SegaBase
Volume 5 - Sega/Mega/Super 32X/CD 32X

by Sam Pettus (aka "the Scribe")

Provided courtesy of

 
Project Mars: Anatomy of a Failure
REVISED EDITION
 
The stage is set

     In 1993, the Sega Genesis finally uncrowned the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) as the number one videogame console in the highly profitable North American marketplace.  They had been gaining on the videogame giant for some time, and the dethroning of their rival was a sweet taste long remembered ... while it lasted, that is.
     It was also the year that Sega saw the handwriting on the wall.
     Nintendo had not been thrown off by the release of the MegaDrive to the Japanese market in late 1989.  They had continued to develop their own 16-bit videogame console at a leisurely pace, content that the Famicom (NES) would continue its worldwide domination of the home console market.  They already had a strong worldwide market established for their products, and decided to take their time in coming up with a console that would meet their marketing needs.  Also, the existing Nintendo distribution pipeline could be used for the new console, so there was no hurry.  Thus it was that Nintendo's 16-bit videogame console did not hit the Japanese market until 1990.  It was universally derided by critics as overhyped and underpowered, but as expected took the Nintendo-dominated Japanese market by storm.
     The Super Famicom (SFC) had arrived.
Nintendo SNESSega Genesis/MegaDrive     In a surprising move, Nintendo did not immediately move to bring the SFC to Western shores.  NES sales were still strong overseas, and it appeared that the Genesis (the Western MegaDrive) and Hudson's Turbo Graph/X (the Western PC Engine) were floundering against their older competition.  All of that changed the following year, however, when Yuji Naka's Sonic the Hedgehog hit the Genesis gaming scene.  Because of this one game, this one fantastic and legendary platformer which finally gave Sega the corporate mascot they so sorely needed, Sega eventually seized control of the much-coveted North American market.  It was a hard-fought prize that they would not willingly relinquish.  Nintendo would resort to every trick in the book (and then some) to get it back, but the one that eventually worked was the only one that could have worked.  Nintendo decided to rush the SFC to the North American market.  This meant that it couldn't build up and hype the console as well as they did the NES, but Nintendo was a paitent company.  Their name had become synonymous with home videogames (i.e. "Let's go play Nintendo"), and they were confident that their new system would eventually help them regain their market dominance.  They had a virtual stranglehold on third-party development of videogames, and potential users could rest assured that "the good stuff" would most likely be exclusive to them or make it to their console first.  Besides, the upstart Sega had it coming to them - how dare they steal the spotlight so brashly!  The Super Famicom finally saw its North American debut on 9 September 1991, and its debut title was none other than Super Mario World.
     The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (aka Super NES, SNES) had arrived.  Sega's market superiority in the Americas was now doomed.

     It is easy to see why Sega was so concerned about the Super Nintendo.  While it may have lacked the sheer processing power of the Genesis, its audiovisual capabilities were far superior.  It could do graphic tricks that a stock Genesis could not, such as sprite scaling and rotation.  It had better and richer FM synthesized stereo sound.  Moreover, almost from the get-go, Nintendo and its developers started designing custom chips into certain cartridges that would provide the extra "oomph" that the stock console lacked.  Oh, and let's not forget the worldwide popularity of the Mario and Zelda franchises, either.  Super Mario World was an instant hit. Shooters such as Gradius III, Super Metroid, and the legendary Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie (which never saw an American release) showed that the SNES could be every bit the arcade plaformer that the Genesis was for those who knew how to work around its weaknesses.  In addition, RPGs such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Final Fantasy III made the SNES the plaform of choice for fans of that genre.  It had taken Sega just over three years to wrest the number one spot away from Nintendo.  Sega had to act, and soon, otherwise Nintendo would reclaim the throne.
     A variety of approaches were considered by Sega's development teams, ranging from the practical to the esoteric.  Sega already had plans for a number of new consoles on the drawing boards, and one or more of these seemed the most likely approach.  There was also the idea of adding support via custom chips inside the carts, just as Nintendo and its licensees were doing, and a development team was soon tasked to look into that possibility.  There was also the lessons to be learned with the relative failure of the Sega CD, that while both innovative and comparable to a stock SNES suffered from low sales due to a poor program base.  The sad reality is that Sega CD was a console ahead of its time, as the market was not quite ready for CD-based videogames.  Neither was the technology, for that matter, and gamers never really warmed to the idea of interactive movies, either.  As a result, the Sega CD failed miserably, and Nintendo continued to gain on Sega's lead.  The SNES was playing a good job at catch-up in the console wars, and it seemed inevitable that it would pass the Genesis in the North American market as soon as it possibly could.  Something had to be done, and quickly.
     This is where Project Mars enters the picture.

The birth of Project Mars

     Sega actually had several different projects going simultaneously aimed at developing new versions or incarnations of its videogame console hardware for home use.  Some of these were significant variations of the tried and true Genesis, some were based on arcade hardware, and some were entirely new animals altogether.  These are known as the "planet" series, because each was supposedly code-named for the different planets of the Solar System.  While this picture is not very accurate, nevertheless it serves as a good reference point for the average gamer or consumer.  I'm sure that most of you are by now familiar with Project Saturn - the CD-ROM console that started out as the Sega GigaDrive and then evolved into its own.  Let's move inward across the Solar System as we look at this and two other such projects.

  • Project Neptune was intended to be an upgraded Genesis console, with the enhancements consisting primarily of added 32-bit processing and added audiovisual capabilities.  This is actually not the best time to discuss Neptune, though, as it evolved directly from Project Mars.  We shall leave this design concept alone for now.
  • Project Saturn, is likewise best left alone as well.  It was to be a 32-bit console built from the ground up, utilizing the same CD-ROM technology that had first been tried with the Sega CD.  You know it today as the machine it eventually became, the Sega Saturn.
  • Project Mars is the one upon which we need to focus.  It was the one that produced Sega's first 32-bit videogame system for retail sales.  You know it as the 32X.  How it evolved from drawing board to plastic mushroom is an intersting tale in and of itself, and gives and interesting peek into Sega's confused state of mind at this time with regards to its future videogame console plans.
    The system that would be known as Project Mars was given birth on 8 January 1994, the night before the opening of the 1994 Winter CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, in a hotel room during a conference among top-level Sega executives from both Japan and America.  Those present at this meeting included Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama, Sega of America president Tom Kalinske, his special assistant Joe Miller, Sega of Japan's Hideki Sato, Sega of America's Paul Rioux, and a couple of other Sega of Japan personnel.  Surprisingly enough, Nakayama was the one who first broached the subject at this meeting.  As such, it is he and not Sega of America's Joe Miller who should be given credit as being "the father of the 32X."  Miller remembers this meeting well.
Hayao Nakayama - the father of the 32XQuite simply, Nakayama-san had directed the company to design and produce a cartridge-based 32-bit platform and bring it to market before the Christmas selling season of 1994.  This was a lengthy, somewhat heated meeting - but in the end there was no question that Sega of Japan (in the form of a classic Nakayama mandate) had determined that this was what we were going to do.  It was [now] up to the senior team to figure out and go execute.  The difference, this time, was that Sega of Japan was actually inviting Sega of America into the process - instead of creating new platforms in a vacuum and throwing them over the ocean at us when it was too late to have meaningful input .... Sega of Japan was completely committed and was [ready to] mobilize whatever internal resources were require to finish the design and produce it in quantity for Christmas.
As first presented by Hideki Sato and his team of engineers, the original concept for Mars was little more than a Genesis with an extra 32-bit processor (a Hitachi SH-1, according to some reports) and an expanded color palette (128 out of 512 possible colors on screen).   Joe Miller, who was in fact chief technical wizard at Sega of America, was appalled at the suggestion.  "That is a horrible idea," he told them.  "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 ...."  There was some grumbling about this, but in the end Sega of Japan conceeded the point.  They had several other hardware projects in the works, so this one was to be left up to the Americans.  Mars was to be Sega of America's baby, although senior management staff from Sega of Japan would be present and oversee it through to production.  By the time all was said and done that could be accomplished at that meeting, Nakayama was so excited at the prospect of Project Mars that he wanted its "core senior design team" to leave CES before it had even started and get started working on the new system right away.  Miller, Sato, and the rest wound up attending the rest of the show, but went ahead and began the process during a series of late night meetings in Miller's hotel room over the next four days.
     What Miller and his associates at Sega of America did not know at the time was that Sega of Japan already had another competing 32-bit nextgen console design under wraps back at home.  They would not learn about this new system until work on Project Mars was already well underway.

