By ShellShock
Revised on 11/27/08

 

 

   

 

 

 
           
 

Exploring the origins of downloadable content on consoles is nothing short of a revealing experience. Digging deep enough into the internet can turn up old artifacts of yore whose existence one never thought possible more than 20 years ago, thought out to connect Atari 2600s to a telephone line (the GameLine), deliver games to Mattel's Intellivision through primitive cable TV interfaces (the PlayCable), or even execute bank transactions through your Famicom (the Famicom Tsushin). And if you are the type of gamer that spends most of his playing time catching up with games a decade or two old, you probably know, or at least heard of, the more recent but still equally obscure Super Famicom BS-X.

Sega Channel adapter by Scientific Atlanta

But the list doesn't stop there. The further you dig, the more ambiguous hardware add-ons and their vague service descriptions you are likely to uncover; devised for consoles so old you wouldn't expect them be able to interface with a cable TV or phone line connection. Most (if not all) of these ultimately failed in one way or another, some for lacking acceptable subscriber numbers due to their high service fees or poor marketing, others for being too ahead of their time or simply not expanding beyond their country of origin; but never reaching half the success Microsoft enjoys with Xbox Live nowadays.

Sega Channel promo t-shirt

The American Sega Channel was no exception. But despite its limited reach, somewhat high price, and low number of subscribers, it managed to blow Sega fans' minds and make Nintendo ones jealous for almost 4 years. What did it do different, then?

Sega Channel rises

Headed by former Time Warner senior vice president Stanley B. Thomas Jr., the service was a joint venture between Telecommunications Inc. (TCI), Time Warner Entertainment, and Sega of America Inc. for the Genesis console. It was reportedly given its initial test run in 12 cities in June of 1993, starting its official programming schedule in December of the same year when cable TV subscribers lucky enough to have Sega Channel available in their area could pay a monthly fee (between $12.95 and $14.95) plus a one-time activation fee ($25) to download games directly into their Sega consoles through a special adapter. Needless to say, convincing one's parents to pay extra for what at the time equaled Cinemax or HBO fees just to play unlimited video games 24/7 was more often than not impossible. This is the main reason why former Sega Channel subscribers are nowadays very difficult to come across.
Surprisingly, Sega Channel was also available in parts of Canada, the United Kingdom, Chile, Argentina, and Australia thanks to local cable carriers; even though its acceptance in these territories was practically non-existent.

Sega Channel adapter by General Instrument

Now loading, please wait

The adapter plugged into the Genesis' cartridge slot and had 4 MB of DRAM (32 Mb) for download storage, its own AC adapter, and a coaxial cable input. Once everything was properly connected and running, the D-pad was used to navigate the various options and access a total of 50 titles organized into different genres through a very simple, list-based on-screen menu. Some of the categories were "Sports Arena" or "The Locker Room" for sports, "Swords & Spells" or "Fantasy Land" for RPGs, "Wings and Wheels" for racing and shoot'em-ups, "The Think Tank" for puzzles, and "Test Drives" for limited-play demos of upcoming titles and even exclusive imports. Games in these lists as well as their menu's art design and background music were updated and remixed every month (sometimes after 2 weeks) to accommodate newer content.

David Foley
Former Sega programmer and developer David Foley had designed a web browser for the Sega Channel, but it was never implemented due to lack of interest from cable providers.


Once a game was selected, the system showed a "loading" screen with a download progress gauge. These screens were also used to display the latest Sega Channel news and video game contests while the user waited; while other options like cheats, game descriptions, parental control passwords, and ratings were accessible through other menus.
Although download times were advertised to be around 1 minute long (sometimes even a surprisingly fast 20 or 40 seconds total), the coax cable's susceptibility to interference was a known issue that delayed or even interrupted the transmission of some subscribers, forcing them to reset the console and start over.
When the download was complete, the game responded exactly like a normal cartridge would, granting players unlimited play time until the console was turned off.
Unlike a physical cartridge though, a few specific issues inherent to the technology arose:

Drawbacks:
- Due to the adapter's 32 Mb RAM limit, titles that exceeded it (e.g. Sonic 3D Blast) had to be downloaded in 2 parts.

