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.