Join Frank as he waxes nostalgic about Sega’s long-gone subscription gaming service
I’ll never forget the night I was first introduced to the Sega Channel. Summer vacation had just begun, and carnival season was in full swing. Upon arriving at the carnival, the first thing to catch my eye amid the flashing lights and scores of other caffeine-powered preteens was a large tent filled with dozens of 20″ televisions sets glowing with pure, pixelated perfection. Sega Genesis classics like Comix Zone, Sonic & Knuckles filled every screen, speakers pumping pulsing chiptunes just barely audible beneath the whooshing of the Sea Dragon and whirring of the Gravitron bookending the humble digital oasis I’d wandered into.
As it just so happened, my local cable provider was demoing their latest service, the Sega Channel. “The Sega Channel?” I asked as an upbeat salesman gestured towards a chair and offered me a controller, which I eagerly accepted. Needless to say, no cotton candy or tickets were had that night. Hypnotized by the cathode ray glow, I spent my entire evening blasting baddies in the Body Count (a stellar Menacer shooter that somehow never made its way stateside) and Red Zone, a criminally underrated helicopter shooter with some pretty snazzy run ‘n gun elements. After spending several hours experiencing what the Sega Channel offered, I knew it had to be mine. Thankfully, my father agreed. And just a few days after getting my grubby mitts on the controller of that demo station, I was jacked in at home to what I still consider one of the most memorable experiences the 16-bit era had to offer.
I want my, I want my, I want my Sega TV
So, what was the Sega Channel, you ask? Way back in December of 1994, a mere six months before the then console giant formally launched the Sega Saturn in North America, Sega partnered with Time Warner Cable and TCI to launch a subscription-based gaming service. For a low monthly price, subscribers were able to, through use of a special adapter cartridge connected to a coaxial cable, access a library of 50 games per month (a number that eventually ballooned to 70 monthly offerings during the waning days of the service).
Considering the Genesis remained immensely popular in 1994, you’d think Sega would have shied away from releasing their heavy-hitters on the platform to help encourage strong software sales. However, this wasn’t the case. Many of the 16-bit workhorse’s newest, most popular releases were pumped onto the platform. Hits like Gunstar Heroes, Sonic & Knuckles, Vectorman, and Earthworm Jim 2 were regular staples on the service, among dozens of other hot titles for the time.
Of course, action games, while hugely popular, weren’t the only games you could find on Sega Channel. Every month, over half a dozen categories were filled with the latest sports titles, role-playing games, family friendly software, racers, etc. That said, whether you were an armchair Shinobi looking to pump evil ninjas full of shurikens in Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master or a wannabe strategist who wanted nothing more than to march your armies to victory in Shining Force II, the Sega Channel had you covered.
Testing-Driving The Future
Sure, having dozens of the hottest Genesis games at your fingertips was awesome. What was really impressive, however, was the Test Drives category. It was here in this corner of the Sega Channel’s realm that you could find some real treats such as demos of upcoming games, import titles, and more. I fondly remember when the service kicked off their hour-long demo of Treasure’s outstanding dungeon-crawler Light Crusader and the quirky and comedic, nuclear waste-powered action title The Ooze — both of which were downright brilliant at the time.
As great as getting an early taste of the console’s up and coming titles was, I especially loved diving into the Sega Channel’s import offerings. From the trigger-happy shooter Body Count, which played a bit like a fusion of SNK’s Beast Busters and the iconic T2: The Arcade Game to other notable games like Golden Axe 3 and the ill-fated Mega Man: The Wily Wars, there were so many hidden gems to satisfy the needs of players looking for some exotic fare.
That’s not to say all of them were bonafide classics. I’m pretty sure the reek of Funcom’s canceled (in the US, anyway) stinker Nightmare Circus is still clinging to my childhood Genesis a quarter century since throwing my controller down in frustration. Steer clear from that one if you can. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
Don’t Touch That Dial!
Though the Sega Channel may seem quaint in the post-OnLive and GameTap world and with the proliferation of emulation software available, during its heydey it was a real game-changer. Considering the service kicked off during a time when most American homes didn’t have a PC, let alone internet service, it was nothing short of revolutionary. Just being able to dig into dozens of games and demos per month, participate in contests (anyone who slugged it out in the Primal Rage contest will fondly remember U-R-T-H), and get the latest Sega news pumped straight into your television felt like living in the future. And that’s one future I wouldn’t mind going back to. How about you?
So, were you a Sega Channel subscriber? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Be sure to share some of your favorite memories and the games you played on the service in the comments section below.