Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Sega 32X/Mars and Saturn, kindred Spirts. a.ka. Mostly 32X, the SOA baby that should have been aborted.
This is an Op-Ed explaining parallels between the 2 5th Generation SEGA projects, the "Mars/GigaDrive" which became the 32X and almost became the Neptune/ Sega CD32 and the top secret power house "Aurora"which became SEGA Saturn, the most underrated and unappreciated video game console of all time in gaming history. The greek tragedy of all gaming consoles. One that could have been avoided.
In this Op-Ed, although I'll show how both SKUs shaped each other's lives in execution,presentation, and how truly connected they were to each other(Both designed the same year 1993, both hastily engineered within several months time, both launched on separate sides of the globe in 1994 ) I mainly want to focus on 32X, the Mushroom abomination that truly sunk SEGA and led to their overall decline and ultimate collapse in 2001.
I also will address and debunk various well known myths about Saturn and 32X(one is that 32X and Saturn used the same type of processor, the other, PlayStation affected Saturn's development) as well as the misconceptions regarding their history(SOJ being unfairly blamed for 32X's design, and Saturn being incapable of doing 3D better than PS1 or that it was originally designed as a 2D only machine).
Let's begin, with a study of contrast regarding 32X/Mars' development in the US, and Aurora/Saturn's development in Japan.
In Late 1992/Early 1993, SEGA Away27(AM3) the head R&D Home Consumer division of SEGA of Japan is torn between not one, not two but THREE 32-bit prototype designs stemming from its cutting edge Arcade line that it started developing in early 1991, after SEGA/CSK invested $4 billion into designing and developing 3D game and computer technology from NASA for its Amusement and Arcade market. SEGA partnered with Defense contractor Lockheed Martin since LM had developed 3D polygon technology for NASA in the late 1980s. From this, came 3 Arcade board designs: System 32(initially System 16's successor which was a 2D only build) The 3D only rendering build Model 1" and the Pseudo 64-bit powerhouse "Model 2".
Now since they had initially wanted to design a home consumer product from System 32 codenamed "Giga Drive"/Genesis 2, SEGA designed a prototype hybrid they decided to codename "Sega Mars"in 1991. The plan was to have it compete against the NEC Turbo Force/Turbo X(which later became the PCFX). But by the Summer of 1992, with Nintendo's new project codenamed "Reality"/Atlantis (which was scrapped and became the ill fated Virutal Boy), the mysterious 3DO and even news of Atari planning a new console codenamed "Panther", SEGA decided that 3D could be used as a necessity especially after being wowed by the Star Fox demo, so they threw out the Mars/Gigadrive design in favor of a new design "JUPITER" which would basically be System 32 with Model 1 3D technology, By late 1992, it was clear to SEGA that Genesis was gaining steam in the States, so logically, instead of scrapping MARS/Giga Drive, SOJ decided to send its prototypes to Sega of America with instructions to design and sell an SKU for Western markets for the Holiday season of 1994.
This is why SegaSonic Arcade made it Stateside. It was accidentally shipped alongside Mars prototypes in Early 1993.
SOJ gave instructions to Sega of America to finalize GigaDrive/Mars and have it ready for 1994.(The Neptune prototype design is actually the design SOJ send them) But SOA was riding high on Genesis' success, and fearing that abandoning Genesis in favor of what would likely be a vaporware console would be bad for business, Sega Amusements USA decided to come up with a compromise: Plan A or Plan B.
Plan A was to simply upgrade Sega CD. Enhancing it with System 32 chips while marketing it as a new and even more improved Sega CD. Codenamed "Sega CDX" or "Sega CD32". The top loader attachment was to be larger and more bulkier, whereas another design had it smaller and more compact. The Sega CDX as you see here:
was actually one of the considered prototypes, but the difference being is that it would have had connector pins to the Genesis Model 2 build like the Sega CD top loader.
