February 2022

When 32 bits wasn’t enough

Sega’s 32X could be described in many ways, hardly any of them positive – unnecessary, a wasted opportunity, a mistake, a desperate cash-grab…

For me, in hind sight, the addon was something of a betrayal. Promises were made, expectations built up, that ultimately never panned out.

1994 was a wild year for gaming. Coverage of the then-upcoming 32-bit systems dominated gaming publications. Sonic 3 debuted early in the year, followed by Sonic & Knuckles 8 months later. Super Metroid landed in Spring, while Autumn saw the release of Mortal Kombat II for home consoles.

It was an especially big year for Street Fighter fans – Super Street Fighter II arrived on the SNES and Genesis in July, several months after the Turbo edition had made its debut in Arcades. Super Street Fighter II Turbo would then get a home release for the 3DO in November, pissing off all but the two Street Fighter fans whose parents could actually afford a 3DO. Summer also saw the release of the animated Street Fighter II Movie in Japan, while the U.S. got its own live-action Street Fighter film in December. And in July, Darkstalkers made its arcade debut.

In between the year’s game releases, the next generation of consoles loomed. Every month brought new details of not one, but two new systems from Sega, as well as Sony’s upstart Playstation. The 32X was especially promising for anyone who’d already had the Genesis, as it was hinted – if not officially claimed by Sega of America representatives – that the addon would serve as an upgrade to transform a Genesis and Sega CD into a Sega Saturn. Even if that had been the intent early on, that it never came to be would be just one of the system’s many disappointments.

No system can survive without games, and the 32X actually had an impressive selection of launch titles – Doom, Virtua Racing, Star Wars Arcade, Mortal Kombat II… But it was Darkstalkers that really sold me on the system. The game had quickly become a favorite of mine, so knowing it was getting a home port, so soon after its arcade debut… I had to have it!

Unfortunately for me, Darkstalkers for the 32X ended up being vaporware. Capcom had quietly cancelled it after it became clear that the 32X was a flop.

Just how badly the 32X bombed can’t be overstated. The addon made its U.S. debut on Novermber 21, 1994, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. Just ten months later, the price was slashed from $150 to $99, and in early 1996 Sega of America had officially retired the system.

I can only imagine what the immediate response to the 32X might’ve been, if today’s internet had been a thing in 1994. While I might’ve still asked my parents for a 32X for Christmas, I might’ve found out about its failure and the cancellation of Darkstalkers much sooner. Instead, I spent the next year hoping to see or hear any updates on Darkstalkers 32X in Electronic Gaming Monthly and Game Fan Magazine, only to find the 32X coverage dwindling.

When I sat down to write this post, I wanted to include that Darkstalkers 32X announcement. I know I had read it in either EGM or Game Fan, but finding it now has proven difficult. The closest I’ve been able to find is this exchange from the letters page of the November ’94 issue of EGM2 –

Mortal Kombat II on 32X was another disappointment, at least in the long run. While it had arrived three months after the SNES and Genesis versions, that might not have mattered, as I would have had to wait until Christmas regardless. What was disappointing about it was that it wasn’t any more impressive than the SNES version. It certainly looked and sounded better than the Genesis version, but I’d expected a 32-bit port to be arcade-perfect in every sense.

Many years later, I would find out that the 32X port of Mortal Kombat II was even more disappointing than I’d originally thought. On closer inspection, the graphics – mainly the backgrounds – were less detailed than those of the SNES version. This might have been due to many 32X games using the base Genesis hardware to render background layers, while the 32X itself handled the characters and foreground elements.

I might’ve been far more disappointed in the 32X at the time, if my life hadn’t been taking its own twists and turns. I’d started my freshman year of high school in the fall of 1994, and had a part-time job. By the end of the school year, I lost my job, got another, and had started saving to buy a Saturn AND my first car. I guess it’s no wonder I’d never noticed the 32X’s demise.