The Sega Saturn was first announced for a North American release date of September 2nd, 1995 and was dubbed "Saturnday". Sony announced the North American release of their PlayStation console for September 9th, just one week later. Sega then decided to announce a surprise launch by releasing it on May 11th that year without notice as a means to get ahead of Sony on the market. This decision backfired as many retailers were not made aware of the release and felt betrayed by Sega. Some Wal-Mart and KB Toys locations retaliated by removing Sega products from their stores altogether.
The Sega Saturn was first announced for an American release at the very first E3 show in Los Angeles in 1995, where its retail price of $400 dollars was announced in addition to the surprise launch. Sony subsequently unveiled the retail price for the PlayStation and Sony Computer Entertainment America president Steve Race took the stage and simply said into the microphone "$299", and then walked away to a huge applause. One Sega executive allegedly commented under his breath "Oh, s***..."
The Sega Saturn is estimated to have sold 9.26 million units worldwide.
Sega project manager Hideki Okamura has stated that development of the Sega Saturn began as far back as 1992, two years before it was first unveiled at the 1994 Tokyo Toy Show.
Per Sega's tradition, each home console was code named after a planet such as the Sega 32X being code named "Mars". The Saturn was code named after the planet of the same name, but ultimately became the console's official title.
CD-ROM-based and cartridge-only versions of the Sega Satrun were considered for simultaneous release at one point during the system's development, but this idea was scrapped due to concerns over the limited memory and higher price of cartridge-based games.
The Sega Saturn was initially being developed with only one CPU. When Sega learned of the technical aspects of Sony's PlayStation, this prompted Sega to include another video display processor to improve the system's 2D performance and texture-mapping.
It is frequently misunderstood that both CPUs of the Sega Saturn are designed to render 2D and 3D images respectively. This is actually incorrect. Both CPUs are actually capable of rendering images in both 2D and 3D. When the second CPU was added to increase the system's 2D performance, this sparked the confusion that one CPU was for 3D and the other was for 2D.
Sega of America and its president Tom Kalinske were adamantly opposed to the Saturn's architecture on the grounds that the system would be difficult to program. Kalinske sought a deal with Silicon Graphics for an alternative graphics chip but Sega of Japan rejected this. Silicon Graphics later collaborated with Nintendo for the Nintendo 64 design. Possibly to protect Sega of America's reputation, Kalinske publicly defended the Saturn's hardware design, stating: "Our people feel that they need the multiprocessing to be able to bring to the home what we're doing next year in the arcades."
At one point during development, Tom Kalinske, Sony Electronic Publishing's Olaf Olafsson, and Sony America's Micky Schulhof had previously discussed development of a joint "Sega/Sony hardware system", which was never realized due to Sega's desire to create hardware that could accommodate both 2D and 3D visuals while Sony wanted to focus entirely on 3D technology.
Kazuhiro Hamada, chief of Sega Saturn development further commented why a second CPU was added: "The SH-2 was chosen for reasons of cost and efficiency. The chip has a calculation system similar to a DSP (digital signal processor), but we realized that a single CPU would not be enough to calculate a 3D world."
In 1993, Sega restructured its internal studios in preparation for the Saturn's launch.
In January 1994, development began for the Sega 32X, an add-on peripheral for the Sega Genesis. Sega of America was very supportive of this idea until tensions rose between the American and Japanese division when the Saturn was given priority, and both the 32X and Saturn were being released close to the same time in the United States.
The Sega Saturn first launched in Japan on November 22, 1994, at a price of 44,800 Japanese yen and was initially met with success. The first title available was a faithful arcade port of Virtua Fighter and sold nearly 1 to 1 with sales of the Saturn. Sega's initial shipment of 200,000 units were sold out on the first day thanks to the game's popularity.
Sega originally wanted Clockwork Knight and Panzer Dragoon as part of Japan's launch lineup, but Panzer Dragoon was not ready in time. Why this affected the release of Clockwork Knight in Japan is unknown, however both games were included in the North American launch.
Sega waited until the December 3rd launch of Sony's PlayStation to ship more units as an attempt to hinder Sony's launch as well as test the waters as to which system would sell more. When both were sold side-by-side, the Saturn proved to be the more popular system.
The Saturn's launch in North America was accompanied by a reported $50 million advertising campaign that included coverage in publications such as Wired and Playboy. Early advertising for the system was targeted at a more mature, adult audience than the Sega Genesis advertisements.
Because of the early launch in the United States, the Sega Saturn had only six games available as most third-party games were slated to be released around the original launch date, September 2nd, 1995.
Because Virtua Fighter was not very popular in the United States, combined with a release schedule of only two games between the surprise launch and September 1995, these two major upsets prevented Sega from capitalizing on the Saturn's early timing, making the surprise launch a financial disaster for Sega.
Just two days within its September 9, 1995 launch in North America, the PlayStation sold more units than the Saturn had in the five months following its surprise launch, with almost all of the initial shipment of 100,000 units being presold in advance, and the rest selling out across the United States, eclipsing Sega's early launch opportunity.
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