A Retro Moment: Sega Channel

Today, online functionality is necessary to survive in the console war.  But in 1994, Sega was way ahead of the times.

What a trip down memory lane…the Sega Channel.  If you grew up in the 90′s, you wanted it, the same way you wanted a Power Wheels or that ginormous Lego set.  The Nintendo kids – like me – didn’t know if we should try to find something wrong with it, or convert as soon as possible.  It wasn’t a dream come true; we hadn’t even dreamt of something like this.  It was better.  Sega Channel was the reason not to play outside.

Now, those of you that grew up with the Apple iPod, rather than the Apple 512K, you won’t know what I’m waxing on about.  So what is Sega Channel?  An online console service, before Live, before Virtual Console, before Home.  An online console service, in 1994!  We expect online features today, but in 1994, Sega was delivering before we even knew we wanted it.

And it was damn good.  So good, in fact, that I’d even say it was better than any service offered today.  An overstatement?  Maybe, but hear me out.

The $25 activation got you started with a pretty ugly, 32X-ish looking adapter brick that slid into the cartridge slot on your Genesis and hooked up to a split cable connection.  From there, a monthly fee of $15 tagged onto your cable bill got you the service itself.

That measly $15 you got unlimited access to 50 games – not Pong or Tetris, full retail games – with new ones appearing every month, and later on every two weeks.  The game of your choice downloaded into memory aboard the adapter, and would stay there until you chose a new game.  Then there was more: demos of retail games yet to be released, cheats and tips while your game was downloading, leaderboards, AND games not released in the States.

So, a full direct download service, plus the best features of both Xbox Live and Virtual Console.  Not bad, eh?  Sure, you don’t pay for Live Arcade or Virtual Console, but you do pay for the games.  And consider what $15 gets you with Live: a gold bar on your gamercard and the privilege of playing with other internet fuckwads.  Live and Virtual Console are starting to look pretty weak in comparison.

And Sega was offering the Channel ten years before the likes of Live Arcade hit the scene.  Nintendo and Sony had their own lukewarm attempts at online, but no one pushed as hard as Sega, especially with the Dreamcast.  Ohhhh, but what if the Dreamcast had succeeded?  Had it handily outsold the PS2, got more developers onboard…it might be a different story.  Ahhhh, but that’s another post.

So, should you expect to see Sega Channel again?  No way.  The likes of Microsoft and Nintendo already know we’ll pay for retro and arcade games; they’re not about to cut us a break.  Full retail games online would be tough, considering the escalating size of games and HD media.  In short, times have moved on.

It’s sad, really.  Had online caught on, Sega Channel might have become the golden standard for online service.  Nowadays, the closest you can get to Sega Channel is GameTap – worth your time to check out.
So, the glory days of Sega have past, but you have to give credit where it’s due.  They  were setting the bar for console online, and had the industry playing catch-up for a decade.  Kudos.

I’ll see you in the game.