The year was 1997. New Labour had come to power, the BBC had launched its full-time news website, the Teletubbies graced early morning screens, and the fifth terrestrial TV station 'Channel Five' launched in the UK with the help of the Spice Girls (though poor reception and an unfortunate case of UHF clashes with the channel usually used for VCR inputs caused problems.)
It was also the year when I decided on my entry to the fifth generation of console gaming. I was a Sega girl, from Master System to Mega Drive, and when a certain sexy black beast caught my eye in a Christmas catalogue my fate was set.
There in the back of the Dixons catalogue sat the Sega Saturn, coming with two free games. Sega Rally was one, the other? Sonic Jam.
All four classic Sonic games, on one disc?
My set fate was now sealed, bound and covered in concrete.
I carefully took the catalogue into the lounge and found my Mum, and asked very nicely if I could have a Sega Saturn for Christmas. She inhaled, the sort of intake of breath that a builder or other craftsman would make before they delivered a ludicrous price for work.
"It's rather expensive." She stated. I could only nod to that.
"You know you won't get many other presents if Father Christmas did bring this?" She counselled.
It was at around that point that I started rabbiting on about how Sonic Jam wasn't just one Sonic game, it was four Sonic games in one with lock on capability and- she wasn't interested.
"Put it on your list, and we'll have to see what Father Christmas brings."
Running to my room, I grabbed a sheet of lined A4 paper and scribbled down bold and underlined right at the top of the page 'Sega Saturn with Sonic Jam and Sega Rally!'
Possibly with more exclamation marks.
Late in November, my parents went up to the nearest city to do their big Christmas shop. On that day at school, I kept my fingers crossed that in one of the multitude of bags there would be a boxed Saturn soon to be wrapped and tagged with my name on.
It would be my first console. -My- first console. Not my brother's, handed down or borrowed, but all mine shiny and new out of the box.
I got an early notification that my wish came true. Standing in a newsagents, a copy of Sonic the Comic under one arm, I looked at the pocket money in my hand and the copy of the Official UK Sega Saturn Magazine sitting on the shelf, next to titles like Official Nintendo Magazine, CVG and PC Zone. On the front of the cover was a demo disc of sorts.
Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams... A festive, miniature version of a Saturn game.
"Muuuuuuuuuum? Could I get this magazine as well?" I asked.
"You could, if you wanted." She said in the same tone of voice that her other festive favourite phrase was spoken in: "You'll have to wait and see."
A change of tactics. "Should I get this Sega Saturn Magazine?"
"It might be an idea to."
I resisted the urge to dance a jig of glee and picked up a copy (making sure the disc was on there, and hadn't been nicked by some little sod, as sods are wont to do) and rushed to the till. While Mum did the shopping at the supermarket, I poured over the magazine in the car while listening to local radio, seeing cool games that I'd hope to buy in quality far greater than my 4th gen consoles or my 486 Win95 PC could provide.
As December hit, Christmas was a decreasing amount of chocolate-y advent calender doors away. When that morning came, I woke up at an insanely early hour. Dragging my stocking into my room, I opened up the little presents while having the TV on quietly, watching all sorts of early morning TV fare. Time came for us to gather in the lounge and assume positions.
The radio would be on, the lights on the tree twinkling, and Mum, Dad and I would have a cup of tea in hand. Mum sat by the tree, passing presents out and reminding us to check the tags before destroying the wrapping paper with the fervour and frenzy of an agitated badger. A slim box was passed to me.
"To Ellen, with lots of love, Mum & Dad X X X X"
I read the card out, and destroyed the paper. Sega Rally was in my hands.
Another slim box. Again my talons tore through seasonal wrappings. Sonic Jam was present.
A large box was handed over carefully.
"To Ellen, have a happy Christmas, love Mum & Dad"
I peeled the paper back carefully. A blue sphere, surrounded by a ring of graphics. Sitting just off-centre in the ring was the Model 2 Sega Saturn. A sleek black body. Three grey buttons on the unit. That gorgeous six face two shoulder controller with D-pad. The box went to one side as I ran to hug Mum, to hug Dad. And then all the presents were gone and I carried my hoard to my room.
There was no need to read the manual. I knew what the machine needed. With deft grace I plugged the cables into the back and placed it on the recently vacated space on my TV unit. TV on. Channel 6 (UHF 36. Incidentally, problem frequency for Channel Five). Console on.
I set the system time and date, grabbed my Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams... disc and placed it in the tray.
Most of Christmas morning was spent playing that game, flying around collecting shining gems, freeing Ideya, hatching Nightopians and fighting Gillwing. On each boss defeat, I could match presents and unlock further treats from art and sound to a version that let you run around as Sonic the Hedgehog himself. (That version is sadly missing from the HD release.)
I played Sonic Jam, diving head first into Sonic 3 and Knuckles. I drove like a maniac in Sega Rally. I tried out the demo disc that came with the console. I was hooked. The future was here, and it was glorious.
A few days later, Dad took me into town. Heading to my favourite computer game store, I browsed the ranks of second hand games and picked up bargains galore. Virtua Fighter 2, Panzer Dragoon, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, GunGriffon, Fighting Vipers, Cyber Troopers Virtual On. Over the course of the Christmas break and beyond I dove into those games and had hours of fun.
Birthdays and Christmases would come in 1998 and 1999, where I would get more games for my system. I put hours into Panzer Dragoon Saga after trying the demo disc (which was all of Disc 1 of 4) from Sega Saturn Magazine. I dove around future buildings as a fire fighter in Burning Rangers. I raced to 90's Eurodance in Sonic R, and mastered the full version of NiGHTs into Dreams.
The Saturn would be phased out in '99, to make way for the Dreamcast. It would be a few years before I picked mine up, at the end of its lifespan. I love that machine like no other, my favourite gaming console of all time. But part of my heart will always belong to the Sega Saturn.
It was my machine. My first console. My first big Christmas present. Through hard times from bullying it was there to help me lift my spirits with a cry of a dragon, the roar of fires extinguished or the stomp of a mighty mecha. Sixteen years on the console works as well as the day I first took it out of its box.
On December 1st, all those years back, I would have been dreaming about playing it. Now I don't need to dream. I can just take it out of its storage case, plug in a controller and play some Fighters Megamix, or brawl in Dynamite Cop/Die Hard Arcade.
Things have changed a lot since that 1997 Christmas. We've moved house. Dad passed away on Christmas Eve in 2011. I cared for him as terminal cancer took hold, right up until that last moment.
When NiGHTS into Dreams HD came out last year, December 17th, I rushed through the game to unlock the Christmas mode. When Gillwing had been defeated as both Elliot and Claris, the acapella version of the ending theme started and I broke down in tears.
For a brief moment, I was expecting a gruff call from Dad to shut the console off, put on my boots and coat and go out for a post-lunch Christmas walk (while Mum relaxed on the sofa with a glass of sherry and Top of the Pops on the TV. A reprieve from my grandfather, my brothers and I.)
But that's the thing about gaming that I love. There's the memories of the games and systems, and the memories I associate with them. Of gifts given, controllers pressed into unsure hands and patient nodding while I explained just why I couldn't turn the system off at that point and had to play longer to find a save point.
"Five more minutes."