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SegaBase Volume 6 - Saturn

Page 2


written by Sam Pettus (aka "the Scribe")


Provided courtesy of


Other SegaBase articles: Older Systems | Master System and Game Gear | Mega Drive/Genesis | Mega CD/Sega CD | 32X | Saturn | Dreamcast

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PART ONE OF TWO (October 1993 - July 1996)

Locked and loaded


While Sega of Japan was busy scrambling to rebuild Saturn from the ground up, the videogame industry was abuzz with rumors about the impending console war. No less than nine new systems from various vendors were either already out or were in the release pipeline, yet quite prominent among these was Sega and its Saturn. Anybody in the videogame industry who had half a brain correctly surmised that Sega would be the only real competitor to Sony and its new wonderbox during the next two or three years despite the best efforts of the rest. Sega had the reputation, the programming expertise, and an established market niche to provide their 32-bit console its initial beachhead. The only thing Sony had at this point was hype, but lots of it. Yes, things were looking good for Sega in 1994. If it played its cards right, got the Saturn ready in time, got it out the door with a decent selection of software, and gave it that necessary killer app to boot, then it could stop the Sony dark horse before it even left the starting gae.

February of 1994 saw the Asian gaming press go wild with speculation about the Saturn's gaming capabilities, and a lot of the American trades began to pick up on these stories. Gordon Craick of Frontier Console Magazine, an Internet videogame fan effort, was busy monitoring these as well as the few reports that were now beginning to appear in Western trades. He went so far as to predict that the Sega Saturn would have the home console market sewn up by the end of 1996. It was a prediction of which he would later regret the making. March was a key month for Saturn. By this time, Sega's engineers had the console redesign finished and had already shipped a number of working prototypes along with the system's first SDKs to selected third-party developers all across Japan. An intial set of specifications about these prototypes were released by Sega of Japan to the videogame public. While limited in their description of the Saturn hardware, one can already note the drastic changes that had taken place from the simpler GigaDrive? concept mere months before.

Sega Saturn Prototype Specificiations as of March 1994

courtesy Sega of Japan official press release

Component
Description
Processors* ARM-type RISC CPU running at 29.1 MHz
Graphics* 24-bit color palette (16.8 million colors)
Sound* 8 channel digital/16 channel synthesized
* 16-bit stereo
Storage* Triple-speed CD-ROM drive (450-500 kb/sec transfer rate)

NOTE: The absence of the dual CPUs in this spec appears to be a printing slip on Sega of Japan's part.

A target release date of September 1994 was set for a Japanese launch and March 1995 for Western shores. The Sega public relations machine also went into full spin mode about this time and would continue nonstop for months, touting the capabilities of its new 32-bit console and the system's superiority to the company's own Model 1 arcade board. While tacitly admitting that the console they had announced "would not be quite as powerful as Sony's machine," nonetheless they also let it be known that ports of Virtua Fighter and Virtual Racing, both highly regarded Model 1 arcade games, would be released for Saturn as launch titles. Sega fans around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief and began socking away even more quid. The rumored price of Sega's newest console was steep - supposedly US$400-500 - but if it was already planning to release its best current arcade games for the box, well then ... cool! Word had also leaked that Sega was planning some kind of upgrade path for Genesis owners so they could catch the 32-bit wave, and that was even more cool. The Sega engine seemed to be hitting on all cylinders as it churned along towards the nextgen systems.

In April, a number of mainstream videogame magazines leaked what they believed to be an exclusive scoop concerning Sega's 32-bit consoles plans. They revealed to the world the existence of Project Jupiter, surmising that that it would be a less sophisticated version of the revamped Saturn based on tried-and-true cartridge technology instead of the CD-ROM format. What they did not know was that their so-called "confidential sources" had apparently confused ongoing work concerning the 32X over at Sega of America with an entirely new system. This appears to have been due to the fact that both 32X and the revised Saturn had somewhat similar system architecture. The 32X design had been pretty well solidified by this time into the twin Hitachi SH-2 spec that Sega of Japan engineers had ardently pushed, so somebody with some inside contacts at Sega of America probably did some crafty guesswork and tried to put two and two together. Unfortunately, they came out with a result of three and not four, but it was to be expected. Sega of Japan may have trusted its American division to some extent insofar as the 32X was concerned, but it was playing everything Saturn as close to its chest as possible. So goes the rumor mill in the videogame industry - the nub of truth at the heart of the matter may be about something else entirely. In an ironic twist, the 32-bit surmises of the gaming mags at this point would eventually materialize the following year as the never-released Neptune 32-bit console, itself a derivant of the ill-fated 32X.