Virtua Racing (Genesis SVP version)     Project Mars was actually conceived in parallel to another scheme, one that allowed a stock Genesis to play games utilizing special features not found on the console by use of custom chipsets inside the cart itself.  It seemed a natural enough approach, as Nintendo was already doing this for the SNES with their Super FX processor and Capcom was doing the same with their C4 chip.  The Super Virtual Play (SVP) concept was thus born, and all three of Sega's current 32-bit AM2 arcade wonders - Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter, and Virtua Racing - were considered to test the idea.  These are the only confirmed SVP carts, although there are a few reports that SVP treatments of both Virtua Fighting and Star Wars Arcade were also briefly considered. Virtua Racing was the title that was finally chosen to test the technology, and it also wound up as the only SVP cart ever released.  It proved too expensive for Sega to continue developing, and thus the SVP concept died a premature death.  Project Mars would prove to be the superior approach to such sophisticated arcade conversions on Genesis hardware.
Sega Saturn (J)     It has been intimated over the passing years that Project Mars shared similarities in design with the system that would later be publicized as Project Jupiter, the abandoned nextgen 32-bit cart-only console supposedly conceived by Sega of Japan alone and carefully kept under wraps from Sega of America until it was eventually abandoned.  This would have meant that carts designed for use with Mars would have also worked in a Jupiter console, and there was also talk about a Jupiter-inspired cart adaptor for Sega's other 32-bit console, which was even then already in development.  Back-compatability with currently owned games is the dream of many home videogame players, and several reports about Project Jupiter were somehow leaked to the public.  While Sega did hint at times that a 16-bit path to its up-and-coming 32-bit technology was possible, they never actually committed themselves to this idea except for the 32X.  As it turned out, what was reported by many gaming magazines at the time as Project Jupiter was nothing more than the original conception for Project Mars - a dedicated 32-bit cartridge console based on Genesis technology..  Also, as we now know, Sega of Japan had by this point already decided to make a total break from carts and was doing so with Project Saturn - the direct result of its experimentation with Sega CD.  The cart adapter for the Saturn that would have permitted the use of Genesis and 32X games never existed, except as wistful thinking on the part of many a Sega fan.  Such a device would have been an expensive and unnecessary oddity for what was now a CD-ROM based console.  In retrospect, it might not have been a bad idea, but Sega of Japan had other plans.

     While Sega of Japan kept its 32-bit ace up its sleeve for as long as it could, Hideki Sato and his senior engineering staff continued to assist Joe Miller and his team over at Sega of America in shaping Project Mars into a workable product.  Their avowed goal was to come up with a means of assisting a standard Genesis console in playing 32-bit videogames.  The ideal system would be a low-cost, high-performance upgrade path that would give the Genesis superior performance versions of the much-lauded "missing" features found in the SNES.  In addition, it would also have to both support and enhance the Sega CD, as the existence and availability of the Genesis CD-ROM accessory would permit larger and more sophisticated titles than could be achieved by cartridge alone.  The end result would be a powerful, low-cost add-on that would plug into the catridge port of a stock Genesis and turn it into a 32-bit machine.  At least three initial design concepts were proposed for the Mars production unit, according to Miller's recollections.  The first would have resulted in a Genesis hybrid akin to some of Sega's custom arcade cabinets from the late 1980s, such as Space Harrier and After Burner 2, which would have sported twin Motorola MC68000 CPUs and an additional VDP.  Nobody was really happy with this one, since it was not that much of an improvement over the Genesis itself.  The second appears to have been something of an interim design adding another VDP and a single Hitachi SH-1 RISC CPU instead of the extra MC68000, not all that different from an SVP-equipped Genesis, but this too was eventually scrapped due to cost and production issues.  The third was a more powerful design suggested by Sega of Japan engineers that sported twin Hitachi SH-2 RISC CPUs and a more powerful VDP than its two earlier incarnations.  It was a complex approach, to be sure, but there was a reason for it.  Sega of Japan's next console, details of which they were slowly beginning to unveil to their American colleagues, would have similar processing architecture.  If Sega's third parties became accustomed to working with the parallel RISC design now, they argued, then the third parties would be ready for Sega's next system.  All three Mars concepts made it into the alpha prototype stage, but it was Sega of Japan's twin SH-2 design that eventually wound up gaining final approval by Sato, Miller, and their associates.  This was quite an achivement, considering the restricted amount of time in which they had to work (mere months) and the limitations of the console upon which it was based (the aging 16-bit Genesis).  A little bit of modification here, some plastic trim there, and a rather odd-looking and top-heavy device began to take shape.
     One final topic to be addressed by the 32X design team was modem play.  Since the Mars technology was essentially an extra layer on top of standard Genesis hardware, modem support proved to be a surprising small hurdle.  Included in Sega's goals for the 32X was the plan to add Sega Channel support in November 1995 for Japanese subscribers, and support in September 1996 (at the latest) for North American subscribers.  In addition, Catapult's X-Band Network indicated that they would also provide 32X support on their system.
     The eventual end result of Project Mars was the now-familiar "Sega mushroom," as Sega developers and licensees had by now nicknamed it.  Call it what you will - Genesis 32X (United States), Mega 32X (Europe), or Super 32X (Japan) - the resultant device was a 32-bit upgrade accessory for a stock Genesis that was desgined to enhance its base console in several significant ways.  Here are the specs for the system that Sega of America conceived:

Project Mars (aka Super 32X, Genesis 32X, Mega 32X)

Component
Description
Processors
- 32X boot rom (Genesis/32X detection, SH2 policing)
- Twin 23 MHz Hitachi SH2 32-bit RISC CPUs 
- 32X VDP (overlay Genesis video, polygonal graphics)
- Additional PCM (mixes with Genesis audio)
Memory
- 512K on-board (in addition to stock Genesis memory)
Connection
- A/V overlay cable (Genesis 2 mini-DIN pinout)
- Twin RF shields (for use with older Genesis 1 consoles)
- Unit spacers (for use with Genesis 2 or CD-X consoles)

The additional features that Project Mars added to a stock Genesis were impressive - two additional digital sound channels, 32,768 simultaneous colors on-screen, full 3D graphics support pumping up to 25,000 polygons a second, and true scaling and rotation of sprites.  The fact that it overlaid its capabilities on top of a stock Genesis meant that standard Genesis carts could be used with the device - the older code was merely "passed through" the unit without tripping the 32X boot ROM.  Stock Genesis cartridge housing could be used to deliver new 32-bit games, too, although 32X production cartridges wer actually enlarged a bit in order to distingush them physically from older 16-bit titles.  The device was designed to work with all standard Genesis consoles past and present, including the new CD-X, and could be installed in a manner of minutes with little hassle.  It seemed the perfect upgrade, and Sega of America wasted no time in seeking production approval from company executives.
     So what was the major obstacle in the way of the 32X?  Sega itself.
     Sega of America was all for the machine, of course, but most of the insiders at Sega of Japan was still betting on their baby, the CD-ROM based Project Saturn.  They had little use for a "mere Genesis upgrade," and would rather that Sega's customer base start over with a whole new generation of videogame hardware and software.  Not only could Sega deliver the Saturn to fulfill this anticipated need, but it could could also prove more profitable for the company in the long run.  All-new hardware plus all-new software equals all-new profits, and Sega of Japan was betting that most of Sega's customers would gladly (and quickly) ditch their older systems for the Saturn.  In the end, though, Nakayama liked what Miller, Sato, and the rest of the 32X design team had wrought and gave it his blessing. It was Nakayama's considered opinion that the 32X was in a perfect position to fill the gap between the aging Genesis and the up-and-coming Saturn, and it seemed to him that it could be a saleable product during this crucial phase.  It would be Sega's first 32-bit videogame console to hit the markets, and it would give Sega's less affluent customer base something upon which to whet their appetites while they scrimped and saved for the pleasures that only Saturn would offer once it arrived.
     Much to their chagrin, Sega of Japan was drafted to provide the production facilities for the 32X.  The reason was obvious - Sega of America simply did not have the means to mass-produce the unit themselves.  This they did with typical Oriental calm, but behind their resigned masks was the conviction that that their time and resources were better used elsewhere - like on Project Saturn, perhaps.  Sega of Japan never really accepted the 32X as a real system and remained supremely confident that the Saturn would eventually reveal itself as the true heir to the Genesis legacy.  Sega's internal rift over the anticipated rise and direction of the 32-bit videogame market would prove to have major implications not only for the 32X and Saturn, but also for the financial future of Sega itself.

