The Sad Death of Sega Channel

Streaming video games to your home console? Yeah, I know all about that.

No, I'm not talking about PlayStation Now. I'm talking about the original (or at least the first version of the idea worth mentioning).

I'm talking about Sega Channel.

Stop Just Watching TV

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.

-SegaRetro on Sega Channel

Sega Channel burst onto the scene at the end of 1994 in the U.S., offering Genesis owners a deal that sounded like magic. For a monthly fee of around $15 (conveniently added on to your parents' cable bill) you would get a black box you could plug into the top of your console. Via a connection to your cable line, Sega Channel would provide you streaming access to 50 games per month across a variety of categories. You could play the games as much as you wanted, and the lineup of offered games regularly included some of Sega's biggest hits. Occasionally, games which had never seen a North American release or "special" versions of popular games would be available.

Though it wasn't without its problems (signal quality issues could cause games to crash or develop bugs and the system required frequent resets in order to work properly), Sega Channel worked remarkably well for the years it was on the market. By the time it was released I had already owned the Genesis for several years (see The Quest for the Perfect Console Ownership Timeline for more on that), and despite already owning around 40 games I could always find games worth playing on Sega Channel.

Even the Sega Channel menus were amazing, changing from month to month along with the selection of games and featuring interactive color-shifting loading screens backed with music from the composer of Toejam and Earl -- and everyone knows how great that game's music was, right?

The lack of the ability to save games meant that playing most RPGs (such as my beloved Shining Force) was a fool's errand, but I spent hours and hours enjoying titles like Skitchin', Comix ZoneVectorman, and other titles from the years when the Genesis was at the peak of its technological powers and popularity.

Too Beautiful For This World

sega genesis skitchin sad

Unfortunately, like all good things in this trash dump world, Sega Channel was destined to end too soon.

1995 was a year of decline for the Genesis, and nothing on Earth was going to stop it -- certainly not some weird little streaming thing that wasn't available everywhere. The Sony PlayStation was a reality, and Genesis was on its way out. A service as technically complex to maintain as Sega Channel would have required a substantial subscriber base to be viable, and the number of Genesis owners was heading into permanent decline. At the same time, Sega as a company was shifting much of its focus to the Saturn, leaving fewer resources to support the odd little last-gen service.

Sega Channel was doomed. But I didn't know that. How could I? I was only twelve years old.

All I knew was that one day, my Sega Channel wasn't working. That wasn't terribly unusual. It was plagued with weird bugs and connection issues which a reset was usually enough to fix.

Only this time, that didn't work.

I reset the system again and again. I unhooked all the cables and then reattached them. I waited a day and tried again. Nothing would fix it. My Sega Channel was broken.

sega channel

I explained the problem to my mom, and that weekend we decided to take the defective Sega Channel equipment to our local cable company office. We set the sad collection of wires and plastic down on the counter. The cable company employees stared in confusion at what we had brought with us, and at one point someone disappeared into a back room for a while.

Eventually, the cable company offered an explanation. There was nothing wrong with my Sega Channel equipment. It wasn't working anymore because SEGA CHANNEL WAS OVER. It had been discontinued, and that information had never reached us. I had to bring in my "broken" Sega Channel in order to find out the whole service was dead.

Needless to say, it wasn't a great day.

R.I.P. Sega Channel. You were a great idea that came just a couple of years too late to be the huge hit it deserved to be.