Some of the very first articles I wrote for this blog was a look at the birth of online gaming in the U.S. In the 3 parts, I looked into the XBAND Modem, and then glanced over the Sega Channel on the way to the Sega Saturn NetLink modem. I even teased discussing it in Part 1, and then never brought it up in Part 2 as advertised. Welp, about time for me to fix that issue...several months later.
In retrospect, I did a pretty large disservice skipping over Sega Channel like I did. This was Sega's first real step in the United States in exploring both digital distribution and (if some reports are to be believed) eventual online play. The service was launched while the Genesis was winding down (a common criticism of the service), but for a good handful of users of the service, provided a plethora of games and services.
"Sega Channel" launched in December 1994 to limited availability that would expand as Sega had more participants agree to provide the service. It was also available on C-Band satellite services, which is where I first heard about it. I won't go into specifics as to what “C-Band satellite TV” was, but it was one of the earliest satellite TV services around. Because of this, it required a large dish planted in the yard, and it could only access a small handful of channels at a time (and sometimes it still couldn't access them, depending on several factors). My grandmother actually had one of these dishes, and it was within one of the channel guides for this satellite dish that I first learned about "Sega Channel".
Now, I will admit, I had the completely wrong idea of what "Sega Channel" was for several years. To little kid me who had no access to videogame magazines and websites, I thought my grandma had access to a literal “Sega Channel” network. What kind of TV shows existed on such a network? Did they run more Sonic cartoons? Was there a preview of new games? Did they actually broadcast people playing games against each other?!? And since I was a Genesis kid, it sounded like paradise. So imagine my disappointment when I figured out how to get the dish to tune in to it and...was met with static. It was heartbreak akin to finding out Grape Nuts weren't actually grape-flavored. Strangely enough, a RetroJunk article discusses this “TV channel”, and claims it was simply a running demo of a "Sega Channel" feed and that at one point the channel just ran a seemingly uninterrupted demo loop of “Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine” for nearly two weeks. Now THAT'S riveting television!
Yeah, you cool cats read that radical adGAH! A WILD PHIL MOORE APPEARS!
No, "Sega Channel" wasn't a television network at all, despite the misleading name. What it was an attempt by Sega to jump the technological gun and introduce technology that was well ahead of its time (something that Sega would dabble in more than once in its console producing history, both for better and for worse). What "Sega Channel" did was allow digital distribution of games on the Sega Genesis. This was a first for videogame consoles in America, and was a feature that wouldn't truly come into full acceptance until this past generation of gaming consoles, in the form of Sony's Playstation Network, Microsoft's X-Box Live Arcade/Store, and Nintendo's Virtual Console/eShop. It would've been the first widely available “networked” peripheral in console gaming had the Genesis edition of the X-Band modem not been released a month prior, in November 1994.
Players would be able to order a special modem for their Sega Genesis if they were verified customers of a cable operator offering the service. Upon hooking up a cable line into the modem, the system would connect to Sega's network and offer a multitude of games and options for players.
The biggest feature of the system was the digital distribution of games through the service. While the service cost around $15 a month (though certain carriers reserved the right to raise the price up to $20 a month) and a one-time $25 service fee, anything done once connected to the network was completely free. The Sega Channel network carried approximately 50 games at a time on the service, rotating titles in and out in semi-regular intervals (often monthly, though sometimes the service would switch games out after just a couple of weeks). Once a game was decided upon, it would download over the service and be ready to play right then and there.
Now, depending on who you were, this was either cost-effective or was a brutal price to pay. Sega would advertise it as cost-effective, as retail games would cost $60 each, and renting games could wind up hitting a total of $15 in just a few days. However, others still saw this service as expensive. I did not have the service available where I lived, but I only received new games a few times a year. On rare occasion, I would save up enough cash to get a game of my own, but I often would have to hold out until my birthday or Christmas. Maybe I'd get 2 or 3 new games, but oftentimes I'd just receive one. A $15 a month service would have racked up the bills quickly.
"Test Drives" was well known for containing games that had not yet been released at retail, some of which would never see a retail release.
The list of games available on the service was a rather noteworthy “who's who” of Genesis games. From mainstays such as most of the Sonic games released on the console ("Sonic The Hedgehog 2" is not documented to have been available at any point in the service's history) to Mortal Kombat 1 and 3 (MK II was, again, conspicuous by its absence). Both Genesis iterations of "Street Fighter II" were available on the service, as were many sports games (EA Sports would even have special contests involving their titles).
