as the Goldeneye controls, which is never as good as KBM (keyboard and mouse) or modern dual-analog controls. You can tell that you're playing a PC game from 1993. Look closer, however, and you will notice impressive visual touches that were highly ambitious for 1994-96 and still hold up today: real-time landscape morphing effects; a wide variety of trees, structures, villagers and monsters; earth that takes damage from fireballs and worms; trees that can be set on fire; rolling ocean waves. All of this is accomplished while maintaining a respectable frame rate that competes with any similar title of the era.

Magic Carpet was ported to Saturn and Playstation and are both nearly identical to one another, while also offering an extra layer of polish and color over its PC cousin. Sony's version has some nice gouraud shading on the buildings but some really tacky polygon shading on the clouds. The water effects are very impressive and smooth. Sega's version lacks the gouraud shading and the water is less impressive, but its 2D bitmaps and textures appear slightly more colorful and detailed. Best of all, the Japanese Saturn version, released six months after its Western counterparts, adds analog controller support, which is nothing short of awesome.

(P.S. I came back and heavily revised/rewrote this essay, and is much better now. Like Hemmingway said, the first draft of everything stinks.)
 
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DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
Good ol' Magic Carpet. I played the PC version back in the day. What a weird, wonderful game! Like you pointed out, it was a bizarre mix of strategy and shooting. I would always get slaughtered in the later levels which is a shame because the land alteration was very cool. Gotta love the genre mashups from the mid-90s.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus














Burning Rangers (1998, Sonic Team)

Burning Rangers is one of those great farewells that appears in a videogame system's final days, one that celebrates its history and pushes its hardware to the absolute limit. It is the final celebratory hurrah before developers and publishers move on to the next exciting project. It is a masterful triumph that makes you thankful for the Sega Saturn, slightly wistful to remember its many struggles, but happy to see it through to the end. Here is its great, final triumph, its Abbey Road farewell, its Blonde on Blonde before the motorcycle crash. Whatever.

It is often said that this game should really have been released on the Sega Dreamcast, and that's not a knock on the Saturn so much as an awareness of the directions Sonic Team would take in the following years and Sega's optimistic, futuristic software hits to come. This is preview of exciting things to come, including Sonic Adventure and Phantasy Star Online, as well as an exciting experience itself.

I am also reminded that Sega just couldn't catch a break in the 32-bit era, especially in the West. Saturn was written off before it was even released, and the first wave of software titles included the notoriously glitchy Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA, which doomed the system with a toxic reputation for poor 3D graphics that could never be shaken. Of course, Sega did themselves no favors by designing such a complicated machine, partly due to being flatfooted by Sony's Playstation, partly due to their internal quirks for such things as dual-CPUs, specialized hardware chips and a graphics processor that rendered 3D quadrilateral polygons through a 2D sprite engine. But in the hands of skilled Assembly programmers, Saturn could truly sing.

Burning Rangers pushes the Saturn hardware harder than any title ever released. It not only uses the dual CPUs and the two Video Display Processors to great effect, it also utilizes the SCU DSP chip to crunch more polygons (a technique only seen in a handful of late Saturn titles, including Quake, Shining Force 3 and Panzer Dragoon Saga). The efforts pay off handsomely. The environments feature amazingly complex and detailed architectural designs, including buildings with multiple floors, railings, pipes, transparent flooring, collapsing platforms, large tanks of undulating water, tunnels and 3D platforms. Everything is illuminated in gouraud shading and multiple layers of light sourcing of different colors and intensities, from blinding lights to complete darkness. And through it all, endless waves of explosions, flame and fire. There are times when it seems as though the entire screen is melting down four ways at once, and it's a miracle that smoke isn't coming out of my Saturn. Sometimes I wonder if Sonic Team really wanted to burn the console down to ashes, either as a fiery farewell or as a massive middle finger. Probably both.

The game is set in a futuristic world of space-bound anime firefighters who wear flashy outfits like they're on route to a 22nd Century rave party. They travel to space stations and interglactic outposts to battle fires and rescue hostages who are trapped by the flames. You play as one of two rookies who have just passed basic training and are now thrust into the middle of a mission aboard a space station that quickly spirals out of control. You are armed with a laser gun that extinguishes flames and the occasional backdraft, and also dispatch wayward robots from time to time. Your goal is to rescue civilians who are hidden inside the many rooms and corridors. Some of them are easily seen, while others are hidden. After your mission is over, you may receive emails from rescued civilians that will flesh out the overall story arc. You can even rescue the members of Sonic Team if you're so lucky.

One element that is especially innovative is the navigation system. You are never given a map of your environment; instead, your team navigator will communicate with you directly, telling you where the next objective lies, whether that be a control panel that restores power, a device that will unlock critical doors, or the location of trapped civilians. I've had to rely on her aid when I've become lost, which happens more than I'm willing to admit. In addition, you will hear constant chatter from your teammates as they relay their adventures, often providing you clues to the overall state of things. At one point, I even saw one of my teammates through a transparent floor as she boasted about who would reach the finish first. All of this adds to the atmosphere of the world and makes it feel more lived-in and less like a videogame obstacle course. For these reasons, the US retail release has become one of Saturn's most expensive titles, while the Japanese release remains far more affordable.

There's a strong Sonic the Hedgehog vibe in Burning Rangers, from the loading screens to a boss battle that reappears later in Sonic Adventure. The strongest example are the red gems, which appear when you put out fires with your laser pistol. These serve the same role as Sonic's rings, and when you are hit or damaged, those gems will fly out in similar fashion, leaving you unshielded and vulnerable. I find myself scrambling through open flames to get those shiny things back, and often feel like a sucker for acting so desperately. Sega really knew how to ramp up the tension that way.

One wouldn't think that a firefighting videogame would be exciting, and goodness knows there have been many attempts made over the years: Towering Inferno on Atari 2600 VCS, The Ignition Factor on Super NES, Fahrenheit on Sega CD, the infamous Duelin' Firemen on 3DO. Burning Rangers perfectly captures that sense of danger and dread, where walls can erupt in flame at any moment, where rooms can suddenly erupt in a frenzy of explosions, and even the floors themselves can buckle and collapse. All the while, the structural integrity of the space station endlessly deteriorates as the fires grow, increasing the chances of a massive backdraft as that number rises towards 100 percent. You may feel confident that you can reach the final goal, but add in a couple major power outages, a room with detonating gas canisters, and a couple collapsed floors that leave you disoriented, and you'll be reaching panic status soon enough. And once that structural number crosses 90 percent, all hell begins to break loose. It's all so massively chaotic, a brilliant use of a time limit that I haven't seen anywhere else.

Burning Rangers is relatively short, with only four major missions. Within that framework, you will traverse on land, under water and even in a spaceship (one of the great visual showpieces of the game). The final climactic battle takes place in a 3D platform environment not unlike if Mario followed Terence McKenna's advice and consumed a heroic dose of magic mushrooms. After you complete a stage, you are graded for your time and number of possible hostages rescued, much like NiGHTS: Into Dreams. Repeat play reveals that the level designs are randomly generated, which greatly enhances the replay value.

That said, count me among those who would have loved to see an enhanced version of this game released on Sega Dreamcast. But didn't we already get that in Phantasy Star Online? It seems fitting that Burning Rangers would never appear again. It's belongs to the Saturn with all its glorious designs and, yes, all of its visual glitches, which are nowhere near as bad as some people would have you believe. Personally, I prefer creativity and ambition over polish. I want to see game consoles and software developers alike pushed to their absolute limits, then pushed just a little further.

What made Sega great was their ability to defy convention, take great and terrible risks, and push themselves to their limits to prove their genius. They caught so much flak for their hardware, but it was those very machines that inspired the greatness. "You should get out of the business," they said. You should become a software company and make games for Sony and Nintendo," they said. Look at where that got 'em. In 1998, gamers couldn't get rid of Sega Saturn fast enough. Today, you'd kill everyone on your block to bring Saturn back.

(Update 5/18: I wasn't happy with yesterday's screenshots, so I snapped a whole bunch of new ones this morning. Looks much better!)
 
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DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Batsugun (1996, Toaplan and Gazelle)

In the 1980s, Japanese arcade developers Toaplan established themselves as the masters of the shoot-em-up, unleashing one genre masterpiece after another: Twin Cobra, Fire Shark, Hellfire, Zero Wing, Truxton. By the end of the decade and with the arrival of the 16-bit generation, they were at the peak of their powers.

In the early 1990s, however, spaceship shoot-em-ups were eclipsed by the Street Fighter 2 craze, and Toaplan’s finances faded. The company declared bankruptcy in 1994, and its many skilled programmers and designers carried on the tradition with their own studios: Cave, Takumi, Gazelle, Raizing/8ing. Before splitting up, they created one last masterpiece in 1993 called Batsugun, and it would define nearly every scrolling arcade shooter that followed.

Batsugun marks the birth of the danmaku or “bullet hell” shooter; its name comes from the curtains of enemy bullets that fill the screen and overwhelm players. Personally, I’m not a fan of the genre, which would bog down in programmers’ obsessions with elaborate floral bullet patterns at the expense of speed or excitement. The thrilling roller coaster rides became bogged down in traffic jams, intended only for the most diehard of fans.

In the hands of Toaplan, however, “bullet hell” means one thing: absolute, overwhelming, glorious chaos. Have you ever noticed how every spaceship shooter gives you a massive firepower advantage over your opponents? Now the enemy is armed with the same weapons as you. The aliens have emerged from the galactic arms race as equals, raising the stakes as every you progress.

Batsugun begins easily enough, much like the shoot-em-ups of the period. Enemy spaceships fly in the usual formations, aquatic ships sail over alien waters, bunkers aim and fire their cannons. This is all standard procedure and even beginners will successfully clear the first stage. Then the speed begins to pick up in stage two and tension begins to rise. And rise. And rise. Aerial and ground formations hurl at you from all directions, in all shapes and sizes. Bosses become larger and more dangerous. By the third stage, you are flying at breakneck speeds and desperately clinging on to life.

Your own fleet of six spaceships (three for players one and two), each with their own unique offensive weapons, are armed with a tremendous firepower potential. An intriguing RPG-like system is introduced, where you gain experience points with each kill. Achieve a set amount of experience points, and your weapons will immediately evolve into another stage of intensity. This is very helpful; as the game becomes more intense and challenging, you will discover that you have not lost all your weapons after being shot down. You won’t be sent back to using a cheap pea shooter, which in most cases would mean certain doom.

Batsugun is a very short videogame, only five stages, but I feel this is a virtue. Like the great early Ramones albums, Batsugun is lean and mean and ready to assault you without missing a beat. Seven or eight stages would become exhaustive and repetitive. Toaplan always understood the right amount of balance for their shooters, and knew just when to end the song.

The Saturn version of Batsugun, released in Japan in 1996 by the former Toaplan crew at Gazelle, is as brilliant as you'd expect: superb, all blistering hypercolored visuals, smooth animation, booming bass explosions. The music is superb and filled with melodic hooks and bouncy chiptune beats, like all the classic Toaplan games. I’m reminded of their classics on Sega Genesis such as Truxton and Fire Shark and smile.

In addition to the arcade mode, an additional “special edition” is also included which features remixed graphics, a smaller “hitbox” for your ship, a shield that protects you from enemy fire, more powerful smart bombs, and additional scoring items such as cartoon pigs. After completing stage five, the game loops back to the beginning but at a higher difficulty setting, with added waves of enemy machine gun bullets, requiring you to defeat the final boss a second time. This version is actually based on an arcade upgrade that was never released due to Toaplan’s bankruptcy.

You have the choice of playing with a standard perspective (either scaled scaled out or zoomed in close), or “tate” mode that turns the game ninety degrees to its side. This recreates the vertical orientation of the arcade and perfectly preserves the graphics with no loss of fidelity. In addition, you can even tilt the joypad controls and play the game as a side scroller. Personally, I just lie down on the couch and play with the vertical controls. These gameplay options are standard with nearly all arcade shoot-em-ups on Sega Saturn and is wholly welcome.

Sega Saturn is beloved today largely because of its wonderful 2D videogames, and especially its large library of arcade shooters. Batsugun is one of my favorites and one that I enjoy playing again and again. It has a much more forgiving difficulty curve than its peers, is wonderfully fast and fluid, is vibrantly colorful in that classic pixel art style, and just booms through stereo speakers. How I do miss Toaplan. They guys were legends.
 








