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The Saturn and Dreamcast were two machines that enjoyed as many similarities as they did stark differences. One system marked the end of the ‘90s gaming era and the other ushered in the much-heralded 6th-generation of consoles that defined the new millennium.
And while both were manufactured by Sega, both were also responsible for hastening that company’s demise. But despite being regarded as failures at the time, their reputations have only improved in the intervening years. A 2014 Reddit thread on the subject of the Dreamcast was a veritable love-in, and some of Sega Saturn games, like “Panzer Dragoon Saga,” are so in-demand that they fetch hundreds of dollars on the retro game market.
This all begs the question, which is the better machine? Like anything, much of it depends on personal preference. But here’s how the two systems stack up according to certain criteria important to gamers young and old.
Both consoles score highly among fans when ranked solely by their respective games library. Each had their own strengths: the Saturn ported some iconic and fun arcade titles like “Virtua Fighter 2” and “Street Fighter,” while the Dreamcast had franchise hits like “Sonic Adventure” and “Resident Evil,” as well as wildly popular exclusive titles like “Crazy Taxi.” That said, the Saturn’s library of games has earned an almost mythic status in the retro market due to its abundance of RPGs like “Shining Force,” “Grandia” and, of course, “Panzer Dragoon Saga.” So while many Saturn titles have become nostalgic favorites among hardcore gamers, the Dreamcast games continue to offer playable fun to this day. However, the total number of games for the Sega Dreamcast stands at just over 600 compared to over 1100 for the Saturn. So when taking into account the sheer amount of titles, the Saturn beats the Dreamcast.
The hardware and graphics
No surprise here that the Dreamcast offered more powerful overall specs than its predecessor. While the two systems claimed both 3D and 2D titles, Dreamcast’s 128-bit processor left the Saturn’s 32-bit capabilities in the dust. Add to that the fact the Dreamcast was designed with 3D gaming in mind, and you had a console that delivered very well on this front. Still, anyone who has played a few of the Saturn’s 2D gaming titles, like “Street Fighter Alpha” and “X:Men,” can make a strong argument that this machine’s 2D library was superior. What tips the balance one way or the other is the fact that the Dreamcast utilized Hitachi’s SH4 processor, a PC-powerful chip that hummed along at 200 MHz. The Saturn’s dual VDP chips, on the other hand, simply couldn’t compete.
Right from the get-go the Sega Saturn was praised for its Yamaha YMF292 dedicated sound card. This custom processor featured a 32-slot sound generator and a 128-step digital signal processor that allowed it, among other things, to create sound mixes and generate digital sound effects. The Dreamcast, by virtue of the fact it was the first of the sixth-gen consoles, had solid sound too, but it didn’t stand out the way the Saturn’s did. The winner here is obvious.
The controllers for both the Dreamcast and the Saturn play to those consoles’ strengths. Those who reveled in mashing circular buttons in the arcade found much to love in the Saturn’s understated 6-button controller. It was perfect for 2D gaming. Dreamcast fans, on the other hand, had a modern controller that played to the system’s 3D prowess by offering an analog stick as well as the standard buttons. The addition of memory card slots allowed Dreamcast gamers to save their progress more efficiently than the Saturn’s internal memory did, and they could enjoy varied types of games in the process. For this reason the Dreamcast has to come out ahead.
The console sales
High sales don’t always translate to quality. However, there are some passionate forum debates out there weighing the merits of these two systems based on their respective sales figures. Online numbers tend to vary, but official estimates tend to place lifetime sales of the Saturn in the 9.26 million range, while the Dreamcast sold around 9.13 million. But there are ancillary factors to consider as well, such as the fact that the Saturn had a slightly longer shelf life (released in North America in 1995 and discontinued in 1998) than the Dreamcast did (released in 1999 in North America and discontinued in 2001.) Those who judge these consoles solely based on sales can come to one of two conclusions: that the Dreamcast did better because it virtually tied the Saturn in sales in a slightly shorter timeframe; or the Saturn wins because it (barely) edged out the Dreamcast in overall sales. Since the opportunities to nit-pick here are almost endless, we absolve ourselves of any further headaches by simply calling it a push.
Even while trying to remain impartial, it’s hard to make a fully subjective choice between these two consoles. Much of the choice does come down to personal preference (for games, hardware, controller, etc.), so a truly official winner may never be crowned. This reality seems to have been borne out by the above list, which takes into account a number of criteria yet makes it clear the sleek and powerful Dreamcast matches up equally with the sturdy and game-rich Saturn.