From Sega Retro
Sega Channel was a project developed by Sega for the Sega Mega Drive video game console. Completely revolutionary at the time of release (bar a failed attempt with the earlier Intellivision console), it was a method capable of streaming digital content to Mega Drive owners through cable television.
Sega Channel services were offered across the globe by various providers, though the most notable and well-remembered was the service provided for North American consumers. Traditionally in order to gain access to a Sega Channel, customers would pay for a monthly subscription, and in return be given unlimited access to a specified amount of video games. Network providers would be able to change the details of the service at any given point, meaning the Sega Channel was constantly evolving, with new games appearing throughout the weeks and months. A number of games were even made Sega Channel exclusives.
Today, services such as these tend to be provided by the internet, however back then, games on demand was a far less common occurence. Success of the Sega Channel varies between countries - in North America the Sega Channel was broadcast for a full four years, whereas in others it lasted merely months. Due to the nature of how the Sega Channel service operated, it is extremely difficult to document - downloaded games would be erased upon turning off the console, and adequate methods of saving and recording Sega Channel content were not readily available. As such, large parts of the service to this day remain a mystery - it cannot be emulated like standard Mega Drive cartridges, and as it largely pre-dates the internet, details are very hard to come by.
To access the Sega Channel, customers needed a Sega Channel adaptor. Though aesthetically different between regions, all adaptors have the same basic design - they are to be placed within the Mega Drive's cartridge slot and then linked to the cable television box via an RF connector. Adaptors also require their own external power supply, and depending on the model, come with plastic spacers to make sure the unit can fit comfortably in both the original Mega Drive and Mega Drive II consoles.
Unlike other add-ons for the system, such as the Sega Mega-CD, Sega 32X or even the earlier Sega Mega Modem, the Sega Channel adaptor does not need to be plugged in to any of the ports at the back of the console, meaning (theoretically) the Sega Channel adaptor is compatible with any device with a Mega Drive cartridge slot.
Despite its claims, the Sega Channel was not technically an on-demand service. Digital data was broadcast through the cable provider and recieved by the Sega Channel adaptor which would attempt to convert it into program code. There were actually several signals involved - one to broadcast menus (which was on continously) and another to broadcast individual games and content. This second signal would cycle through content individually, meaning that the adaptor would have to wait (up to about thirty seconds) until the correct piece of content was being broadcasted.
If the broadcast matched with the request from the adaptor, the program would be downloaded and stored in the unit's RAM. Nothing was saved permanently - if the user turned off the device all saved data would be lost. Reseting the console was still a possiblity, however.
As a radically different system to a standard cable channel, extra precautions would need to be taken by the cable operators before broadcasting. At the time, all cable services were analogue and would therefore pick up noise, potentially distrupting transmissions. The signal would therefore need to be cleaned by the providers as much as possible. Sega's assistence in these matters meant that despite being a gaming company, they had a major influence in the cable television infrastructure across the world.
Distortion, however, was unavoidable in many cases and so downloads would often fail (bearing in mind that some games were 4MB in size). The solution was simply to reset the console and try again.
Some accessories are said to have caused trouble with the Sega Channel adaptor, namely the Konami Justifier.
By far the biggest success story of the Sega Channel was in the US, where at its peak, the Sega Channel service was available to one third of the US population and had 250,000 subscribers. The US variant tends to overshadow other releases as it is the only version of the service that is well remembered by the gaming public.
The US service was the biggest and most actively maintained, debuting in late 1994 and being taken offline on the 31st of July, 1998. A "wireless" version of the service appeared around 1996. The US Sega Channel was delivered as a joint venture between Time Warner Cable and Tele-Communications Inc. and was a relatively expensive service, with monthly subscription fees of roughly $14.95 and a $25 activation fee. Adaptors were manufactured by Scientific-Atlanta and General Instrument and were meant to be returned to the cable distributor upon cancellation of the service.
Initially over fifty games were available at any one time, with the contents changing on a weekly basis. Later this was reduced to fortnightly changes and only 35 games up at once. As well as games, Sega also ran several promotions through the service. Special previews for up-and-coming titles were provided; some import games not found in the United States were exclusive to the service and cheats and tips were handed out.
The music used across the US Sega Channel service was composed by John Baker, who had supplied the music for ToeJam & Earl. Much of the Sega Channel's graphical style is similar to that game, also.
List of Games
(Note: Lists are preliminary. As little has survived from the days of Sega Channel and no official list has been released, games may be missing.)
As with most other variants, the Japanese Sega Channel is largely undocumented. Tele-Communications Inc. handled this version too. Only one adaptor was created with stylings similar to the Japanese Mega Drive 2. The Japanese Sega Channel had a bird as a mascot.
In Japan, the Sega Channel had a unique BIOS screen featuring Sonic the Hedgehog, and some exclusive content made for that region, including Dyna Brothers 2 Special. This game was eventually released on the Wii's Virtual Console. Another game that is seemingly connected to the Sega Chanel, Game no Kanzume Otokuyou, was discovered in the Sega Dreamcast online disc, Dream Passport 3.
List of Games
* Link is to Sega of Japan's Virtual Console page for the game, which says "本作はメガドライブ版でのパッケージ販売は日本ではされておりませんでしたが、ケーブルテレビ・ゲーム配信サービス「セガチャンネル」で楽しむことができました。" (The Megadrive package for the original game wasn't sold in Japan, but it could be played on the cable TV game broadcast service "Sega Channel")
** Same as *, but without "Mega Drive version" (本作は日本でのパッケージ販売はされておりませんでしたが、ケーブルテレビ・ゲーム配信サービス「セガチャンネル」で楽しむことができました。)
The Sega Channel service was offered by several countries within Europe. Aside from cable providers, the current assumption is that it was the same for all countries.
In the United Kingdom the service was provided by Flextech Plc, part owned by Tele-Communications International. Telewest is known to have been a cable provider which supported the channel, and were said to be "happy" with its performance in 1996. The first UK transmissions started on the 19th of June 1996, and the subscription fee was £10 a month. Flextech reportedly invested £1 million into the project as the UK market was seen to be the biggest in Europe (with one million Mega Drive consoles purchased at the time).
There were technical issues which distrupted the service in late 1997 and early 1998.
In Germany the service was provided by Deutsche Telekom, also owned by TCI. In France it was Multithematiques S.A.. In the Netherlands the service was provided by Enico, and had extremely disappointing subcriber figures.
List of Games
In addition to retail Sega Channel units, a number of prototype "demo cartridges" have also been spotted. As the name suggests, the demo cartridges exist to demonstrate what the Sega Channel service was intending to offer, though none physically connect to the Sega Channel network to download games, and contain little more than menus - no playable content.
As of 2011 four demo cartridges have been identified, three of them have been dumped. The first to be spotted, "Sega Channel Demo Cartridge #6", appeared for sale on eBay in 2009. Later that year, "Sega Channel Demo Cartridge #4" was spotted and purchased by a resident of Lost Levels, who generously lent the cartridge to LocalH to ROM dump. In 2011 two more prototypes were identified, labeled #1 and #2.
The earlier cartridges show a work in-progress Sega Channel in various stages of production, featuring intro sequences, graphics that would be used in the early days of its broadcasting, a simulated downloading sequence, and in the case of cartridge #4, a background/sound test. Looking into the #4 ROM in a hex editor also shows various "SEGATV" error messages, as well as strange code snippets.
In the menus of the Sega Channel Demo #4's "Test Drive" section, you can see a listing for "The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse, Capcom". The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse was not released on the Sega Mega Drive in any region, though did appear on the Super Nintendo.