     The videogame community got its first heads-up on Sega's plans at the 1994 Summer CES in Chicago, Illinois.  A complete prototype 32X CD system (as Sega termed it at that time) was on display at Sega's booth, with only minor differences in color scheme and styling from the final production model.  Also on hand were working betas or CinePak demos of several titles planned for the new system.  Among these were Bullet Fighters (a 3D polygonal space shooter), Ultimate Fighting (a 2D zoom-and-pan fighter), and Ecco the Dolphin (a 32-bit enhanced version of the original).  Also announced at that show was another title, one for which Sega fans had been clammoring ever since rumors of a new Sega system had started during the previous year.
     "So, where's the Sonic game?  Every new Sega platform's got to have a Sonic game, right?"
     Sonic the Hedgehog CD had unwittingly set a trend for Sega.  Sonic and friends were now a true franchise, as Sega fans had come to expect a new Sonic game with every new Sega platform - much as Mario fans expected a new Mario game with every new Nintendo platform.  The word-of-mouth was strong on this one, and it was fueled by a series of pictures leaked to the game zines of the day.  Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was to be a true 3D game, featuring polygonal rendered characters moving about in a real 3D environment.  The pictures looked absolutely fantastic and far beyond anything the pokey SNES could deliver, even with the most powerful custom chip that Nintendo or its licensees could shoehorn inside the cart casing.  Sega fans were beside themselves as they impaitently waited for the 32X to be released.

     In late September of 1994, Sega of America staged a special Gamer's Day to unveil Project Mars to the American market.  The name given for the new system was the Genesis 32X, as in "32 times the power."  It was pitched as a low-cost 32-bit upgrade path for the 13 million Genesis owners nationwide.  The projected price was expected to be no more than US$170 or so, depending on the foreign currency exchange rates - remember, Sega of Japan were the ones actually mass-producing retail units.  "American gamers want arcade gameplay, and they want it now," said Sega 32X project manager Haven Duburl, "but they don't want to pay a lot for it, and they don't want to abandon their 16-bit library."  12 games were promised for the system's official launch in November, with more on the way.  Here are the twelve originally proposed 32X launch titles:
 

Available at launch
"Coming Soon"
Doom
Cyber Brawl
Fahrenheit (CD 32X)
Fred Couples Golf
Star Wars Arcade
Midnight Raiders (CD 32X)
Super Afterburner
Stellar Assault
Super Motocross
Super Space Harrier
Virtua Racing
Tempo

In addition, Sega openly talked about more 32X titles that it hoped to deliver by the end of 1995.  Among these were Ecco the Dolphin, Tomcat Alley Deluxe, College Basketball's National Championship, Metal Head, and Wire Head (CD 32X) - making for an actual total of 18 titles ready, impending, or under development.  Some 25 companies were listed as being on the 32X development bandwagon at the Gamer's Day press briefings:  Acclaim, Accolade, Activision, American Softworks, Altus, Capcom, Capitol Multimedia, Core Design, Crystal Dynamics, Domark, Fox Interactive, GameTek, Hi-Tech Entertainment, Interplay, JVC, Konami, Playmates Interactive, Rocket Science Games, Software Toolworks, Sunsoft, Takara, Technos, Time Warner Interactive, Vic Tokai, and Virgin.
     Just a few days later on 29 September, Sega of Japan officially began mass-producing 32X units.  Sega of America's avowed goal was one million units manufactured and distributed to retailers by Christmas.  Sega corporate openly admitted that they might fall short of their goal, as actual production somehow started behind schedule.  The inside scoop had it that Sega would not be able to move all of its planned inventory of 32X consoles until January of 1995.

     The nationwide ad campaign to promote the 32X was pure Sega, and anybody familiar with their trademark sense of sly humor will smile in knowing understanding.  In the first ad, a shocked boy watches as a 32X adapter slides up and down in the cartridge slot of the new Genesis Mark 2 console, redesigned in the same streamline style as its newest accessory. "Mommy, what are those two Sega machines doing?" he wails.  "They're making an arcade system, dear," comes the hushed reply.  A parade of system specs followed, worded in the same vein, followed by the tag line, "Bringing the 32-bit gaming experience home.  'X' is next."  The second one was an even more risque reply to the first.  "Oh YES ... more, MORE, faster, FASTER, Faster!" followed by the now-familiar picture of a 32X sliding up and down inside a Genesis Mark 2 console's cartridge port.  "What did you think we were talking about, you little degenerate?" the ad copy continues.  "Get your mind out of the gutter and back where it belongs.  Once you get the 32X-perience, you won't want anything else (except that, you animal!)   'X' is next ... oh baby, oh baby ...."
     By now, Sega of America had over US$10 million invested in their 32X rollout.  Their public statements, along with the intensive ad campaign (on both print and on TV media) was consistently insistent that the 32X was a viable upgrade for Genesis owners and not a mere throwaway product as some industry wags were already claiming.  The 32X was getting a lot of good press in the trades and zines, giving Sega more confidence in its hope that 32X sales would translate into excellent profit margins.  At the least, it might prove to be an indication whether or not the gaming public was truly ready for a pure 32-bit videogame system, such as the CD-ROM based system that Sega of Japan had quietly finished overseas.  With Nintendo breathing down its neck, Sega did not want to wind up producing "yet another Sega CD."

     In the meantime, Nintendo remained unconcerned about the threat of 32X sales against the SNES.  They continued to maintain this attitude even as the impending holiday shopping season grew closer and closer - the time of the year when the industry almost always made its biggest profits.  They had a little surprise up their sleeve aimed directly at Sega.  If it just so happened to catch those other upstarts, the Atari Jaguar and the Panasonic 3DO, then that was just fine, too.  "[This] will be the biggest title of the season for any platform," said Nintendo of America vice-president George Harrison.  "We want to give our customers every reason not to trade up to other systems."  The new title was slated to appear in November, the same month that the 32X made its official debut, and Nintendo gave its customers a taste of what expect at the 1994 Shoshinkai (Space World) gaming expo in Japan.  Customer response, fueled by word-of-mouth and glowing reports from the trades, resulted in over 2.2 million orders placed by October - far more that the 2 million carts Nintendo had on hand.  So what was the game that Nintendo had positioned as its "32X killer" - the game that was supposed to prove that 32-bit consoles weren't really necessary just yet?
     Donkey Kong Country.
     Sega's reaction to this news was understandable.  While at the Sega Gamer's Day show that unveiled the 32X, Sega of America president Tom Kalinske gave an extensive interview at Disney's Epcot Center to Game Players magazine.  Concerning Nintendo's concurrent release of Donkey Kong Country vs. the 32X rollout, he said, "The 16-bit business and the subsequent upgrade to it is going to be very, very strong for at least another two to three years.  We think our titles are much stronger than Donkey Kong Country; however, I congratulate Nintendo on having one good title this year."
     Kalinske would eventually have to eat his words.

