Continuing our guides on the basics of playing retro hardware in more modern times, this article looks at the cult classic of the fifth generation, the Sega Saturn.
The history of Sega’s ultimately ill-fated Saturn console is fascinating. Much has been said and speculated about Segas decision to go with a multi-processor system and why the architecture of the machine was so esoteric. While Sony forged ahead into early 3D titles with the Playstation, the Saturn often struggled to keep up, being more difficult to program for and lacking some visual effects that were easy to program on the Playstation. While the machine may have struggled to match the PS1 in terms of 3D graphics, it far surpassed Sony’s machine when tasked with traditional 2D games. Nearly two decades later and all the early 3D titles look distinctively ugly, while the 2D sprite based games that the Saturn excelled at still retain their charm, making the Saturn a highly desirable machine for retro gamers everywhere.
Like other 5th generation consoles, most Saturn games are displayed in 240p (NTSC) or 288p (PAL). Several games (for example Virtua Fighter 2) also use 480i screen modes and some will switch between the two. As regular readers of our site will be aware, modern HDTVs almost invariably handle 240p/288p signals incorrectly. Using a CRT or an upscaler with the system is highly recommended.
The Saturn outputs composite video, S-Video and RGB via a 9 pin mini-din connector. While this is a standard connector, it is uncommon in consumer electronics and this has, in the past at least, caused a shortage of quality AV cables. When buying RGB cables for your Saturn, you need to keep in mind that there is a small difference between the NTSC and PAL consoles. On NTSC consoles, pin 5 provides a clean composite sync (raw/pure sync) signal. On PAL consoles however, this pin is a straight 12 volts instead. Keeping this in mind, you must NEVER connect a Saturn RGB cable described as raw/pure composite sync or clean sync to a PAL console. If you do, you are extremely likely to damage your television or monitor.
Confusingly, you will see Sega Saturn RGB cables described as suitable only for PAL consoles and others described as suitable only for NTSC machines. The reason for this is simple. SCART cables typically require voltage on pin 16 to tell the display that an RGB signal is present. If this voltage is tapped from pin 5, the cable will work just fine on a PAL console but will fail on an NTSC console since the voltage on the sync signal is not constant. Better designed RGB SCART cables will simply take the voltage from pin 4.
If you are shopping for a new console remember that raw/pure composite sync is only available on NTSC machines (US and Japanese models). On the Saturn, using raw sync typically makes no difference on most CRT televisions or monitors. If you are using an XRGB3 upscaler however you must use a raw sync cable otherwise you are likely to experience screen blanking/picture loss during bright scenes in games.
Audio quality from the Saturn is generally very good. There is a slight hum or buzz to the consoles audio typically caused by interference from the video signal. The buzzing may become more pronounced when the picture is especially bright. The problem can be mitigated by using high quality AV cables or eliminated entirely by fitting a digital audio mod.
The Saturn uses an internal power supply. You connect this to the mains by using the common two pin “figure of eight” power cord (IEC C7). Remember that NTSC consoles require 120 volts AC input while PAL consoles require 240 volts. Never directly attach a NTSC console to the mains if your country runs 240 volt mains! Many countries in Europe operate 240 volt mains, in this case a suitable step-down transformer is required. Since the Saturns power requirements are modest, any typical step down transformer will be sufficient. This 45 watt model for example is more than ample.
The Saturn’s save game system is something that its users rarely remember with any fondness. While the Playstation had its slick looking memory cards, the Saturn uses a small amount of RAM that’s backed up by a CR2032 battery. The life of this battery is typically rather short (though nothing like the absurdly short lifespan of the Dreamcast’s Visual Memory Units). If you only occasionally use your Saturn you may find the battery only lasts a couple of months. It is highly recommended to use a save game cartridge such as the Action Replay to back up your save games regularly.
If you are not using a CRT, it is highly recommended to use an external upscaler with your Saturn console. This will drastically improve picture quality and in many cases reduce input lag too. The Saturn works well with both the XRGB3 and XRGB Mini upscalers. Using a true NTSC console with a raw/pure sync cable is recommended, especially if using an XRGB3.
Regional lockouts and circumventions
The Saturn includes both regional locking and copy protection in its hardware design. Different modifications are required to bypass both of these security measures. There are two hardware modifications that can bypass regional lockouts. The first is a region-free BIOS replacement. This replaces the standard Sega Saturn BIOS with one that boots software titles from any region. This modification is very convenient as it will simply boot any title without requiring the user to manually select the consoles region. The main drawback of this modification is that it cannot (without installing a further hardware modification) switch the consoles refresh rate from 50hz (PAL) to 60hz (NTSC). If you only wish to play Japanese and American games this modification is ideal, but for most users we recommend the switchless region free mod instead.
The switchless region free hardware modification that we offer on the site is 100% compatible with all Saturn games. This modification also allows the console to be switched between 50hz and 60hz modes. Keep in mind that when you switch a PAL console into NTSC mode, or vice versa, due to slight differences in the timing crystals in the machine the video signal will be ever so slightly out of spec. This can cause issues on some HDTVs, but CRTs are generally unaffected.
