SNESoIP: The XBAND of the 21st Century

SNESoIP Prototype

xband modemsAficionados of the online capabilities of early video game consoles will no doubt be aware of the XBAND modem, developed by Catapult in the mid 1990s, which allowed for long distance multiplayer on certain SNES and Genesis games (and in some cases, cross-multiplayer between the two systems). The XBAND worked over analog telephone lines, with the modem itself plugging into the cartridge slot of its respective system, acting like a pass-through device for games. In layman’s terms, it worked by connecting to official XBAND servers and downloading a patch for the relevant game; these games were not designed for use with the XBAND so certain aspects of the game, like random number generators, had to be modified. Essentially, the XBAND modem “tricked” the game into thinking the set-up was local multiplayer. Players could then connect directly to others if their phone number was known, or they could use Catapault’s servers to search for other players. Unfortunately, since Catapult has since shut down its servers, the service is now dead, though there have been attempts at a revival. Apparently, aspects of the XBAND service were aquired by Sega and used in the official Japanese modem for the Saturn. The American modem, the NetLink, also used a similar service, but because it allowed for direct-dialing, it can still be used to the present day for long distance multiplayer over analog telephone lines.

SNESoIP prototype controller boxCue German Hacker Michael Fitzmayer who has recently developed a prototype for a similar system, which he calls SNESoIP (for SNES over IP). Instead of a pass-through system for the cartridge, his device uses a pass-through system for the SNES controller so that it can transmit any controller input over broadband and also receive controller inputs from a long distance “Player 2” and relay it on to the SNES system. The device must interact with a server to do this (similar to the original XBAND service) but this means additional features can be implemented, such as a “controller switching” option which allows each player to act as the “Player 1” in their own game. Note, this IS over broadband rather than peer-to-peer analog telephone lines and as such, lag can become a real issue, especially over longer distances. Also, because the current SNESoIP prototype is only sending controller signals, any game that features any sort of randomness (e.g. placement or movement of enemies, items in Mario Kart, etc.) won’t really work. Nevertheless, it’s still an amazing proof of concept/work in progress which is long overdue, in my own opinion. For more information, check out the readme file on its GitHub project page. And finally, the following is a video posted by Michael showing the SNESoIP in action, playing “Zombies Ate My Neighbors”. The game doesn’t seem to use any randomness so it works almost exactly like a local multiplayer set-up, but one can see definite lag issues. I personally look forward to watching this still burgeoning project evolve over time.


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