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The Stupid History of Downloadable Games

Chris Rio | 13 Feb 2013 09:00
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Sega started where Intellivision left off, but made the same mistakes. This thing was a cartridge/adapter that let you "download" games via coaxial cable. The codes for all the games were being continually broadcast over the cable signal, and when you selected a game to play, you had to wait until that particular game's code came down the cable line, similar to the PlayCable. The real problem was that (again, just like the PlayCable) all of the cart's storage was RAM, which meant it was erased every time you shut off the console. Even the main menu had to be downloaded every time you turned it on.

Sega started where Intellivision left off, but made the same mistakes.

And of course, timing was everything. The Sega Channel didn't launch until 5 years into the Genesis's life cycle. Despite it being a surprisingly popular and incredibly innovative service, Sega refocused efforts onto the Saturn, which, considering the fact that it ended up being a commercial failure to the tune of $250 million, was dumb.

Luckily, thanks to the WayBack Machine (Man, I love that thing) we get a crash course in how to make a terrible 90's website. Feast your eyes on the FAQ page, in which one of the answers literally includes the phrase "you'll be bummin'," or if you are feeling radical, check out the list of Sega Channel mascot characters, including D-Mack, who will put you away with his "D-Mack Smack Attack." And of course, I wouldn't leave you hangin' ten without a commercial that features a grotesque abomination of fashion choices.
After Sega, Nintendo just had to get in on this game, and for some reason took a step in the complete opposite direction. Enter the Satellaview, an add-on for the Super Famicom. Luckily this was only released in Japan, because it's pretty stupid.

Ok, I'll be fair. Before I ridicule it, I guess we can first give them credit for creating a very primitive version of Playstation Home. On startup, you created an avatar and could move them around in a little virtual town, with each storefront being a different activity (viewing leaderboards, taking quizzes, downloading games, etc.).

And what's this? On-board memory that actually allowed you to save your games, along with expansion packs that could further increase the ROM? Stop the presses.

To see why this thing was silly, though, you have to look at why it was originally built: as a modem to receive satellite broadcasts. That's what it still did. Even though the games were downloadable in the "virtual town," most of the content was broadcast on a freakin' schedule. If Mario was playing at 1 in the morning, you better make damn sure you were on the couch to download it or you missed it. Literally, you played the games when they were scheduled to come on. Some of the games were episodic, meaning if you missed episode two, then you would have to wait for a rerun to experience the part you missed. The technology for on demand gaming was already there, and yet they felt the need to jury-rig this satellite receiver to make sure you had the least amount of freedom possible to play the games you wanted to..

The Satellaview had an "enhanced" broadcast at certain times called "SoundLink" that let you stream narration into your games from voice actors. Or some comedians would read your digital magazines aloud. Interesting...but why? Because of this, these games could never be played outside of the scheduled time (unlike most of the others which only had to be downloaded during the timeframe, but could be played until you overwrote it).

After 5 years of this, Satellaview finally stopped broadcasting in 2000. This was likely due to the inconvenience of only being able to play a game for three specific hours in the middle of the day. Or it was the price tag, as you had to get the device, and a Satellite tuner, and subscriptions to the radio broadcaster and Nintendo. It really doesn't matter, because either way it was equally stupid. On the bright side, we get to enjoy another amusingly weird retro commercial.

Well, at least the industry learned from all this. The avatars, the "channel" idea, and the virtual town are all fossils of what the current generation has to offer, which is pure greatness in Xbox Live and Playstation Network. Nintendo still doesn't know what the hell they are doing when it comes to online gaming, but at least I don't have to wait until 7PM EST to play Mario Kart.

You can see more of Chris Rio's writing over at Cracked.com.

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