Old Made New: The Best of the Sega Saturn Imports

As expensive and confusing as it might have been, the Sega Saturn importing scene was awesome.

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Back in its heyday, the Sega Saturn had a reasonable amount of popularity in the U.S., although not enough to overcome the powerful Sony PlayStation. That said, the system actually had a bigger following in Japan, and, as a result, saw more releases than we got here in the States.

This led to an interesting import boom for the console, with people paying nearly a hundred dollars a pop to bring the games to their system. Of course, that also meant modding it in some way, either by installing a switch that could allow for playing of both U.S. and Japanese games, or a cartridge that plugged into the top slot, overriding the region coding for the system to allow the games to be played.

It was an interesting process, but a hardcore few certainly were up for it, and as a result, got a hold of many great import games. Nowadays, importing isn't as "hardcore," since most systems support region coding and don't allow for workarounds. Still, for this week's Old Made New, we couldn't help but look at the Sega Saturn importing scene, and the titles that made the biggest waves with it.

Radiant Silvergun

Treasure was one of the bigger developers to emerge from the 90's, breaking away from Konami and forming a studio that would create such cult classics as Gunstar Heroes and Guardian Heroes. On the Saturn, it maintained an even greater legacy with the release of the "shmup" Radiant Silvergun. This challenging shooter puts a variety of power-ups at your fingertips and, with enough energy generated, also lets you destroy ships with a large virtual sword attack.

The game has become a cult legend for many years, drawing as much as $250 on eBay in some cases. Microsoft, not one to turn down an opportunity to appeal to an overseas market, worked with Treasure to bring the game to Xbox Live Arcade. While that version was better received, namely due to its way cheaper price tag, many still consider the Saturn version a holy grail of sorts. After all, that's where its legacy began.

Capcom, getting it done

Capcom fully supported the Saturn with a number of great fighting games, including Street Fighter Collection, Street Fighter Alpha 2 and Night Warriors: Darkstalkers Revenge, which many consider to be the best fighting game for the console. However, overseas, the company took its support a step further with a number of new releases.

The five-game Capcom Generations collection, for example, brought the 19XX trilogy to the system, along with the Ghouls 'n Ghosts games, variations of Street Fighter II, and other odd games. It also released the Dungeons and Dragons Collection, at a time when there was no other way to play Capcom's classic brawlers in a home console. (Thankfully, they've since found a digital release in Chronicles of Mystara for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.)

Perhaps the biggest shock was how much better the company's Versus fighting games performed on the system, thanks to the addition of a supplementary 4 MB card that plugged into the top cartridge slot. Unlike the shoddy PlayStation versions of the games, X-Men vs. Street Fighter and Marvel Superheroes vs. Street Fighter ran impressively on the system, including the player swap-out feature and two-player support. Devoted fans considered these versions, and for good reason. Unfortunately, Capcom couldn't find a sufficient enough workaround to make the 4 MB cartridge work in our market, so a U.S. release just didn't happen.

An ultimate Castlevania: Symphony of the Night?

One of the PlayStation's best received games, Konami's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, eventually made its way to the Sega Saturn overseas, but with some improvements that made it more like a director's cut. These included two new levels, as well as some visual tweaks to make the game a little smoother than its PlayStation counterpart.

Unfortunately, Konami had very little faith in the Saturn at the time when it came to the U.S. market, so it opted not to bring the game to the U.S. or Canada. That led to a few dedicated fans to import the game, even without translation, to see what all it had to offer. Sadly, the company hasn't considered releasing this "director's cut" since, although the original game is available on both Xbox Live and PlayStation Network for a rather cheap price.

Other odds and ends

Aside from major publishers providing games for the Saturn in Japan, others also played a part in expanding the library overseas as well. Taito released Elevator Action Returns, a much more serious take on the classic shooting and elevator-hopping action game from the 80's; Sega produced a Phantasy Star Collection that faithfully lived up to the lexicon of the series, but proved too complex to translate to bring to the U.S. market (something Working Designs probably would've jumped on, considering its work on the system's final release, Magic Knight Rayearth); sequels like Gun Griffon II and Dragon Force II gave Japanese fans something to look forward to, even if Sega of America had moved on; and the import market saw a number of role-playing releases, including a Samurai Shodown themed RPG, as well as Grandia (with a Prelude thrown in) and Devil Summoner. Granted, these were only imported by the nutcases who had no problem translating Japanese for hours on end.

