Transitions: The Launch Games/End Games Blog

Posted on Jul 23rd 2013 at 10:51:06 AM by (dsheinem)
Posted under launch game, Sega 32X, Star Wars, Doom, Sega Visions

We have dissected a number of console launches thus far in the Transitions Blog, but thus far each one has been for what could probably be considered a "successful" console.  For the first time then, in this entry, we will be examining a console that, by most measures, was considered a failure: the Sega 32X.

The 32X, of course, is not even a "proper" console in the traditional sense as it is technically an add-on like the Sega CD before it or like other peripherals before and since which have been tied to a primary system (the Atari Supercharger, Nintendo 64DD, etc.). Nonetheless, it has its own library of games, was marketed and sold much like a system, and has a distinct set of features that distinguish it from other pieces of gaming hardware.

The 32X, to many, represents the first tragic misstep in the long-running decline of Sega. Confusingly marketed as something of a stop-gap enhancement for the Sega Genesis prior to the release of the Sega Saturn, the console was seen by many to be over priced and under-powered. Released in November of 1994, a little less than a month after the release of the Sega Saturn in Japan and a little less than a year from that system's U.S. launch, it was almost destined to have a short life from the start.

The sordid tale of the 32X has been covered many times on many other gaming websites, so this entry will attempt to do something a little different and specifically examine the official build-up and launch of the console.  Even if gamers and analysts were skeptical of the systems prospects from the start, it is still interesting to think about how Sega tried to market and launch the 32X in and against this context.

The Launch Buildup

Like other consoles of its era, much of the buildup and hyping for the console occurred in the pages of gaming magazines. If you could sell the product well to readers in the pages of EGM or GamePro, you had a real shot to get them into the store on launch day. Sega of America had the most control of this message in the pages of Sega Visions, which they used to promote the 32X for several issues before its debut. Here's how they did that:

April/May 1994 Issue

Poor NBA Jam gets booted off the front page for a "Late Breaking News Blast!" about what the article would refer to as the "Genesis Super 32X." The article itself, despite its prominence on the cover, is a mere single page in the issue. On that page, readers learn interesting tidbits like "Sega has over 30 games in development and expects 60 will be released in the first year" and that the system, despite using "2x32-bit chips" that allow an arcade experience, will cost less than $150. Sega Visions promised its readers a "complete rundown" on the system and a "sneak peak" at its games in the next issue.

June/July 1994 Issue

Far from the "complete rundown" that the previous issue promised, readers were greeted with two whole pages of information on the 32X in the June/July issue of Sega Visions. There's actually less information here on the whole, though some games are listed and the $149 price point is reiterated as well as the promise of "30 games" in development by Sega. In terms of buildup, there's not much new here to see other than the picture of the console.

August/September 1994 Issue

Four months out from launch, this is the first issue to really provide any kind of detail on the console. 20+ third-party publishers are listed as working on games for the system and screenshots and blurbs appear for several titles.  In addition to the sub-$150 price point, interesting promises include "you're gonna have a large selection of hot titles to choose from" and "by the end of the year you could be playing arcade-perfect versions of mind-blowing games like Virtua Racing Deluxe, Star Wars Arcade, or Cyberbrawl. Or any one of the other totally sensational Genesis 32X games available at launch." Most impressive is the claim that "As a matter of fact, 60 new games will ship by the first of next year." Here the hype train is starting to leave the station and go off the rails...

October/November 1994 Issue

Doom takes front and center here, and in the issue published before the 32X's release, Sega Visions offers some substantial information on the cover game, an ample amount of screen shots of the 32X in action, and pictures of 36 Great Holes, Star Wars Arcade, Virtua Racing Deluxe, Metal Head, and Super Motocross. Perhaps the overload of images was meant to take away from this little detail: the system would now cost $159, not $149 as prominently suggested previously.

The boast of "an estimated 60 titles" to be released in the first year is a bit of a retraction of the earlier claim, and the five games previewed  are listed as games that "should be ready when the system ships in November."  Anyone paying close attention to the shifting language in the coverage from issue to issue should have noticed that things were starting to look shaky for the viability of the system even before launch.

December 1994/January 1995 Issue

Hitting the holiday season, the 32X launched in November 1994 in the US and Europe and in December in Japan (a few weeks after the Saturn's launch there).  Instead of highlighting the system in the issue that likely would have been arriving in Visions subscribers' mailboxes around the time of the 32X's release, the staff of the magazine relegated 32X coverage to sneak peaks of four games, two of which were already released. Importantly, the 32X was the only Sega system to not feature any reviews, so subscribers were left with only hopeful previews to give them impressions of the quality of the games that had already been talked up in the previous issue. Gone entirely from this issue are boasts of the system's price or upcoming library. It seems, at the most crucial moment for promoting the system, Sega Visions itself pulled back to focus on late-era Genesis and Sega CD titles.  With the already-out-in-Japan Saturn hanging over Sega of America, Visions' 32X coverage would continue to be sporadic in subsequent issues of the magazine throughout the system's short life.