     Despite the obvious threat from Nintendo, Sega of America released the 32X on time and schedule to North America in mid-November of 1994.  It was released in a low-key manner to Japanese customers the following month, and by January 1995 had also become available in Europe and Australia.  32-bit power was now in the hands of American home videogamers everywhere, and Sega was the first to make it so.

A run for the roses

     When it made its debut in November of 1994, the 32X had an advertised retail price of US$150.  This was about US$20 less than first projected, but it was a welcome announcement.  Nothing had really changed as far as financing went, except that the Japanese yen had dropped against the American dollar.  This news was well received by potential buyers, as US$170 had seemed a tad hefty for a mere upgrade.  Even so, everybody knew that US$150 would have been about half the cost a full-blown, standalone 32-bit console.  Six 32X games were available from the start, with more to follow, at an average price of US$60 to US$70 a pop.  This was comparable to the price of Nintendo's newest titles at the time, including that worrisome one just over the horizon, but the promised sophistication of 32X titles was hoped to overcome the doubts of the cash-conscious.
     The six titles that were announced to retail outlets along with the 32X were as follows:  Cosmic Carnage, DOOM, Metal Head, Star Wars Arcade, Virtua Fighter, and Virtua Racing Deluxe.  This represented a bit of a shakeup in Sega's original plans for system launch titles, and almost all of it had to do with production problems.  The anticpated "real version" of Afterburner was not ready in time, which forced Sega to replace it with another arcade conversion, Space Harrier.  There were delays in converting the older Sega CD titles to the new CD 32X format.  In fact, only three of the six announced launch titles made it to store shelves on time.  DOOM was rushed out the door, a victim of its own popularity, and this resulted in a playable yet buggy game that still sold well.  Star Wars Arcade fared better than DOOM, fortunately, and the word-of-mouth on it combined with the immense popularity of the Star Wars franchise made it the most welcomed title of the fledgling 32X lineup.  Not far behind was Virtua Racing Deluxe, which many gamers argued (and rightly so) that this was the excellent conversion of the popular coin-op that Sega should have released the previous year.  As a result, Game Players magazine rated the 32X as the #4 most wanted "hardware hit" for the 1994 holiday system.  Everybody who was anybody was bragging about what Sega had to offer in terms of its new 32-bit Genesis upgrade.  Unfortunately, at least one of the announced launch titles continued to be plagued by production titles, and Metal Head would not make it to store shelves until February of 1995.
     It was a portent of things to come.

     If there was one game that had to be singled out as the 32X's biggest hit during the holidays (and thereafter), it had to be a certain well-known space shooter.  Star Wars Arcade has been called "the game that saved Sega in 1995."  As expected, Nintendo's Donkey Kong Country sales were nothing short of astronomical.  It turned out to be the market crusher that Sega feared it would be, and it dominated the videogame market throughout the 1994-1995 holiday shopping season.  Sega's move to make Star Wars Arcade a launch title proved to be a wise one, because the ingrained acceptance of the Star Wars franchise coupled with the overall excellence of the game made it one of Sega's best-selling titles of the season.  While it did not come anywhere near to matching the astronomical sales figures of Nintendo's monster hit, it proved strong enough to actually boost 32X system sales.  As former Sega developer Eric Quakenbush noted, "Star Wars [Arcade] really saved their bacon that Christmas."

     Most of the focus on the 1995 Winter CES was on the planned U.S. launch of the Saturn later that year.  Even so, Sega of America was quick to push the 32X.  Attendees at the show were treated to Sega spokespersons pitching the 32X as an ideal bargain solution for teens and other youngers gamers.  The Saturn would be expensive once it arrived, so it would pretty much be limited to the adult crowd (and those kids whose parents were affluent enough to afford one - ed.).  It would also justfiy owning a Sega CD, as the long-announced CD 32X releases were set to start rolling off the production lines.  Unfortunately, Sega's 32X presentation fell rather flat with the industry wags.  "It lacked oomph," as Game Zero's Michael Lambert put it, and fellow writer Marty Chinn was even less impressed.  "You had to have an appointement to get in[to their booth]," he noted in his writeup.  "Bad move."  Game Zero also probably put it best when they said, "Sega had a general plethora of new Genesis and 32X games, although there was no one single game that they were trying to push as [its own] market crusher."
     Reports of Sega's perceived arrogance did not sit well with their core audience, which just happened to be what the 32X was aimed towards - young gamers, both older kids and teens alike.  These were the people who were actually playing Sega's games, and they were the ones actively convincing their parents as to what to buy them in the days ahead.  While everybody concerned was wowed by what the 32X could do, and were suitably impressed with the software at hand, many gamers voiced the opinion that they'd rather wait for the Saturn or PlayStation instead.  There was also a small but highly vocal crowd who claimed it was only as a stopgap measure - a little taste of 32-bit power to tide the market over until the Saturn and Playstation came along, or perhaps something even better.  "Everybody knows that 32X is a Band-Aid.  It's not a next generation system," said Trip Hawkins, president of Electronic Arts.  The gaming magazines of the day had their own opinions on the matter.  "Some people claim that this is only a stopgap measure," commented Game Players on the issue, "while [we're] waiting for the 64-bit machines, but it's really cool!"  Stop-gap ... Band-Aid ... waiting for the new systems ... a common theme was being voiced by the videogame industry, and it was one that boded ill for Sega's mushroom.
     It was no wonder, what with the small size of the 32X software base and all that "stopgap" hype, that gamers chose not to invest heavily in the system - save for the few hardcore Sega loyalists who bought 32X unit itself and the two or three "good" titles that they felt justified its price, such as DOOM and Star Wars Arcade.  As a result, sales of both 32X consoles and games quickly tapered off after the holidays.  They were slow, almost apathetic, as 1995 clicked by month after month, even though new titles were now coming out on a regular basis.  Some gamers, such as Michael Brimson of Orlando, Florida, chose to skip the 32X altogether.  "What's going on?" he wailed in a letter to Game Players.  "Sega's making me mad.  Why is it coming out with stuff like 32X, Saturn, and CD-X? [CD-X was a portable Sega CD - ed.]  Come on, I ain't rich.  I have a Genesis and Sega CD, and already I don't have enough games.  Now they expect me to buy a 32X?"  A lot of other cost-conscious Sega gamers were asking themselves similar questions.  Was there any good reason to upgrade to 32X now, when the real 32-bit consoles were going to be on sale by the end of the year?  Best to save up what little money one could scrimp together until then.  Besides, Saturn was looking mighty promising ... but PlayStation looked even better.  Sega's tragic positioning of the 32X so close to the impending arrival of the real 32-bit consoles, coupled with its own tragic miscalculation of its potential fan base, had made the 32X a market anomaly almost from the get-go.  It was a system condemned to impending failure before it could ever turn a profit, and that is exactly what happened.

     A faint glimmer of hope for what few beleagured 32X fans there were came along in late spring of 1995, when Sega confirmed its intentions to release Project Neptune as a commercial product.  It was Sega of America's answer to Sega of Japan's original Project Mars concept - the all-in one 32-bit upgraded Genesis console.  The Neptune console (US$400) was designed to be a direct replacement for the aging Sega Genesis, incorporating both Genesis and 32X hardware within the same housing.  The working prototype unit pictured at the press briefing (and later reprinted in the trades) was almost identical to the Genesis Mark 2 console in both size and design.  This was good news to buyers of the Sega CD Model 2, which had been designed to mate with the Genesis Mark 2.  Even so, the steep price tag (twice the original price of the Genesis) caused many of those same users to gag in disbelief.  Word from Japan about the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation was by now quite widespread, so many users were leaning strongly towards purchasing the new 32-bit CD-ROM systems with their impressive array of launch titles.  Still, for those with large Genesis and 32X cart libraries, the Neptune remained an attractive upgrade possibility - especially after the announced price was later reduced to a more reasonable US$200.  It was also a pleasant prospect for those few licensees still committed to coding for the 32X, and Frontier Developments (creators of the legendary sci-fi strategy game Elite) quietly began work on a 3D polygonal shooter for the new system. DarXide was to be the very first game for the Neptune, and it promised to be just as slick-looking and smooth-playing as the best Saturn shooters currently available over in Japan.
     It would also be one of the last 32X titles ever released.