So what happened?

In the end, the PlayStation proved too tough for Sega to bear, and the Saturn eventually faded from market, despite a last-effort push with games like House of the Dead and the much-heralded Panzer Dragoon Saga. However, it wasn't a sad ending, as Sega came back hard in 1999 with the release of the Dreamcast, its most impressive console to date. That system received far better support, even without certain publishers on board (like Electronic Arts), and would craft its own legacy as well.

Alas, that's another Old Made New for another day…

From The Chatty
  • reply
    July 4, 2014 12:00 PM

    Robert Workman posted a new article, Old Made New: The Best of the Sega Saturn Imports.

    As expensive and confusing as it might have been, the Sega Saturn importing scene was awesome.

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      July 4, 2014 12:04 PM

      Thanks, brings back memories. Always wanted to try that SotN import on the Saturn.

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      July 4, 2014 12:04 PM

      Who modded their Sega Saturns back then? You could buy the 4MB cart that allowed you play imports for $50.

      The Saturn was definitely the fighting games system when we weren't playing Tekken. The SNK ports of Samurai Shodown were superior in every way to to the original NeoGeo.

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        July 4, 2014 12:33 PM

        I currently have one of those carts in my Saturn, mainly to play import shooters.

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        July 4, 2014 12:33 PM

        I did I had the pimp Genesis cart import un locker and the extra memory genesis cart that unlocked the arcade perfect modes to KO, MS, and Marvel Super Heroes etc it was Epic. Saturn was the best 2D platform by far especially if you where in the arcade scene so many good games. It was pretty hard to do the cart swap twice.

        I used to import all the games from JPN and also sold them at school like drugs to those that where into it like me but had no credit card or internet to get the JPN imports.

        Damn those where the days, it was so cool to have games before anyone knew about them or could play them over here in NA.

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          July 4, 2014 12:38 PM

          Don't forget Darkstalkers 1, 2, 3 with the extra mem card it was amazing arcade perfect for sure.

          With Marvell Super Heroes magnetos shadow hands idle animation unlocked was INSANE, I loved those days.

          Like some said in this thread best 2D fighter platform for sure.

          Plus I am sure all that had the Saturn remember the first day they played Panzer Dragon blew my mind, heck I got emotional when I first put in my first Saturn game since it was a CD game, I had missed Sega CD it was my first Sega CD console it was a big deal.

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          July 4, 2014 6:08 PM

          It wasn't a Genesis cart, both the slot and the carts were different.

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            July 4, 2014 6:40 PM

            Of course it wasn't an actual Genesis cart, but it looked pretty damn close that is what I always called it since it reminded me of the awesome genesis carts I loved those tiny carts.

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              July 4, 2014 6:44 PM

              It looked very different, pins and even the case were different. I remember though, when I first saw photos of the Saturn, I thought the purpose of the cart slot was for Genesis compatibility. It seemed like a no-brainer at the time. In hindsight it would have taken a lot of engineering to get pin-compatible functionality and probably would have gimped the Saturn for the diversion, but literally every gamer I knew at the time had a huge gaggle of Genesis games. I was actually taken aback when I learned of its actual and more limited purpose.

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        July 4, 2014 1:11 PM

        Some people actually went out of their way to have a switch built-in.

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          July 4, 2014 6:42 PM

          I did, but it was painless. There's a company (still in business) called NCSX. They modded my Saturn with a switch, and did a fantastic job. I still try and buy a few things from them because their customer support was so awesome.

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        July 4, 2014 1:41 PM

        I picked up a Saturn on clearance at Wal-Mart back in '98 for forty bucks, and a friend was going to mod it for me but never got around to it. On the bright side, a month later I found Panzer Dragoon Saga and Burning Rangers at Toys R Us, so at least there's that.

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        July 4, 2014 5:55 PM

        The cart that had 4MB came out way later in the system's lifetime and was for a few fighting games. It was way more expensive than $50. Before it, there was a 1MB RAM cart for a few other games abs it wasn't cheap either.