Since JVC owned the OEM license and CD-ROM license,SOA would have no problem getting the BOMs, but they saw one flaw: How would a new SKU affect the shelf life of the fledgling Genesis? SOA was severely concerned that it would take away the marketshare and was determined to find some way,some compromise to keep the Genesis alive. This is where plan B "Genesis 32" came from.
In the late Spring of 1993,Joe Miller, head engineer at Sega Amusements USA conducted a secret meeting while Sega of America attended CES in Las Vegas. Miller and Tom Kalinkse were both convinced that building an stand alone SKU was just not worth risking Genesis' marketshare and that continuing to support Sega CD would run the novelty of FMV out quickly. (bad logic)They and Sega of America were convinced that doing another Add on Accessory for Genesis was the way to go.
Legend has it, one of the engineers at Sega Amusements USA literally drew up the concept for "Genesis 32" on a napkin with a Pencil.
Meanwhile, at SEGA Away in Japan, Hideki Sato and Yu Suzuki are making tremendous progress at AM2(SEGA's Arcade R&D division) on Model 2. Sato is convinced that a full fledged 3D console with up to 64-bits was the way to go and that full 3D was the way to go.That a full powered "Model 2" console was the atomic bomb they could use. This project was codenamed "Aurora" and SEGA of Japan insisted that it be kept confidential only between Sega of Japan employees. Suzuki and Sato tried to convince executives, but they felt it was simply "jumping the gun".(The Sony PS-X was NOT yet known and wasn't revealed to competitors until January 1994) they were satisfied that the JUPITER design(System 32 with Model 1 3D) was a proper pick and that the final verdict of overwhelming support would be shown at JAMMA in July regarding the basic polygonal Model 1 board.
And so, in July 1993, JAMMA rolls on. The Tradeshow reveals the new Model 1 board in which SEGA was sure was the right way to go, and also test ran the cutting edge Model 2 powerhouse board.
But the results are the opposite of what SEGA assumed. Instead of being wowed and amazed at Model 1, Japanese Arcade spectators are completely unimpressed. Turned off by its basic,textureless polygons, even the cutting edge new "Virtua Fighter" game felt out of place for them, Japanese spectators instead were floored and awestruck by Sato's Model 2 board and its Beta title "Daytona USA". The detailed textured, lush,colorful,multi shaped polygon,geometric Dual 32-bit machine was a massive hit much to the surprise of SEGA.
Sato was right all along. 3D WAS the way to go. But there was a problem, although Jupiter was ready to be canned alongside the overpriced Model 1, there was an issue with costs,engineer deadlines, and possible taping delays with Hitachi regarding both the Motherboard for Aurora and its planned SH-2 RISC 64 bit Microprocessor for Model 2's home consumer counterpart. Hayao Nakayama expected Aurora ready for the Holiday of 1994 domestically and wasn't going to wait any longer for more development time, and so, Hideki Sato and Sega Away agreed on a simple compromise: Take the existing Jupiter build,modify it, to run Model 2 3D technology,throw out its Cartridge ROM format in favor of CD-ROM, and ask Hitachi to simply split the power of the SH-2 CPU by having both 32-bit Core processors run both separately( Significantly Enhanced System 32 performance level and together(Model 2 performance level), this design was ultimately christened the "SATURN" since it was the next logical step. SEGA also quickly designed two special graphic co processors VDPs or "Video Data Processors" for running both System 32 style 2D games and low end Model 2 3D games. These VDPs were designed to split the graphical power of Model 2 which used both a 32-bit Intel i960 CPU and a Fujitsu TGP 86234 32-bit CPU.
The difference between Model 2 and Sega Saturn is like the difference between Core i3 Ivy Bridge and Core i5 Sandy Bridge. Although the Saturn's CPU is slightly faster than the Model 2 capable of 57 MHZ Clock Speed.
Back in America, Sega of America had been given the silicon and chips of Mars by Sega of Japan, since they weren't sure what type of processor the Genesis 32 would use. SOA pretty much wasted the remainder of 1993 experimenting with various gaming concepts with System 32's hardware and also going over Genesis' patents. They decided to wait on hearing back from Sega of Japan after the Holidays before they proceeded with Genesis 32's taping.
