Retro Moment: Let Us Revisit The XBAND!

For those not initiated:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XBAND

The XBAND, an admittedly clunky device, was one of my first steps towards online gaming as a youngin’. It was tough choosing between the SNES and the Genesis version, but I ultimately went with Genesis since it supported more titles I was playing at the time. (Plus I preferred NBA Jam on the Genesis.)

I mostly bring this forgotten relic into the limelight because of my recent musing: Would gaming be popular today if it still retained the retro aesthetic from yesteryear? Perhaps a retro console would actually succeed nowadays, so long as online play and social networking were to be included. Financially it may be a disaster, but it’s hard to deny that many of the fanboys would kill for just this. Parts and production would be cheap. It would also provide an outlet for developers to release experimental games at very little expense. Distribution and marketing on the other hand…

XBAND, a product that peaked around 1996, was something of a sleeper hit. Or maybe just a hidden gem. The cartridge was not much more than a 56k modem that attached to your game, allowing you to connect to their service for surprisingly competent online play, especially given the time.

For $4.95 a month you were given access to four user names, all of which could store a whopping 10 friends (or rivals) that you met online, or knew personally. Otherwise you were simply allowed to connect to random players, and there was even a leader board system later introduced (but I do believe it was ultimately controlled by hackers.)

I must have been in middle school at the time, playing NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat against “Angel” and “Bandit Cold”, if I remember their names correctly; Often times until 5am in the morning, knowing damn well I only had an hour to go before I would have to be heading out to school. They were both New Jersey fellows, but to this day I have no idea who they are. Maybe it’s better this way. The gameplay was competitive and trash talk was limited to the on-screen keyboard. Interestingly enough, each player was able to choose from 40 different preset gamer avatars to represent themselves, and even enter personal information in their bio section. Other players could even look up their stats and compare them to their own. I always feel like the XBAND lent a hand in inspiring what ultimately became Xbox Live.

Being a gamer, and a young one, I was quick to embrace online gaming at the time. While I still do, and quite thoroughly in the MMO world, when it comes to other genres of gaming? Well, as they say, I’m salty. Knowing that there are no longer arcades I can easily visit has eaten away a chunk of my heart, a battle scar of life, if you don’t mind me getting a bit emo.

XBAND, in a lot of ways, was ahead of it’s time. Online leader boards on their own website? You still can’t get that in many games! Updates were even available online via this same website.

At its height, XBAND had 7,000 subscribed members.

By March 16, 1997, people could only play within their local area code. On April 30, 1997, the entire network was taken offline permanently. Of course, if you can find a unit, there’s still a small community out there that have home brewed the carts into working via 3rd party hackery/firmware.

Poor marketing and title support ultimately did the unit in, the XBAND being something very few people had even heard of, let alone were open to the idea of back in the mid-90’s. For the geekiest of us, it may be our first real experience with online play. For the most cynical, it was the beginning of the end of arcades.  I have a bit of both in me, and coming from a low income household, I didn’t have any other interaction with the internet or computers until many years later.

So here’s to you Catapult Entertainment. You were visionaries. Your device also drove me crazy the first two days I spent trying to get it to dial in.

Genesis:

SNES:

Saturn (Japan XBAND branded releases only)