        There were carts that let you defeat the region protection, and there were the Game Shark and Pro Action Replay carts. The region carts were not a big deal but many/most import retailers gouged the price. The cheat carts cost more because they let you use cheat codes in addition to defeating region protection. It was only a certain cheat cart released after all the others that let you cheat codes, defeat regions, and add RAM all in one cart.

        In other words, none of the retail solutions for import Saturn games were exactly inexpensive, unless you got very lucky. Meanwhile, a few dollars of electronics equipment and some know-how got you a switch mod. Which, yes, those who could tended to charge an arm and a leg for. It was one of the reasons I taught myself how to solder.

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          July 4, 2014 8:00 PM

          Cool. I guess you found some FAQ's on the web? I didn't have internet back in those days so I would never think about doing something like that.

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            July 4, 2014 8:06 PM

            I subscribed to an email list run out of Yale back in the early 90's dealing with the TurboGrafx-16. When the Saturn came along the admin of that list started another list for the Saturn. They were both populated and very busy with posts from folks a lot smarter than I, with better internet connections than mine to boot, but they were all generally very friendly and bought, sold, graded amongst ourselves and helped or with repairs, region defeats, even programming homebrew where possible. Just reading the list every day I soaked up a lot of knowledge and help to get what I needed going.

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              July 4, 2014 8:32 PM

              That had to be fascinating. The TGFX was another console that was awkward, straddling the 8 and 16-bit generations. Damn, I wish I could have read those posts.

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                July 4, 2014 9:28 PM

                Damn, I wish I could have read those posts.

                You still can! The list is still up and running, and even though emails lists are decades out of vogue, it's still somewhat active.

                http://turbo.mindrec.com/

                Archive is available there as well as the subscribe information. No idea about the status of the Saturn list, I've not been subscribed in years now. It may still be running, but I don't know if the Saturn had the kind if retro appeal lately to keep folks coming back.

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        July 4, 2014 6:47 PM

        Yeah, maybe. I dunno. You could get an import Neo Geo CD and all of it's games for peanuts, if you were willing to buy used. I have about 20 Neo Geo CD games, and never spent more than 10 bucks on a single one. The only real difference I could tell was loading times, for whatever reason the Saturn seemed to load the fastest. But you could also mod a Neo Geo CD with your own CD drive for faster loading times if you're super hardcore (I never did, fuck that).

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        July 4, 2014 7:30 PM

        I modded my Saturn. My dad ended up wiring the thing and putting a nice switch on the plastic plate at the back. I ended up buying a few games, my favorite being Fire Pro Wrestling S 6 Man Scramble.

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        July 4, 2014 10:33 PM

        Having played Samurai Shodown 4 on both the Saturn (imported) and a NeoGeo I disagree with you.

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          July 4, 2014 10:37 PM

          I *will* say that Samurai Shodown 4 for the Saturn was the best port in that entire series to a mainstream console in that era (the PS2 Anthology did a decent job as I remember being pretty much arcade perfect).

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      July 4, 2014 12:05 PM

      This write-up is great. Please keep posting more items like this.

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        July 4, 2014 1:11 PM

        Compliance!

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          July 4, 2014 1:37 PM

          Hey, Blimpo! Too many Twinkies!

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        July 4, 2014 6:26 PM

        Yeah definitely, one of these done with the Dreamcast would be amazeballs.

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          July 4, 2014 10:35 PM

          God, I freaking loved the Dreamcast! I'm am still bitter to this day how it played out with that console. It deserved so much more!

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        July 4, 2014 8:02 PM

        Seriously, I had no idea Saturn modding was even a thing.

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      July 4, 2014 2:12 PM

      The only reason I have my saturn plugged in is to play Xmen vs street fighter and
      marvel super heroes vs street fighter.

      I wanted to get quake for it, but I heard it wasn't that great.

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      July 4, 2014 6:22 PM

      Castlevania:SOTN is most definitely NOT smoother on Saturn. It lacks the transparency effects of the PSX version and has totally screwed up loading screens. You know how the PSX version loads while you're traversing those CD corridors? For some reason, the Saturn version only loads after you've walked through the screen, meaning you get to wait while it loads the next screen - completely eliminating the whole point of those transitions in the first place! The two extra areas and Maria mode don't make up for the fundamental shortcomings of the base game, IMO.

      I'd also add Soukyugurentai, Outrun, Magical Drop III, and Steamgear Mash to the list of best imports.