Another feature of Sega Channel was being able to read the newest Sega news and look up hints, cheats, and codes on-screen. This was Sega's strongest answer to things like Nintendo Power at the time, as Sega didn't have much in the way of their own publication. It would even inform players what games were coming to the service soon, and tell players where Sega Channel was newly available, or offer a welcome to new regions that just received their first access to the service.
The biggest bragging right of the service was that the service would offer previews of games before they were released. In fact, the service would often provide games that ended up never coming out in retail form at all!
The Sega Channel was home to a decent number of games that were never planned for U.S. retail release, or was planned but just never happened for one reason or another. If you didn't have access to the service, you missed out on these games. Some were just “limited editions” of certain released games; a roster-updated edition of "World Series Baseball 96" and a “Lost Levels” edition of a Garfield game were available to Sega Channel users, as well as a slightly modified "Earthworm Jim". But then some were outright full games, and a handful of them are worth taking note of.
Developed by Treasure and published by Sega, Alien Soldier actually did see a retail release in the U.K. and Japan, but never saw the light of day in the United States until released on the Wii Virtual Console and eventually on Steam. And even the retail release was very limited, as obtaining a copy of the PAL or JP retail release of this game will run you up several hundred dollars. Alien Soldier is known for being an incredibly difficult shooter that's somewhat hard to grasp the gameplay of, but was seen as a decent spinoff of the Genesis classic “Gunstar Heroes”. If you're a fan of the aforementioned game or of side-scrolling shooters in general, it's worth the slim price for the digital version to see what Treasure believed was the next step-up at the time
Pulseman was a game that didn't receive much of a reception when it was first released on "Sega Channel", but is more well known now as the highest-profile game from Japanese developer Game Freak before they created the legendary Pokemon franchise. It's a 2D platformer starring...well...Pulseman. His abilities include shooting electric bolts, and even surrounding himself in an electric ball and bouncing around the stage, a move that would eventually be echoed in Pikachu's signature “volt tackle” attack. His appearance also seems to have inspired a later-gen Pokemon, Bisharp.
Arguably the most well known game to stay limited to "Sega Channel" was Megaman's first entry on a Sega system in the form of Megaman; The Wily Wars. A remake of the first 3 Megaman games (and brand new levels if you could complete the first 3 games), it was, like Alien Soldier, only released in-store in the UK and Japan, but never in the United States. Unlike Alien Soldier, however, there is currently no other (legal) way to experience the game without importing it, and obtaining a legit copy of it is incredibly difficult, as it runs for very high amounts in the rare chance it even pops up. Though I have not played it, I have read many accounts that the timing is different enough on this version to throw off anyone comfortable with the NES versions of the games. Also, the game had no password function, opting for a battery back-up function which...thanks to the Sega Channel's RAM that would delete the game upon powering down the console, made completing the game on the Sega Channel a “one-shot” challenge of both skill and patience.
Information on "Sega Channel" and the full list of games it carried and where service was provided is hard to come by. Even though the official Sega Channel website is available via Internet Archive, Sega released very few official documentation on the service, and a full list of the games and territories served is not available. The only access to such a list is compiled of user accounts and VHS footage of the service. In fact, there even exists evidence that there were plans to launch the service in other countries, but it's widely considered it was only available in the United States and Japan. Information is so scarce, that even the book “Console Wars”, a story that focuses on Tom Kalinske (Sega of America's president in the early-mid 90s) and Sega's uprising in the 1990s videogame world, includes little to no mention of "Sega Channel". It is believed that the service was to explore online gaming on the Sega Genesis before the Saturn took the focus of the company off the Genesis. There was also rumor of a Sega Saturn edition of the Sega Channel service that would've provided games-on-demand as well as online play, but Sega would instead acquire rights to the XBAND modem's technology, which led to the Saturn NetLink. The service would eventually shut down in 1998, with the service lasting approximately 4 years, which was pretty impressive considering some of Sega's other more well-known technological expeditions, such as the Sega CD and 32X, had a considerably shorter shelf life.
Another perk attributed somewhat to the Sega Channel service was the optimization of cable technology and connections. The service needed a fairly steady connection to work properly; any interruption in cable service while the device was powered on (even a slight hiccup) and the download of information would be interrupted, requiring the Genesis console to be reset (though once a game was downloaded, a consistent connection wouldn't be necessary until the system was powered off again). Sega would only offer this service to providers that had an upgraded, steady connection or ones that were willing to take the steps to upgrade. This is often seen as the first step to what would eventually become high-speed internet, and some of those companies used the same setups early on as they had used for the Sega Channel service.
