After the 16-bit console war between Sega and Nintendo, Sega started to noticeably lag behind. However, just because consoles like the Saturn and the Dreamcast weren’t extremely successful in sales doesn’t mean their library was lacking in awesome and weird genre-bending titles.
Not every franchise got to “graduate” from the fifth-generation of consoles, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fantastic. Modern gamers might not know much about these, but these are truly memorable games from Sega’s console-exclusive heyday. Get your hands on these games however you can; they’re really unique experiences on a very distinctive console.
Before Castle Crashers showed off how fun a beat-em-up can be with RPG mechanics and simple combos, there was Guardian Heroes. This game was well-received when it originally came out on the Saturn, but now, it’s largely forgotten. The series has a spinoff on the GBA and a port to Xbox 360/Xbox One, but other than that, there’s been no word of a sequel or revival–not even a rumor.
The game controls like a fighting game with juggle combos, aerials, special moves, and a mana bar. There are only six characters playable in the story mode (two unlockable), but there are fun multiplayer versus modes to mess around with. After defeating a character in the story mode, they’re unlocked for use in multiplayer, and the combos can get pretty crazy with six concurrent players.
Dragon Force is from an era where “RTS/Tactics RPG” wasn’t that unique of a genre. Nowadays, we have Fire Emblem, but Dragon Force was smack-dab in the middle of a golden age of Langrisser, Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, and many other SRPG hits.
Something that sets Dragon Force apart from its peers is that it focuses on large-scale battles instead of small-scale ones. The fights aren’t duels like in Fire Emblem; generals can collide with 100 troops on each side, duking it out in skirmishes. Time passes in “weeks,” which lets the plot advance while you make out-of-battle decisions.
The game sold well at the time, but its sequel (also on the Saturn) never left Japan. No one spoke much about this game after the Sega Saturn kicked the bucket, which is a real shame; Dragon Force is a true diamond in the rough.
Action platformers were falling out of vogue by the time the Sega Saturn hit the stores. Astal, however, came out early in the system’s lifespan, and was still able to capitalize on the craze. The titular character Astal can grab and throw objects or enemies. He can also slam the ground and blow big gusts of air. On top of that, he has a super meter that commands his bird companion to bounce around, knocking out all enemies on screen.
This is a fun asymmetric co-op game, too. The second player plays as Astal’s bird companion, instead of just a palette-swapped version of Astal. The bird has his own unique set of attacks, making this game worth checking out with a friend.
Astal is short, but has challenging gameplay backed up by a unique hand-drawn aesthetic. Many indie games nowadays use hand-drawn graphics as a selling point, but it was really rare during the fifth console generation. The main character has had cameos in other Sega games since, but there’s no word of a sequel, revival, or crossover with another franchise.
At its core, Mr. Bones is an action platformer about a reanimated skeleton that can lose and regain limbs instead of using health or lives. That’s not totally accurate, though; certain levels were based on non-platforming genres, with rhythm game elements, Breakout-style gameplay, or perspective changes. It’s more like Lawnmower Man on the SNES rather than Castlevania.
The first run-through of the game is extremely silly and fun, especially going in blind. Getting used to the “skeletism” meter to replace the traditional health meter takes some getting used to, but it creates a fun sub-game of trying to hang onto all your bones. It really sucks not having your legs and being unable to jump in a platformer. Mega Man wouldn’t be as fun if he had to climb on the ground with his arms–but that’s part of what makes Mr. Bones so hilarious.
Mr. Bones had a very polarized reception, with some critics praising how much variety there was in gameplay while some others would have just preferred a normal platformer. This isn’t the greatest platformer of all time, but sometimes it’s just worth playing a game where the developers threw caution to the wind and put in every single gameplay function they felt like.
Before Hideo Kojima made Metal Gear Solid, he was making story-focused adventure games for a variety of platforms. After finishing the cult cyberpunk game Snatcher, he set to work on Policenauts, a sci-fi story about astronauts that are also law enforcement officials. It came to the PlayStation, the PC-9821, the 3DO, and of course, the Saturn.
Policenauts is like a cross between a point-and-click adventure game and a visual novel. It’s interactive, and requires the player to be a good detective and figure out the right dialog options to select and the right items to interact with. The Saturn version is also considered superior to other ports because it has first-person light gun segments not seen elsewhere.
There is an unofficial translation patch available for the Saturn, which uses dialog from an earlier fan translation for the PlayStation. If you want to see where Kojima honed his writing chops, play Policenauts. You’ll be the cool person that’s already played it once it gets an HD remaster.
Note that this came was never released in the U.S. and can only be played on Japanese Sega Saturn Consoles!
Do you like classic beat-em-ups? How about collectible armor and items? Do you like a cutesy anime style backed up by serious gameplay? What about classic RPG enemies and locations with high-quality pixel art? If you answered yes to any of these, pick up Princess Crown.
Princess Crown is the brainchild of Capcom veteran George Kamitani. Because it was released near the end of the Saturn’s lifespan, it was a commercial failure, which led to Kamitani getting blacklisted in the games industry. He later went on to found Vanillaware, which re-established him as a developer.