In November of 1993, the newly dubbed Sega Saturn made its way secretly to Sega of America's offices. Turns out Sato and Sega Away engineers were sending out its prototypes to Japanese connections like Yuji Naka who were given behind closed doors demonstrations of it and NDAs. The team had assembled its design together in just 4 months time. Sega of Japan secretly demonstrated Saturn to Japanese employees who were currently assigned to SOA. The team behind Sonic 3, were all given secret demos under the noses of Sega of America.
In January of 1994, Nasty surprises hit the game industry. One was that Sony was jumping in the console race with "PlayStation X" a 3D only 32-bit console. To SEGA and Nintendo, they were a serious threat. Unlike NEC, Sony had deep,deep pockets and could easy use more cash to crush the both of them. PS-X completely caught Nintendo by surprise, forcing them to scrap its Reality"/Atlantis project and start all over again on a new console project dubbed "Ultra 64". This is the myth that PlayStation somehow affected Saturn's design, it did not. Saturn by early 1994 was in Beta stages and was nearing its final shipment set for Spring 1994 with a Early Fall 1994 rollout in Japan.
The other was that Nintendo was doubled crossed by Sony and was infuriated to learn that Sony took its Super Famicom CD/Super CD hybrid and had turned it into a stand alone project. Nintendo also wondered just how much of a BIG mistake it was dropping Sony as an OEM partner in favor of Philips.
For Sega, it was a double whammy that incited civil war. At Sega of Japan, the new Saturn was unveiled to SOA for the first time. SOA was completely confused by its design of multi-processors and its strange Double 32-bit CPU. They considered it a nightmare to program and despite offers from Sega of Japan to work together on, SOA declined and revealed to SOJ what Mars design had become "Genesis 32X".
SEGA of Japan HATED this idea. They were extremely skeptical about this design(rightfully so) In fact, Nakayama threatened to FIRE Miller for designing another Genesis add on without their knowledge. But SOA argued aggressively about Genesis' success in the States and somehow convinced SOJ that another add on could work and that SOA could customize it to run both on Genesis hardware and SOJ could add more powerful integrated chips. So a reluctant SEGA of Japan agreed to move the "32X" forward giving it a Dual SH-1 Central Processing Unit(Another myth, Saturn's CPU is the same as 32X's, it is not. 32X uses a special enhanced SH-1, with an extra added thread) and dead-lining Sega of America to work aggressively on R&D. Something that SOA fails to live up to.
First, SOA misreads the Genesis motherboard patents and fails to realize that the Motorola 68000 was not programmed to read polygons(this is why 3D games on 32X were so horribly executed), they also focused on the current Model 2 motherboard and overlooked the classic Model 1. Leading to another problem with 32X, the 32X unit could not fit into a Model 1 Cartridge slot.
Second was the CPU that SOJ gave the 32X for Sega of America to use: the SH-1, SOA did not understand how RISC functioned or worked, so attempts to made it compatible with the 68000 failed, SOA also didn't have Masami Ishikawa involved, who would have showed them how to modify SH-1 to run separately from Genesis. Ishikawa(Mega Drive's lead designer and Mega CD's lead engineer) knew how to design MD to run separate on top of another separate processor much like how Mega CD used its own additional 68000 Microprocessor. Because of this, 32X NEVER was able to run on its own power or processor, instead running on the power of the aging, and dated Motorola 68000 Genesis CPU.
Third was the engineering of 32X. SOA had attempted to design 32X to run larger sprites,colors, and added polygons of 50,000, but since they failed to design the hybrid to run on its own. In short, 32X as Mars/Netpune would have been a mix between Jupiter and System 32. None of the integrated chips in the 32X could function as the SH-1 could not instruct them to as it wasn't programmed to.
