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May 2015 Retro Gaming Article

May 12, 2015 Retro Gaming Blog Post:

Multi-player online gaming at 2400 baud, in 1994, with XBand for Genesis & SNES

Catapult Entertainment's XBand logo If your had a CVC GameLine for your Atari 2600, you may have been curious to try Catapult Entertainment's XBand modem on your Genesis or SNES. Similar to the Gameline, XBand was a hardware device that interfaced with the game console via the cartridge slot. It provided a pass-through for inserting compatible game carts and an RJ-11 port for your phone line.

In late 1994, the XBand modem was released for the Sega Genesis and six months later for Nintendo's SNES. Such rudimentary devices didn't always perform well, but they were way ahead of their time. The XBand allowed you to connect to a central server, via your home phone, and play select games against other players who were also connected.

Lots of computer users were accustomed to similar connections to BBS (bulletin board systems) where they could chat, search for info, and download files. Prodigy emerged in 1994 as one of the first user friendly services. A GUI interface made navigating simple for almost any user, but the whole experience was severely limited compared to what was available on the average BBS.

XBand Packaging

Catapult Entertainment's XBand modem The front of Catapult Entertainment's XBand modem.
Catapult Entertainment's XBand modem The back of Catapult Entertainment's XBand modem.

The XBand moden cost $19.99 and also worked in conjunction with a less popular Keyboard that sold for $29.99. The keyboard connected via the second player's controller port. I'll bet the keyboard would have been more popular had the XBand been in in production as online services like CompuServe, Prodigy, Delphi, and AOL reached greater penetration.

Catapult Entertainment's XBand modem Of all the online services available in that era, I loved Delphi's online service. I found it offered a great deal of info while other services like Prodigy were more entertainment focused. Had I carried my BBS and Delphi passion to gaming, I'd have loved the XBand! However, I was never aware of it's existence during it's operational window.

Launched in 4 cities, XBand spread out, but it was never on my radar. I wonder how an experience like that might have shaped my later interests. I can't help but feel that I'd have been enthralled at being able to play with friends on the couch or someone across the country!

Operational Oddities

I've read that, players typically challenged one another within their own area code due to long distance charges. This makes sense on some levels, but I also read that players dialed up to connect to a central server. Services like CompuServe and Prodigy had local dial up number to let users call without additional phone charges. With that in mind, I'm not sure I understand why this limited you to local players. I'd have thought that a local dial up number would connect you to a central location where you could connect with anyone who was also dialed in.

Remember that this wasn't a very popular accessory. It was a niche item that certainly had a following, but multi-player gaming was not established the way it is today. In fact a majority of gamers may not have been aware it was possible. With limited membership, how likely would it be to find another player in your area who was also dialed in? I'd love to see the user manual for this devices. That would shed a lot of light on how one found an online opponent to play with.

If you haven't seen the XBand in action, here's a YouTube video showing the interface. It even had a newsletter that could be downloaded to the device and read on-screen. Apparently these newsletters stayed on the Hardware - not long ago some retro gamers were scouring for owners who may still have those old newsletters sitting dormant on their XBand modems.

The XBand service was shut down in mid 1997 as other services specific to newer game consoles offered similar play options. It's interesting to think that modems, like the XBand, expanded game play across every boundary gamers of the mid 90s could imagine. These days, it seems that gaming is exclusively online multi-player. So few gamers would invite friends over to s chill on the couch and play video games.

I grew up loving Atari sleep-overs where we gathered all our carts and had long manic sessions. We discovered new titles and new tactics while wrapped in sleeping bags with a bowl of chips between us. The ability to reach out to other players via the phone line would have been mind blowing.

Having grown up playing with friends at my house or theirs, I've never had much interest in online multiplayers. Today I see many of those games secluding players rather than bringing them together. I much prefer a couch full of friends when it comes to "multi player" gaming. I wonder if I'd feel different had I experienced online gaming in the SNES and Genesis era? I like to think I'd still rather have my friends crowded into my living room!

Catapult Entertainment's XBand modem

SNES Games Supported by XBand

  1. Doom
  2. Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball
  3. Kirby's Avalanche
  4. Killer Instinct
  5. Madden NFL 95
  6. Madden NFL 96
  7. Mortal Kombat II
  8. Mortal Kombat 3
  9. NBA Jam TE
  10. NHL 95
  11. NHL 96
  12. Super Mario Kart
  13. Super Street Fighter II
  14. WeaponLord

Genesis Games Supported by XBand

  1. Madden NFL '95
  2. Madden NFL '96
  3. Mortal Kombat
  4. Mortal Kombat II
  5. Mortal Kombat 3
  6. NBA Jam
  7. NBA Live 95
  8. NBA Live 96
  9. NHL '94
  10. NHL '95
  11. NHL '96
  12. Primal Rage
  13. Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers
  14. Weaponlord

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