In the early 90s, the video game industry was obsessed with “bits”.
♪ Genesis does! ♪
“16-bit arcade graphics.”
♪ You can’t do this on Nintendo! ♪
The average didn’t understand what a “bit” actually was,
but they did know one thing:
the more “bits”, the better.
And video game companies used this to their advantage with marketing
Sega and Nintendo battled for the top spot in the market
with their 16-bit consoles.
The Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo.
But with success, came pressure.
To stay ahead of the curve, they needed to come up with the next big thing.
Pressure heated up in 1993, when Atari released their 64-bit console:
In their advertisements, Atari challenged customers to do the math.
“Let’s review the numbers!”
“Sega Genesis is 16 bits, 3DO is 32 bits,
the Atari Jaguar is 64 bits.”
“Which is more advanced. Clifford!”
It was an enticement to consumers and a dig at their competition.
The system ultimately didn’t sell well.
But in terms of sheer power,
Atari’s 64-bit system had Sega and Nintendo’s 16-bit systems beat.
Atari’s powerful new console sent a strong message.
But Atari wasn’t the only company making waves.
The 3DO was a 32-bit console released in late 1993.
It was even named Time Magazine’s 1993 Product of the Year.
As 1994 wore on, there was a lot of buzz about Sony’s upcoming console.
Sega, in particular, felt the heat.
They knew that to maintain their hard fought spot as the scrappy,
edgy competitor to Nintendo, they had to be cutting-edge.
But Sega of Japan and Sega of America had very different ideas
on what their next move should be.
Success played a big role in their divergent strategies.
The Sega Genesis, known as the Mega Drive outside of North America,
debut in 1988 in Japan and didn’t make a huge splash.
By 1994, the Mega Drive felt like old news.
Sega of Japan was ready to move on.
But in America, the Genesis was in the midst of a rebirth.
In the early 90’s, newly hired Sega of America president Tom Kalinske
gave Nintendo a run for its money when he called for an aggressive
anti-Nintendo marketing campaign, slashed the price of the Genesis
and packaged the console with Sonic the Hedgehog.
The 16-bit Genesis wasn’t exactly cutting-edge technology,
but it was fun, and it gave Nintendo some serious competition.
Sega’s competing strategies came to clash at a January 1994 meeting
during the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Executives from Sega of America met in a hotel room and
conferenced in Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama.
Nakayama wanted a 32-bit cartridge-based system
out in time for the 1994 Holiday Season.
This would keep Sega ahead of the curve and help bridge the gap
between the Genesis and future consoles.
Nakayama suggestion was essentially a 32-bit Sega Genesis.
Sega of America president Tom Kalinske didn’t like the idea.
The Genesis was still selling well.
There was no gap that needed to be bridged.
Sega of America’s Head of Research and Development, Joe Miller, was also resistant.
According to former Sega of America producer Michael Latham,
Miller doesn’t recall being quite that blunt,
but after some debate, they agreed to make it an add on.
Sega of America would lead development, while Sega of Japan would
provide any additional resources needed.
The add-on would have to be ready by the 1994 Holiday Season.
That gave Sega less than a year.
It was a tall order but not entirely out of the box.
After all, Sega already had experience building add-ons for the Genesis.
In 1989, they debut the Power Base Converter,
which allowed players to play Master System games on the Genesis.
A few years later, in 1992, they put out the Sega CD.
Which was an expensive, but technologically advanced add-on that allowed users
to play CD-based games.
So, they moved forward. It was a difficult process.
The team had just months to complete the product,
which was codenamed Project Mars.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Sega of America,
Sega of Japan was quietly developing their own 32-bit system,
which would eventually become the Sega Saturn.
According to Joe Miller, Project Mars had three initial prototypes.
The first two were not much of an improvement over the Genesis.
But the third prototype, suggested by Sega of Japan,
contained two Hitachi SH-2 32-bit processors.
The same processors that would be used in the Saturn.
It was a bit more complex than the Genesis hardware,
but there was a strategy behind it.
Sega of Japan argued that developers could learn to work with these new chips
in preparation for Project Saturn, which was slowly coming to fruition.
Sega’s new plan was that the Saturn would be their next big console,
while Project Mars would be a cheaper alternative for consumers who weren’t quite ready to take the leap.