Fourth the Cartridge media, I mentioned earlier that Mars,Jupiter and even Aurora were all initially cartridge based. The ROM boards SOA chose for 32X were too similar in size to Super NES. Leading to people assuming the games probably were no more powerful or larger than the SNES. SOJ junked Cartridges because of price regarding Saturn and because they needed Saturn ready for rollout in Japan in Mid 1994. The different ROM board design also made it difficult for Genesis carts to function on 32X, as well as the overall poor functionality with the 32X add on itself.
Fifth. Little to no R&D. SEGA of Japan had given SOA a strict R&D regime that they failed to follow. SOA focused far more on marketing, and hurriedly getting out titles for it. When developers were shown 32X during Winter CES 1994. they because surprised when they learned that 32X didn't have its own SDK. That instead, games were being developed on Genesis instead of from the ground up on 32X. As a result MANY games were rushed to the market and weren't play tested or debugged.
Sixth. Abysmal sound Quality. 32X was build with enhanced stereo sound(which was SEGA CD's strongest point and feature) but alas, without a functional separate processor, the Sound Chip of the 32X was never used and instead, it was substituted for Genesis' old fashioned Z80 sound processor. Defeating the purpose of upgrading Sega CD for another add on just to sacrifice good sound quality in favor of polygons and more colors.
Seventh. No Play Testing or Debugging. Although 32X was test demonstrated(it wasn't test marketed) around the same week as Saturn in Japan in September 1994, there were was no testing or hardware debugging and SOA was hellbent on getting out 32X for its Stateside launch of Tuesday November 1st, so they ignored all of that figuring, there'd be few problems(how wrong they were).
Sega 32X hit North America on November 1,1994 and retailed for $179($249 adjust inflation). It hit 2 weeks after the release of Sonic & Knuckles and the same day Nintendo bundled its Summer smash "Donkey Kong Country" with its new $99 priced SNES.
The 32X at first got off to a promising start, shipping 500,000 and selling out its first week. But by November 15th, it became pretty clear that a Tsunami of buyer's remorse had washed over. The lineup was considered dismal, as its killer app Doom 32X port was panned both critically and commercially. And most of its library were exposed as slightly better Genesis ports. That looked no different from SNES games and sounded worse. Also Sega CD consumers(like me) became extremely puzzled. Where were the Sega CD games? Why were they moving on to another add on, let alone one that used Cartridges even more costly than the Genesis ones?
The 32X also suffered from severe manufacturing problems and malfunctioned. Many units were defective:
The overall sloppy designed motherboard led to them being defective. As a result, many units were shipped back to retailers and Sega of America.
Consumers also were excited about the prospects of Saturn and Nintendo Ultra 64, and even a new Cable Subscription service being test marketed for Genesis called "Sega Channel".
By Christmas 1994, the word was out: 32X sucked. It was nothing more than a marketing ploy and desperate cash grab from Sega of America to squeeze more money out of Genesis owners. When it finally hit Japan on November 21,1994, it was DEAD on arrival. The mighty Saturn was ready to roll.
The Sega Saturn hit Japanese retailers on Tuesday November 22,1994 for 35,000 Yen($349) exactly 2 months after a raving and commercially sucessful Test Demonstration. It launched with about 9 titles. But due to its grand word of mouth(Being the talk of the town at Spring TGS and stealing the show at Fall TGS) Saturn was a commercial and instantaneous domestic success! Clocking in a Record 280,000 units in 24 hours, in comparison, the PlayStation which launched December 3rd, had only 5 titles and sold about 180,000 in 2 days.
Saturn's instant success in Japan caught Sega by surprise. By Christmas, Saturn demand was estimating a shipment of almost 1 million. SOA begin to realize what a mistake they made ignoring the Saturn and scurried to gather software support for it.
By Christmas 1994, 32X sales in the US had tanked. SOA suddenly found themselves with Thousands of unsold and unwanted units. Few games were coming out and mostly everyone was focused on Saturn. When Sega of America finally got Saturn Betas in early 1995, it was too late. All of the resources for games and 3rd party titles had been completely WASTED on 32X. The Sega 32X completely MARRED the Saturn from having solid 3rd party support in the West. It didn't help that SOA themselves also didn't understand Saturn's hardware and failed to teach non Japanese developers how to work with it.