     "So what happened to Sonic the Hedgehog 4?"
     You know, that's a good question.  It is a sad fact that nowhere in the 32X software library does Sonic do so much as even a silent cameo.  The so-called "Sonic game" that was released didn't even have Sonic in it.  In fact, while Knuckles Chaotix was a definite improvement on the tried and true Sonic run-and-jump formula, and threw in some unique innovations of its own (sprite scaling and the infamous "bungee mode"), it didn't look and play anything like the preview pics that had so wowed the Sega scene back at the end of 1994.  In fact, and this was not known until afterwards, it was based on a 2D Sonic prototype game for Genesis that Sega had been kicking around its software development division for just over two years.  As for those tantalizing screenshots?  They were actually taken from an in-house video Sega had produced for an amusement park attraction, although this little item of information would not be discovered until years later.
     Public reaction to Knuckles Chaotix was mixed.  A few magazines praised it.  Others gave it only grudging praise.  Almost everybody complained about the much-publicized "bungee mode," which tended to hamper rather then enhance gameplay.  Sonic fans aired much vitriol over the fact that it was still a 2D game and not the 3D riot that had been widely anticipated.  They felt cheated by Knuckles Chaotix, and they let it be known that as far as they were concerned, Sega was now in the doghouse.  It is rather ironic to note, in retrospect, that a "real" Sonic game (at least in the eyes of his many fans) would not be released by Sega until Sonic Adventure for Dreamcast in December 1998 - almost four years after Chaotix first hit store shelves.

     The second quarter of 1995 marks a defining moment in the brief history of the 32X.  This is the time during which the bulk of Sega's 32X licensees decided to officially abandon the system and concentrate all of their efforts on the Saturn instead.  They had never bought Sega's early press about maintaining the 32X along with the Saturn, and the perception that the 32X was a mere stopgap product remained strong.  Sega's announcement that the Saturn was coming to North America in the fall of 1995 meant that time had now run out for the old technology.  The Genesis was about to go bye-bye and would take the 32X along with it, so these companies needed to shift gears immediately and port over existing and planned projects if they were going to be ready to support the new Saturn videogame market.  Besides, it was an unnecessary duplication of effort to code for a soon-to-be-dead system when the same piece of code could be released for a new system that would remain on the market for several years, thus increasing potential revenue and better offsetting development costs.  To quote former Sega developer Eric Quakenbush, "Developers didn't want to invest time and resources in creating games for a platform that was going to be overshadowed by something as big as [the] Saturn."  The time had come to choose between the two systems, and almost everybody went with the Saturn.
     The effect was almost immediate, and the trades of the day quickly picked up on the move as the word began to spread.  One after another, unconfirmed reports "leaked from reliable sources" appeared that major developers were bailing on the 32X.  Capcom appears to have been the first to leave the fold (32X ports of Street Fighter 2 and Dark Stalkers were widely anticipated but never released), and their move seemed to spark an avalanche of sorts.  Interplay ... EA Sports ... Readysoft ... Acclaim ... one after another, the major developers starting bailing on their 32X commitments.  In truth, many of these had never been happy with Sega's plans for the 32X, and Capcom's departure was just the excuse they needed to also jump ship.   "And just where was everybody going?" you might ask.  "To the Sega Saturn or the Sony PlayStation," was the undeniable answer.  Even Sega itself seemed to be ignoring its own public statements regarding the future of the 32X, hurredly rushing the release of several titles and cancelling outright several others in order to make way for the Saturn rollout.  Sega was worried about Sony's PlayStation, and rightly so, because it looked as if it would be a worthy competitor.  As a result, Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama decided to put all of its eggs in one basket and push the Saturn for all it was worth.  In October of 1995, Nakayama ordered all Sega consoles save the Saturn cancelled so the company could better focus its limited resources on the next console war, which in point of fact had already begun.  Nakayama's choice came at the worst possible moment for Sega's entire product line, right during a period of market transition, and the 32X suffered the most as a result of his decision.
     If news of the impending death of the 32X had been mere speculation up to this point, then Sega's sudden move towards the Saturn made it a swift reality.  By the end of the third quarter of 1995, the time that the Saturn and PlayStation were set to debut, tales of the impending demise of the 32X had become so persistent that coverage of the console had all but stopped.  The only vendors still developing for the 32X were overseas, such as Core and Frontier, and they were more concerned with finishing their existing projects than preparing any new ones.  By and large the industry was ignoring it, and it received practically no coverage at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show later that month.
     The 32X was now doomed.

     The remainder of 1995 saw a handful of additional titles released for the 32X.  This brought the total count of released titles up to somewhat less than three dozen - a far cry from the one hundred titles or so that had been anticipated or announced by 32X fans.  A few more were announced, such as ports of Hosenose and Booger and Sega's own Garfield in TV Land, but they were subsequently cancelled.  In addition, Sega also cancelled plans for the Neptune in the wake of the Saturn rollout, much to the irritation of both potential customers and developers alike, and this further hastened the decline of the 32X.  "Overall, the lack of quality software is the 32X's crucial flaw," noted Game Players in their December 1995 issue.  "Finding new 32X games in 1996 is going to be even harder than it was in 1995."
     Among the casulties left behind in the wake of Sega's move was an almost legendary yet unreleased title that once again had been shoved to the back of the line.  Word of mouth was strong on Shadow of Atlantis, an interactive RPG first conceived for the Sega CD and then rescheduled for a CD 32X release.  It was an ambitious project, inspired by Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in which Captain Nemo and the crew of the Nautilus were to embark on a search for the legendary lost continent of Atlantis.  The CD 32X system was the first Sega console that promised to deliver author Eric Quakenbush's grand plans as he intended, but the death of the 32X changed all that.  Once again, Shadow of Atlantis was put on the back burner, and it was tentatively rescheduled for a Saturn release - much to the growing irritation of Quakenbush and his team.  As it turned out, Shadow of Atlantis would never make it out the door, and a disgruntled Eric Quakenbush would eventually leave Sega a short time later.
     By November of 1995, just one year after its launch, the handwriting was on the wall for the 32X.  The price of the 32X was now a mere US$100, and for US$40 more you buy it with a pack-in game (usually Doom).  Almost all of the scant handful of developers who still had titles in development handed them off to Sega for finish-up work.  They simply didn't want to mess with it anymore, as the Saturn was by now the Sega development platform of choice.  This meant that there would be precious few new 32X titles for 1996 - the year in which the system was supposed to have been hitting its stride with the videogame market - and there would be no more once this small supply had been exhausted.  Game Players put it this way, saying, "The launch of the Saturn and lack of third-party support have doomed the 32X to an even shorter life than Sega CD."

