For those willing to dabble in the murky world of emulation sites, the internet offers the most bizarre game prototype as a trophy. Produced for Sega’s 32x Megadrive expansion and dubbed Virtua Hamster, the game puts the player in control of a loveable furry rodent who rides in noble fashion upon a rocket-powered skateboard. As an early prototype there sadly isn’t much for the playerto do (with no villains or items implemented the player has no choice but to roam and endless network of psychedelic tunnels), but its an interesting discussion piece all the same.
Whether the final game would have been able to deliver on such promise we’ll never know, but it seems like a pretty good way to start a discussion about Sega’s much-maligned mushroom-shaped console. Conventional wisdom has it that the 32x was a folly for everyone involved: Dropped by Sega shortly after birth, it supposedly has a small library of around 40 titles that aren’t really worth bothering. Sega took a big hit on the machine financially, and tested the loyalty of their early adopters who were left with a useless chunk of plastic.
It is true that, politically, the 32x was probably doomed from the start. Originating from a pre-CES ’94 Sega board meeting and rushed to the market in order to be ready for that year’s Christmas season, the project never really found the support it needed from either of Sega’s main arms. Perhaps overreacting to the perceived threats of the 3do and Jaguar, the company lacked a clear and consistent vision of where the 32x would sit in the games market, and consequently lost faith in their machine pretty much as soon as it was launched (Indeed, so confused was the situation in Japan that the 32x actually launched after the more powerful Saturn.) The 32x managed to limp on into early 1996, but by then the final few units were being sold off at a heavily discounted price so The platform was subsequently laid to rest.
It’s probably fair to say from the outset that it would have been better for everyone involved had the console never existed. The damage it did to the company in terms of finances and consumer confidence was severe. Whatever potential benefit there may have been from keeping a budget gaming platform running alongside the Saturn, they were negated by the risks involved. As much of a fan I am of the 32x, it’s difficult to argue against the notion that Sega wouldn’t have been better off putting all of their energies into the Saturn.
Nonetheless, despite what probably should have happened, the 32x made it to market. If we look beyond the mismanagement from Sega, is the the product itself a bad bit of kit? How does the software released for the 32x hold up? Is it worth investigating today?
On a practical level, the 32x design has a couple of problems that speak of its rush to market. The chief among these is that the machine doesn’t seem to have been built with any one particular Megadrive design in mind. Physically, the machine is made to fit the cartridge slot of the original Megadrive, and needs the help of a plastic spacer to prevent it from doing damage to the cartridge slot of a Megadrive 2 or MultiMega. Electronically, however, the machine was designed with the stereo output of the Megadrive 2 in mind, so the only way an original Megadrive user can receive an audio signal when using a SCRT or composite lead is to make use of the headphone socket on the front of the Megadrive. Oops.
Still, in terms of power the 32x was a reasonably impressive design. Built around 2 Hitachi SuperH processors, the 32x used the same basic architecture as the Saturn – albeit at a lower clock speed and without the extra video display processors that boosted the Saturn to something that could compete with the Playstation. In terms of graphics, the 32x could handle 160,000 flat shaded polygons a second (the SVP chip that made it into Megadrive Virtua Racing could handle 20,000) and (depending on video mode) could display between 256 – 32,000 simultaneous colours. In the sound department, a PWM (pulse width modulation) decoder chip added extra channels to the Megadrive’s audio set up and enhanced the host machine’s ability to deal with digital samples.
Considering that Sega had been toying with the idea of an 32x add-on that was essentially just a colour upgrade, the final product was impressively specced. Not only did it nullify the Megadrive’s weaknesses in colour and sample playback, but it managed to dramatically boost the machine’s overall processing power across the board. Although the strategy of maintaining two separate 32-bit platforms wasn’t necessarily a wise one, the internal architecture of the 32x was set up in a way that would make it easier for developers to move from 32x to Saturn. The build quality might have been a bit dodgy, but the guts of the machine reveal a budget platform that at least had a chance of viability.
Perhaps the most damning bit of received wisdom about the 32x is that it doesn’t really have any software that’s worth bothering with. Is this true? Well, It’s definitely true that at the bottom of the barrel there were some shockingly bad games released for the 32x. Cosmic Carnage, in particular, manages to simultaneously look like a relatively mediocre Megadrive game while also suffering from horrific slow down. Clumsy racer Motocross Championship, meanwhile, looks and plays like an unholy mishmash of pixels. Aiee.