And so, faced with a massive commercial failure, Sega posted a $50 million dollar operating loss on 32X in March 1995. An attempt to garner interest in the upcoming Saturn launching stateside a week ahead of PlayStation, SOA decided to hold a secret trial release of Saturn to select retailers on May 11,1995, in which Tom Kalinske announced at E3 in a very ill advised PR stunt. Confusing people into thinking Saturn was launching 4 months earlier than planned. Not to mention both the small lineup as well as the overpriced SRP of $399(which was even higher than the Japanese retail price,considering Saturn's $205 BOM price).
3rd Party developers in the States were also confused,perplexed and frankly annoyed. The $400 price tag didn't help matters much either to retailers and consumers who were burned by 32X. The 32X had left a very SOUR taste in their mouths.
Despite the price tag and lackluster lineup, Saturn US sales were only mediocre. Underperforming. Thankfully they weren't as abysmal as 32X(Nintendo's Virtual Boy gimmick had failed even worse) but Kalinske's stunt at E3 1995 was the final straw for Hayao Nakayama, in March 1996, Kalinske was given the pink slip from SEGA.
Sadly, despite the Saturn's strong Japanese sales, modest European and Australian sales, internal fighting and management shakeup would destroy the Saturn in the American market. With Rebook Marketing Director Peter Moore being chosen over Sony Marketing Director Bernard Stolar(which was clearly an act of industrial espionage and hiring a Marketing Director from a rival company is Bad omen), Sega of America was about to cave in on itself and fall apart.
With SEGA founder David Rosen resigning to advisory post and Soichiro Irimajiri appointed new Sega of America CEO, there was no initiative to stop Stolar who clearly was sabotaging Saturn with a draconian anti Japanese import policy and robbing the console of good 3rd party support. SOJ watched Stolar one by one destroy the Saturn(on purpose) and gradually destroy all of the good fortune and marketshare that had been built by Genesis) Stolar even ported the dreadful Sonic 3D Blast to the Saturn to add insult to injury while both cancelling "Sonic Pool" and Sonic Xtreme.
Sega of America finally pulled the plug on 32X in February 1996. But the damage had already been done. Worldwide sales were a dismal 400,000 and the long abandoned Sega CD was finally discontinued.
But in early 1997, thanks to a price cut and intervention by SEGA of Japan and Japanese publishers, things started to look bright for Saturn in the States. Sales were gradually improving, and after a lackluster first gen, games were finally coming out and features unknown to western audiences, but leave it to Stolar to make an even more DISASTROUS Stunt at E3 "The Sega Saturn is NOT out Future"(Dear Lord, Stolar seriously was a spy hired by Sony to destroy Sega of America).
Without warning or without telling SOJ, Stolar than ordered retailers to stop carrying and selling Saturns. So in April 1998, the Saturn was officially discontinued in the US to the dismay and surprise of SEGA of Japan. Resulting in a $300 million loss(*Facepalm) and Sega losing a WHOLE fiscal year of profit. Draining them dry for the upcoming Dreamcast.
The poor Saturn was sabotaged in the States by 3 things: 32X, poor Western support, and Bad Management at Sega of America.
And so within 2 years of each other, 32X and Saturn both died in the US. The latter had a chance to grow as a cult console, the former should have NEVER been created and DESERVED to fail. It was a BAD idea overall. Not surprising executed so horribly. The Sega CDX/CD32 alternative, certainly would have been a decent idea that would have worked.
Here's the 32X's Spec Sheet:
CPU: Two Hitachi 32-bit RISC processors at 23MHz/40MIPS(SH-1 with extra threaded core.)
Co-processors: Genesis 68000, Z80, VDP and 32X VDP(This is a severe design flaw, The co-processors of Genesis' M68000 and added hardware are why the 32X could not function properly).
RAM: 4Mb plus the Mega Drive RAM(debatable. Mega Drive used max 512KBs of RAM. Its possible that by itself, Mars used about 1 MB max.)
