SEGA Legacy: The SEGA Channel

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SEGA Legacy articles is a series at The SEGA Source about the vast and varied history of SEGA. They can range from people to places to times to art to even just a simple song. The staff here has a vast knowledge of the company’s history and would love to share it all with anyone willing to listen. Now sit back, get your favorite beverage ready and “Get Hooked In”!

Hit the jump to read the third in the SEGA Legacy series.

Genesis Does What Nintendon’t

SEGA was at the highest point they had ever been in at the end of 1991. Their recently released Sonic the Hedgehog was considered a much cooler game than the competion’s Marios and Bonks to the public and had not only some of the most popular game franchises of the time, but tons of celebrities to back them, something the competition just did not even try to get. However, Nintendo’s recently released Super Nintendo had started to take away SEGA’s market again and it was obvious to everyone that they needed to try more things specifically Nintendo was not willing to attempt.

SEGA released the 4096 color and backlit screen handheld Game Gear to compete with Nintendo’s two color Game Boy, but the much higher price range and battery consumption scared away customers. The SEGA CD add-on for the Genesis platform was another attempt, but the market for many of the titles on the platform were far too niche for it to be a massive success.

The company would test many concepts around all parts of the world, but nothing pushed sales better than their Genesis/Mega Drive, so they had decided to focus on releasing quality games on it. They feared this would still not be enough, so they had decided to test an idea that had not yet taken off but could in the future. Connecting the Genesis/Mega Drive to the Internet.

Set as a pay-for service in Japan where you were able to play against people online and download small games for a high monthly charge, The SEGA Meganet was the first addition to any video game console that allowed a second person to play on a different console. Nintendo attempted similar concepts for downloading games with their Famicom and Super Famicom in Japan, but nothing really took off for either companies, and neither left Japan, but were planned to for a time.

Welcome To The Next Levelsegalegacy

In 1993 SEGA of America, Tele-Communications Inc and Time Warner set plans in motion to test out The SEGA Channel, a service that would send a selection of up to fifty full games a month to every subscriber for a paltry $13-$15 a month (depending on the service provider). The reaction from the twelve test cities was very positive, so in hopes of building brand recognition with the premise of a large amount of games for a very modest price SEGA had planned to support The SEGA Channel for years to come.

The SEGA Channel did not offer online multiplayer like the Meganet did, but what it did offer was unlimited use of each game you could download until the power was turned off. Each month would see the release of about fifty different games stored in different sections for players to be able to choose whenever they wanted. Most interesting of all however was that some of these titles were not available in North America at all (such as Golden Axe III or Pulse Man), some were pre-release versions of a title not out yet and some were actually games designed specifically for the service including variations of Earthworm Jim and Street Fighter II: Championship Edition with slightly different content and an early version of Garfield: Caught in the Act that had levels not found in the finished release. Some of these are still not available to the Genesis/Mega Drive emulation community and may be lost with time.

The SEGA Channel even featured contests and prizes based around the titles available on the service. Some games would be released early with special phone numbers that players could call after they beat it to see what if they had won anything and some would be related around actually helping design upcoming games. Most notably, a contest was held where a player-created design was added into Vectorman 2 with information available right in the main menu of the retail release.

How It Worked

The main modem cartridge would be inserted into the console just as if it were any other game. It was compatible with both the model 1 and 2 Genesis consoles and would interface with your cable line through a coaxial output on the unit. The signal originated from Denver Colorado and was carried over the Galaxy 7 satellite to cable providers uploading to your console at 1.435 GHz and downloaded at 1.1 GHz, which was very impressive for the time.

The North American cartridges available. Apologies for the small image size.

For a cable company to be able to hold The SEGA Channel, they would need to install new and very costly equipment into their head-end, integrate service authorization into their sales center, and purchase the cartridge modems. Furthermore, many operators had to redesign their broadcast signal to ensure that the signal could be received. Much of this initially hurt or scared away many cable providers, but in the end it did nothing but improve infrastructure concepts and technology for future digital cable services, as well as broadband Internet access and digital telephone.

Like a SEGA Channel: OF THE END

In 1995 – Less than a year since The SEGA Channel’s major debut – SEGA of Japan announced that they were canceling further production of the SEGA Genesis/Mega Drive to focus on the new SEGA Saturn console. Retailers dropped support for the platform and cable providers were less willing to host the service. At it’s peak, only around 250,000 homes subscribed to The SEGA Channel when it was actually available to around 20,000,000 in North America alone when SEGA had predicted that there would be 1,000,000. SEGA brought the service to other countries for an even shorter period of time, but it did not have much of an impact anywhere outside of America.

The Japanese SEGA Channel adaptor - Even images are extremely rare

Conclusion

While the logo of the service would live on in their manuals for a call to help-line up until the end of the Dreamcast, The SEGA Channel ended in 1997 – But not without anything gained. The information received from the service helped not only SEGA design the Saturn’s NetLink and the Dreamcast’s SegaNet, but helped evolve the technology of digital cable, telephone and broadband Internet. Without The SEGA Channel, the Xbox Lives and PlayStation Networks of today may not even exist, perhaps even the Internet as a whole might be a few years behind where it is now. It cannot be said for certain where everything would be now if the service did not exist, but it should be praised for what it did to the video game medium as a whole.

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Thanks to YouTube user azuritereaction for these videos.

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