The announcement of the Xbox streaming service briefly took me back to the ’90s and to the Sega Channel, an invention so great it basically erased most of my memory of 1994 as I entered a state of pure bliss closest to what David Foster Wallace described in Infinite Jest.
Crudely dispatch with any homework. Use the toilet. Boot up the system. Say a small prayer: “Almighty gamer god, unto whom all cartridges are open and all cheat codes known, cleanse the coax of my pay TV provider so that we may perfectly play thy games without having to reboot 12 times.”
Done correctly, this sequence of events would result in a 2D man made of morphing colours reverently hoisting a TV and a Genesis controller above his head. The colours were of that certain ’90s palette reserved then for Zubaz pants and today for particularly audacious Lamborghinis, and they’d indicate whether or not there were new games to play.
Every month, as many as 50 Genesis games would appear in a menu on my screen for me to play whenever I wanted, downloaded to my console’s 4 MB RAM chip via a cable modem plugged into the top of my system. In 1994!
It was heaven.
Road Rage III. Golden Axe III. ESWAT: City Under Siege. Good games. Bad games. Weird games. Games like Shadowrun that I couldn’t possibly finish before someone rudely shut off my Genesis to plug in the vacuum cleaner thus erasing all my progress.
More games than I could possibly play even as I abandoned things like eating, schoolwork and hygiene. This was my Howard Hughes phase, but with sunflower seeds and Dr Pepper instead of Mormon blood transfusions.
This was extra meaningful to me as the $15 monthly cost and $25 service fee put it well out of the range of what my parents could afford at the time. Thankfully, my mum worked for the pay TV company. She was doing lower level administrative work, mostly, but the perk was free pay TV with all the channels (all 40 of them) and a heavy discount on Sega Channel.
You’d assume, given my age, the allure of free late night Cinemax pumped into my room would have occupied my hands. You would be wrong. My fantasy was Phantasy Star II and I spent a lot more time trying to calm the Panic on Funkotron than I did playing Dick Tracy. Besides, I had Normy’s Beach Babe-o-Rama if I was desperate.
The SegaRETRO wiki has a detailed overview of how Sega Channel worked and it’s quite clever. Essentially, your local pay TV company was constantly broadcasting multiple streams of content via the coax hooked up to the little modem in your Genesis. They always broadcast the menu stream so you could pick and choose which games you’d like, and once you selected one it would wait until the stream was broadcasting your particular game and download it.
Sega Channel’s greatest legacy then, as IGN explains, is probably in encouraging local pay TV providers to make investments in cleaning up their signal that would eventually help usher in the cable internet era.
For me, the legacy is different. Not only did I avoid seeing the sun or friends for about a year, but I also was introduced to games I’d have otherwise never played. In particular, Sega Channel offered titles that were never sold in the United States.
One of those games was the very early isometric rally racing game Power Drive, which, because it was about rally, was never marketed to Americans. I had some vague notion of what rally racing was from car magazines, but getting to pilot a Ford Escort Cosworth RS across the snow fundamentally altered my car tastes.
The game helped make me a car weirdo and it’s that borderline perverse passion for cars that eventually led me to becoming editor of Jalopnik. To this day, my dream car is one of those weird rally Escorts that, like the game, was never officially sold where I live.
While other gaming subscription services do exist and there are important technological differences between what Sega Channel offers and what Microsoft is attempting, spiritually the concept of being able to download games directly to your console from the console’s creator can be traced back to Sega’s attempt to extend the capabilities of the Genesis/MegaDrive.
My only advice to any pre-teens using the service is this: Don’t put your Dr Pepper in the same kind of cup you use to spit your sunflower seeds in. Just trust me on this.