Welcome to the next level!
The 32X was essentially a part of SEGA's bold plans to bring their arcade hits of the time into the home and aid the Mega Drive/Genesis in combating the SNES. It was the first 32-Bit console and first 32-Bit failure.
It was planned to bring 16-Bit gamers into the new world of 32-Bit gaming by means of a low-cost upgrade to tried and trusted Mega Drive/Genesis hardware. The upgrade added more speed, colours and improved sound to the setup. If attached to a Mega CD it would create a 32-Bit cartridge and CDROM system.
Annoyingly the Mushroom shaped system made your 16-Bit machine pretty messy but moreover it revealed some of the messier internal workings at Sega that ultimately made them an enemy to their own platform and anger their market base enough significantly damaging their efforts to win the upcoming 32-Bit console war.
It was actually SEGA of Japan (SoJ) who originated the idea of having a 32-Bit cartridge based console on the market by the end of '94. They tasked SEGA of America (SoA) to execute the plan since they had hardware projects of their own in development. At this time being early 1994, SEGA was in a state of internal confusion over X as future events would soon reveal. A split had already formed. SoA was 32X and SoJ was Saturn.
The first idea proposed by SoJ was to produce an upgraded Mega Drive/Genesis that had an extra 32-Bit CPU and an increase in colours to 128 out of 512. SoA thought this was terrible and since this project was now theirs, produced alternative ideas.
The upgrade is designed to operate with all variations of Mega Drive/Genesis hardware. Officially it cannot be used with the Multi-Mega/CDX because the system was unable to gain FCC clearance but there have been no reported problems when used. It is even unofficially compatible with JVC Wondermega/JVC X'Eye being known to operate with no problems. It does not work however with the Genesis 3 and Nomad which lacks the Z80 CPU and therefore some of the interface necessary. An extra 'spacer' is used for fitting with some hardware combinations. There are no specific or official accessories.
Dual Hitachi SH2 32-Bit RISC @ 23Mhz (40 Million Instructions Per Second)
2Mbit (256KB) Video RAM split into x2 1Mbit (128KB) segments for each framebuffer
SEGA Custom LSI
RF/ Video (composite) / RGB
10-Bit Pulse Width Modulation
RF/ Video (composite) / RGB
Oddly it should be said that it is a marvel in weird sort of way. The engineers were limited by the console the system would actually plug into. The underlying 16-Bit had to be reasonably powerful to begin with. The system does tend to crash often. This can usually be attributed to heat produced by the main CPUs or movement.
There has only ever been one official version of the 32X hardware that does not change across the regions and that design resembles something like that of a mushroom.
The 32X is essentially composed of twin 32-Bit CPUs, a 32-Bit VDP, a sound processor and RAM. It adds 32,768 simultaneous colours, some 25,000 polygons per/sec, sprite scaling and rotation and two digital sound channels.
At the centre of the system are the twin Hitachi SH-2 CPUs which are Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) design capable of 40 Million Instructions per second (MIPS) combined. These run slower than their Saturn counterparts and are primarily for calculating the maths required for the polygon graphics. In contrast the Saturn contains several custom designed processors and is therefore more expensive to produce.
The VDP is of a custom design. LSI simply stands for Large Scale Integration and signifies the type of circuitry used. Two linear frame buffers are utilised and is an old technique to produce smoother graphics, with support for RLE graphics compression. An overdraw mode simplifies compositing objects with transparency. The VDP does not perform scaling and rotation or 3D. They are performed in software by the main CPUs. These were the days before 3D accelerators...
The video output of the Mega Drive/Genesis is taken into the 32X and then back out again. The leads provided will improve the image on any Mega Drive/Genesis (particularly Model 1's) since it takes the cleaner RGB source from that console. Since the output is merely overlaid it means that older code from Mega Drive/Genesis games are simply passed through.