At least it had the benefit of the vintage Sega adcopy.

The Launch
When the 32X hit stores in the US in mid-November 1994, here's a sense of how it looked

It was cheaper than the CD-I, 3DO, or Saturn but it was more expensive than the Genesis or the Super Nintendo.  This is a best guess.  Taking a look at this old Canadian Sears Wishbook from 1994 (where the 32X isn't even listed) and knowing that Canadian prices were usually a few more dollars than their US equivalents, you can see that the Genesis and SNES were selling for $150 and $160 CAD, respectively. Given that the US price for the 32X was $160, it stands to reason that the Canadian price would have been closer to $175 or so, making it no small investment at launch. Perhaps to compensate, the 32X did offer $10 rebate coupons towards future game purchases.

It was up against some tough competition. The 32X launched in the same month as the critical and commercial success Donkey Kong Country and NBA Jam: Tournament Edition and a month after Sonic and Knuckles, Super Punch Out, and Final Fantasy III. It launched a week before the Atari Jaguar and, as mentioned, a month after the Saturn had already been released in Japan. It was selling Doom after Doom II had already been released for PCs.  It was a confusing system, with a small library, released in an overly-crowded video game market.

It only featured two launch games. Despite the boasts found in Sega Visions, when the system actually hit store shelves it did so only with two titles: Doom and Star Wars: Arcade. In terms of the IP selection, these are two solid launch games that made a lot of sense in 1994 when both Star Wars and Doom were still extremely popular franchises that were guaranteed to garner sales. Earlier that year, for example, the acclaimed Super Star Wars series on the SNES had concluded its run with the release of Return of the Jedi.  Today, both Doom and Star Wars Arcade continue to be held in (relative) high regard as some of the stronger titles for the 32X, with especially the latter showing off its technical capabilities more than many other titles would ever do. Still, though launching with two games had happened before (e.g. the Master System) and would happen again (e.g. the Nintendo 64), it seemed an especially dangerous proposition for a console that was positioned as a stop gap measure and, in the buildup to launch, had promised much more from the start.

Today, it seems obvious that Sega was promising more than they could deliver. We of course now know much more about the history of this era, the feuds between Sega of America and Sega of Japan, the botched Neptune, etc.  but none of that was common knowledge to a consumer standing in the aisle of a video game department in November of 1994.  Sega didn't do enough to convincingly promote the console in its own magazine, sent it out with a small set of games into a crowded market, and ultimately gave it a launch that set it up for the failure it would become.

In the end, retailers famously had to cut the system price to $19.99 to clear it out.  Less than 40 games would ever be made for the system, many of which were only slightly enhanced ports of existing 16-bit titles. In a future installment we'll look at some of the end of console life 32X games, which saw its final release just 14 short months after its launch.

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awesome, awesome article. Thank you.
We'll raise the price point to $159.99, and give the customer a $10 off coupon towards a game. That's still $149.99, right? ...right?

As a kid, I would've been more than happy to purchase a Neptune. However, my friend had a Sega Genesis, and the 32X add-on wouldn't fit on it inside the TV stand he had. The clips also caused a ton of confusion and overall wouldn't work due to bad connections. It personally failed us because we couldn't get it to work!

I still love the system though. Wish I could get the rest of the JP and Euro library cheap. Darxide, I'm looking at you!
@noiseredux: thanks!

@Shadow Kisuragi: Yeah, the one JPN exclusive and Darxide are all that's kept me from having a full library of released games, though I do have the CIB U.S. set + FIFA.  I actually think it has a VERY strong library, and like the Saturn and Dreamcast after it suffered more from poor management and marketing than it did from the quality of games themselves...
BIG fan of your articles, DSheinem.  You bring a reminding perspective to our industry's history, with detail and perspective that illuminates nostalgia.

Also, fun to read.

My own experiences with the 32X was (like many) as a cautious outsider.  Picked one up many years after the fact, and I really enjoy a few exclusives like the co-op Shadow Squadron and Kolibri (which, for my money, is by far the best hummingbird-shooter game ever made.)

Despite the rickety setup, I keep the 32X/CD/Genny combo connected and it does get more use than one might expect.  Lots of great 2-player fun in the library.
I have never actually played a 32x and when I was younger I never really had games.  So the whol 90's era game consoles that were failures I never knew about til many years later.  This was a great read.
Gotta chuckle at the Sega.  For such a great company it's like they couldn't help but slap themselves in the face over and over (Sega CD, Saturn) again, pause for a second (Dreamcast), then go right back to slapping. 

I think it might be double-funny because since this is a website that is collection-centric there should be some 32x love going on now.

I was one of those lucky people who got one of these when stores were clearing them out for a cheap $20 +game. So I was happy with it, but it was hard to get games for it though.

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