Category Archives: Saturn

More Unbridled Praise for Lobotomy Software/Ezra Dreisbach

It’s worth re-mentioning the virtues of putting effort into good game design in connection with the Sega Saturn once more before it gets old.

In this interview (with, again, Ezra Dreisbach) about the Saturn port of Quake, the reader can find more evidence of Lobotomy Software’s attention to detail in their game design. For quick reference, compare the quality of the level design between the Saturn and the N64 in these two screenshots:

N64

quake n64

Saturn

quake saturn

Needless to say, the N64 might have featured better hardware, but Saturn owners were rewarded with a better game. Of particular note is Dreisbach’s repeated attention to dynamic lighting.

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Exhumed/Powerslave

titlecardAs previously alluded to in our article on the development of the Sega Saturn hardware, history is written by the victors. It’s because the Saturn ultimately failed–commercially–as a platform that games like Exhumed never got to deliver developers like Lobotomy Software the reward for their efforts that they deserved.

Exhumed (or Powerslave, as it was known in the US) is a corridor game that touts the virtues of the Saturn. With tight controls, well-executed concepts, and fantastic early fifith generation graphics, Exhumed is an example of a triumph of substance over form, a true case of game design done right. At the risk of sounding formulaic, it’s important to stress that while it is a fantastic game, it isn’t without its flaws.

I’m going to buck the trend and say that the best thing about Exhumed is its non-linearity. That’s not to say that non-linearity is a virtue in itself (cf. this Kotaku article); in this particular game, it, as a method of delivering game-play, non-linearity has been well-executed. From the very beginning, the player will get the impression that there exists some deeper intention behind the levels they’re exploring. Out-of-reach items and impassable passages might at first present themselves as confusing obstacles, but upon finding new power-ups and using good old-fashioned logic, finally satisfying your curiosity is definitely satisfying. Given Exhumed‘s Egyptian setting, it’s entirely appropriate that the player should be feeling as if they’re stabbing around in a warren of inter-related pathways (many fittingly tomb-like), some to be traversed early, some later, some many times, and some to be noticed once and then entirely forgotten. As the game progresses you will truly get the feeling that you’re moving deeper and deeper into the heart of some powerful and mysterious heart of darkness–and this is where Exhumed‘s aesthetics lend a great helping hand.

obeliskIn addition to the way it structures its substance, Exhumed‘s graphical prowess offers much to impress. I’m going to ignore the features of Exhumed‘s graphics that modern attitudes towards first-person shooters would deem unacceptable (like the lack of: two real degrees of player visual freedom: left-right, up-down; full 3D, context-sensitive game environments; complex NPC AI &c), because they don’t impact on the kind of game Exhumed was trying to be. In 1996, first-person shooters were games of a fledgling new genre. Many of them, like their proginator, Doom, were corridor games. Given that it is a corridor game, Exhumed‘s graphics/aesthetic features are of a very high standard. Combine this with the fact that it was purposefully designed for the Saturn, a platform with hardware architecture that was notoriously difficult to program, and you have something of great interest in terms of video gaming history.

The stunning thing about Exhumed‘s visuals is that they feature large environments without sacrificing its fast-paced game-play speed. This is achieved through a neat programming trick that owes much to Exhumed‘s Doom origins.

As Exhumed‘s 3D-engine programmer Ezra Dreisbach tells Eurogamer in 2009,

…the main different thing about console FPS of that era is that every wall has to be diced into a grid of polygons. This is because there is no perspective-correct texture-mapping and, in the case of the Saturn, no way to clip. You really needed some custom tools to deal with/take advantage of this, and Lobotomy had Brew (made by David Lawson).

As Dreisbach stated in his interview with Segasaturn.co.uk, overcoming this limitation in texture-mapping was achieved by

automatically [combining] the wall tile graphics into fewer “uber-tiles” and [rendering] the walls like this when they [were] far away.

machine gun lasersIt’s a simple concept, but many 3D games of the era on the Saturn failed because they refused to take account of the Saturn‘s hardware. Through original programming, Exhumed was able to pull off enormous environments with fluid animation and dynamic lighting, helping develop a proper atmosphere in which to immerse the player.