On top of this, there were also a few games that probably didn’t need to be released for the 32x. Its port of Mortal Kombat 2 can definitely stake a claim to being the definitive contemporary home port of Midway’s iconic arcade game (the PlayStation and Saturn versions had horrific disk access issues and, inexplicably, missing audio samples), but it wasn’t such an improvement over the 16-bit games that it warranted a full £40 upgrade. The same can be said for the likes of Night Trap which, while acting as an interesting proof of concept of how the 32x could work in conjunction with Sega’s other (slightly-less doomed) peripheral,didn’t offer much over the existing game other than a higher video resolution.
Mind you, at the other end of the spectrum the 32x had a few bonafide classics – particularly Sega’s own arcade ports. Afterburner and Space Harrier may have been ported to everything from the Amiga to the Zx spectrum by the time of the 32x’ launch, but none of those versions came remotely close to mirroring the arcade experience (unless you had access to some very expensive/rare Japanese PCs.) The 32x versions of these were the first affordable ways of experiencing these arcade classics in tgeir full glory (even if people weren’t particularly impressed by this at the time.)
Though not arcade-perfect, ports of Sega’s 3D arcade titles were even more impressive. All things considered, these three are probably the system’s most compelling purchases:
Providing a smoother experience then the chip-enhanced Megadrive game, Virtual Racing Deluxe is probably the definitive version of Sega’s earliest polygon-based racer. Featuring less bloat and tighter handling than Time Warner’s later Saturn version, the 32x game is an absolute joy to play and a version that is still unavailable on any other platform.
Virtua Fighter on the 32x is equally as compelling. Though the Saturn was to eventually eclipse it (on its second attempt, it should be noted) the 32x version makes up for its slightly simplified graphics with smooth gameplay and tight controls that were authentic to the arcade original.
Perhaps the weakest of the three in terms of gameplay, lightweight Intergalactic combat sim Star Wars Arcade is still an enjoyable romp thanks to its fantastic use of the license. Though in hindsight the game’s X-wing handles like a double decker bus, few were complaining about that at the time when the game’s polygonal Death Star first loomed into view. Interestingly, the 32x version remains the sole home port of this intriguing slice of star wars history.
The 32x may have had its share of shockers, but it also had some brilliant games. What arguably makes or breaks the 32x library is a more complicated 3rd group: 32x exclusives. Neither outrightly brilliant or decidedly stinky, the 32x is home to a surprising amount of expectation-challenging titles.
The poster child for these has also largely become a poster child for the console itself: Knuckles Chaotix. Though received as a vaguely disappointing title at the time (by mid nineties Sonic standards, mind you), it set a precedent for stubbornly refusing to make the Sonic game that everyone wanted in favour of delivering a load of weird play mechanics that no one had asked for. This makes Chaotix, arguably, the true grandad of the modern Sonic series of titles.
When played today, Chaotix is definitely an interesting experience. Aesthetically it looks like the Sonic 4 everyone wanted to see – there are obvious similarities to Sonic and Knuckles, but the whole thing is more colourful and vibrant and makes fantastic use of the 32x’s sprite manipulation capabilities. On top of that it has a great soundtrack and, under the hood, most of the basic play mechanics feel spot on right – with Knuckles’ running, jumping and gliding controls seemingly imported intact from his 16-bit outing.
Moving away from the basics however, the bold changes made to the Sonic formula won’t be for everyone: tight speed-based tracks were replaced with slower, more labrinthesque levels. Zones and acts (known as “attractions” here) are now selected and played in a random order. Spike and pit traps were thrown out entirely and – most controversially – Knuckles (or one of the games other playable characters) is permanently tethered to an interchangeable sidekick who can be used to reach inaccessible places and trigger certain switches. These changes will definitely be off-putting to some, but at its core Chaotix is a decent Sonic game and deserves to be tried on that basis. Even if it is a little weird.
Chaotix isn’t the 32x’s only bizarre exclusive, however. Kolibri – a humming bird-based title from the same stable as Ecco the Dolphin – will discombobulate even those familiar with Sega’s aquatic action based puzzler. Though very similar to Ecco in a number of ways (it even begins with a beautiful naturalistic scene that ends up being disrupted by an extraterrestial invasion) Kolibri puts as much emphasis on shooting as it does the gentle exploration and puzzle solving that defined Ecco’s aquatic adventure.
