32x – Sega’s Strangest Move
Let’s talk about the 32x, because frankly not enough people are. The 32x was an add-on for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive that effectively turned it into a Sega Saturn.
Well, not really. It gave it a decent power boost, allowing it to play such intensive games as Doom (oooh!) and Star Wars Arcade (ahhh!).
But its release was muddy, confusing and probably a good sign of things to come with the Saturn and ultimately the Dreamcast.
Here is where Sega’s fortunes started turning – on November 22, 1994.
Sega Do What Nintendon’t
It’s an interesting idea. What would happen if, instead of releasing a brand new console, Sony and Microsoft brought out a “booster back” for the PS4 and Xbox One that allowed them to be more that they originally were.
That was basically the pitch for the 32x. This is a device you pop into the cartridge slot and your old Mega Drive became more powerful. Attach your Sega CD alongside it and you have a real Frankenstein’s Monster of a device on your hands.
Outside of the fact that installing more power by USB isn’t quite the same thing as plugging it into your cartridge slot, the 32x is the real reason Sony and Microsoft would never consider this crazy idea.
On paper it’s fine. Sell something cheaper than a new console to those not fully ready to upgrade. Offer impressive graphics, experiences unavailable anywhere else, and maybe the hardcore will double dip on the new console AND the upgrade.
And it might have gone that way had the idea been a bit better thought out.
Here’s how it went: Sega announced the 32x because it was worried the Saturn wouldn’t make 1994. In Japan it did, which meant you had both the 32bit Saturn and the 32bit 32x on the market. Confused? So were Japanese consumers.
They had rushed the product so much, that development time was cut down, and only 40 games were released for it. Of that 40, six required the Sega CD. Others were Genesis ports. Think about that for a second. They were ports of games from the console you needed to use the 32x.
It’s in the Game…
Then there were other games like Space Harrier, which weren’t on the Mega Drive but had been on everything else. The original game was released on just about everything in the mid-80s, and so what better game to show off the power of your brand new 32x?
For every Doom, there were ten games that didn’t belong. And when you only have 40 games total (less per region), that’s a bit embarrassing.
But it wasn’t just the games. Journalists were flown from all over the world for a marketing event showing off the 32x in San Francisco. It was such a poor event, the journos tried to leave – only there buses had left and wouldn’t return until the even was finished.
Developers – who at this point know about the Saturn, N64 and PlayStation – were even less impressed. Remember, the 32x wasn’t a weaker version of the Saturn. It was its own thing, released just a few months before in the US/EU.
When people talk about the Series S splintering the market, ignore them. If you can’t ignore them, show them the 32x, the Sega CD and the Saturn.
There are only a few third party games on the 32x, although – to nobody’s surprise – you can play FIFA 96. Oh, and Night Trap.
So other than the strangeness of its launch, why should people be talking about the 32x? Aside from the fact that it’s obvious Sega didn’t have a clue what they were doing even as early as 94, what about it makes it noteworthy?
The 32x died a death, selling about 800,000 units globally. That was about eight times more than the Jaguar, which it had been rushed to market to beat. But that still wasn’t enough.
By 1995, Sega had killed off plans to make a Genesis/32x hybrid, and shortly after it was shelved entirely.
And with it went all the few gems the console offered. Knuckles Chaotix – an unusual but enjoyable spin-off to Sonic the Hedgehog – hasn’t been re-released. Ever. No appearance on iTunes, no compilation showing – it hasn’t existed since 1995.
The other ‘gems’ are mainly oddities. Doom has a Mature rating – one of the first of its kind. Virtual Racing has more tracks over the Genesis version (and didn’t require a processing unit in the cartridge).
Star Wars: Arcade was punishingly difficult, but very impressive. And it’s only available on 32x, unless you happen to have an original cabinet about.
See, for games to become classic, they need to be played. A million is enough – or even half of that if the fan base is vocal enough.
Nobody playing a game is worse than it getting bad reviews. There’s no fire for it to be re-released or preserved.
And so a unique Sonic game, a Star Wars flight-sim and all those other games are lost to time, with only the clever developers of emulators keeping them alive.
I’ve spoken before about the importance of preservation. This is why.
Sega’s 32x – Conclusion
Looking back on the 32x, it was an interesting experiment, terribly handled. Sega segregated their own market. They segregated the market within the genesis community. And they didn’t reckon with the upcoming might of the PlayStation.
It was also the beginning of the end for Sega as a console manufacturer. They would be around for another five years, creating the disappointing Saturn and the incredible Dreamcast. And yet their marketing never managed to get across. The Dreamcast died an early and disappointing death, and with it Sega’s work as a console maker.
But this period of Sega history has become mostly forgotten, at retail if not in the memories of fans. You can’t buy a Saturn collection or a 32x remaster. And I think that’s a real shame.