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VIDEO GAMES REVIEW / AARON CURTISS : Higher Playing Orbit : Releases for Sega's 32-bit Saturn system are loaded with bright graphics and cool sound.

June 09, 1995|AARON CURTISS

To quote the good folks at Sega, "It's out there."

Sega's next-generation gaming rig, Saturn, hit the shelves in May, the first shot in the corporate war for the hearts, minds and money of American game players. The Cadillac of the Sega fleet, Saturn is a 32-bit, disc-based system that pitchmen claim transcends plain old video games and reaches a higher plateau, something they call an "immersive experience."

I'm not exactly sure what that means.

But if "immersive experience" means hot graphics, cool sound and some pretty neat initial games, then, OK, I'll let them describe Saturn's performance with whatever New Age hooey they want. After all, it's their machine.

The question on everybody's mind, though, is whether enough people will shell out $400 to make Saturn their own. That's a lot of dough for a base unit and a Virtua Fighter game, regardless of how sweet the machine is.

Whether it's too much is ultimately up to buyers who spend money on the darndest things--regardless of what anybody says. For my part, I can describe what works and what doesn't about the machine, give a brief rundown on some of the initial games and ruminate a little.

For the technically inclined, Sega's innards contain eight processors working together to deliver blazing response times and absolutely amazing graphics and sound. The two video processors can handle up to 60 frames of animation per second, 200,000 texture-mapped polygons per second and 16.8 million colors. The CD-ROM drive is double-speed with a transfer rate of 320 kilobytes per second, twice the sluggish pace of the old Sega CD.

All of this hardware makes for games, such as Panzer Dragoon, that are full of beautiful graphics and sound. It also allows for fast-paced action as in Daytona USA, not to mention fluid perspective changes a la Virtua Fighter and Worldwide Soccer.

Some of the games, though, baffle me. Clockwork Knight, although a fun enough side-scrolling game, seems to me an odd choice to include in the first round of releases. The same goes for Pebble Beach Golf Links. Is there really that big a demand for golf video games? Sega, for the record, says there is.

Despite that, all of the games in the initial launch are solid. I suppose games such as golf and the kid-oriented Clockwork Knight are intended to broaden the appeal of Saturn rather than truly push its power to the limits. Others, such as Daytona USA and Panzer Dragoon, are, as I mentioned, absolutely stellar and put the resources of Saturn to good use.

The unit itself is black, simple and not much bigger than a thick book. The only buttons on Saturn itself are the power switch, reset button and the eject button to pop open the CD-ROM reader. A slot to plug in an optional RAM cartridge sits behind the CD-ROM.

Controller plug-ins are on the front of the unit, similar to the configuration on Sega's Genesis. The controller borrows from the rounded styling of Genesis but includes six primary buttons to the right of the directional pad as well as two additional buttons on the front edge.

All of the buttons, with the exception of the two on the front edge, make sense and feel natural in the hand. The two on the front might, too, but they require an awkward downward motion that is particularly tough to get the hang of. In games like Panzer Dragoon, where these buttons are critical, their difficulty gets in the way of play.

Another thing that bothered me was the fact that Saturn is packed only with cables to connect the unit to a stereo-ready television. This makes sense, considering the Saturn's audio capabilities, but it nonetheless irked me when I had to fork over another $25 for a cable to hook into my ordinary set.

The bottom line: Saturn is a solid game machine. If for no other reason than Sega's sheer size, buyers can rest assured that there will be a fairly large library of games over the coming months so they won't end up in the lurch.

As good as it is, the biggest strike against Saturn is the price. I wonder how many people are so tired of their 16-bit machines that they are ready to drop $400--not to mention anywhere from $50 to $75 per game.

By pricing the unit so high, Sega has matched the 32-bit 3DO system in cost. And 3DO has a huge library of pretty good games already on the market.

It's a tough call. But don't expect it to get any easier. Sony releases PlayStation in September and Nintendo has promised its Ultra 64 sometime next year. So many choices, so little cash.

Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games on the second and third Friday of every month in Valley Life! If you would like to comment on a column or suggest games for review, send letters to The Times, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, Calif. 91311. Or send him an e-mail message at curtiss@news.latimes.com.

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