ideas & ramblings

Communicating Cartridges

A lot of contemporary video game players take online communications for granted—after all, online services have been a standard feature in consoles for nearly fifteen years at this point1. However, before the ubiquity of the internet there was a time when some clever cartridges let gamers run up to the bleeding edge of technology and peer into the future.

Today, let’s close out our cartridge series by taking a look at a few cartridges that offered some form of connectivity for otherwise isolated consoles. As always, this isn’t a comprehensive list of everything that existed—it’s just a brief survey at some of the more notable or interesting high points.

This is the final part of a four part series on the wonders of video game cartridges. Start at the beginning by reading about lock-on cartridges.

XBAND

Screenshot of XBAND service
Screenshot of XBAND's new user sign-up screen

Head-to-head competition between players has been part of the appeal of video games from their earliest days. Although the fantastic graphics of games like Street Fighter II were light-years beyond the simple shapes of Pong, they shared a competitive spirit. Those competitions had always been a face-to-face affair, but in the early 90s, a small group of ex-Apple engineers realized that modems, a network communications technology growing in popularity on home computers, had the potential to revolutionize video games as well. They formed a company called Catapult Entertainment and began work on the XBAND, an inexpensive modem built into a pass-through video game cartridge, along with an online service for it to communicate with. The XBAND service would let gamers play a selection of ordinary, off-the-shelf video game cartridges against other players, regardless of their physical location. It was a mildly miraculous accomplishment, especially given the relatively small size of the company and the fact that they were third-party developers, rather than the designers of either the consoles or the games.

XBAND for Sega Genesis
Sega Genesis version

The first XBAND model was released for the Sega Genesis in late 1994, and a Super NES version came out the following summer. Although these two consoles are completely different in terms of both hardware and software, the XBAND modems were fairly similar: they sat between the consoles and the game cartridges (just like the Game Genie did), and they added seemingly magical new capabilities (again, just like the Game Genie did). Gamers simply plugged a telephone line into the side of their XBAND cartridge and away they went…after signing up their monthly service, of course. Only a handful of games on each system were XBAND capable, but those that were offered something special; namely, they offered online play with automated matchmaking from the comfort of your living room.

XBAND for Super NES
Super NES version

XBAND was released at a crossroads, coming out just as people were realizing that network connectivity was going to be a big part of everyone’s life in the future, but before it became obvious that the internet was going to be how that networked future would land. Catapult Entertainment eventually managed to sign a peak of fifteen thousand subscribers up to the XBAND service, but those numbers weren’t sufficient to sustain the company. Grand plans for future iterations of the hardware for other platforms, including PC and sega Saturn, never really panned out. The network was shuttered in April 1997, less than three years after the initial model was released.

Despite the lack of long-term success, it’s still hard to declare the XBAND a failure. A small team saw the future and delivered a system with online matchmaking, news, and email nearly a decade before the launch of Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network. In hindsight, what they accomplished was amazing, put simply.

Wrestling with Gaming recently released an hour-long documentary about the XBAND, featuring extensive interviews with the folks who built it. It’s an impressive piece of documentary work, especially given the fact that it’s largely the effort of a single person, and is highly recommended for anyone interested in this sort of thing.

Sega Channel

Sega Channel screenshot
Screenshot of Sega Channel game list

Years before anyone started using coaxial cables for speedy internet access, Sega Channel was already proving that those cables were useful for more than just television. Introduced in a dozen US test markets at the end of 19932, Sega Channel made its official debut in December 1994 and expanded across the US and into Canada over the course of 1995 and 19963.

Sega Channel cartridge
Sega Channel cartridge

Sega Channel consisted of a special cartridge with a coaxial input on the back, paired with an online service that offered a rotating set of downloadable games each month. Gamers just had to sign up for the Sega Channel service and screw an ordinary-looking coaxial cable onto a connection on the back of the cartridge. Once this was done, they were off to the races: the Sega Channel service had a feed teasing new releases and info about games, as well as a rotating selection of downloadable games at no additional cost. Although most of the titles were just downloadable versions of ordinary Genesis games, the service was also home to a number of US-exclusives, including a relatively sought-after Genesis port of the first three NES Mega Man games entitled The Wily Wars.

Sega Channel logo

Unfortunately, Sega Channel didn’t really catch on for a variety of reasons. For one, the infrastructure of most cable providers wasn’t tuned for this sort of use case: a bit of electrical interference that might show up as a hard-to-notice bit of noise or discoloration in a television broadcast could completely break the Sega Channel. Providing reliable service meant cleaning up noise and interference on every part of the path between the cable company’s service building and the end-users house, which was a pretty tall order for a niche service like this. The service was also relatively expensive considering the target demographic was mostly kids and teenagers: $15 per month in 1994 (about $25 in 2019 dollars). Ultimately, the limited set of cities that did offer it weren’t able to attract enough subscribers enough to keep the service afloat.

