Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
03 March 2002
Platform Shootout: Sega Saturn Quake vs. Quake 64
Like a lot of geeks my age, id Software's Quake was an obsession for several years. It was the first game that I got to see using hardware acceleration on my old Voodoo2 card back in 1998 and I lost days at a time to the obsession of deathmatch and Team Fortress. Today, I'm a bit more console-centric and have looked for ways to enjoy older games on my console hardware. In the console world, I'm aware of only two ports of Quake: one for the Sega Saturn and one for the N64. I wanted to compare the two, and most of the things I want to say about them can be explained in the context of the first level. Eventually, I'll blog about the secret levels in the Saturn version, but that will come some time after this discussion of The Slipgate Complex.

Weak Beginnings
Saturn Quake is already off to a somewhat weak start with a pared down difficulty level selection sequence. While it is not the opening map that I have seen hundreds of times in my life, it at least captures some of the original's atmosphere and a little of the architecture. One also begins to get the first glimpse of the Saturn's limitations, graphically. Both the screen and texture resolutions are quite low, making those of us weaned on the 800x600 OpenGL version wince visibly. On the warp portals, one finds a quickly flipping texture that serves in place of the mesmerizingly fluid white noise texture that we've come to expect.

Unfortunately for Quake 64, it can't even muster this difficulty-choosing map. For what I imagine ended up being ROM space considerations, the Nintendo 64 version does not include a handful of the original maps. N64 owners must be satisfied with a plain, unimpressive skill selection screen. As we will see throughout this comparison, each version of Quake had to make concessions to address the weaknesses of the platform.

The first image below is the N64 menu screen. The other three images are from the Saturn.

The Slipgate
Here in the Slipgate Complex the graphical gap separating the N64 from the Saturn widens into a huge chasm. Already, at the beginning of the level, Quake 64 boasts a clean, smooth image that puts it on par with Quake using OpenGL. The Saturn version shows off a range of blocky textures that clearly have a lower resolution and use a less dynamic range of colors. I'll also point out the use of colored lighting in the N64 version, something that the original Quake on the PC and Mac never had until after the source was released under the GPL and modified versions were developed.

It is worth noting, I think, in some of these images we see the Saturn pushing what seems to be a more complex scene geometrically. In particular, the second view of the Slipgate Complex below looks like it was made entirely of right angles and a few very rectangular boxes in the N64 version, while the Saturn actually seems to be using more polygons on decorative architecture. Consider, as an example, the column that starts on the right side of the room and goes to the ceiling and passes across the top. The N64, despite a much more appealing set of textures, looks plain otherwise.

One last point about the geometry, which one can begin to see in these shots, and which becomes more obvious the further one plays, is that the player's character in the N64 version is actually smaller, with respect to the world around it, than the character in the Saturn version. From my perspective, going back and forth between the two, this change is quite dramatic and disorienting.

It is at this stage that one must also begin to struggle with the controls. Luckily, both platforms have analog controls to give a slightly more natural scheme than was possible before with digital only controls, but first person shooters still suffer, in general, when they are ported to consoles. I have spent a great deal more time with the Saturn version, and I do like the "3D" analog pad, so take this next point with that in mind: in my opinion, the Saturn version is superior to the N64 version. For example, the Saturn analog controller has great left and right triggers that just feel perfect when strafing, and the N64 just can't pull that off effectively with the controller set up in a natural way. That being said, once the N64 controls are configured like the controls I use in Goldeneye, the N64 becomes much, much more competitive. The default controls are not nearly as useful, in my experience. The N64 also has the benefit of the rumble pack, which adds some welcome feedback to the controller both when you fire upon enemies and when you are, in turn, hit by those enemies. If the Saturn had this feature, I'd recommend it for the controls without reservation, but the Saturn never had any controller force feedback, and this version suffers from the lack thereof.

Let's move on to the next section of the complex. Here we can see the first outside shot, and Quake 64 definitely has some smoother looking graphics. Just check out that sky on the Saturn. Sure, this is probably as good as it will get, given the lack of good 3D hardware on the Saturn, but for this kind of game, the blocky textures and lack of a true alpha channel hurts tremendously.

This is even more clear when we pass back into the building and take a look to the left and right. The texture smoothing of the N64 hardware makes a big difference and avoids, to a great extent, the ``crawling'' that is obvious in the Saturn version. These screenshots don't really do it justice, but if you've ever played any first person shooter without hardware accelerated rendering, then you know the texture crawling I'm talking about. Even DooM had it, although back then we were much less aware of such issues.

