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SEGA SATURN with NetLink

TECH SPECS:

Game Format: The Sega Saturn only uses CD-ROM.
Main Processor: Two Hitachi SH-2 32-bit RISC CPUs @ 28MHz, each delivering 25 MIPS.
Co-Processors: The Sega Saturn sports a DSP match coprocessor at 28 Mhz. This speeds up plygon-rendring significantly.
Sound Processor: 16bit 68EC000 processor @ 11.3MHz. Yamaha FH1 processor FM,PCM, 44.1KHz sampling frequency, 32 voices. DSP 128 steps/44KHz
Maximum Colors: 16.7 Millions of colors. 24-bit palette, 32,000 onscreen
Maximum Resolution: Three levels: 352x224 ; 640x224 ; 704x480
Graphics: 2 32-bit VDP chips. VDP1 chip handles rotation and scaling of multiple sprites. Incorporates dual frame buffer and maps sprites to geometry to form polygons. VDP2 chip handles five simultaneous backgrounds and two planes of rotation. Possible to have three backgrounds plus one rotating background simultaneously.
Maximum Sprite Size/Second: 90k per second with a maximum size of 256x256 pixels.
Polygons/Second: 500,000 flat-shaded polygons/second. 200,000 texture-mapped, shaded polygons/second. 60 frames of animation/second
Memory: VRAM: 12Mbits. Main RAM: 16Mbits. Sound RAM: 512K. Buffer RAM: 512K. Boot ROM: 512K. Battery RAM: 32K. RAM Cartridges for Data Savig: 512K.



SEGA SATURN: The Coder's Machine

Inside SEGA SATURN

Inside SATURN

1. Digital-to-analogue convertor.
2. RGB encoder.
3. Cartridge slot 4.12Mbit DRAM for VRAM and frame buffer.
4. 12Mbit DRAM for VRAM and frame buffer.
5. Processor controller.
6. VDP1 32bit display processor, sprite processor and texture engine with dual 256K frame buffers.
7. VDP2 32bit display processor with scrolling and rotation fields.
8. 100 pin CD drive board interface.
9. 12Mbit DRAM for VRAM and frame buffer.
10. 512K sound DRAM for the 68EC000.
11. Saturn Custom Sound Processor (SCSP), containing Yamaha FH1 DSP.
12. MPEG interface.
13. Crystal oscillator.
14. Integrated circuit lock controller.
15. 22.6MHz MC68E00 sound processor.
16. 32K SRAM for battery back-up
17. SH1 processor for managing CD ROM drive and 320K/sec data flow.
18. 4-bit system manager and peripheral controller.
19. 512K Initial Program Loading ROM: for power-up sequence.
20. Connector for joypad/mouse, etc
1. Double-speed JVC CD-ROM drive with 320K per second data transfer rate.
2. 16-Mbit DRAM forSH2s.
3. Twin Hitachi SH2s running at 28MHz, 25 MIPs each.
4. System control unit running at 14MHz.
5. Connector for CD interface.

Sega is perceived by many as the biggest casualty of the next-generation hardware war, struggling to hold its market share in the face of phenomenal Sony success and the technical superiority of Nintendo 64. So how did a company as successful as Sega manage to lose so much of its clout in so short a space of time, and is there any chance that Saturn can claw its way back from the poor third position that it now finds itself?

Worldwide, the picture for Saturn is reasonably encouraging with the hardware dominating the Japanese market in early 1996 but capturing a disappointing 15% of the U.S. console market. The arrival of Nintendo 64 is unlikely to help Sega, and it won't be long before Saturn begins to look a little long in the tooth. Next Generation spoke to Saturn stalwarts Robert Suh and Michael Persson of Shiny Entertainment, who both previously worked at Scavenger, one of the few third-party developers to really get to grips with the system, and asked, does Saturn have anything new to offer? "I believe Saturn still has a great deal of hidden potential, thanks largely to the complex nature of the hardware design," claims Suh. "You can 'bang on the hardware,' which enables developers to find hidden features of the machine not intended by the hardware designers. With Saturn, the more we bang, the more we find — it's a situation not dissimilar to the way the 16-bit consoles were coded, and as we all witnessed with the later Super NES and Genesis titles, there's always more you can do to push the machine."

Much of Saturn's chances of survival will rely on keen developers finding new ways to exploit the hardware, which does have a number of advantages over PlayStation. Its "Mode 7" facility is particularly useful, as it enables scaled floor-style effects without burdening the CPU with geometry calculations, unlike PlayStation, which has to construct a floor using polygons, which in turn eats into frame rate. Saturn's VDP2 chip can handle five playfields at a time and is largely responsible for the impressive visuals of Virtue Fighter 2, which runs in hi-res mode with the chip scaling and rotating the foreground and background fields without the need to address the CPU with any complex geometry. Its partner, VDP I, packs impressive sprite power, too.

