The consoles of yesteryear, with their limited hardware resources, forced developers to pull all sorts of tricks to fake certain visuals. Take transparency (which to this day we still haven't mastered) — on the Sega Saturn, coders took advantage of the fuzzy nature of TV screens and analog signals to cheat this effect where they could.
It's a bit more complicated than that, as Matt Greer explains on his blog, but without the aid of emulators and high definition displays, the average (well, slightly savvy) Joe would have no idea that games, like Mega Man X4, did not always use transparent sprites for things like spotlights.
Look at this image for example, which shows the game on the Saturn (top) and PlayStation (bottom):
Can you see the difference? The Saturn used a "meshed" version of the sprite, which basically means only every other pixel is drawn, while the PS has true transparency. Not that this was a big deal back in the day, as this "dithering" ended up being blurred on our crappy TVs and cables:
When the Saturn was a current console, most people were hooking it up to their TV using composite cables. Composite is a low quality signal that combines all of the color information into a single blurry stream. This meant the mesh effect was not as noticeable, as the mesh pixels would tend to average out in the blurriness and result in a decent approximation of transparency. Complaints of the Saturn's meshes really started to rise when emulation and use of upscalers like the XRGB Mini enabled people to play Saturn games with a crystal clear picture.
It's hard to believe, but I'm sure 20 years from now we'll be pulling apart the likes of the latest Star Wars: Battlefront and all the dodgy stuff EA DICE had to do (maybe).
The Sega Saturn and Transparency [Matt Greer]
Images: Matt Greer