Console Gaming’s Forgotten 16-bit Online Network

 

I collect a lot of vintage gaming magazines. Some might say it’s just for the nostalgia value, but it’s a little more than that. More about preserving heritage, I think. You see, going through those old magazines, you find all sorts of hidden gems and relics from our past that we so often forget. It’s easy to look at today’s release calendar and know what a blockbuster is, and what isn’t. Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 will ship like 8 million copies. Today, go to a used game shop and look in the bargain bin. You’ll probably find a copy of something like Cyber Sled for PS1, or Road Rash. These titles may seem totally unfamiliar, but they once sold millions of copies. Looking through these magazines, you’re reminded that these seemingly forgettable releases were once important and sold millions of copies. The same may be said of today’s games in 20 years. The industry moves fast.

While browsing through an old copy of GameFan that I picked up from a convention for a mere $0.25, I stumbled across an old forgotten relic that laid the groundwork for today’s modern gaming online infrastructure… X-Band. Created by Catapult Entertainment and distributed by THQ, X-Band was a third party online gaming pass through solution for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Image in the 90s it was possible to play Primal Rage, Mortal Kombat 3, Super Street Fighter II, Super Mario Kart, Doom, NFL 94, NBA Jam, Killer Instinct, Madden 96, Tetris Attack, and so many other classics online with buddies across the nation on a private online retro gaming network, all via dial-up internet. We’re talking prehistoric America Online days, and this was all possible. The X-Band network was pretty underground, but it was also quite frankly – the shit.

While a precious few games were made with the service in mind (such as Super Street Fighter II for Geensis – hence the Wii online version), X-Band usually worked by literally soft-patching existing game ROMS on the fly with online support data to give popular titles online play, then dialing your opponent directly, and serving as a cartridge pass-through to connect you with an opponent across hundreds or thousands of miles. Individual credits could be purchased for online matches for cents on the dollar, or in batches. What we so readily take for granted today was possible in 1994! Built in, you had support for XMAIL, User Profiles (4 per house) with password protection, friend lists, deliciously 90s style avatars, matchmaking, and online ranked leader-boards, with your stats displayed on your profile. You could read basic daily gaming news, read sponsored channel info like MTV News, and even login to Nintendo Power Source to vote on Most Wanted lists and Game of the Year awards.

It’s no wonder that X-Band never broke into the mainstream, and a decade before Xbox Live entered the scene. This stuff was way over the head of your average computer user at the time who still considered Windows 95 to be a bleeding edge tech. Even so, it’s reassuring to know that the world’s first full fledged console gaming online battleground might be making a comeback thanks to the homebrew scene. Work is being done to bring X-Band back to life via emulation, and perhaps even on real hardware. Wouldn’t it be nice to once again be able to play classics like Super Mario Kart online once more?

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