By Albert Kim
Updated June 09, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Every five years or so, the videogame industry undergoes an ungainly, self-imposed makeover. Pressured by technological advances and jaded consumer tastes, manufacturers slough off existing systems and titles in favor of high-powered new machines that sparkle with the promise — and potential profits — of the future. By the industry’s schedule, 1995 is one of those transformation years: time to say goodbye to the overly plundered 16-bit land of Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Helloooo, brave new 32-bit world.

What exactly can we expect from this videogame frontier? Judging from the Sega Saturn, the first major next-generation system to arrive in stores this year, quite a bit. (As for the industry’s other players, Sony’s 32-bit entry, the PlayStation, won’t be available until September, and Nintendo’s supercharged Ultra 64 machine has been delayed until next April.) The Saturn is a muscular, no-nonsense black box powered by three 32-bit video processors and a 24-bit sound processor — which is just technobabble for ”This baby’s got some bionic parts under the hood.” When it comes to crunching data, the Saturn rivals a fairly powerful home PC. In practical terms, that means nearly photo-realistic colors and graphics, crisp CD-quality stereo sound, and blisteringly fast action. In short, this is not a toy (as if the price tag hadn’t already alerted you).

When all that silicon juice gets fired up, the Saturn comes close to duplicating the visual and audio razzle-dazzle of a $20,000 coin-operated machine. Thus, it’s only fitting that of the six Saturn titles now available, two — Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter (included with the Saturn) — are versions of games that have already proved themselves, quarter by shiny quarter, in the trenches of video arcades. Daytona, an adrenaline-inducing racing simulation, has a particularly realistic feel: Bash your car into the wall and you can see the resulting dents. (To make the illusion seamless, Sega also sells an add-on steering wheel for $79.99.) At heart, Fighter is just another brawling game. But the action has been dressed up with 3D-rendered characters, meticulously detailed animation, and swirling camera angles that result in a visceral, unnerving combat experience that’s as much fun to watch as it is to play.

While those two games effectively demonstrate what 32 bits can do, Pebble Beach Golf Links is an example of what they shouldn’t do: namely, tack some bells and whistles onto a 16-bit game. Nothing in this uninspired golf simulation makes proper use of the Saturn’s brawn. The flat graphics, imprecise controls, and cheesy background music are enough to make you want to turn off the machine and watch (shudder!) real golf. Worldwide Soccer fares better, as dynamic camera perspectives and lifelike animation enliven a quick-moving competition. As a sports simulation, though, it’s shallow: no stat keeping, no real players, and only 12 teams. And come on…it’s soccer. Last time I checked, the folks at the corner bar weren’t tuned in to any FIFA matches.

When you first enter the whimsical world of Clockwork Knight, you begin to see just how remarkably the Saturn’s extra power can enhance a videogame fantasy. As a toy knight roaming through the magical after-hours province of a child’s playroom, you’re transported to a bright and inviting realm. Unfortunately, the game itself quickly becomes stale and predictable: Jump over obstacles, move to the right, kill some bad guys, move to the right, etc.

It’s only when you load Panzer Dragoon that you feel the Saturn’s full impact. As a callow youth filling in for a fallen Dragon Rider in the cyborg-infested 31st century, you must fight your way through a coolly surreal universe. (Think Dune meets Fantasia.) From the gorgeous, seven-minute movie-quality intro (which nearly overshadows the game itself), to the lush audio track, to the 360-degree action provided by a rotating point of view, Dragoon immerses you in a lyrical and exhilarating epic. The triumph of Dragoon is that you begin to think of it as a story, not just a game. If the Saturn can deliver more such experiences, then the videogame industry will have truly undergone a transformation. A-