Friday, 23 November 2012

SOOG: 20 Japanese Saturn Games That Should Have Been Released in the UK

In the last two years I've become a bastion of pointless Sega knowledge, something that's unlikely to assist my day-to-day life. Generally I find the ladies don't want to know what the average battery life of a Game Gear is, so I can't see it being a route to marriage (p.s. it's roughly three-to-five hours but the later US models by Majesco bring it closer to ten - call me if you care).

Anyway I've resisted the temptation of posting lists for five years, so here is a set of Japanese-exclusive Sega Saturn games which should have been released in the United Kingdom... although these aren't necessarily the best candidates for import, nor are there strictly twenty games here. My skills in quality control clearly remain undiminished.

And the Lord said unto Sega, come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee consoles of 32-bit processors, and thou mayest market them. And Sega said unto the Lord, blessed be thy two processors, for PlayThing has only one - Sega Saturn, now just $199.99 from all good retailers.

The Sega Saturn isn't what you would call the greatest video game system ever made, but with an excess of over eight-hundred Japanese exclusive titles, it's difficult not to respect the machine. We didn't like it, but the homeland it stands as the only Sega console to displace Nintendo in its generation of choice. That's significant.

Yet the Saturn is also a symbol of restriction and bias, with much of its success manipulated by Bernie Stolar and the Sega of America bigot squad. The English speaking world was denied vast chunks of the Saturn's library due to a perceived lack of appeal, despite many titles having the potential to change the way we look at the industry as a whole. This is a list of games which may fit that description - an effort to prove that the Saturn isn't quite as horrible as you might think.

But first, a disclaimer. Theoretically, every game released in Japan could have been released elsewhere, but much of the Saturn's library was not economically viable, even in Japan. If you want to fight for eleven Virtua Fighter CG Portrait or sixteen Private Idol games, more power to you, but for me, many there are many, many Saturn games which can happily stay off our soil. I like the Saturn in many ways, but I'm by no means a fan of everything it has to offer (I reserve that opinion for the Sega Dreamcast).

This is a list of games which I feel could have been brought to the United Kingdom (note: not North America) and sold between 1995 and 1998. Traditionally one would fill this list with text-heavy RPGs and adventure games, but it's unfeasible to expect translations while maintaining a timely release for the pan-Euro region (and we have to take note of our friends on the continent). Likewise, I have no interest in products I deem to be "too Japanese" - I look for games with a chance of appealing to the world, not just to a set of islands off the east coast of mainland Asia.

This isn't necessarily a list of "good games" (although several may have fit that description fifteen years ago), but rather, software which in my opinion deserved a worldwide release (note: yours may vary). I am also fully aware of that most of these were kept back due to legitimate publishing concerns - if developers don't have access to the channels for worldwide distribution, this is fair enough, but equally, many of these games will have simply been held back by Sega of America on grounds of ignorance.

But either way, if Hebereke's Popoitto managed to receive a PAL release, there's arguably no reason why we couldn't have had...

1. Capcom fighting games

Primarily X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Vampire Savior and Pocket Fighter.

Capcom cut its western Saturn support in 1997, leaving us without many excellent fighting games, but whereas life might have been difficult for the later titles (namely Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter, Street Fighter Zero 3 and Final Fight Revenge), 2D fighters on the Saturn were praised by the press and sold in healthy numbers. My suspicion is that profits could have been made.

There are issues with the 4MB Extended RAM Cartridge, a costly (and required) peripheral which failed to make it to overseas regions, but considering the situation with the PAL release of King of Fighters 95, it's something I feel could have been dealt with. Clearly Capcom still felt 2D fighters would still sell in a world of 3D as they brought several to the Dreamcast in the years which followed, but the Saturn was the only major system to have a controller built around this genre - holding back any Saturn fighting game is silly.

2. Akumajou Dracula X: Gekka no Yasoukyoku

Otherwise known as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, one of my all-time favourite video games.

There is always an argument that it was pointless to release Saturn games after 1997. Clearly after the Dreamcast had been announced, Sega toned down their Saturn operations and third-parties pulled support for the system, but this still leaves almost two years before UK consumers would receive games for Sega consoles. Were we given a copy of Akumajou Dracula X: Gekka no Yasoukyoku in June 1998 like the Japanese, we'd still have fifteen months to fill before the Dreamcast would hit our shores.

