25 years of Sega Saturn – 25 years of Sonic woe
25 years of Sega Saturn – blimey we feel old. On 22nd November 1994 an unexpecting Japanese public had a brand new 32-bit console to play and it seemed Sega were riding the crest of a new 3D laden age. History knows this optimism did not last as new kid on the block Sony blasted away the old guard with its more mature take on gaming. A lack of a 3D Sonic title is one of the factors attributed to the Saturn’s downfall. Retro Faith investigates.
Sonic fans were buzzing with the news of a 3D game when Sega’s new console hit the shelves. A few screenshots of Sonic X-treme started appearing in the gaming press shortly after launch. Nobody seemed worried Sega had not released it as a launch title, the original Sonic was released years after the Mega Drive. It looked amazing and rumours started surfacing about the gameplay and a novel fish-eye camera. For Sonic fans it felt as though Sega could do no wrong.
Sonic X-treme had started out as a new Mega Drive game before being moved to the ill-fated 32X. Yuji Naka, the main developer behind the 2D Sonic games, had moved back to Japan and development of a new Sonic game left in the hands of the Sega Technical Institute. With the dawn of the new 32-bit 3D age of gaming the decision was taken to move the game onto Sega’s new Saturn console in 1995.
The game started to enter development hell early on with staff needing replacing and Sega executives being unimpressed. Yuji Naka refused to allow his new game engine to be used and the developers were struggling with the framerate. Problems finalising the overall design and the game meant it was split across two styles. A free roaming boss battle engine and 2.5D engine for the main levels. Sonic X-treme seemed doomed.
The anticipation that was bubbling would turn sour as delay after delay hit Sonic X-treme. Missing the 1996 Christmas season was the final straw and the game was eventually cancelled. By this time Super Mario 64 had wowed audiences across the world and Crash Bandicoot was selling well on the PlayStation. It seemed as though Sega had imploded and although there were some excellent games on the Saturn, the lack of Sonic was turning buyers away.
During this time Yuji Naka and Sonic Team had completed their work on Nights into Dreams. The first time we would see Sonic in 3D was as a secret character in the whimsical flying platformer. Sonic was included in the Christmas Nights demo released to showcase the game and increase Saturn hardware sales. The bonus content sees Sonic jumping around the first stage before facing off with Robotnik in a boss battle.
Despite the lack of an original 3D Sonic game Sega managed to port their Mega Drive game, Sonic 3D, to the Saturn. It had updated graphics and new special stages. The added red book audio and animations made it the definitive version but it could not satisfy the loss of a proper 3D Sonic game. We would also see Sonic R released late in the Saturns life. An interesting racing platform game that confused players but has a cult following today.
Sonic Team had been working on their own 3D Sonic game using the Nights engine. Sonic fans would get a glimpse of this new project in Sonic Jam’s singular 3D level. Sonic Jam, released in 1997, brought together the classic Sonic story from the original Mega Drive titles. Sonic World, included as an extra, was a museum brought to life in 3D where you control Sonic to reach the various exhibits.
Sonic World is a Green Hill type zone that allows you to explore a 3D Sonic world for the first time. It has five missions that you play one after the other. Completing the missions uncovers a giant ring that displays the game credits when you jump through. For Sonic fans this tantalising taste of what could have been on the Saturn is both cruel and intriguing, but the work put into this tech demo would not be wasted.
With the Saturn falling behind the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 development of the new Sonic game shifted to the Dreamcast. Sonic Adventure was a successful launch title and breathed life back into the series following the Saturn disappointments. You can see how the basic Sonic Jam level developed into Adventure. The mision idea has been reused and Sonic feels similar to control in both games.
It’s a shame a proper 3D Sonic game never released for the Saturn. But looking back Sega had simply bitten off more than it could chew. The development teams were spread across four different systems and the disagreements between Sega’s of America and Japan were causing projects to break down. It is hard to say if Sonic could have saved the Saturn but it certainly would have helped.
If the Saturn had not not been dropped by Sega we wouldn’t have seen Sonic Adventure or the Dreamcast in 1998. Would we have seen Sonic Adventure on the Saturn instead? We will never know but one thing we know for sure, the Sega Saturn lives on. With the Panzer Dragoon remake on the horizon and new controllers, the Saturn still burns bright today.