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3/09/2021

Top Ten Sega 32X Games

The Sega CD was a commercial flop for a number of reasons, but at the very least it showed some forward thinking - Sega clearly knew that cartridges were likely to be phased out soon and that the multimedia capabilities of the CD medium were going to add a lot to the world of gaming, and they wanted to get on the bandwagon early even if the tech wasn't quite there yet.  Which is why it's especially baffling that, rather than simply cut their losses and focus their efforts on a strong showing with the next generation of consoles, they made another Genesis addon that went back to using cartridges in a last-ditch effort to outdo the Super Nintendo.  The idea at least wasn't totally wrong-headed - it may have worked if it came out in early 1992 or thereabouts and was integrated into the console for a reasonable increase in price (a la the PS4 Pro or Xbox One X), but being pushed out the door six months before the Saturn launched gave it no chance of getting a foothold whatsoever.  Simply put, it's one of the dumbest things Sega has ever done; even moreso when one remembers that Sega also botched the Saturn's launch by pushing it out the door four months ahead of its originally scheduled debut (and for $100 more than the Playstation).  Which meant that you only had six lackluster launch titles to play while you waited at least four months for some third party titles to arrive.  However, being a fan of obscure and comically wrong-headed hardware, the Sega 32X has always held a bit of a special place for me.  So, let's count down what I consider to be the best games on the platform and see if we can find some redemption for this mostly-neglected piece of tech.

10. Cosmic Carnage (Almanic Corporation, 1994)

A fighting game from the company that created the Super Nintendo cult classic EVO: The Search for Eden (yes, seriously), Cosmic Carnage gets some props for being an original offering on the platform, as well as using its sprite scaling capabilities to good effect - limbs will actually blow up to larger size as they approach the "camera", giving the illusion of forced perspective.  Being a '90s fighter, the Mortal Kombat influence is definitely present too - if you defeat your opponent with a special move, they'll usually die in a surprisingly gory fashion.  Unfortunately, the game itself isn't nearly as good as its visuals - it's got some questionable hit detection and the combat is awkwardly slow, with many grabs in particular taking several seconds to play out.  A particularly dumb decision when one also considers that getting the good ending is dependent on how quickly one finishes off all of their opponents; you see a long cinematic of your character boarding the escape pod and fleeing the doomed ship, and if you don't have enough time on the clock to get out, you get caught in the explosion and die.  Some cool character designs and effects don't save it from being mediocre, but if you like obscure and silly fighting games, it's one that's worth a look for novelty value.

9. Tempo (Sega/Red Company, 1995)

Tempo is an original platformer themed around music and dance, and probably the only Sega 32X IP that had any life beyond the platform - it got two sequels on the Game Gear and Sega Saturn, though neither one made it out of Japan.  Tempo's gameplay isn't the best - it's somehow both awkwardly slow in some ways (moving, floating and jumping) and way too fast in others (running), and the collision detection is spotty, to put it charitably.  However, the music is catchy, animation on the characters is surprisingly smooth, the game has a quirky sense of fun throughout, and the backgrounds are entrancing and very detailed, sporting a lot of bright colors, shapes and psychedelic visual effects throughout.  Tempo even gets a surprisingly fun little opening rap to introduce you to the character.  If Tempo played as good as it looked and sounded it might just have been a new flagship franchise for Sega, but sadly it never really got the attention it deserved even with three games under its belt. 

8. NBA Jam: Tournament Edition (Iguana Entertainment/The White Team, 1995)

NBA Jam was another popular arcade title; loosely based on Midway's own Arch Rivals, though toning down the violence, it was a fast paced two-on-two basketball game with an over-the-top flair.  Flashy dunks, silly powerups, and if a team scored three baskets in a row they'd go "On Fire", gaining unlimited turbo and a much higher chance of scoring until the other team scored or they made four more baskets.  As with Mortal Kombat, there were also a ton of hidden secrets to find - from secret characters to making your team stronger to a Battlezone style minigame.  The 32X port isn't a huge leap over its 16-bit counterparts by any means, but it does look a bit nicer.