The end of spring brought with it the 1994 Summer Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held 23-25 June at the Chicago Hilton in Chicago, Illinois. Sega had been expected to use the show to formally announce its 32-bit gaming plans, but instead sat out most of the weekend's events save for some low-key 32X hype. Instead, the console part of the show was stolen by a resurgent Nintendo and its latest videogame, Rare's Donkey Kong Country. Nintendo also used the opportunity to let the rest of the industry know that it would be sitting out the 32-bit console wars. Its newest system, Project Reality, would not launch until well after both the Saturn and PlayStation, and it had a smoke-and-mirrors demonstration read of what its newest system would be like. Nintendo's new console would be unlike those from Sega and Sony in two important aspects. First, it would be a 64-bit system as opposed to a mere 32-bit one. Second, Nintendo was opting to stick to cartridges instead of CD-ROMs for its delivery system. The control freak corporate mindset at Nintendo had very good reasons for doing this - CD-ROMs were dreadfuly easy to copy, and Nintendo could squeeze extra blood out of the turnip by maintaining control over the game manufacturing process via the use of cartridges. The industry eagerly accepted Nintendo's decision to skip the leading edge of the new console war, but there was a lot of grumbling about their choice of format. Meanwhile, though, Sega Saturn engineers breathed a collective sigh of relief. One less formidable competitor to worry about now. Besides, the corporate types were saving their Saturn ammuntion for a later time. With the Summer CES now behind them, Sega's Japanese executives went back home and focused themselves on the next few months. Every day was now critical in the weeks leading up to Saturn launch day. So much to do ... and so little time.


The Sega Saturn was officially launched in Japan on 22 November 1994. National interest in actually owning an arcade-perfect copy of Sega's Virtua Fighter had created a marked interest among Japanese gamers in Sega's new system - so much that over 120,000 Saturns had already been put on preorder and lines began forming at the stores a couple of days prior to launch date. At one store, over 500 people were waiting in line for two days, hoping to grab one of Sega's new consoles before they all sold out. All of this was taking place despite an initial asking price of ¥44800 (US$490). It was the steepest price ever for a Sega console, and that without a pack-in title. Sega of Japan was ready for the anticipated rush, though - or thought it was. It had over a quarter of a million Saturns ready for immediate sale, along with an equal number of copies of Virtua Fighter.Every single Saturn console that Sega of Japan had on hand sold within two days. The Japanese launch of the Saturn has been called the most successful for one of its systems that Sega would ever enjoy in its home country. The Sega Saturn led the market in console sales for the next six months, thanks largely to Virtua Fighter and despite the launch of the Sony PlayStation about one week later on 2 December 1994. According to official Sega of Japan figures, Saturn wound up outselling the PlayStation Japan by an almost 2-to-1 margin during those first six months. The Japanese videogame press was estatic, and so were Sega's accountants. It seemed that the 32-bit wave was going to break Sega's way. All was going to plan. There was nothing to fear from Sony's little grey box. There was just one problem with this picture. Sega's figures were not what they seemed. You see, Sega of Japan had followed the industry standard practice of using the number of consoles sold to retailers as the basis for its purported launch success. It wasn't their fault - everybody did it and still does - but it gave a distorted picture of just how well the Saturn was actually selling during those first six months. What they should have done was figure out the number of consoles sold through to customers. It would have shown something quite different. The Sony PlayStation, the new kid on the block, was actually the more popular of the two new nextgen systems among Japanese gamers. Sony has claimed that as many as 97% of the PlayStations? that were being distributed to vendors were winding up in the homes of Japanese consumers, while more conservative independent analysts assign a figure of 85-90%. In stark contrast, at least one-third of all the Saturns that Sega was shipping remained behind on retail shore shelves, gathering dust as the weeks rolled by. Why? Lack of Saturn software. Virtua Fighter was pretty much the only game in the Saturn launch lineup worth buying. Other big titles such as Panzer Dragoon and Daytona USA were experiencing production delays, and consumer disgruntlement with this development had also helped boost PlayStation Sales. A number of American industry watchers picked up on these small yet important facts, but their cautious warnings were for the most part drowned out by Sega's own hype and dutiful media repetition of same. This small oversight concerning the sales figures didn't really matter to Sega's board of directors - after all, the consoles had sold and it didn't care who had paid for them so long as they got their money. In the mind of Nakayama and his fellow executives, Saturn had indeed been a smashing success, and they felt confident that they could pull it off again in the world's most profitable videogame market - the highly coveted prize known as the United States. This would be yet another mistake in Sega's Saturn debacle. It would prove to be a crucial one, and it would not be their last.


