Sega’s last decade was a tumultuous period, full of misguided ambitions and projects that went nowhere despite being extremely promising on paper. One of those was Saturn, a machine that was deemed too complicated for developers who struggled to extract its true potential. It came right on the heels of the disappointment that was 32X and was competing against Sony’s disruptive PS1.
Being its successor, can a Dreamcast play Saturn games? It can’t, as the two consoles share few architectural similarities and have very different GPUs. Dreamcast also can’t emulate Saturn’s dual-CPU design, as it lacks the necessary processing power and memory.
If you wish to play old Saturn games, the best platform is a PC. Just install the RetroArch front end, and you’re good to go (works with every modern USB/ Bluetooth controller). Sega Saturn games use the CD-ROM format and range from ports of arcade games to original IPs.
Can A Dreamcast Play Saturn Games?
No, because Sega didn’t design the Dreamcast with such a capability. Rather, they couldn’t- because Dreamcast lacks the power needed to emulate Saturn despite being a generational improvement. It uses a Hitachi 32-bit RISC processor, that’s superscalar with theoretical performance approaching 360 MIPS (Million Instructions Per Second).
In comparison, Saturn has two Hitachi processors that share the same bus (theoretical performance estimated at 56 MIPS). Despite being 32-bit RISC CPUs, these are only capable of processing fixed 16-bit instructions. And developers struggled to get both CPUs working at maximum potential in games.
Dreamcast has just one processor, but over 4 times the power because it’s built on a newer architecture (SH4 vs SH2) and runs at faster clock speeds. Plus, this is a true 32-bit CPU since it can process 32-bit instructions. The downside is that it can’t run the same game code as Saturn.
On the GPU side, Dreamcast uses an NEC PowerVR2 running at 100MHz. While impressive in terms of performance for its time, this is a very different setup from the dual video processors in Saturn. In Saturn, you have VDP1 for sprites and polygons.
VPD2 is dedicated to backgrounds. Then, there is also a System Control Unit (SCU) that coordinates all the data buses, with an internal DSP running at 14.3 MHz. The Saturn has a very dispersed, unsymmetrical hardware layout that’s tough to emulate for a console released just 4 years later.
Saturn emulation can’t be done in software since Dreamcast doesn’t have enough processing power or RAM. And hardware-based backward compatibility was also a no-go, owing to Saturn’s complexity and dispersed design. Remember, this thing has 8 different processors- with 2 CPUs and 2 GPUs.
Old consoles like PS2 and PS3 featured dedicated hardware on board to emulate the previous generation console. Nintendo used a similar approach, for example- 3DS has a single ARM9 core to emulate DS games. However, fitting 8 separate CPUs to the Dreamcast motherboard would have ballooned design and manufacturing costs.
Semiconductor manufacturing technology hadn’t advanced enough in 4 years for Sega to make a single ASIC containing the functionality of all 8 Saturn processors. In a way, Saturn’s complexity and Sega’s desire to release consoles in quick succession killed all hope for backward compatibility. Right now, the only way to reliably emulate Saturn games is via PC.
Can Dreamcast Emulate Saturn?
As I explained earlier, the two consoles are just 4 years apart. And while both use Hitachi RISC-based processors, Dreamcast has a single SH4 while Saturn has dual SH2s. Emulating Saturn via software is impossible for Dreamcast, as you are bound to get unplayable framerates (in the realm of 5FPS).
Dreamcast and Saturn also have wildly different GPU layouts. One uses a single NEC PowerVR2, while the other has dual GPUs (VDP1 for polygons and VDP2 for backgrounds). In total, Saturn has 8 different processors.
Hardware-based backward compatibility was also not possible when Dreamcast was manufactured. Putting all these separate chips on one motherboard would have caused a significant increase in size, complexity, and costs. Besides, Saturn was never that popular among gamers.
Sega would have taken a massive gamble, forcing themselves to integrate backward compatibility for a complex last-gen console that few people played. For instance, Sony removed PS2 hardware from the PS3 motherboard because it found out that few people used the backward compatibility feature. Hence, later models of PS3 like the Slim and Super-Slim lack backward compatibility with PS2.
Can Any Dreamcast Play Burned Games?
Dreamcast consoles made after October 2000 can’t play burned CD-ROMs because of changes to the disc reader. You can make newer Dreamcast units read burned discs, but it will require hardware mods. Even with older Dreamcast units, you have to burn your game discs a certain way or else you’ll end up with a dud.
If you want to know whether your Dreamcast can play burned games, look for a circle at the bottom next to the NTSC/ PAL label. If the number in this circle is 0 or 1, your Dreamcast is capable of playing burned games. Numbers 2 and above mean your model is revision 2+ and can’t read burned discs.
To burn games, you must first extract them from the compressed format and use the “CDI” file. Don’t burn a zip or RAR archive onto the disc, it won’t boot (only use CDI files). Use a burning software like ImgBurn, and set the write speed between 4X to 8X.
Can Dreamcast Play Sega CD Games?
No, it can’t play Sega CD games. There is no software emulator either, so you’re out of luck with your collection of Sega CD games. However, there are emulators on PC that can run Sega CD games.
Is The Dreamcast Powerful?
For the time, it was immensely powerful. Handily beating both N64 and PS1, Dreamcast was in a league of its own. Plus, it was a forward-looking console with built-in ethernet for online connectivity.
Something that wouldn’t arrive on PlayStation until the year 2000 (2 years later). And even then, PS2 required you to purchase an external adapter for ethernet (Xbox had it built-in). If you want to get a sense of Dreamcast’s capability, you must play Shenmue which is the first open-world interactive sim.
Why Did Sega Stop Making Dreamcast?
Sega stopped making Dreamcast because its sales performance was very disappointing compared to Nintendo and Sony. Dreamcast sold 9.1 million units between 1998 and 2001. For comparison, N64 sold 32.9 million units between 1996 and 2002.
It wasn’t just hardware, people weren’t too interested in Dreamcast software either. Super Mario 64 sold nearly 12 million units, while Shenmue sold 1.2 million units and failed to recover its development cost. At $47 million, Shenmue was the most expensive game ever developed back in 1999.
Being a first-party Sega product, its failure was even more painful for the company. Combined with the lackluster sales of Dreamcast, Sega decided to bow out from console development altogether. After 2001, they became a 3rd party game developer and publisher.
Sega at one point was number 2 in the console market, giving Nintendo a run for its money. But with the two consecutive failures that were Saturn and Dreamcast, the company crumbled from the inside. It didn’t help that Sega’s own ambitious design choices made it impossible for Dreamcast to play Saturn games.
Fans were disappointed to see that they couldn’t play their old Saturn library on the next-gen console released just 4 years later. Despite how powerful these consoles were and the excellence of games like Shenmue, Sega was forced to quit making consoles.