Batsugun (1996, Toaplan and Gazelle)

In the 1980s, Japanese arcade developers Toaplan established themselves as the masters of the shoot-em-up, unleashing one genre masterpiece after another: Twin Cobra, Fire Shark, Hellfire, Zero Wing, Truxton. By the end of the decade and with the arrival of the 16-bit generation, they were at the peak of their powers.

In the early 1990s, however, spaceship shoot-em-ups were eclipsed by the Street Fighter 2 craze, and Toaplan’s finances faded. The company declared bankruptcy in 1994, and its many skilled programmers and designers carried on the tradition with their own studios: Cave, Takumi, Gazelle, Raizing/8ing. Before splitting up, they created one last masterpiece in 1993 called Batsugun, and it would define nearly every scrolling arcade shooter that followed.

Batsugun marks the birth of the danmaku or “bullet hell” shooter; its name comes from the curtains of enemy bullets that fill the screen and overwhelm players. Personally, I’m not a fan of the genre, which would bog down in programmers’ obsessions with elaborate floral bullet patterns at the expense of speed or excitement. The thrilling roller coaster rides became bogged down in traffic jams, intended only for the most diehard of fans.

In the hands of Toaplan, however, “bullet hell” means one thing: absolute, overwhelming, glorious chaos. Have you ever noticed how every spaceship shooter gives you a massive firepower advantage over your opponents? Now the enemy is armed with the same weapons as you. The aliens have emerged from the galactic arms race as equals, raising the stakes as every you progress.

Batsugun begins easily enough, much like the shoot-em-ups of the period. Enemy spaceships fly in the usual formations, aquatic ships sail over alien waters, bunkers aim and fire their cannons. This is all standard procedure and even beginners will successfully clear the first stage. Then the speed begins to pick up in stage two and tension begins to rise. And rise. And rise. Aerial and ground formations hurl at you from all directions, in all shapes and sizes. Bosses become larger and more dangerous. By the third stage, you are flying at breakneck speeds and desperately clinging on to life.

Your own fleet of six spaceships (three for players one and two), each with their own unique offensive weapons, are armed with a tremendous firepower potential. An intriguing RPG-like system is introduced, where you gain experience points with each kill. Achieve a set amount of experience points, and your weapons will immediately evolve into another stage of intensity. This is very helpful; as the game becomes more intense and challenging, you will discover that you have not lost all your weapons after being shot down. You won’t be sent back to using a cheap pea shooter, which in most cases would mean certain doom.

Batsugun is a very short videogame, only five stages, but I feel this is a virtue. Like the great early Ramones albums, Batsugun is lean and mean and ready to assault you without missing a beat. Seven or eight stages would become exhaustive and repetitive. Toaplan always understood the right amount of balance for their shooters, and knew just when to end the song.

The Saturn version of Batsugun, released in Japan in 1996 by the former Toaplan crew at Gazelle, is as brilliant as you'd expect: superb, all blistering hypercolored visuals, smooth animation, booming bass explosions. The music is superb and filled with melodic hooks and bouncy chiptune beats, like all the classic Toaplan games. I’m reminded of their classics on Sega Genesis such as Truxton and Fire Shark and smile.

In addition to the arcade mode, an additional “special edition” is also included which features remixed graphics, a smaller “hitbox” for your ship, a shield that protects you from enemy fire, more powerful smart bombs, and additional scoring items such as cartoon pigs. After completing stage five, the game loops back to the beginning but at a higher difficulty setting, with added waves of enemy machine gun bullets, requiring you to defeat the final boss a second time. This version is actually based on an arcade upgrade that was never released due to Toaplan’s bankruptcy.

You have the choice of playing with a standard perspective (either scaled scaled out or zoomed in close), or “tate” mode that turns the game ninety degrees to its side. This recreates the vertical orientation of the arcade and perfectly preserves the graphics with no loss of fidelity. In addition, you can even tilt the joypad controls and play the game as a side scroller. Personally, I just lie down on the couch and play with the vertical controls. These gameplay options are standard with nearly all arcade shoot-em-ups on Sega Saturn and is wholly welcome.

Sega Saturn is beloved today largely because of its wonderful 2D videogames, and especially its large library of arcade shooters. Batsugun is one of my favorites and one that I enjoy playing again and again. It has a much more forgiving difficulty curve than its peers, is wonderfully fast and fluid, is vibrantly colorful in that classic pixel art style, and just booms through stereo speakers. How I do miss Toaplan. They guys were legends.

Another great write up on a Saturn classic that I am yet to play! Cheers mate. I was so over the 2D shooter genre in the 90s that a lot of the Saturn's library passed me by at the time. More recently I have rediscovered my love for the genre and I've really begun to appreciate that aspect of the Saturn's library. It was such amazing system.
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
Batsuguuuun! It's important to note that, yeah it only has 5 stages, but like any good Toaplan shmup it has a second loop. That's where things get bananas.

Definitely a shame that it is so expensive. The Saturn port is still the only home version and it was pretty much arcade perfect.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Super Tempo (1998, Red Entertainment and Aspect)

Thank God for Red Entertainment and their madcap stubbornness. I have no idea what inspired them to create a wildly goofy, genre-hopping 2D videogame, a style all but extinct in the year of groundbreaking 3D hits like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life and Tony Hawk Pro Skater. I am very thankful that this team of artists stuck to their guns, defied the winds of popular trends and crafted this wickedly inspired little gem that has a perfect home on Sega Saturn.

Red is best known as the creators of Bonk's Adventure on the Turbografx-16, which spawned five sequels on that system and multiple appearances on NES, Super NES and arcades. The games are known for their skillful, inventive level designs and a wicked, irreverent sense of humor that extended to the terrific cartoon character designs and animations. In 1995, they teamed up with Sega for the excellent mascot title Tempo for the ill-fated 32X; a Game Gear sequel, Tempo, Jr. was developed by Sega offshoot studio SIMS. For Sega Saturn, the studio teamed up with software studio Aspect and pulled out all the stops on Saturn, creating the finest genre title for the system.

This videogame puts you in the roles of the Tempo and his girlfriend Katy on a quest to rescue the Prince of Music World from Planet Technotch (according to Hardcore Gaming 101, at least). It's visual design is wildly colorful and cartoonish, with wonderfully fluid animation drawn entirely on 1's and 2's. The character designs are wonderfully surreal and zany, like an anime cousin to Ren & Stimpy or Animaniacs. The music and audio incorporates cartoon sound effects that were ripped right out of the Hanna-Barbera vaults.

Super Tempo is a glorious example of 2D games in the 32-bit era, with a tremendous sense of freedom and boundless surprises. At one moment, you are running in a standard 2D platforming environment. The next, you are engaging a robot boss in a bodybuilder's muscle-flexing competition. In one stage, you are in a haunted graveyard, escorting the spirits of an animal band to their stage. In another, you are flying in a side-scrolling shoot-em-up against icons of black-and-white arcade videogames from the 1970s. The next, you fly a house steered by a Pegasus unicorn through outer space, navigating through starry nights, giant mines, sheet music, cheerleaders and portraits of Beethoven. In one scene, as you battle a giant robot chicken, your character is transformed into a buxom anime femme fatale with boxing gloves. In another, your character is transformed into a cartoon steroid freak who is accompanied by flying cows and sounds of yodeling, which eventually drives him so crazed that he pops like a balloon and returns to normal. One boss fight is resolved by giving your opponent a kiss.

The sheer wild unpredictability is Super Tempo's great strength. When playing for this review, I can confidently report that I never knew what to expect next. Every five minutes would yield another surprise or sight gag. For example, in the very first stage, you dive through a small pond, dodging frogs and pollywogs, then jump up onto the side of a wooden platform. You climb up and walk left, just over the pond, and discover...well, there is no way I'm spoiling that surprise. You'll also get a kick out of the video arcade mini-games, a long vertical climb across a series of gears and boulders followed by one nasty puzzle at the top, and the final boss battle that again changes genres, this time a 3D shooter in the vein of Konami's classic Gyruss. This randomness is probably the greatest challenge of the game, always keeping you on your toes, guessing what you're supposed to do next.

In addition to your main quest, there are numerous secret bonus rooms that can be discovered, many of which contain some trippy visuals of geometric shapes and floral patters as you blow cartoon notes out of a horn. There are also many collectible items to find, some of which are easily found and others that are very sneakily hidden. Some are even awarded at the end of each stage, and afterward you admire all your collected toys. At the end of the game, your collection is tallied up and you receive one of twelve ending screens.

Super Tempo has such a wonderful spirit of creativity and fun that it reminds you of why you play videogames. It always leaves a shocked smile on my face, and a sense of, "Did that just happen? How did they come up with that?" Great job. That'll do, Red. That'll do.
 
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DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus






Here are some photos of Batsugun on Saturn that I took back in 2007. This is using a US Saturn w/RF cable on a 19-inch Magnavox CRT. The camera was a Canon digital camera with a 3.2 megapixel resolution, pretty meager by today's standards but it was a lot of fun. RF cables result in a bit more color bleeding, but the picture quality on most picture tube TVs are still superior to modern HDTVs in my opinion. That said, there's something to be said of playing Sega Saturn via S-Video cables. The only downside is that you'll get that "mesh pattern" effect for faked transparency effects.

Anyway, enjoy the photos, and feel free to steal or borrow any of my screenshots for your own use. I wanted to create a library of Saturn photos that showed the games as they were meant to be seen, not over-pixelated through HD emulators.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Shienryu (1997, Warashi)

Sega Saturn is blessed with a thousand great shoot-em-ups. Shienryu is one of the genre's best titles and a personal favorite of mine. It boasts excellent graphics, superb weapons, endless waves of enemies and boss battles that are challenging yet never overwhelming. It delivers everything you expect from a quality shooter, and if it never offers any new ideas, you're more than happy to buy the ticket and take the ride.

This game will probably remind you of Seibu Kaihatsu's classic Raiden, especially in the visual design that includes enemy ships that shatter into tiny fragments when destroyed, and the slow rolling fireballs left in their wake. Your spaceship is also very similar to the ships in Raiden with its red coat of paint. Even the architectural designs are very similar in many respects, as you battle on land, sea, air and outer space, as you take the fight to the aliens' home worlds.

I am most reminded of Toaplan's classic shoot-em-ups such as Fire Shark and Truxton and their perfectly balanced sense of pacing, timing and layout designs. Shienryu has a late-1980s groove and could have easily been a product of the 16-bit era. By 1997, it's positively retro in is pacing and structure, which is more laid back than the frantic, over-the-top danmaku ("bullet hell") titles that consumed the genre. The challenge lies not in avoiding impossible waves of bullets, but in navigating the ballet of spaceships, tanks, turrets, giant mechs, starships, and massive bosses that are quite the challenge to defeat. This game is far more accessible to most players, not just the diehard experts, which is very welcome. I can play this disc at any time and blast through a few stages without breaking much of a sweat.

Your weapons included the usual assortment of spread-shot bullets, rockets and homing lasers, again in the classic Toaplan mold. Each of the three main weapons also has its own smart bomb which adds to the variety, although I prefer the transparent blue beam the most, if just for the cool visual effects. Your weapons can be powered up to an impressive but not overwhelming level. You never reach a point where you are significantly more powerful than the enemy fleets, and the challenge always remains more or less constant. Bosses are impressively large and foreboding and need to be dismantled piece by piece, eventually giving way to a massive series of explosions.

Shienryu was released to arcades on Sega's Titan hardware system, which was based on the Sega Saturn, and this enables for a perfect home translation. Graphics are crisp, vibrant and varied, with a highly impressive color palette that saves its best artwork for the latter space-bound stages. Explosion animations are extremely fluid, again pointing directly to Raiden, and it's always fun to see tanks or aircraft shatter into a hundred tiny pieces. There are an impressive number of sprites on screen, with rolling attack waves from above and below, but the hardware is never really pushed as hard as the genre's top titles.

Warashi, the software developers, were not interested in reinventing the wheel or pushing the limits of the Sega Saturn. They only wanted to create a great shoot-em-up in the vein of the genre's golden age, and they succeed admirably. If you're someone who feels overwhelmed by Dodonpachi or Battle Garegga or Souky, then this videogame is perfect for you. As always, you have the option of playing in standard or "tate" view, with or without sideways controls. Everything looks great on a large television screen, and I can think of far worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon. Grab two Saturn controllers, a couple beers and some nachos and you'll have a great time.

(Update 5/21: I snapped some new screenshots that are brighter and cleaner. The previous photos were washed out because I forgot to close the window blind when taking my shots. Whoops!)
 
