There’s nothing quite like getting a long-awaited games console on launch day. You may have waited weeks or months for the “privilege” of queuing outside a Toys “R” Us to get a Sega Genesis; you may have taken the day off to wait for a Wii U to be delivered (I speak from experience). Whatever you do, these moments will remain etched in your memory for the rest of your life.
On May 11, 1995, the day of the North American launch of the Sega Saturn, such exciting scenes did not exist. In what was perhaps the most damaging console launch in gaming history, a well-meaning surprise from Sega of America was completely undone by poor planning, terrible execution, and brave, fierce competition.
On this day 25 years ago, Sega of America President Tom Kalinske took the stage at the first-ever E3 inside the LA Convention Center and left attendees in awe after his huge announcement: the Sega Saturn was, from then on, on It was a power play to gain the upper hand in an intense rivalry that began in late 1994 when Japan saw the Saturn go head-to-head with the all-new Sony Playstation.
Sega released the Saturn in the Far East on November 22, 1994, a fortnight before Sony launched its very first console on December 3. Both performed remarkably well; Sega managed to move half a million Saturns in a month. The PlayStation sold 100,000 units on day one alone, but its 30-day performance was worse. Still, with more cutting-edge hardware and a growing number of third-party developers on its books, Sony was gaining ground and spooking Sega.
And so Sega took a gamble: push gamers to buy its console sooner, thereby preventing that captive audience from investing in another from Sony – at $700 in today’s money – a few months later.
And so, proud as a fist, Kalinske stepped onto that fateful stage and told E3 delegates that the Sega Saturn was now available in stores across the United States for $399. Yes, it was expensive, but it was a whole new frontier. It also had one of the weirdest ad campaigns of all time.
Before even considering the competition it would face from Sony, Sega’s surprise US launch had a series of logistical issues:
- Aside from a small number of official launch partners – who had limited supplies of the console – production shortages meant some stores simply didn’t haveI do not have any. KB Toys, to whom Sega did not supply day one Saturns, was so offended by the decision that it never sold new Sega consoles again.
- Game developers weren’t ready. Only four games were released on release day (arcade ports of United States and virtual fightermore Panzer Dragoon and mechanical knight). The catalog would remain stripped for months.
- Above all, it was in 1995: E3 was not broadcast nationally, nor live. Internet wasn’t really a thing. Magazines were largely published on a monthly basis. The surprise was not really picked up by the press. And, as evidenced above, the TV ad campaign sucked.
Then the competition dropped the bend. Followed by a Stone Cold Stunner. And a Swanton bomb. That same day, Steve Race–Head of Development at Sony–came on stage. It didn’t cut the wind from Sega’s sails; he set his entire ship on fire and watched it sink hard and fast, presumably from Venice Beach.
His announcement was simple, and only three words: “Two ninety-nine.”
He does not have‘don’t let go of the mic–I’m not sure that was a thing back then–but luckily he didn’t‘no need. Damage caused. Race won the battle; Sony would soon win the larger war.
The PlayStation, which dropped in North America on September 9, 1995, was $100 cheaper than the Saturn. Sure, there was a wait, but Sony was releasing the console next door ridge runner, NBA Jam: Tournament Edition, Rayman and Toshinden Battle Arena; Jumping Flash, Annihilate, Mortal Kombat 3, and twisted metal soon followed. tekken would make waves, but not as much as the immortal tekken 2which had already been secured as a console exclusive.
The rest is history. Despite a really brilliant final grid, the Saturn–a console dear to my heart–only sold three million units in the United States, while the PlayStation sold 40 million. Even the Nintendo 64, which arrived a year later, moved 20 million units.
Happy 25th anniversary, Sega Saturn. You and your team had the best intentions, you were a truly unique and brilliant console, but you got the worst start in life.