The sound is improved through the inclusion of x2 Stereo 10-Bit PWM channels mixing with Mega Drive/Genesis sound for (in theory) a total of 12 audio channels of varying capability, 22 with the addition of a Mega-CD/SEGA CD. The improved sound capabilities were rarely taken advantage of.
Games on cartridges are physically slightly larger than their 16-Bit counterparts although technically there is no difference. The unit is backwards compatible with all previous Mega Drive/Genesis cartridges and thus does not affect any territorial lockouts. 32X games themselves are also territory protected and the system manages to neutralise some of the country converter cartridges that work on the Mega Drive and Mega CD normally. Games on CDROM (for use with the Mega/SEGA CD) were also territory protected.
The unit also used two electromagnetic clamps the purpose of which is indeterminate though it is likely they are used to reduce movement.
Cartridges are the same size and shape in all regions, although physically slightly different from their Mega Drive/Genesis counterparts they are essentially the same. Games on the system are region/territory locked through software and the system is known to neutralise some import adaptors.
The AV port is the same as that of the Model 2 Mega Drive/Genesis. It can output RGB, Composite and RF with stereo sound. A converter cable (supplied) is required for use with Model 1 Mega Drive/Genesis'.
Some games utilised battery back-up for saves such as Knuckles: Chaotix and when used with the Mega CD games saves were possible utilising its internal battery backup RAM.
Neptune was a combined Mega Drive/Genesis and 32X inside a console almost exacting in dimensions to a Mega Drive/Genesis 2 for sleek fitting with the MegaCD2/SEGACD2. It became derived from Project Mars (32X) though in an earlier period of development it was a separate project of its own.
This Neptune was intended to replace the Mega Drive/Genesis and remain an active platform alongside the Saturn until users decided to upgrade.
Initially the suggested retail price was $400 which shocked and appalled anyone who saw it. This was later reduced to a reasonable $200 but the system never saw the light of day. Was this down to the small window between the Saturn launch or simply because the 32X was already dead by then? There are only two prototypes and it is not known if they are working.
DarXide was promised as being the first title for the new combined system and touted as being a killer app the platform seriously needed. That game was still released.
DIY Neptune: http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?t=340525
The greatest problem the 32X had was the software available for it or more appropriately the lack of. In this section are some of the highlights and essential games that gave the system its character and identity.
There are some 34 total games in the library with 5 of them being on CDROM for use with the SEGA CD/Mega CD. Cartridge game sizes were typically between 16Mbit (2MB) and 32Mbit (4MB).
The majority of games were merely slicker and more colourful than their 16-Bit counterparts rather than any sort of revolution. For example, Mortal Kombat 2, FIFA Soccer '96, Space Harrier and Afterburner (both of which are fun blasters) are examples of this. Steve Snake, renowned in the industry for his work during this era, stated that these minor upgraded titles seriously pushed the limits of the hardware and that over-hyping from magazines hurt the system.
Other offending titles included Cosmic Carnage, which earned scathing reviews, and Tough Man Boxing. Although these were not 16-Bit rehashes, they were just shite.
With that said however, there were some games that showed what the premise of the upgrade was - to offer more quality arcade games i.e Model 1 conversions. The 'Virtua' games were an indication of what the platform made possible and SEGA seemingly took the time to make quality ports - and it shows.
Star Wars Arcade was one of the system's most popular titles having proven a hit in the arcades coupled with the popularity of Star Wars. It's a space shooter where you pilot your X-Wing to complete mission objectives. It was ported very successfully from SEGA's Model 1 board and runs very smoothly on the 32X hardware. Extra gameplay modes add more over the original.
Virtua Racing Deluxe was an upgrade of the SVP-boosted game and was a significant graphical enhancement with more polygons for extra detail and colours. It boasted 3 additional circuits and 2 new cars with improvements to the 2-player option.
At the time there was no rival to the game and its graphics were only seen on the most advanced arcade boards. The 32X did an outstanding job in providing a smooth arcade feel on a console. This version is still considered superior to the Saturn version.
