SEGA 32X: Hardware memories

The Sega 32X.  wanted it to work… I whipped myself up into a frenzy of expectation literally trying to will it to fly into success, much like the Lee Evans comedic idea of how a plane takes off using the passengers’ will alone. Deep down I knew it wasn’t going to work, yet always being attracted to the underdog I loyally went down with the ship believing Sega wasn’t going to let the death of the 32X go without realising its potential. 

By Andy Foster. Follow him on twitter here: @andyfostermusic  

It’s easy to see why it was an attractive proposition; the prices alone of the new-fangled 32bit hardware where completely unreachable to a boy with a paper round and only a Xmas present dream.

Panasonic 3DO £549

Atari Jaguar £199.99

Sega Saturn £349.99

Nintendo 64 £249.99 (a long way away yet)

Sony PlayStation £299.99

Sega 32X £169 (plus £50 software coupons - later reduced to clear!)

Here was an option using an upgrade to my existing console the Megadrive 2 that sat under my TV and I too could be a member of the 32bit world. Especially as my Dad got it for me nearly a year after its release second hand for around £40!

32X Coverlarge

I’m not going to go into the technical aspect too much as its all out there and it is also very well documented as being considered as the beginning of Sega’s fall into the precipice of hardware history. For me the 32X symbolises a missed opportunity, Sega’s incredible thirst in hardware development ideas and also the company’s madness that encapsulates its spirit.

Sega’s colours are black (yes I understand the grey and white Japanese colours) and to me they have always been concerned with the daring, the grungy, the mad and the gritty. Nintendo were always well organised, slightly cold in its business approach, a sign of the upmost quality and family friendly. With this in mind I adore Sega’s mental approach to the early 90’s. It got cocky and spewed out all these mad ideas throwing money at all of them like an excited rich teenager. I love them for that and I love the 32X and all its hated foibles.

Through the year of its release I looked at the screenshots of Doom, Star Wars Arcade and the Virtua games getting excited and thinking how great it would be to own them but secretly knowing that Sega weren’t thinking quick enough in terms of the market… the PlayStation changed everything.

 90888 Virtua Fighter 32X 2

Everyone had a perceived rich mate. That friend. He got all the consoles on launch even at 13/14 years old with a few games to boot. When the PlayStation came out he had it straight away and round his house playing Wipeout and Ridge Racer I knew that whatever Sega had in mind for the 32X they weren’t here at this level.

They weren’t thinking about the future of the market… they weren’t really thinking at all as it all went a little Charlie & The Chocolate Factory for the early 90’s. To me even though Sega at one point were winning the war against Nintendo it always felt as though Sega were playing catch up to the power of the SNES and were kind of secretly embarrassed, hence the over aggressive posturing and incessant add-ons. Bare in mind when the 32X came out as did Donkey Kong Country a beautiful silicon rendered platformer that looked incredible and the 32X didn’t really look to me like it had anything to rival it. It did have Doom though and for some reason everyone forgets that it was generally well received over in the UK when released, time has backlashed that version with vengeance, much like Be Here Now by Oasis.

Doom 32X 04

The machine was actually quite powerful but didn’t realise its own potential through being ridiculously hard to code; Sega confusing everybody by releasing the Saturn so soon afterwards and generally being too late for anyone to actually grasp exactly what it was! This is all with hindsight though. No-one knew at this point what Sony were going to achieve for a very competitive price point. Even the Saturn’s development was effected by Sony’s revelation of 3D muscle, scaring Sega into bolting on some more power last minute. 

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Games like Virtua Fighter, Virtua Racing, Stellar Assault, Darxide, and Star Wars Arcade are all very competent games that have maybe not aged well because they are the start of 3D gaming but were very exiting at the time. NBA Jam TE, Tempo, Mortal Kombat 2, NFL Quarterback Club also have interesting scaling and rotation tricks.

I never really was sold on the apparent arcade perfect conversions of Space Harrier and Afterburner, but maybe that was because to me I had used all my love for them games 6 years previous! I had a strange love affair with Metal Head because it was trying to do something spectacular even though it ran at a snail’s pace, and Motocross Championship was meant to be a texture mapped dream but ended up a dirty mess, but for some reason I love it and still do today!