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This game will probably remind you of Seibu Kaihatsu's classic Raiden, especially in the visual design that includes enemy ships that shatter into tiny fragments when destroyed, and the slow rolling fireballs left in their wake
I am most reminded of Toaplan's classic shoot-em-ups such as Fire Shark and Truxton and their perfectly balanced sense of pacing, timing and layout designs.
This game is far more accessible to most players, not just the diehard experts, which is very welcome. I can play this disc at any time and blast through a few stages without breaking much of a sweat.
Grab two Saturn controllers, a couple beers and some nachos and you'll have a great time.

Sold. Fantastic review. If this was a new release, I would have thrown down $100 just on the basis of these quotes :D. 1997 was such an epic year for gaming on all platforms.

Edit: After checking eBay prices



I guess that I'll be playing a backup of this then. :(
 
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DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
Sold. Fantastic review. If this was a new release, I would have thrown down $100 just on the basis of these quotes :D. 1997 was such an epic year for gaming on all platforms.

Edit: After checking eBay prices



I guess that I'll be playing a backup of this then. :(
If you insist on a physical copy and have a compatible PS2, Simple 2000 Series -- Double Shienryu is a more affordable option to buy the game. Plus, it comes with Shienryu 2.
 
If you insist on a physical copy and have a compatible PS2, Simple 2000 Series -- Double Shienryu is a more affordable option to buy the game. Plus, it comes with Shienryu 2.

You sir, are a legend. Thank you for sharing your gaming knowledge mate. I love physical games and the eBay price for that is much more reasonable. Whilst I prefer to shoot things in 2D on a Sega Saturn, my PS2 is my next best choice.
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR



Original Arcade Character Select screen vs Saturn Character Select




Twinkle Star Sprites (1997, ADK)

My time with the Saturn version of this bizarre shmup started a year ago when I imported a copy from Japan. However, Twinkle Star is a game I've played in the arcades since pre-adolescence. I was never great at the game, to be truthful, yet the colorful graphics and unique gameplay always stuck with me. There were a handful of places around town that had a copy but it was not a popular title. Over the years, the number of cabinets (and arcades) in my area with a copy of Twinkle Star dwindled to nothing. As a long-time fan of the title, I looked into home ports of Twinkle Star for my own collection but never pulled the trigger. The original arcade, AES, and Neo Geo CD options were already outside of my price range by that time. In the late 90s, I didn't own a Saturn nor did I think to import a copy.

My passion for the title lay dormant until I got a chance to play the arcade version on a friend's Neo Geo MVS cabinet many years later. I was hooked and knew that I needed to search for a viable home release. Surely, many years later, Twinkle Star would be more easily available, right? Well... no, not really. PS2's ADK Damashii -- which contains a port of Twinkle Star's arcade version -- is a good option but has become expensive nowadays, too, so I settled for the Sony PSN digital version early last year. For what it's worth, the PSN Digital copy of ADK Damashii is the cheapest way to get Twinkle Star Sprites without resorting to emulators or burned copies. My friends and I spent many uproarious nights hammering away at that game, devising strategies and rivalries. I fell in love with the game all over again. A Neo Geo version was still out of the question, financially-speaking, but what about SEGA Saturn? I'd already built up a healthy collection of fighters, shmups, and puzzle games for the system. Perhaps the Saturn version of Twinkle Star Sprites was worth it?

Well, it is. I'd argue that it is the best version of the title, in fact. But before I get into that, a bit about how the game works: two players indirectly fight one another by shooting, charging, and dodging slews of shoot 'em up enemies sent from the top of the screen. The enemies are speedy enough to pose a threat. When you shoot them, you send bullets over to your opponent's side of the field. However, they can shoot your bullets (or catch them in a chain-explosion) and send them back over to you. This back-and-forth dynamic almost feels like tennis or volleyball.



It's supremely fun. Against the CPU, the fun peeks its head through the clouds on occasion. The mechanics are sound, thankfully, so even against the computer you'll have a fun time. The game puts on a challenge, especially in the later stages of Story mode. But it is in a 2-player battle where Twinkle Star Sprites comes alive and shows its spirit. Battles can end in moments -- it's common for a newbie to be crushed within just 10 seconds -- or they can stretch on for what feels like an eternity (still, just two or three minutes total). Main shot, bombs, charge shot, movement speed, Specials, and 'Boss Summon' all differ based on the character you've selected. Therefore, players will gravitate toward the characters who embody their own playstyle, learning the strengths and limitations of their character. This feels more like a fighting game in that respect, whereas in most shmups the ship selection doesn't make a big difference.

Twinkle Star Sprites is also very simple, something that works in its favor. Everything in context, right? Well, during that era shmups were becoming much more complicated. In that context, Twinkle Star almost feels like a step backwards. Unlike other shmups of the '90s, you don't have to manage Rank or memorize a route or micro-dodge thick curtains of bullets or upgrade your shot in Twinkle Star Sprites. The gameplay is stripped down to the bare essentials of the shmup genre: dodge incoming fire while shooting clusters of enemies. This framework, though simple, provides ample variety and nuance in 2-player battles. A die-hard shmup fan may overlook the game due to the apparent lack of nuance while more casual gamers might not give it any attention at all. Unfortunate, but that's the nature of our hobby. Once players get their hands on the game, though, it is easy to understand and easy to get addicted.

My favorite character is the Mecha-cat 'Kesubei'. His shot is mediocre and his Special is easily dodged. However, he has a powerful short-ranged punching combo, a fast movement speed, and a good Boss Summon. I find it much easier to survive with him compared to any other character. One friend uses 'Tribbles' (Nanja Monja) or 'Pencil Witches' (Pentell). For another friend, the main character 'Bunny girl' (Load Ran) is the best. Another friend swaps between 'Pig Girl' (Yan Yanyang) and 'The Griffon Bros' (Griffon, amusingly). We'll occasionally step outside of our preferences to see what the other characters can do. However, once the competition gets heated we revert back to our 'mains' and duke it out, often for several hours into the night. Each character boasts their own nuances, making the character select screen (nearly) as nail-biting as the game itself. After all, your character choice is just as much about what Special attacks and Boss Summons you're sending to your opponent, not merely about your own ability to survive the fight. As such, it pays to pay attention to what each character can do so that you know what you'll be defending against in the upcoming match.

What makes the Saturn version particularly special? I mean, at this point you're thoroughly convinced that Twinkle Star Sprites is an awesome game, but is the Saturn version (which has gotten expensive in recent months) worth pursuing? If you're a big fan of the series, yes I think it is. The Saturn version is a deluxe two-disc release. Inside the jewel case is a full-color manual and a second disc full of character sketches, art, videos, and other random things that I couldn't read because I don't read Japanese. The game itself also received a number of enhancements like an auto-fire button, an animated introduction, remastered music, and the small (but very helpful) inclusion of a rule that allows you to carry your Power Gauge over to the next round. The biggest addition is a Saturn-exclusive mode. Since this additional mode introduces several more stages and several more characters, this makes the Saturn version the definitive version of the game, beating even the PS2 and Dreamcast ports.



The only knocks I can level against the game would be the occasional slowdown and the loading times. The first issue is pretty common in the shmup genre but may be something that discourages new players. To a shmup fan, the only sort of bad slowdown is inconsistent slowdown. As long as the slowdown is consistent and fair, shmup players tend to look at it as a boon not a curse (since it is easier to dodge thick patterns of bullets). Twinkle Star's Arcade mode does suffer from some slowdown when the screen fills up with dozens of bullets, but since this is fairly applied to both sides of the screen it doesn't interfere with the competitive spirit of the game. The Saturn-specific mode (which also includes Vs mode) has an option to disabled slowdown entirely.,This provides players with the option between an authentic port of the Arcade version and an enhanced Saturn version. Works for me! The loading times aren't bad, but having played this game for hours upon hours on a genuine Neo Geo cab (which uses an arcade PCB and Neo Geo cartridge) the load times in the Saturn version are noticably longer than I'm used to. Does it hinder the game? No, not really, but it is worth pointing out.

As I mentioned before, the cheapest way of getting a copy of Twinkle Star Sprites would be to look into a digital copy. It's available on the ADK Damashii collection and is likely available on Steam as well. However, for the most feature-complete version of the game the SEGA Saturn version still rules the roost. The extra modes and superior soundtrack are particular highlights for me. And if you can, please try to hook this up via S-Video or SCART and play on a genuine CRT. The pixel art in Twinkle Star can only be done justice on such a screen.

If your SEGA Saturn still gets a lot of mileage as a multiplayer console in your household, take a serious look at Twinkle Star Sprites. The franchise has never been popular and yet it is routinely featured in side-tournaments and online streams.
 

mechafan64

Neo Member
If you insist on a physical copy and have a compatible PS2, Simple 2000 Series -- Double Shienryu is a more affordable option to buy the game. Plus, it comes with Shienryu 2.

240p in TATE mode apparently, which is still much better than most arcade compilations on the PS2 with their terrible 480i and bilinear filtering.
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
240p in TATE mode apparently, which is still much better than most arcade compilations on the PS2 with their terrible 480i and bilinear filtering.
The Double Shienryu collection on PS2 has a tate mode? 240p would be preferred anyway since that's what most shmups ran in during the 90s. Interlaced = the enemy of shmups.
 
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mechafan64

Neo Member
The Double Shienryu collection on PS2 has a tate mode?

The original Shienryu has a Options menu from where you can choose several vertical display modes. I haven't personally checked if it's truly 240p as the internet says, but I've tested Espgaluda which indeed does 240p in tate mode, so it's very likely to be true.
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
The original Shienryu has a Options menu from where you can choose several vertical display modes. I haven't personally checked if it's truly 240p as the internet says, but I've tested Espgaluda which indeed does 240p in tate mode, so it's very likely to be true.
I'll definitely have to check it out when I get home. I have a CRT turned on its side so it's worth knowing which shmups do or don't support Tate mode.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus



Original Arcade Character Select screen vs Saturn Character Select




Twinkle Star Sprites (1997, ADK)

My time with the Saturn version of this bizarre shmup started a year ago when I imported a copy from Japan. However, Twinkle Star is a game I've played in the arcades since pre-adolescence. I was never great at the game, to be truthful, yet the colorful graphics and unique gameplay always stuck with me. There were a handful of places around town that had a copy but it was not a popular title. Over the years, the number of cabinets (and arcades) in my area with a copy of Twinkle Star dwindled to nothing. As a long-time fan of the title, I looked into home ports of Twinkle Star for my own collection but never pulled the trigger. The original arcade, AES, and Neo Geo CD options were already outside of my price range by that time. In the late 90s, I didn't own a Saturn nor did I think to import a copy.

My passion for the title lay dormant until I got a chance to play the arcade version on a friend's Neo Geo MVS cabinet many years later. I was hooked and knew that I needed to search for a viable home release. Surely, many years later, Twinkle Star would be more easily available, right? Well... no, not really. PS2's ADK Damashii -- which contains a port of Twinkle Star's arcade version -- is a good option but has become expensive nowadays, too, so I settled for the Sony PSN digital version early last year. For what it's worth, the PSN Digital copy of ADK Damashii is the cheapest way to get Twinkle Star Sprites without resorting to emulators or burned copies. My friends and I spent many uproarious nights hammering away at that game, devising strategies and rivalries. I fell in love with the game all over again. A Neo Geo version was still out of the question, financially-speaking, but what about SEGA Saturn? I'd already built up a healthy collection of fighters, shmups, and puzzle games for the system. Perhaps the Saturn version of Twinkle Star Sprites was worth it?

Well, it is. I'd argue that it is the best version of the title, in fact. But before I get into that, a bit about how the game works: two players indirectly fight one another by shooting, charging, and dodging slews of shoot 'em up enemies sent from the top of the screen. The enemies are speedy enough to pose a threat. When you shoot them, you send bullets over to your opponent's side of the field. However, they can shoot your bullets (or catch them in a chain-explosion) and send them back over to you. This back-and-forth dynamic almost feels like tennis or volleyball.



It's supremely fun. Against the CPU, the fun peeks its head through the clouds on occasion. The mechanics are sound, thankfully, so even against the computer you'll have a fun time. The game puts on a challenge, especially in the later stages of Story mode. But it is in a 2-player battle where Twinkle Star Sprites comes alive and shows its spirit. Battles can end in moments -- it's common for a newbie to be crushed within just 10 seconds -- or they can stretch on for what feels like an eternity (still, just two or three minutes total). Main shot, bombs, charge shot, movement speed, Specials, and 'Boss Summon' all differ based on the character you've selected. Therefore, players will gravitate toward the characters who embody their own playstyle, learning the strengths and limitations of their character. This feels more like a fighting game in that respect, whereas in most shmups the ship selection doesn't make a big difference.