Virtua Fighter, one of the most advanced fighting games around at the time, was arguably one of the strongest reasons to buy a 32X.
There is debate as to where this version is superior to the Saturn port despite being less graphically sophisticated (even though it pushed the system). It is less buggy and added more gameplay modes with the benefit of no loading times. For much more information checkout the Virtua Fighter Feature.
Metal Head is giant mech created by the Worldwide Federation roaming around 3D texture mapped streets thwarting the plans of terrorist cells. It was an impressive technical display considering the limited experience with the hardware because 32X games had since only used flat shaded polygons. Whilst it looked pretty it played very slowly.
DarXide from Frontier, a space shooter similar to Starwing/Starfox, was promised as the first title available for the cancelled Neptune console. It became one of the last two 32X games released in January 1996 and in Europe only. It was possibly the most impressive game on the system living up to the initial hype the upgrade had, giving the player smooth detailed 3D graphics. A PC version followed later.
Other titles such as Stellar Assault/Shadow Squadron and Star Trek: were demonstrating better use of the hardware but were not reasons enough in themselves to warrant buying the system.
Doom, one of the first releases, was very popular even though it was very buggy and not identical to the PC version because it happened to be one of the very few console versions at the time. Until then comparatively expensive PC's were the only way to play the game.
An honourable mention is Kolibri from the same developers as Ecco The Dolphin. It is a unique shooter and had some stunning use of colour.
The last game to be released was Spiderman: Web of Fire. It was poorly received for being a 'typical 32X game' which is suprising considering it was crafted by Blue Sky whom demonstrated excellent skills in the Vectorman games for the Mega Drive/Genesis.
Mega Drive/Genesis 32XCD Games
There were only 5 CDROM games released and all of these were FMV titles that had better quality video in a larger window and clearer sound. For example, the upgraded version of the infamous Night Trap uses 32,768 colours as opposed to the 64 colours of the original version. These games did little to improve the situation as their genre were never popular to begin with and the number of releases reflects the amount of people who actually had all 3 pieces of equipment required to play them.
By the time of the 32X the trend had been set that any piece of SEGA hardware would have a Sonic game. The arrival of the 32X and the subsequent leaking of images that showed Sonic in full 3D, made 32X owners and Sonic fans rather excited.
Needless to say when this game did not arrive people were bewildered. It was not the game that had been wildly anticipated and gamers were very disappointed and annoyed.
Sonic was nowhere to be seen in the 32X library and the 'Sonic' themed game: Chaotix - did not even have him in it barring a cameo in the credits. Sonic would not return in any form until 4 years later on the Dreamcast with Sonic Adventure.
It later emerged that the images Sonic in 3D were just a video sequence from a theme park attraction (which can be views on the Sonic Jam compilation) and that Chaotix was based upon an old Mega Drive prototype (Sonic Crackers) that been in SEGA R&D for a few years.
The game had some core traits from all the 16-Bit Sonic games but adds a co-op mechanism where by players are connected by a bungee cord. Throw in the usual moves and abilities and the gameplay is mixed up a little. Suffice to say it's a very love/loathe situation.
Chaotix did present a minor graphical upgrade from the 16-Bit Sonic games with more of the trademark vibrant colours and added sprite effects. For the full low down on Chaotix check out the Chaotix Feature.
There is virtually no development on the homebrew scene though one individual is attempting the process of porting Wolfenstien 3D to the system.
Some advanced topics for homebrew development are discussed in the forums at SEGA Xtreme.
Several unreleased games may well have delivered on the promises of the platform though none probably would have saved it from its fate. Once such example Soulstar X designed an upgraded version of the impressive SEGA CD/Mega CD original and may have made it to Beta stage with a playable prototype known to exist. It would have been the first non-FMV CD game to be released on the system. A playable prototype the planned Atari Jaguar CD version also exists.
