20 years after launch, what can Sega’s 32X teach today’s console giants?

mega drive mega cd 32x

The 32X in situ alongside Sega’s Mega CD 2 and host console, Mega Drive (Genesis in the US).

Edge 218’s Kinect cover asked of the device: “The catalyst for a new era in gaming, or a 32X for 2010?”

The parallels between the Kinect and Sega’s 32X might not seem immediately obvious, but as the Xbox One slowly recovers from its difficult launch they keep presenting themselves. In 1994, Sega was a runaway success in the West. The Mega Drive (the Genesis, locally) was the best-selling 16bit machine in North America, and sold around seven million units in Europe, leaving the Super Nintendo in the shade. But in the East, things were different.

In Japan, the Mega Drive couldn’t compete with the SNES – the Super Famicom – and was also being outsold by NEC’s PC Engine. Headquartered in Tokyo, Sega was keen to progress to 32bit technology before their closest competitors – and it was feeling the heat, too, from a couple of new consoles: Atari’s 64bit Jaguar and Trip Hawkins’ 3DO. Pressure was rising. Action was needed.

The Mega-CD showcased Sega’s capabilities to strike into new markets ahead of its peers – even though it didn’t truly deliver next-generation experiences, the move to CD-based console gaming in 1991 was prescient, and sales were decent. But when word emerged that the company was to release another, cartridge-based add-on for the Mega Drive in order to prolong its lifespan, at the same time as developing a standalone 32bit console, the Saturn, the only reasonable reaction was one of bewilderment.

Codenamed Project Mars, Sega’s 32X began strongly, selling 650,000 units in the US between its November 1994 launch and Christmas the same year. But in Japan, the Saturn beat the Mega Drive’s 32bit supercharger to stores by a couple of weeks – it wouldn’t make the States for another six months – rendering its presence in the East effectively needless, its market penetration negligible.

Launching 32X so close to the Saturn – the ‘proper’ successor to the Mega Drive – turned out to be a terrible decision on Sega’s part.

Guardian games editor Keith Stuart knows a thing or two about what Sega was up to at this juncture, having recently contributed at length to a hefty tome on the Mega Drive, titled Collected Works, due out this summer. “1994 was a chaotic period for Sega, as they were supporting about seven platforms, while also investing in arcades, theme parks, online connectivity and virtual reality. But in the US, the Genesis was a huge hit, which went from a 5 per cent market share to almost 50 per cent in the space of two or three years, and they were terrified of losing that. They were keen on developing the 32X as a cheap way for Genesis owners to experience 32bit – the Saturn was clearly going to be a more expensive machine, and Sega was nervous about putting a $400 machine on the market.”

The 32X did indeed represent an affordable way of joining the 32bit era without ditching the previous generation’s library of games – you plugged your Mega Drive carts into the 32X and they played normally. But while the Saturn had Daytona USA and Panzer Dragoon on its Western launch, the 32X debuted with an abridged version of Doom, soon to be followed by ‘arcade-perfect’ ports of Space Harrier and After Burner – games dating from 1985 and 1987, respectively.

Needless to say, developer enthusiasm and consumer loyalty alike for the 32X did not last long, not with the exciting Saturn as an alternative. “Japan never cared for the 32X,” Stuart says. “They didn’t see it as relevant to the domestic market, and I don’t think you’ll find many Sega executives who look back at it as anything other than a mistake.” Sega’s peculiarly proportioned escapee from the Mushroom Kingdom was discontinued in 1996, having amassed a paltry library of 40 games, few of which truly made the most of its processing power.

Which was pretty impressive, actually, making the 32X an expansion of significant potential, stillborn by mismanagement. Inside the little lumpy thing protruding from the top of one’s beloved Mega Drive were two Hitachi SH2 processors – the same kit that drove the Saturn. Except, the 32X was better at handling three-dimensional visuals than Sega’s 32bit console ‘proper’.

Doom on 32X was one of the console’s best titles, despite its awkward windowed viewpoint.

Sega of America’s then-senior producer, Scot Bayless, spoke to Retro Gamer in 2010: “[The 32X] was a coder’s dream. It was a wonderful platform for doing 3D. The Saturn was essentially a 2D system. Part of me wishes the Saturn had adopted the 32X graphics strategy.” Bayless also tells of mixed messages flowing between Sega of America’s California base and Tokyo. Sounds familiar to what preceded the Xbox One’s launch: one thing said one day, quite another the next.