7. Mortal Kombat II (Midway/Probe Entertainment, 1994)

It was the '90s and Mortal Kombat was the king of fighting games, so it was little surprise that it would be ported to just about every home console of the time, even the ones that sucked.  The 32X version is at least an admirable upgrade, with smoother animation, more color depth and upgraded AI from the original Genesis release, as well as more sound and voice samples that were omitted from the original version owing to space constraints.  It's still a long way off from "arcade perfect" despite Sega's claims that the 32X would be a "home arcade machine", but for a time, this was the best home port of Mortal Kombat II available, and it's still a pretty decent one to play today if you can't get ahold of a rerelease for some reason.

6. Virtua Fighter (Sega AM2, 1995)

Virtua Fighter was the first 3D fighting game ever made, and for that reason it definitely drew a lot of attention in the arcades.  The 32X port doesn't look quite as nice as its arcade counterpart, but it's serviceable enough - the characters are recognizable, the controls are responsive and the action remains consistently smooth.  It's also notable for the fact that it's actually much better than the Saturn port, released several months earlier (and rushed out to coincide with the system's premature launch).  The single-player mode is pretty limited in enjoyability (mostly because like many fighting games the AI is an input-reading bastard), but it's a good port of a classic fighter that'll give you some fun.

5. Kolibri (Novotrade International, 1995)

I can at least give this one some credit for being a relatively original concept; it's the only game I'm aware of on any platform where you play as a hummingbird.  Not a cartoony mascot character like Sonic, either - just an average hummingbird, moving around photorealistic backdrops, interacting with other animals and... well, collecting powerups to shoot the hell out of insects.  Yeah, it's a free-roaming shoot-em-up where you fire lasers, rings and bombs to wipe out bug hordes and restore color and life to the landscape.  There's not much more to it than that - you'd expect at least a trippy narrative or some surreal imagery from the team that brought us Ecco the Dolphin and its sequel, but there's no dialog in-game and even the manual barely attempts to hide the fact that the project was thrown together in a few months, dedicating several pages to hummingbird facts and talking about how to build a feeder rather than saying much about the game itself.  It plays pretty well for what it is, has some nice visuals and isn't a bad port of an arcade or PC game, though, which still puts it well above most of what the 32X has to offer.

4. Knuckles' Chaotix (Sega, 1995)

Knuckles' Chaotix began its life as a prototype named "Sonic Crackers", built on the gimmick of having Sonic and Tails bound together by a rubber band and using that as a way to maneuver around obstacles and traverse stages.  It wasn't very well-received by members of the gaming press that saw it, but wouldn't you know it, the 32X really needed a killer app, so they polished it up and released it anyway, albeit without Sonic in the leading role.  Now starring Knuckles and friends as they navigate Robotnik's theme park island, the game at least makes a good effort to show off what the 32X hardware can do.  The environments and sprites are colorful, there's some impressive scaling effects, and the true-3D bonus stages are pretty cool to see after several previous Sonic games had to go out of their way to fake such effects.  It's also a passable if unremarkable Sonic game, with large stages full of secrets to find, boss battles and some catchy tunes by Junko Shiratsu and Mariko Nanba, though disappointingly few enemies or moments of challenging platforming.  An interesting experiment that needed some more time in the oven.

3. Virtua Racing Deluxe (Sega, 1994)

The 3D era started to really pick up steam in the '90s, and Sega was intent on taking advantage of it in the arcades with games like Virtua Fighter and Star Wars Arcade.  They even took a cue from Nintendo and ported Virtua Racing to the Genesis using a special cart with an extra processor that gave it 3D graphics; pretty cool, but it still didn't perform on par with the arcade version despite the extra price.  The 32X's more powerful hardware allowed them to make a more arcade-accurate version, as well as adding in two new tracks and two new car types to race as.  A solid early 3D racer that's still pretty fun today.

2. Blackthorne (Blizzard Entertainment, 1995)

My picks up to this point on the list have been questionable for sure, but let's be honest, the 32X doesn't really give you a lot to work with; almost every game it had to offer was already available elsewhere, and any advantages the 32X hardware added were usually superficial at best and barely-existent at worst (and many ports still looked and played substantially worse than their arcade counterparts despite the addon being billed as a "home arcade experience", which really didn't help matters at all).  Blackthorne is another version of an existing title, but at least it took advantage of the 32X's hardware to deliver a solid upgrade to a good game.  This version features superior graphics to the previous versions as well as a new area exclusive to this version (a snowy mountain), and the gameplay is tried and true, built on the model of games like Prince of Persia and Flashback but with smoother controls and a badass shotgun-toting hero.  Blizzard brings a high level of quality to everything they make (well, mostly), and Blackthorne on the 32X is no exception.