Akumajou Dracula X: Gekka no Yasoukyoku on the Saturn is arguably superior to its PlayStation counterpart. It looks worse because the porting job was sub-par, but the game nevertheless offers a sizable amount of new features, including a new playable character and a slightly larger castle. Looking past the dodgy graphics you may find a better game, but again, despite an English translation for the PlayStation, Saturn owners in the UK were denied access.

3. Civilization, Transport Tycoon, The Tower

Don't go thinking that I really wanted to play Civilization: Shin Sekai Shichi Dai Bunmei on my Saturn in 1997 (particularly when the Shuttle Mouse wasn't released here), but these three are more of a matter of principle - each game was made in the west, (with the exception of The Tower (a.k.a. Sim Tower) which is merely based on western concepts (SimCity)) so you would think that would lead to availability in western markets.

In all three cases, English scripts exist, and no radical changes were made for Saturn owners. There is always, of course, the fact that neither game is as good as its PC counterpart, but then neither was Command & Conquer on the Saturn, and that sold pretty well, even in Japan.

4. Metal Slug

The internet loves Metal Slug, and though it may have been too early to judge its success in 1997, its spiritual predecessor, In the Hunt, hit PAL regions without much trouble.

We again run into Extended RAM Cartridge issues here, but I'm sure if pressured, games could be forced to work around this restriction. Metal Slug also has very little text at all - it's a simple arcade game, and one that greatly benefits from the Saturn's superior 2D capabilities. It also has fans - far more than In the Hunt could ever hope to achieve.

5. Baldy Land

Though I can't imagine the demand would have been huge, Baldy Land is again a case of principle. The game was built in the west for the Atari Jaguar CD, which means you can't justify the perceived lack of interest in a Saturn version, which would have no doubt sold more copies. All western versions (yes, there are several) are called "Baldies", and although I can't confirm that this would have been anything more than mediocre, its Japanese exclusivity makes very little sense to me.

Perhaps, though, this is simply down to poor management. Baldy Land took three years to reach the Saturn in Japan, and a full eight years passed before UK consumers could get their hands on the PlayStation port. This game likely became a Japanese exclusive due to its late release in November 1998, but with game code mostly finished, theoretically we could have seen a Saturn version of this game two or three years earlier.

6. 2D Shoot-'em-Ups

e.g. Battle Garegga, DonPachi, DoDonPachi, Kyuukyoku Tiger II Plus, Layer Section II, Radiant Silvergun, Strikers 1945 and Thunder Force V. It's a fairly big list.

The Saturn is known for its 2D shooters, and predictably there are plenty which never saw a release outside of Japan. The common excuse for such a move suggests 2D shooters of this nature were "too hard" for non-Asian consumers, but not only is this a genre that the Saturn excels at, 2D shooters require virtually no localisation when brought to western markets.

Now of course, we can't brush past Radiant Silvergun without mentioning its pointlessly inflated second hand price, a side effect of having a short Japanese-only production run. 2D shooters are among the top reasons why people continue to rack down Saturns to this day, so there's clearly a demand for these games.

7. The Compilations

The Saturn received a large handful of compilation discs containing repackaged versions of games from years long past. However, aside from the likes of Sega Ages Volume 1 and Sonic Jam, the UK was spared most of them. We received the Parodius compilation, but not the Gradius or Twinbee ones. Sega spared us their two Memorial Selection discs, and even the Castle of Illusion/Quackshot compilation passed us by, despite both games originally being made with us in mind.

Some titles, such as the Capcom Generations series and Konami Antiques MSX Collection Ultra Pack, would have been great additions to the Saturn's PAL library. History shows us neither Capcom nor Konami cared for the UK - releases were patchy or gimped in their own special ways, and it was up to compilations like these to finally set things right. In the end, we had to wait another console generation until the companies in question got their act together, but even then there are still plenty of games we can't access legally.

Compilations are cheap to produce, and as most lack any extra frills or features, I wouldn't consider it too taxing to bring things across the pond(s). Now of course, the perception may have been that nobody wants to play "old" games, but as with most of the Japanese software on this page - the code is there and the games are done - it seems pointless not to distribute these things worldwide.