Trial by fire


The year 1995 opened with high hopes and expectations by those in the videogame industry for the arriving 32-bit nextgen wave. This time, there would be an audience ready and waiting for it, one that had been weaned on a steady diet of videogame fare for years. It would be be the fourth generation of videogame consoles in the United States in less than two decades, yet it promised the most sophisticated consoles yet. For the first time, the machines would be sufficiently powerful enough to recreate, and possibly surpass, the 3D visual experiences that were by now common fare with high-end personal computers and arcade videogames of the day. To quote the words of GamePro magazine, "The dreams of the '80s will come true in the '90s as the technological limits that have held back hardware are overcome during the next several years. Say hello to 32-bit, 64-bit, and higher-bit systems with standard features like 3D capability, full-motion video, 16 million colors, graphics coprocessors, voice recognition, and more." The first 32-bit console that could successfully capture these experiences in a manner that completely captivated its audience would be the one that would win the second great console war. All it needed was a decently affordable price, a good software base, and one or more killer apps to finish off the package. To borrow a common backhills expression, which of the major players "would be firstest with the mostest?" The early birds had come and were already in the process of going due to broad consumer rejection. Now it was time for the big boys to arrive, and their first showdown was scheduled to take place at a brand-new electronics show to be held in the U.S. that spring. The very first Electronics Entertainment Expo, aka E3, would be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center on 11-13 May 1995. It promised to be one helluva a show, with many a computer and electronics vendor who felt they had been slighted by the various CES events of years past ready to strut their stuff for all it was worth. Many videogame industry watches were predicting that the vendor whose system triumphed at E3 would go on to dominate the home console market for the rest of the year ... and perhaps the rest of the cycle, too.


Sega entered the U.S. market sweepstakes hot off of its Saturn launch success in Japan and itching to do battle with its rivals on turf it felt it practically owned. To that end, it released the Saturn White Paper in order to bring everybody up to speed on what it felt was its latest and greatest achievement. Here are some of the more significant quotes from the opening of that rather remarkable document:

Sega will leave no room for debate by providing the ultimate gaming experience with Sega Saturn. Once consumers compare the next-generation game systems, Sega Saturn will prove to be the hands-down choice.

(Saturn) was introduced in Japan in November 1994 and is on a steep curve to sell more than 2 million units in its first year. Sega has designed the Sega Saturn from the silicon up to transport consumers into an entirely new realm of interactive entertainment. The Sega Saturn makes it possible for software to immerse players in stunningly realistic worlds of 3D modeled graphics, dynamic perspective with ever-changin points-of-view, true 3D audio, and gameplay speed that far surpasses the most powerful multimedia PC.

More than any other video game maker, Sega has its finger on the pulse of the consumer and is able to transform raw technology into major fun for millions of people. No one else combines a 40-year arcade history with a wildly successful in-house publishing effort. Add to this Sega's solid relationships with third-party developers, who will add depth and dimension to Sega's own game library for Sega Saturn. All told, the Sega Saturn game development universe involves hundreds of creative and innovative programmers intent on taking the Sega Saturn (and its players!) to the limits of immersive experiences.

