It is difficult to define the exact point at which things started to go wrong for Sega, but the late 1994 launch of the 32X marked the beginning of a disastrous timeline that would eventually lead to its exit from the hardware market. Shaped like a mushroom and priced at one hundred and forty-nine dollars, the 32X crashed and died in just one year. But what was the hardware capable of, how did it work, and how do your games perform compared to the competition? Welcome to one of John Linneman’s most ambitious retro projects, a review of all the games made for the 32X, along with benchmarks for titles that were cross-platform. It’s a great celebration of one of the biggest fiascos in video game history.
And this time it’s personal. As editor of the official British Sega Magazine, I was there and saw firsthand how all this happened. The first time I heard of the 32X was in early 1994, on a visit to the Sega Europe offices for an informal off-the-record meeting with their top marketing managers. I remember it clearly: an enthusiastic director, who loved the company and its products, showed me a prototype of the Sega Nomad almost a year before it was released. In terms of anticipation, the future Saturn was clearly a 10/10, but there were plans for something else, a very different one. He compared it to me by giving it an 8/10 on that same scale. It was the 32X. We no longer put numerical notes in Eurogamer, but if the Saturn was a ‘Recommended’, the 32X was clearly a ‘Avoid’.
Even at the time, with rumors about the PlayStation and its mind-blowing technical demos circulating in the industry, Sega seemed like an unstoppable giant. And at that meeting, looking at a fully portable Mega Drive, Sega could still show off a cutting edge product. I guess comparatively it’s like Microsoft or Sony announcing the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 but then just showing you a portable PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.
It’s fair to say that while the final version of the 32X wasn’t great, it was certainly something unique. It was an accessory that literally added new hardware to the Mega Drive, with the code running on both the original console and the add-on, using a video passthrough cable that sent graphics from the Mega Drive to the 32X, which, in turn, it added its components before sending the final image to the screen. The developers had to combine both systems, and by disconnecting the appropriate cables you can see what each hardware does individually in any 32X game, something we examine with each of the games.
The 32X was a disappointing attempt to bring 32-bit 3D gaming to Mega Drive users, incorporating the same Hitachi SH2 processors as the Saturn, albeit with its speed reduced from 28.6MHz to 23MHz. Unlike the Mega Drive, which draws tiles and sprites with each scanline, the 32X writes alternately in two framebuffers, each with 128K of memory. Although it was a more modern method, this proved to be a weak point for the system, especially when dealing with 2D bitmap graphics. The bottom line is that getting a smooth scroll at 60Hz was extremely difficult, so many developers simply entrusted that particular task to the base Mega Drive, overlaying the 32X-generated sprites, which sometimes ran at frame-rate. less.
The 32X was a disappointing attempt to bring 32-bit 3D gaming to Mega Drive users, incorporating the same Hitachi SH2 processors as the Saturn, albeit with its speed reduced from 28.6MHz to 23MHz.
Everything the 32X did was generated by software: despite the games available to it, the 32X did not offer hardware scaling, rotation, or 3D acceleration. However, it did support modes with greater color depth, allowing a larger color palette to be displayed on the screen than the Mega Drive, while offering enhanced sound capabilities with PWM (pulse width modulation) and based playback. samples. All audio was sent through the cartridge port, where it was mixed with the sound generated by the Mega Drive.
Basically what Sega offered with the 32X was a scaled-down version of one of the weakest points in the Saturn’s hardware design: a dual-CPU setup that developers had trouble adjusting to. And with so little time on the market, its possibilities were never exploited. However, by looking at all the games that were made for it (thirty-four on cartridge and six on CD) and comparing performance and other platforms, it is possible to get an idea of what the machine could do, as well as the challenges developers faced when programming games for it.
And while the 32X deserves its reputation as a colossal hardware failure, in the thirty-eight games in its catalog there are some really good titles. Sega itself, which will not surprise many, developed great games, such as the Space Harrier or Afterburner ports superscaler (although on Saturn they were even better), and AM2’s work on Virtua Racing Deluxe offers a huge improvement over the version. from Mega Drive. Virtua Fighter was visually simpler, but more robust and just as playable than the Saturn, with a 30FPS frame-rate, the same as the original arcade version.
Space shooters were a hot genre during the 32X period, and the system is well represented with Shadow Squadron (Stellar Assault in Japan), a title that featured some of the smoothest 3D graphics on the system. There was also an exclusive arcade port, Star Wars Arcade. The performance problems tarnish the final result a bit, but there was nothing like it at the time and it is very likely that if you had a 32X that would be one of the games in your collection. Frontier Developments’ Darxide (yes, the makers of Elite) also took advantage of the 32X with fully textured polygons. Performance was often terrible, but very similar to what most PCs of the time offered.
Those PCs were what millions of people used to play id Software’s Doom, and the 32X had a fairly acceptable conversion, programmed by none other than John Carmack himself, based on the port for Jaguar. Yes, the game window is smaller, the color more limited, the maps were reduced and only the front sprites were used, but it is still Doom and it worked perfectly on a one hundred and fifty dollar device, when on PC you needed a gamut computer high (or a Jaguar, but we’ll talk about that another day).
Everything the 32X did was generated by software: despite the games available to it, the 32X did not offer hardware scaling, rotation, or 3D acceleration. However, it did support modes with greater color depth, which allowed a greater color palette to be displayed on the screen than that of the Mega Drive.
Knuckles Chaotix, an evolution of the Mega Drive Sonic Crackers prototype, is also quite famous. However, much of the work in this game is done on the base hardware, as opposed to 32X, which is mostly used for the sprites of the main characters. This also highlights one of the weaknesses of the hardware, the absence of hardware scrolling.
Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure ran at 60FPS on Mega Drive and Mega CD, but drops down to 20-30FPS on the theoretically more powerful 32X. The advantage of this version is that you get better graphics thanks to the improved palette of the 32X, but the price to pay is unacceptable at the playable level. Kolibri, designed by the creators of Ecco the Dolphin, on the other hand, does get everything right and shows a smooth and very colorful presentation.
There are some really interesting titles in the limited 32X catalog, but also some really terrible ones, like the hideous BC Racers or the woeful Motocross Championship. And how can we forget those FMV (full motion video) -based games of the time? Yes, there were companies that thought there was a market for titles that required both the Mega CD and the 32X. The result is a foursome of heinous games, where the famous Night Trap is by far the best of them.
That strange combination of hardware that makes up the Mega Drive, Mega CD and 32X represents what went wrong at Sega, a history of bad decisions that occurred before the arrival of the 32-bit mushroom-shaped add-on. Instead of concentrating on a single platform and dedicating all its effort to a single product, the company always maintained simultaneous support for several platforms, whether it was 32X and Saturn, Mega Drive and Mega CD or Mega Drive and Master System / Game Gear. Sega’s talented AM2 team produced some great 32X titles, but what if the developers had focused only on Saturn during its crucial first few months?
When watching these videos, with the comparisons of 32X against Super Nintendo and Mega Drive, remember what was happening in the world of video games. Most of the users were waiting for the arrival of the true 32-bit and new generation systems, which were already on sale in Japan and were frequently featured in magazines. Just knowing that there was a spectacular port of Ridge Racer for PlayStation guaranteed users that their patience would be rewarded, a feeling that was enhanced when you saw the imported console on the sideboard of a local store. The 32X died quickly because of it, but looking through all the games produced for the system we see that there are some buried gems. And despite being there when all this happened, I have learned things about the system and about games that I did not know anything about. An exclusive 32X title on CD for Brazil? Who would have thought …