Along with new processors came a more powerful VDP,
more than 32,000 on-screen colors, 3D graphics support,
enhanced sprite scaling and rotation,
and two more digital sound channels.
On paper, it was quite an upgrade for the Sega Genesis.
The team initially called it “The Genesis Super 32X”
and eventually shortened it to “32X”.
By the summer of 1994, Sega showed off the 32X’s near final prototype
at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago.
It went over fairly well.
Sega pitched it as an inexpensive way for players to enjoy 32-bit technology,
while also being able to play the enormous backlog of Genesis titles.
They also promised a slew of new 32-bit games that would
be available when the 32X launched that November.
They also mentioned a few dozen companies who planned
to develop games for the 32X.
It was a who’s who of video game makers:
Acclaim, Activision, Capcom, Konami and more.
They finalized the design that fall.
The end result of months of hard work
was an add-on that inserts into the Genesis’ cartridge slot
transforming the 16-bit Genesis into a 32-bit system.
Some developers jokingly called it “The Sega Mushroom”.
Sega launched a 10 million dollar ad campaign to promote the 32X.
Sega was known for edgy, in your face ads.
But these pushed the envelop even further by being surprisingly sexual.
They highlighted the 32X’s power and speed
and poked fun at how the add-on mounts the Genesis.
For a little while, the 32X looked like it might just beat the odds.
Ads and media coverage generated a lot of buzz.
“You can even play your favorite Genesis and CD game!”
“The 32X makes the game way more intense, just like in the arcade!”
But then, a bombshell.
Sega of Japan announced that their new console, the Sega Saturn,
would launch in Japan in November of 1994.
The exact same time as the 32X launch.
All of that momentum came to a screeching halt.
With the Saturn launching in Japan,
it would surely reach the rest of the world soon.
Which beg the question:
What was the point of this 32-bit add-on?
A few critics speculated that the 32X was a waste of money.
A mere stopgap between the Genesis and the Saturn.
Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts,
famously called it “a Band-Aid”.
It didn’t help matters when Sega threw a massive
party for journalists that went horribly wrong.
They flew reporters in from all over the country,
put them up in a hotel in San Francisco
and threw a party where a rapper took the stage to praise the 32X.
But the music was too loud
and the few 32X games that were on display looked so unimpressive
that very few journalists actually played them.
Despite these obstacles, Sega of America continued to market the system hard.
In Sega Visions magazine, they made their case:
On November 21st, 1994, the 32X launched in North America.
And sold fairly well.
According to some reports, demand outran the supply of the 600,000 units available at launch.
It debut at a price of $159.99.
Slightly more expensive than promised,
but less than half of what the Sega Saturn would cost.
A month later, the 32X launched in Europe and Japan.
By this time, the Saturn had already launched in Japan.
Which gave Japanese gamers little incentive to buy a 32X.
The 32X came with an AC adapter, AV cables,
connector cables, electromagnetic shield plates and a spacer.
It was compatible with the Genesis Model 1,
Model 2 and the CDX.
Hooking up the 32X is… interesting.
According to the manual, the electromagnetic shield plates
need to be inserted into the Genesis.
This was to prevent RF signal interference and to comply with FCC regulations.
If the user had a Genesis Model 2,
the spacer had to be attached to the bottom.
Without it, the 32X can wobble.
Although, honestly, the 32X works fine without either of these attachments.
The connector cable goes from the AV out in the Genesis to the
AV in on the 32X.
Then the AV cable goes from the 32X AV out to the television.
The Genesis and 32X each require their own power.
It’s a lot of plugs.
Sega actually came out with their own power strip,
specifically designed to house all of these AC adapters.
The 32X was designed to be a permanent addition to the Genesis.
So players could plug the 32X in and play either a Genesis game or a 32X game.
There was plenty of buzz around the 32X when it debut.
But that fizzled fast.
Mainly because of the games.
When they hyped the add-on at the Consumer Electronics Show that summer,
Sega said that the 32X would have an extensive library of games.
But only three titles were available when the 32X launched:
Virtua Racing, DOOM and Star Wars Arcade.
Virtua Racing is considered the best of the three launch titles.
It was previously released on the Genesis,
but the 32X version is much improved.
It also contains two new tracks and two new vehicles.
It’s close to the original arcade version and is a solid port.
DOOM is a classic first person shooter
and was really big at the time.