If Ecco wasn’t for everyone Kolibri is probably less so. Its approach to lock/key puzzles is less compelling than those found in the earlier title, and the story isn’t quite as well developed. On top of this it doesn’t fully convince as a thoroughbred shooter either (even if our fluttery chum does have quite a satisfying array of power ups). It’s not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, mind you. On a technical level its perfectly playable, while the visuals are beautiful and make use of the expanded 32x colour palette to striking effect. The ambient soundtrack also works perfectly well (even if it isn’t exactly memorable.) Like Chaotix, Kolibri probably isn’t for everyone, but it has cult classic written all over it for those who appreciate it.
Another slightly weird European exclusive was Frontier’s Darxide. Predictably space-themed (coming from the same stable as the sequels to Elite,) Darxide is effectively a fun three dimensional update to Atari’s Asteroids arcade game, tasking the player with destroying waves of asteroids and flying saucers against an ever-ticking clock.
Admittedly the concept is almost as limited as the asteroids arcade game, and the gameplay marred by a slightly obtuse navigation system, however its a perfectly playable and reasonably unique game for the time.
Mind you, that’s not to say that all of the 32x’s exclusives were weird or challenging. Cut from a similar cloth to Star Wars Arcade, Stellar Assault/Shadow Squadron is a prime example of an undeniably excellent 32x game. It may not have Star Wars arcade’s fantastic license, but it makes up for it in spades with tighter gameplay and by granting the player the ability to literally blow chunks out of giant capital ships. Though relatively short, the tactical differences between its two playable ships adds a degree of replayability: the first is weaker but completely repaired between stages, the second is stronger but must replenish itself from a single, ever decreasing energy supply.
Metalhead, meanwhile, was a big stompy mech game that made up for low frame rates with ambitious texture-mapped arenas and bags of digitised speech. It’s probably not the game you’d specifically buy a 32x for, but its definitely a worthy addition for anyone who wants to go and hunt big stompy robots around a number of city scapes and funkier industrial interiors. Given the mixed bag of mech games that found their way onto the Saturn and PlayStation, Metalhead definitely holds its own.
Finally, music-based platformer Tempo would have been a solid (if not spectacular) effort had it been developed for the Megadrive, but thanks to its colourful (and special-effect laden) graphics and digital sample-tinged soundtrack it really stands out from the crowd on the 32x. Considering a port of Rayman was also in the works, Tempo really shows what the 32x could have been had it been allowed to develop as a platform.
Consequently I think the 32x library is better than its genuinely given credit for. Even if we leave aside the games that have been rendered redundant by modern ports (the system’s highest rated game is its port of Doom which, to modern eyes, is a compromised and cut down affair,) the 32x has a reasonably number of decent titles. Virtual Racing Deluxe, Starwars and the original Virtual Fighter are either the only home versions or the best way to play their respective games, Stellar Assault and Chaotix are both good games by any standards, and (depending on taste) Kolibri, Tempo, Metal Head and Darxide and Tempo are all worth a look to. That leaves us with 10 out of 40 titles that are worth a look today, and closer to 20 that would have been worthy back in 1995. Not so bad for a console launch window, really. Actually, speaking of the launch, perhaps we should examine whether it really was the disaster described by legend.
Contextualising the 32x Launch
As we’ve already seen, the 32x fell short of Sega’s expectations, but perhaps we should consider whether Sega’s expectations were set too high to begin with. To answer this question, it’s useful to compare the launch of the 32x with that of its base system, the Megadrive. Originally launching in Japan in the October of 1988, the Megadrive managed to sell just 50,000 consoles within its first couple of days on the market, and these were accompanied by 500,000 Sega Genesis’ when the renamed console was released in US market sales in the final quarter of 1989.
Put in that context, the 665,000 US 32x consoles that were sold between the November and December of 1994 don’t seem too shoddy a figure. It’s worth remembering that the situations are not directly comparable – Sega were a bit player in the console market in 1988 but had sold a stonking 30 million Megadrive and Genesis’ by the time the 32x launched – but it does demonstrate that the 32x definitely wasn’t dead on arrival. In fact, though Japanese sales could generally be slower than the those in the US, it’s noteworthy that the 32x seems to arrived at the 600,000 sales mark at a quicker rate than either the Saturn or the Playstation.)
