Major advances were being made in the power and quality of consumer electronics in the early-to-mid-1990s, and perhaps no sector experienced faster growth than video games. Upheavals in technology from the era left established manufacturers like Nintendo trying to keep up with the industry’s rapidly-changing goals and the needs of consumers, and the message was clear: the battle for people’s hearts and wallets would be won by those who could produce the best 3D graphics the fastest. New consoles featuring ‘lifelike’ graphics and increased storage capacity promised the best video game experiences possible; any system more than a year old was left scrambling to prove they weren’t obsolete just yet through scores of add-on hardware, special chips, and even wacky controllers.
This brings us to Sega, perhaps the first-party company most known/notorious for their system add-ons. From its American launch in 1989, the 16-bit Sega Genesis held a comfortable-but-not-unstoppable lead over other systems of the time, but by the 1993-1994 period, its sales were starting to slow, and the answer was clear (or at least it was to Sega of Japan). The Super Nintendo, a close second-place rival with far superior technology to the Genesis, was quickly gaining on and outdoing the Genesis with the primitive 3D graphics of their Super FX chip-powered games such as StarFox, Stunt Race FX, and the then-upcoming Donkey Kong Country. Sega had attempted to answer this by equipping a handful of arcade-to-Genesis ports with their comparable, but underpowered, SVP chip, but between Nintendo’s superior 3D offerings and the technology promised by other, newer systems, poor Sega’s old standby was starting to look a bit creaky to many consumers, even with the well-intentioned Sega CD still available on the market. Enter their doomed add-on, the Sega 32X.
Born of a meeting in early 1994 between Sega of America and Sega of Japan, the 32X was conceived as an inexpensive add-on to the still-in-production Sega Genesis system that would feature 3D capabilities rivaling that of many more powerful systems like the Atari Jaguar and 3DO, and to serve as something of an in-between stopgap system for consumers not yet ready to move into the next generation of systems like Sega’s own Saturn or the upcoming Playstation.
Plans were initially made to either release an all-in-one upgraded Genesis system or perhaps scrap the console altogether to focus on more advanced platforms. Sega of America employee Joe Miller argued successfully on behalf of extending the Genesis’ lifespan in America through the development of an add-on due to the system’s higher success in America and Europe, as opposed to its middling sales in Japan under the name Mega Drive. In Sega’s own words, according to the article “Nightmare in the Fun House” by Kathleen Morris, they hoped the introduction of the 32X would structure the company similar to the multi-tiered automobile manufacturer General Motors.The high-end next-gen Saturn was to be the company’s Cadillac, the Genesis serving as the affordable workhorse Chevrolet, and the 32X working as the mid-level Oldsmobile.
And it was a great plan, in theory. Miller reasoned that the 30 million American Genesis owners wouldn’t want to jump ship too quickly, and this would hopefully show consumers that Sega is willing to stand behind its products. Sega of Japan requested that the system be released before Christmas 1994 to boost Sega’s sales against the impending release of the Super Nintendo’s so-called ‘next-gen killer’ Donkey Kong Country, a game that even went so far as to specifically target the 32X’s advanced technology in it’s advertisements:
Much to Sega of America’s relief, the 32X sold quite well in its first month on the market, moving approx. 665,000 units by the end of 1994, a feat all the more impressive considering it was released November 21 of that year. The launch lineup didn’t get in the way either, with games like another port of Doom, a superior home version of Virtua Racing, and the long-awaited console port of Star Wars Arcade tiding players over until the bigger games such as Knuckles Chaotix (the closest the system would come to a Sonic title, barring a leaked tech demo shown some ten years too late) and Virtua Fighter, another of Sega’s SVP chip games that was much better served by the 32X’s hardware.
The good times wouldn’t last forever for Sega – do they ever, really? As Sega continued to make more announcements regarding the upcoming Saturn, many major developers like Konami, Capcom, and even several of Sega’s internal studios either abandoned their 32X projects or moved them to other, more powerful systems. The sharp decline in sales following the holiday season likely didn’t help convince developers to stick with the system, and by early 1996, Sega had officially pulled the plug on every system it had out at the time…other than the Saturn, of course. The final 32X game, a 3D space-shooter called Darxide, that showed off many of the system’s more advanced graphical capabilities, would be released near the end of 1995 in Europe – never seeing an American or Japanese release.
So what happened? Any number of theories have been thrown about over the years regarding the 32X’s demise, looking to point the blame at all sorts of issues both internal and external. The most likely culprit, and the one most people seem to agree on, is poor timing on Sega’s part. While the 32X may have been intended as a stopgap for people who wanted to put off moving to the next console generation for a few years, Sega was already stretching themselves thin and consumers may not have had the confidence to believe they would stick with the 32X for longer than a few years. At the time the 32X was released, Sega was already supporting the Genesis, the Game Gear, the Sega CD, and the Pico early childhood educational system – compare this to Nintendo, who had put the NES to bed earlier in 1994 and was only manufacturing the SNES and Game Boy at the time. Despite positive early reviews from media outlets like GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly, the perception existed amongst gamers that the 32X was merely killing time until the Saturn hit, and wasn’t really anything to be taken seriously. Former head of EA, Trip Hawkins, even went so far as to describe the system as “a band aid”, speculating that it would prove too difficult to program for and wasn’t compatible with the Saturn games the public was truly looking forward to. The surprise launch of the Saturn in May 1995 likely didn’t help matters, as the 32X had just under six months on shelves as Sega’s most powerful offering before their ‘true’ next-gen system came by to all but erase it from the public eye.
The 32X’s library of games, or lack thereof, was likely the second biggest contributing factor to the system’s demise. Sega of America producer, Scott Bayless, described the system’s launch lineup as “deliberately conservative”, noting that many corners were cut to get the largest amount of launch games out even if they weren’t necessarily indicative of the system’s true capabilities. This may have fed into some self-perpetuating cycle wherein gamers, unimpressed by Sega’s offerings, decided to pass on the 32X and wait for something better – this lack of sales causing companies to cancel more promising titles and/or move them to systems that would (or already did) have a better install rate. Many recently discovered unfinished 32X games such as Virtual Hamster, Ratchet and Bolt, and Castlevania: The Bloodletting paint a bright alternate future for the 32X, and these games coming to fruition may have helped keep it afloat if not boost it to the top of the charts. Sadly, those in charge of writing the checks saw better potential elsewhere, and most 32X games were abandoned midway to focus their efforts on more profitable ventures.
So was the 32X a failure? Commercially, yes. It had a strong start, but Sega’s own rush to constantly stay ahead of the curve, combined with a lineup that can be considered acceptable at best, worked in concert to kill the poor little mushroom before it truly had a chance to develop. But should it even have existed? Had it been managed better, certainly. If Sega had truly stuck to its guns and marketed the 32X as the mid-tier system it was initially designed to be, it could have at least held on a few years. How many of us now could conceivably have fond memories of playing some downgraded Saturn ports on the 32X since mom wouldn’t buy us a Saturn, the same way many people had to content themselves with Game Boy Color versions of N64 games they couldn’t afford? No, it was never truly going to convince people to not buy a Saturn or Playstation, but it’s not hard to imagine a brighter outcome for the 32X had Sega not stretched itself so thin and then cut off so much of its hardware in response to the Playstation’s success.
Of course, Oldsmobile is out of business too, so maybe that’s just wishful thinking.