Twenty years ago, Sega rushed out the Saturn, dooming its console business

Posted: May 16, 2015 in Game Articles

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by Owen S. Good

This week marked the 20th anniversary of Sega’s startling E3 1995 announcement that the Sega Saturn was already on shelves in North America, ahead of its planned September launch. The rush job sealed the device’s doom, and triggered Sega’s decline from console titan to near-afterthought.

Sega Nerds talked to Tom Kalinske, the outspoken former president of Sega of America, on the anniversary of the announcement itself, and found Kalinske still adamant that hustling out the console was a terrible decision. Kalinske already is on record saying Sega of Japan’s rejection of a partnership with Sony to make its next console was “the stupidest decision ever made in the history of business.” So Sega’s Japan leadership, followed the enormous success of the Genesis/Mega Drive with two colossal blunders.

The Saturn had launched in Japan in November 1994, and the following March, the company announced it would launch in the United States in September. But in this rewind by The Guardian, one sees a Sega leadership first fixated on competing with the Atari Jaguar — an even bigger flop — and then panicked by the oncoming PlayStation. Determined to get something to shelves before Sony, Kalinske was sent to the stage in L.A. to declare that the Saturn was already on shelves, at a price of $399.

Minutes later — literally — at Sony’s own presentation, the nascent console maker shot back with Steve Race’s famous “two-ninety-nine” mic drop, announcing the PlayStation’s retail price. Sega was thoroughly pantsed, now committed to an expensive console rooted in the sprite-based, kids-on-couches days of gaming, up against a PlayStation that, for $100 less, delivered revolutionary three-dimensional visuals.

Moreover, as Kalinske lamented to Sega Nerds, rushing out the Saturn left it with a barren games lineup and next to no marketing plan, which hurt the console’s launch no matter its price. Sony, meanwhile, came to market with a robust catalog, shrewdly pursued older and higher-income demographics and rode that to success.

“Had we waited until we had more and better games, launching with all retailers instead of with a few,” Kalinske told Sega Nerds, “with marketing that could reach every player, we would have been much more successful, even if that meant waiting for a late October or November launch.”

Both reads are worth your time this weekend. Sega followed the Saturn with its much-loved and lamented Dreamcast, beating the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube to the market; but the damage had been done, and it was discontinued in 2001, ending Sega’s run as a console maker.

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