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Under the Radar: Tiger Electronics Net Jet

Hardware

According to many insiders, cloud gaming will eventually replace physical media as the means of delivering gaming goodness to our consoles and PCs and I would be remiss were I to suggest there aren’t some benefits to this. For one, a lack of cartridges or discs generally means less clutter/more shelf space on the entertainment center. Another benefit is that when the actual task of processing takes place within a company’s server rather than in the hardware itself, consoles can be much more compact and cost far less to manufacture. Such was the logic behind Tiger Electronics’ most recent game system, 2007’s Net Jet. Though technically not entirely cloud based, the Net Jet is a relatively unknown gaming hub that picked and chose from several popular video game marketing models to deliver an all-ages-friendly gaming experience. The hardware itself consists of a proprietary USB-cabled 7-button controller (with both a digital directional pad and analog stick) and a top-loading “game key” slot.

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Retailing at a mere $24.99 with a pack-in game, and distributed by Tiger’s parent company Hasbro, the Net Jet wasn’t positioned as direct competition for current fellow 7th Generation consoles. Nor was the system placed firmly into the category of a PC add-on despite the fact that it required a Windows equipped personal computer with a broadband internet connection to function. In fact it is the system’s functionality that makes it so unique.

Like any true cloud-based console, games developed exclusively for the system exist only in Hasbro’s servers and are played through a proprietary interface launched from firmware within the controller itself. The controller, when plugged into a Windows 2000 equipped or newer PC’s USB port, serves to establish the required connection and authorization to access the Hasbro server directly. Game downloads then commence into the PC’s hard drive (though complete file saving or .exe folder transferring is not an option here). In other words, playing the system’s library is only possible with the official hardware connected to a computer’s USB port and games cannot be played offline.

As a result, purchasing games was actually accomplished not through the servers themselves but through store-bought chips known as game keys. These keys, roughly the size and shape of a USB flash drive, could then be inserted into the slot on the top of the Net Jet controller to grant access to the game title in question from the web. Contrary to common misconception, the keys are actually a form of jumper block used to create unique authorization patterns within the hardware rather than chips containing game software of their own.

This coincides with the fact that the system itself lacks the capability of processing, displaying or running software on its own but instead relies entirely upon its host PC to function as a game hub. As a result, the actual performance of the system in action varies depending upon the hardware specifications and internet connection speed of the host computer in question.

Though officially supported for a mere two-years time (official support ended December 31, 2009), the Net Jet managed to amass a fairly robust stable of games, many of which were officially licensed properties. Because the system wasn’t limited to a single programming language or, for that matter a single operating system or hardware spec, games ranged from simple 2D Java and Flash pieces to full-on real-time 3D texture mapped titles.

12 official game titles were released in game key form, ranging from a kart racer to a SpongeBob SquarePants minigames collection. Perhaps the most marquee titles among the dozen coming in the form of a simple but addicting puzzle game in the vein of Bejweled called Bubble Bonanza and Transformers: Battle Universe, a 3D fighting game featuring fully licensed characters and sounds. Both of these games would eventually come as pack-in options with the system itself (early models came only with a demo key).

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Purchasing a game key actually provided a bit more content than access to the full game in question (known here as a Deluxe Game). Each also enabled users unlimited access to three Java-based games of their choosing from the server (there were 27 of these smaller “Choice Games” from which to select). Finally, each key offered a 30-minute trial of any other deluxe game in the library. Game keys launched at roughly $14.99 each but prices quickly plummeted once word spread that Hasbro would be pulling support back in 2009.

Interestingly enough, while the host computer’s hard drive would be responsible for downloading launch data as well as storing game save files, it’s the keys themselves that store which three Choice Titles the user selected via a 1K embedded memory chip. This is significant because it made selecting a trio of free Choice Games from the site’s catalog a permanent affair. Not to mention it didn’t limit use of the Net Jet to a single PC. Gamers were able to transport the controller and whatever game keys they owned to play on virtually any Windows-running computer.

Aesthetically the dog bone shape and button layout of the controller harkens back to the design of the SNES. The system requires no dedicated power supply, instead drawing the voltage necessary for functionality and button illumination directly from the USB port. A few Tiger Electronics accessories were released throughout the system’s life including controller skins to customize the look while protecting the unit and a carrying case.

I have discussed the potential benefits of a cloud-based gaming platform throughout the course of this article but a major disadvantage plaguing the delivery format is every bit as precarious and present with the Net Jet as well: Concern that should the game server ever disappear from cyber-space, the hardware becomes completely useless. Such fears came to fruition when Hasbro officially ended support on December 31, 2009.

From a legal standpoint, Hasbro was no longer obligated to maintain, or for that matter, even host the server site as of January 1st, 2009. Net Jet supporters are greeted with a message stating that products and support have been discontinued when they attempt to access the server though, at present, full disappearance of the site has yet to occur (which would render the system completely inoperable).

Similarly discouraging from an obsolete hardware standpoint, the proprietary Net Jet controller cannot be used as a standard aftermarket PC gaming controller on account of the fact that Windows recognizes it only as a USB data hub and not an interface device.

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With relatively modest sales and a supported period of slightly over two-years, the Tiger Electronics Net Jet will likely quietly fade into obscurity much in the same way it came into being: With little fanfare or notice. However, a small but steady group of supporters seem hopeful that Hasbro will either make the Net Jet’s game library available for streaming on any PC, or at the very least, allow the existence of mirror sites of their servers before pulling the plug on the Net Jet entirely. Indeed a library of over 40 exclusive games- many of which wore impressive licensing- does seem a terrible thing to waste.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2011.

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