These days, the Sega Mega Drive 32X is synonymous with failure in the video gaming industry. Many would argue its legacy – with a universally-panned games library, rushed development and unfulfilled potential across the board – is an insight into exactly how not to successfully market and sell a video games console.
However, with the mushroom-shaped system celebrating its 20th birthday this year, we thought it was only fair that we should take an in-depth look into where and why it all went so wrong for Sega’s ill-fated 32-bit peripheral.
- Release Date
- 21 November, 1994 (US)
- 3 December, 1994 (JP)
- January, 1995 (EU)
- 2 x SH-2 32-bit RISC (23 MHz)
- Capable of 132,768 colors and 50,000 polygons per second
- Cartridge, CD-ROM (with Sega CD)
- Requires Sega Genesis base unit; plugs in to cartridge slot, also uses additional cables.
In 1994, although the Genesis/Mega Drive was performing well above expectations in North America and providing strong competition to the SNES, it was faltering in Japan. Sega were concerned that the Genesis may have been running on borrowed time; its hardware, developed for launch in 1989, was ageing compared to the Super Nintendo’s 1991 architecture.
Additionally, Sega executives were reportedly concerned by the recent releases of the 32-bit 3DO and Atari Jaguar systems and the fact that it was unlikely they’d be able to enter their own powerhouse, the Sega Saturn, into the market until 1995.
As a result of these factors, the idea to create a transitional console to bridge the gap between the Genesis and the release of the Saturn was green-lighted by Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama and widely approved by Sega of America executives, despite the earlier failure of the Sega Mega CD add-on. Codenamed Project Jupiter, this all-new console was targeted for release in time for the 1994 holiday season.
The wheels of the 32X were set in motion during the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in January 1994, when Nakayama approached Sega of America’s head of product development, Joe Miller, with the premise of Project Jupiter. Based on a number of accounts, Miller expressed concerns about the difficulties of developing and marketing a brand-new system in the six to nine month window Sega had targeted.
Nakayama ultimately concurred, and thus Project Mars – later officially named the 32X – was born. Designed as an add-on for the Genesis, expanding its power with the introduction of two 32-bit central processing chips and a graphics processor with limited 3D capabilities, Miller’s team at Sega of America led the console’s development; with Sega’s Japanese division also on board to provide assistance.
Besides the issue of rushed development, the launch of the 32X suffered a significant setback months out when it was announced that the Japanese release of the Saturn was set for November 1994. Faced with having to market the simultaneous release of two different consoles, a drastic change in strategy was required.
Officially unveiled at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show, Sega boasted a $159.95 price point for the 32X, effectively placing it as a cheaper alternative to the Saturn; an affordable entry level for consumers into the next generation of gaming. Then-SEGA of America CEO Tom Kalinske is quoted as saying the 32X “was designed to be an interim piece and to prolong the life of the 16-bit platform”, while the Saturn built up its user base.
At the CES, Sega announced that 12 titles would be available at launch, with a further 50 games scheduled for release in 1995. However, when the 32X hit the shelves in North America on November 21, only four games were available: Virtua Racing Deluxe, Doom, Cosmic Carnage and Star Wars Arcade, each priced at $69.95.
Despite the setbacks, the console’s launch was largely successful; the relatively low cost, which was comparable to that of a new Genesis system and half that of a launch-model Saturn, clearly appealed to consumers. 665,000 units had been sold by the end of 1994, with Sega struggling to meet the high demand by retailers, who had placed over one million orders.
However, in spite of initial positive reviews and consumer demand, Sega struggled to get third-party developers engaged and excited about the system’s potential compared to the upcoming releases of the Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64 and Sony’s Playstation; with the quick development time of the 32X proving problematic in itself for the creation of titles both in-house and by third parties.
The port of seminal first-person shooter Doom was one of the console’s better received games; its shortcomings, however, epitomise those of the 32X in general. It was vastly inferior to the PC and Jaguar versions, with the tight deadlines and hastened development forcing id Software to remove a third of the game’s levels. The game was also criticised for its poor graphics and the under-utilisation of the 32X’s enhanced audio engine, which was notoriously poorly-documented and difficult to program for.
The majority of other early games released for the system were slightly-enhanced Genesis or Arcade ports that did not seem to take full advantage of the console’s 32-bit processing capabilities, including the likes of Space Harrier, Mortal Kombat II and NBA Jam TE.
Although Virtua Fighter and Sonic the Hedgehog spinoff Knuckles’ Chaotix were rare highlights for the 32X, other titles such as BC Racers and Cosmic Carnage were simply awful; SoA executive producer Michael Latham admitted that it took a lot of convincing for Sega to sign off on the latter for release.
A small number of games were released for the 32X in CD-ROM format, though these were poorly-received FMV titles which also required the Sega Mega CD to be attached to the user’s Genesis system. These games, which included another port of the infamous Night Trap, have been universally panned and frequently cited as an example of publishers attempting to make a quick buck through the rehashing of existing franchises.
Both sales and critical reception for the 32X substantially declined in early 1995, when it became clear that the majority of games available thus far had been rushed through development, coupled with the fact that many publishers were putting off releasing games for what was perceived by them to be a “dead-end” console. Consumers were also wary about forking out for a system that largely only seemed to run slightly-enhanced versions of games they’d already invested in for the Genesis.
With the Saturn pushed forward for a surprise North American release at E3 1995, the nails were already being hammered into the 32X’s coffin. With developers and consumers abandoning the console in droves, the system soon dropped in price to $99. By autumn, Nakayama had demanded that all Genesis/Mega Drive projects were to be dropped in favour of focussing all resources on the Saturn; masses of unsold 32X stock were priced to clear at just $19.95.
The 32X’s last ever release was Darxide in early 1996 (in PAL regions only), which was originally intended as a launch title for the cancelled Sega Neptune console; a two-in-one Genesis and 32X system that itself ended up in development hell. Spider-Man: Web of Fire was the final North American game released for the system; it, along with Darxide, had an extremely limited print run and both command high prices on online auction sites when they pop up nowadays.
Ultimately, the 32X could have been a competent transitional console that would’ve prolonged the life of the Genesis; especially in Japan where sales had been declining since the release of the SNES. However, largely due to internal conflicts at Sega – which was a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing with regards to the release window of the Saturn – the console was doomed to fail from the start.
In an interview with Sega 16-bit, Joe Miller is quoted as saying: “I think the 32X actually was an interesting, viable platform. The timing was wrong, and certainly our ability to stick with it, given what we did with Saturn, was severely limited.”
Setting such a narrow developmental window and fracturing Sega’s audience by overcrowding the marketplace ensured that the system was never able to realise its potential, with its mostly rushed and rehashed games forming a weak library of only forty titles.
Early adopters were punished by unfulfilled promises and later price drops; causing many to lose faith in Sega’s ability as a console manufacturer. Unfortunately, as its 20th birthday approaches, the 32X will go down in history as one of the worst received and lowest selling video games consoles of all-time.