This next bit, I think, is kind of interesting. It shows how the Saturn version is clearly trying to hide some of its weaknesses. Note that huge wall that is present in the Saturn version yet isn't present in the N64 version, or, for that matter, in the original PC version. I think that this is a case of Lobotomy getting clever and changing the architecture slightly to keep the framerate high.

This wall prevents too many polygons from being in view at any one time by placing a gigantic easy-to-render polygon out where it can cover up other sections of the room around you. This does not fit, however, with the observation earlier that the Saturn was pushing more polygons around in the opening hallway. I believe we are seeing a developer, in this case Lobotomy, that wants to make their version as good as possible so they enhance the level where they can, as in the opening hallway, yet degrade the original geometry slightly when necessary, as in this room, to fit the limitations of the platform. So why is the N64 version so plain? I don't think it is for lack of power, to be honest. I think it is laziness. These levels look a lot like Quake should look. The textures are there. The rooms are connected as one expects. The enemies are all in place. Yet very little attention to detail and enhancement has been given, other than easy features like colored lighting. That's a real shame, really, since the Saturn version clearly shows what can be done if you code to the hardware limitations. It is in this area that I also noticed a difference in the AI routines for the enemies. The dog on the catwalk (or should I say "dogwalk") can actually jump off that surface and down to your level to attack in the Saturn version. I've not seen the dog ever do this in the N64 version or, for that matter, the PC version. I am still surprised every time this happens, and I wonder what other differences I'd see if I had more time to examine the enemy movement very closely.

This unfortunate trend continues even in the next shot. The Saturn version definitely has real architecture built into the level, but is pretty. The N64 version is easier on the eyes, as far as textures go, but looks made out of lots of right angles and few polygons. Even the bridge over the first pool of sludge has been reduced to a featureless slab with an open ceiling in the N64 version. The Saturn version has a real bridge and some inexplicably floating girders above. Maybe the N64 programmers thought that the green colored lighting after you went over the bridge more than made up for the lame polygon count.

That's quite enough about the low-polygon-count levels in Quake 64 for now. The next part is even more disappointing for the N64 port. Many of you may recall the three switches that light up as you descend a spiral ramp down to a pool of sludge. In the N64 version, the lighting is almost completely static in this section. Apparently adding colored lighting to sections of the game is easy, but the addition of dramatic dynamic lighting is too hard to do. But wait...Lobotomy managed to pull it off on the Saturn. Crazy. If you needed more proof that the N64 version was actually of lesser quality, I'd point to the shot looking back up the ramp, after descending a couple of landings.

In this shot, the N64 is actually looking pretty well. Then, when you compare to the Saturn version you notice that the Saturn version actually seems to have better texture quality. It may not be smoothed, as the N64 is able to do, but it definitely has less of that same-texture-tiled-willy-nilly-across-a-huge-polygon look. I don't think I ever thought I'd see the day when I said a Saturn game had better textures and better lighting. But there you go.

Of course, the Saturn doesn't have colored lighting like the N64. A real shame that, since the N64 version shows just how entertaining it can be. As long as it's green colored light. That's the best, at least in Quake 64.

This is probably as good a time as any to bring up the topic of sound and music. While I have never really cared for the Quake soundtrack (and I use the word soundtrack loosely, since it's not really like a typical soundtrack that you find for your favorite yuppie Broadway show or the latest hit movie that recycles good music from the '60s and '70s), the Saturn obviously has a leg up on the N64. While I'm sure that the N64 can do some excellent sound, the fact is that it is limited by what can be stored on a reasonably priced cartridge. Such sound and music can almost never compare to the CD quality that a system like the Saturn can spool off without breaking a sweat. I've heard all the arguments for why Nintendo chose cartridges. I think I can even appreciate some of them. But it sure wasn't in the best interest of either the developer or the gamer, since the former must work under incredible constraints and squeeze the proverbial blood from a stone while the latter suffers the consequences of that terrible development process. Luckily, the new Nintendo machine uses a digital disc with a lot more storage space, and the days of cartridges seem safely in the past.

One place in Quake 64 that I cannot complain is in the water (or sludge). If you look at the difference between the Quake 64 water and the Saturn Quake water, it becomes apparent that the Saturn was struggling to do any effect that even remotely resembled water.

