A history of videogame hardware: Sega Saturn

A history of videogame hardware: Sega Saturn @ Edge

Sega’s plans for the Saturn were drawn up in 1992, under the codename Giga Drive. The decision was made to use CD-ROM technology for its games, and the machine was specifically designed to better the 3DO, the only other 32- bit console available at the time. The internal architecture was based on Sega’s Model 1 arcade hardware, adapted by its creator Hideki Sato and his team. A number of prototypes were built in 1993 and, as the team approached a design they were happy with, the name was changed from Giga Drive to Aurora and, finally, Saturn.

However, this machine was very different to the one that would launch almost two years later. In December 1993, almost a year before the Saturn’s planned launch, Sony revealed the system specifications of Ken Kutaragi’s PlayStation project. These alluded to 3D graphical capabilities that matched Sega’s cutting edge arcade hardware, and the capacity to handle complex 2D processing, too.

When Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama obtained a copy of the PlayStation system specs and compared them to those of his company’s Saturn prototype he called an emergency meeting with his R&D department. One staff member reportedly said of the meeting that his boss was “the maddest I’ve ever seen him”. Nakayama was furious at the way in which Sony had bettered his own machine. Sato was charged by Nakayama to ‘fix’ the Saturn so it could compete with the PlayStation. With less than a year till launch, Sato handpicked a team of 27 Sega engineers to start work. There was no time to commission a new chip for the machine, so Sega was forced to look to existing components. The team opted for a dual-processor architecture, despite the fact that Sega’s US head Tom Kalinske had contacted Silicon Graphics, one of the companies behind the PlayStation’s 3D capabilities, to research a simpler single chip design. Allegedly, Nakayama opted for the dual-processor design as a favour to an old golfing buddy at Hitachi.

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