If you want to find a Sega Channel modem of your own, it's valued at around $40 if all of the components are there. Unfortunately, you're really spending $40 on nothing more than a conversation piece or a trophy for the game shelf. The service was taken down in mid-1998, so any attempt made to use the modem will result in an uneventful connection error and a reset of the system. And unlike the Satellaview in Japan that has seen a small collecting revival as some rare games have been found saved on the modem's memory, the Sega Channel's had no way of “saving” full games (it could save files for certain games, though this feature was often reserved for RPGs). So there's no chance of finding a Sega Channel modem that retains any game ROM, let alone an unreleased game like Megaman The Wily Wars or Pulseman. If that was the case, you'd have to imagine the item would be MUCH more highly sought-after, considering the ludicrous prices on importing some of the Sega Channel exclusive games.
The Sega Channel ran for 4 years, and was shut down well past the prime of the Sega Genesis (or the Sega Saturn, for that matter) so it's not something I would deem a failure. But this is yet another way Sega played guinea pig to a concept that would be refined and eventually redefine gaming as an entirety in the future.
Super Mario Bros. (film)
Hollywood Pictures, Lightmotive/Allied Filmmakers, Cinergi Productions, Nintendo
For the 6 month anniversary of this here retro gaming blog, I've decided to select an item that would be a bit of a challenge, both in the content itself and in the medium. I told myself after the Road Rash reviews I'd back off the reviews for a little bit since I'd been churning them out pretty frequently, but I felt such an occasion demanded one.
Nowadays, videogame films have a rough reputation. It's widely assumed, even in 2017, that a movie based on a specific videogame will have low standards and will somehow struggle to meet those low standards. Now, there are exceptions; games based on videogames in general seem to do alright nowadays. “Wreck-It Ralph”, “Tron”, and “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” are all good/great films in my humble opinion (one of those specifically I intend on reviewing at some point in time). But for the most part, videogame films as a whole are seen as being somewhere between “not that good” and “flat out horrible”.
However, when Super Mario Bros. released in theaters in 1993, there was no broad expectation or stigma for videogame films. And the simple reason for that was...well...there weren't any videogame films! Sure, there had been TV series referencing videogames, with Mario himself having a couple of cartoon series at this point in time. But a major motion picture based on a single videogame had never been done. Because of this, the novel concept of a hit videogame becoming a motion picture sounded monumental.
But once the movie was released, the film was considered a critical and financial flop. Most of the (few) moviegoers that saw the film hated it. The development hell this film went through is something I won't spend much time on here, both in the interest of time and staying on-track (The Gaming Historian and the book “Console Wars” do a much better job than I possibly could of describing it anyway). But pretty much everyone involved with production, from the actors to staff, even Nintendo themselves are on-record as knowing they had a stinker on their hands, and just hoped the idea of a “Super Mario Bros.” movie would be enough to make the film a financial hit based on name recognition alone.
I remember seeing the ads when I was younger and finding the prospect of a “Super Mario Bros.” film interesting. However, there were a couple of major flaws in my little-kid mind. This film came out in the height of my Sega fanboy days. I mean, I liked the Mario games I played and watched my family play when I was little, but c'mon. I was a loud and proud Genesis advocate and would laugh in the face of any fool with the gall to tell me any Mario game was on the same level of excellence of Sonic The Hedgehog 2. On top of that, the whole film just looked so “dark” and “gritty”. I was still a 6 year old boy in 1993, and those kind of things just looked boring to me. I wanted bright colors and familiar landmarks. This just looked like the whole film took place in some nasty city street, a location no Mario game before had ever visited. Why would 6-year old me want to watch a “dark” take on a videogame hero that I had decided was “old news” in the light of Sonic the Hedgehog?
And to this day, I've never really given this film a true “no breaks” watch. I've heard many reviewers say the film sucked, and talk up how much of a black mark it is on Nintendo's history and videogame history altogether. And while the last point is a different argument for a different day, I believe it's flawed to view this movie as if it's still 1993, as if you don't know the reputation this film and videogame films in general have.
