It’s Christmas of 1994. You wake up, wide-eyed and excited to see what amazing presents Santa left you under the tree. Screaming through the house, you slam down on the floor in a pile of presents bearing your name. After going through them all, you notice this year was lacking that one big present you usually get, the topper to the cake that is your gaggle of gifts.
That’s when your parents take you into your living room.
There it is, already installed by the cable company and plugged into your Sega Genesis. You saw the commercials and magazine ads. You knew Sega did what Nintendont. And now it was here for your very own use.It was time for you to stop watching tv; and start playing tv.
Welcome to four years of one of the best and most innovative devices to ever grace the hands of 90’s gamers. Welcome to Sega Channel.
Unlimited access to a cycling selection of 50 games a month (later changed to 35 games rotating every two weeks), Sega Channel was a games on demand cable service. Players needed only to insert the Sega Channel modem into their Genesis console and wait for the signal to be acquired. Various on-screen menus gave you access to constantly changing games, including demos of unreleased games and even exclusives that never arrived via a standard cartridge.
When Sega Channel debuted it blew kid’s minds. While something similar to the service made a failed attempt on the Intellivision, nothing of this caliber was ever made successful or mainstream before. As they so often were in the 90’s, Sega produced a revolutionary and unforeseen product, years ahead of its time.
Sega Channel basically worked as a cable modem. A coaxial input would accept two separate broadcast signals that came from your cable provider. The first signal, which was constantly being sent, was the information for the on-screen menus. These menus were not stored on the Sega Channel cartridge themselves, and changed frequently to match seasons and offer up new visuals during each update. The second signal was a constantly looping stream of game information. When players selected a game they wanted from the menu, the modem would then wait to receive the appropriate game information from the second signal. With the signal received, the modem would begin downloading the games information into the Genesis’ ram. If the download was successful (sometimes there was failure due to “noise” in the coaxial line) the game would load up on your Genesis, and you’d have access to it until you turned off the console.
Sega Channel as a service saw highly varying levels of success around the world. In some countries lasting merely months, while enjoying a long four-year broadcast in North America. Since chunks of Sega Channels existence and popularity pre-date mainstream availability of the internet, and because content from the service was never recorded, large parts of the service and how it functions remain unknown.
Games downloaded on the service were deleted each time you turned off the console, and no one seems to know what happened to the equipment and software that ran and sent out the signals for the modem to receive. Dedicated Sega fans have made attempts to contact those who used to run the service, and tried to find old documentation or resources to help them emulate the service to help preserve it in gaming history.
What remains is a small amount of youtube videos from the very few people who recorded themselves playing the games on a VHS tape.
While no one wants the service to come back, I am in with the group of old-school gaming fanatics that would love a way for people to emulate this service at home. Some individuals have suggested being able to reverse engineer what type of signal the modem is waiting for, and produce a VHS tape that broadcasts this signal when played, and have that signal output via coaxial to the modem in your console.
Without a better understanding of what that signal entails, or how it really functioned, it’s all just a pipe dream. Not even to mention the fact that cable companies were supposed to recover and return the modems to Sega themselves anyway. As such, there are a few that remain in the wild as valuable collector’s items for retro gaming collectors and Sega fanatics.
In the end, what Sega Channel did was push the general public into a new and innovative way to get their gaming content. It established the concept, in the first hugely successful way anyways, of content being distributed in wildly different ways then a brick and mortar store.
Because of the services necessity of clean and high fidelity cables being required to run properly, Sega played a huge part in paving the way to higher fidelity cables being installed around the country.Thus making distribution of high-speed internet that much easier when the day finally came.
Nowadays, services like this exist in droves. Content being distributed digitally via the internet is such commonplace today, something like Sega Channel seems unimportant. However, the impact of this service just can’t be forgotten. It was an amazing option for gamers in the 90’s, giving all of us a brief look into the future of game distribution.
It’s really unfortunate that not much of the service is documented or made public. What we are left with is the memories held by the few gamers of us who were both old enough, and lucky enough to grow up gaming in that time period and have received the service when it was available. My own personal modem sits on my shelf, a relic of my childhood passion for the hobby, a non-functioning husk of what it once was.
Time and time again I still set up the modem and power on my Genesis to watch it attempt to function, only to fail at receiving a signal. I’m not stupid, I know it doesn’t work. But the nostalgia sends shivers down my spine every time regardless.
Gamers need to know about Sega Channel, this service needs to be documented.