Add ons and additional hardware
At the rear of the Saturn console there is a slot which looks as if it could be a game cartridge slot. While it has been speculated that Sega planned to release games in cartridge format, the connector was used exclusively for expansion peripherals. Most commonly it was used for memory cards, as a means to bypass the often unreliable battery backed save system on the main console. Several titles also utilised memory expansion cartridges too. These came in either 1 or 4 megabyte varieties. While you might logically assume that the 4mb cartridge will work with all games that require an additional 1mb, this isn’t always the case and a number of games which require the one megabyte cartridge will fail to run correctly when used with the 4mb version. The Action replay cartridge (discussed below) can function as both a 1mb and 4mb expansion and automatically detects which version is required.
The only other significant first-party add-on for the Saturn is the Video CD card. This improved the machines full-motion video playback facilities and allowed it to play video CD discs, a format largely ignored by the west but often used in Asia and developing countries. A handful of games also supported the add-on and utilised it to provide enhanced video playback of in-game cut scenes.
The most popular third party hardware is the Action Replay cartridge. Popular during the Saturns commercial life as a means to access import titles, the cartridge also provides a facility for entering cheat codes, additonal RAM and a save-game backup facility. When using the Action Replay cartridge the user must remember to manually copy data from the Saturns internal memory to the Action Replays save game memory. Neglecting to do this will leave the data in the Saturn’s failure prone battery-backed up save game memory instead.
Some older Action Replay cartridges also feature a serial port on the top of the cartridge. This allows you to transfer save game data from the cartridge to a computer equipped with a legacy serial port. Later revisions of the cartridge dropped this connector though it is possible to modify the cartridge and add it again. A very small number of games (King of Fighters 95, Ultraman, In The Hunt and Panzer Dragoon Saga) may have compatibility problems with the Action Replay cartridge.
The Saturn’s cartrdge slot is particularly prone to failure due to wear and tear. If possible, limit the number of cartridge swaps you perform. Most users typically keep the Action Replay cartridge in the system and remove it only when absolutely necessary.
As shown at the start of the article, there were two revisions of the basic Saturn hardware, known as Model 1 and Model 2. Model 1 consoles have oval power and reset buttons and model 2 machines have round buttons. Internally, the consoles have different types of CD cable, which can complicate efforts to install copy-protection bypassing modchips. While there were no other major revisions to the Saturn hardware, there were several minor revisions to the machines motherboard during its lifespan.
Some gamers consider the model 1 and early model 2 consoles to have a better quality RGB signal than the later model 2 machines. The difference is negligible at best and some users debate whether it exists at all. Some later revison model 2 consoles (usually VA8 and VA9 motherboards) have a problem where there is a slight ripple to the picture. This is believed to be caused by interference from the power supply. If possible, test the model 2 console before you purchase it or look for a model 1 Saturn.
If you know how, you can read the serial number on a Saturn console and determine which revision motherboard it has. Of course, this will only be accurate if the console has not been swapped into another case. Saturn serial numbers have 1-2 letters or numbers to identify the manufacturer (typically 0, 1, AD or B), then one number to identify the year, then one number for the motherboard version, then an incremental serial number. Let’s look at a couple of examples we found online.
In this case, the US machine shown on the left has manufacturer code 0, was manufactured in 1995 and has a VA1 motherboard. The Japanese console on the right has manufacturer code B, was manufactured in 1996 and has a VA4 motherboard.
While the Saturn is considered a commercial failure in the US and Europe, in Japan the system was considerably more sucessful. Sega released a number of limited edition console designs and also licensed the hardware to other manufacturers such as Hitachi and Samsung, resulting in a number of different case designs. The changes in design are almost entirely cosmetic however and there are no gameplay advantages to tracking down these rarer models.
Flash cartridges and optical drive emulation
A number of optical drive emulators are in development for the Saturn. The purpose of this hardware is to replace the Saturn’s CD drive with a more reliable flash-based storage system that can load CD image files. At the time of writing, none of these devices were available, but the Rhea system seems the closest to completion.
A small number of Sega Saturn emulators exist. Due to the unusual hardware design of the Saturn, Saturn emulators are not considered to be very accurate. As with other 5th generation console emulators, some of the better Saturn emulators can enhance and upscale the Saturns 3D graphics, though the range of effects and enhancements are somewhat limited when compared to Nintendo 64 or Playstation emulators. This is largely due to the way that the system drew graphics using quads and not the more typical polygons.
If you decide to emulate the system, you may wish to use a Saturn to PC controller adapter. Apart from making your emulated Saturn games more fun to play, the Saturn’s d-pad is regarded as one of the best ever produced and is perfect for use with other emulators such as MAME. The model available from Raphnet is reported to work well with minimal or no input lag.
Sega Saturn UK forum – Frequented by some very knowledgeable Saturn users