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