     The name Sega was now beginning to acquire a rather bad taste in the mouths of home console owners, which was not surprising given the company's apparently growing aloofness towards its customers.  In fact, many a dedicated Sega gamer began to seriously consider jumping ship altogether.  It was a feeling that they shared in common with a steadily growing number of Nintendo fans, who were also upset at their preferred vendor's strident insistence that the 16-bit SNES was still an economically viable platform despite the arrival of the 32-bit newcomers.  So, which one to choose?  Obviously not the 32X, as it was dying the death of a thousand cuts right before everybody's eyes.  What about the Saturn?  It was public knowledge that the Saturn never had and never would have the 3D punch of the new Sony PlayStation, and this made Sony's new box quite attractive to disgruntled videogame fans from all corners of the globe.  Saturn was a decent machine, alright, but it was designed during the heydey of 2D systems.  It was now a 3D videogaming world, and were hardcore videogamers willing to risk Sega "biting them in the butt" again on a new system, just like they had done with the 32X - especially with the rumors of the new 64-bit Sega Eclipse already beginning to surface?  Many decided not to wait around and find out, and PlayStation sales began to soar against the Saturn.
     By this time, however, the 32X was dead and gone - unmourned and all-but-forgotten.  Frontier's DarXide was quietly released to European 32X owners in January of 1996, never seeing its intended American release.  Spiderman: Web of Fire hit American retail shelves about the same time.  Together, they hold the notable distinction of being the last two 32X titles ever delivered to retail markets, and with that ends the sad tale of Project Mars.  Of the 500,000 consoles shipped to retailers by Sega, only two-thirds or so (using the most objective figures) wound up in users' homes.  The rest of them sat on store shelves despite massive discounts, save when discovered by Genesis owners looking to augment their aging systems on the cheap.  Within two years, 32X titles were sitting in the bottom of the bargain bins, some marked down to as little as US$2 each, and the 32X mushroom itself could be had brand new in the box for as little as US$20.  Few people missed the 32X, and even fewer bemoaned its passing. The 32X may have been the first 32-bit gaming system to hit the market, but it also wound up being its first 32-bit casualty.

Aftermath

     It is said that hindsight is almost always an exact science - "If this, then that," and so on.  It is also said that once history has been made, then it cannot be remade, but only repeated at a later time.  Let us take a moment to analyze the demise of the 32X.  Perhaps if we can understand why it failed, and how Sega's experience with it helped to bring about the bad reputation they endured afterward, then maybe we can appreciate how hard Sega worked not to repeat the same mistakes with the Dreamcast rollout in 1999.

     The first thing to do is to address the one nagging issue that has plaged the 32X in almost every single write-up that you will find nowdays.  This is usually expressed in one of two forms:  "It was a throwaway product meant to maintain sales until the Saturn came out," or "It was a cheap stopgap that Sega never really supported."
     It can be demonstrated from the record that the 32X was never intended as a throwaway product.  In fact, quite the contrary.  The trades of the time are full of reports of Sega's avowed public support for the 32X.  Even so Sega-cynical a magazine as Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) was quoted as saying, "As far as we know, Sega has no intention of dropping support for the 32X even after the Saturn hits US shores.  It's a pretty safe bet that if sales of the 32X continue to be brisk, your investment is safe."  While a case can certainly be made that it was in fact a stopgap measure, designed to hold off Sega's competition for two or three years until Saturn sales picked up, no such case can be made that it was destined for the discard bin from day one.  Sega of America sank US$10 million into the 32X rollout, financing an advertising campaign that included both print and visual media, as well as some memorable TV commercials.  If that figure seems small by today's standards, consider that US$10 million also happens to be the approximate amount that Sega of America spent on the Genesis rollout back in late 1989.  It might have been considerably more had not their counterparts over in Sega of Japan been drafted into actually producing the system and its games, with the latter practically kicking and screaming the whole way.  One must also weigh Sega executive Tom Kalinske's comment that he foresaw the 16-bit market remaining viable for another two or three years.  American console videogamers have traditionally desired to take as many of their existing games with them when upgrading to a new system in order to save costs.  The 32X was perfect for this due to its unique design, and was thus poised to take full advantage of the existing 16-bit market.   Since it was essentially a 32-bit enhancer for an existing 16-bit console, it could have conceivably accounted well for itself had it been allowed to survive and thrive.  This was exactly as Sega of America had planned.  Unfortunately, neither Sega of Japan nor the rest of the industry were listening.
     The internal rivalry that was taking place within Sega during 1991 to 1995, the period in which Sega was prepping its 32-bit technology for eventual release, is perhaps the key internal issue at the heart of the 32X demise.  "Joe [Miller] may have been the father of the 32X," recalls former Sega executive Michael Latham, "but he had to choose between bad choice number one and bad choice number two.  I think he made the better choice and made a valiant effort to make the best of an impossible situation."  Remember, Project Mars wound up being the darling of Sega of America, whereas Project Saturn was the virtual holy grail of Sega of Japan.  Sega's two main branches were on two different paths to their anticipated 32-bit delights.  Sega of America foresaw a gradual upgrade to a fast, cheap 32-bit system that maintained cartridges as the preferred delivery system, whereas Sega of Japan had in mind a clean break from its past with a brand-new system utilizing CD-ROM storage.  The Genesis had been a resounding success in America, whereas it was a mediocre performer in Japan.  In contrast, the Sega CD had done poorly in America, but had fared better than expected in Japan.  Sega of Japan remained firm in its conviction that CD-ROM games would be the wave of the future, and the record shows that they fought Sega of America almost every step of the way in developing, releasing, supporting, and promoting the 32X.  They all but refused to assist with the system, and only a scant handful of 32X titles ever came from the land of the Rising Sun.  There's an old adage that says, "If you shout long enough and loud enough, then people will eventually listen to you."  That is exactly what Sega of Japan did, and their tactics paid off in time.  They eventually got their way, but the public flip-flop that Sega corporate eventually had to perform over the 32X vs. Saturn affair resulted in a mess that left a bad taste in the mouth of many an Sega customer and developer.  It is one that is still remembered to this day.   Sega of Japan may have been right in the long run, but the way in which Sega corporate mismanaged its internal dispute ultimately hurt their public image in the short run.
     Sega's internal rivalry no doubt helped fuel the confusion in the minds of the companies that had originally agreed to back the 32X.  They knew that Sega had at least four 32-bit videogame systems in the development pipeline, and more than one expressed a desire for Sega to make up its mind to pick one and go with it.  When Sega of America confirmed the impending release of the 32X (and subsequently its more sophisticated cousin, Neptune), then many were willing to commit to the new system.  Their initial confidence was shaken, however, when Sega continued to commit itself to multiple 32-bit systems.  "There are too many planets.  It's a confused strategy," complained Edward Brogan of Jardine Fleming.  Which one of these console concepts would Sega ultimately choose as the successor to the Genesis?  Lets see, you had your choice of a 32-bit Genesis upgrade (32X), press releases of a 32-bit upgraded Genesis console (Neptune), rumors about a pure 32-bit cartridge-based console (Jupiter). and growing reports from Japan about Sega's new 32-bit CD console (Saturn) - all within the space of a couple of years.  That doesn't leave a lot of time to develop much of anything substantial, according to the developers, and many chose to idle along on ports while Sega's future designs settled into something more comprehensible.  As the Saturn began to loom larger and larger in Sega's vision of the future, it didn't take much for the developers to see what was coming.  They began to bail as fast as they could in order to ramp up for Saturn support.  Capcom and Konami's simultaneous departure from the 32X fold was just the excuse that most of the ones already developing needed to bail, while others had by that time chosen not to follow through with their announced commitments.  This meant that whatever games were being produced for the 32X during all of 1995 were for the most part ports of existing products handled by second-string or even third-string development teams, with original titles being few and far between.  That is exactly what happened, as a quick glance at the 32X release list will show.  For example, the only EA Sports title for the 32X, FIFA Soccer 96, had been intended for simultaneous American and European releases and promoted as such.  Once EA sensed the impending change of direction at Sega, FIFA 96  was scrubbed from their American release schedule.  The game itself, representing a late-beta 32-bit enhanced port of the original Genesis game, was then quietly released to the European market, where a soccer game for a soon-to-be-discontinued system might be expected to sell more successfully.  Another example is Koei's Gekijoban Sangokushi IV, which we know here in the West by the title Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV: Wall of Fire.  Koei produced both 32X and Saturn versions of the game, but only the Saturn version was released outside of Japan.  The impending demise of the 32X ensured that an English-language export version was never released, let alone attempted.
     Finally, one has to consider the rapid development of the 32-bit videogame market.  Sega of America officially previewed the 32X and its games to the public in September of 1994, two months ahead of its scheduled release date in November.  The trades and zines for the next two months were full of glowing praise for the planned 32X launch titles and the system itself, as well as growing reports about Sega and Sony's CD-based systems in Japan.  Sega of Japan released the Sega Saturn in November 1994, the same month as Sega of America released the 32X, in order to get the jump on the Sony PlayStation.  Once the system specs, screen snaps, and early reviews of the Saturn and PlayStation started coming in, then it was pretty much curtains for the 32X.  Even the Saturn, admittedly the lesser of the two systems, had at least three times the horsepower of the 32X on paper, and anybody who has dabbled in the videogame market for long knows that gamers are always wanting the most sophisticated platform they can get for their money.  Formerly favorable press for the 32X quickly turned to sly asides about the Saturn's underpowered little brother. The rapid market shift from 16-bit to 32-bit videogaming more than anything else is probably what generated the notion that the 32X was a throwaway product, as that was how the new and growing community of 32-bit videogamers viewed it.  Sega of America had never intended it to be so, but advancing technology and market desire forced the issue for them - not to mention the bailing of almost all of its developers starting at mid-year.  Remember the EGM assertion that Sega would only continue to support the 32X so long as the market demanded it?  By the end of 1995 the trades were awash in Saturn and PlayStation hype, and Sega had no choice but to pull the plug on the 32X.  There simply wasn't a market for it anymore.

