Nintendo was not the only company that was experimenting in the 16 bit era. Sega, too, tried many ideas, some successful, many less so. One of their more successful experiments was the Sega Channel. Released in 1994 and lasting until 1998, the Sega Channel was a service offered by cable companies that would plug into a Sega Genesis, which was known as the Mega Drive outside of the US. This gave the user access to a set number of games on a rotating basis, some of which were not released commercially. It also featured demos of upcoming games, Sega news, and the occasional contest. At the peak of its American popularity, a third of the population had access to it, of which 250,000 households subscribed. This was out of 2 million Genesis consoles sold in the US.
A notable game that came only to Sega Channel was Pulseman. This game, made by Game Freak, the creators of Pokémon, came out commercially in Japan. But in the US, it was only available for a limited time on Sega Channel. However, the game’s preexisting English translation from the Sega Channel likely paved the way for its eventual release on the Nintendo Virtual Console.
The Sega Channel is particularly notable for its international nature. At a time when many games and services came only to Japan, the Sega Channel was not only in Japan and the US but also Europe, Australia, and South America. This partially speaks to how Sega was relatively decentralized. Unlike Nintendo, where the American subsidiary was completely commanded by the parent company in Japan, Sega’s branches had more autonomy. Sega of America even formed a team to work on their own console during the development of the Dreamcast. It also shows how Sega was more internationally popular than Nintendo – Nintendo did not have much luck with distributors outside of the US, while Sega did much better. That influence can be seen to this day in Brazil.
The demise of the Sega Channel came in 1998, not long before the release of the Sega Dreamcast. At the time, Sega was reeling from the continual failure of the Sega Saturn, caused by a failure to localize and advertise good games properly. They likely wanted to focus all of their few remaining resources on getting good launch games for the Dreamcast, but abandoned good games they already had for the Genesis.
The Sega Channel’s “games on demand” approach is very reminiscent of game download services today. But despite this early innovation, the Sega Channel is a relative footnote in history, and Sega no longer makes consoles. This is a pattern that is seen often when looking back on Sega’s history, and it goes to show the importance of proper management, not just products. Good games and innovative hardware are all well and good, but if they aren’t advertised properly, they stand no chance.
However, one of the more surprising and subtle contributions of the Sega Channel has nothing to do with games at all. In order to send the amount of data required by the Sega Channel, good connections were required, so cable companies that offered the Sega Channel had to improve their networks. The infrastructure laid in part due to Sega, therefore, allowed for modern cable and internet connections.