Released in 1994, the Sega Saturn was supposed to be the company's glorious successor to the Mega Drive / Genesis, its most popular console ever. However, with just 9.26 million units sold in total, the 32-bit system is viewed by many as one of Sega's most costly mistakes.
The Japanese firm was in a strong position at the close of the 16-bit era, with a huge global market share and some of the most exciting arcade properties on the market. However, newcomer Sony entered the video game arena armed with powerful technology and a desire to court video game developers and publishers all over the globe, and the PlayStation went on to dominate the rest of the decade.
Having said that, the Saturn was a long way from being a failure in the eyes of those who were wise enough to support it. Sega's class shone through with a wide range of exclusives – many of which were excellent ports of the company's wonderful coin-op releases – and in Japan, it was Sega's most successful home console, thanks in no small part to robust support from the likes of Capcom, SNK and Treasure.
Below, we've compiled a list of what we consider to be the very best Sega Saturn games. They include a mixture of genres, and many of them are only available on import. Please note that this list is not displayed in order of preference.
This wildly inventive vertically-scrolling shmup has been an eBay darling since the auction site began, thanks to the fact that it was produced in limited numbers, was only released on the Saturn in Japan and garnered rave reviews from day one. Radiant Silvergun was lovingly remastered on the Xbox 360 (and is playable on the Series X and S), but the original Saturn version is still a big draw for collectors. The game's RPG-style mechanics – which include a vast selection of weapons which get more powerful the more you play – are still appealing today, while the dazzling array of boss encounters ensures that this has lost none of its allure. A shmup classic.
The sequel to Sega's first-person Mega Drive dungeon-crawler Shining In The Darkness, Shining The Holy Ark takes the same core concept and spruces things up with CGI-based visuals and a full-3D viewpoint. Hours of turn-based action are on offer, twinned with a gripping story, solid progression and a fantastic soundtrack. This title is part of the same 'Shining' series which includes Shining Force III and Shining Wisdom, and is a solid choice for JRPG fans.
Japanese studio Treasure had forged a very successful relationship with Sega in the '90s, and Guardian Heroes marked its Saturn debut. The game is a curious mix of side-scrolling fighter and RPG, with movement taking place in 2D but with the ability to switch 'lanes' in and out of the screen. Characters earn experience points as you play, allowing you to bolster their abilities. There are multiple routes through the game, massively extending its longevity, and a bonus mode allows you to compete with another player in an arena mode using enemies unlocked in the main game. Visually and aurally, Guardian Heroes is a real treat, and it's a shame that the GBA sequel didn't quite live up to the original. It was also remastered alongside Radiant Silvergun for Xbox Live Arcade.
The first two Panzer Dragoon titles were on-rails shooters which expanded on the template laid down by the likes of Space Harrier and After Burner, but this third entry took the JRPG route, delivering a four-disc epic which continues to command eye-watering prices when it comes up for sale online. These inflated prices are justified, though; Panzer Dragoon Saga is one of the 32-bit era's most engrossing role-playing adventures and offers gorgeous visuals, a haunting soundtrack and a battle system which allows the player to position their character strategically to avoid damage. Sega has apparently lost the source code for the game, which sadly means a re-release is unlikely for now – so you might have to remortgage the house to own the original.
Sonic Team never produced a brand-new Sonic title for the Saturn, but it did give us NiGHTS into Dreams and this, a 3D fire-fighting epic set in the near future. The aim is to enter blazing buildings and rescue those trapped inside whilst putting out fires with your water-based weapons. Burning Rangers supports the Saturn's excellent '3D' analogue pad, and plays much better with it; controlling your agile character is a breeze when you have analogue control, and the game's innovative voice navigation system makes it feel like you're part of a team. It's a crying shame that we never got a sequel.
Arguably the Saturn's best racing game, SEGA Rally might not be as visually impressive as its coin-op parent, but all of the gameplay has made it across intact. The sense of weight and speed is supremely convincing, and the challenge of improving on your race times is a constant source of appeal. A Japan-only update released in 1996 added in support for the Saturn's 3D controller and online play via the XBAND modem, but this sadly never made it to the west. If you have access to a Japanese system, that's the version you want to play.