Much like the effect achieved by the game-play progression, the visuals really do convey the idea that you’re penetrating a many-thousand year-old civilisation. Sky-lit levels leave you feeling roasted, laying everything bare and brutally exposed in its openness. The swarm-like onslaught of enemies in these environments cause you to become desperate with your weapons, as there is frequently nowhere to run. Contrastingly, underground levels are suitably chilling and dank, sparsely but properly lit, all giving the strong impression that these places are musty from thousands of years of rest, previously untouched, unseen, dormant and perfectly sealed.

The following excerpt from an now-defunct Slovak game magazine does a great job at conveying an idea of what Exhumed‘s atmosphere is like. The language is somewhat over-the-top (and not perfect), but I couldn’t put it any better:

I won’t start with technical execution, graphics or sounds, but I’ll spit out immediately the most important and gigantic thing which Exhumed has: atmosphere. Atmosphere of this game is something so perfect, heavy, [colourful and full of emotional impact], that words are not enough to describe it. You will be walking inside thousand-year-old temples full of mummies, and most fantastic decorations: vases, paintings, hieroglyphs. That [is all said] with a regard for [the game’s] monumental architecture, which makes you feel–even though you are the main hero, [on] which the faith of mankind depends, [and] though you will be fearfully killing enemies with your weapons– small and unimportant. Even though you [might be] cutting with a machete the strings of the original inhabitants, the buildings remain. [So too remains the] gold, paintings and the old culture, which is [also] indestructible. The majestic columns benevolently gaze over at doings of some man with knowledge that he will [soon] leave, and will leave them to rest maybe for [many more] thousands of years.

Before moving on, it’s worth mentioning that a key feature to praise is Lobotomy‘s ability to engineer convincing transparency in the game’s water terrain–something heavily rumoured to be a weak ability of the Saturn.

sobek pass

Sobek Pass’s One-Texture … Samba

There are points where the visuals falter. The main complaint to level against Exhumed here is a common one among many games of its time: poor texturing. As an example, an early level, ‘Sobek Pass’, is almost entirely composed of one texture. See right for an image.

The difficulty in resolving different wall-faces apart from one-another makes finding your way around the level’s environment difficult, and at times frustrating. While this is regrettable, the level very cleverly riddles away the keys to its doors, and staggers its assortment of enemies in an intelligent way. This is much the same where-ever weak texture variation occurs: weakness in texturing is always moderated by the level design. The player is never unfairly forced to deal with too much of a challenge at once.

anubis roomA welcome complement to both Exhumed‘s graphics and game-play is its controls. While the main character’s enormous jump length, somewhat stilted ability to look up and down, and at times slippery pin-point on-the-spot manoeuvring takes some getting used to, Exhumed‘s auto-aim and pleasantly precise controls give it an intuitive feel. As opposed to many corridor games and Doom clones/ports, the controls don’t buck back at you in the middle of hectic fire-fights, resisting your will. It’s obvious that careful attention has been paid to the player’s interface with the game environment because one is able to learn how to get better at Exhumed. It’s rare that a console first-person shooter that relies entirely on D-pad controls features such intuitive player interaction (cf. Croc), but we here have a shining example.

firepotsModern FPS players might have a hard time adapting to what they might describe as primitive control scheme and limited game-environment context, but, that aside, Exhumed is a stellar example of the fruits of the labour of a developer who cared about their work. Lobotomy Software may have ultimately paid the price for not jumping on the same wagon as many other early 3D developers, but they produced something authentic. Effort, here, clearly translated into quality, and it is for that reason that Exhumed is definitely worth your time.

If you can scrounge together–by any means–a working version of this Saturn title, you’re guaranteed to be rewarded with an experience that creatively extends and develops the ideas that made their first exposition in Doom.

The reader can find a Lobotomy Software fan blog here and a YouTube video about the history of the developer here. A really good post to read from the fan blog that centralises a lot of information about Exhumed should not be missed. A write-up and a fairly illuminating interview about the technical aspects of Exhumed by GameFan can be found here:

I put the dynamic lights in after seeing Loaded on the PlayStation. Each of the wall polygons is being drawn gouraud shaded for the static torch light. As each vertex is transformed, the lighting contribution from the dynamic lights is added in. The algorithm is the cheapest, fastest thing I could think of that would still look okay.

EDIT: For more screenshots and another great discussion of Exhumed‘s concepts, read this  NeoGAF thread.

