Online gaming is a megaforce. The Playstation 4 and X-Box One rely on their online infrastructure so heavily, that many games will not function at all without a high-speed online connection. Gamers gladly fork over $50 a year (at least) to play online with/against friends and other online players. Many gamers will weigh the online functionality before buying a new current-generation console. It wasn't long ago that playing online was considered just an extra feature, and before that it was a novelty that only knowledgeable PC gamers seemed to get the opportunity to experience.
Before online gaming arrived at the point it's at now, the previous console generation started the heavy reliance on network capabilities. Sony's Playstation 3, Microsoft's X-Box 360, and Nintendo's Wii were all capable of updating the system's firmware, which allowed for enhanced security and downloading of games through networks. Before that, the original X-Box and Playstation 2 had optional online features, with Microsoft first introducing its “X-Box Live” initiative, which has become the model for how to base online console gaming. Sega's Dreamcast was the first console to come included with a dial-up modem that made online gaming readily available (or at least, when they launched the service proper some months after the Dreamcast's launch).
However, online gaming on a console was available even before this point. And while it didn't take the world by storm like X-Box Live did, for anyone with the equipment, the money (or cool enough parents to foot the bill), and the right games, it was possible to play online well beforehand.
The first of these devices to allow for online gaming via console was the XBAND modem. It was available for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis near the end of 1994. While this was close to the end of the Genesis and Super Nintendo's life cycles (although the SNES would soon get a second life when “Donkey Kong Country” arrived), this was definitely a product that was well ahead of its time. But as you'll find out here (and as is common in the gaming industry even to this day), sometimes it takes an innovative martyr to “start” the fire before the industry begins to truly feel the heat.
During the mid 90s, the concept of online gaming in general was still foreign to many. There were LAN parties for PC gamers, and some PC games were playable over an internet connection (or at least could be modded to allow such things). But this is the mid 90s we're talking about. Arcades were still a massive draw, and console ports of any arcade game fell well below what the genuine arcade article presented. This was considered the premiere “social” form of gaming, unlike today's voice-chat enabled, screenshot and footage sharing form. So Catapult Entertainment, the developers of the XBAND modem, had an uphill battle that might seem strange to gamers unfamiliar with this era in gaming; they had to convince people that the arcade was out, and online gaming was in.
To its credit, the XBAND modem sold for a fairly cheap price. The device was merely $20, and Blockbuster stores would even throw in 4 free game rentals, the cost of which would actually cover the cost of the modem. I find this stunning even today, considering that the device we'll discuss next week, the Sega Saturn Net-Link modem, sold for $200 at launch. On top of this, there were two pricing choices for using the XBAND modem. One offered 50 “connections” for all users on a console (4 maximum) for $4.95 a month, or unlimited connections for $9.95/month. A “connection” would be used not only when finding an opponent to play online, but when accessing newsletters (one would provide gaming news, while another would provide leaderboards and contest announcements, though it was possible to view these statistics on the XBAND website as well) or downloading e-mail (I'm sorry, “XMAIL”). Past this fee, it was free to play against other players as long as they were within local calling range. There was an option included to allow long-distance connections (in case you wanted to play a friend or relative far away) that cost $3.95 an hour.
Now, up to this point it sounds like the product was a slam-dunk winner. Being able to play 16-bit classics online against other local opponents?!? Man, jumping on some 2-player Sonic the Hedgehog matches or co-oping come Super Mario World sounds like a surefire recipe for a winner! In fact, Nintendo even officially licensed the XBAND for its Super Nintendo console, which was itselff rather newsworthy. To this day, Nintendo has never officially licensed any other external product used to connect online. This thing must sound like a no-brainer, and would bring about a new age in videogaming.
Hold the phone there, cochise. It's not that easy.