Colors: 32,768 simultaneous colors(System 32 sprite tech)
Graphics: RISC processors and dual frame buffers with rotation and scaling hardware support(Without the SH-1 able to function on its own , this feature is worthless)
Polygons: Renders up to 50,000 polygons per second(Revolutionary by 1992 standards,but by '94, laughable at best)
Resolution: 320x224(useless, since Mega Drive only supported 240p low resolution)
Sound: 2-channel stereo digital PCM (+12 channels of the Mega Drive) Crap. The Sound used the Z80 of the Genesis.
Again, the 32X CPU is not the SH-2. It is a SH-1 with an added Thread.
Sega Saturn's full spec sheet in comparison:
Main CPUs : 2 x Hitachi SH-2 @ 28.6364 MHz (56.8 MHZ)
Sound CPU : MC68000 @ 11.45456 MHz
Sound chip : SCSP/YMF292-F (315-5687)/"LAKE" @ 11.3MHz, 32 PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) Channels, 44.1 khz Sampling Rate
SCU DSP : fixed point maths coprocessor, up to 4 parallel instructions.
VDP 1 : 32-bit video display processor : sprite and polygon, dual 256KB frame buffers for rotation and scaling effects, Texture Mapping, Goraud Shading, 512KB cache for textures
VDP 2 : 32-bit background and scroll plane video display processor, 2 Windows for special calculations, transparency, shadowing, background engine, 5 simulataneous scrolling backgrounds, 2 simultaneous rotating playfields, up to 60 frames per second animation
Main RAM : 2 Megabytes (16 megabits)
VRAM : 1.54 Megabytes (12 megabits)
Audio RAM : 512 Kilobytes (4 megabits)
Rendering Speed : 200,000 Texture Mapped Polygons/Second, 500,000 Flat Shaded Polygons/Second
Colours : 24-bit true color graphics, 16. Million Available Colors
Resolution : 320x224, 640x224, and 720x576 horizontal and 240, 448, and 480 vertical
Sega Saturn was specially designed and customized to run Model 2 Arcade 3D games and System 32 style 2D games. The two VDPs split Model 2's power, and the specially designed SH-2 alongside its heavy clocking are designed to give Saturn a unique feel as close to "Model 2" as you can get. Trouble being is that early on, Japanese developers only made use of one VDP, while the SDKs were limited in amount of programmable RAM, now to be fair, Nintendo did the same thing with N64 early on as well. These tactics caused Saturn and Nintendo 64 to look bottlenecked in comparison to PlayStation, when in actuality, PS1 was weaker and heavily bottlenecked. Both Saturn and N64 later had expanded RAM to make full use of their powers while Sega of Japan taught programmers how to use both VDPs.
Saturn had several advantages over PlayStation that Western developers had no knowledge about: 1. larger RAM. PS1 only had 1MB, Saturn had up to 4MBs. 2. more Geometrics and polygons(200,000 and 500,000 compared to PS1's 398K max and 180,000 Geo Metrics). 3. Faster Framespeeds of 60FPS and a faster MIPS mechanism. And 4. Several secret key instructions in polygon design, frame buffering and redrawing(which prevented loss of textures and polygon clipping in which PS1 suffered from frequently), multi threads which allowed backgrounds and shapes to be changed(this was a tremendous advantage over PlayStation who lacked this feature and as a result suffered from warped textures and backgrounds) Goraud Shading which allowed a lighting effect that PS1 also didn't have. And although, Saturn DID have transparency features, many developers never took advantage of it.
PlayStation used alot of smoke and mirrors to deceive people into thinking its games looked better(when in fact, they looked worse than Saturn.) PS1 was also easier to program for than Saturn and Nintendo 64, but most Western developers had no clue how bottlenecked PS1 really was.
Although, there was a much very informative detailed analysis on Saturn's 3D features given here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_OchOV_WDg, I'd thought I'd share the secret history regarding Sega's bumpy foray into the 5th Generation. Hope you all enjoyed my Op-Ed.