SEGA MEGADRIVE/GENESIS/SUPER 32X AREA | HISTORY FEATURE

SEGA 32X
SEGA 32X

Welcome to the Next Level!

The 32X was part of SEGAs bold plans to bring more advanced arcade hits of the time into the home and aid the Mega Drive/Genesis in combating the Super Nintendo (SNES) in order to extend its lifespan and test the waters of the embryonic 32-Bit gaming market.

It became one of the first 32-Bit casualties.

In a bizarre duality - the mushroom shaped peripheral made consoles look messy but moreover its execution revealed even messier internal workings at SEGA that ultimately made them an enemy of their own platform angering their consumers and fans alike enough to damage their efforts to win the upcoming 32-Bit console war.

Inception

At the start of 1994, there were discussions about whether to prolong the Mega Drive/Genesis hardware which was still performing very well or let it reach its 'natural' conclusion. There had been a successful experiment of sorts in the form of Virtua Racing which carried some extra processing power inside its cartridge to produce some impressive graphics.

Still the next generation was coming. But there was no point giving up on it yet.

It was actually SoJ who originated the idea of having a 32-Bit cartridge-based console on the market by the end of 1994. The driver being that the Saturn would not have completed its global launch by late 1995, the first 32-Bit competitors were already on the horizon in the form of the Atari Jaguar and the 3DO, and Nintendo were still fully behind the SNES with some impressive results.

SEGAs position had been touting new superior technology in their products and there would be almost 2 years where they had none. They may potentially get another more year out of the Mega Drive and it needed to be prolonged.

It was to be an inexpensive 'Mega Drive 2' providing a graphical boost to make up for the original consoles 64 colour palette (which it had always been a limiting factor) but would maintain backwards compatibility for all current games and peripherals.

A Mr Joe Miller, Head of SoA R & D disagreed with this idea. He thought these benefits should be available to all Mega Drive/Genesis owners. Discussions between engineering teams concluded an add-on would be better. He took charge of development that would become the 32X.

Miller has stated in interviews that the decision to produce an upgrade as opposed to a separate console was simply cost reduction and better for the existing customer base. Miller also states that the final design of the 32X was the most cost effective out of all the solutions proposed.

Dubbed 'Project Mars' (in line with SEGAs planetary R&D naming) a few designs made it into some prototype form. The final version borrowed the Saturn's (now redesigned) architecture specifically the Hitachi SH-2 CPUs (at lower clock speeds) giving third-party developers experience with this architecture (Parallel RISC) and the borrowing of some Saturn architecture to make the product more compelling.

Decent polygon rendering capabilities could be achieved with a new custom VDP that greatly expanded the colour palette, a new audio chip, and even the Mega-CD/SEGA CD utilised for greatly expanded storage.

With hardware ratified software needed to be prepared – and this is where issues began to arise.

There was agreement both SoA and SoJ prepare games but with SoJ understandably occupied with Saturn, development kits arrived early before the launch date resulting in games being rushed. One of the games biggest hits (Sar Wars) was done in 4 months. SEGA had quietly hired an array on contracted programmers to create games quickly resulting in an uneven and messy library of games.

The system was first shown at the 1994 CES as a CD-ROM system (complete with Mega-CD/SEGA-CD) system running cartridge-based demos of Bullet Fighters (which became Stellar Assault), Ultimate Fighting (which became Cosmic Carnage) and a Cinepak (FMV) demo using Ecco the Dolphin. The new abilities bestowed onto the original hardware were very impressive. It was a technical feat getting all this hardware to operate correctly.

At this time being '94, SEGA was in a state of internal confusion over the upcoming Saturn as future events would soon reveal. An internal split between the two major entities in the organisation had already formed.

Over the following months, magazines hyped the system for all it was worth. Examples include some shocking comments (exaggerated) from the heads of SoE as to the systems abilities in Official SEGA Magazine. SoA pushed the 32X even going as far as staging 'Gamers Day' in June 1994 where the launch titles and the third-party developers currently signed up were revealed. It impressed the potential buyers.

Images of a full 3D Sonic game surfaced, immediately presumed as Sonic 4 with no actual proof. This polarized many a Sonic Fan who waited anxiously for more news of this 'game'.

Unfortunately, the system also stoked up the internal rifts at SEGA with the Saturn quietly in development back in Japan, kept at arm's length from their US colleagues SoJ pretty much ignored the system instead priming Saturn.