It's the only home system to use state-of-the-art "massive parallel processing," which provides immersive, first-person gameplay .... Think of the limited musical range of a one-mand band (ala the competing single-processor systems) versus the symphonic possibilities of a fully scored orchestra. There's no comparison.

Because the technology is similar to that of Sega's Titan arcade system, Sega Saturn also paves the way for hot game titles to migrate from Sega's interactive theme parks to its commercial arcade ssytems down to the home-based Sega Saturn system.

"Huh?" you might ask. "Titan? What's that?" You see, Sega of Japan had been so tickled with themselves the way that the Saturn redesign had turned out that they turned right around and converted their work back into yet another arcade board. It was the same thing they had done with the Genesis years earlier, only this time they were producing a monstrously powerful 32-bit parallel processing arcade board that could give its own Model 2 a run for its money. The Sega Titan arcade board, aka ST-V, was essentially nothing more than a retooled Sega Saturn that conformed to the industry-standard JAMMA board design save in one important aspect - Titan had more RAM than did a stock Saturn. This may not seem important now, but the issue of the Saturn's available RAM will rise again as we continue reviewing its history. Take heed, because Titan would prove to be one of the most versatile arcade boards in Sega's arsenal. More videogames would be produced for or converted to the Titan architecture than any other arcade board in Sega's history to date. It is an important factor to consider once you take into account Sega's announcement of Titan migration plans in the Saturn White Paper. Meanwhile, over in Japan, arcade gamers were already going ga-ga over Virtual Fighter 2, the latest and best incarnation of Yu Suzuki's famed Sega fighting game. If the graphics had been impressive before, the power of Sega's new Model 2 board made this go-round practically shine. No one was surprised when a Saturn port was announced, and many a proud Japanese gamer began saving their precious yen yet again for yet another Saturn game ....


On 9 March 1995, Sega of America issued an official press release concerning the impending U.S. launch of the Sega Saturn. The console would make its official U.S. debut on 2 September 1995. It claimed internal figures showing that Saturn sales in Japan had exceeded 500,000 units in the first month alone, outselling the Sony PlayStation by a 30% margin, and predicted that Saturn would go on to sell 1 million units in Japan by April and 2 million by the end of the year. Sega itself was described as "... a nearly US$4 billion company known as a leader in interactive digital entertainment media with operations on five continents" and much ado was made about "the company's superior product line." Curiously, no definite price point was officialy set for Saturn even at this late date; however, most analysts predicted that it would be in the US$400-500 range. It was a bit steep, to be sure, but Sega promised a lot for its new system.

Shortly thereafter, yet another delegation from Japan paid its respects at Sega of America headquarders. Paid its respects is probably not the correct term; arrived to give Nakayama's latest marching orders was probably more like it. The 32X debacle had caused Kalinske's Japanese masters to begin reasserting control of what they considered to be their errant American underlings. Sega of Japan was concerned about the growing PlayStation hype. Sony was rumored to be planning a massively expensive pre-launch marketing campaign to make sure that the PlayStation got plenty of media exposure for its upcoming launch that fall. Nakayama was taking no chances - he was convinced that Sega needed to strike the first blow and hopefully knock Sony out of the running before PlayStation could get up a full head of steam. Why? Sony had deep pockets; Sega didn't. Sony could easily outspend Sega in a marketing war; therefore, Sega would have to beat them on product alone. With this in mind, Nakayama ordered Sega of America to accellerate the U.S. launch of the Saturn and bring it to market at the first available opportunity. The price of the Saturn in the U.S. would remain unchanged - about US$400 or so. Kalinske vehemently objected, as did practically everybody at Sega of America. All of them, in one form or another, were trying to tell Nakayama the same thing: "It's too early to launch the Saturn in America. The price is too high, and we have practically no software for it." Both Nakayama and the rest of Sega's corporate board of directors refused to listen, for Sega of Japan was by now calling the shots. The future of Sega was at stake and the odds were long. Since Sega could never conceivably outspend Sony, they had to find a way to outsell them. Such a move required a daring stroke, one that would gain instant market attention. An early launch of the Saturn in the U.S. would do just that; futhermore, it would give the console valuable lead time in this new market that was still anybody's for the taking. Saturn had proven itself in Japan against PlayStation, it seemed, so there was no reason not to expect the same in America. Sega of Japan did not want Saturn to suffer the same fate as the 32X - a fiasco for which some personally blamed Kalinske. The pleas of Sega of America was overruled by Nakayama, and from that point forward Kalinske and his staff would have practically no say in managing the affairs of Sega's U.S. market interests.


