Sega Saturn
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

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.

Radiant Silvergun (Saturn)

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.

Shining The Holy Ark (Saturn)

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.

Guardian Heroes (Saturn)

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.

Panzer Dragoon Saga (Saturn)

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.

Burning Rangers (Saturn)

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.

Sega Rally Championship (Saturn)

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.

Shining Force III (Saturn)

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.

Virtua Fighter 2 (Saturn)

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.

Saturn Bomberman (Saturn)

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 Worldwide Soccer '98 (Saturn)

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.