This tactical RPG is the sequel to the Mega Drive / Genesis titles Shining Force and Shining Force II, and takes the series into the realm of 3D visuals. The gameplay is as addictive and deep as ever, while the storyline is truly epic – so much so, in fact, that the plan was to split the adventure across three different games. That happened in Japan, but Western gamers sadly only got the first part. Thankfully, fan-made translation patches exist which allow you to experience the other two parts via emulation. Shining Force III is a must-have Saturn title, it's as simple as that.
Capcom and SNK went to war in the realm of 2D fighting games, but as the '90s progressed, it would be Sega and Namco who would duke it out as the genre moved into the realm of 3D. Namco's Tekken was seen as the PlayStation's early "killer app", alongside Ridge Racer, and it was in direct competition with Sega's Virtua Fighter series. The original game had been instrumental in selling the Saturn to the Japanese public, but its sequel was an improvement in pretty much every way imaginable. Using the Saturn's high-res mode, Virtua Fighter 2 delivers silky-smooth gameplay, a wealth of special moves and one of the most engaging two-player titles on the console.
Bomberman found fame on consoles like the PC Engine and SNES, but this Saturn exclusive is considered by many to be the character's defining entry – and that's not just because it's possible for 10 players to take part using two multitap accessories. A Story Mode is included which will keep solo players busy, but Saturn Bomberman really excels when two or more people are involved. Soon after, Hudson Soft would transition the series into 3D (with mixed success, it should be noted), but this 32-bit offering has some of the best 2D visuals in the franchise and is a must for fans of party games.
Sega opened its soccer account on the Saturn with the decidedly average Victory Goal, but Sega Worldwide Soccer '97 was a huge improvement, introducing 3D player models and a game engine which had enough depth and complexity to give EA's FIFA and Konami's ISS a run for their money. Sega Worldwide Soccer '98 adds in club sides but doesn't really make any major additions to the gameplay; it was criticised at the time of release for not doing enough to improve over the previous iteration, but it remains the best choice for any Saturn-owning football fans.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is considered to be one of the greatest video games of all time, and the PlayStation version was a critical smash when it launched in 1997. The Saturn port, published in Japan in 1998, was coded by a different team within Konami and introduces a bunch of new features that weren't present in the PlayStation edition. Maria Renard becomes a playable character, and two new areas – the Cursed Prison and the Underground Garden – are included. However, load times are longer and some of the visual effects – such as transparencies – aren't as impressive (Koji Igarashi, who worked on the game and would later oversee the entire Castlevania franchise, is said to have been disappointed by how the port turned out). Even so, this is an excellent game and well worth checking out if you're something of a Castlevania completist.
Toaplan is a legendary name in the world of shmups, and Batsugun holds a special place in the genre's history by being the final game from the esteemed Japanese developer. Notable for being one of the first 'bullet hell' shooters, Batsugun features a unique weapon levelling system which sees players gain experience points from taking out enemies; a similar mechanic would crop up in Treasure's Radiant Silvergun a few years later. Several of Batsugun's staff would go on to form Cave, another famous name in the world of Japanese shmups. This home port was handled by Gazelle (another company formed by former Toaplan employees) and Batsugun appears on the Astro City Mini V, a micro-console from Sega. It was also released on Switch and PS4.
The original Elevator Action remains something of an arcade classic, and was ported to a wide range of formats. It's a shame, then, that its far superior sequel is less well known; it takes the core concept of the first game and expands on it dramatically, introducing more complex levels, a broader selection of weapons and far more variety in the gameplay. For the longest time, this Saturn port – which is exclusive to Japan – was the only way to experience Elevator Action Returns in the home, but it has since been made available on the excellent Taito Legends 2 compilation (PlayStation 2, Windows, and Xbox) and, more recently, as a pre-installed game on the Taito Egret II Mini micro-console.