Twinkle Star Sprites is also very simple, something that works in its favor. Everything in context, right? Well, during that era shmups were becoming much more complicated. In that context, Twinkle Star almost feels like a step backwards. Unlike other shmups of the '90s, you don't have to manage Rank or memorize a route or micro-dodge thick curtains of bullets or upgrade your shot in Twinkle Star Sprites. The gameplay is stripped down to the bare essentials of the shmup genre: dodge incoming fire while shooting clusters of enemies. This framework, though simple, provides ample variety and nuance in 2-player battles. A die-hard shmup fan may overlook the game due to the apparent lack of nuance while more casual gamers might not give it any attention at all. Unfortunate, but that's the nature of our hobby. Once players get their hands on the game, though, it is easy to understand and easy to get addicted.

My favorite character is the Mecha-cat 'Kesubei'. His shot is mediocre and his Special is easily dodged. However, he has a powerful short-ranged punching combo, a fast movement speed, and a good Boss Summon. I find it much easier to survive with him compared to any other character. One friend uses 'Tribbles' (Nanja Monja) or 'Pencil Witches' (Pentell). For another friend, the main character 'Bunny girl' (Load Ran) is the best. Another friend swaps between 'Pig Girl' (Yan Yanyang) and 'The Griffon Bros' (Griffon, amusingly). We'll occasionally step outside of our preferences to see what the other characters can do. However, once the competition gets heated we revert back to our 'mains' and duke it out, often for several hours into the night. Each character boasts their own nuances, making the character select screen (nearly) as nail-biting as the game itself. After all, your character choice is just as much about what Special attacks and Boss Summons you're sending to your opponent, not merely about your own ability to survive the fight. As such, it pays to pay attention to what each character can do so that you know what you'll be defending against in the upcoming match.

What makes the Saturn version particularly special? I mean, at this point you're thoroughly convinced that Twinkle Star Sprites is an awesome game, but is the Saturn version (which has gotten expensive in recent months) worth pursuing? If you're a big fan of the series, yes I think it is. The Saturn version is a deluxe two-disc release. Inside the jewel case is a full-color manual and a second disc full of character sketches, art, videos, and other random things that I couldn't read because I don't read Japanese. The game itself also received a number of enhancements like an auto-fire button, an animated introduction, remastered music, and the small (but very helpful) inclusion of a rule that allows you to carry your Power Gauge over to the next round. The biggest addition is a Saturn-exclusive mode. Since this additional mode introduces several more stages and several more characters, this makes the Saturn version the definitive version of the game, beating even the PS2 and Dreamcast ports.



The only knocks I can level against the game would be the occasional slowdown and the loading times. The first issue is pretty common in the shmup genre but may be something that discourages new players. To a shmup fan, the only sort of bad slowdown is inconsistent slowdown. As long as the slowdown is consistent and fair, shmup players tend to look at it as a boon not a curse (since it is easier to dodge thick patterns of bullets). Twinkle Star's Arcade mode does suffer from some slowdown when the screen fills up with dozens of bullets, but since this is fairly applied to both sides of the screen it doesn't interfere with the competitive spirit of the game. The Saturn-specific mode (which also includes Vs mode) has an option to disabled slowdown entirely.,This provides players with the option between an authentic port of the Arcade version and an enhanced Saturn version. Works for me! The loading times aren't bad, but having played this game for hours upon hours on a genuine Neo Geo cab (which uses an arcade PCB and Neo Geo cartridge) the load times in the Saturn version are noticably longer than I'm used to. Does it hinder the game? No, not really, but it is worth pointing out.

As I mentioned before, the cheapest way of getting a copy of Twinkle Star Sprites would be to look into a digital copy. It's available on the ADK Damashii collection and is likely available on Steam as well. However, for the most feature-complete version of the game the SEGA Saturn version still rules the roost. The extra modes and superior soundtrack are particular highlights for me. And if you can, please try to hook this up via S-Video or SCART and play on a genuine CRT. The pixel art in Twinkle Star can only be done justice on such a screen.

If your SEGA Saturn still gets a lot of mileage as a multiplayer console in your household, take a serious look at Twinkle Star Sprites. The franchise has never been popular and yet it is routinely featured in side-tournaments and online streams.


This is a really terrific essay on Twinkle Star Sprites. I was eyeing this disc in my library today while prepping my next batch of reviews, as I've always enjoyed the game, but I never fully understood its mechanics and often felt that I was missing something. I should sit down and play one of these days.

I'm looking forward to your next essay review, as well as any stories or discussions by the NeoGAF crew. We need more Saturn fans over here.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
















NiGHTS: Into Dreams; Christmas NiGHTS (1996, Sonic Team)

I.

Yuji Naka is the head of Sonic Team, one of the finest videogame studios to emerge in the past two decades. Breaking through in 1991 with Sonic the Hedgehog, Naka created the first truly classic platform game to break away from the slavish Mario mold. This spirit of creativity carried through the 16-bit era (Sonic CD, Sonic 2, Sonic 3 & Knuckles), up to today, with brilliant, original works like Chu Chu Rocket!, Samba De Amigo, and Phantasy Star Online. Naka's crowning achievement is as well-loved as any Sonic Team classic. That game is NiGHTS: Into Dreams, and it is, without question, among the greatest videogames ever made.

NiGHTS appeared on the struggling Saturn in 1996, just when Nintendo had unveiled Super Mario 64, Eidos Interactive introduced Tomb Raider, and Naughty Dog released Crash Bandicoot. This was a heady, revolutionary time, as the rules and conventions of the 3D videogame were being mapped out. Shigeru Miyamoto, of course, would win the day with Mario, as he had so many times before, but because NiGHTS was released on the less-successful Saturn, Sonic Team's efforts were largely overlooked, except by the Sega faithful and die-hard gamers.

If you invested the time, you would discover a game that was, in its own quirky way, nearly as innovative and forward-thinking as Super Mario 64. The challenge was how to take the traditional 2D videogame experience, and bring it into a three-dimensional world. While Mario 64 created a whole new experience while keeping the spirit of the old 2D Super Mario, NiGHTS struck a balance between the old and new, a game world that weaves between 2D and 3D.

NiGHTS tells the story of two children, Claris and Elliot, who have never met but come together in shared lucid dreaming. They encounter an androgynous jester (who vaguely resembles Prince), who flies, twirls, and loops around surreal fantasy worlds, featuring clock gardens, dark forests, icy snow caps, and…well, it doesn't really make much sense.

Each level, or "dream," begins with one of the children walking around a fully 3D environment. When the gem they are carrying is stolen, they run towards a gazebo where NiGHTS awaits. You then take control of our hero, who flies along a set 2D path that loops and curves around the environment, collecting blue spheres in a set time-limit. Imagine Sonic blazing through loops and vaults, but without the foreground graphics.

What makes NiGHTS play so brilliantly is that the character is always centered on the screen. This is a common convention in 2D, but it is easily lost in 3D. The worst thing Sonic Team did in Sonic Adventure (1999) was to pan the camera away from Sonic as he jumped the loop-de-loops. The viewer is taken out of the action, which kills the fun; the joy of these games comes from being flung across the screen with the hero. That roller-coaster thrill, that old Sonic rush, NiGHTS delivers it in spades. Add in an ever-turning camera (this is still a 3D world), and you have a game that is as fast, possibly faster, than anything before.

NiGHTS is a masterpiece of subtlety. At first glance, you see a game that feels more 2D than 3D. But over time, and repeated playing, the many layers emerge. The children, for instance, can avoid the gazebo and wander around, discovering many surprises. There are surprise pathways; surprise bonuses hidden on the air tracks; surprises that seem minor, but enhance the enchanted feel of the world (like leading a car back to its garage).

The greatest surprise of this game has to be the Nightopians. This feature is so subtle that it may be overlooked for the first few hours, but it is no throwaway. Pians are, in fact, one of the pioneering Artificial Life experiments, which became hugely popular with Tamagotchi. In NiGHTS, Pians are little creatures who populate the landscape, flying about, building things, taking naps. They will also mate and lay eggs, which can be hatched by NiGHTS or the children. Your behavior also has an effect. Pians can be (accidentally) killed, or scared away, which affects the music. But kind treatment of the Pians will have its rewards, which I will leave for you to discover.

The sense of flying is wonderful. That mix of improvisation and racing is simply unmatched. NiGHTS can perform two dozen different stunts when flying; there are several places where this can be done for bonus points, but most of the time, this is simply an opportunity for the players to improvise. The act of flying in this game is not unlike abstract painting, with its swift, sweeping movements and colorful accents.

Regardless of the Saturn's hardware difficulties, Sonic Team achieved a stunning level of beauty in NiGHTS; confident, colorful, and bristling with life. Everything just looks wonderful: the rush of the waterfalls, the crunch of snowballs, the whole psychedelic craziness of it all. This is without question the most tripped out videogame ever made. The best example is the "Soft Museum," a dream sequence involving a world where the ground literally bends and warps when walked on. Sonic Team also delivers a wonderful musical score, one that is at times epic and theatrical, but also laid-back and casual. Everything just fits together so perfectly.

NiGHTS is the sort of videogame that requires one to examine everything else in a new light. Just what kind of game is this? Is it a platformer, like Sonic the Hedgehog? An old-school arcade game? Is it a racing game, a virtual pet, or an adventure? It is really a combination of all these things. That's probably the best explanation I could offer. What a fantastic, visionary work.

II.

Christmas NiGHTS is a special demo release was released in only limited quantities through various videogame magazines in 1996, and today has become a sought-after collector's item. It includes two of the dream stages from the main game, which you can play as either of the children, allowing you to play through each dream's four courses and face the flying frog boss at the end.

This demo makes novel use of the Sega Saturn's internal clock to affect the game. For example, the graphics are rendered in a Christmas setting during the Holiday season, with trees, bells, candles and holly seen everywhere, the holiday songs sung in the background. On rare occasions, you may even spy Santa and his reindeer flying in the distance. There are also variations for New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, and other select dates. You can change your system’s settings manually if you wish to see any of the seasonal variations. The Christmas mode is always available for play throughout the year.

The other notable feature are presents which are awarded in a matching-tile game. You are given a number of tries after completing the NiGHTS dream world. These bonus items include CG character art, time attack and link attack modes, a two-player versus mode, a karaoke mode, a Nightopian monitor (which observes their overall mood in the game, and can be adjusted on the fly), and two promotional videos. The best surprise is a cameo by Sonic the Hedgehog, who becomes playable in the demo. Dr. Robotnik/Eggman also makes a cameo as the end boss.

The American release of Christmas NiGHTS has become very rare and expensive as prices have exploded in recent years. The game was also given a retail release in Japan with the standard CD jewel case and color instruction manual. I picked up a copy for ten dollars, which is an enormous bargain. Readers should note that the storybook clips are spoken in Japanese and are not subtitled in English, but you can easily follow along. The wonderful acapella performance of the NiGHTS theme song that appears after you complete the two dream stages remains in its native English.

I skipped NiGHTS when it was released in 1996, as I was spooked by the tepid, almost apologetic tone of the coverage in Next Generation magazine. "It's too strange. It's too unusual. Nobody will understand it. It's not in the same league as Super Mario 64." Because of this, it wasn't until I found a copy of Christmas NiGHTS at a local Blockbuster Video store for five dollars that I decided to give the game a try. I immediately fell in love with the demo disc, especially the quest to unlock all the presents and bonus features. I soon bought a copy of the full game and never looked back.

Any proper remake of NiGHTS must include the Christmas NiGHTS disk in its complete and unabridged form. It is a perfect companion piece to Yuji Naka's finest hour, and easily stands as the best videogame demo ever created.

(Update 5/23: Revised the text on Christmas NiGHTS and added new screenshots showing the demo disc in widescreen mode.)
 
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DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Sega Rally Championship (1995, AM3)

The Sega Saturn had its best holiday season in 1995, with the spectacular 1-2-3 punch of Virtua Fighter 2, Sega Rally Championship, and Virtua Cop. The console was almost immediately written off in favor of Sony's Playstation, and that first months as a Saturn owner was rough. These three games were just about the best to ever grace the console, and immediately renewed our faith. For a short while, Saturn had the best fighter, the best racer, and the best shoot-em-up.

Ah, well, PSX won out with practically everything else. But there was still a spirit of competition in 1995. We were hoping for a repeat of the classic console war between Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Sadly, it was not to be, but that had more to do with the evolution of videogames into 3D and the rising dominance of polygon graphics. PSX was the future, while Saturn had one foot planted in a 2D world that suddenly fell out of fashion.

