There’s an interesting phenomenon on the internet. If an event took place before the internet was widespread, then the online world sometimes builds up a legend, which is then accepted as history, but in reality is skewed.
SEGA’s 32X console suffers from this peculiar happening. It’s commonly thought that the 32-bit add-on console was a failure from the start, had no original software, sold poorly, and was canned as a result, and led to consumers swearing off SEGA, and maybe a few death threats. I don’t know. I’ve even been told that these machines are “rare,” if you can believe that.
This is the true story of the SEGA Genesis 32X.
Going back in time to 1993, Trip Hawkins had just released the 3DO Multiplayer. This device was the first truly “next-gen” console. Outside of the arcades, it was the first to take 3D and make it look good. It looked really good. In fact, it was on par with some early efforts on the Sony PlayStation that would hit America two years later.
All the while SEGA executives saw this and wanted to respond. They wanted in on the next generation, but weren’t quite ready. On January 8, 1994, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, CEO Hayao Nakayama ordered his top lieutenants to design a 32-bit cartridge-based console and to have it ready by Christmas.
They had a number of ideas. The first of which was to simply upgrade the current Sega Genesis by doubling the color pallet and improving the sounds. Even today these are the chief complaints of the hardware.
Joe Miller, head of special project at SEGA of America, wouldn’t go for it, and for good reason. By this time there had over 30 million consoles installed in homes. These consumers would have little motivation to buy the new hardware, and developers would have little to design software to take advantage of it.
At the meeting, Miller is quoted as saying, “If all you’re going to do is enhance the system, you should make an add-on. If it’s a new system, with legitimate software, great. But if the only thing it does is double the colors…” Thus “Project Mars” was born, which would eventually become known as 32X.
Yet another idea was to not make a new console at all and go the route of Nintendo and add an actual graphics chip to the Genesis cartridge. This was test marketed in March 1994 with the $99.99 release of Virtua Racing. The much hyped “SVP” chip (which stood for Super Virtual Processor), despite good sales even at such a high price point, would never be tried again for fear of stealing thunder from the impending 32X.
At this time here was a great divide between SEGA of Japan and SEGA of America. What Miller and his Project Mars team didn’t know is that SEGA of Japan already had a project of their own completely under wraps; Project Jupiter, a 32-bit standalone cartridge based next-gen console. In summer of ’94, the Japanese argued that the 16-bit Genesis should be abandoned completely and be replaced by its successor.
While in its homeland, Genesis, there known as MegaDrive, was being killed in the marketplace, in the United States in was the leading console. It made no sense to abandon it. This was all the more reason to release 32X and extend the life of the aging Genesis. After all, there were already over 30 million households to sell it to.
The 32X made Nakayama’s Christmas deadline, and just barely, launching on December 4, 1994. SEGA has promised to ship one million units for launch, but was only able to muster around 400,000 thousand. The 32X sold out everywhere.
Its “killer apps” were Star Wars Arcade, Virtua Racing Deluxe, and DOOM. Star Wars is a space rail shooter where up to two players (pilot and gunner) battle tie fighters through asteroid fields, storm an Imperial Cruiser, navigate the trenches of the Death Star, and fly inside of it, be dazzled incredible 3D graphics, and blow it up. It sold nearly 1:1 with the console.
DOOM was a competent port, but it was rushed to make launch, leaving behind low resolution, a lot of levels, and a dumbed down sound track.
Virtua Racing Deluxe strived to be more arcade perfect than the Genesis version, and added in extras as incentive for gamers to buy it.
A 2D fighting game, Cosmic Carnage, was also a launch title, but the game is total crap. The promise of future releases, such as Virtua Fighter and Knuckles’ Chaotix also helped drive the sales. The low $169.99 price point didn’t hurt either.
By Christmas a few more games would be released, and you could even rent them at any Blockbuster Video location. In a large part, thanks to the 32X, SEGA beat back Nintendo and their hit Donkey Kong Country that year and led in sales. But 1994 would be the last year that SEGA would ever be number one.
So, there you have it. An add-on console, that in the words of SEGA of America CEO Tom Kalinske, “was designed to be an interim piece and to prolong the life of the 16-bit platform,” had a smashingly successful launch with great games and embarked on the mission it was created to fulfill, to keep the Genesis relevant until the real next generation could begin.