X-Men: Mind Games was an action game being developed by Scavenger and a playable demo was shown at E3 1995. A leaked beta has since appeared on the internet.
Shadow of Atlantis was a point and click adventure game that eventually got released on the Mega CD/SEGA CD. It was ported to the 32X after many delays but never released. It was planned to be ported to Saturn but SEGA decided to scrap the concept perhaps in hindsight of the unsuccessful FMV crap the Mega CD/SEGA CD has. Videos of the development can be seen on Youtube.
Virtua Hamster was to be a racing game where a player controlled a rocket powered hamster test pilot on wheels through mazes evading a huge mechanical snake. It was cancelled when SEGA discontinued the 32X. Some playable prototypes have now been released and can be found on some SEGA enthusiast websites.
Development was said to have to moved to Saturn where it was cancelled again reportedly in an almost completed state.
Cases for the games were generally the same as their 16-Bit counterparts even changing the material from the robust plastic to the card at the same time.
Any games that were supplied on CD's games came in the standard double jewel cases with the exception of the US which used the larger almost VHS sized cases (like with the SEGA CD and some Mega CD games) made from card.
As well as the obvious logo changes, the artwork varied wildly between the regions with a lot more titles having three distinct versions of case art. Examples include Space Harrier, Metal Head and Chaotix.
A good number, Doom for example were the same across all regions.
Many of the 32X's games are pretty hard to find in the wild and have been known to fetch some very high prices - even the worst ones. Rare titles such as T-Mek will also cost potentially £150 for a complete copy as will a copy of Chaotix with others such as Killobri fetching £300. The rarest will be DarXide which has been known to sell for approx £700/$1000!
Games such as Space Harrier, Doom and any of the CD games can usually be found for prices between £20 and £50.
The 32X is a very fickle piece of kit. It generally does not work! It will refuse to boot and crash routinely.
Crashing is caused mostly by the 32X cartridge slot not being able to grip the connections on the cartridge properly due to leaning; or the system simply overheating since no method of cooling was designed.
Not using the cartridge expander with a Mega Drive II/Genesis II will make it unsecured in the cartridge port and the slightest knock will crash the system.
The effectiveness of using the metal clamps to hold open the cartridge slot is not entirely known. The system seems to crash or not work the same amount of times whether they are used or not.
Bad colours is sometimes caused by a loose connection between the interconnecting AV leads. Simply separate and re-connect.
Boot up problems can sometimes be caused by dust or grime on the cartridge connectors. Like other cartridge systems, these can be cleaned by getting a thin piece of cardboard and wrapping paper towel around it and inserting then removing it from the cartridge port.
If the system still fails to boot then it is now time to open up the system and make a simple fix.
You will need a Philips screw-driver, relatively small to remove the four screws holding the case on. Next, using a set of pliers remove the two large ribbon cables from their slots on the logic board. Do this with gentle tugs. Then evenly place these cables back into their slots.
This is the chief problem of the 32X not booting. These cables become loose through removing the system and heat expansion. It is possible to replace these cables if really necessary as they are pretty standard and cheap.
Pop a game in before you reassemble to test. If there is still no boot then try repeating the removal and re-insertion steps. Cleaning the ends of the ribbon cables may be advised using an electronics cleaner.
Below are some links for some excellent 32X related websites. If there are any links you would like to see added here please let me know.
Note: These will direct you away from this site.
Spoony's 32X Page
Information about the released games, cancelled games, troubleshooting the hardware and the user manual in digital format.
Comprehensive site of details of the US hardware and software releases.
Reviews of 32X Games
An archive of game reviews.
A very stylish website showcasing some outstanding development projects running off Mega Drive/Genesis, Sega CD and 32X.
Cheap 32X Games at Racketboy
A run down of the cheapest and best games for the system.
There are a few emulators that supports the 32X and they are Windows based. For more information and downloads check out the Mega Drive/Genesis/MegaCD/SEGACD/32X Emulators page.