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Sega Saturn

I’ve always been fascinated by Sega’s video game consoles. Only a few of them succeeded, and among them there are just as many failures as successes. So many of them were either horribly designed, poorly launched or woefully supported that it’s almost impossible not to wonder how such a big corporation–one time industry leaders–managed to make such eccentric decisions. My first instinct was to conclude that the choices Sega made as a corporation bore the mark of a considerable amount of creative freedom: perhaps there was, structurally, within the company, more room to move in terms of experimenting with ideas. After looking closer at what happened in the video game industry between the years 1989 and 2001, I was surprised to find that I was absolutely wrong. In that decade-odd period of time, the home console ‘region’ of the video game industry was a veritable hurricane of corporate politics: inter- and intra-organisational factional warfare. The entire industry was up in arms in a struggle for prestige and financial supremacy, and Sega was caught up in it. One such example of the tumult video game companies went through during this period is the Sega Saturn. The politics involved in the jump to 3D graphics in video games was difficult for everyone involved, none more so than Sega, and in what follows, the reader will find the definitive explanation for the reason why Sega released such an incredible (although not totally unsuccessful) mess as the Saturn.

The Saturn is a perfect example of a complete mess. Sega did nothing to foster goodwill for the platform by launching it four months earlier in the US than originally scheduled, at their 1995 E3 keynote, in an abortive attempt to one-up Sony, alienating developers and retailers alike. If industry groups weren’t turned away, they were forced to incur great costs to secure their cooperation with the company. Gamers were presented with a very small number of launch titles (and a lengthy wait for any more), and would be set back $500 to purchase a console, which, adjusted only for inflation, equals almost exactly 800 Australian dollars in today’s terms. Add to this the previous debacles associated with the Sega CD and 32X, and you have, at the consumer end, a critical and financial nightmare.

How did it come to this? Rewind to late 80s-early 90s where you have Nintendo and Sony collaborating on the SNES PlayStation–an optical storage medium for Nintendo’s famous soon-to-be-released 16-bit console. Here is a match made in heaven. Nintendo, true to form, desires to control every facet of the proto-CD-ROM medium’s distribution by encasing everything in a proprietary plastic caddy (echoes of the 64DD here). Sony wants the absolute opposite: licensing for the technology for anyone would pay. Sony gets up at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1991 and publicly announces this without prior notice to Nintendo. Infuriated, Nintendo cuts the (as it were) R&D umbilical cord and announces that it has instead signed on with Philips, the creator of the CD-ROM, for the development of an optical medium. The outcome of this was two-fold: Nintendo’s efforts with Philips were disastrous (NB. the ‘full-motion video’ Zelda game for the CDi, in all its hilarity), and the resulting legal quagmire to which Nintendo was subjected ensured that it would be forced to totally rebuild its next console, and base it on the age-old cartridge medium — not in-itself a bad outcome, in my opinion — and, secondly, to the horror of the then mainstays of the video game industry, Sony would be prompted to enter the video game console market.

It’s important to recount the entry of Sony into production of video game consoles because the Sega Saturn was, in effect, a reaction to the Sony PlayStation. Sony had connections in the third-party industry, and they exploited them. The PlayStation was built around an improved version of a processor that Sony had been manufacturing for Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstations for years. The specific details of the CPU are irrelevant; the important thing to take away from the PlayStation‘s architecture is that it was cheap to manufacture, simple to understand (therefore easy to program–and, prospectively, would be well supported in terms of programming libraries), and, for its time, very powerful.

Sega’s upper echelons were rocked, upon learning of this information, when leaked. Sega had, for decades now, been an organisation heavily rooted in arcade gaming, and the Saturn was, like the Mega Drive before it, to be based on the architecture of an arcade board (in fact it’s worth mentioning that the reader might find the ease with which Sega shoe-horned the Mega Drive into its case very interesting). The Saturn was originally based on a single-processor design, like the PlayStation, and was originally intended to be proffered up as the ultimate 2D console, but, in its original iteration, was easily eclipsed by Sony’s offering in raw 3D processing power.

P-HidekiSato[1]Sega’s President, Hayao Nakayama, ordered that the Saturn‘s original hardware design be completely scrapped, and rebuilt from scratch. The person responsible for virtually all of the design of Sega’s hardware, Hideki Sato, was sent back to the drawing board. He came back with the parallel-processor based platform that the Saturn eventually became. The concept behind this architecture was fairly radical, and, given that Sato and his team of engineers (the ‘Away Team’) had virtually no time, it was all assembled out of off-the-shelf components.