- Save states were erased along with the game once the console was turned off, meaning frustrating times for RPG players.

- Interference and noise levels varied depending on geographical location and quality of the cable subscriber's loop. This multiplied download times or interrupted transmissions completely.
 

 

Downfall of downloads

Despite it being voted one of 1994's most outstanding products in Popular Science magazine and chosen over any of the new generation platforms by a ratio of five-to-one in a 1995 Sports Illustrated For Kids study, it is believed the Sega Channel was available to only 20 million Americans at its peak, of which some sources claim only between 150.000 and 250.000 people actually had it. It eventually shut down nationwide in 1998.

It's easy to think the Channel's big bundle of unlimited playing time could hurt Sega's regular sales numbers, but the service's original purpose of attracting potential cartridge buyers by letting them road-test them at home first had nothing to do with its eventual demise. Unlike the American Genesis, Japan's Megadrive had a poor reception in its country of origin, leading Sega of Japan to abandon it in favor of newer technologies in 1995. This effectively doomed the Sega Channel almost from the start, tainting the exceptional and successful effort Americans had put into selling, advertising, and promoting the Genesis brand in the west.

Technically speaking:
Sega Channel adapters were actually cable modem interface cartridges that sort of resembled the 32X. Two different models were manufactured (one by Scientific Atlanta and the other by General Instrument), but had the same working characteristics and same amount of DRAM (32Mb). Unfortunately, this type of memory meant the game was erased when the power was switched off.
On the provider's side, a CD-ROM containing an entire month's content was recorded at Sega and handed over to the cable company in Denver, CO, where an uplink at a frequency of 1.4 GHz transmitted the signal to the Galaxy-7 satellite. From there, a downlink of 1.1 GHz delivered it from the satellite to local cable providers, and then to subscribers after passing through the modulators.
 

Sega Channel is still praised and fondly remembered by the few that had the rare opportunity to experience it, and there's nothing but compliments for it all around the internet. Superior to the Super Famicom's Satellaview in regards to content (the ability to enjoy exclusive games never released in the U.S. definitely its strongest point), it definitely gave SNES owners a reason to be jealous about.

 

Sources:

Special thanks to Azuritereaction for letting me take screenshots of his Sega Channel VHS tapes (my apologies for the awful-looking images, I cleaned them up as much as I could) and sharing his experience for this article.

- Azuritereaction's Sega Channel video. Possibly the only one left in existence.
- Great Sega-16 article.
- Sega Channel website back in 1997 at Web.archive.org
- Sega Channel memories at Retrojunk.com
- Sega Channel article at Everything2.com
- Sega Channel article at Tripatlas.com
- Interview with David Foley at Sega-16.com
- Obituary for Stanley B. Thomas Jr. at NYTimes.com
- EE 4984 Telecommunication Networks Project 1: Sega Channel at Randomsonicnet.org
- Some screenshots from vgmuseum.com

 

 

 

 

 
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
Sega Channel's boot up screen shows a small animation of
Sonic jumping on the power switch.
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
Sega Channel's list of videogame ratings.
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
Mr. Big in Shinobi III? I don't think so.
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
Game loading screens were used to advertise contests and
news too.
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
Earthworm Jim cartoon is coming up!
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
Sega debuts its own website. Makes me feel old.
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
Sega Channel - Genesis
 
 
 
Exclusive titles released in the U.S. only through Sega Channel:
 
   
 
Pulse Man
Megaman The Wily Wars
Alien Soldier
   
           
 
   
 
Golden Axe 3
Donald Duck in Maui Mallard
Mr. Nutz
   
           
 
   
 
International Rugby
Body Count
Hurricanes
   
           
 
   
 
Blood Shot / Battle Frenzy
Power Drive
Nightmare Circus