E3 opened on 11 May 1995 with representatives from every part of the computer and electronics spectrum. Consumers, retailers, developers, vendors, they were all there - including such celebrity notables as William Shatner, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. As it turned out, the pundits had been right all along. The very first day of E3 would prove the most critical one all year in the ensuing console war. Tom Kalinske, Sega of America CEO, was scheduled to give the first keynote address, scheduled for 0830 that morning. He remarked on the arrival of the nextgen wave in his speech, noting that the combined advertising costs for all three of the major players (Nintendo, Sega, Sony) could approach US$250 million, with another US$100 million on top of that handled by retailers selling the systems in question. He then sprang the surprise on E3 that Sega had been planning for two months. Sega was still going to officially launch the Saturn on 2 September as originally announced; however, it would start shipping the console today. As a stunned audience listened, Kalinske put on his best pitchman demeanor and informed them that Saturn would be available effective that day for the low retail price of US$399. Over 30,000 Saturns had already been distributed to a select list of four major retailers: Toys 'R' Us, Babbage's, Software Etc., and Electronics Boutique. He then went on to tout the merits of Sega's newest console and its software base - Virtua Fighter was indeed a U.S. launch title, and over twenty other Saturn titles by Sega and other parties were in development for the new system. He reminded his audience of Sega's reputation for excellence, and left little doubt that Sega believed it had a winner in the Saturn. After Kalinske finished his presentation, a pleased audience showered him with applause and he breathed a sigh of relief. He had done the best he could given the circumstances, and so it was with crossed fingers that he now yielded the platform to his rival.


Next up was Sony president Olaf Olaffson, there to give the second keynote address of E3. His listed topic was the future of videogames; but he was really there to tout the virtues of Ken Kuratagi's PlayStation and the place it would earn in the growing 32-bit console market. About two-thirds of the way through his address, he interrupted himself to call up Steve Race, one of the PlayStation's designers and president of Sony Computer's newly formed U.S. subsidiary, to tell the audience more about the PlayStation. Race walked up to the podium, a thick sheaf of papers in hand, and the crowd braced itself for a long and boring technical dissertation. Instead, Race laid the papers down on the podium, leaned into the microphone, and said just one thing: "US$299." The audience exploded with applause and Race was treated to a standing ovation. Both Race and Olaffson smiled as the applause and cheers continued. They took quiet pleasure in noting the reaction of Kalinske and the Sega delegation, who were looking rather uncomfortable and nervous. Later would see an surprise appearance at the Sony booth by none other than pop music sensation Michael Jackson, former Genesis pitchman but now helping Sony advertise its new system. The Sega delegation left the festivities in a rather unsettled mood, and they had every right to be. E3 was supposed to have been Sega's for the taking, yet Sony had just managed to steal the show. And as for the others? 3DO teased the industry with plans and a mock-up of its M2 64-bit upgrade, but that was all that would ever come of it. The company was sinking fast, and its console would be effectively off the videogame radar screen by the following year. Nintendo announced that Project Reality, now renamed the Ultra 64, was practically ready but conceeded that itcould not launch until April of 1996 at the earliest due to production issues. The only other player in the nextgen sweepstakes, the Atari Jaguar, was rapidly dying due to a lack of good software and what it had to offer at E3 seemed only to confirm that sad fact. No, there were only going to be two players in the console game for 1995 - and both had already shown their hand.