1. Space Harrier (Sega, 1994)

Sega touted the 32X as an upgrade that would turn the Genesis into a "home arcade system."  While that claim was met with ports of varying quality (mostly falling on the "mediocre to bad" end of the scale), Space Harrier managed to deliver a truly arcade-perfect experience.  Buttery-smooth, sprite-based action in a surreal universe that combined flying stone heads, dragons, robots and vast fields and caves full of stone pillars and spinning orbs for you to crash into and blow up with your giant flying cannon-rocket.  And then you get to ride on Falkor and blow up trees for bonus points.  Great fun, and one of the few truly worthwhile games for the ill-fated add on.


And now, my thoughts on a few of the many games that were planned for release but canceled owing to the platform's quick demise:

Clayfighter 2 - This could have been pretty cool, with higher-res graphics and more animation frames than the SNES version and maybe restoring the cut character of Lucy the Gorilla.  Sadly it didn't get far into development before it was canned, though an early prototype was dumped to the internet some time ago. 

Ecco the Dolphin - All that's been of this one is a Cinepak demo showing Ecco leaping through the logo. Was it to tease a port? A remake? A third entry in the series? We may never know. 

Elite - Presumably a port of the classic PC game, but with shaded 3D models instead of wire frames? That could have been neat.  A next generation upgrade a la Silpheed on the Sega CD. 

Garfield: Caught in the Act - This one was on Genesis and Game Gear, and even saw a version on the Sega Channel that added in some new levels; however, they were never given a standalone release (or even included in the later PC ports). Maybe they would have been in the 32X version; no way to know for sure, though. 

Legend of Oasis - This one did eventually get ported to the Saturn, though its animation quality and gameplay could have worked on either platform.  Still, it would have given the 32X a bit more competitive edge against games like Zelda, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma. 

Rayman - This would have been a perfect fit - Tempo already proved the 32X could do colorful backdrops and smooth 2D animation flawlessly. It was later released on the Saturn, of course, but to see it on a cartridge in 1995 would have been pretty mind blowing. 

Segasonic the Hedgehog - Presumably a port and/or remake of the arcade game of the same name, which would have been a good fit given the fluid 2D animation that game had.  Would it have kept the 3-player co-op too? Maybe! 

Sonic X-Treme - Probably the most infamous of all the canceled Sonic games, beginning as a 32X title, stringing fans along for years with promises of a Saturn release (even teasing some 3D gameplay in Sonic Jam) and then being abruptly shut down so they could focus on the Dreamcast and Sonic Adventure instead - an entire year before the system was even set to launch, no less. A Saturn prototype has been leaked in the years since, but the fans have never really forgotten the sting of betrayal that accompanies the words "Sonic X-treme".

Star Control 2 - Another solid choice; Star Control 2 is a DOS cult classic, and seeing a faithful port on the 32X would have definitely been a good alternative for those who couldn't afford a PC (or a 3DO) in that time period. It's not a particularly complex game to control, either - you could easily make it work on a Genesis controller! 

Virtua Hamster - Probably the most famous canceled game for the 32X, being touted by some as the platform' s first breakout game.  Even the box art is eye-catching, showing rocket powered hamsters on skateboards blasting their way through colorful tubes a la Stun Runner. Sadly it was just one of many casualties of the 32X's abrupt demise, though an early prototype is floating around the internet so you can get a rough idea of what it would have been like. 

Wild Guns - Another SNES cult classic that would have been very welcome on the 32X. Gallery shooting, shot-dodging fun in a robot-invaded wild west. Alas, it was mentioned by Natsume once or twice as being planned for a 32X port and then never heard from again. 

Worms - Ported to the Saturn, but the 32X could have benefitted from a good, solid multi-player artillery combat game, no?