In any case, Sega Rally Championship is one of Saturn's finest hours. It's easily the best racing title on the system, a belief that became very frustrating to Saturn fans like me. I have no idea why the graphics engine wasn't ported around and used in a dozen other videogames. Sega kept to a rigorous pattern of repeating the same formula every Christmas: fighting game, racing game, light gun game. The fighting titles improved with Fighting Vipers and Fighters Megamix, and Virtua Cop 2 was simply smashing; the rail car shootout remains unsurpassed for thrills and spills. But the racing titles were often disappointments, never equalling what AM3 achieved in ‘95.

Sega Rally is intelligent, brilliant, requires a lot of planning and heavy thinking, and definitely many replays. It's a very short game, like most racers of the 32-bit era, but you always wanted one more try. Rally racing was new, and the thrill of leaping across mud, dirt, water, and pavement was new, exciting. These four courses were densely packed with details, and required different enough skills to always keep you on your toes.

What makes this videogame special is the vehicle’s handling. No other videogame captures the nuances of driving on multiple surfaces so perfectly. Racing over concrete is different from racing over dirt or mud; the tires and suspension react differently, the steering requires different levels of pressure. You can almost feel the grooves in the dirt as you blaze through a medium turn. Many racers never bother to capture the full experience, pretending that a car has one large, imaginary wheel under the middle of the chassis. You can tell the difference when you’re playing almost immediately (it’s my one annoyance with Excite Truck on Nintendo Wii), and it makes all the difference in the world.

Desert is the easiest course, and probably the most fun because of all the mud. There are a series of leaps that land you in puddles that always excites, especially when you're fighting against opposing cars. This is especially fun in two-player mode, and is also greatly improved in "reverse" mode, which was a common method to squeeze more mileage out of the same racetracks.

Forest course has all those magnificent pine trees, a sharp turn inside a tunnel, and a tricky series of hard corners along the mountain’s edge. Each of these challenges are harder to navigate, and all the more satisfying. It's less a battle against rival drivers than the elements. This is an excellent example of racetrack design during the 32-bit era, where the limits of 3D graphics forced designers to create winding, twisting courses that surprise you every second.

Mountain course is a tough challenge, no question about that. It looks spectacular, with its crowded city streets, cobblestone bricks, and towering mountains. There's another nasty hairpin turn that can leave you in the bushes, gasping for air. The streets are also very narrow, which leads to some great jostling among vehicles. This is a great course for knocking your opponent around, and I can only imagine what it would be like to have more human players racing at once (multiplayer is strictly limited to two cars). Four or eight racers would be spectacular, in fact, Sega would be wise to reissue the original Sega Rally with more players. Hint, hint.

Finally, there is the bonus Lakeside course, awarded for winning the rally race. It's not as overly punishing as the mountain stage, just a series of endless sharp turns on narrow dirt roads with hard banks on all sides, but highly challenging nonetheless. Smacking your car into the sides is frustrating, but with enough practice, you can master your timing and sail through without a hitch. If you can make it to the finish line in one piece, you've earned some primo bragging rights.

I also love this stage’s wonderful autumnal setting, with leaves turning colors and ducks flying over the lake. Sega Rally always looks so spectacular. Every single detail stands out, boldly, confidently. Sega clearly needed to get past Saturn's shaky start; its first wave of videogames were plagued with glitchy graphics, and the reputation as a difficult console cursed with half-assembled parts proved crippling. Sega worked themselves to the bone to demonstrate Saturn's 3D powers, and Sega Rally is one of their finest examples.

Sega Rally Championship is a hallmark of the classic arcade racer. It delivers immediate arcade thrills in the finest Sega tradition (nobody could match Sega’s driving games), matched with a dedication to strategy and realism closer to simulations. Sega continued to push this envelope with arcade hits such as Touring Car Championship and Ferrari F355 Challenge.

One last note: “Game Over, Yeah” is the best ending music in the history of videogames. Thank God Fensler Films used it in their G.I. Joe cartoon parodies. Everybody should be stealing that line.

(Update 5/22: I added new screenshots. There are far too few Sega Rally photos online. As always, share and share alike.)
 
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DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
The original Shienryu has a Options menu from where you can choose several vertical display modes. I haven't personally checked if it's truly 240p as the internet says, but I've tested Espgaluda which indeed does 240p in tate mode, so it's very likely to be true.
So, a report back on this!

Shienryu has an Option menu that you can select by tapping Down on the stick (one of those old school menus). I selected 'Horizontal Low' and it does display the game at a clean 240p. Looks and plays great in full Tate with beautiful, solid scan lines. I gotta thank you because I'd written this game off as non-Tate only (for the console versions). Must've read some bad info online or something.

No apparent way to adjust X and Y, but the image seemed to fill the screen without overscanning.

This is a really terrific essay on Twinkle Star Sprites. I was eyeing this disc in my library today while prepping my next batch of reviews, as I've always enjoyed the game, but I never fully understood its mechanics and often felt that I was missing something. I should sit down and play one of these days.

I'm looking forward to your next essay review, as well as any stories or discussions by the NeoGAF crew. We need more Saturn fans over here.
Thanks for the kind words! I'll keep chipping away at the games I know pretty well on the Saturn. I have a smaller collection ("only" 30 games) but they are hand-picked across shmups, puzzle games, and fighters, so I will try to keep bringing my knowledge to the table when I write these.

Same to you, by the way. I'm eager to read your next write-up. Reading about Shienryu made me crack out my copy. Got all the way to Stage 4 on one credit. A night spent playing Shienryu is a good night indeed.

Yes! Dig into Twinkle Star and learn the mechanics. They are deceptively simple but nuanced. If you can convince some friends to play local with you, all the better! Looking forward to some anecdotes from you if you decide to dig into it.
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
A review of SEGA Rally and NiGHTS in the same night? All I can say about SEGA Rally is that the drifting still feels very tactile to this day. Favorite part of the game, as weird as that sounds.

As for NiGHTS, I never really "got it" even after multiple attempts. To be fair, I also didn't really have a clue as to what was going on each time I played. Your write-up gave me a better understanding of how the game works.
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR



Salamander 2


Salamander


Life Force

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus (1997, Konami)

Saturn shmup fans are in for a treat as this is one of my all-time favorite shmup franchises. I have no intention of being brief as I gush about these games. Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus grants you three full arcade-perfect titles, each worthy members of any shmup fan's collection: Salamander, Life Force, and Salamander 2. Sadly, none of these games are very well-known or popular. Perhaps the series was overshadowed by the likes of Gradius and TwinBee, Konami's much better-known franchises. Or maybe the genre-blending gameplay wasn't to gamers' liking. Whatever the case, Salamander is a forgotten fragment of the vast shmup pantheon. If you enjoy the no-nonsense style of shmup that was present through the mid-80s to mid-90s (before everything got flipped on its head by Battle Garegga and DoDonPachi) then Salamander is a wonderful look back. The games are a stoic memorial to that long-dead era of dodging fast bullets, navigating narrow tunnels, and "shooting the core".

My experience with Salamander began with its own spinoff, Life Force, on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a bizarre sequel to a kid who'd played the heck out of Gradius during the previous year. The power-up system and the player ship were both the same, but the theme was biological instead of sci-fi. Gone were the alien ships and turrets, replaced by mushy tentacle-bosses and living walls that could be shot to pieces. It was definitely fun like Gradius, but there were some differences. Let's get the confusing part out of the way: there are numerous versions of Salamander and Life Force depending on the region and release. SEGA Saturn's triple-pack comes with the Japanese arcade versions of Salamander, Life Force, and Salamander 2. The American arcade Life Force, Japanese Famicom Salamander, American NES Life Force, MSX Salamander, and PC Engine Salamander all have specific differences, additions, omissions, and changes that make them distinct from one another although not wholly different games. The differences are mainly found in the level layouts, overall difficulty, and the music. Confused? It's okay. If you want to "get into" Salamander, either the SEGA Saturn collection (which we're talking about here) or the Playstation Portable collection are the best ways to do so, all things considered.


Salamander

Anyway, back to what matters. Salamander differs from Gradius in four significant ways. First, you can play co-op. By today's standards this might not seem like a big deal, but you'd be hard-pressed to find many shmups from this era that offered simultaneous co-op play. Powerups are plentiful which makes playign with a buddy an easier way to play through the game. Don't expect to clear it on just one or two credits without significant practice, though. Second, the power-ups for your speed, Option, and weapons are represented by individual icons that you collect from the stage, unlike Gradius which uses a selection bar. Life Force returns to the use of Gradius' selection bar, for what it's worth. Third, when you die you continue right where you left off instead of reverting back to the dreaded checkpoint, a system used by many shmups from this era that has thankfully gone out of style. Lastly, the gameplay alternates between horizontal and vertical levels. This adds a ton of variety. It helps that the maps and enemy patterns for both orientations meet Konami's excellent standards. I'd say that I love either type of maps equally in the Salamander series. There are also high-octane "speed zones" that force the player to deftly navigate narrow tunnels as the scrolling speed increases. All of these elements blend together to create a cohesive, unique shmup experience and these tweaks help Salamander stand out despite being a 30-year-old franchise. Similar to how Blaster Master and Guardian Force feel "fresh" after all these years due to their genre-blending gameplay, Salamander remains fresh even though many shmups have come and gone. The games feel complete and robust, despite lacking the various Arrange modes and alternative scoring methods that we've come to expect from more modern releases. When revisiting games this old it's easy to give them a pass or not expect much in the way of content or variety, but I think Salamander defies those expectations. It's still really good.

You battle through bizarre biological structures and enemies, the sort that you might find in R-Type or Abadox. Salamander's theme plays a big role in maintaining your interest, since we've all played "yet another sci-fi shooter" but biological themes are quite rare nowadays. Powerups are much easier to come by compared to Gradius. Since you revive immediately after death, Salamander feels much quicker, much faster, much more engaging than the nail-bitingly-plodding Gradius. It's closer to something like Thunder Force III or Layer Section in its intensity and speed which is all the more fascinating when you consider the year it released. Enemy and boss variety hold up over the course of the six stages in each title. Salamander 2 in particular gets really weird with its locales and enemies, not that I'm complaining.


Salamander 2

Life Force is the odd duck of the collection. It isn't the same as the NES version I grew up playing, but it's similar enough (same power-up system, nearly the same graphical style, music, and level design). The major boon for fans of the original NES Life Force is that the Saturn version looks and sounds much nicer. Although it technically came out first, you could consider it an upgraded remix of the NES version, for all intents and purposes. Since Life Force goes back to using Gradius' iconic selection bar, the pace slows down in comparison to the two Salamander games. Death matters more. Missing power-ups matter more. Overall, it's more challenging than either of the Salamander games and feels the most straightforward in its design. That said, the gameplay holds up and the bosses are still a treat to take down.

Salamander 2 is arguably the best game of the bunch. Obviously, graphics and sound design were greatly improved in the gap between Life Force's 1987 Japanese arcade release and Salamander 2's 1996 release. Being the final game in the franchise, Salamander 2 is an admirable send-off, being "more of the same" instead of attempting to reinvent the franchise's conventions. That isn't a bad thing, necessarily. The pre-rendered CGI sprites and the 2D graphics have aged gracefully in terms of visual presentation (whereas full 3D shmups like RayStorm and Silpheed have not aged so well...). The gameplay is essentially unaltered compared to the previous Salamander title, the only notable exception being that you can use Options to pull off powered-up moves.



All three titles in the collection boast a good soundtrack, the sort of toe-tapping Konami stuff that you'd expect from a Turtles in Time or Castlevania or any other arcade-worthy title. Fans of Gradius will be pleased to hear a few throwbacks to songs from the first few Gradius titles, too. Examples below:

Salamander 2 | Salamander | Life Force

Hopefully you'll take a second look at the Saturn Salamander collection. Though the games are old, you get three top-tier shmups on one disc. A used copy will cost you quite a bit, but considering the number of games you get I think it's worth the asking price.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Guardian Heroes (1996, Treasure)

By nearly all accounts, Treasure's Guardian Heroes is just about the greatest thing to happen to Sega Saturn, a 2D spectacular dazzles the eyes, ears and itchy trigger fingers of all players. Nearly all modern polls of Saturn's finest games ranks this title among the very top, a defining classic for the system's library. If you are a fan of arcade beat-em-ups like Double Dragon, Final Fight and Streets of Rage, you're going to love this game.