E3 1995 was a disaster for Sega in more ways than one. Since Sony had effectively stolen the nextgen console limelight, it now had the videogame industry's complete attention and thus was in a better position to market the PlayStation. Nakayama's mad rush to beat Sony to market in the U.S. meant that Saturn was effectively left high and dry. Sega may have had a limited number of consoles, but where was the software? It had the original Virtua Fighter, but little more. In fact, only one or two more games would be released for Saturn betwwen 11 May and 2 September, causing Saturns to sit on retail store shelves unsold and thereby rendering useless the five-month market lead that Sega of Japan had so desperately desired. On top of that, Sega's sudden rush to market had caught both retailers and developers completely off-guard. Kay Bee Toys, one of the nation's largest retailers, was incensed that it had not made Sega's short list for the early Saturn launch and promptly announced that it would neither sell nor support the system. It was a loss that Sega could ill afford given its poor financial position. The suddenness of the U.S. launch also meant that Sega and its third party support were left scrambling as they tried to rush their various Saturn projects to market as fast as it could. The immediate aftereffect of this would be a lot hurried, buggy Saturn games during that first critical year on the market that would inevitably suffer in comparison to comparable PlayStation titles. In contrast, Sony of America would make sure that it would not repeat Sega's mistake; PlayStation would have a stellar lineup of over a dozen titles ready immediately at launch, instead of having to wait five or six months for the rest of the market to catch up as it was having to do with Sega's Saturn. Another reason why Saturn went largely unsold during this crucial period was the high price. Sega had just committed the same mistake as did Trip Hawkins with the 3DO in pricing the Saturn too high for its intended market. There was a good reason for this, of course - Sega's shallow pockets - but it was of no help when Sony pulled the rug out from under them at E3. By pricing the PlayStation US$100 less than the Saturn, Sony was making its product more accessible to cash-strapped consumers. Its lower price point ultimately made PlayStation more attractive, since it gave the impression that one was getting "more bang for the buck" than with the more expensive Saturn, a machine that for all intents and purposes didn't look or play any better than Sony's new box. As one wag at the time put it, "Why pay more for less, when Sony is doing more with less?"The fact that it wound up launching the Saturn in America far earlier than it had originally intended also meant that Sega had no time to properly advertise the console. Instead of the well-planned and co-ordinated multimedia efforts over a period of months by which Sega had gained its reputation in the West, i.e. the "Sega scream," potential customers were hurriedly treated to the newly commissioned "Theatre of the Eye." It would win a Silver Clio award for its production values, but by and large it was largely ignored by consumers. In contrast, Sony's subsequent ad campaing would eventually enjoy the favor of both consumers and critics alike and basked in the praise it received, both self-induced and showered upon it by the gaming magazines. It would use the followng five months to promote its new console with all the media muscle at its disposal in one of the largest and most expensive advertising campaigns of its day. Sega had made its big play at E3 and not only lost, but lost badly. Sony would hold the spotlight from now on.

The following month, back over in Japan, Sony made a sudden move that cause the Japanese market to start turning in its favor. It announced that it would soon be releasing a new version of the PlayStation that would sell for 25% less than the current model. The new PlayStation was actually the cheaper American version retrofitted for the Japanese market, but Japanese gamers didn't care. The news of a cheaper PlayStation was welcomed by almost everyone, as the country's econony was in recession and the downturn had hit the videogame market particularly hard. It was not welcome news to Sega, however, whose higher priced Saturn was still maintaining a comfortable lead in console sales over its rival at this point. Nakayama had no choice but to authorize the reduction of the Saturn's price by 20% and watch the red ink begin to flow across Sega's ledgers. Saturn was still in the lead in Japan, with 1.3 million units sold to retailers as of June 1995, but PlayStation was not far behind with 1.2 million units sold. Sony was beginning to catch up.