Designs for “Project Neptune,” a standalone Genesis/32X console was already in the works, and was in the prototype and mock-up stages of development.
What Went Wrong
First, Japan’s “Project Jupiter” ditched the cartridge idea in favor of cheaper, but slower loading, CD technology. It became what we now know as the SEGA Saturn.
At first folks at SEGA of America weren’t worried. The price point was too high and software wasn’t ready. The cheaper Genesis and 32X could still drive SEGA’s sales well into 1996 when the Saturn could be ready for a fall launch.
At the same time that news of the Saturn began to leak out, software availability for the 32X dried up. The console became the victim of shovelware. Sure, it saw plenty of releases, but mostly ports of Genesis games that looked marginally better, and that were only marginally good in the first place.
These are games such as NFL Quarterback Club, Brutal: Above the Claw, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, and Primal Rage. Every 32X CD game is a rehash of a Digital Pictures FMV game, like Night Trap. These were publishers looking to sell a few more copies.
During this time some good software was released. Mortal Kombat II for 32X remains the best arcade port of its day. The same goes for NBA JAM T.E. But these are exceptions. And still, few people wanted to re-purchase games they’ve already played.
But great software did begin to appear. Shadow Squadron, a 3D space simulator, Metal Head, a 3D first person mech shooter, Virtua Fighter, Knuckles’ Chaotix, and more came to the market, and 32X sales began to lift again. But then SEGA made the biggest bonehead move of their history.
It’s common in internet mythology that the 32X and SEGA CD left a bad taste in people’s mouth, which led to the decline of SEGA. That’s not entirely true. In fact, it’s not really true at all. The SEGA CD was an expensive piece of hardware that was marketed to, and purchased by, a particular demographic, and it had a decent library. The 32X was inexpensive, and though it didn’t last very long, it had some great games that left almost no one disappointed. The bungling of the SEGA Saturn… that’s what burned consumers.
In early 1995 SEGA announced that the Saturn would be coming to the U.S. on September 2, 1995, which would be quickly followed by the PlayStation, on September 9, 1995. Apparently, as SEGA of Japan execs got more info on PlayStation, they freaked. It’s widely assumed they presumed that only with a substantial lead could they overcome their new competitor. Consequently, on May 11, 1995, at the first ever E3, Tom Kalinske announced that Saturn was releasing immediately, and through select retailers.
This was a problem. Most retailers didn’t get a piece of the action. SEGA didn’t get to build up hype to the launch. They didn’t get enough games ready. Consumers didn’t get to pre-order it. It was a total disaster. And this was right as the 32X was hitting its stride. (The surprise launch tactic turned out to be wasted, as Sony outsold Saturn in 1995, despite the four month head start.) Kalinske would later admit that he never wanted to release the Saturn at all.
In the chaos that ensued, developers began to back off of the 32X. Planned software, ready to take 32X to the next level, vanished into vapor. Games such as a 3D sequel to Comix Zone, Shell Shock (later released for PlayStation), Virtua Hamster, Castlevania: The Bloodletting (became Symphony of the Night), X-Men: Mind Games, and the list goes on and on. Many of them were some goddamned excellent games.
DarXide, developed by Frontier Developments, is one game that shows off where the 32X was headed with its use of texture mapping. You won’t find it, though. It was intended to be a Neptune launch title, and only saw a very limited release in the U.K. It sells rarely, and when it does it goes for about $1,200.
After performing poorly in the lead up to the 1995 holiday season, SEGA announced that it would discontinue Game Gear, SEGA CD, and the 32X. They cited “consumer confusion” and that their focus would now be on Saturn.
We consumers weren’t confused, however. We knew that the Saturn was too expensive and didn’t have enough software yet. We knew that the 32X was a cheap 32-bit gaming platform that could’ve lasted us another year. It wasn’t to be, though. The last 32X game was released in January 1996.
Today, the 32X is hardly remembered. The people who owned one remember it fondly. Those who didn’t have one remember the sexually charged marketing and the flash of success that it had. The people who weren’t there and have never played one only know the popular internet myth about how the 32X sunk SEGA and made gamers angry, perhaps even homicidal. Of course, none of that it true. It was a great system with a hand full of excellent games that made it more than worthwhile both then and today.