Before the proper film even starts, we get a series of logos set to a variation of the Super Mario Bros. 1 theme. It seems like a real mistake to me that this is the only instance the song is played. There are a few other sound cues throughout the movie that serve to wink-and-nod at the games (specifically the first SMB game), but that's about it. They don't even play the jingle again or sample it in the film's music. After that, we get this strange (both in the quality of animation and in what's actually going on) animated bit that sets the stage for the story.
Gotta give the CD-I credit. Back in 1993 this level of animation on a game console was cutting-edge...
...huh? What do you mean this is from a film?...like a theatrical one? Shut up!
Shigeru Miyamoto was once quoted in an Edge Magazine interview, saying he believed the greatest flaw of the film was that "...the movie may have tried to get a little too close to what the Mario Bros. video games were. And in that sense, it became a movie that was about a video game, rather than being an entertaining movie in and of itself". I stumbled upon this quote after watching the film, and to be honest, I have no idea where he comes to that conclusion. Far be it from me to challenge the word of Mario's creator in regards to something involving Mario, but I feel like they took liberties to the source material early, often, and powerfully. I'll give other examples as I go on of these liberties, but just in the sound alone, it seems pretty clear to me they wanted to separate this film from the games as much as they could get away with, regardless of how much of a detriment that might be.
The Mario Bros. are played by two rather different actors. Bob Hoskins played Mario, and a fairly-unknown at-the-time John Leguizamo played Luigi. Hoskins was most well known by movie-going audiences (at least, the audience that would have been most likely to have seen this film) as Eddie Valiant, a past-his-prime investigator in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, and the age difference between him and Leguizamo's Luigi is pretty jarring. Sure, you can have older and younger brothers (and yes, they do make reference to being actual brothers, despite some lines of dialogue hinting at them being father and son), but Hoskins' Mario looks like he was 20-30 years on Leguizamo's Luigi. Considering a quick IMDB search has their birthdays being about 22 years apart, it's kindof hard to believe they're true-to-blood brothers. Would it have killed them to have made Hoskins look younger somehow, or Leguizamo older?
In fact, one thing that stuck out to me in this film, is that it seems to mostly be about Luigi. Luigi seems to do most of the talking, Luigi has the love interest in Princess Daisy (portrayed as an archaeologist who's unaware of her royal heritage), Luigi is the one who grows the most in the film, and there's even moments where Luigi is more brave than Mario, a strong contrast from the Luigi that's portrayed by Nintendo these days as not being so courageous. One particular scene involving them jumping a gap inside King Koopa's lair comes to mind, where Luigi attempts to jump right across, and only after goading Mario does the namesake brother try to make the leap. It's so strange to see Mario have to be the one convinced to take action. This is a far cry from the image of Mario Nintendo had established through the games. This isn't a knock on Hoskins, but on an awfully written and conceived script, the dagger this film ultimately falls on.
As a side note, it's interesting to observe Luigi's fascination with the supernatural in this film, well before Nintendo established that aspect of him through their games. It almost makes it feel like Luigi is the true hero of this film as opposed to Mario. If Mario didn't get the final face-off with King Koopa (played by Dennis Hopper, and we'll be getting to him quickly), it'd be hard not to argue that Luigi is the hero and Mario is the sidekick here. In fact, it's flat out jarring that Mario is the one who is less brave and is skeptical of everything. They try to play this off as him being more logical, but it falls flat.
Both of their performances throughout the film are decent enough. Despite them recalling they had a hard time with the film and oftentimes drank during shoots, they deliver a decent performance. It's not oscar-worthy by any means, but Hoskins carries a lame script (infamous for having been re-written and revised a ridiculous number of times) as well as an actor of his caliber could, even though Luigi seems to have more to say and do. Leguizamo also does a decent enough job too. Sometimes he gets a little too cheery and seems unaware and naive to a degree that borders on idiocy, but again, that comes more from the script than Leguizamo's performance. Both of these actors looked unfavorably in their performances long after the film was done, but I didn't think they were offensively bad. In fact, from Daisy to Koopa's underlings, even some of the various bit-players throughout, I don't think anyone delivers a memorable performance, but isn't truly bad neither. A movie meant mostly for kids (though, considering the atmosphere, it's obviously trying to reach a tween/teen demographic) isn't likely to deliver anything Oscar worthy. The only truly bad performance belongs to Toad (a street musician who'd be totally indistinguishable as its videogame counterpart if he wasn't called by name). He delivers each line with such a deadpan delivery that he sounds like he'd be right at home in a House of the Dead game.