8. Night Striker S, Metal Black, Elevator Action Returns, Bubble Symphony, Mizubaku Daibouken

Japanese publisher Ving brought a set of Taito arcade games to the Saturn, but of course, none were allowed safe passage to the UK. Considering Taito's history in the the region (particularly on the Amiga), it's a sad state of affairs to see them avoid the Saturn in this way.

You can argue the lack of PAL conversions was due to the fact that Ving had no western operations to rely on, but they had many years to track down help. Some Taito series, namely Bust-A-Move and Darius made it to western Saturns, but games like Mizubaku Daibouken, otherwise known as Liquid Kids, were allowed become expensive rarities amongst collectors. It's not a healthy situation.

9. Goiken Muyou: Anarchy in the Nippon

Goiken Muyou is a 3D fighting game built by ex-Virtua Fighter employees, and one that's meant to be quite decent. Truthfully, most 3D games for the Saturn made it to the west, but despite the immense popularity of the genre at the time, this one didn't.

Localisation may have been a blockade, but lest we forget equally awkward (and arguably lesser) fighters like Battle Arena Toshinden survived. Twice. European Saturns weren't the only systems to suffer here - Goiken Muyou II was denied a release on PAL PlayStations too.

10. SNK fighting games

Much like Capcom, SNK held off bringing their later 2D fighters to the Saturn console. The King of Fighters '96 and '97 were kept behind, as were three Fatal Fury/Garou Densetsu games and two Samurai Shodown/Samurai Spirits games (not including the spin-offs and re-releases).

Once again Extended RAM Cartridges ruin the show, but some of the more obscure titles, such as World Heroes Perfect and Shinouken (Ragnagard) get on fine. Again, many games made it to Europe in other forms, but many will argue that the Saturn and its control pad was best-placed to deal with this style of gameplay. SNK's support for the Dreamcast was patchy too - a great shame for the world at large.

11. Dezaemon 2

Dezaemon 2 lets you build 2D shoot-'em-up games, and I am interested, purely from a scientific point of view, to see how this might have affected the console race at the time. In an age before modding and widespread level editors, this could have changed the face of gaming, although with Dezaemon games on other platforms (such as the Nintendo 64 offering), the Saturn may not have seen significant benefits.

Dezaemon 2 isn't the only piece of Saturn software to allow for game creation (Game Basic is significantly more powerful), but it's the least hardcore of the two and attracted quite a fanbase in later years. But of course, the stereotypes and deep-rooted perceptions will continue to block western releases of these games for years to come.

12. Death Throttle: Kakuzetsu Toshi kara no Dasshutsu

Not to say that Death Throttle (a.k.a. Quarantine, Hard Rock Cab) is a good game, but it is an interesting one. Built in the west, Death Throttle is very much like a primitive Grand Theft Auto (or perhaps more appropriately Crazy Taxi) and may have been a solid release on the Saturn. Certainly it may have had more of an influence on the games which followed - perhaps GTA V would be a tiny bit better had Death Throttle made it to more homes.

There are a small handful of obscure "western PC to Japanese Saturn" conversions like this (Dark Seed, Phantasm, Return to Zork), and though few are amazing, the situation does raise questions. Death Throttle was released in mid-1996 - a long time before people stopped caring for Sega's black box, so it's peculiar that only the Japanese got to play with it.

13. Dead or Alive

Yes, the only entry in the series which didn't centre on breasts was denied a western Saturn release. Nobody seems to be entirely sure why - the sequel was the subject of much discussion when it appeared on the Dreamcast, and all future entries have made it here. The game's roots are planted in Sega Model 2 arcade hardware too - you'd think Tecmo would have been more friendly to Sega.

The original Dead or Alive was one of the top fighting games of its day, and had things been kept in check, it would have arrived in Europe before its PlayStation counterpart. DoA could have made a significant difference, but alas, its UK release wasn't meant to be.

14. Touge King the Spirits 2

Both Touge King the Spirits 2 and its prequel are somewhat uninspired but otherwise solid 3D racing games for the Saturn. But while the first saw a US release as High Velocity: Mountain Racing Challenge, Touge King the Spirits 2 was kept as a Japanese exclusive. And of course neither were released in Europe.

The "Touge" series was expanded on the PlayStation and would see an international release (though not to much fanfare), but on the Saturn, both King the Spirits games push the hardware quite considerably to create some surprisingly decent results. Neither will win any prizes today, but at the time they will have no doubt generated some fans. If you're investing the time to overcome the Saturn's odd views on 3D technology, it seems silly to throw your efforts away by limiting your audience.