      Soukyugurentai is often compared to Radiant Silvergun: they are both vertizontal (horizontally-oriented but vertically-scrolling) shmups that make use of limited 3D graphics and a lot of scaling effects and feature a Hitoshi Sakimoto soundtrack. But then things start to diverge. Radiant Silvergun is epic in its length, number and complexity of bosses, and stage variety. Soukyugurentai is much more focused, with shorter, fewer, and denser stages that culminate in bosses are simpler in design but much more intent on just murdering you than presenting pretty patterns. Even the soundtrack emphasises the differences: Sakimoto may have composed both, but while Radiant Silvergun makes extensive use of strings and brass, Soukyugurentai makes extensive use of timpani and other percussion as well as a lot of more electronic-sounding instruments.

      If you're using a North American Saturn, be sure to get the Otokuyo version (with the white label around the cover art). Soukyugurentai's arcade version was localized in English as Terra Diver, and there's just enough of that version left in the original release of the Saturn port to screw things up when the game detects the system's region.

      Outrun and Magical Drop III are both arcade games that should need no introduction, but here's why you should get them on Saturn: 60 FPS.

      The arcade version of Outrun runs at pseudo-30 FPS: the road updates one frame, the sprites update the next, and so on. In the Saturn version, everything updates every frame and so it feels much smoother. It also supports every controller under the sun, so if you've ever dreamed of playing Outrun with a flight stick, this is your chance! I recommend the Japanese version of the game because the version included in Working Designs' localized Sega Ages version is missing the surprisingly good arranged soundtrack.

      Magical Drop III requires far less explanation: the Neo-Geo version is 30 FPS and the Saturn version is 60 FPS. Enough said.

      Steamgear Mash is a neat little isometric mech action game that's easy to play with no Japanese knowledge. Nothing mindblowing, but it's super cheap and a lot of fun.

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        July 4, 2014 6:32 PM

        If you're using a North American Saturn, be sure to get the Otokuyo version (with the white label around the cover art). Soukyugurentai's arcade version was localized in English as Terra Diver, and there's just enough of that version left in the original release of the Saturn port to screw things up when the game detects the system's region.

        That particular screw-up only occurs if you view the entire opening, press start as soon as the game loads and it is a non-issue. It's also a non-issue if you use a region switch, only the cart defeats will exhibit this problem, which is still preventable.

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        July 4, 2014 6:45 PM

        Yeah, I had a Saturn back in the day and I remember always being jealous of the Playstation's ability to do transparencies well. The Saturn didn't seem to be very good at that so developers always had to use that 'screen door' effect which never looked quite as good. Besides that though, the Saturn was a kick ass 2d machine. I definitely have some fun with that console.

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          July 4, 2014 7:12 PM

          Did you ever play Thunder Force V on the Saturn? True transparencies. I repeat, true transparencies.

          There were actually others, Galactic Attack is the only one I can think of right now though. The problem is unique to the Saturn. It can do perfect transparencies, but only one of the video processors can perform this operation, and it can only do it when in a certain mode. Most programmers were busy putting that processor through a different operation, in a different video mode, making true transparency impossible.

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            July 4, 2014 7:15 PM

            I know it was possible, it just must have taken a lot of power because they didn't seem to use it very often.

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              July 4, 2014 7:17 PM

              Power was trivial, planning was essential. It could only be finte by one VPU and only in one video mode. If you wanted to use a feature exclusive of another video mode with that VPU transparency became impossible.

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                July 4, 2014 7:18 PM

                finte? done

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                July 4, 2014 7:50 PM

                Interesting. You have quite the Saturn knowledge there. Impressive.

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                  July 4, 2014 7:56 PM

                  There are some interesting articles written around Treasure, and how they had to rework a bunch of stuff porting Radiant Silvergun to non-Saturn platforms. It really sheds some light on how awkward the Saturn really was as a platform. I'd shoot you a link, but those articles are so old I can't seem to find them online anymore.

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                    July 4, 2014 8:03 PM

                    Yeah, it's a cool era that we'll sadly never see again. Everything is more or less PC-based now and will stay that way.

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                    July 4, 2014 8:04 PM

                    I do remember developers talking about it a bit back in the day. From what I remember, didn't they bolt on an extra processor right towards the end of development when they heard how powerful the PS1 was?