I also adored the graphic design of the box art, the cardboard sleeves and cartridges and the cardboard nest the cartridge’s sat in. Like many of Sega’s advertising campaigns past the very successful Megadrive ones, the 32X ads were bizarre to say the least lacking continuity and flare failing to capture the imagination of the gaming public which is a shame as the actual graphic identity of the machine itself was coherent in an early nineties manner.

Virtuaracing

If the 32X had been instead of the Mega CD we may now be hailing its presence over gaming. 3D manipulation abilities bolted onto the most popular console of the time? Nintendo would have had to bolt on the SFX chip at every given opportunity as the future was definitely 3D polygonal graphics. The 32X wasn’t quite there but not a million miles away from Saturn in its inside architecture but obviously not as powerful. With this in mind if the add-on had been released to a wide eyed, arcade hungry audience of 1992/93, Virtua Fighter alone could have been enough for the machine to gather speed and realise its potential.

This would have meant we would have had the games that were threatening to come out for the machine. Titles such as Virtual Hamster, Daytona (hopefully with a good framerate), Shadow Of Atlantis, Rayman, Beyond Zero Tolerance, Soul Star X, Ecco The Dolphin, Bug!, Alone In The Dark 2, and Alien Trilogy which later appeared on the Saturn. This could have helped make the machine slot into the consciousness of the public and trust it more. Essentially this is what Sega lost in the gaming public…their trust. It was far too late considering what the PlayStation was offering with its textured polygons and high framerate, people wanted in. The Saturn was also damaged because of Sega’s confusion but its legacy with gamers has been intact due to its excellent games something that the 32X didn’t have many of.

Sega Genesis Model2 32X

Much has been made of the faults of the 32X but I don’t think that much of them would be talked about now if it was a success. Connecting the unit was annoying because of the huge plug transformers but who was moving it about all the time? I did it once and then it stayed there…being a working 32X!... I never understood what the fuss was about? Physical hardware expansions rarely work in gaming hardware history but I don’t think this failure was down to a plug issue, Sega just rushed this whole idea and we wouldn’t be talking about plugs, connectors, metal plates, or its mushroom shape had it all been a success. With this in mind it does irk me somewhat to see every YouTube video of the machine ranting on about its connection woes. I didn’t know anyone that didn’t have a spaghetti junction of cables behind their TV in the 90’s and a 32X wouldn’t have really been a problem. Saying that, how lovely was it when the PlayStation 2 came along and you had your DVD player, CD player and gaming machine with one plug and you’re TV!

Basically, it seems everybody took their eye off the ball allowing Sony to demolish everyone. The Saturn struggled to pick up pace in Europe even though nowadays it’s revered as one of the best retro gaming machines. The 3DO, Jaguar, Amiga 32 etc. all crashed and burned with only Nintendo and its 64 bit cartridge machine making a significant dent into the PlayStations miraculous success. Sega were far too late to the party and should have focussed on one idea instead of the Wondermega, the Mega CD, the 32X, the Saturn, the Game Gear, the Master System, the Neptune, the Nomad, the Pic, the various peripherals, the second generation of their console range, basically they saturated their own user base with bonkers ideas. The Dreamcast was an accumulation of those ideas, but again… too late. I wouldn’t have had it any other way though as this was what Sega were all about, and although it’s a shame they are no longer in the hardware race they left behind a legacy of innovation and ideas.

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Me and my 32X Pic I love the 32X, and continue to always raise a smile when I see its crazy design. I still have mine and although I don’t have it all hooked up (not because of plugs I just don’t have enough room for everything, the Sega Saturn is my new favourite friend) and although I don’t have all the boxes for things anymore I still have kept hold of the games. In fact I may get a t-shirt with the logo on the front as I like what it stands for… a big bonkers idea that tried and failed. Project Mars will forever be remembered a failure but to me it was a beacon of Sega’s bizarre personality.

Article by Andy Foster Follow him on twitter here: @andyfostermusic  

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