The Stupid History of Downloadable Games

Today we take downloadable content for granted. After all, rumors have been circulating that the next generation of hardware might not even have a disc drive, or at least will allow digital releases the same day as their retail counterparts. This has already begun – PSP titles can be downloaded straight to the Vita, which is probably great for the 12 people that own one. Many will lament this inevitable change and miss that new box/toxic plastic smell and the ability to display their game collection proudly. But how long has this trend been in the making? Let’s look at some stupid game history.

The PlayCable worked liked this: Hook it up, view list of available games on screen, select one you want to play, and the code for the game was beamed to the device over the wire.

To start, we have to go all the way back to 1981. Hey, we get to see Raiders in theaters! And not that other piece of junk.

Back then, Intellivision released a contraption called the PlayCable. It was an adapter for your console that allowed you to play games through your Cable TV signal. Really.

It worked like this: hook up PlayCable, view list of available games on screen, select one you want to play, and the code for the game was beamed to the device over the wire. It promised to rotate all the games every month, so for the price of a cable subscription, you could enjoy endless gaming! Even Mickey Mantle liked it! Man, what could have gone wrong?

Unfortunately, everything. The most obvious problem brought down the PlayCable in less than 2 years. You see, the box only had 4k of internal RAM to store the game memory, which was fine at the time. Of course, when 8- and 16-bits became the cool new thing, the device became hilariously insufficient. I guess someone thought DigDug was going to be the epitome of good graphics forever.

Also, you had to rent the adapter from your cable company, and when you were done with it, give it back to them. So someone probably has a warehouse full of these things somewhere.

The industry tried again with the GameLine in 1983 for the Atari 2600.

This time, gamers purchased a cartridge that connected to the telephone line. The promise seemed awesome: over 75 games offered to download. That’s a lot of games to choose from. Individual games were expensive back then, and this was an old-school version of GameFly for the price of a new game today. Or 60 Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers, whichever way you measure things like that.

As if you didn’t see this coming, there was a pretty big catch. In addition to the $15 subscription fee after the first year, each game download cost a dollar. That dollar paid for a limited time license of the game. This meant that if you wanted to play Adventure for an eleventh time, that’d be another dollar please.

Oh wait, you couldn’t play Adventure ever, because none of the big publishers even agreed to release games for the service, including, you know, Atari. Considering that this was made for the Atari 2600, that’s kind of a problem. That would be like if Xbox Live only let you play Alvin and The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked and then charged you extra for it.

Next up: The Sega Channel in 1994. Debuting on the Sega Genesis. this service was chock full of goodies. You got unlimited access to 50 games at a time, rotating every month, which only took less than a minute to start playing. The service featured dynamic menus (which you can see emulated here), demos for soon-to-be-released games, exclusives, full text-based manuals, cheats, tips, and contests in which you could win real prizes. At its peak, the service reached almost a quarter of a million customers. Really, this was miles ahead of its time. I’m actually at a loss for words, because the Sega Channel sounds totally awesome. How in the hell could they screw this up?

Recommended Videos

Sega started where Intellivision left off, but made the same mistakes. This thing was a cartridge/adapter that let you “download” games via coaxial cable. The codes for all the games were being continually broadcast over the cable signal, and when you selected a game to play, you had to wait until that particular game’s code came down the cable line, similar to the PlayCable. The real problem was that (again, just like the PlayCable) all of the cart’s storage was RAM, which meant it was erased every time you shut off the console. Even the main menu had to be downloaded every time you turned it on.

Sega started where Intellivision left off, but made the same mistakes.

And of course, timing was everything. The Sega Channel didn’t launch until 5 years into the Genesis’s life cycle. Despite it being a surprisingly popular and incredibly innovative service, Sega refocused efforts onto the Saturn, which, considering the fact that it ended up being a commercial failure to the tune of $250 million, was dumb.

Luckily, thanks to the WayBack Machine (Man, I love that thing) we get a crash course in how to make a terrible 90’s website. Feast your eyes on the FAQ page, in which one of the answers literally includes the phrase “you’ll be bummin’,” or if you are feeling radical, check out the list of Sega Channel mascot characters, including D-Mack, who will put you away with his “D-Mack Smack Attack.” And of course, I wouldn’t leave you hangin’ ten without a commercial that features a grotesque abomination of fashion choices.
After Sega, Nintendo just had to get in on this game, and for some reason took a step in the complete opposite direction. Enter the Satellaview, an add-on for the Super Famicom. Luckily this was only released in Japan, because it’s pretty stupid.

Ok, I’ll be fair. Before I ridicule it, I guess we can first give them credit for creating a very primitive version of Playstation Home. On startup, you created an avatar and could move them around in a little virtual town, with each storefront being a different activity (viewing leaderboards, taking quizzes, downloading games, etc.).

And what’s this? On-board memory that actually allowed you to save your games, along with expansion packs that could further increase the ROM? Stop the presses.

To see why this thing was silly, though, you have to look at why it was originally built: as a modem to receive satellite broadcasts. That’s what it still did. Even though the games were downloadable in the “virtual town,” most of the content was broadcast on a freakin’ schedule. If Mario was playing at 1 in the morning, you better make damn sure you were on the couch to download it or you missed it. Literally, you played the games when they were scheduled to come on. Some of the games were episodic, meaning if you missed episode two, then you would have to wait for a rerun to experience the part you missed. The technology for on demand gaming was already there, and yet they felt the need to jury-rig this satellite receiver to make sure you had the least amount of freedom possible to play the games you wanted to..

The Satellaview had an “enhanced” broadcast at certain times called “SoundLink” that let you stream narration into your games from voice actors. Or some comedians would read your digital magazines aloud. Interesting…but why? Because of this, these games could never be played outside of the scheduled time (unlike most of the others which only had to be downloaded during the timeframe, but could be played until you overwrote it).

After 5 years of this, Satellaview finally stopped broadcasting in 2000. This was likely due to the inconvenience of only being able to play a game for three specific hours in the middle of the day. Or it was the price tag, as you had to get the device, and a Satellite tuner, and subscriptions to the radio broadcaster and Nintendo. It really doesn’t matter, because either way it was equally stupid. On the bright side, we get to enjoy another amusingly weird retro commercial.

Well, at least the industry learned from all this. The avatars, the “channel” idea, and the virtual town are all fossils of what the current generation has to offer, which is pure greatness in Xbox Live and Playstation Network. Nintendo still doesn’t know what the hell they are doing when it comes to online gaming, but at least I don’t have to wait until 7PM EST to play Mario Kart.

You can see more of Chris Rio’s writing over at

The Escapist is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more
related content
Read Article “Gamers” Are Still Dead, Y’all
Read Article The Escapist’s Big List of 2017 Release Dates
Read Article <i>The Escapist</i>‘s 2016 Game of the Year
Related Content
Read Article “Gamers” Are Still Dead, Y’all
Read Article The Escapist’s Big List of 2017 Release Dates
Read Article <i>The Escapist</i>‘s 2016 Game of the Year