It's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that things started to go wrong for Sega, but the late 1994 release of its 32X kicked off a timeline of disaster that would eventually result in its withdrawal from the console hardware market. A $149 mushroom-shaped add-on, the 32X crashed and burned within just one year. But just how capable was the hardware, how did it work and how well did its games stack up against the competition? Welcome to John Linneman's most ambitious DF Retro project yet - analysis of every single 32X game ever made, along with platform comparisons for multi-format entries. It's a light-hearted, joyous celebration of one of gaming's worst mistakes.
And this time it's personal. As editor of the UK's official Sega Magazine, I was there and watched much of this unfold first-hand. I first learned about the 32X earlier in 1994 on visiting Sega Europe and meeting their top marketing people for an off-the-record, informal meeting. I remember this vividly - I was shown a working prototype of the Sega Nomad well over a year before its release by a very enthusiastic director who loved the company and its products. On an excitement level, the upcoming Saturn was a clear 10/10, but there was something else, something different in the pipeline. He pegged it comparatively as an 8/10. And that was the 32X. There aren't review scores at Eurogamer anymore, but if the Saturn was a strong 'Recommended', the 32X was a clear 'Avoid'.
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But even at this point, with talk of the PlayStation and its stunning tech demos already circulating the industry, Sega still seemed like an unstoppable console juggernaut. And in that meeting, looking at a fully working portable Mega Drive, Sega could still demonstrate a product at the cutting edge. I guess comparatively, it's a bit like Microsoft or Sony announcing Xbox One or PlayStation 4, then nonchalantly pulling out a working PS3 or Xbox 360 handheld for you to look at.
It's safe to say that the final 32X product wasn't great, but it was certainly unique. As a plug-in accessory, it literally fused new hardware onto the existing Mega Drive, with game code driving both the original console and the add-on, a passthrough video cable used to drive MD visuals through to the 32X, which in turn added its component before running out to your display. Developers had to mix and match the capabilities of each system then, and simply by disconnecting the appropriate cables, it's possible to see what each piece of hardware does individually in any given 32X title - something that is covered for each title in John's remarkable work here.
The 32X itself was a lacklustre attempt at bringing 32-bit 3D gaming to Mega Drive owners - incorporating the same dual Hitachi SH2 processors as the Saturn, downclocked from 28.6MHz to 23MHz. Unlike the Mega Drive, which draws tiles and sprites one scanline at a time, the 32X writes to dual alternating framebuffers, each with 128K of memory. While more modern, this also proves to be a weak point for the system especially when dealing with 2D bitmapped graphics. The bottom line: silky-smooth 60Hz scrolling was extremely difficult to achieve, with many developers simply farming off that particular task to the base Mega Drive instead, overlaying 32X-driven sprites on-top - which sometimes ran at a slower frame-rate.
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Everything the 32X did was driven by software: despite the games available, the 32X did not provide hardware scaling, rotation or 3D acceleration. However, it did support multiple higher colour depth modes enabling a larger on-screen colour palette than the Mega Drive while simultaneously featuring enhanced audio capabilities with PWM (pulse width modulation) sample-based playback. All audio is passed through the cartridge port, where it is mixed with the Mega Drive sound.
Essentially, what Sega delivered with the 32X was a downscaled version of the one weakest points of the Saturn's hardware design - a dual CPU set-up that was difficult for developers to adapt to. And with so little time on the market, what capabilities it did have where never fully exploited. However, by examining every single 32X game ever made - all 34 cartridges and six CD titles - while carrying out platform comparisons and performance tests, it's possible to build a picture of what the machine could do, along with the challenges developers had working for it.
And while the 32X has a deserved reputation as a colossal hardware failure, its 38 titles do include some genuinely good software. Sega itself, perhaps not surprisingly, hands in some great titles - its superscaler ports of Space Harrier and Afterburner hold up (though Saturn did them better) while AM2's work on Virtua Racing Deluxe sees a huge upgrade over the Mega Drive version. Virtua Fighter is necessarily simplified visually, but it's more solid and just as playable as the Saturn version - and runs at the same 30fps frame-rate, which is a match for the arcade version in turn.
Space shooters were also a big genre during the 32X period and the system is well represented here with Shadow Squadron (Stellar Assault in Japan) with some of the smoothest 3D visuals cooked up on the system. The system also had its very own arcade port exclusive - Star Wars Arcade. Performance wobbles somewhat but there was nothing quite like it available at the time and the chances are that if you owned a 32X at the time, this title would have been in your library. Darxide by Frontier Developments (yes, the Elite makers) also pushed the 32X with fully texture-mapped polygons. Performance is often terrible, but similar to what many gaming PCs were pushing at the time.
That same level of PC hardware was used by millions at the time to play id software's Doom, and the 32X got a reasonable conversion of that too, coded by none other John Carmack himself, based off his Jaguar port. Yes, the window was small, colour was limited, maps were pared back and only front-facing sprites were used, but this was still Doom, it ran smoothly and for a $150 console add-on, it was a cheap way to access a game that otherwise required a high-end PC to run (or else, an Atari Jaguar - but more on that in an upcoming DF Retro episode).
Knuckles Chaotix is also well regarded - an evolution of the 'Sonic Crackers' Mega Drive prototype. However, most of the heavy lifting in the game is carried out by the base hardware, as opposed to the 32X which is mostly used for the main character sprites. But it also highlights one of the key weaknesses of the hardware - the lack of hardware scrolling support.
Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure runs at 60fps on Mega Drive and Mega CD, but drops to 20-30fps on the apparently more powerful 32X. The upside is that you get prettier visuals owing to the 32X's enhanced palette, but the trade-off is unacceptable in gameplay terms. However, Kolibri, designed by the developers of Ecco the Dolphin did manage to get it right, with a beautifully smooth, highly colourful presentation.
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There are certainly some interesting titles in the 32X's limited library - but much of the appeal of this DF Retro series is clearly in witnessing just how bad some of the games really were, from the sprite-scaling terrors of BC Racers to the sheer, spectacular awfulness of the evil Motocross Championship. And who can forget the FMV-driven games of the era too? Yes, some companies believed that there was enough of a market to sustain games that required both Mega CD and the 32X. The end result was a quartet of terrible games, where the infamous Night Trap was by far and away the best release.
This unholy hardware combination of Mega Drive, Mega CD and 32X perhaps sums up where Sega really went wrong - a history of bad decision-making that predated the arrival of the 32-bit mushroom-shaped add-on by years. Rather than concentrate on one platform and pour its efforts into one killer product, the firm always had to maintain support for several platforms simultaneously, be it 32X and Saturn, Mega Drive and Mega CD, or Mega Drive and Master System/Game Gear. Sega's crack AM2 team delivered a brace of excellent 32X titles, but what if the developers had been allowed to concentrate solely on Saturn in those crucial early months?
When watching these videos with their 32X vs Super NES and Mega Drive comparisons, let's just remember what was happening in the gaming space at the same time these titles were released. The majority of core users were awaiting the arrival of the true 32-bit next-gen systems, both of which had already been released in Japan, and were gaining plenty of coverage in the gaming press. Just the existence of a beautifully smooth, astonishing Ridge Racer port on PlayStation told users that their patience would be rewarded, the game taking a starring role in indie game shop windows the world over. The 32X quickly died as a result, but looking back over every game produced for the system, there's still plenty of buried treasure to enjoy. And despite actually being there when all of this took place, I learned a lot about the system and saw several titles I'd never even heard about before. A Brazil-exclusive 32X CD release? You've got to check that out, right?