Misaligned, mistimed and ultimately misunderstood, sadly, the Mega Drive 32X will forever go down in history as one of the greatest failures in video game history. Although the tale of the 32X’s release and its rapid downfall remains a well documented piece of gaming folklore, much less is known about the hardware’s earliest conceptions. Read on as MegaBites takes a tantalising glimpse behind the closed doors of Sega of America’s development labs, to reveal a previously forgotten piece of hardware from a time before the 32X as we knew it – the Sega Mars Development Aid System.
It was the evening of the 8th January 1994 – the eve of that year’s Winter CES – as Hayao Nakayama (Sega CEO), Tom Kalinske (Sega of America President), Joe Miller (Sega’s Senior Vice President of Product Development) and a host of other top-level Sega personnel gathered in a Las Vegas hotel room. The night’s discussion centred around Sega’s strategies of introducing the gaming public to the brave new world of 32-bit gaming.
With the Sega Saturn already months into development by that time – and Sega of Japan preferring to keep its plans for the console a tightly guarded secret from its American counterpart – Nakayama put forward the case for a cartridge-based 32-bit system, one that would ease the transition from the 16–32-bit generation. A tense debate ensued, as both Sega divisions proposed their arguments for and against such a strategy. With Sega of America having no choice but to ultimately concede to Nakayama’s request, a new system was born – the 32X.
However, before it would come to be known as the 32X, the development of Sega’s new 32-bit hardware would simply addressed by a secret codename – ‘Project Mars’.
The MegaBites mission
Having been an owner of a 32X since its release in Christmas 1994, I have always been a great champion of the add-on and have keenly sought to build my knowledge of Project Mars and the 32X’s sorely short-lived history. Yet, nothing could prepare me for the light-bulb moment I experienced recently when reading the latest issue of Retro Gamer magazine – one that led to the reveal of a key piece of the Project Mars development process that had been seemingly hidden from public view for almost 20 years.
The article in question was a celebration of the 32X’s 20th anniversary, in which Motocross Championship Programmer, Alexander Smith, revealed a rather interesting piece of information about the Project Mars development system – a piece of hardware used for the creation and testing of 32X games software: “Our team leader went to Japan in May of 1994 and he got us a couple of development systems. Those were beige metal boxes about the size of a bar fridge, half filled with electronics,” he described.
After a spot of further research, I uncovered the following passage in the publication Service Games: The Rise and Fall of Sega: “At least 50 of the 32X development systems (i.e. ‘Mars prototypes’) were sent over to the US by Sega… The top of the unit remained open; the system ran notoriously hot when in use, and could not be operated for extended periods of time without provisions for additional cooling.”
Upon reading these insights, my mind was positively spinning – I was certain that I’d seen this Sega hardware in action. But where? A Google search ensued, but returned no results. Not a single website was to be found that contained imagery of the Sega Mars development hardware. But I was absolutely certain that I’d seen it before.
That was until a browse on YouTube produced a rather interesting result…
It transpired that the answer to my woes was to be found in a broadcast of the British video game magazine show Bad Influence. Aired between 1992–96, Bad Influence trailed the developments of the UK video game industry from the early European success of the Sega Mega Drive, up to the release of the Sony Playstation. The programme’s first three series’ contained a regular feature whereby an American correspondent, Z Wright, would cover the industry’s developments from across the pond. One particular episode in the show’s third series saw Z Wright take a trip to Sega of America’s headquarters, in the summer of 1994.
“1994’s been a bit of a dull year for hardware,” Z Wright began. “Everyone has been beavering away behind closed doors on ’95 stuff, which you might call ‘hope-ware’. Sega’s hope-ware is the Saturn console – a 32-bit machine with software on cart and CDs – but no one’s seen anything of it yet.”
As Z Wright continued, the scene cut to the internals of Sega of America’s R&D department, as the presenter riffed with a few conceptual names for a certain 32-bit cart-based system:
“Closer to reality is the ‘Mega-32’, called the 32X over here. It’s an add-on for the Mega Drive that lets you upgrade to 32-bit and still play your old games. It should be out in November. Actually, this is a prototype. The game is really running on this development system.”
Bingo! The Sega Mars Development Aid System.
A second online search also provided this little gem:
‘A beige metal box about the size of a bar fridge’? I think we have our system.
Sega never ceases to amaze…
Do you know anything further about the ‘Sega Mars Development Aid System’? Have you seen one? Have you worked with one? Better still, do you own one? If so, contact MegaBites in the menu above, or on Twitter (@MegaBitesBlog).
(The complete Bad Influence feature, as mentioned in this post, can be viewed here.)