Looking back 20 years ago, video games were truly amazing in 1998. This was after all the year that saw the release of influential all-timers like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Resident Evil 2, Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life, Grim Fandango, Starcraft, and countless more. As someone growing up playing video games during the 90s, 1998 was surely the best it could be.
Well, I remember it differently. I actually didn’t play any of these games back in 1998, and most of them I wouldn’t get to play until several years later. Why? Well, not only was I underage for a fair few of them, I was also a hardcore Sega fanboy and owned a Sega Saturn.
Apart from the Game Boy – which obviously doesn’t “count” – I grew up a Sega fanboy from the moment I first saw Sonic the Hedgehog at a friend’s house on the Mega Drive, even if my parents started me off on a Master System II. Then, when I managed to get into the secondary school my parents wanted, they rewarded me by splashing out on the Saturn in the summer of 1996.
Back then, I hadn’t realised the PlayStation had become the new dominant force, nor did I know of the infamous ‘$299’ moment at the inaugural E3 two years before that had pretty much sealed the Saturn’s fate. In those early years, I was able to enjoy plenty of what the Saturn had to offer, from the arcade ports of Daytona USA, Sega Rally, Virtua Fighter 2, Virtua Cop 2 (playing with lights guns proved almost as popular at mates’ houses otherwise dominated by split-screen Goldeneye on the N64), to the multiplayer madness of Saturn Bomberman or the beauty of Nights into Dreams.
Sadly, there was only so much that could be done to hold off the bad news. As a technically inferior console when it came to 3D graphics, the Saturn often got its third party games later than its competitors and of an inferior quality, in stark contrast to earlier on when the first Tomb Raider launched on Sega’s platform first. A woefully shoddy version of FIFA 98 at the end of 1997 felt like the beginning of the end.
With games getting cancelled left, right and centre (including Tomb Raider 2, Heart of Darkness, Grand Theft Auto, and Resident Evil 2) and third party support all about dried up, 1998 would prove to be the last year for the Saturn.
Turning 13 at the start of that year, being singled out as the last surviving Sega fanboy on the losing side of the console war, let’s just say my introduction to the teenage years was hellish. It was bad enough getting teased from friends and people in your class, but when even the kids from the year above couldn’t stop walking by just to chant “Sega is dead” you have it bad. OK, so there’s far worse things to be bullied for, but it still sucked to be a Sega fanboy in 1998!
The games press was giving Sega a good kicking while it was down as well. Perhaps it was the speed that it went from plucky underdog to becoming too big too fast and too arrogant meant it deserved to take a fall and eat humble pie, but it meant I retreated from Digitiser and the multiplatform magazines and instead found solace in the Official Sega Saturn Magazine. This was something of a bible for me at the time, where I would just read each issue cover to cover then read again until the next issue was out.
The magazine was something of a bubble to ward me off the grim reality, to let me pretend the Saturn still had fight left in it, that there were still good games coming that the filthy casuals too easily won over by big names and fancy graphics couldn’t appreciate. In truth, it was also a bit of a cringe to carry around, with its aesthetics and tone heavily riffing off the lad mags of the time, with its covers often adorned with scantily clad female game characters (and the less said about the backpages, the better).
Nonetheless, 1998 did see some important releases on the Saturn that really should be counted among the all-timers in better circumstances. Alas, the circumstances mean that history has largely forgotten them.
There was Panzer Dragoon Saga, which transformed Team Andromeda’s fantasy on-rails shooter into an action RPG unlike anything else, which the Saturn Magazine even gave away the first disc in one of its issues. It also turned out to be an exceptionally rare game – it goest for £399 on eBay these days and I still kick myself that I ended up selling it to a classmate. The greater insult is that the game’s original source code infamously just disappeared for unknown reasons that seem to plague Japanese games from the 90s, meaning that it’s virtually impossible to port the game for modern audiences.
Treasure’s shmup masterpiece Radiant Silvergun fared better for future generations, seeing a port to XBLA on the 360. Alas in 1998, it was only available to Saturn owners who could import the Japanese version. Indeed, much of the gold that was on the system was largely left in Japan, and the Saturn Magazine was where I’d pore over every screenshot of these fascinating titles I’d never get to play.
The real stinger for me was Shining Force III, by all counts an excellent tactical turn-based RPG on par with the likes of Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics. Yet for anyone who beat it, there was also the sense that the story was left unfinished. In fact, the game was made up of three scenarios, each with a different protagonist and party members, though you’d see them cropping up in the first scenario as NPCs. Those of us in the West were only ever given the first scenario of the game, and that was it.
The final game to be officially released for the Saturn in Europe was the biggest anti-climax of all: a sub-standard Resi clone called Deep Fear. If there was any greater example of a console going out not with a bang but a whimper, this was it.
Miraculously, the Saturn Magazine continued ticking on even after it technically had no more games to cover, a feat that would be unheard of today. In this, the mag focused on two things: import titles asJapanese games released for the Saturn continued until the end of the year, and Sega’s messianic saviour, the Dreamcast.
The first step into the next generation of consoles, surely the Dreamcast would bring Sega out of its slump. For what it’s worth, this would become my all-time favourite console, and yet there was one crucial sticking point. The Dreamcast would launch at the end of 1998 but only in Japan, while it wouldn’t arrive in the US and Europe until the following year in September and October respectively. If you thought Nintendo had wilderness years with the Wii U, at least that managed to limp along and hand the baton to the Switch with the magnificent Breath of the Wild. But for Sega outside of Japan, it was effectively out of the console game for about 15 months. That’s a hell of a long time.
Between getting hyped with any snippet of coverage of upcoming Dreamcast games, including screenshots for weird obscure Japanese games that I’d never even end up playing, all I had to keep me going was to keep replaying Panzer Dragoon Saga and Shining Force III, but eventually it was time to decide.
I can imagine most people would have come to the sensible decision to shed off the fanboyism and embrace the other platforms rather than wait around for over a year. Had I done that, I could have been playing gems like Metal Gear Solid or Ocarina of Time by the end of the year. But instead, I had to keep the dream alive for Sega, so, by both saving a lot of money and begging my parents to contribute the rest, I ended up importing the Dreamcast. It arrived just before Christmas with two games – Virtua Fighter 3tb and the very lacklustre Godzilla Generations – while I had to wait until the new year to get my hands on Sonic Adventure.
Of course, now we know that Sega has long left behind the console making business, though it’s also had some bumps in the road as a publisher. But fast forward to 2018, and my inner Sega fanboy is thrilled to see where the company is now, as Japanese games are back in vogue, Sega are localising a lot more of their Japanese games, from Yakuza to Valkyria Chronicles to Puyo Puyo Tetris, all rekindling some of the spirit of its glory years.
But while we might be seeing retro releases of Mega Drive Classics and the possibility of classic Dreamcast titles coming back via Sega Ages, the Saturn’s legacy sadly remains lost to history. If only Sega would localise the remaining scenarios for Shining Force III for modern platforms, that would do an awful lot to undo the woes of 1998.