Category Archives: Network Play

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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The Sega Pluto: It’s Not a Planet Either…

The Sega Pluto

Sega released their 32-bit console, the Sega Saturn, on the heels of the popular Genesis (Mega Drive) and its host of add-ons, so its not surprising that a prototype combining the Genesis with its expensive add-on, the 32x, and originally set to release around the same time was codenamed the Sega Neptune. The Neptune was never released and though it may have been a cool concept, it was probably a good business decision in the end – Sega had already wasted enough resources on Genesis add-ons and didn’t need to cannibalize sales of the newly released Saturn. Of course, you can stuff a 32x into a Genesis model 2 yourself to create your own Neptune, but somehow its not quite the same.

The Sega Neptune

Sega Neptune prototype, a Genesis with built in 32x.

Sega NetLink

The NetLink allowed for long-distance multiplayer.

This brings us to the only real hardware add-on for the Saturn in North America, the NetLink, which allowed for direct peer-to-peer linking over telephone lines for long-distance multiplayer. Because it didn’t require connection to a central server (like the now-defunct Xband) the NetLink can still be used for long-distance multiplayer to this day, provided that analog phone lines are used rather than digital phone lines. If you really want, you can even invest in a telephone line simulator to connect two NetLinks together for local multiplayer. That’s right, the DirectLink isn’t the only local System Link for the Saturn! For more information on the NetLink in general, I’d recommend checking out the NetLink League Forums.

Sega PlutoKnowing Sega’s penchant for add-ons and console redesigns in the past, one may speculate that Sega may at one time have considered something similar to the Neptune that integrated a NetLink unit directly into a Saturn console, perhaps even codenamed the Sega Pluto…? (Side Note: It’s no wonder they switched tactics with the Dreamcast name, they ran out of planets, even for 1996 standards!) Well in April, it was confirmed by a post on the Assemblr forums from former Sega employee “Super Magnetic” that this was indeed the case. Though he didn’t start working for Sega until after the project had been discontinued and so didn’t work on the Pluto project himself, he did manage to get his hands on an actual, working prototype unit which he claims to be the second of only two units ever produced. Super Magnetic was kind enough to post-up several pictures of what he dubbed “console” porn which I will share as well. I highly recommend checking out his topic on Assemblr – he shares a bit of what it was like working for Sega and goes into much more detail about the unit itself.

Sega Pluto (bottom) Sega Pluto (back) Sega Pluto (side)
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