GameSpite Journal 12: The Death and Death of 32X

A recent Popular Science report on the effects on wildlife of British Petroleum’s use of chemical dispersants to manage their Gulf Coast oil spill included an particularly upsetting description of “crabs that are dying from within… they are still alive, but you open them up and they smell like they’ve been dead for a week.” It’s a revolting thought. And in thinking about the history of Sega, I can’t help but wonder if you might experience the same thing by cracking open a 32X.

The mid-’90s were a tough time for gaming’s old guard. The tricks and tech that Nintendo and Sega had relied on for more than a decade were made obsolete almost overnight by the influx of hungry competitors and their super-machines capable of generating polygon-based 3D graphics. Nintendo chose to respond by rushing out a headset-based “portable” virtual reality system. Sega gave us a Genesis add-on that cost as much as the console itself.

Virtual Boy and 32X shared little in common besides an underlying sense of desperation. Both devices represented panicked stop-gap measures as their respective creators aimed to shore up their aging home consoles against increasingly impressive competition. Both did far more harm than good.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to name a home system or add-on that did more to undermine its creators’ good name than 32X did. The odd, mushroom-shaped device plugged into a Genesis, which already sat side-by-side with the Sega CD, taking up an entire two-socket power outlet. It provided moderate 3D capabilities—somewhat more impressive than those of Nintendo’s Super FX chip, though at considerably greater cost—better color depth, and almost no software of merit.

The 32X conveyed a confusing message to gamers. It arrived about a year before the Saturn, which was well-advertised and highly anticipated. Did Sega truly expect us to drop $250 on an upgrade to their existing console, then turn around a year later and spend another $400 in a machine that would make their previous investment moot? If 32X could churn out real 3D graphics, why even bother with a Saturn? You can even blame 32X on the death of certain Super NES games, particularly Star Fox 2: Nintendo canceled several FX2-powered 3D games to avoid detracting from the Nintendo 64’s debut. Surely Sega’s misstep with the 32X was the guiding example.

In truth, 32X was the product of a company that was rotting from within. Sega of the ’90s stood astride two corporate worlds: A resurgent America, and a fraught, post-Bubble Japan. Sega’s Japanese side had become the controlling force, but thanks to the success of the Genesis, America was where the company made its money. The 32X was the result of a fractious corporate culture that would resurface again and again throughout the (disappointingly brief) remainder of the company’s existence as a hardware maker.

If ever you could point to a single moment in the company’s history and say, “This is where it all went wrong,” 32X is that moment: Where they dropped the ball, fumbled the lead, and gouged fans with little regard for the long-term health of their customer base. Sega would do amazing things after the 32X, but they’d never again command the mindshare they enjoyed during the Genesis years. The stench of rot was unmistakeable.

Article by Jeremy Parish

GameSpite Journal 12: The Death and Death of 32X

13 thoughts on “GameSpite Journal 12: The Death and Death of 32X

  1. Fling all the (very, very much deserved) crap you want at the Virtual Boy, but even with the eye scalding display, fragile intenal mechanics, short battery life, and its portability and viewer unfriendly design, at least it was its own console. The Virtual Boy wasn’t some complicated to hook up monstorous growth you locked to your Game Boy’s catridge slot with bits of metal.

    SEGA’s 32X is so bewildering. It’s this thing that’s apparently supposed to be able to do gaming in that ugly ass 90s 3D, but it was pointless with the Saturn around the corner, wasteful because the Genesis already had another add-on (SEGA CD) that could’ve used better support/was less of a hassle to hook up/didn’t steal the Genesis’s cartridge slot, and way too costly for an add-on to try and keep a 16-bit system relevant.

    I think all of that money wasted on an add-on already doomed out the gate would’ve been better spent on continuing support for the SEGA CD. More games using the disc space for Redbook audio, animated cutscenes, and voice acting; less on cartoons and bad movies where you press buttons sometimes.

    Pointless waste of money that it is, the 32X did have that hummingbird shooter, and Knuckles Chaotix is a curio for Sonic fans. I guess that’s about in line with Virtual Boy having its own Wario Land game and that game where you punch robots.

  2. Initial 32X sales were initially quite strong, so Sega’s bet that customers wanted an upgraded Genesis was a correct one. The initial projected price was also originally much lower (~$150), more appropriate for a “transitional” console.