Aside from sales numbers, the Megadrive can act as a useful context for the 32x’s limited games library as well. We’ve seen that the 32x library had a fair amount of interesting games, but how does it measure in terms of the number of titles available? To modern eyes, the 32x’s launch lineup does look pretty bad: If you were a 32x owner in the winter of 1994, you had just three titles available to you: Doom, Virtual Racing Deluxe and Star Wars Arcade. This sounds pretty paltry, but we should remember that the Megadrive didn’t fare much better: for the original Japanese launch, only Super Thunder and Space Harrier II were available for purchase. Though the release of the Genesis came almost a year later, the Genesis launch featured only a hand full of extra titles – with the likes of Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle and Last Battle being questionable at best.
This trend continues if we look to the first year both machines were on the market. After about 14 months, the Megadrive was home to around 27 titles, and not all of them stellar. In fact, when you compare the libraries of the 32x and the early Megadrive side by side, there are some interesting similarities: besides the obligatory sports titles and some interesting ports of games available on other hardware (Thunderforce II/Doom) both console’s first fourteen months had a couple of exclusive gems (Revenge of Shinobi/Chaotix) backed up by some solid arcade ports (Golden Axe/Virtua Fighter.)
Of course, while the 32x was abandoned, the Megadrive went onto thrive. This was chiefly because, from 1990 onwards, its library was repeatedly replenished with high quality titles from both Sega and others. Could the same be said about the 32x? On this point, there’s definitely some evidence that the library of the 32x could have thrived had support for the machine continued. We’ve already seen Sega’s rather bizarre Virtual Hamster demo, and when it comes to first party support we know that the company had a number of further arcade ports planned for the machine. Though some of these simply ended up being transferred to the Saturn, a few interesting oddities such as arcadey flight sim Wing War and the oddly-named SegaSonic the Hedghog ended up being dropped from the home market altogether Sob.
On top of Sega’s own output, a number of promising 3rd party releases were cancelled. Joining Virtual Hamster on the playable front, there’s a playable alpha of an interesting unreleased X-Men-based brawler called ‘Mind Games.’ (a game that combines texture mapped 3d environments with digitised sprites) and a playable demo of upgraded Mega CD title Soul Star (Soul Star X.) Moving away from demos, three tantalising sprites also exist from a 32x Castlevania game that eventually morphed into Symphony of the Night, while a number of exciting titles such as Rayman, Alien Trilogy and Darkstalkers were all formally announced in magazines from the time.
Consequently, as the world bid farewell to 1994 and welcomed in 1995, i think its slightly misleading to say that the 32x was in a catastrophic, unrecoverable place. Sales may not have been as strong as Sega wanted, but they still had a solid base from which the 32x could grow. The small launch lineup was at least critically well received (Sega Retro’s aggregate of contemporary reviews puts them at an average of 85%,) and there was the prospect of more games coming in the immediate future (Metalhead was released in the US in February, Tempo in March, Chaotix in April, Stellar Assault in May) as well as some more exciting software coming further down the line. Though there had been question marks about the strategy since is was announced, I don’t think there was external evidence that the decline of the 32x was as terminal or impending as it turned out to be.
The 32x: A Difficult Machine
As we said at the beginning, in terms of both Sega’s strategy and the state of the mid-nineties hardware market, it would probably have been for the best had the 32x never launched at all. Given the growing demand at the time for more complicated 3D titles with texture-mapped graphics, it’s difficult to see how the 32x could have stood against the Playstation and N64 as Sega’s sole offering. Meanwhile, the (already crowded) nature of the market probably made it unfeasible for Sega to support the 32x and the Saturn alongside each other as they had the European/Brazilian Megadrive and Master System.
Perhaps because of this strategic blunder, it’s easy to simply write the entire 32x launch off, but this seems a little unfair. By contemporary standards, the console that was released was perfectly serviceable. Though inferior to the machines that were on the way, it was a clear step up from the Megadrive and it had, i think, both the hardware sales and the array of software needed to justify its existence under normal circumstances. In the event, Sega’s strategic needs raised the bar to a level that the 32x never had any chance of clearing. The 32x delivered them Tails, Sega demanded supersonic.
The 32x then, was actually a much more viable platform than its failure would suggest. That’s not to say that Sega were wrong for killing it off – they effectively did what they had to do – but it does mean we should be careful not to use its abandonment as a reason to write it off in the present day. When you consider that the 32x barely escaped its launch window and that we were robbed of a (presumably improved) second generation of 32x software that might have shown the machine in a much better light, both the number of available titles and the number of interesting titles is impressive. If you have the chance to try one out, i’d look past the machine’s negative reputation and give it a whirl. Its library might be limited in size, but its relatively obscure collection of unsung gems might surprise you.