Why you should care
Streaming is the big thing now, but ’90s kids know Sega was pioneering this 25 years ago.
Imagine, if you can, a world where the latest video games are nearly instantaneously available at the press of a spring-loaded button without waiting for a download. All you would have to do was set yourself up with a six-pack of Surge soda and a plate of microwaved Pizza Bagels and settle in for a night, afternoon or sick day home from school with a catalog of games far greater than what could probably fit on the wobbly plastic game storage shelf in the living room.
It’s a popular claim by acolytes of the house the blue hedgehog built that Sega was the most innovative and forward-thinking of game hardware companies during their all-too-brief reign. Their answer to the monochromatic Game Boy, the Game Gear hand-held, featured a full-color screen with a built-in light for gaming after bedtime a full eight years before the Game Boy Color did the same thing. Sega beat Nintendo to the punch again with motion controllers for the Dreamcast almost a decade before the Wii brought families together to flail their arms around in the living room. Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast was also the first system to have a built-in modem for online play.
Arguably, though, Sega’s greatest act of prescience was a bulky black add-on for the Genesis (known as Mega-Drive to those outside North America) system that not only predicted the next big step for video gaming but also helped shape the internet as we know it today.
The Sega Channel was the coolest thing in the world to most kids, and some adults, when it was released in North America during the holidays in 1994. To modern eyes, it’s just a bulky Genesis cartridge with a coaxial cable port. That port connected it to a system of satellites and servers — long before broadband internet — and allowed lucky nerds to stream games to their home systems rather than venture to the local Kmart or Blockbuster to buy or rent a physical block of plastic and silicon. This doesn’t seem special now, but Sega’s innovation not only predated the current game-streaming frenzy. It predated YouTube by 11 years.
For $13 per month — about what most folks pay for Netflix — Sega fans in America would have access to a revolving catalog of up to 50 games, some of which cost up to $60 individually for physical copies. Still, even during peak popularity, the channel had only 250,000 U.S. subscribers. Sega rolled out its streaming service across the globe, reaching Mega-Drive owners in Canada, the U.K., Japan, South Korea and Thailand. The service featured some of the biggest gaming icons of the era, such as Sonic, Earthworm Jim and the cast of Mortal Kombat. Sega Channel also allowed subscribers test-drives for upcoming games, including an early demo for the bestial beat-’em-up and Mortal Kombat competitor Primal Rage and exclusives that were never released physically in the U.S., like Mega Man: The Wily Wars. The menu featured psychedelic visuals and funky music courtesy of John Baker, who also contributed to the cult-classic game about alien rappers Toejam & Earl.
How was this possible at a time when the internet still made that horrible screeching noise through phone lines? Sega’s innovation required a system of revolving streams from cable companies. They broadcast the menu screens 24/7, and when a user selected a game, it normally took no more than 30 seconds to download that game’s digital information to the cartridge’s local RAM. Essentially, the channel would download the few megabytes of game code through the same signal you used to watch regular television but would delete everything when the system was shut off or reset.
But the cutting-edge nature of the channel meant it could be a bit finicky. Any kind of interference in the cable line would abruptly stop the game, suddenly replacing Sonic’s Mach 2 blue blur with the Sega Channel logo.
“Utilizing the cable network was either a stroke of genius or purely a chance of circumstances since it was the most accessible network in American homes at the time,” says Brendan Meharry, who runs the popular Retro Game on YouTube. He featured the Sega Channel in his “Wonders of the Retro Gaming World” series. Meharry and others in the gaming history sphere say the channel forced cable companies in America to clean up their cable signal networks, which may have paved the way for the high-speed broadband we all use to binge-watch Netflix and play Fortnite today. Streaming is also poised to be the next great step in modern gaming. Sony offers a limited streaming service for PlayStation 4, PlayStation Now. Rumors of a cheap “streaming only” Xbox One have been circulating online as Microsoft has been demoing their xCloud tech. Google entered the fray in June with a demo featuring the latest Assassin’s Creed running in a Chrome tab and announcing their streaming-only Stadia console.
Despite its futuristic promises, the Sega Channel was ultimately doomed by the decisions of higher-ups at the Sega home office in Japan. And it wasn’t the only casualty: After its evenly matched console war with the Super Nintendo, Sega management’s infamous bungling of the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast forced the company to close down its hardware division and make games for their competitors Sony and Microsoft and even their archrival, Nintendo. Nowadays, Sega only makes games for other companies’ systems … so the closest they’ll come to taking a place in the current game-streaming craze is having their titles streamed through Microsoft or Sony’s services.
Despite being labeled as one of 1994’s innovative products by Popular Science magazine and surveys showing that many kids would rather have a channel subscription than new systems like the Sega Saturn or Sony PlayStation, the service was shut down in June 1998. Soon after, the Galaxy 7 satellite, which relayed the service’s signals to cable companies across the country, spun out of orbit and is now drifting through space, broadcasting Sonic the Hedgehog to a cold, uninterested solar system.