Before George Kamitani formed Vanillaware – the studio behind the likes of Odin Sphere, Dragon's Crown and 13 Sentinels – he was employed by Capcom, and upon leaving that company, he founded his own independent outfit in order to create Princess Crown. The firm would later become part of Atlus, which would eventually publish the final game – a side-scrolling 2D action RPG with sumptuous visuals. Princess Crown boasts real-time combat which sees players charging up special moves, but it also has NPCs to interact with and a basic crafting system. Never localised into English, Princess Crown was later ported to the Sony PSP, and Dragon's Crown is considered to be its spiritual successor.
The idea of Sonic racing against other characters certainly doesn't seem groundbreaking, given the blue blur's penchant for speed – and, by the time Sonic R arrived in 1997, he'd already appeared in not one but two Game Gear racing titles – but this superb 3D speed-fest is nonetheless a remarkable experience. Developed by UK-based Traveller's Tales and Sonic Team, Sonic R might not be the 'full' Sonic experience Saturn fans were hoping for, but its focus on exploration lent it an 'adventure' feel and made it stand out from other mascot-based racers. Oh, and Richard Jacques' soundtrack is wonderful.
The first Panzer Dragoon made waves thanks to its gorgeous 3D visuals and incredible world design, but this sequel is a better release on all counts. The scope is improved massively, with a stronger storyline and more accessible difficulty level, as well as a branching route system and some cool unlockables when you finally finish the adventure. The soundtrack is also incredible and would go on to inform the music used in future Panzer Dragoon titles, including Panzer Dragoon Saga and Panzer Dragoon Orta. It's also more visually impressive than its predecessor, offering some of the most awe-inspiring graphics on the Saturn.
Lauded by many as one of the best shmups ever made, Raizing's Battle Garegga is set in a steampunk world not entirely dissimilar to that seen in Hayao Miyazaki's legendary movie Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and this visual distinction is one of the main reasons the game stands out against its genre rivals. The levels, enemies and boss fights are all fantastic, and the gameplay is tight and challenging, due to the game's adjustable difficulty ranking system that can, if not totally understood and exploited, make Battle Garegga even harder than it already is. This Saturn port was only released in Japan and has become a collector's item, but in 2016, emulation experts M2 released Battle Garegga Rev.2016 for modern systems, which means the game is accessible to a much larger audience. Even so, this Saturn version still ranks as one of the console's most desirable titles.
Sega was a key supporter of the humble arcade light gun shooter, and its Virtua Cop series – alongside House of the Dead – did much to popularise the genre in amusement arcades all over the globe. Virtua Cop 2 takes the core gameplay of the original and adds in the ability to pick your route through the levels, massively increasing its replayability. The game would later be bundled with its predecessor on the PlayStation 2, and a Dreamcast port was also released, but only in Japan. 2003's Virtua Cop 3 has sadly remained an arcade exclusive.
With Sony able to call upon the might of Namco's Tekken franchise during the 32-bit console war, Sega pulled out all of the stops to compete – and that culminated in the release of this crossover effect, which saw characters from Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers (not to mention Virtua Cop and Daytona USA) duke it out for supremacy. While it arguably isn't quite as good-looking as the peerless Virtua Fighter 2 Saturn port, Fighter's Megamix incorporates moves from Virtua Fighter 3 and does a good job of combining the two play styles of Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers. Hailed as a critical smash at the point of release, the game sadly stands alone in Sega's library, and no sequel has ever been produced.
While the Saturn famously lacked a stand-alone mainline Sonic title, Sonic Jam did a lot to keep fans happy during the 32-bit era. It pulls together four 16-bit Sonic outings: Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, and even emulates the 'lock-on' system of the latter, allowing you to alter aspects of the other three titles. Having all of these classic games in one place was fantastic back in 1997, but one of the biggest talking point was the all-new 3D-based "Sonic World" mode, which essentially acts as an interactive, explorable museum of related content, including trailers and artwork. This hinted at the possibility of a proper 3D Sonic on Saturn, but sadly it never happened. It's also a shame that Sonic CD isn't included here, but that doesn't take away from the fact that Sonic Jam is an essential purchase for all Saturn owners.