How the Saturn Floppy Disk Drive breathed new life into Sega Rally

The Sega Saturn Floppy Disk Drive… Useless, or Totally Useless? (Or Totally Cool?)

Let’s face it, Sega did not make a lot of good decisions in the 90s when it came to hardware add-ons and peripherals. The 32X was a straight up debacle. The Sega CD was criminally underutilized. Both are a big part of how Sega lost the trust of consumers, likely contributing to the poor sales of the Saturn and ultimately the company’s demise as a hardware manufacturer. Oh, and let’s not forget about the crazy crap like the Activator. And even an official Sega Power Strip? What the hell was going on over there?

Well, if you’re not already familiar with it, add another one to the list of poorly supported 90s Sega hardware: the Sega Saturn Floppy Disk Drive. The Saturn FDD is, quite possibly, the most superfluous gaming accessory I’ve ever purchased. I recently bought an “untested/junk” drive purely as a project and to have as a curiosity (because I’m a sucker for hardware oddities). After a bit of tinkering. I actually managed to get it working, and you know what? I kinda love it.

Yeah, part of that is the sheer novelty of digging out 25 year old floppy disks from my closet and actually finding a use for them. But part of it is that it’s, well, legitimately useful. But only if you’re trying to do some very specific things.

The folks over at Sega Saturn Shiro have done a fine job of cataloging just how poorly supported this device was. Though the drive was never released in the US, code for it snuck into a handful of games. And by “handful,” I mean nine actually work. So yeah, if you’re looking at this as an alternative to the internal save RAM or a memory cartridge for typical saved games, forget it. Get yourself another backup RAM cart and sleep better at night, with an extra $200 in your pocket.

That said, there is a value proposition here. A single floppy disk, which should cost you no more than $1 if you don’t already have a few laying around, holds over 22,000 blocks of Saturn data. Compare that to the roughly 8000 blocks in an official Backup Memory cart (about $50 these days for a US version), or the 400+ blocks in the internal memory. Given the sheer amount of space you get, the FDD might be worth considering if you’re looking to use it in a few very specific scenarios. Here, in my opinion, are all of those scenarios. All four of them.

  1. You want to do homebrew with Game BASIC and are looking for a fast and easy way to access lots of raw image, texture, and sound data. Streaming the data from your PC each time you load your game is a painfully slow process. The Saturn’s internal memory isn’t nearly enough for even a couple of image files, and backup memory carts will fill up fast. In my opinion, this is actually a great use for it.
  2. You want to get deep into building or playing homebrew shooting games with Dezaemon 2. This is a fascinating world that I’m only starting to scratch the surface of. Long story short, larger storage is a must when you’re building a whole shoot-em-up of your own.
  3. You really, really want to play the Saturn version of Hexen without passwords and don’t want to waste half a memory cart on it. A non-password save in Hexen requires a backup memory cartridge with 3801 free blocks. Absurd. How did this get through QA? Unfortunately, the game doesn’t support direct save and load with the FDD, but you can always copy it to floppy manually to free up space. This is, in my opinion, a legitimate use. Though the broader question of whether you should really be playing Hexen on the Saturn in the 21st century is a whole other can of worms…

And, finally, the reason that is really motivating this post:

4. Multiple Sega Rally ghost files. If you’ve played Sega Rally, I assume you know that there are ghost cars in the game. Set a fast time on a course, and the next time you race it, there will be a “ghost” of your run for you to race against. But did you know that it’s actually possible to save those and race them again any time you want? Well, for the last 25 years, I had no idea! That’s because I never owned an official Sega memory cartridge that supports direct in-game save. I’ve just had a Pro Action Replay since the 90s, and was content with it. But if you plug in an official cart, the game will automatically save your ghosts for next time! If you have almost 2000 free blocks of space, that is.

Okay, but if it’s possible to save ghosts with just the memory cart, where does the FDD come in? Simple – it’s the easiest way to have multiple ghost files. Normally, the game saves all your best ghosts in one save file, which is why it’s so large (and the fact that Sega didn’t bother to implement any compression, but I digress). This is a problem in Sega Rally for one simple reason:

Lancia Stratos.

The Lancia Stratos is, far and away, the fastest car in the game (yes, there are only three, but my point stands). This is annoying because even a mediocre run in the Stratos will typically blow away an excellent run in the Celica or Delta by several seconds. As a result, all your ghosts will pretty much automatically be Stratos ghosts. And that completely sucks the fun out of trying to improve your times with the Celica and Delta. My solution for this conundrum has been to copy separate saves onto floppy for Stratos ghosts and non-Stratos ghosts, then restore whichever I want to practice with to my official memory cart. And I’m loving it! This has completely rejuvenated my interest in Time Attack mode with the Celica and Delta, sparking a whole new interest in the game that had been missing for years.

Now, you might be thinking “why buy an FDD if I could just have two memory carts for way cheaper and do the same thing?” Again, simple. If a memory cart is present, the game will automatically use that for both your ghosts save AND your records save. In fact, if you have a records save in your internal memory, the game will completely ignore it when a memory cart is present. That means, if you want to maintain a single leader board with all your best times, but keep separate ghost files for the different cars, you’re going to be doing a LOT of tedious cart swapping and copying files back and forth between your separate memory carts, using the Saturn’s internal memory as a go-between. Yeah, you could do it, but it’s a dangerous proposition. The Saturn’s cartridge slot is notoriously delicate and that much swapping will most likely destroy it.

“The floppy drive won’t destroy your Saturn because of cartridge swapping” is a pretty strong endorsement, in my opinion.

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