Back in 1996, however, the mood of the gaming public was very different. 2D videogames were as dead as leisure suits in the 1980s or synth pop in the 1990s. The entire art form was massively out of fashion, killed by new technologies such as pre-rendered CG and texture-mapped polygons. For gamers always hungry for the "next big thing," sprite graphics were the kiss of death.

Sony successfully rode the new wave of 3D graphics to legendary success with their Playstation system, and Nintendo successfully established a new paradigm for 3D videogames with Super Mario 64, but Sega was hit hardest by this sea change. Their Saturn was envisioned as the best of both worlds, a continuation of the 2D arcade games of the Sega Genesis and an exploration of the new 3D frontier of arcade hits like Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Two decades later, this feels like a reasonable, almost cautious strategy, and if the winds of fashion had not blown so harshly, the Fifth Generation may have ended differently.

But the winds come and go. Fashion rises and falls. Greatness lasts. Today, Guardian Heroes more closely resembles the latest pop craze on iOS, or the latest indie hit on consoles. It feels very fresh and vital and new, and its excitement can hardly be contained. When playing, you feel a rush as though lightning were shooting out of your fingers, your pulse racing as you face endless waves of soldiers, ogres, wizards and giant plants that want to stomp you flat. It's great fun, gloriously attractive and endlessly addicting.

Treasure are the madcap developers behind this game, and they're known for their freewheeling subversive style that takes established videogame genres and turns them on their heads. Their software library is a virtual must for all budding diehard gamers: Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy, Alien Soldier, Silhouette Mirage, Radiant Silvergun, Sin and Punishment, Mischief Makers, Bangai-O, Ikaruga. The mid '90s marked the studio's creative and commercial peak. Many studio could deliver zany or surreal games, but Treasure had the classic arcade skills to match, and that's why their name remains revered to this day.

Guardian Heroes is Treasure's take on the beat-em-up genre, mashed up with elements of fantasy role-playing games. You play as a band of adventurers who discover a mysterious sword and find themselves suddenly attacked by the kingdom's royal knights who seek the weapon. A mysterious female warrior arrives at your side, imploring you to fight back. The battle spills out into the town streets and your team gathers at a neighboring cemetery, where you are ambushed by the prince of the kingdom. During the fight, something unexpected happens: the sword flies from your grip, floats in the air, then flies over a grave. An armored skeleton emerges with the sword in hand and immediately begins to fight the enemy army. You quickly discover that this is the sword's original owner and he now obeys your commands. Your team now must begin its quest to solve the mystery of the sword and the kingdom, where you will meet a wide cast of characters good and bad, and a story with numerous surprises and twists.

The gameplay is fascinating. You move along a strictly linear plane in the style of Kung-Fu Master, only moving left and right, but you can also jump along three separate planes in the background. Skilled players will learn when to jump planes to either attack enemies or avoid damages and buy some time. Each player-character is armed with an impressive arsenal of moves, which include standard attacks, combos and magic spells. Each character has a unique set of skills and stats which emphasize one style of play or another. The burly fighter is good for direct attacks but cannot use magic. The magic girl can employ many magic attacks but is physically weak. In addition, you gain experience points as you defeat enemies, which will not only raise your abilities but reward you with "stat points" at the end of each stage, where you can raise your abilities as you wish. As there are not enough stat points to maximize all your abilities, you will have to choose which abilities to build. This gives you a great amount of freedom to experiment and adds greatly to the replay value.

During your quest, you are offered multiple pathways or choices to follow. For example, after resurrecting the golden warrior and defeating the fighters in the cemetery, you have the option to proceed to the next town, a nearby village, or a forest. There are 30 stages in all, only a fraction which is seen on any given quest. There are seven different endings and five different final villains, depending on which path you've chosen, which foes you've defeated and which friends you've helped. In addition to this, Treasure added a "karma" rating for your character, which can rise or fall based on your actions, such as breaking barrels, killing civilians, attacking fleeing soldiers or continuing to attack defeated foes. Several, if not all, of the endings have a "dark" variation if you finish with negative karma. Either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain, I suppose.

Guardian Heroes is filled with gameplay subtleties that emerge over time. Magic spells can affect you as well, such as touching an enemy who has caught on fire. Attacks can be added into combos or buffered together, allowing for more powerful attacks. Blocking and dodging attacks is an essential skill that will ensure your survival (I can't remember another brawler with blocking). The undead hero can be guided with a series of commands from "attack" to "defend" that can be changed on the fly. The larger and more challenging enemies employ stronger defense and require a bit of tactics to defeat (you can't get beat the game by mashing buttons), and is especially true with the epic boss fights.

Visually, Guardian Heroes presents a spectacular buffet of 2D graphics, using Sega Saturn's VDP2 powers to great effect. The screen is often filled with characters, trees, pillars, tables or other objects. Character designs are heavily anime-inspired, with thick black outlines and sparing use of colors. Its look is slightly pixelated, and there are some larger opponents that are clearly scaled sprites, making for a very stylishly blocky look (I'm reminded of the Atari Lynx). For critics, this was slightly jarring in 1996, further proof of the supremacy of pre-rendered CG and polygons, but I believe Treasure deliberately designed this as a style, as though you are taking animation cels and zooming them in and out.

There are many highly impressive visual effects, including transparencies in foreground objects and magic attacks. One character wears a transparent pink cape that looks very nice, but also demonstrates the Saturn's famous difficulties with alpha blending, as its graphics are layered on top of one another much like cel animation. Again with the anime influences. In still photos, you may see how some tricks were performed. In action, everything looks smooth and sublime, and you wonder why more videogames of that era couldn't follow this style. I would have killed to see a Castlevania that copied this game's design.

In addition to the story mode, there is a versus mode where you can play up to six players in a series of battle arenas. You will also have access to the game's entire cast of characters (at least 45), all of which feature their own attacks and combos. For many players, this will be the most exciting part and will become a fixture at parties. You bring the cerveza, the nachos and a stack of records. I'll bring the Saturn and Guardian Heroes. That's not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Bokan to Ippatsu: Doronbo Kanpekiban (1997, Banpresto and Tatsunoko)

Bokan to Ippatsu: Doronbo Kanpekiban (translated as "Time Bokan: Doronbo Perfect Version) is a member of a videogame sub-genre known as "cute-em-ups," which were popular in the 1990s on home systems such as the PC Engine/Turbografx-16 and Super NES. If you have ever seen Konami's Parodious or Red Entertainment's Air Zonk, you'll have an idea of what to expect. These games are arcade shoot-em-ups that feature extremely colorful, cartoony graphics and a generally silly style that play out like a semi-parody of videogames.

Time Bokan is based on the 1977 Yatterman anime series from Tatsunoko in Japan, in which a bumbling villainous trio known as the Doronbo Gang are regularly thwarted by an assortment of comic book superheroes. Its tone is much closer to Hanna-Barbera cartoons than anything, and harkens back to a more innocent age of Japanese animation. This game puts you in the hands of the gang in their quest to defeat the Yatterman heroes and, well, shoot at a lot of cartoon pigs and robot contraptions. Before each stage, you are given a choice of zany vehicles that resemble Flintstone drag cars, camels, snails and birds, each with their own unique stats for firepower, mobility and shields. There's a fair variety between them; it's fun to play around to find a personal favorite, especially once you've collected a couple power-up icons that give you some impressive (and funny) weapons such as flying attack cats. Or are those supposed to be mice or bears? Whatever.

The action plays out in vertical-scrolling style that also pans sideways when you move. It also fills the entire screen, which is a very welcome change of pace from all the vertically-oriented shooters on Sega Saturn (you won't have to lie down on the couch to play "tate" mode this time). Each stage is quite varied in their environments, from tropical green valleys to arctic glaciers, underwater oceans to futuristic city highways. There are also many obstacles in your way that you can shoot, such as trees and park benches and all those goofy pigs. It probably makes sense to fans of the cartoon show.

Time Bokan: Doronbo is fairly easy to play, certainly when compared to fiendishly difficult shooters like The Game Paradise, Battle Garegga or Soukyugurentai. Expert gamers will probably breeze their way through to the end on a good afternoon, especially if they play two-player co-op mode. Most of the enemies are easily dispatched, and while the large bosses put up a fight, you can learn their patterns in short order. Personally, I find this to be a welcome change of pace. This game is aimed at a broader mainstream audience and not just diehard game fans who can "1CC" every arcade game in their sleep.

I really enjoy the warm color saturation and impressive animations in this game, as well as the extensive use of sprite scaling and rotation. Sega Saturn's 2D powers are given a fair but not overwhelming workout. The music is also very enjoyable with lots of bang-pop-zoom cartoon effects and lots of chatter from the Doronbo Gang as they throw bombs or get hit. Banpresto doesn't offer much that we haven't previously seen on PC Engine, but what is here is very polished and refined.

Players looking for a fun and lighthearted romp will enjoy Time Bokan: Doronbo very much. It has that pick-up-and-play quality that is perfect for casual settings and social hangouts. And it's very nice to find a quality 2D videogame for Saturn, especially one that doesn't belong to a long-running franchise. This title was also released on Sony Playstation in Japan, and by all accounts appears to be completely identical. Good news for everyone!
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus








Choro Q Park (1998, Nextech)

Choro Q Park is a charming little kart-style racing game that is based on those adorable little Penny Racer cars that were a fixture in my childhood. They were called "penny racers" because you could attach a penny to the trunk of the tiny cars and when you wind them up, they would spin around and zoom and do tricks. It was an easy gimmick but extremely popular with kids around the world. I know the kids here in the States would really have enjoyed playing this videogame adaptation.

It's very easy to look at this game as another copy of Super Mario Kart, with its cartoony visual designs, boxy vehicles and looping, winding track designs. Choro Q Park isn't on the same level as Nintendo's classic series, and doesn't really compete directly. Instead, it's perfectly happy to play in its own little sandbox. The game takes place on a large island that features a number of stops, including racing arenas, a shop to purchase more vehicles, a garage and paint shop to store and customize your cars, a daily weather report, and a test track where you must first earn your driving license. The goal is to win races where you can earn money and new cars and trucks. Dozens of vehicles are available, each with their own unique handling and performance stats.

That is the thrust of the game. You play to collect penny racers and race with friends. There are a large number of race tracks spread across multiple locations, but there is no circuit mode where you compete for trophies ala Mario Kart. What makes these races novel is that you can change racers at various points along a race track. You select which car to use at each checkpoint, and you must choose wisely depending on the terrain, whether you're racing on pavement or dirt, across straight paths or winding curves.

While driving, you can pick up power-up icons that either shoot a tire directly ahead or leave an oil slick directly behind. These are the only weapon items in the game, so you'll have to make them count. Winning races often depends on successfully using the tires and oil on your rivals, especially when racing against someone who's much faster than you. The computer-controlled vehicles can also fire on you, but with nowhere near the intensity or relentlessness of Mario Kart. The pacing is far more relaxed and casual, more of a Sunday drive than a white-knuckle dance with doom.

Western players have difficulty playing this game at the start, as all the menus are in Japanese. At the beginning, you begin with one car but also need to purchase a second from the shop. Once you have chosen a second vehicle, then you can visit the test track to earn your license. You will place your cars along the designated checkpoints and then race a couple laps to prove your worth. After a few moments of driving around corners, bridges and dirt roads, you will be awarded a license that allows you to compete at the first racing arena. A second license is also available for you to access the second arena, and the following courses must then be unlocked by winning all the previous races.

After you earn your licenses, Choro Q Park opens up and you'll discover the many courses and cars available to you. The track designs are very impressive and designed with many corners, curves, hills and branching pathways. I am reminded of Mario Kart 64 which is very similar in style (Donkey Kong's island course pops into my head as I write), although at a far more polished and competitive level of performance. I only wish this game were a little faster and more competitive, with a few more power-up items. A few more cars on the tracks would be very nice.

Racing fans will really enjoy playing this game. The visuals are highly polished by Saturn standards, colorful and detailed. The cars tilt in turns, kick out smoke clouds when burning rubber, flip and spin in the air when shot by tires. The environments are varied enough to keep you interested and there are an impressive number of courses to play (there's even a Rainbow Road course at the end, becuase of course, there has to be one). The music is bouncy and even features a couple bluesy tracks that stick in your head. A two-player split-screen mode is very welcome and should extend the game's replay value. And, of course, there are all those little cars and trucks to collect.