The texture on top of the water in Quake 64 is very reminiscent of the water texture in the original PC version of Quake. The hardware smoothing definitely makes it look more appealing, at least as much as toxic water can seem appealing. The Saturn version of a water texture looks more like an effect from an old Commodore 64 demo, to be honest, and is perhaps the most disappointing feature of the entire port. (Well, not the most disappointing. The most disappointing is the fact that it doesn't include Ziggurat Vertigo. Argh!) The disparity between the two platforms grows wider when you venture beneath the surface. Whereas the N64 version includes a gently swaying distortion while underwater (only visible a little in the static screenshot you see here) the Saturn version just tints all the textures to indicate you're underwater. At least they managed to pull off something, but what they got is really only like Quake in spirit and doesn't even come close to the original in the effect.

There isn't much more to compare in the Slipgate Complex between these two platforms. One last tidbit that I'll add before I get to the summary is the load times. Believe it or not, the load times for each level are just about the same between the Saturn and N64! I believe that heavy compression was used to cram the Quake levels onto the N64 cartridge, and this resulted in a long decompression time before each level. Consequently, the Saturn CD load time is just about the same as the decompression time on the N64.

Quake 64 is definitely more attractive, technically, and enjoys a higher framerate and resolution. Yet, the level design and texture quality generally leave me underwhelmed, and the use of colored lighting seems tacked on as eye candy, not as a special feature used to enhance the game in a meaningful way. Sound, as is common when space is limited in the cartridge format, is disappointing. On the Saturn, Quake retains much of the gloomy atmosphere, but suffers greatly from weak 3D hardware. Gamers are essentially sent back to the days of playing Quake at nearly 320x240 resolution in software mode on a mid-1990s PC. While this isn't horrible, it definitely looks dated and could even be difficult for some people to play, depending on their threshold for fat pixels. Yet, despite these weaknesses, the game is polished about as well as it could be. The levels include more detail than the N64 version, both in terms of polygons and texture quality. The dynamic lighting used on the spiral hallway is present and accounted for, and the controls are precise and responsive. One feature that I haven't touched upon, and which will be the subject of a much shorter blog later, is the Saturn-specific secret levels. At least two of these are worth seeing at least once or twice, just for the novelty. Furthermore, they are much more difficult than normal levels, giving so-called Quake veterans a run for the money. Trust me: you will be glad to survive in one piece!

And that's how it works out: the Saturn version of Quake is actually a better buy than the N64 version, from my perspective. Granted, my tolerance of fat pixels is pretty high, but I can't bring myself to hold that against the superior design on the Saturn. The only thing really missing is a multiplayer mode. Ideally, Quake could have used the Netlink to play on the phone line, but I suspect that this would have been too much for the system, given that it is probably being taxed completely just running a single player game. The N64 version offers a multiplayer split screen mode that I haven't ever used, and thus can't comment upon. If you have friends that would like to play Quake 64 split screen with you, then it may well be the better version for you. For freaks that enjoy the single player gloom experience, however, I recommend you stick with the Saturn version.

Comments attached to original copy:

Platform Shootout: Sega Saturn Quake vs. Quake 64
Authored by: psychy on Tuesday, June 28 2005 @ 04:48 PM CDT
This is perhaps the best technical comparison that I have ever read regarding the differences between the only two versions of Quake for home consoles. I was always pondering on whether I should try and track down an old, used copy of Quake 64 but after reading your comparison I think I'll stick with my Saturn version. As you have stated, the Saturn version best captures the spirit and feel of the original Quake for PC. This comparison is proof to the old saying that graphics aren't everything. As for the extra bonus levels, I've played them and they are a worthy addition to the Quake experience.

Platform Shootout: Sega Saturn Quake vs. Quake 64
Authored by: jvm on Tuesday, June 28 2005 @ 07:28 PM CDT
Thanks for the kind comments. I wish I still had time to do this kind of thing. I've got screenshots comparing Tomb Raider on Saturn and PSX somewhere, and some for Powerslave too. Someday...someday.

--Matt Matthews at 01:07
Comment [ 2 ]

Comments on this post:

This is a realy great comparison
Kudos to you and keep up the good i hope we can see another game compared soon mayb tombraider :) or something else


By Anonymous Lemmichi, at 18 September, 2006 16:47  

Great comparison. I just played Saturn quake on an emulator and I was quite surprised on how well it played. Better than my old Pentium 60, dang impressive for a system as weak as the Saturn. Resolution was indeed quite low, making distant monsters tricky to spot, but still good enough to not bother me and I think it’s higher than what my PC had back then.

You said the Q64 has colored lightning, but from what I saw Saturn quake does too, though it does not use them as much. I’m not surprised that the N64 has poor textures; all N64 textures have to fit into just 4KB of memory which was lame even for the standard of that day. I’m guessing they cut down on the geometry for space and performance reasons, and some laziness of course.

They're impressive ports anyhow.

By Blogger notBald, at 31 December, 2008 00:22  

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