    The 32X also came out of a broader effort within Sega to expand to the newer RISC processors, including the Saturn and the ST-V arcade board, so all the teams probably benefited from design collaboration; note that all three were designed around dual SH-2 RISC chips.

    If there were serious problems with the 32X, it was probably two things:

    1. The surprise news of the Playstation affected the internal timelines for all console makers. It also caused the Saturn team to switch to a the dual chip design. No doubt this trickled into the 32X and contributed to its higher cost (and programming complexity).

    2. It was difficult to write software for the 32X. But this is perhaps the oldest story in the history of console gaming, and was equally true of the Saturn, which ultimately fared better.

    Mistakes happen in any broad design effort. The 32X mistakes were very real but the biggest gamble — consumer demand for an upgraded console — was correctly anticipated.

    I agree that there is a story here, since the 32X and Mega-CD contributed to Sega’s decline, but I think it deserves a deeper investigation, not a simple beatdown of a soft target.

    • 32X represents the desperate flailing of a fractured company at war with itself and uncertain about its future. I’m not sure how you can call any device that sold barely more than a half-million units around the world in its miserable life — most of which were at drastic, slash-and-burn reduced prices — a strong seller. Sega CD was a better add-on than most people give it credit for, but 32X was a cynical, needless mess from the moment of conception.

  3. Jeremy, I know it must be really difficult to come up with fresh ways to write an article. And mostly you manage to impress me in that regard. But your comparision between an underwhelming console add-on and an ecological disaster made me feel uncomfortable. Video games are a respectable form of art, but there are far more serious issues in my opinion.

  4. Earlier this year I scanned a bunch of pages from the issue of Sega Visions Magazine in which the 32X was revealed. If you’re not familiar with Sega Visions, it was Sega’s less successful answer to Nintendo Power; an in-house magazine meant to provide a direct route to fans and promote the company. If you don’t remember those days first hand, you will be absolutely amazed at the madness featured in these pages.

  5. I purchased a 32X after it hit the bargain bin (which didn’t take very long). It had a few good games, such as Virtua Racing and Star Wars Arcade, but the bump in graphical capabilities never seemed to justify the existence of the add-on (let alone the original MSRP).

  6. Desperation. That word sums up this scary era of gaming quite well. Prior to the PSX launch we had such wonderful glimpses of the future as: 32X, Virtual Boy, Jaguar, 3DO, & CD-i, not to mention the FMV craze. I for one remember clearly my sense of impending doom and a new “video game crash” right around the corner. However, once I fired up Philosoma, Toshiden and Warhawk all my fears were allayed. Total non sequitur, but I think that Silent Bomber on PSX has never gotten the love it deserves.

  7. @LBD “Nytetrayn”: I’ve heard the game’s kinda meh, but yeah, I would love a way to play it without a complex Genesis attachment or emulation.

    Also Kolibri or however it’s spelled. Because hummingbird shooter. And I think there’s one other good game that wasn’t a crappy port of something I’m forgetting.

  8. For the record, I called the 32X an initially strong seller. It sold a couple hundred thousand units in its first few (pre-Christmas) weeks, which is on par with the best-selling consoles. When those sales failed to persist past Christmas, I’d assert it’s because of the software wasn’t there. But it doesn’t change the fact that there was genuine interest in a console expansion. Their strangest gamble ended up being correct, in my opinion.

    Calling it a flailing mess is easy in hindsight, because it didn’t get the game support, which is the only consistent marker of console success. It was an unusual product, but I see nothing about its development that suggests it was doomed from the start.

    From what I can tell, the main failure was they didn’t follow through and give it proper support. As I suggested earlier, I’d suspect this was because it started pushing up against the Saturn. But this story really needs more research to sort out these facts.

    I’ll say it again: dismissing the 32X as junk is oversimplifying a great potential console story.

  9. @Marshall Ward Well, of course it would see good sales if it was released around the Christmas rush. Not everyone kept up with gaming news, and children tend to be really stupid..err, gullible. They probably didn’t know or didn’t care that the SEGA Saturn was right around the corner, and just saw a shiny new thing.

    It theoretically could’ve had more good games if people had taken the time to learn how the format works, but with the Saturn near game developers were most likely confused. Why learn the ins and outs of developing for a (second) costly attachment for a dying system when the next big console’s right around the corner? Especially when the SEGA CD wasn’t exactly a success, either?

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