Genesis and SNES games were never made with the device in mind, save for one; a fighting game known as “Weaponlord” that, while cited as the basis for the Soul Blade/Calibur series, would never step out of the long shadow cast by Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II. Because of this, Catapult Entertainment had to reverse-engineer each game they wanted to use on the service. The modem would “trick” the game into thinking Player 2 was right there in the room with their controller hooked up to the console, when in reality, Player 2 was on an entirely different console somewhere else. This is what's commonly known as “client-side”. An easy way to imagine it is to just imagine any of the compatible games in 2-player mode, except Player 2 has a REALLY long cord on their controller and their own way of seeing the screen. And while it was possible for a hosting player to simply choose 1-player mode and force the opponent to watch, it was possible for either player to “plug pull”, or pull the phone line from the console, forcing a disconnection. The XBAND had no way of knowing the circumstances for the lost connection or even who's connection failed, it only knew that the connection failed. Therefore, it was impossible to punish players that plug pulled, whether they were being trolled by a host or just getting their butts kicked.
This meant, while the games included were pretty major hits, the compatible lineup was pretty slim. If you owned a Sega Genesis and wanted to play something other than sports or fighting games, you were pretty much screwed. I'm sorry, did I say “pretty much”? I didn't mean to cast a ray of hope. No, you were screwed. EA's lineup of sports games (between the NBA Live, NHL, and Madden NFL franchises), Midway's NBA Jam, the 16-bit Mortal Kombat trilogy of games, Super Street Fighter II, Primal Rage, and the aforementioned Weaponlord were your only options. To be fair, these were monstrously popular games on the Sega Genesis, so it's hard to argue against the games that were chosen, aside from variety.
On the SNES, the lineup was a little more varied. Multiplayer Doom was possible on the device, which was as close as a console could get to the PC experience for some time. Kirby's Avalanche provided a fast-paced puzzle game to face off in. And Super Mario Kart was a major hitter in the lineup, allowing players to face off in any multiplayer mode the game had to offer. This was along with much of the Sega Genesis lineup, including EA's sports lineup and the 2nd and 3rd Mortal Kombat games. Also included in the catalog of games was the SNES exclusive “Killer Instinct”, Nintendo and Rareware's take on the arcade fighting genre. The SNES XBAND even included compatibility for The Legend of Zelda; A Link to the Past. Now, the idea of multiplayer Zelda might sound too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was too good to be true. Connecting with this game in the XBAND modem would unlock a maze game hidden within the modem, where the winner would be the first to reach the finish line. This game was also accessible by entering a special code, but using the code method would only allow for local play.
The XBAND though, was not long for the world. Only truly hitting its stride in Mid-1995, at this point the 16 bit consoles were already starting to falter. The PS1 and Sega Saturn were already close to release, and Nintendo's post-SNES console was already looming in the shadows (despite the SNES receiving a strong second wind in the form of “Donkey Kong Country”). By early 1997, Catapult only allowed connections to local players and disabled long-distance play outright. Shortly after that, Catapult shut down the XBAND network.
It's often cited that a lack of popularity led to the downfall of the service, but as to why the service wasn't popular is often debated. Some believed the miniscule amount of advertising played a role; unless you rented games often from a Blockbuster store participating in selling the XBAND or had a subscription to a third-party gaming magazine, you probably heard little-to-nothing of it. Others believed that only being able to tack the XBAND brand on only one game (Weaponlord) kept the hype down, and if they had been able to advertise it on EA's sport titles, it could have spread the word a little better. At its prime, the XBAND had around 15,000 players. Another cited reason was the discovery of an exploit where a recording of the dialtones used by the XBAND modem to connect to Catapult's servers could be used to dial long-distance and leave Catapult Entertainment to foot the bill for those calls.
Today, it's not diffficult to find an XBAND modem, even one still in its original shrinkwrap packaging. However, they are about as good at playing online as they are at being shot glasses. With the modems requiring a connection to Catapult's XBAND network in order to function, directly connecting to another player is impossible. And it makes a mind like mine wonder..........how much would games like Kirby's Avalanche, the Genesis port of Mortal Kombat, or even EA's yearly sports titles go for today if it was still possible to play them online? Hell, the mere idea of playing someone online in a round of Super Mario Kart makes me itch for the mid 90s.
This has been Part 1 of my look at early online console gaming. However, you won't have to wait long for Part 2. Next Wednesday, we will look at Sega's contributions to online console gaming; the Sega Channel and the Sega Saturn NetLink. See y'all there.