But if you got through the nightmare of actually connecting a 32X when there was already a Mega-CD hitched to your Mega Drive – Britain’s domiciles don’t tend to do wall sockets in threes – there were treats to be found amongst its small software library. Which probably can’t be said of Kinect-only games to date, unless you’re especially fond of the Dance Central series or have a soft spot for Sesame Street.

“Virtua Fighter for the 32X is going to hurt,” exclaims said title’s packaging – and this connotation of comprising a hit experience is realised with force, as a low polygon count is made up for by a smooth-flowing brawler that might lack the detail of other ports, but delivers precision play and liquid animation – even if the game’s gravity implies a lunar setting. Sega’s other big Virtua for the system, Racing (Deluxe, in this instance), is excellent too. Its all-caps “THE BADDEST VIRTUA RACING GAME EVER” is indicative of the in-your-face marketing of the 1990s, but AM2’s expanded title is easily the best driving game on the 32X.

Today, collecting for the 32X can be expensive, with the PAL port of T-MEK and the beautiful hummingbirds-with-lasers shooter (nope, no idea either) Kolibri going for high sums second hand. Even Sega’s sole Sonic series title for the system, Knuckles’ Chaotix, can command three figures. But Sonic Team’s echidna-starring platformer represents one of Sega’s most curious first-party titles, tying characters together, almost chain gang style, to promote teamwork in a single-player context. Is it worth £134.99, as listed on eBay recently? Not for any sane gamer, but we all do crazy things to support our addictions.

Sega’s only 32X exclusive release was Knuckles Chaotix, a rarity which was for sale for over £100 on eBay recently.

Much cheaper are the aforementioned Doom – which is just fine, if you turn off the awful music and don’t mind missing a few stages – and Star Wars Arcade, a fun forerunner to Rogue Squadron. Similar space-set shooters Stellar Assault (aka Shadow Squadron) and Darxide make good use of the 32X’s 3D handling, the latter employing texture mapping to stand out from the flatter surfaces of its stablemates. Mech-sim Metal Head also dressed its polygons, but appalling draw distance curtails any widescreen urban warfare ambitions.

Inevitably, most 32X games have aged poorly. But most were made before developers truly got a grip on the platform they were designing for – before they, to once again quote Molyneux from Edge 266, got “closer to the metal”, or as Stuart remarks, became familiar with “the vagaries of the machine”. Had Sega given the system a chance, who knows what may have happened. Perhaps it could have successfully coexisted with the Saturn. Says Stuart: “(Elite programmer) David Braben reckons that if the 32X had been released in its standalone form, as the (blueprinted, mocked-up, but never commercially released) Neptune, it may have done better than the Saturn, as it would have been cheaper, and the processer set-up was more flexible.”

Of course, continuing with the 32X/Neptune project beyond 1996 might have killed Sega’s console operations even before the Dreamcast marked the company’s home-market swansong. Or, just maybe, it shouldn’t have existed at all. Probably the latter. “I’ve interviewed Joe Miller and Marty Katz from Sega of America’s tech team, who actually designed the 32X,” says Stuart. “And they concede they have a fondness for the machine. But it was just the wrong product, at the wrong time.”

“The 32X was the first step in Sega’s fall from grace,” he continues, “followed by the chaotic US launch of the Saturn, which arrived early with no games. But then, Sega was against the wall. It had worries about the Jaguar, which seems absurd now. But it failed to understand the threat of Sony’s PlayStation. The PlayStation proposition was so seductive.

“Sega was obsessed with its legacy market of teenage boys, but here was Sony marketing its new machine at 20-somethings. Sega just didn’t understand that the market was maturing. Sony had even approached Sega with an offer to work on a 32bit machine together, which Sega of Japan allegedly turned down. The PlayStation promised something new, and completely fresh, which captured the imagination. There was little Sega could do to counter that – and it’s arguable whether anything could have prevented the domination of Sony.”

Now, nobody’s saying the Kinect shouldn’t exist – for every Fighters Uncaged, there’s a marginally better game. But nobody made the Mega Drive owners of 1994 invest in a 32X. That was their decision – that was my decision. And 20 years on, in another era of Sony domination no less, I can confirm that I get more use out of my triple-stacked Sega monstrosity than I do any motion sensor peripheral.

So it’s stick or twist for Microsoft – carry on regardless of poor feedback to titles like the recently reviewed Kinect Sports Rivals, or treat the Kinect as the endearingly inconsistent curio it’s always really been, and sell it separately. Is it a 32X for 2014? Ultimately, that depends on what you made of Sega’s ill-fated venture in the first place. Besides, the real worry for Microsoft will come if the Xbox One begins attracting Dreamcast comparisons, as we all remember what followed Sega’s entry into the sixth generation of home consoles.