Princess Crown’s core gameplay went on to spawn many spiritual successors, such as Odin Sphere, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Dragon’s Crown, all made by Kamitani. It’s great for the industry to have specialists like him.
Note that this came was never released in the U.S. and can only be played on Japanese Sega Saturn Consoles!
Mystaria: The Realms of Lore/Blazing Heroes
If you’re a fan of classic grid-based tactics RPGs, give Mystaria a try. The graphical limitations of the Saturn give it a unique, blocky, and vibrant aesthetic. There’s twelve special characters for you to get, and the story changes depending on who you want to recruit first. The story is not that complex, but being non-linear is a huge plus for keeping gamers engaged.
The menu system for navigating combat is cumbersome at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s fluid and fast. Plus, there’s a first-person camera mode, which is novel and weird. Try to play it in that mode, because you can’t get that in many other tactics RPGs.
Take a look at Mystaria if you feel like seeing what was once considered “next generation.” The game might seem archaic or underdeveloped now, but when it was released, Mystaria heralded what RPGs were going to look like, with 3D spells and effects backed up by camera changes to create cinematic fights.
Mystaria was released in North America as Blaze Heroes; they are the same game!
Crusader: No Remorse
There aren’t many games by Western developers on this list, but Crusader: No Remorse has definitely earned its entry. It uses pre-rendered graphics with an isometric perspective, much like the original Fallout or Diablo games. The gameplay, however, focuses on shooting, action, and interactable environments rather than RPG mechanics.
The environment destruction and playability is really where this game shines. There are alarm switches, non-combatants, puzzles, and a perspective that supports tactical gameplay rather than run-and-gun shooting. Most of the objects you see can either be destroyed or turned on your enemies in creative ways. If there’s a trap set for you, you can set it for somebody else.
There’s a sequel titled Crusader: No Regret, but it is only on MS-DOS. The first Crusader is actually recognized as an inspiration to the Fallout team. If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic Western games, No Remorse is worth playing alone just for its contribution to the genre.
Die Hard Arcade/Dynamite Deka
Die Hard Arcade isn’t extremely faithful to the movie it’s based on, but the liberties it takes are genius. To start with, it’s a beat ‘em up that focuses on fighting game-style combos and improvised weapons. It also uses texture mapping that gives it a realistic feel, not unlike the sports games of the era.
Beat ‘em ups were falling out of favor at the time (much like tournament fighters and 2D platformers), but Die Hard Arcade kept things fresh. It’s got classic mainstays of the genre, like end-level bosses and two-player co-op, and the game brings with it a simple 3D setting and a boatload of attack options.
It’s short, but you’ll be happy to play it again and again, using new weapons and trying new combos. It’s really hard to beat crime bosses on the head with a broomstick. (Plus, Dynamite Cop on the Dreamcast is a great sequel, even though the setting is obviously different.)
Last Bronx is, in many ways, a distinctly Japanese game. The setting is an alternate-future Tokyo where gangs and criminals rule. It’s a 3D fighting game that plays a lot like Virtua Fighter, but without ringouts. All of the characters and locations are unmistakably Japanese, with little room for the “worldwide fighting” variety the genre usually features.
Even though gamers in North America didn’t give the game too much attention, it was an instant classic in Japan. Casual gamers loved the variety of modes, the weapon-based gameplay, and the fluid animation. The graphics are better on the arcade, but the Saturn version is no slouch.
If you end up liking the game, there’s comics, a novel, radio dramas, and even movies to go along with it. Don’t bother watching the movie if you’re not a fan of the game, though…it’s pretty rough.
Peter Molyneux is popular these days for two things: over-promising on series like Fable, and getting mistaken for Stefan Molyneux. In his heyday, he was the king of making solid games with innovative aspects, like Black and White. Even before that, though, he worked on Bullfrog’s Magic Carpet.
The title describes it pretty perfectly. It’s a 3D flying game where you control–you guessed it–a magic carpet. The goal is to destroy monsters, collect their magic mana, and use it to build up a castle in each level.
The game is subtle, smooth, and some pretty simple fun. It’s great for zoning out with the lights off, flying around in the early-polygonal 3D environments and enjoying the sprites and spells. It probably won’t end up being your new favorite game of all time, but it’s a unique experience for the Saturn.
No one needs to be told that Roller Coaster Tycoon is a great series, and they’re undoubtedly some of the greatest games of all time. Before there was RCT, there was a game simply titled Theme Park, developed by Peter Molyneux and his crew at Bullfrog Productions.
The gameplay is self-explanatory for anyone familiar with the sim genre. Set up your rides and manage the logistics of the park. Try your best to keep it clean, keep it profitable, and most importantly, keep yourself from getting addicted. There are some elements in this game that aren’t seen often in other sim games, like managing the park’s financial stocks and negotiating business deals. Once you’ve made enough money on one park, you can auction it off and make another on a new plot of land.
Theme Park saw high critical acclaim upon release. Even though there were plenty of sim games sprouting during the fifth generation, Theme Park had a playful aesthetic and wasn’t as serious as Sim City or other competitors. Like many other sim games, it was developed with PC gaming in mind, but the console ports (including the Saturn) are just as smooth.