15. Tennis Arena

I dismissed Tennis Arena when I first heard of its existence, but judging from the praise it received from the press and videos I've witnessed since, I think this had the potential to be one of the best tennis games of its day. Also, with Ubisoft involved, there's no excuse for denying this from PAL regions.

Now of course, Tennis Arena would have been beaten in straight sets by later attempts at the genre (Virtua Tennis), but I felt obliged to put a sports game in here so... here it is.

16. 2D Puzzle Games

e.g. Dero~n Dero Dero, Gussun Oyoyo-S, Magical Drop, Kururin Pa!, Pastel Muses, Puyo Puyo Sun, Zoku Gussun Oyoyo etc.

2D single-screen puzzle games - the Saturn has tons, and though I'd want this stuff localised to hell and back before release here, in most cases the core gameplay is perfectly enjoyable. Some games, such as BreakThru! and ClockWerx were exported to Japan, so it would be nice to be able to access these games in the countries that made them.

Again, I cheat by grouping a whole sub-genre of puzzle games together, but with so many different concepts and varying levels of localisation work needed, it's difficult to grade them as individual products. I'm a big fan of Puyo Puyo Sun, but if Dero~n Dero Dero had more Japanese tat stripped away from it by the time it reached the UK, there's a chance I'd enjoy that game more.

17. Arthur to Astaroth no Nazomakaimura: Incredible Toons

Think Seirra's PC classic, The Incredible Machine, but with characters from Ghouls'n Ghosts/Ghosts'n Goblins. Again, this one may be better on a PC with a mouse, but the same rules apply for Japan and it didn't stop them from getting a copy.

18. Saturn Bomberman Fight!!

Saturn Bomberman Fight!! was tipped for a UK release back in the day, but the plans were shelved for undisclosed reasons. Fight!! is universally considered to be less entertaining than the original Saturn Bomberman, but that's hardly surprising - that's a description most Bomberman games and branded with.

Localisation is perhaps a slight issue with Saturn Bomberman Fight!! - Bomberman as a franchise strayed too far into the realms of Japanese exclusivity in the mid-to-late 90s, but the point behind this one is simple - the UK has received far worse Bomberman games over the last two and a half decades, so there's no reason to think this couldn't have sold.

19. Digital Pinball: Necronomicon

Digital Pinball: Necronomicon (a sequel to Digital Pinball: Last Gladiators (otherwise known simply as Digital Pinball)) is reportedly the best pinball game on the Saturn, yet despite its English text and speech, remained exclusive to Japan.

Yet my understanding is that the culture surrounding pinball is very much rooted in the US. Pinball certainly exists in Japan, but with all the big manufacturers being situated state-side, their love for the "sport" is much the same as ours, i.e. minimal.

And of course, if the Japanese share the same level of interest in pinball as the British, that means that by an unwritten law, we should have this game too. Arguably with three other pinball simulators on the Saturn we can survive without Necronomicon, but it's difficult to argue that Japan needs this more than us.

On the plus side, Pro-Pinball Trilogy was a European Dreamcast exclusive, so I guess that might count as "revenge".

20. Vatlva

Vatlva is a top-down 3D multiplayer vehicular combat game with music from the bloke who scored the Streets of Rage trilogy - clearly without a doubt this is not suitable for us westerners.

Another gamae expected to see a release in the west before the bid fell through, Vatlva would not only have been a great Saturn game, but with six-player multi-tap support, would have been a great Saturn exclusive, helping the console in its hour of need. I can't see much of a reason to cancel this one, but far be it for me to claim I'm a marketing expert - people are buying Wii Us after all!

So yes, this was a list. As to whether it's a complete list, that's a mystery you can solve in your own free time. Adjustments may need to be made - I can't really detect good RPGs if I don't speak Japanese (hence why there are none), and there are plenty of strong candidates (Silhouette Mirage) that I've chosen to omit on grounds of personal taste.

There are far too many Japanese-exclusive Saturn games, but in the end, it perhaps doesn't matter what Japan hides from us - the Saturn was never destined to be our saviour, and most other major consoles lack the same magnitude of problems. Though sad that we were denied classics on the grounds of where we live, the Saturn is one of the few consoles where importing games is a viable option - just get an Action Replay and you'll be good to go.

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