     The first place one should go when discussing the demise of the 32X is to the developers.  Sega does not like to discuss the 32X for obvious reasons, and current company spokespersons do little but parrot what they read in press statements or see printed in the trades.   Let us talk to three different reputable developers who each produced games for the 32X and see what they have to say about its demise.

     Eric Quakenbush spent many years in-house with Sega and was associate producer of the 32X port of Virtua Fighter, widely regarded as superior to the original Saturn release (until Virtua Fighter 2 and Virtua Fighter Remix came along, that is).  He is better known to Sega fans for his two unreleased 32X titles, Virtua Hamster and Shadow of Atlantis.  He describes the 32X for the filler product that it was and not a throwaway one, intended by Nakayama to bridge the gap between the Genesis and whatever full-blown 32-bit system came down the line.  The distinction is a subtle, yet important one.  "There was a dip in Genesis sales because customers were anticipating the next system," he recalls.  "They wanted to get through Christmas mostly, but if Saturn had been late, [then] it would have probably saved the company ....  There weren't a lot of titles and Saturn was right on time, so I think [that the] 32X just went away - kind of a slap in the face to the hardcore gamers that bought it, I thought.  I had hoped that Sega would give the 32X buyers a Saturn rebate or something, but I guess that wasn't feasable, [since] hardware is sold with almost no profit margin."  It seems that at least one developer wasn't too crazy about the way Sega treated its customers over the 32X.

     Steve Snake, longtime videogame developer, whose hit title NBA Jam still influences arcade-style trends in Midway sporting games, personally oversaw the porting of NBA Jam TE for the 32X.  While he is quite fond of the system and the way in which it handled the near-perfect arcade port of his most famous title, he is not afraid to point out its problems.  "The 32X games that were released failed to give the impression of a next-generation machine.  We were told to expect an arcade system at home, and instead we were treated to half-assed Genesis ports that maybe added some more colors and samples, i.e. Mortal Kombat 2, NBA Jam TE, etc.  The release games failed to impress ... and there lies the problem.  Believe it or not, both Mortal Kombat 2 and NBA Jam TE (I should know, I wrote the damn game) were seriously pushing the machine.  But people were not impressed because they were expecting far too much from it. Over-hyping by magazines is a bad thing."  The Snake's point is a telling one, and was shared by Acclaim's floor reps at the 1995 Winter CES.  "[It] doesn't really handle sprites all that well, and that's why they disappear [in MK2]," one was quoted by Game Zero's Marty Chinn as saying.  "It is not arcade perfect, nor is it close ... in fact, [the 32X port] just draws it closer to the SNES version."  In retrospect, almost all of the games released by third parties for the 32X were merely faster, slicker-looking (but not always better) versions of their existing 2D games.  Yes, polygon-based titles such as Virtua Fighter and Shadow Squadron showed what the machine could do with the proper programming expertise, but they were few and far between.  Developing for the unique vagracies of the 32X required time, and that was something of which the doomed console had precious little during its short but notable lifespan.  Why?  Steve Snake remind us of the obvious.  "Developers received 32X development kits at the same time as Saturn development kits, so everyone decided to go with the Saturn."  It was an obvious no-brainer, according to Steve Snake, and most tend to agree with his observation.

     David Braben of Frontier Devleopments is on the record excoriating Sega for the abandoment of the never-released Neptune console.  Remember, that was the all-in-one Genesis/32X combo unit supposedly slated to replace the aging Genesis and bring it into the new 32-bit world.  He comments about this on the web site of his software company in his discussion over Frontier's lone 32X title, DarXide, which was originally slated as a Neptune launch title.  "We did this game largely because we had faith in Sega's Neptune project.  We had expected the Neptune to replace the MegaDrive for the same price, and stay as the Saturn's little brother. We had thought the 32X add-on to simply be a transitional backward compatibility measure, but Sega cancelled the Neptune, which in turn doomed the 32X to failure."  You see, there was still a lot of interest among developers of the day in continuing projects based on Genesis architecture, and Neptune would have been a rather convienent path to 32-bit games in their eyes.  The same could be said for those gamers who knew about Sega's announced plans for the Neptune and were eagerly awaiting it, but alas - it was not meant to be.  As for DarXide, its rather limited release (Europe only) stands as a testament to Frontier's aborted intentions.

     These three developers typify the reaction that they and their fellows had for Sega's first 32-bit system.  It is a sad fact that few videogame companies really accepted the 32X.  The developers could sense the market shift to 32-bit better than anyone, as they were the one producing the software for both current and next-generation platforms, and they didn't want to develop for a platform that many perceived as a mere stopgap measure.  The more conservative ones either didn't mess with it at all or only gave it lip service.  Longtime Sega licensees grudgingly gave the 32X limited support, but rarely would they give it their best programmers.  It simply wasn't worth the effort when there were more powerful 32-bit consoles available.  Game Players sums it up well in their December 1995 issue.  "The 32X has never gained full software support from any third parties.  Even Sega's games mostly seem to come from the 'C team' of developers.  The 'A team' is working on Saturn games.  We'll never know what kind of potential the 32X possesses because of its short life.  It falls so remarkably short of the Saturn and PlayStation as a 32-bit machine that, even at US$200 cheaper, it's no bargain."

Joe Miller - the midwife of the 32X     The next place one should go when examining the demise for the 32X is Sega of America.  A lot of heat has been directed at Sega proper in the ensuing years over the decision to release Project Mars as an add-on unit for the Genesis instead of the standalone console that Sega of Japan originally intended.  I have had the pleasure of discussing the topic with none other than Joe Miller himself, who was in charge of 32X development at Sega of America.  Miller, the "midwife" of the 32X (as he puts it), cited four specific reasons why Sega chose to follow the add-on route with the 32X:

  • Existing software base:  The Mars design team knew that most "early adopters," as the industry terms them, would probably already own a Genesis.  Using the Genesis console as a base upon which to build would allow them "to squeeze additional functionality out of a 32-bit design."  Additionally, going the add-on route wouldn't "orphan" the existing Genesis software library - the very point upon which many a gamer has harped whenever a console transition takes place.
  • Lower production costs:  An add-on unit would be cheaper to produce than a dedicated console.  Miller estimates that Sega saved as much as US$80 per unit by adopting the add-on approach.
  • Development leverage:  Existing Genesis development tools and systems could be adapted and even leveraged into the 32-bit transition process, thus easing the strain on resources as the third parties begin their transition toward Sega's 32-bit multiprocessor architecture.  "We knew Saturn was going to be a very difficult machine for developers to 'grok'" Miller notes.  "The tools and libraries for the 32X were going to ease our developers into a 32-bit architecture and share some of the SH2 code base."
  • Console lifetime extension:  Provided it succeeded, the tremendous capabilities that the 32X brought to the Genesis could have extended the lifetime of the console by another three years. 
Miller also pointed out out that none of the other Genesis upgrade alternatives that Sega was considering at the time were as cost-effective as the 32X.  To cite an example from the personal computer industry, it has been said that the GUI-based GEOS operating system added at least one more year and possibly two to the lifetime of the venerable and popular Commodore 64.  There was no reason not to expect that the same could be done for a popular videogame system as well.  To be honest, he has been rather surprised at all of the ire that the 32X seems to have generated among diehard Sega fans.

