Welcome to Part 2 of a look at early online console gaming. Last time, we looked at the XBAND modem for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. If you haven't checked that out yet, you can read it right here:
In 1996, the XBAND service was in high gear...OK, as high a gear as it was ever going to get. While Nintendo did give the item their official “Nintendo Seal of Quality”, they did little to push the product as a difference-maker for their system. While they didn't blatantly look the other way or denounce the product (like they would with products like the Game Genie and Gameshark), the XBAND modem was something Nintendo felt no need to applaud.
Sega, on the other hand, was more impressed with Catapult Entertainment's device. They pushed the product much harder than Nintendo, and Catapult knew this. A quick YouTube search for the XBAND promotional video that ran in Blockbuster stores shows that it features the Sega Genesis almost exclusively; Sega game boxes, a Genesis controller, “Tiny” even rips open an XBAND in a Genesis soft-box. Except for minimal blurbs about Nintendo and a handful of SNES-exclusive titles shown on the game roster near the end of the promo, the Sega branding is dominant.
This continued into the publication realm as well. Nintendo's own magazine, “Nintendo Power” would never advertise the XBAND modem within their pages even once. Whereas Sega's magazine “Sega Visions”, would advertise the product. On top of that, advertisements that appeared in third-party videogame magazines such as Electronic Gaming Monthly and GamePro also made the product seem like a brainchild of Sega's. The only modem shown was the Genesis model, the Sega Seal of Approval was shown within the advertisement, only games compatible with the Genesis model were listed within the ads. The only mention of a SNES XBAND modem would be something along the lines of “SNES coming soon” or “also available on SNES”.
This relationship between Catapult and Sega would build the backbone of the next step in online console gaming.
Entering late 1996, there were already telltale signs the Sega Saturn had its legs cut off from it. The Sony PlayStation had been an overwhelming surprise hit for the entire videogame industry, and with the success of late-gen classics like Donkey Kong Country and Super Mario RPG, Nintendo had bought itself a little more time to produce their next-gen system. However, Sega was well known for having technology on their side. You could almost fill an entire blog on the advances Sega made when they were in the console market, both ones that hit the market (Game Gear TV Tuner, Genesis Power Base Converter) and ones that were released in limited quantities or shelved outright (Dreamcast VMU MP3 player and a DVD player expansion). And they were about to unleash a huge step in their technological advances, a step that would send shockwaves through the console landscape that are still felt today.
Sega had called upon Catapult to assist them in the creation of the Saturn Netlink. This was the very first time a first-party modem was released for a videogame console, and was a technological step the PlayStation and even the eventual Nintendo 64 would never accomplish. At first glance, the stats seem underwhelming; it was limited to dial-up, and a 28.8 KBPS speed guaranteed it carried all the negatives people associate with dial-up connections. However, the service used a similar interface as the XBAND modem from the previous generation, both inside and out. The menus looked similar, and the servers were the same as well. This was actually seen as a positive, as the XBAND network was known for being very reliable. Though this made the item's price point seem strange. While the XBAND modem was originally just $20, the Saturn NetLink added another zero to the price; it sold at an MSRP of $200. Though it could also be obtained in a bundle with the Saturn itself for $400. Such a high price of entry stuck in the craw of many. Even though this price got you on the hook for the lifespan of the network, it's hard to imagine too many people today being willing to pay $200 up-front for online play with no option for monthly of annual payments.
Today the modem can be obtained for a rather inexpensive price; in my own experience I've found the device loose for under $10, and you can find one completely brand new for around $30-40. On top of that, there are also a few “game bundle” versions that include two compatible games with the modem, but those are rather uncommon and you'd be lucky to find the set under the three-digit price range. Even the short-case pack-in games themselves, "Sega Rally Championship NetLink Edition" and "Virtual On NetLink Edition" aren't the most common of games on the system. However, they're not in that "unreasonable" threshold and can be obtained for short of $50 each. If that price is too high for you to consider, you might wanna find a console to collect for other than the Sega Saturn.