Dennis Hopper plays King Koopa and gives what I feel is the best performance in the film. Hopper's Koopa is a total slimeball and a tyrant. His presence carries a swagger, arrogance, and attitude that make him come off as someone that totally has a rough side that nobody can hang with (a rough side that comes out near the end of the film). He delivers his lines with a cheesy panache that serves a film like this well...at least, it would if the film wasn't trying to be so dark and serious all the time.
The vast majority of the film takes place in “Dinohattan”, a King Koopa-ruled offshoot of Manhattan that sits on the other side of a dimensional portal that was left from the meteorite that struck the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs (...no, really). A dark, seedy, gritty city that is a STRONG contrast to the environments in the Mario Bros. games. And when I say that the “vast majority of the film takes place” here, I mean the entire movie, save the first 15-20 minutes, a very small pocket of time near the end, and the last few minutes. And never is there any color or any beauty in the world. It's a dystopian landscape filled with busted up cars, citizens dressed poorly (who are supposed to be evolved from dinosaurs but mostly share no visual representation of such a trait), building interiors that look urban and machine-filled, all leaving a very dark, cold setting for this film. Now, I'm not the kind of guy that thinks all of his videogames need to be sunshine and rainbows and cotton-candy clouds. But the game series itself (while still in its infancy at the time compared to where it is today) had already established a pretty happy setting, save for a few exceptions such as a castle or a cave.
Yes, that is Yoshi. Yes, that's a Goomba standing about as tall as Andre the Giant. Yes, they are both that ugly. And yes, this film was released mere weeks before "Jurassic Park" .
The settings aren't the only liberties taken with things in this film. There are references to other Mario related items in the film, but they often are just on storefronts. In fact, the “Thwomp” enemy that you used to have to run past to keep from getting flattened, is now the name of a pair of “jet boots” that the characters use to get around, with the “Bullet Bills” serving as their source of energy. These seem to replace the games' flying items such as the tanooki tail and the cape (though they seem to change functions from just allowing long jumps to “flying” at will). In fact, the character that introduces this item is “Big Bertha”, named after the big red fish that tries to eat Mario and Luigi in Super Mario Bros. 3. However, the character is now a large woman who serves as a club bouncer, and has no connection to water or even wanting to defeat the Mario Bros. On top of that, King Koopa is seen using a flamethrower instead of shooting fire himself, and a weapon often seen in the film, a re-painted SNES Super Scope dubbed the “De-Evolve Ray” (not “devolve”, “de-evolve”...this angers the English graduate in me), seems to replace any projectile weapons.
Time has NOT been nice to the de-evolving scenes in this film.
So that's really all I have to say without spoiling a bunch of the film. In the end, this film just seems like it has a real identity crisis. It's trying so hard to be a Super Mario Bros. film for an older demographic. I feel like it doubts the timelessness of a franchise like the Super Mario Bros. Sure, you can't be overly obnoxiously cute, but I feel like an animated film would've done SO much better than this confused live-action mess.
But, to be honest, I don't find it to be an absolutely terrible film. I know that sounds like a very blasphemous thing to say, but it's true. In fact, it reminds me a bunch of E.T. on the Atari 2600. Set aside the history of the film, set aside the fact it was a financial flop, set aside its place in history, set aside the hype and hooplah, and watch it simply in the vacuum of being a Super Mario Bros. film. When you do that, you're left with something that is certainly far from good, and maybe not even an OK film, but the performances from the talented trio of Hoskins, Leguizamo, and Hopper keep this barn from completely collapsing. There are much worse videogame-to-film adaptations than this. My friend Sam gave me this as somewhat of a “gift” he found at a garage sale about a month ago (as I write this), and hey, it's worth keeping in that regard, and I'm glad I got to watch it, if only to sate my curiosity for this film. If you find this for just a couple of bucks, or see it available to rent at a Vintage Stock or some other store, it's worth picking up if you've not experienced it.
It's a film I feel deserves to be seen once, with all the pre-conceived notions set aside. And I know full well some might do this and still decide the film sucks, and that's fine by me. It's not great, not good, OK is a stretch, but it's harmless to me, and is worth watching once if you haven't seen it or can't remember. But I wouldn't give it any more of a consideration than that. And I certainly wouldn't drop coin on the steelbook Blu-Ray that was recently released, unless you're specifically collecting for Mario related items (and even then, I'd hesitate a bit).
RATING – 2 out of 5