Sega had an ace up its sleeve, however, and it hoped that its worldwide console sales would improve dramatically as a result. In July of 1995, Sega of Japan unveiled the Saturn port of Yu Suzuki's Virtua Fighter 2 at the Omacha Toy Show in Tokyo. The show attendees were stunned by what they saw. While the first Virtua Fighter port had gained a bit of a reputation for being buggy and dropping the odd polygon or surface here and there, the Saturn port of Virtua Fighter 2 was dead-on accurate. It truly showed off the processing power of the Saturn in a way no previous Saturn title had yet done, and the word got out that this was the "real" Virtua Fighter that gamers had wanted all along. It would not be long before Virtua Fighter 2 would be released in Japan, and it would also make its Western debut as quickly as market conditions permitted. Virtua Fighter 2 would go on to become the best-selling Saturn title of all time, with some 1.7 million copies sold worldwide - almost double the numbers for its ground-breaking predecessor. In the meantime however, Saturn made a forgettable debut in Europe and quickly died. Nobody in the Old World was interested in Sega's new 32-bitter. The machine cost too much and there was no software for it. Most of the continent's Sega faithful preferred their MegaDrives? (or in some cases their beloved Master Systems), so Saturn went practically nowhere. Sega's older systems would continue to outsell Saturn in Europe until they were officially discontinued; but even then, Saturn was never able to come out from under the shadow of its mighty predecessors of old.


The fall of 1995 would prove to be one of the most eventful in the entire history of videogames. It would see a onetime giant commit the greatest videogame-related blunder in its entire history to date. It would see another giant introduce a new piece of software that would forever change the personal computer industry. It would see the new kid on the block begin to assert itself as the new ruler of the videogame realm. Finally, it would see a former great begin its long and painful slide down the slippery slope into market oblivion.

Nintendo, whose own nextgen N64 would not be ready for market until 1996, went ahead and introduced a new videogame system anyway. This was the Virtual Boy, created by GameBoy? inventor Gunpei Yokoi. Officially launched on 21 August 1995, Virtual Boy was obstensibly the successor to Nintendo's wildly popular 8-bit handheld. What it wound up being was the greatest product failure to ever bear the Nintendo label. Inspired by all of the experimentation that was happening with virtual reality headsets at the time, Virtual Boy was a system with a built-in red-on-black 3D stereoscopic LCD viewer into which you looked while playing its games. It was a truly original idea; unfortunately, it proved quite difficult to market and many gamers complained of frequent headaches after using the system. The system soon gained the nickname of "Virtual Dog" among derisive Western critics and would eventually prove to be an near-total failure in all markets. The Virtual Boy fiasco would eventually cost Gunpei Yokoi his job, as he was forced to tender his resignation the following year once the dismal 1995 sales figures became clear.


Of more importance was the launch of Microsoft Windows 95, aka Win95, on 24 August 1995. It was an event marked by all of the hoopla, promotion, hype, and media buzz usually reserved for videogame products. It was well deserved, though, because users of IBM compatible personal computers were finally getting the kind full-blown, multitasking, multithreading graphical operating system to which users of the Apple Macintosh had been accustomed for years. What was largely overlooked by the general public, although not missed by the development community, was the inclusion of the DirectX graphical programming environment. For the first time, PC game codes now had a good, unified standard supported by any Win95 configured hardware or software upon which to base their efforts. This something which the Mac community still sadly lacked, and many would cast envious eyes at the DirectX-based? PC games that would come in later years. Sega immediately announced its support for Win95, due in part to its growing relationship with Microsoft, and set up its SegaSoft? subsidiary in America to undertake the task of porting hit Saturn titles into the Win95 environment. Over three dozen SegaSoft? efforts would appear over the next five years, bringing some much-needed income to a corporation that was being hard hit back on the console front.


The Sony PlayStation made its official U.S. debut on 9 September 1995, and what a debut it was. First was the price of the console - US$299 as promised. Second was the number of outlets vending it - over 12,000 by most estimates. Third was a monstrous US$40 millon advertising campaign across all major media outlets with the catchphrase "U R NOT E" (i.e. "You Are Not Ready"). Fourth was the launch lineup itself - 17 games available for immediate purchase, including three that would shortly become legend among console gamers. While Sony did not include any pack-in titles with its new console, same as Sega, the PlayStation launch lineup was by far more rounded and impressive than had been Saturn's.


