Let Us (X)Band Together – Remembering Early Long-Distance Gaming

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Let me take you back to a simpler time.

A time when the worst worry a gamer had to worry about was figuring out the code to make blood show up in Mortal Kombat.

A time when controllers were passed around so that every kid in the room could contribute to a two-player game.

But what if you could Hadoken some random gamer across town in Street Fighter II or jam on your neighbor’s Scottie Pippen in NBA Jam from the comfort of your parents’ living room?

That is exactly what the XBAND modem was supposed to accomplish.  Released for the Sega Genesis in 1994 and the Super Nintendo in 1995 in the United States, the modem was meant to start the revolution toward gaming with other gamers with the hardware and a working phone line.  While the compatible games list was limited and the modem was only in rotation for a couple of years- the network shut down in 1997- for a brief moment, people saw what gaming could and would be in the future.

I happened to be one of the kids whose parents purchased the XBAND back in the day, and let me tell you- it was a big deal for my pre-teen self.

A Brief History at the Dawn of Online Gaming

Early advertisements for the XBAND promised quite a bit and for the most part, it delivered.  Manufactured by a company called Catapault, the modem was marketed for about twenty dollars and acted much in the way the Sonic & Knuckles cartridge did.  By attaching whichever game you wanted to play with people to the top of the modem, you would be ready to play against randomly matched players across the network.  By connecting with a phone cord directly into your wall, you could take advantage of one of the two payment plans available through the system, each of which would let you play a certain amount of times.  After those were used up, you could continue playing with an additional charge per play.  It wasn’t an ideal situation for my parents, looking back at it, but since that information wasn’t advertised strongly until the box was opened and ready for play, I think a number of parents probably felt obliged to pay the monthly fee for their now excited children.

The XBAND system actually had some neat features that are still alive today in gaming arenas like Steam and other ongoing MMOs.  It could store up to four profiles, each with an avatar, profile, and taunt for when the inevitable online match would connect.  Players could send messages and store a limited number of other players’ codenames for future matches.  Otherwise, matchmaking would be random, based on a rating system that would pair players with others of like stats.  Due to how things shook out, I remember playing against someone a couple of towns over from me, but if you wanted to play against people outside of your area code, there was an extra charge that would be incurred.

That Competitive Edge

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All of the options on the front page- stylistic and 90s as hell.

The stats that I mentioned above were a large part of the XBAND community.  Wins, losses, rankings; all of these were communicated and kept track of, which was innovative for those of us who didn’t take part in tournaments regularly.  Seeing that you were going up against someone nearby who had beaten a slew of people- or even better, who showed up on some of the top rankings- was a rush.  That desire for competition was a distinct feature that the folks at Catapult seemed to recognize and capitalize on in their advertisements.  Much like leaderboards today, many participants wanted to scale their way to the top, and while there were fewer ways to cheat your way to it, there were still some methods to swing the edge in your favor.

The primary issue, of course, was an issue that is still prevalent today in some games- droppers.  If someone was losing a race or a fight and didn’t want it to affect their stats, they could just as easily reset the game and preserve their record.  While XBAND appears to have worked hard to have put a stop to that, dedicated sore sports started to disconnect their phone lines, claiming a number of issues when customer service would follow up.  This skewed stats and, according to a number of sources, probably put a nail in the coffin of the service.

Still, it was no uncommon to jump onto XBAND and see in your ‘Bandwidth’, the regular newsletter that was transmitted to player, the results of the latest tournaments or upcoming events and features on the system of choice.  While yours truly never saw his name in digital glory, it was always fun to see a new set of rankings appear.

The Rise and Fall of XBAND

In the beginning, the modem’s future seemed bright.  XBAND had played well in its limited run when it first appeared on the scene, and it wasn’t long before it started ebbing into smaller communities.  I remember seeing this in the Blockbuster near my house- and apparently it made its way into about 4500 of them.  By then, I had one, though, and I was excited that other people would be around to get murdered on Mortal Kombat with.  (As a note, I should point out that I’m bringing up Mortal Kombat a lot in this article because it was the only game on Sega Genesis that I had that was compatible).  At its peak, it appears that the XBAND had about 15,000 users, which doesn’t sound like much now but given the novelty and the limited number of games available was a decent number.  I was not counted among that number, however, by the time the Catapult crew closed the doors on the service in 1997 due to lack of popularity.

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One of the two advertisements for the XBAND I actually remember.

The popularity of the service aside, however, was most likely due to a number of factors.  Above all, the advertising was scarce, and the games and publishers themselves didn’t seem to do much to help that along.  In researching for this, I managed to find a few articles here and there, half of which were preparatory for the modem’s release, but most of the references I found appear to be much like this one- recent and an exercise in education about peripherals long forgotten aside from by those who experienced them firsthand.  The aforementioned ‘droppers’ and unspecified fees probably didn’t help, and once people started learning how to hack into the XBAND’s icon files and other features, the number of dissatisfied customers began to grow.  Partnered with the up-and-coming features of the now flourishing Internet, it was really just a matter of time before the XBAND would either fold or could be bowed out from gracefully.

Thankfully, Catapult seemed to take the less painful approach.

Looking Back Fondly

‘Fondly’ might be a strong word, but I do remember the exhilaration of playing the XBAND and begging my mother to pay the fees so I could do so.  For better or worse, it was my first jaunt into the online gaming forum, and the only player I remember going up against passed kind messages after matches, despite soundly crushing my poor Sonya Blade with his Sub-Zero a number of times.  I remember being mildly upset that I had the Genesis version instead of the Super Nintendo version because the support of Super Mario Kart on the SNES was something I was desperate to try.  Still, I had more fun looking at stats and getting messages from fellow players- even as a well-spoken ten or eleven year old- and knowing that the community was out there.  There were a bunch of nerd and game fans like me playing all across America and competing to be known as the best.

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Even seeing this basic profile select screen hits me right in the nostalgia.

Looking at the community now, it was honestly probably a bit more toxic than I imagined at the time.  Ah, innocence.

No one I knew ever had the XBAND, though some of my friends were definitely jealous when I told them about it.  It was a permanent fixture in my Sega for a few months and then, as with every subscription to a game I’ve ever had, fell to the wayside when the cost outweighed the amount of use.  I remember checking back in on the modem a few months later and seeing the same Bandwidth on the screen, which I think was talking about the 32X or some other piece of equipment that had just been released, but after that, it was packed away into a box with other video game products I no longer used- and somehow wound up in my basement at the house I just moved into with my husband some twenty or so years later.

To wrap it all up, the XBAND was a short lived concept that was put to rest by issues that are still quashing games today.  Games like the recent Decksplash that have sounded great have found that without the online community to back them up, it may be better to pack up shop and head home, as they rely on having a devout base of players to carry them forward and make the efforts worthwhile enough, profit or otherwise, to follow through on.  The issues that plagued the XBAND still effect the climate today and when you’re one of the first on the scene, you’re bound to succumb to them and influence future generations in the same vein to learn from your experience.

Sources:
http://segaretro.org/XB%E2%88%80ND
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XBAND

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