     Sega fans of the day have their own explanations as to why the 32X failed, and it is worth our while to examine their observations, too.  Daniel Mazurowski, in his 1997 article "The Hall of Shame," lists three reasons why he feels the 32X was such a "shameful" console:  it didn't have a pack-in game, it required extra parts for use with older Genesis consoles, and it was killed by the arrival of real 32-bit consoles such as the Saturn.  Let us look at each in turn and explore the reasoning behind them.

No pack-in game - By 1994, gamers had come to expect that each new system would include one or more games in the package.  "Pack-ins," as they had come to be known, allowed new system purchasers to immediatly enjoy a game that was specifically coded to deliver an experience that only their newly acquired hardware could deliver.  The 32X was Sega's first new system not to include the expected pack-in game, and this immediately hiked up the price for any Genesis gamer looking to upgrade to the 32X.  Take the 32X console itself at US$150 or so, add another US$65 for DOOM or Star Wars Arcade, figure in the tax, and all of a sudden one would be spending about US$220 for a mere upgrade - almost the same amount of money that could be spent on a different system that came with pack-in games.  What was the point in buying a 32X when you couldn't afford to buy a game for it, too?  This issue pretty much negated the oft-advertised inexpensiveness in the minds of many budget-conscious Sega fans, so they decided it might be better to wait until the cost of both system and games came down.

Extra hardware required - Owners of older model Genesis and MegaDrive model 1 consoles, which by far comprised the vast bulk of the 20-odd million or so then on the market, soon discovered that many of the 32X retail units would not work with their aging systems right out of the box.  The 32X had been designed with the styling of the new Genesis model 2 in mind, and its smaller A/V port was incompatible with the older Commodore-style A/V port of the Genesis 1.  It required a special adapter cable to connect the smaller A/V ports of the 32X to the larger port of the older Genesis 1.  As it turned out, many of the 32X units shipped to retailers came with the Genesis 2 A/V adapter cables; therefore, 32X units with the Genesis 1 A/V cable were in fairly short supply..  Some merchants even went so far as stock only the ones with the Genesis 2 cables, thus hopefully forcing potential customers to buy a new Genesis 2 as well.  This meant that if you owned an older Genesis 1 and your local merchants didn't carry any 32X units with the Genesis 1 cable, then you were pretty much screwed.   Of course Sega had extra adapter cables that you could order from them, but you had to pay another US$25 or so to get them.  This jacked the projected upgrade cost for these poor unfortunates up to US$245.  Such a high price for what was supposed to be a cheap 32-bit upgrade, and a lot of trouble to boot.  Hmmm ... all of a sudden the SNES was beginning to look awfully good, and Donkey Kong Country was obviously one helluva game for something that was supposedly only 16-bit code.  Hmmm ....

Real 32-bit consoles - The growing hype over the Saturn's impending release during the first half of 1995 also loomed large in the minds of Sega's American and European fans - especially those who had decided to wait for the price of the 32X and its games to go down.  The Saturn would supposedly cost around US$400 or so, but it would have pack-in games and its on-board hardware was superior by far to anything the 32X could deliver.  Why pay around US$250 for a mere upgrade when the Saturn was what Sega had apparently intended all along?  If you were going to spend that much money on a 32-bit system, then why not spend a little more and get the real thing?  It was only US$150 more, and one wouldn't be wasting money on what gamers were by now calling "a throwaway product."  Sure, the 32X pumped up the Genesis, but where were all the cool games?  They were going to the Saturn and the new console in town, the Sony PlayStation.  32X?  Why bother?  Why not buy a real 32-bit console, and either sell the Genesis or give it to one's younger siblings?  The decision was pretty much a no-brainer for most gamers ready to jump on the 32-bit bandwagon, and 32X sales suffered as a result.


     So what is the final verdict on the 32X?  In my opinion, based on my research and collating the observations of those who actually worked on it and experienced it during its brief lifespan, the 32X was the wrong console at the wrong time.  This wasn't the same case as the Sega CD, when the market was not quite ready for a CD-ROM based console; indeed it is quite the opposite.  There was a definite market for a 32-bit platform, but it wanted a lot more than just retreads of past titles.  You can also add to that observation the timing of the 32X debut, coming as it did almost exactly at the same time as the Saturn and PlayStation launches in Japan.  The 32X was bound to fail for this reason - who wanted to develop for or spend the money on a mere 32-bit upgrade when true 32-bit consoles were also available at practically the same time for anybody who wanted them?  The developers ultimately rejected it as not being powerful enough.  The fans ultimately rejected it beause it didn't offer enough, neither in cost savings nor in software.  Unfortunately, there wasn't much that Sega corporate could do about the situation - due to production problems, lack of decisiveness over its future aims, and the growing feud between Sega of America and Sega of Japan over the path to the next 32-bit Sega videogame system. Their mismanagement of these quandaries put them in a rather bad situation once it came time for them to deal with the rise of the PlayStation.
     When you take everything that was involved and measure it all out, one cannot blame neither changing markets nor indifferent customers for the death of the 32X.  The fault for the 32X debacle lies squarely at Sega's doorstep.  Nakayama's behavior toward the one Sega system for which he can be credited as both creator and executioner reminds this author of Bill Cosby's old parenting cliche - "I brought you into this world.  I'll take you out."  Sega gave birth to one of the industry's first 32-bit home videogame consoles, but the confused manner of its birth along with its troubled childhood ensured its swift death within a rapidly changing market.  Sega was already making many of the same mistakes with the highly touted Saturn, and most videogame fans agree that Sega soon got what it deserved.  They would not begin to fully comprehend the error of their ways until they had been all but knocked out of the market by the swift rise of the Sony PlayStation.  In contrast, Sony did everything right - a solid 32-bit platform, excellent develper rapport, competitive pricing, and an ever-growing and varied library of good 32-bit titles that weren't all mere souped-up 16-bit ports.  Who can blame Sony for taking advantage of the situation?  One year later, Sega was sitting near the bottom of the home videogame market, a victim of its own mistakes.  By mid-1997, they had started coming to terms with their tragic blunders, and they swore not to repeat them as the new 128-bit Katana project began its initial design and development phases.

     Did Sega learn its lessons from the 32X affair?  You tell me.

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32X factoids

  • Genesis 32X is the official name of the 32X in the U.S. market.  In Japan, it is known as the Super 32X and in Europe as the Mega 32X.
  • There were at least 50 of the 32X development systems, i.e. "Mars prototypes," sent over to the U.S. by Sega for use by its people and licensed third parties.  An unknown but lesser number remained behind in Japan, and an even smaller number were sent to Sega of Europe.  The reason why the top of the unit remained open is that they ran notoriously hot when in use and could not be operated for extended periods of time without provisions for additional cooling.
  • FIFA Soccer 96 (E)DarXide (E)Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV (J)The only 32X game that is unique to the Japanese market is Gekijoban Sangokushi IV, known in the West by the title Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV: Wall of Fire.  The only 32X games that are unique to the European market are DarXide by Frontier and FIFA Soccer 96 by Electronic Arts.  FIFA 95 was announced for the U.S. market but never released, per EA's own 1995 marketing brochures.The single hardest item to replace for an actual 32X unit is the custom A/V patch cable that goes between the 32X and the Genesis console proper.

 

32X Game Guide

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