Choro Q Park was developed by Nextech, a contract studio that was founded in 1992 and purchased by Sega in 1997. They also acquired the software studio Gau Entertainment in 1994, who the creators of the excellent Ranger-X on Sega Genesis. Their contracted work includes Linkle Liver Story (a charming Legend of Zelda inspired game), Battle Arena Toshinden Remix and URA (two dreadful Playstation adaptations), and a number of Capcom ports including Resident Evil on Saturn and Resident Evil: Code Veronica on Dreamcast.
 

B_Signal

Member
Some very good games in the last page.

NiGHTS... I was going to say that something that frustrates me about Giant Bomb is they've decided that NiGHTS is a bad game and that Saturn owners only like it because they had nothing else to play. I can actually sympathise to a point, it's not a game that explains itself. Watching them play, they run around as the kids, running out of time and dying, they could really do with someone showing them how to play it as a chain score attack game. I remember it taking me a few goes to understand it, and I remember slating it to a mate before it clicked. I think it's why I prefer Christmas NiGHTS, because it's just short courses that can be easily repeated and learnt, in fact to unlock the presents you had to replay a lot


Guardian Heroes really should be on more platforms. When you think about some of the games that are released on everything nowadays, Guardian Heroes still plays well, can still look good, and would be great online


Whenever I list my top 20 games, or whatever, I tend to forget Twinkle Star Sprites, but I think it would be up there, just for some reason I always forget it. It did come out on Steam, although I've got it on Humble Bundle which means it never occurs to me to play it. It's a great game, like everyone else seemingly I was never any good at it, better than my friend who'd play it and that's all that matters really :D
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus












Fighters Megamix (1997, Sega AM2)

Question: Is Fighters Megamix the definitive Sega Saturn fighting game? Does it surpass the mighty Virtua Fighter 2? Let the debates begin.

Fighters Megamix is a perfect summary of everything I love about Sega: a bright and bold visual design, accessible gameplay that contains boundless depths, and a sense of humor that shows they never take themselves so seriously. They were always the renegades, the upstarts, the punks who crashed the party and spiked the punch. They were the risk-takers and casino gamblers whose debts eventually came to bury them alive. But what a wild crazy ride. Start another match, I'll order pizza.

Most Saturn fans are very familiar with this game, which became a fan favorite among casual and diehard players alike and enjoys cult status to this day. It was only released on one other platform, the doomed Game.com handheld, and has never reappeared on any future console. Whenever Sega asks the fans which of their classic titles should be revived, my first answer is nearly always, "Megamix. Bring back Megamix."

Fighters Megamix is a superb mashup of Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers that quickly morphs into a grand celebration of Sega AM2's greatest hits. Players begin by playing the characters from the two major series, and as they progress, the bonus characters are revealed and quickly crash the party, each one zanier and more ridiculous than the last, each one more fun and exciting. Have you ever been to one of those college house parties that ends with the cops busting up the place? You can barely find your way to the door, your ears are ringing from the house band making noise, you're hoping you don't get nabbed by the fuzz...all in all, a great time is had by all. This videogame has that same sense of electricity and fun.

In what other fighting game can you play as a race car, or a balloon animal, or a giant Mexican jumping bean in a mariachi outfit (and a bird under his hat)? Where else can you find a giant cartoon duck who throws bombs, or a comic book superhero who runs on batteries, or an arabian warrior with a sword? Where else can you play as a giant chunk of meat with cartoon hands and feet, or a giant palm tree? Who else would be crazy enough to do something like that? Nobody, that's who.

Does it matter at all that most of these bonus characters are "joke" characters, never to be taken seriously or played with any more seriousness than mashing buttons? Does it matter that this roster of 34 fighters is massively unbalanced, where any skilled Akira or Jacky player will just wipe the floor with everybody else? Does it matter that the Daytona car only has, like, four moves (and only one that's useful)? Of course it doesn't matter. You and your friends are having fun. You're also probably very drunk, so it's not like you can remember any complex moves, anyway. Sega is looking after you by not taxing your brain. This allows more room for beer, pizza and nachos in between bouts.

The bonus characters all hail from Sega AM2 hits, including Virtua Fighter Kids, Virtua Cop 2, Sonic the Fighters, Dynamite Dux, Rent-a-Hero and Daytona USA. This shows an impressive willingness to reach deep into the catalog. They even include a characters named Siba who was originally planned for the original Virtua Fighter but was cut from the roster at the last minute, as well as three originals. You can easily imagine who would appear in future installments, such as Shinobi, Streets of Rage, Alex Kidd or NiGHTS, and you're left dumbstruck that Sega never followed through. Perhaps if the Dreamcast was given more time, such a sequel would have arrived. What's holding them back today?

For more serious players, the Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers cast is where you'll spend the bulk of your time, as you settle the debate over which is the better fighting game. You can select "Virtua" and "Vipers" modes in the options menu, which enables the midair recoveries, breakable armor and power moves that can shatter the walls. I can switch back and forth, depending on my mood and who I want to play, and I am impressed at how smoothly everyone can adapt to the subtle differences between the two series.

Of course, the Virtua cast is equipped with nearly all the moves from Virtua Fighter 3, which was tearing up the arcades (in Japan, at least). Virtua Fighter 2 is praised as a masterwork of martial arts videogames, and rightly so, but there's no question that VF3 has the stronger maneuvers, attacks and defenses. Throws and reversals are standardized with Guard+Punch and Punch+Kick, respectively. Most basic attacks now include additional "canned" combos including double kicks. An evade button allows for more tactical freedom. Of course, Megamix doesn't quite equal the action and intensity of Virtua Fighter 3, but it captures the core of the experience, and freed from the elevated 3D stage designs (replaced with endless flat planes, ala Namco's Tekken), it becomes more accessible. If only the series were more popular and better understood in the States, perhaps this home version could have translated into greater success for its arcade cousin. But it was not to be.

Fighters Megamix is a visual marvel for Sega Saturn, using a more advanced version of the graphics engine used for Fighting Vipers. The fighters and arenas are presented in standard "240" resolution, but also includes extensive use of gouraud shading and realtime light sourcing. This allows for some highly impressive visuals, especially on sunset stages where fighters are illuminated in light and shadow. I like how Saturn renders lighting effects as seen in titles like Megamix, Burning Rangers, Quake and Baroque. The speed remains relentlessly furious, blazing at 60 frames per second with only a few hiccups on one or two stages (the US version was released after the Japanese version, and be slightly more refined).

Yes, it is true that the fighters sport a lower polygon count than in Virtua Fighter 2, which also ran in "480 high resolution" mode, and this difference becomes more noticeable on modern HDTV displays (as always, everything looks better on CRT), and as with Fighting Vipers, it appears this compromise was needed in order to enable the lighting and shading effects, which was a key battleground of the Fifth Generation. Sega needed to prove that they could compete against Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64, and this is reflected in the Megamix design. Personally, I would have preferred the clean, high-rez look that Sega is best known for (as seen in VF2), but as we old people like to say, that was the style at the time. It was the onion on our belts.

As we used to say in the '90s: whatever. Once you hold a controller in your hands, Megamix is pure bliss and a blazing tornado of fun. The complex, tactical gameplay is far deeper and more involving than any of its rivals and will keep you engaged more or less forever. It's highly satisfying to hear every crunch and crack as the punches, kicks and throws connect, and there's no substitute for a well-timed throw (Jeffry has one nasty throw where he scrapes his opponent's face against the cage). The music is suitably funky and bouncy, closer to Vipers trash-rock style than Virtua, and all of the bonus characters include music from their respective titles. It goes without saying that your first bars of the Daytona theme will leave you cheering.

Why should anybody care about Sega Saturn in the year 2018? Because Fighters Megamix is there, that's why. God Bless Sega.
 

DunDunDunpachi

Patient MembeR
Great report on Megamix. I've never played it in spite of being a big fighting-game fan because I always thought it was a cheap cash-in to the various properties. I mean, you wouldn't take a fighting game with a Daytona car seriously, would you? That was my thinking, at least. Virtua Fighter, the various CAPCOM and SNK fighters, and Virtual On are of course must-haves for the Saturn but I never considered Fighters Megamix. Guess I'll have to add it to the wishlist...
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus
Great report on Megamix. I've never played it in spite of being a big fighting-game fan because I always thought it was a cheap cash-in to the various properties. I mean, you wouldn't take a fighting game with a Daytona car seriously, would you? That was my thinking, at least. Virtua Fighter, the various CAPCOM and SNK fighters, and Virtual On are of course must-haves for the Saturn but I never considered Fighters Megamix. Guess I'll have to add it to the wishlist...


Of course, nobody would take a fighting game with a Daytona race car seriously, and that's the whole point. These are videogames. They're meant to be fun and surreal and nonsensical. Heck, the whole computer industry was founded by 1960s acid heads, and most of those early videogames were their trip reports (hello, Yars' Revenge). You can also play Megamix "seriously" if you wanted, if you played in "Virtua" mode and stuck to the VF characters. The whole game is a fascinating experiment in mashing different games together to see what happens.

While VF2 is the more "serious" fighter (and still the definitive Saturn game in my eyes), Megamix is no less fun and is much easier for novice players to embrace. You should absolutely get a copy; if you do so, bear in mind that the US version is more expensive than the JP release ($30 vs $10), but the tutorial mode has English text and the graphics engine may be slightly more refined. When it comes to Saturn games, you'll usually want to get the later release as Sega always rushed software titles out the door too early. US Daytona, JP Tomb Raider, that sort of thing.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Virtua Cop (1995, Sega AM2)

Virtua Cop is the third of Sega's blockbuster trilogy that revitalized the Sega Saturn in Christmas 1995, giving the troubled system a second chance at life. Such an idea must sound strange, considering the machine was launched in May that year, but Sega found themselves reeling from Sony Playstation's successful launch in September, as well as a solid year of negative press and foul rumors. Saturn was widely seen as a mistake, if not an outright failure, before it even arrived on store shelves. They needed a miracle to win back the public. Here is one of those three miracles.

AM2 was Sega's marquee arcade game division, responsible for the company's most beloved classics including Outrun, Space Harrier, Afterburner, Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighter and Daytona USA. Virtua Cop was released to arcades in 1994 and became another smash success. The Saturn conversion began the following year, utilizing the studio's internally-developed Saturn Graphics Library to take full advantage of the hardware. The result is a practically flawless translation that far exceeded anybody's expectations.

Shooting games have been a staple of arcades and amusement parks for decades, even before the arrival of the computer age. I remember seeing several very large and very old target-practice games at the Minnesota State Fair as a child, such as Keeney Air Raider, a gun game created in 1940 where you shoot down enemy aircraft. With the arrival of videogames, we saw many classic video target games such as Duck Hunt, Operation Wolf and Terminator 2. The technology was becoming ever more advanced, but the basic gameplay had never changed. A target moves along a screen, you shoot it and score points.

Sega's Virtua Cop represents the first real evolution of this genre. Its 3D polygon graphics bring you into an immersive, interactive world, where you traverse waterfront docks, warehouses, construction zones, and modern office buildings. You walk down passageways, pass through gates, hide behind large crates, attempt to dodge moving vehicles, climb stairs, explore garages and offices. Your opponents are also rendered in 3D polygons and they pop out from every conceivable angle, running in front of you, hiding behind metal barrels, sniping from rooftops, jumping off the back of trucks, climbing down escalators, darting through doors. Many will also attack at close range with axes or hurl grenades from a distance.

Shots on criminals are context-sensitive, meaning that they will respond to where they were hit, whether it be an arm, leg, chest of head. Bonus points are awarded for a "justice shot" that knocks the guns from your opponents' hands (which I presume means they're arrested and not killed). In addition, you can strike with a three-shot combo that raises your score multiplier and awards bonus points. This feature is balanced by the low number of bullets in your gun, as you must shoot off-screen to reload. Do you play carefully and aim for single-kill or justice shots, or do you reach for the high score with three-shot combos?

There is a fair amount of interactivity in this world, including exploding red barrels that can wipe out a group of criminals at once, windows that can be shattered and wooden crates that hide power-up weapons such as machine guns, shotguns and the Eastwood-approved Magnum (you will lose these if you get shot). In one scene, you can collapse a metal observation tower by detonating a red barrel. It doesn't achieve anything, but it looks super cool and adds to the realism. It all adds to a very convincing sense of fighting through a fully realized virtual world, and it was absolutely sensational to experience when it was new.

Heck, it remains exciting today. Rare's programmers famously cited Virtua Cop as a primary influence on Goldeneye, and it's easy to understand, especially when you're blasting your way through the computer office, black-suited agents hiding behind the desks, camouflaged soldiers running past the front gates. You can understand why first-person shooters took over this genre and became so massively successful. They're all just VC without the rails.

