Satiator
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

The price of retro video games is going up all of the time, but there's one system that has, for many years, been almost infamous when it comes to the cost of its most desirable games: the Sega Saturn.

The reason for this is two-fold; because the console performed so poorly in the west, many of its most acclaimed games remained entirely exclusive to Japan, driving up their appeal to hardcore collectors. Secondly, those games which did get a global release were often manufactured in such low quantities that their value has skyrocketed as demand vastly outstrips supply; the likes of Panzer Dragoon Saga and Shining Force III came at a time when Sega had all but given up on the console, and now command three-figure prices when they come up for sale on the secondary market.

With this in mind, the notion of a 'flash cart' for the Saturn has always been a dream for many fans of the console; these cartridges are already widely available for consoles like the NES, SNES, Mega Drive and Game Boy, but they're less commonplace when you're talking about disc-based machines like the Saturn. Of course, Optical Drive Emulators exist and scratch very much the same itch, but examples like the Terraonion MODE require you to open up your machine and remove the CD drive itself – a process which, while perfectly reversible, takes a lot of time and effort, and leaves you with a console that is no longer capable of running original CD software.

That's where the $259.99 / £214 / 245€ Satiator comes in. Created by Professor Abrasive, this is the ultimate solution for those of you who want access to the entire Saturn library but don't want to pull your machine apart in order to get it. The Satiator uses the console's Video CD card port, which is found in a compartment on the back of the system (it's where the CR2032 battery resides, which is used for running the Saturn's real-time clock and retaining game save data). After years of effort, Professor Abrasive has perfected a means of using this port to load up games and bypass the CD drive entirely, offering a solution which not only means you don't have to open up your beloved console, but you can still play CD-based titles on it.

Getting the Satiator up and running is very much like any other flash cart we could mention. All you need is an SD card formatted in either FAT or exFAT, the Satiator's menu system (downloadable from here), a working CR2032 battery in the Saturn (the Satiator won't boot if your console's battery is dead) and a selection of game files (either in ISO or BIN/CUE format) – naturally, we'd recommend your rip your own personal Saturn library for this, but let's face it, that's only going to happen in a very small number of cases. As we alluded to in the opening of this review, with so many of the console's best games now way out of reach for most sensible collectors, you could just grab one of these and obtain the games 'via other means' (and no, we're not going to elaborate on that further) rather than pay someone on the second-hand market an inflated price.

Once you've grabbed the game, you can sort them on your SD card in almost any way you'd like; you can drop them into regional folders or simply have all of the games displayed alphabetically. Using the simple (and fast) menu system, you can navigate your collection and boot a game just by selecting its folder; the Satiator will automatically detect the ISO or CUE/BIN files inside and load the game. It's incredibly straightforward.

In fact, it might be a little too straightforward for some people, as the default menu system is rather bare-bones. Thankfully, there are alternatives available; Retrohead's excellent Rings UI not only makes things a little more appealing visually, but it also allows you to add box art. Another shortcoming of the Satiator is that there's currently no way of dropping back to the UI when you've loaded up a game – you have to power the console off completely and turn it back on again (pressing reset simply reloads the current game). This is a pretty trivial complaint, however – especially when you consider it's still much more convenient than having to change discs the old-fashioned way.

Another black mark against the Satiator is the fact that it occupies the slot normally reserved for the aforementioned Video CD card. You might assume that not being able to play Video CDs isn't a big deal – and you'd be right – but the Video CD card also enables enhanced MPEG video support in certain games, making FMV look a lot better. The Satiator's presence in the Video CD card slot means you won't be able to enjoy these upgraded games, but, to be honest, there aren't as many as you might expect anyway; most are Japanese exclusives of little note.

Let's get back to the upsides, anyway. The Satiator not only allows you to load games from any region, irrespective of where your Saturn is from, but it also allows you to boot CDR games – quite why you'd do this when you have access to a flash cart we're not entirely sure, but it's a nice feature to have. Oh, and it should be noted that you can obviously use the Satiator to load up patched games, such as those which have had fan-made translation patches applied to them. Given that many of the console's best JRPGs never got localised back in the day, this is a great way to experience the likes of Policenauts and Sakura Wars, both of which have been translated into English recently.

We tested a whole bunch of titles on the Satiator and didn't encounter a single issue, but it's worth noting that Professor Abrasive doesn't market this device as being 100% compatible with the entire Saturn library. As the firmware has improved, compatibility has also been enhanced, but there still might be the odd game out there which refuses to play nicely with the Satiator – so be prepared for that if you do happen to buy one. However, as we've just alluded to, this is a product which is evolving over time, and we'd imagine that, as more units get in the hands of customers, firmware is going to improve even more – so we'll see most issues resolved in one way or another.

On the whole, the Satiator is a remarkable offering if you're keen to unlock the Saturn's amazing library of games. Sure, it's expensive, but when you consider that a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga or Hyper Duel would cost you much more than the Satiator, it becomes a little easier to justify – and the fact that it adopts a simple 'plug-and-play' approach gives it a significant advantage over the likes of the MODE and rival ODE options on the market. Chances are, if you're serious about Saturn, then you've already got a collection of physical games, so not losing access to those is a real boon.

Thanks to Professor Abrasive for supplying the Satiator used in this review.