All of this was occurring at the same time as a bitter struggle between Sega’s main office and Japanese division, and the company’s North American division. Sega of America was then headed up by Tom Kalinske, who had previously lead the toy company Mattel. When he was parachuted into his position in Sega by Nakayama in 1990, he knew nothing about video games, but he was a marketing professional: he instituted aggressive advertising (Sega Does What Nintendon’t) and business methods (‘spend into a profit’) that were employed in both Europe and the USA that well and truly rustled the jimmies of his Japanese counterparts. Kalinske’s decisions were, for a time, insanely successful, winning Sega an enormous chunk of the Western video game market, but it rewarded the company with mountains of debt, a sour taste for Japanese business ethics. When Kalinske and his council of elders found themselves thoroughly unimpressed with a demonstration of Hideki’s team’s efforts, instead suggesting to Nakayama that Sega instead construct a console with a unified processing structure based on another chip from Silicon Graphics, they were silenced. Against Kalinske’s protestations, also, Nakayama discontinued Sega’s support for the Mega Drive in 1996, when the platform was still performing very well (compare with the Apple II). Sega of America was forced into launching whatever Sega of Japan wanted, whenever it wanted.

Nights Into Dreams proves that it was the difficulties with the Saturn‘s architecture, and not its ‘overall power’ that determined its graphical prowess.

The result of the Saturn‘s parallel-processing architecture, on the other hand, was (justly or unjustly) a nightmare for game development. The hardware assembled by the Away Team would have easily outclassed the PlayStation if utilised correctly (and did, in quite a few instances), but it was based on the idea of parallel processing, something which was not (and still isn’t) very commonly understood or employed in video games. By comparison, Sony’s console was based on a unified architecture, and, critically, the SDK released for Sony’s PlayStation provided for development in C, higher level of programming than what had been the traditional language of game development, assembly language. This coincided with a broad generational shift in the industry to higher-level programming, which made the skills of programmers from a great many other disciplines suitable for game development. Old hands might have looked on in derision at this virtual army of less experienced programmers gravitating to the PlayStation, but the unified architecture and readily-understood SDK of the PlayStation made third-party development insanely easy. The Saturn, by contrast, by and large required low-level assembly language to access its potential; real programming genius. There was indeed genius expended in a fair number of Saturn titles, but, when it came to finance, it was too little too late.

The Saturn was discontinued only three years after its US release, hot on the heels of the Sega Dreamcast. By that time, Sega had suffered crippling losses, sacked almost a third of its global staff, and Hayao Nakayama — among other company leaders — had tendered his resignation. Sega’s corporate structure was almost entirely flushed out and replaced with new faces. However, like its predecessor, the Dreamcast would also fail to turn Sega some success. Ignoring the significance that the lack of a DVD drive would have made with respect to the Dreamcast, the enormous amount of consumer goodwill that Sony had built with the original PlayStation, and the equally horrifying amount that Sega had squandered with the Saturn (let alone with the Sega/Mega CD and 32X) guaranteed that the launch of the PlayStation 2 would blow the Dreamcast out of the water. Sega was more or less finished in the home console business.

The fantastic thing about this whole story is that console that Sega finally produced was not based on any rational or scientific reflection: it was based on political machinations. Many have labelled the decisions of Sega of Japan to force their American counterparts to pull rank ‘corporate arrogance’, and I think I agree with that assessment. Despite that, though, the Saturn is such an interesting piece of hardware. Furthermore, there are a plethora of platform-exclusive games that are both innovative in concepts and in programming. Take, for example, the game Powerslave/Exhumed, a first-person shooter (something of a Doom clone) that featured spectacular graphics for its time because its programmer, Ezra Dreisbach, decided to take the time to get to know the console’s architecture. Read all about it here. To become better acquainted with some of the games that defined the popular life of the Saturn, see Racketboy’s article here.

The Saturn is worth your time because it failed. Not because it provided Sega and onlookers with a lesson, but because it avoided the inauthenticity that so frequently accompanies success. And I think that that might go  the same for anything that fails.

References

I have the write-up on Eidolon’s Inn to thank for this post. As you’ll no doubt discover if you read both this article and the six-page one at Eidolon’s, much of this article is simplify paraphrased and/or retold. I make no claim that any part of this post that resembles Eidolon’s is original work. If you have some time, take a look around. The frankness with which the multiple authors describe their projects and musings (a 4-bit handheld console called the Jaguar, complete with its CPU’s instruction set) is pretty cool.