Who doesn’t love those failed videogame peripherals of yore? At RWX last Sunday, Yahel Velazquez of Wrestling With Gaming, took a look at two of the more obscure items from the early to mid-nineties.
The first item Velazquez presented for consideration was Sega VR, a virtual reality accessory for the Sega Genesis. It never ended up on the shelves, but it was cancelled after manufacture and even made it to the cover of a Popular Science magazine. The time was ripe, VR was getting attention as the next big thing, and The Lawnmower Man (1992) had gotten the general public excited about the possibilities of VR. So what happened?
In winter of 1993, the VR headset was shown off, and we watched some of the footage from E3 and the unrelentingly corny trailer for the system. It was only supposed to be $200, and it did have accurate head tracking. A kid in the clip, hyped up by the announcement, said, “I thought I was gonna have to wait to be 30 to get VR!” Bad news, kid.
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The Sega VR Headset. Planned for the Mega drive/Genesis and the Saturn but Never officially released. I can remember all the hype in the media about it at the time (around 1993 if I remember correctly) and personally I'd love to have tried it. #sega #segagenesis #segamegadrive #segasaturn #segavr #videogames #gamer #playstation #ps4 #psvr #xbox #xboxone #microsoft #nintendo #nintendoswitch #3ds #80s #90s #waterford #ireland #irishgamer #retrocollectiveireland
The resolution was only 320×240, which received mixed responses (as comparison, the average image uploaded in an article on this website is 600×400). Although adults tested well with the system, it gave kids migraines and bouts of motion sickness. Of course, they hadn’t bothered testing with kids until manufacturing hadn’t occurred, and there was even a publicized contest in partnership with Alpha-Bits that featured the grand prize of a VR system, never to be fulfilled.
Velazquez did point out that Sega took the complaints seriously and did do extensive testing with third parties once complaints started rolling in. And it is to their credit that they did not release the potentially harmful item in the market. Of course, Sega’s official statement on why they pulled the system was a little different: “[They said it was] so realistic, people were getting hurt.”
Next, Velazquez brought up the XBAND, the subject of the current video he’s working on for Wrestling With Gaming. The idea behind the XBAND was that it would allow Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis users to connect to other players around the world, using telephone lines. And it worked!
It actually had many features that online gamers are used to today, such as skill-based match-making, leaderboards, avatars, and even e-mail (Velazquez said that it’s exciting to pick up XBANDs that still have working batteries to see what’s still in their memory). Unlike Sega VR, it did make it to shelves, and went for $19.99, with $4.95 for basic monthly service charges. Of course, you could wrack up your phone bill if you went outside your “local call” area.
Velazquez pointed out that even this system had online gaming predecessors. The Atari 2600 had Gameline capabilities, which subscribers could use to download games after they had installed the necessary part. The Famicon also had a cartridge-like device that allowed one to check the weather, bank, and even bet on horse races. XBAND was closer to this, plugging into a system, then getting the console placed on top, similar to a Game Genie or Sonic & Knuckles cartridges.
He then explained how the XBAND was meant to–and still can–work. Amazingly, the system didn’t lag, because it was able to send uncompressed data–no time was wasted on compression. It would then download all the data needed to a server. This server also had news about tournaments and games.
As for how the system worked, the XBAND essentially “hacked” the game to make it adapt to the XBAND’s needs when they were connected. The system’s compatible library was constantly updated, one of the gaming announcements users could look at. If you saw something new you wanted, you could download the firmware and you would be good to go.
At its peak, XBAND had around 7000 users. Sega had even developed a keyboard accessory for the system, and although it was not mentioned in the marketing of the day, Killer Instinct had been made to be compatible from the get-go. The XBAND team even wanted to pursue development for the accessory that would give it the ability to function like a GameShark. However, the accessory gave up the ghost long before this was possible.
It had a lot going against it: it was released close to the end of the 16-bit era, it was virtually useless if you lived in an area where there weren’t a lot of people that had or were using it (unless, again, you were willing to rack up your phone bill), there was “inner-company drama” at Catapult Entertainment, and a price cut from $70 to $20 to make the system more palatable meant every XBAND sold actually cost the company money.
But this isn’t the end of the XBAND’s story. There is a group of modders trying to revive it. They are optimistic that it could be back “in a few months.” Velazquez didn’t get too much into this, promising that in his video about the XBAND, there would be more information. He said that the XBAND video would be out “within a month or so,” and he already has a video about Sega VR on his channel if you’re interested in learning more that.
If you’re interested in learning about the other events and panels that went on at Retro World Expo 2018, please check out our hub page for the expo here.