In theory, this is where much of Saturn's success could be built over the coming year, as more and more programmers get to grips with the complex, but ultimately powerful, board. "The thing you have to remember about Saturn is that the design lends itself to low-level coding," says Perrsen. "The documentation that comes with the dev kit is directed at giving the programmers assembly-level access to the chips. VF2 and Fighting Vipers showed just how much can be done on Saturn when you do it right. Somebody still needs to utilize the awesome combined capabilities of VDP I and VDP2 to make a 'real' game — not just a beat 'em up. Nights was a pretty good attempt, but it didn't quite capture the imagination of the mass market."

Nights perhaps best epitomizes the real strength of the machine — the game is fast, smooth, and highly original, but too left-field to really catch on. Consumers would no doubt have preferred yet another Sonic title, but Sega's Sonic Team, headed up byYuji Naka, would rather see something different, a move away from the 32-bit staple diet of fighting games and racing titles. For those who persevere with Nights, there's much to be gained, including bonus levels, new worlds and objects, imaginative music, and the until-recently-deemed-extinct desire to better a previous score. PlayStation has become a truly ubiquitous mass-market system, and has beaten the Sega machine hands-down in terms of sales and popularity, but Saturn may yet benefit from a certain amount of anti-establishment appeal, emerging as a real garner's machine. This certainly seems to be the case in Japan, where for almost a year Saturn sales were equal to and, at key points, actually surpassed those of the Sony console.

The Saturn chipset has another strength: it's much faster than PlayStation's. The twin Hitachi processors at the heart of the board should, in theory, provide as much as 50% more raw processing power than PlayStation's single 33Mhz processor. The problem is that it's incredibly difficult to write code that uses both chips in perfect harmony. Sega's own AM2 division has managed it, but other coders seem to find it almost too much work for too little gain — especially when any prospective third party can virtually guarantee sales by developing for the more popular PlayStation format.

As a fan of Saturn, Suh, and many other programmers like him, find all this frustrating. The repeated cry from many developers is, "Why didn't we know about this earlier?" The answer seems to be that Sega itself has been somewhat remiss in providing updates and libraries that give third parties access to the advanced techniques employed by its own internal AM divisions. Until now, that is. Recently, things have improved. Core Design's Jason Gosling is currently coding Saturn version of Tomb Raider 2 and believes that unlocking the system's many secrets is the key to a brighter future for the machine. "Saturn has improved greatly with the introduction of the Sega Graphic Libraries (SGL)," he argues. "Development time has speeded up considerably, but it till has a long way to go to match PlayStation. The easier it gets to program Saturn, the more inclined developers will be to continue with the machine. SGL is good news, but it must evolve even further, improving greatly with each release. Sega has to listen to developers who are working so hard on Saturn and help them to quickly implement their ideas."

SEGA SATURN

But will it be too late? with Nintendo 64 making such great strides, especially in the U.S. where it has already equaled PlayStation's installed base of 2 million, Saturn may need more than just better libraries and the Midas-like touch of AM2 to see it through. Suh sees success written in 100% assembly. It is, he argues, too late to use libraries that have taken so long to arrive that many programmers have simply had to evolve around them.

"Forget about the Sega libraries," Suh scoffs. "They're getting better, but still tend to get in the way now. The only thing that will ensure you success on Saturn is creating a core engine that's written entirely in low-level code. It will free up the CPU and enable more animation, cleaner textures, and special lighting effects of the kind that most would associate with PlayStation. Sony really holds your hand throughout the development process, and it has a lot of libraries available, but you're fooling yourself if you think that you're going to develop peak-performance, cutting-edge games that way."

As well as either improving libraries, or simply providing coders with more low-level help, there is another, more direct method of keeping up with the competition: upgrade the machine. Sega is understandably cautious and, indeed, tight-lipped about the much-vaunted add-on cartridge that will allegedly bring the incredible Virtua Fighter 3 to Saturn. After all, the 32X, launched in 1995, was a disaster that cost the company dearly — not just financially, but in terms of reputation. All those loyal Genesis owners who rushed out to greet the 3D revolution suddenly found themselves high and dry, armed with a peripheral neither powerful enough to go the distance nor popular enough to boast any significant software commitments from Sega or its third-party developers. Understandably, many greeted the arrival of Saturn with suspicion. For those who bought the previous add-on, the doomed Sega CD, such suspicion was likely to be more akin to open hostility. If Sega is to venture down that path once again, it must do its homework more thoroughly first, and that means providing enough killer apps to make the cartridge upgrade an essential and sensible purchase. To do this, it will need to talk to developers, many of which are still in the dark, despite a proposed winter roll-out for Saturn VF3 package.

"It remains to be seen whether this kind of add-on can save the system," observes Gosling, with reservation. "We still don't know what this cartridge consists of. It could really help the machine if it addresses all or most of the problems that Saturn has development-wise — that is, more video and sound RAM, sound sample compression, a triangle draw add-on, texture pages rather than distorting sprites, transparencies and even z-buffering and interpolation. The problem is, it could all be too little, too late."

/ NEXT GENERATION #30, June 1997 /


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