Sega Channel was an early example of a digital service being provided atop the legacy analog cable network, but there would be more services to come in the future—the foundation laid by cable providers to make Sega Channel work set the stage for the ubiquitous cable modems that took over home internet service in the early 2000s.

Morita Shogi 64

Screenshot of Morita Shogi 64

The Japanese strategy board game shogi is a distant relative of chess with a long and fascinating history4. Despite its popularity in Japan—it’s even more popular there than the chess that Westerners are familiar with—shogi is virtually unknown in the rest of the world. To wit, there are versions of shogi for just about every console, but Morita Shogi 64 for Nintendo 64 is something special.

Morita Shogi 64 cartridge
Surprise! There's an RJ-11 telephone jack on top.

A quick look at the cartridge reveals its secret: there’s an ordinary-looking telephone jack on the top of the cart, giving this cartridge the honour of being the sole Nintendo 64 game to feature a built-in modem to enable online play with no additional hardware. Despite being a Japanese exclusive, Morita Shogi 64 managed to attract the attention of the Western gaming media. “It’s unlikely this game will make it to the United States,” said the January 1997 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly (inadvertently snubbing their Canadian readers), “but the new cartridge design raises an interesting question: Could Nintendo adopt this plug-and-play approach for other N64 games?”

Inside the Morita Shogi 64 cartridge
An RJ-11 telephone jack (middle top) and plenty of extra circuitry make this a very special cartridge.

The answer ended up being a resounding “no,” although Nintendo did end up releasing a dedicated modem cartridge for use with their Japan-exclusive Nintendo 64 Disk Drive add-on and its online service, Randnet5.

Unfortunately for shogi fans in the 21st century, Morita Shogi 64 relied on an internet-based gaming service rather than direct player-to-player phone calls, and this online service is no longer available6. This means that even if you manage to find another shogi enthusiast who also happens to have their own Nintendo 64 cartridge and landline telephone, you still wouldn’t be able to play with each other. Alas.

Almost Famous

These three cartridges aren’t the only examples of communicating carts that existed, but they offer up a pretty interesting historical perspective when looked at holistically.

As in many other areas of life, the near misses are often more interesting than the big successes. XBAND almost succeeded in creating a viable third-party cross-platform gaming network—something that never happened again7. Sega Channel almost got digital downloads to catch on a decade before they hit the mainstream8, proving that a game subscriptions offered a viable business model for video games. Morita Shogi 64 almost ushered in an era of smart cartridges with their own communication capabilities, console be damned.

And with that, our look back at the amazing versatility of the humble video game cartridge has come to an end. Tune in next month when we’ll be taking a look at the forgotten art of the tech concept video.

Many thanks to my patient and helpful wife, Nathalie, for copyediting this article.

Footnotes

  1. Microsoft was quick to the draw with Xbox Live, launched in November of 2002. The Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection followed in November 2005, and Sony’s PlayStation Network followed in November 2006. The fact that all three of these had launch dates in November probably indicates that they were trying to make it in time for the holiday season. ↩︎

  2. Initial testing included covered 5,000 customers in twelve US test markets began in April 1994, and was such a success that Sega issued a triumphant press release at the end of November. ↩︎

  3. Generally speaking, the US and Canadian rollout of the Sega Channel is quite well documented, but details on its release in other countries are relatively sparse. ↩︎

  4. Shigo and chess are part of the same family of games that can trace their history back to the beginning of the middle ages. It’s ultimate origin is unknown, although most scholars believe it originated somewhere in India. The Wikipedia article is a fascinating read. ↩︎

  5. Randnet was a short-lived online service available only in Japan. Operating for just fourteen months, Randnet offered basic internet access, including email, chat, and online gaming, and access to an exclusive Nintendo newsletter. The name Randnet is a tortured portmanteau for “Recruit and Nintendo Network”—Recruit being the name the media company that Nintendo partnered with to build the service. ↩︎

  6. Despite relatively extensive searching, I have been unable to find the end date for the online service. If anyone happens to know when the service was shut down, I’d love to hear about it. ↩︎

  7. The closest modern analogues are the various social systems that were added to some Android and iOS apps prior to the integration of similar features into the platforms (Game Center on iOS in 2010 and Google Play Games on Android in 2013). OpenFeint is probably the most familiar one for most people. Even these still aren’t perfect comparisons because the big idea behind XBAND is that Catapult Games would make XBAND work with games created and released by third-parties without their support or permission. ↩︎

  8. Microsoft was way ahead of Sony and Nintendo when it came to downloadable games, introducing Xbox Live Aracde in May 2004. Sony and Nintendo were both more than two years behind, with the PlayStation Store launching in November 2006 and the Wii Shop Channel hot on its heels in December 2006. ↩︎

Image sources