Regional Histories in Brief

There is little to report due to being on sale for such a brief period. As an aside, the ordering of the region history is significant.

Europe

Launched: November 14th 1994 Available Titles: Doom, Star Wars Arcade, Virtua Racing Deluxe.

The Mega Drive 32X launched in Europe with considerable buzz surrounding it already and unusually launched here first even if it was only a week earlier. The Official SEGA magazine had been hyping the platform for a good 8 months and the launch titles were a solid line-up.

Virtua Racing Deluxe – an upgraded port of the arcade classic with more tracks and more vehicles, Star Wars Arcade which had proven very popular in the arcades along with the eagerly awaited first console port of Doom.

It had a high price of £169.99 which did not include a game. SEGA, however, ran a promotion of money off tokens for buying games totalling £50 when purchasing a unit.

Despite the high price, initially the system sold moderately well particularly in the UK. Europe was still SEGAs stronghold with orders exceeding demand.

Prior to launch magazines including the official SEGA Magazine were filled with questions from potential buyers asking whether to get a 32X or wait for the Saturn months prior to launch. The advice was to buy a 32X because the Saturn would not be out for ages.

It suffered the same fate as the other markets; lack of games and good ones especially. The 'stop-gap' image was again perceived by consumers in Europe and the platforms long-term viability quickly came into question with the surprise Saturn launch in the US and then it being brought forward for Europe also.

The price dropped to £99 (the same as the Mega-CD) and soon vanished from shelves.

It was discontinued within 18 months with games costing £10 and those could be direct from SEGA.

Some 35,000 units sold in the UK with 10,000 in other European countries.

The PAL 32X did have two exclusive games: FIFA Soccer '96 and Darxide.

Last title: DarXide. – Now the most expensive in its library due to its rarity.

North America

Launched: 21st November 1994 Available Titles: Doom, Star Wars Arcade, Virtua Racing Deluxe

The Genesis 32X was launched at the cost of $170 - $10 more than predicted - not including a game as envisaged. It was backed by a somewhat cheeky marketing campaign depicting what would happen when two entities come together to make one – in this case an arcade system - and with the same solid line-up as Europe. It was well received by gamers and the gaming press. It sold very well with a vast majority being on the Thanksgiving Weekend alone.

1995

600,000 units had sold and it looked promising for the months and hopefully years ahead.

A minor problem was reported where the hardware would not work with some base Genesis consoles but this was fixed by a terminator adaptor issued free by SEGA. The 32X was revised to prevent this.

Whilst the launch games did well to define the device, the second batch did not. After Burner (Complete) and Space Harrier although perfect ports of arcade classic were ancient and not a demonstration of what the system could do. This was along with the widely derided Motocross Championship. None of these impressed.

By now gamers had also realised that Doom was not as complete as the PC version and the audio was not particularly good either.

Shadow of Atlantis – a point and click adventure game that was advertised on the box of the unit was cancelled. It failed to show on the Saturn also. The much-publicised Project Neptune had quietly vanished. By the time the prototype was ready the Saturn was prepped for launch and considered unprofitable.

Then came a game draught with nothing seemingly on the horizon for Q2 of 95.

With the games library so weak seemingly full of Genesis colour palette upgrades, the Saturn and its full 32-Bit 3D revolutionary gaming several months away – sales plummeted and never recovered.

The much-advertised Metal Head that was to be a launch title showcasing the systems texture mapping abilities slipped past the launch date.

It was hoped that a Sonic spinoff game in the form of Knuckles' Chaotix would provide a dose of platforming. It failed to impress.

The last hope lay with the port of Virtua Fighter yet a seemingly superior version was on its way with the Saturn. It later turned out the 32X version would be better in several regards and another showcase game for the platform.

Unfortunately, this did not last as the slow release of games meant that people soon forgot about the platform and with the full 32-Bit consoles just months away people began saving their cash even though price was quickly dropped to $99 (September 95)

The early launch of the Saturn confused and played into the stop-gap image and likewise for devs who simply began to look past it.

The release rate of games on fed the stop-gap image that the platform had from the moment it was announced. Older games ported, whilst still great, did not deliver on the hype.

1996

The price had dropped to $50 and games to $20 in order to clear space for Saturn stock.