As always, there are civilians and hostages who keep wandering into the middle of the firefight; you're penalized for shooting them by "accident," but let's be honest. There are a lot of times where these idiots are just asking to be shot. Are you sure there isn't a cheat code that rewards me for killing civilians? Check up on that.

One especially nice feature are the timing circles that surround enemies, which serves as a warning when baddies will open fire. As you progress through the game's three stages, enemies will jump out at greater angles and distances, giving you less time to react to threats. Not all criminals will be marked with the circle, which means they won't shoot you, but you can still shoot them for extra points.

Virtua Cop is a sensational roller coaster thrill ride. The action blazes by at a relentless rush, and the enemy syndicate puts up a challenging fight. It's probably the best early demonstration of Saturn's 3D powers, as the environments are fairly immersive and complex. I suspect that some slight-of-hand trickery is at play, where some backdrops that appear to be polygons are in fact 2D bitmaps. But the illusions are so convincing that I cannot discover the secret to these tricks. I would love to learn just how Sega AM2 squeezed a $15,000 arcade machine into a $300 home console, and one that couldn't "doo three-dee," no less. No Saturn library is complete without this classic. Fantastic, marvelous job. Everybody gets a free cookie.


P.S. One final note about the controls. Virtua Cop is meant to be played with Sega's Stunner, but light guns will only work on CRT displays. If you wish to play on a modern HDTV, you will be forced to use a joypad or a mouse. As compromises go, it's less than ideal but does work after some practice. That said, you're going to want to find a picture tube television to play this classic as Sega and God intended.
 

DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus














Virtua Fighter 2 (1995, Sega AM2)

Virtua Fighter 2 is the greatest videogame ever made for Sega Saturn. It is the system's greatest critical and commercial success, especially in Japan, where Sega was most successful, competing evenly against Sony for several years and even beating Nintendo. The arcade game was an enormous success that defined a standard in 3D martial arts games, and is probably Sega's most successful franchise in its home country. This is their Led Zeppelin IV.

In the West, the Virtua Fighter series was less successful and never achieved more than cult status. Gamers were more accustomed to Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, which were far easier for beginners and casual players. Here's the dirty little secret: most kids play fighting games by mashing buttons. If you mash buttons enough, the character on screen does something cool and interesting, and if you win and you'll win. If you mash buttons and nothing interesting happens, then the game sucks and play something else. Tekken 3 was a huge hit because you could play Eddie Gordo and perform his amazing gymnastics routine by just mashing the kick buttons. Why do you think wrestling videogames have always been so popular? Because all you do is smash the controller with one hand while holding pizza with the other.

The Virtua Fighter series actively punishes button mashers. Instead, it introduces a new world of martial arts theory, including movement, timing, offense and defense. It has a steep learning curve. The game should probably come packaged with a textbook for studying movelists, frame data and flow charts. At its core, the game is rock-paper-scissors played at five times normal speed. Block beats Attack. Attack beats Throw. Throw beats Block. Added to this mix is something called "recovery time," which is the time it takes your fighter to recover from a move. Now the eternal question: what will happen if my attack is blocked? Can my opponent attack or throw me during my recovery phase?

We are talking about fractions of a second in game time, and tournament players will obsess over frame rate charts to know just what attacks to use at which times, and when to never use those super-flashy moves that leave you gasping for air if missed. One of the most crucial lessons of Virtua Fighter is to learn how to punish mistakes. Here, reckless attacks will get you killed. You need to know how to read your opponent, predict their next move and beat them to the next punch. Once you can get inside their head and disrupt their thinking, you've won the match.

True mastery lies not only in knowing your abilities, but the abilities of your opponent as well. In this regard, VF2 is closer to a martial arts simulation than anything. It's a contest between competing schools: Chinese kung fu, jeet kun do, drunken boxing, praying mantis, American wrestling, the dreaded "five-point fist." Most people will choose one fighter as their main character and then study them endlessly. Sarah Bryant is my character. Her attacks are balanced between high, mid and low regions, she has fast strikes, and there are several moves that launch an opponent into the air, leading to "rolled" or improvised float combos.

Advanced techniques include guard cancels (the ability to "cancel" a canned combo); exploiting minor and major counters (attacking during an opponent's recovery phase or during movement, respectively); ring positioning and knowing where fighters will move if a basic throw is escaped (an innovation introduced in VF2); double-dashing for faster movement; and even observing feet position, either "closed" or "open" stance, which can result in additional combo hits under the right conditions. Players must also factor in the weight of the fighters, which affects how high they will float when knocked down, and the possibility of an "on the bounce" attack at the moment they hit the floor (a technique that was greatly expanded in Virtua Fighter 3).

Finally, a ProTip for all players: never use the long "floaty" jumps. Those will get you killed. Always tap the joystick or joypad, never hold. Tappa-tappa-tappa ("I got yer tappa-tappa-tappa"). That said, there are some impressive combo videos that feature the floaty jumps if you are willing to study them.

Have I mentioned there's a lot of study in this game?

Thankfully, you can learn the ropes with a little practice, and nearly all characters have an assortment of "canned" combo attacks, usually variants of punch-punch-kick. Lau Chan is notorious for his relentless punch rushes. Jacky Bryant has some great spinning attacks that are effective. I always abuse Sarah's elbow-knee combo whenever possible. If you prefer powerful throws, Jeffry and Wolf are your go-to guys. If you prefer speed and defense, Pai Chan is best. If you just want to confuse everybody, Shun Di's drunken boxing will deliver the goods.

The expert character in the game is Akira Yuki, who only has a two-punch canned combo and a series of powerful strikes that all require complex joystick movements, back-back-forward-punch+kick, that sort of thing. His most devastating attack is known as the "Stun Palm of Doom," three powerful strikes that hit an opponent at all angles and drains nearly their entire life bar. It requires three movements to be performed in under a second. If you see it in action, it is a sight of beauty. If it happens to you in a match, just hand the other player your lunch money. You're screwed.

Virtua Fighter 2 is a spectacular showcase for Sega Saturn. It was the first title to utilize the system's famous 704x480 high resolution mode, higher than VGA resolution and double the resolution of all its contemporaries. Combined with a rock-solid 60 frames per second, a sensational use of color and set design, and superb animation, and the result is a visual masterpiece. The 3D character models are brilliantly conceived, clean and sharp. AM2 uses a little slight-of-hand trickery with the backgrounds, using 2D bitmaps via the Saturn's VDP2 chip. It's a fascinating compromise in an era where all home videogames must make compromises with limited technology (the polygon era probably should have been pushed back to the Sixth Generation). As in all great art, the trick lies in knowing what to cut out. Music lies in the spaces between the notes.

I had recently read that VF2 is the first videogame to incorporate motion capture animation, and I think that was one key reason for it's astonishing character animation. Fighters move with a graceful beauty that was inconceivable with 2D hand-drawn or digitized sprites; they sway, stumble, spin, punch and kick with an amazing lifelike fluidity. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. For comparison's sake, go watch Battle Arena Toshinden on Playstation, which was released three months prior in September 1995. The difference between the two titles is astonishing. Such were the rapid advances of the Fifth Generation, where today's hot star became tomorrow's has-been.

Playing in 2018, I am amazed at how clean and crisp VF2 looks on a Sony HDTV with composite cables, at how rich and detailed the spectacular synth-rock music sounds through the speakers, how clean and clear the voice samples echo in the room. Sega AM2 exceeded their best expectations. If anything, they were a little too good, setting a standard that Sega Saturn could barely reach again. I think Dead or Alive does a better job with its backgrounds in faking a 3D environment, but this game has stronger animation and art design. And it has that legendary gameplay, almost limitless depth. My head tells me that Virtua Fighter 3 was the series' peak, but my heart tells me it's really Virtua Fighter 2. Cue the Bonham drums.

(Update 6/3: Added a screenshot taken on a 1990s Sony Trinitron CRT, Saturn w/composite cables.)
 
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DT MEDIA

GAF's Resident Saturn Omnibus










Panzer Dragoon (1995, Team Andromeda)

When I think of Panzer Dragoon, one word comes to mind: atmosphere. It presents a world that is vast, teeming with lost civilizations and buried histories and countless life forms that struggle for survival. Its visual and art design owes much to French comics artist Moebius as well as Frank Herbert's Dune sagas and endlessly hints at boundless tales and adventures that lie just beyond the next horizon, cave or forest. You feel as though you are experiencing an epic adventure and only wish to see more, more, more.

Sega's Team Andromeda created a masterwork of production design, an extremely ambitious and expensive undertaking for 1995. I always believed that the five-minute CG movie that opens the game is Oscar-worthy and comparable to any movie studio in the world (only Pixar's Toy Story, released that same year, was more sophisticated advanced). When I first saw the opening at a Toys 'R Us, I was overwhelmed and immediately scrambled the money to purchase a Sega Saturn. This movie describes a post-apocalyptic world where humans struggle to survive in a world populated by mutated creatures of tissue and bone. Feuding empires unearth lost ancient technologies in their quest for greater power, culminating in gigantic engineered flying beings, dragons.

You are introduced to the main character, a tribal nomad who becomes separated from his hunting party, attacked by a giant stoney insect, then rescued by a blue dragon. This dragon is then pursued by a larger and more powerful dragon. The two continue their fight in the air, where the first dragon's pilot is fatally wounded. Landing on the surface of a cliff, the pilot communicates to you telepathically, imploring you to complete his quest to reach a mysterious tower before his rival. You take your place on the back of the blue dragon and take pursuit.

Panzer Dragoon is an adventure imbued with startling alien beauty, gorgeous architectures, surreal landscapes, and some of the greatest orchestral music ever to grace a videogame. In the opening stage, you fly your dragon across rolling ocean waves, stone arches and flooded city ruins, navigating past giant teethed lilipads and flying monsters of all shapes and sizes. The violins are melodic and soothing as you soar across the water, and you feel a sense of calm as you explore this strange world. Then the strings swell to a climax as you enter an abandoned castle, its walls and ceilings crumbling into the waves. When you experience this the first time, you are quite moved. That sense of wonder only grows in the following stages, which take you to vast deserts, underground cavern mazes, dense tropical forests and coastal cities.

At its core, this is an arcade shoot-em-up, a direct descendant of Sega's classic Space Harrier. The innovation is that you can view a full 360 degrees while riding your dragon, and enemies attack from all directions and angles, sometimes quite suddenly. You will rely upon your radar screen for guidance, and use the shoulder buttons on your controller to change viewing angles quickly. You are equipped with a pulse rifle, while your dragon is equipped with homing lasers that can lock on multiple targets at once, unleashing a torrent of destruction at once. Skilled players will learn to use both weapons and move very quickly to neutralize threats before you become overwhelmed from all sides.

You begin by repelling native creatures, but also must battle the armored forces of the empire, who come in small planes and large airships that look like giant stone dirigibles. There are also larger threats such as giant sand worms (whose outer shells can be blown apart) and the stone insects seen in the opening movie. And the greatest enemy of all is the rival dragon, of whom you know nothing beyond the killing of the dragon's pilot. All are on a quest to reach the ancient tower, which will bestow great powers upon its master. In a later cut-scene, the insect army attacks the imperial forces, in tandem with the dark dragon. All is not as it seems here; there are rival factions and betrayals afoot, a theme that would be greatly expanded in Panzer Dragoon Saga.

Panzer Dragoon includes eight stages (including a hidden bonus level) but is extremely challenging. The bosses are especially tenacious and difficult, hurling countless projectiles at you while darting about at all directions. The Saturn joypad is very comfortable and responsive, but the ideal controller is the Sega Mission Stick, a large analog joystick that is compatible with a large number of racing and flying games.

The visual and art design is absolutely magnificent, unique and innovative and unlike anything ever seen before. The new age of 3D graphics promised nothing less than the reinvention of videogames, and Panzer Dragoon delivers. The rolling ocean waves are as amazing today as they were in '95, as well as the vast landscapes of desert and forest. There's a remarkable sense of variety, imagination, scale. This world feels lived in, and you wish that you could jump off the rails and explore in any direction. Again, this is a promise that Team Andromeda delivers miraculously in Panzer Dragoon Saga.

The direct sequel, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, is even more visually accomplished and ambitious, offering new innovations in visuals and gameplay. Its music, however, is much more conventional synth-based music, lacking the wonderful orchestrated score of the original. And Saga is the trilogy's undisputed masterpiece, arguably Sega Saturn's finest hour and the last videogame RPG that truly mattered. The entire series is magnificent. But there's no denying the power and impact of the original. Here is a glorious example of what makes the Saturn so unique and so great.
 
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