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          July 4, 2014 10:39 PM

          Screendoor effect is weird in that it actually looks better with a composite or RF connection as I remember because of signal bleed...it ends up almost looking transparent (which doesn't make up for all the downsides of composite and RF compared to either S-Video or RGB (through SCART or whatever)).

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            July 5, 2014 3:06 AM

            Yeah, it looks "almost transparent," but it isn't. It is an effect that a Sega Genesis could literally perform. They resorted to that in times when they could not put the VPU(1, I think) in the mode that was needed for transparency. Almost always because there was a simultaneous need to put that same VPU in a different mode for a different operation, i.e. they needed some texture function or animation that was only possible in the non-transparency modes.

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        July 4, 2014 11:02 PM

        I sold my Saturn and now regret it because I want to build a radiant silvergun setup with a panel I want to reuse. Currently it is set up for ikaruga game cube version but it is broken.

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      July 4, 2014 6:32 PM

      This is a great write-up. I feel fortunate enough to have lived in Japan for all of '96, one of the Saturn's best years. It had a great library of games, but at that time I was mostly into fighters. Fighters Megamix was the blueprint for crossover fighters like Super Smash Bros, and Last Bronx was a flawed but fun fighter, with more personality than any Dead or Alive game.

      I don't subscribe to brand loyalty, but I've always had a soft spot for SEGA. They've always been so incredibly innovative and risky, it sucked seeing them fail so hard. I'd head to the store to buy games like NiGHTS, or Virtual On!, and there'd only be a few people in line. And then you'd see a PS1 game released, like Tekken 2, and I'd literally have to wait in a line that was 4 staircases long just to get my copy.

      The only time I saw a massive line for a SEGA game was when VF3 was released in arcades. I woke up early to head to Ochanomizu arcade, stood in line for hours just to play it. SEGA just couldn't figure out the formula that would bring that same type of fever from their arcade games, into their home consoles.

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      July 4, 2014 7:38 PM

      The Dreamcast and Saturn would have last longer if they had backwards compatibility.

      Some of the best games of their generation for sure.

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      July 4, 2014 10:18 PM

      [deleted]

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      July 4, 2014 10:32 PM

      whoa written words about games what's going on

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      July 4, 2014 10:36 PM

      accidental wtf sorry!

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      July 4, 2014 11:33 PM

      I still regret getting rid of my Saturn...I only had a few games at the time but damn I regret that. I may get another one down the road...I rectified one of my other regrets (getting rid of my PS1 Namco arcade stick) by getting another one new in box a few years ago for a little under 200 bucks.

      Here's an oooold pic of the new one from a few years ago:

      http://i.imgur.com/1FHJg.jpg

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      July 5, 2014 4:15 AM

      I loved Panzer Dragoon Saga so much. Such a great tactical combat system with the positioning. The dungeon near the end was a bit of a chore so worth using a guide for that, but otherwise a lovely game. The end music still gives me tingles.

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      July 5, 2014 5:11 AM

      Yikes, have you even played the Saturn version of SoTN?

      There was a REALLY good reason why it never imported. It was VASTLY inferior to the PSX version.

      Longer load times, the Saturn's inability to render transparency made some areas almost unplayable (namely the cave and its waterfall), and the Maria mode was basically boring since she was way over powered.

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        July 5, 2014 10:47 AM

        Again, the Saturn can perform transparency. It can only be done in hardware with ONE of the Saturn's multiple processors, and then, only when ONE video mode is in use. Typically the programmers would set that one VPU in another mode, for any number of reasons. It could have been done a great deal better than it was on that system. But then it likely would have meant making it from the start on that system. I could deal with the long load times. I could even deal with the wireframe fakeparencies. What I couldn't deal with was the slowdown, there was lots of it in that version and it seemed rather baffling in a 2D game.

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      July 7, 2014 12:47 AM

      Just modded my Saturn this weekend, always was scared to do it, but it wasn't that difficult in the end.

      I'm really excited to finally get to try the lost great games like Panzer Dragoon Saga, Shining Force III, Burning Rangers etc.

      I even heard there are english fan translation versions of the Shining Force III scenario add on disks that were only released in Japan.

      So yes nice article, thanks for that Robert!

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