The last release was The Amazing Spiderman: Web of Fire in 1996.

Japan

Launched: December 3rd 1994 Available Titles: Doom, Space Harrier, Star Wars Arcade.

It was originally thought that SoJ were not going to release the system as there seemed no point as the Saturn was to be released much sooner there than anywhere else. Eventually they did under the name of Super 32X and oddly a month after the Saturn launched thus the plan for the 32X to keep the Mega Drive relevant failed almost immediately.

The system received only a handful of titles, far less than the other territories.

Suffice to say both consumers and SEGA themselves offered very little interest and sales were very low. Some 270,000 units were thought to have sold.

This region did have on exclusive title. It was an entry in the popular turn-based tactical RPG franchise being Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV: Wall of Fire.

Final Title: Stellar Assault (Shadow Squadron) in April 1995 (to be confirmed)

Legacy

It is unclear how many units sold worldwide but sources suggest this is > 2 million. Surplus hardware was recycled into another SEGA product the Picture Magic graphics tablet which interfaced with the Digio SJ-1 camera and PriFun printer.

It was officially abandoned in October 1995, when SEGA's CEO, Hayao Nakayama, ordered that the 32X and other SEGA consoles be cancelled in order to focus resources on the Saturn.

The 32X is destined to live out in obscurity only in the minds of gamers (even retro ones) when thinking of blunders by companies and with such small library gamers are hardly swapping memories playing them.

Being available for less than 18 months and a library of approx. 40 games (6 on CD-ROM) its legacy is essentially laying of foundations for negativity for the company that created it.

Whilst a decent idea, it was never going to work. SEGA should have saw it. Whilst no one at SEGA publicly acknowledged it was really a way to test the 32-Bit waters before the Saturn would arrive, many consumers knew it was a stop-gap product and was even dubbed a "band aid" by Trip Hawkins. But SoAs publicity suggested otherwise.

Consumer confusion was certainly at play. Examine any of the letter's pages from the likes of Official SEGA Magazine of gamers asking which console they should get and the advice was to get one because the Saturn would be way off – and suddenly that was not true. Gamers already saw it as a Saturn-lite. Considering it was struggling from a game draught almost from the beginning, the advanced launch of the Saturn doomed it to irrelevance almost overnight.

The games themselves never delivered on their promises and comments from industry people of the time suggests it would never have done. They were mostly 2D and rushed with some even shipping with programming errors. Generally, they were upgraded Mega Drive/Genesis games and considering the cost many people skipped it. The combined Mega-CD/SEGA-CD setup was said to cause confusion for some but this could be an exaggeration considering there was only 6 games in the format.

Whilst it is not the fault of the platform it, there's no doubt its prompt vanishing after such a short time with no forwards compatibility provided with the Saturn made those who invested feel cheated.

The only positive aspects are that it did little to deter gamers from the base system which continued to do well, and in fairness to SoA, it showed they could mobilise very well. Getting a new platform to market and with some solid launch titles in less than a year was a very impressive feat.

Lessons for the industry at large were that console add-ons are not a wise idea nor it is to compete with yourself in the market place.

The 32X Today

So today, the 32X experience is usually reserved for the most ardent of SEGA fans and collectors. The setup is clunky (especially if having a Mega-CD/SEGA CD also) and it's somewhat buggy.

Those who investigate will find the price of the hardware is increasing rather quickly and the prices of the games even more so with selling for insane amounts of money - some as high as £500! It can be difficult to find both online and in retro game shops.

Software preservation is good with working emulators on a few platforms with the PC being the best which is thankful considering the hiking costs of the hardware and software.

The only new piece of 32X hardware (although this is stretched) are the mini non-functional upgrades of the Mega-CD and 32X for the completist look of the Mega Drive Mini console released.

To this day SEGA have not re-released a single 32X title. There is a market for Knuckles' Chaotix (created by those who have not played it) and is was speculated it would appear in one of the several Sonic compilation titles, this is usually for the curious because anyone having played the game knows it does not hold-up well. There is also a desire for Virtua Racing Deluxe as it is generally regarded as a quality port.

Community websites that exist for the Mega Drive/Genesis will also have some 32X content offering discussions, historical finds, reviews and other content such as soundtracks, game hacks and prototype/unreleased games now surfacing.

Very little homebrew development has taken place in the last 10 years and there are some remnants of initiated projects around.


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