Thunderbolt logo

Ahead of its Time: The Sega Channel

Some ideas catch on sooner than others and become mainstays of the videogame world. Others are so ahead of their time that, for whatever reason, they fail to get the widespread attention that they really deserve. Maybe it was because the world wasn’t ready, or maybe because there was a hiccup in its marketing campaign, or its failure could be blamed on rotten luck, but whatever the reason the idea didn’t catch on at the time. In today’s era of downloadable games, it’s easy to look back and see the seeds of that idea in the Sega Channel during the Super NES and Genesis era of the ’90s.

Growing up, I wasn’t a Sega gamer. My household was strictly Nintendo: NES, Super NES, and GameBoy. However, every so often I would visit family up in Pennsylvania and it would give me the opportunity to see what things were like on the other side of the fence. For a brief period I could play Sonic instead of Mario and become acquainted with the Genesis’ awkward usage of three buttons instead of six.

screenshot

Perhaps the biggest shocker was learning that Sega had beaten Xbox LIVE, PSN, and Steam to the punch in the mid ’90s with its Sega Channel. Back in 1994, Sega, Time Warner Cable, and TCI worked together to provide a monthly gaming service for paying gamers through cable. After spending a $25 activation fee–which included the necessary cable adapter–and a monthly subscription fee, gamers could enjoy up to 50 different Sega titles per month.

Think of it as the ‘on-demand’ videogame service of its day. Needless to say this blew my little mind. In fact, it still does. To think that Sega had such a feature to tout over its rival Nintendo and that it did not forever change the face of the industry is rather mind-boggling.

screenshot

As if that wasn’t enough, the Sega Channel provided demos, cheats, special promotions, and content not available in certain territories. In essence, all the things we take for granted in the modern gaming era. Having so many different games at your fingertips for so cheap was unbelievable. No going back and forth to Blockbuster to rent a game, all you had to do was wait for the game to finish downloading. You could play Mega Man: The Wily Wars followed by every Sonic title available, then move onto something completely different once the next month rolled around.

So what happened? The Sega Channel wasn’t really a failure—in fact, at its height it had 250,000 subscribers and yet it’s relegated to a footnote in gaming’s illustrious history. In 1998 the service was shut down permanently. The reasoning was since everyone had moved onto promoting their 32-bit console, it was time to pack it in for a service that exclusively delivered 16-bit games. And thus the Sega Channel finally signed off.

screenshot

To provide that amount of content today for that price would be unheard of. Xbox Live fees cover online play and a host of features nobody really wants, and $15 now would only buy you one downloadable game. Imagine paying that fee to play as many games as you wanted for as long as you wanted in today’s era. Sadly, such an idea will in all likelihood never be seen again, but for one brief period of time Sega truly had something innovative and pioneering in the Sega Channel.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in March 2010.

Gentle persuasion

Think you can do better? Write for us.