But the 32X version was rushed to meet deadlines.
It definitely shows.
The music isn’t very pleasant and this version is actually missing levels.
Finally, there is Star Wars Arcade.
Despite receiving mediocre scores from critics for repetitive gameplay,
Star Wars Arcade was the best-selling 32X launch title.
People just loved Star Wars, so the game was a system seller.
Slowly, more games trickled in.
Many of them were rushed through production. And it showed.
The production timelines were too tight for some of the titles,
which led to last minute scrambles and headaches for Sega.
And disappointment for players.
Those that did make it to market in time didn’t take full advantage
of the 32X’s capabilities.
Cosmic Carnage was so bad that Sega didn’t even want to ship it out.
And fans were particularly disappointed that a 3D Sonic game,
which had been teased at the Consumer Electronics show,
was nowhere to be found.
In fact, the 32X would never get a Sonic game.
The closest it came was Knuckles’ Chaotix.
A spin-off of the Sonic series that featured an interesting bungee gameplay mechanic.
The 1994 holiday season was rough on Sega,
but the 32X was only part of the problem.
Because while their hot new add-on crashed and burned,
their competition raked in the cash.
On the same day the 32X was released,
Nintendo released Donkey Kong Country.
The game sold like crazy.
It would go on to become the third best selling Super Nintendo game of all time.
Just behind Super Mario World and Super Mario All Stars.
The game was a smash hit, both with critics and players.
But it was also a smack in the face to Nintendo’s competition.
When Atari, Sega and 3DO zigged … Nintendo zagged.
Atari’s Jaguar, Sega’s 32X and the 3DO chased power.
Nintendo, on the other hand, created a really fun game that
pushed hardware limits for their 16-bit system.
For Sega, especially, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
Sales of the 32X dropped off sharply after the holiday season.
Word was out.
Critics and fans finally agreed.
The 32X was a mere stopgap.
Many of the developers who’d been planning games for the 32X went in a new direction.
Some abandoned the projects entirely.
While others reworked them for the Sega Saturn.
But Sega wasn’t ready to give up on the 32X just yet.
They went back to their original idea for a 32-bit Genesis
and announced the Sega Neptune.
The Neptune would be a standalone console that could play
32X and Genesis games.
It was slated to launch by the end of the year for less than $200.
But as the 32X crashed and burned
and the date for the Saturn’s North American launch grew closer,
Sega scrapped the Neptune.
As 1995 wore on, the price of the 32X dropped from $160 to $99.
And finally, to the clearance price of $19.95.
The 32X library eventually grew to include 40 titles,
a handful of which you had to have the 32X AND the Sega CD to play.
But none of the games were big enough to draw consumers to the 32X.
Not too many months after the 32X debut, it was forgotten.
In October of 1995,
Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama cancelled all Sega consoles, except the Saturn.
It was a move to focus the company’s resources on the latest console war.
Thus, officially ending the short life of the 32X.
All of this left a bad taste in the mouths of fans.
They believed the Sega hype and they got burned for it.
The 32X games didn’t live up to expectations.
And neither did the add-on itself.
There were other, smaller annoyances too.
People didn’t like that the 32X needed its own AC adapter.
The Genesis already required one. And so did the Sega CD.
Taken as a whole, the system was bulky from the front
and a mess of cords in the back.
But that was nothing compared to how 32X owners felt
when the Sega Saturn came out roughly six months later in North America.
While critics argued that the 32X was just a placeholder,
Sega of America didn’t feel the same way.
They sunk ten million dollars into advertising
and publicly said they were going to support the system.
But poor sales of the 32X ended that promise.
Scot Bayless, a senior producer at Sega of America, said:
The 32X is an impressive piece of engineering,
considering the constraints of the project.
But the truth is, Sega should’ve scrapped the 32X before they brought it to market.
The 32X damaged Sega’s relationship with customers,
game developers, and game critics.
And did lasting damage to the company itself.
They spent the early 90’s threatening Nintendo’s dominance of the video game industry.
But after the 32X, Sega lost its edge.
Bayless recalled: “Frankly, it made us look greedy and dumb to consumers.
Something that a year earlier, I couldn’t have imagined people thinking about us.
We were the cool kids.”
That’s all for this episode of the Gaming Historian. Thanks for watching.
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