Probably no console manufacturer lost the initiative worse than Sega did after it slayed the dragon known as the Nintendo Entertainment System. In 1992, on the heels of a gambit that saw Sega bundle the Genesis system with Sonic the Hedgehog, they managed to capture a staggering 60% market share—this less than two years after controlling a paltry 10%. But by 1994 the honeymoon was over. Despite strong sales of the Genesis system in North America, sales of its equivalent Mega Drive in Japan were foundering. So rather than hurl every sinew of Sega’s strength at the upcoming release of their next-gen Saturn console, they focused on hardware add-ons such as the 32X.
It was a perfect storm of poor timing, an awful library of games, and bizarre marketing.
The idea was to offer Genesis owners an add-on that boosted the system’s 16-bit graphics to 32-bit via two central chips and a processor with 3D capability. Retailing for $159.95, it would be an interim system designed to safeguard Sega’s hold in the console marketplace while paving the way for the release of the Saturn. And the company apparently decided to do this backwards. Sega released the Saturn in Japan in November 1994 followed by the North American release of the 32X that very same November. Sega then pushed the North American release of the Saturn forward to 1995, the result being that the 32X didn’t have any time to find its footing.
All told, around 40 games were released for the 32X, but Sega had initially promised much more. However, because they rushed the 32X to market, they didn’t have time to develop new in-house titles. The same could be said for third-party developers, who preferred to focus their attention on upcoming consoles like the Saturn, PlayStation and N64.
The quality of the games Sega released for the 32X generally fell somewhere on the dog-excrement spectrum. “Doom,” that runaway PC hit, was probably the 32X’s most well received title, yet it fell far short of the quality the same game offered on the PC and Atari Jaguar. It almost seemed like Sega’s developers could not or would not capitalize on the system’s 32-bit capabilities.
This was evident in the fact that most games released for the 32X were slightly upgraded Genesis hits gamers already owned like “Mortal Kombat II” and “NBA JAM TE.” This all but killed the goodwill the 32X earned upon its release when it shipped over half a million units in just a few months.
And then there was the Sega Mega-CD debacle.
As if alienating console owners wasn’t enough, Sega decided to shoot themselves in the other foot by releasing a number of FMV (full motion video) “interactive movies” in CD format on the 32X. Of course this meant that players would have to run the Genesis, the Mega-CD and the 32X simultaneously, which required three different power supplies and drained juice at apocalyptic levels.
The most infamous of these Mega-CD/32X releases was “Night Trap,” and it promised slasher-flick thrills complete with scantily clad women. The reality, however, was that you spent most of the game watching a girl sit in front of a mirror while occasionally directing her out of the way of actors in cheap vampire costumes. The only reason “Night Trap” created a blip on the cultural radar at all is because moral crusaders in both England and the United States zeroed in on it. Politicians on both sides of the pond somehow took exception to a blonde girl in a video game; gamers took exception to the fact it was awful.
Initially Sega did have pie-in-the-sky notions about what they could do with the CD technology. Senior producer Scot Bayless once famously had a meeting with Thomas Dolby where the synthpop king pitched Sega on developing a music-based adventure title that utilized the CD-quality sound. However, neither party could flesh out any ideas and they eventually quit trying. The lesson is that if the premier music producers in the world can’t figure out how best to utilize a CD-based system, maybe it’s sign that the machine is worse than useless.
By 1995 consumers and third-party developers were avoiding the 32X like the plague. Around this time is when Sega finally wised up and focused all their attention on the upcoming Saturn release. By the end of that year the 32X was being sold by some retailers for a pitiful $19.95.
Could it have ever found success? There’s an argument to be made that the 32X had the potential to be a serviceable interim system bridging the Genesis and the Saturn—provided Sega didn’t make any of the mistakes highlighted above. But the marketing didn’t help either. With “Sonic the Hedgehog,” Sega had found success appealing to teenagers by showcasing a character with a little attitude. They tried to maintain this “edginess” when selling the 32X, and the result is a creepy campaign that fell flat on its face. The ad that horrified gamers the most featured an adolescent boy looking at a 32X connecting to the top of a Genesis console and exclaiming, “Mommy, what are those two Sega machines doing?” If the goal of the ad was to suggest that the new system offered power-boosting fun, then it failed; if the goal was to suggest that the new system could have sex with the old system, then it was a runaway success.
Ultimately, there are some consoles that, while certainly not without their faults, engender nostalgia over time. Then there are the 32Xs of the world—systems that bombed upon release, were quickly forgotten about, and remain consigned to the scrapheap of ignoble gaming history. Despite these machines being occasionally written about on their anniversaries—the 32X enjoyed its 20-year in 2014—there is no nostalgia. They can’t be forgotten about quick enough.