Did anybody still consider Sega's Virtua Fighter a threat when you could play Namco's Battle Arena Toshinden, which almost every major media outlet within the videogame industry (and some without) were loudly proclaiming to be the superior fighting game? Okay, so what if Sega had Virtua Racing and Daytona USA? PlayStation had Namco's Ridge Racer, which indeed lived up to all of its hype of being the best-looking and best-playing 3D racer available. To top it off, where but the PlayStation could you play WipeOut, a futuristic racing game by Psygnosis the likes of which had never been seen on a console before? Saturn would eventually get its own port of WipeOut, but not until long after it had enjoyed a tremendously successful run on the PlayStation. Together, these three games were judged by all to be PlayStation's killer apps at launchtime. All of a sudden Saturn was looking rather obtuse and rough in comparison with its supposedly inferior graphics and obviously limited software base - leastways in the eyes of all but the Sega faithful. That deadly combination of low price combined with killer apps, both right off the bat at launch, proved to be the critical combination for guaranteed Sony success. Sony sold just over 100,000 PlayStations? in only two days, earning console launch revenues in excess of US$45 million. Sega of America tried to counter with what would turn out to be the forerunner of its Saturn Three-In-One? software deals, bundling Clockwork Knight and Sega Worldwide Soccer along with a Virtua Fighter voucher along with every Saturn sold. It didn't help. PlayStation sales continue to skyrocket, while the poor Saturn stumbled along in the rear.


Sega did manage to rally itself just in time for Christmas, however, with the near-simultaneous release of three of its hottest arcade conversions at the time: the road racer Sega Rally, the gun shooter Virtua Cop, and Yu Suzuki's Virtua Fighter 2. It also gave away free copies of Virtua Fighter Remix (a rehash of the original but with VF2 quality graphics) to every Saturn owner for the asking in order to make up for the many complaints about the original. This inspired bit of software releases managed to boost Sega's market presence enough so that it was able to finish 1995 a comfortable second in the 32-bit wars. Sega's last-minute success would be sour grapes, though, in comparison to the humbling it had just endured at its own game. Many had predicted earlier that Sega was going to come out on top at the end of 1995, but things did not turn out quite the way they foresaw or Sega had planned. Who took the number one spot in the nextgen console market of 1995? The newcomer - the Sony PlayStation.


By the time 1995 came to its close, it was obvious to one and all that Sony was in the console business to stay. Sega, the company that had launched the opening salvos in the second great console war, came out the other side with an installed U.S. Saturn user base of some 120,000 systems and a small but growing software library of some 25-30 titles. On the other hand, Sony - the new kid in town - crossed the finish line in grand style with an installed U.S. user base of some 300,000 consoles and a growing software library of some 50+ titles. While Sega loyalists were still scratching their heads, wondering where were all the Saturn games, new PlayStation onwers were buying four games with every console sold. Sega had taken seven months to sell less than half as many systems as Sony had sold in only three. As for Nintendo, while it may have outsold them both with its SNES lineup, that was based on a shrinking market share dedicated to gaming technology that everybody knew could not compete and would not be there the following year, once the 32-bit systems finally got up to full speed. The Sony PlayStation was the big story of the 1995 holiday season, and it was fast becoming the darling of many a nextgen advocate.Sega had without question blown its one and only chance to seize the 32-bit market for its own. As a result, it saw its profits for the back half of 1995 drop to a mere US$110 million, down from the US$165 million it had earned during the same period the year before. It would only get one more chance to try and regain its lost market share in the coming year, but it was facing long odds in a rapidly changing market. This was the same situation that Nintendo had faced in 1991, when Sega had come along with the Genesis and knocked the then-reigning king of the industry off its throne. Now it was Sega's turn on the wheel of pain. It was they who were playing catch-up to an underdog who was beating them at their own game. Talk about role reversal!




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Page last modified on Wed 24 of Jan., 2007 04:40:03 CET by Eidolon.

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tomman, 09:00 CEST, 2014/04/08: (Note to myself: try Fusion on Debian Jessie...)
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