Upon starting a NetLink compatible game with the modem inserted into the Saturn, a menu will pop up with three options: Traditional, QuickLink, and NetLink Zone. Choosing “Traditional” would simply start up the regular game as if the modem wasn't there at all. If you changed your mind and wanted to play online, you were required to reset the system and return to the NetLink screen. The NetLink Zone was a central hub where you could find public opponents and even chat in an IRC lobby setting. While this was the preferred method at the time, this service was shut down in 2001. However, the QuickLink option can allow for private matches; as long as you and your opponent have dial-up internet service and have the information required to connect to one another, you can face off in any NetLink compatible title. Now, notice how I spoke that last sentence in present-tense. That's correct, if you should still have access to a dial-up ISP, it's still entirely possible, in 2017, to take your Sega Saturn online. Hell, there's even a “PlanetWeb” web browser that still works, though with the evolution in webpage design and technologies (as well as the NetLink being able to churn no faster than 28.8 KBPS), it's not an optimal way to browse the web.
And while setting it up might be a lot of work (there are other ways rather than using a dial-up ISP, though I won't pretend to know all the details, nor would I bore you with them here), the SaturnLeague website is seen as the leading place to find opponents for NetLink games. While it's not the most hopping of message boards on the web, it might be worth seeing if there's worthwhile opponents before you try to gather the equipment to try it out.
Another way the Saturn stepped up from the Genesis XBAND was with the game lineup. The pickings were actually very slim, considering how many companies had abandoned the Saturn and how steep the entry price was. But the variety was much better, compared to the all-sport and fighting lineup of the Genesis.
If you bought the game bundle edition of the NetLink, you got a NetLink compatible version of Sega Rally right out of the box. This was considered one of Sega's finest entries in the racing game genre, and the NetLink allowed 2-player races. Collisions would be disabled, which limited the races to just head-to-head time trials, but the game pretty much ensured both players were getting the full, uninhibited game with a live ghost racer to compare against. While this is a far cry from Trackmania's hundreds of simultaneous ghost racers, it was decent enough execution.
The bundle also included the cult arcade classic, “Virtual On”, a mech battle game that is widely considered to be a fantastic game if you can wrap your mind around the controls (or obtain one of the game's signature twin-stick controllers). The online mode worked pretty much equivalent to the offline multiplayer; each player would pick a mech and throw down in a best two-out-of-three match in a selection of arenas.
I'd say more, but this is a game I sincerely hope to obtain and review in the future. Gotta leave something in the tank.
Another noteworthy title was Duke Nukem 3D, one of only two NetLink compatible titles that didn't require a specific "NetLink Edition" for it to be compatible. This would make Duke Nukem 3D the first official console First-Person Shooter to include online play, a feature that is a staple in FPS games in this day and age. And one has to wonder if maybe the developers, 3D Realms, knew this would be a big hit. Connecting via NetLink allowed players to not only access a full deathmatch suite (unlike the SNES Doom on XBAND where ammo didn't respawn and options were minimal), but full co-op play through the otherwise single-player campaign was possible too.
The last game we shall cover in this section is worth mentioning for a major reason. That game is “Daytona USA Championship Circuit Edition NetLink Edition”, often referred as “Daytona USA CCE NetLink Edition” to avoid the redundant use of the word “Edition”. This game was sold exclusively through Sega's online store, and no advertisement or mention of the game's existence was made upon release. These factors have made this title not only the rarest game on the Sega Saturn (a noteworthy crown for a console rich in uncommon/rare games), but the rarest title Sega has ever released. This title is rarely available even on eBay, to the point that price-charting the game or viewing sold listings is often a fruitless endeavor. It also doesn't help that the only distinctions in its presentation are a logo on the disc and a NetLink booklet included in the box. In 2013, a copy of this game sold for just short of $2,000. Because of this, speaking of its online execution is to speak in mere speculation, as it would be almost impossible for two people to play legitimate copies of this online anymore. Maybe there's a couple of millionaires playing it between one another or some hooplah like that. But if by some act you should stumble across this at a thrift store or flea market, you'd be in the presence of a Sega collector's holy grail. Just.....don't make the common “Stadium Events”/”World Class Track Meet” switcharoo.
I understand I'm leaving out one major exception to the lineup, a very well renowned Saturn game. It's an entry in a franchise known for multiplayer greatness, and many consider this entry in the series to be THE crown jewel of the franchise.