Sega and the Console from Mars

32xsolo_boxartMisaligned, 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.

32x magThe 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…

Bad Influence

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.

SOA“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:

HW-32XDevBox(U)‘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.)

The 90s Cheat Survival Guide

debugCheats, hints, tips – call them what you may, but us Mega Drive gamers couldn’t get enough of them. From invincibility codes, to extra lives, and debug modes, if we weren’t playing a game, we were feverishly hunting down that illusive cheat, the one to – quite literally – take our gaming to the next level.

Those of us who remember the early-to-mid 90s will also recall one glaring factor – there was NO internet! Back in ye good olde 1990s, if we wanted a gaming cheat or strategy guide, our options were severely limited. More often than not, we had to rely on word of mouth – gaming secrets handed down from friend, to friend in some obscure alpha-numeric Chinese whisper.

I was recently thrust back into this mindset on a recent holiday, in which time I became re-acquainted with Sonic CD on iOS. A browse through the game’s menus revealed a number of unlockable extras. But how to enable them? A quick Google search would usually reveal all, but not in this case, not on this holiday. On this occasion I’d chosen to spend my vacation in a place beyond the far reaches of civilisation, a location where the concepts of wifi and 3G are as alien to its locals as a decent phone reception was to E.T. That’s right, I was in Cornwall.

Stuck as I was, I swiftly became aware of one key fact – I was back in the 90s, to a pre-Internet era, where I’d actually have to work to unlock Sonic CD’s deepest, darkest secrets. But how did we do it back in the day? Kids, read on… Continue reading

(Mis)adventures In Game Development – PART 1

Up until the 16-bit era, video games, for me, were objects that simply seemed to appear on store shelves, as if by magic, seemingly out of thin air. Of course, I was aware of developers such as Sega, EA, Capcom and so on, but I never spared a thought for how these games came to be. Being a kid at the height of the Mega Drive vs SNES rivalry, I never batted an eyelid, absorbing as much as a child consumer with a 50 pence per-week pocket money allowance, and the odd generous relative could at the time. Then one day, it came to me… “Where did these games come from?” Join me as we embark on a voyage of discovery and creativity, all through the eyes of my ten-year-old self.

BoxArtIt was 1994 and I remember hearing about an uncle of a school friend who’d made a name for himself as the software developer and inventor of some pocket dictionary / thesaurus software. As a ten year old, nothing seemed more mind-numbing than writing a dictionary. It was bad enough being told to write my name out 100 times by my head teacher, when I failed to use capital letters in handwriting class.

Some time later, I watched an episode of video games review show Bad Influence on TV (remember that one?). This particular episode had a feature in which presenter, Violet Berlin, talked about a group of kids who had developed ideas for a game which they had sent to a games developer. If memory serves me right, the game in question was a sim, in which the player ran a newspaper, set the task of finding stories to fill its pages. Seeing how these kids had set about inventing their own game concepts, I decided to go about it myself.

Continue reading