In 1996 computers were still expensive and not affordable for every family. New technologies, such as WebTV, were emerging to bring the Internet into the living room even for those without a PC or Mac. One such device was the NetLink.
NetLink was a 28.8kbps dial-up modem sold by Sega for its struggling Sega Saturn videogame console. The initial retail price was $199.99; quite high for a game peripheral, but inexpensive for an Internet device.
This marked the beginning of a broad vision, a world where gamers can sit in their living room and play a game against an opponent half way across the country, or around the world, even. Sega teamed up with a company called Catapult, which years before had limited success in online gaming with their XBAND modem.
The Web Browser
Packed in with the NetLink modem was a web browser from Planet Web; a technological marvel, really. It was thought to be a near impossible task given the Saturn’s limited RAM and resources.
Planet Web’s former CEO, Ken Soohoo, describes how the browser came to be in an interview with NetLinkWorld.com:
“I took the business plan to our current Chairman of the Board, Kamran Elahian. I used to work for Kamran at a company called Momenta. He told me that if I wanted to start a company, I should call him. So, I did. Two days later, we were on the plane to Tokyo. Kamran, it turns out, knows a few people at Sega.
“Another day goes by and we were making the business pitch to Sega's Board of Directors. Sega said that they had a competing product for the Japan market already. I said that me and the team could make a better product, in 10 weeks. We would start from 0, nothing, and make a better looking product. Sega said that we would have to compete head-to-head with the Japanese product. If we won, we would get the US market. If we lost, oh well.
“So, we went back to the US and worked on three thing s: #1: Hire the founding team. #2: Raise the money to pay the founding team. #3: Make the product, do it fast, and do it better than anyone else.
“So, from March 1996 to May 1996 we worked like crazy. In May 1996 we showed at E3 and competed against the Japanese browser. Needless to say, we killed 'em! So, the US market was Planet Web's Sega made a small investment in the company after that, along with another large Japanese company. The product launch was in October 1996. That's the story.”
The initial web browser, dubbed “Version 2” is what NetLink owners, who fondly refer to themselves as “NetlLinkers”, first saw. The home screen consisted of a virtual city on Planet Oasis designed by Ark Interface dubbed, “NetLink City.” It featured 20 city blocks and over 200 preselected links that led to places like The Smithsonian, Disney Online, and Concentric Networks, Sega’s official ISP.
The browser’s control scheme was clever. It featured a “command cluster” that could be brought up with the “Start” button on the Saturn controller. From the command cluster NetLinkers could access back and forward buttons, go to the home page, check email, manage bookmarks, and more. Over time, many of these commands would be mapped as shortcuts to buttons directly on the Saturn controller. Predictably, the D-pad was used to control the cursor. And there was even a magnifier to help read small text on low resolution TV sets.
A keyboard wasn’t standard equipment for the Saturn, and NetLink didn’t ship with one. With this in mind, Planet Web included a virtual keyboard which popped up on screen any time a text field was selected. Users would then use the mouse to select letters from the keyboard. The process was incredibly tedious. Point-and-click is no way to write and email or communicate in a chat room.
Most NetLinkers took advantage of one of two products, either an optional keyboard, or a keyboard adaptor, both of which were made available by Sega. Typing with keyboard in lap was a great improvement. Even a mouse was available. With the right setup, a NetLinker could have a desktop experience.
Over time, Planet Web became Planetweb and released various upgrades to the browser. These patches could be downloaded from Planetweb.com and improved the overall functionality of the browser.
A second official browser was released by mail order in 1997, cleverly titled “Sega Saturn Net Link Custom Web Browser Version 3.0.” This browser marked an important milestone. Not only did NetLinkers no longer have to download updates, but the first two online games that support the NetLink were released simultaneously: Virtual On: Cyber Troopers and Sega Rally Championship.
A Sense of Community
Before long, NetLinkers began to find each other online. WBS, a web based chat service, was the first meeting ground. A chatroom called NetlinkORama was formed where friendships were formed.
Not long after it was discovered that the Version 2 browser was capable of IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Now NetLinkers could chat in real time. Sega quickly set up an IRC server and #NetLink1 was the place to be.
One entrepreneurial member of the community, Jonathan Pickard, launched the first web domain dedicated to all things NetLink, the now defunct NetLinkWorld.com. The site featured news, reviews, interviews, and a WWWBoard, what it now commonly referred to as a forum; yet another place for NetLinkers to meet and congregate.
Sega of America, for their part, supported the community by providing links to WBS, IRC servers, and popular sites on their own NetLink site, “NetLink Zone.”
NetLinkers began forming their own websites almost immediately using free services such as Angelfire and GeoCities. Dozens of pages sprouted up with the logo “Designed with a Sega Saturn NetLink.” These fan pages formed clubs in many cases, and included newsletters, special tips to survive the Internet on a NetLink, and game tournaments. Some were connected with a WebRing. Even Planetweb supported a NetLink customer mailing list. Most of these sites are long gone today, but a few can be found on ReoCities.com, or by using tools such as Archive.org.
Designing a website on a NetLink was no easy task. Simple tools like Notepad, Word, Frontpage, and others were not an option. The NetLink browser did not even support the ability to cut and paste. NetLinkers had to write out HTML by hand. There could only be one window at a time open, so if some code couldn’t be memorized, then it would have to be written down on paper for later use.
Planetweb helped the community by introducing the Planet WebMaster, a web-based FTP tool that worked with NetLink browsers only.
In the United States gamers could play each other online via direct dial. The process worked like this:
First a NetLinkable game would be booted up in the Saturn, and then connected to the Internet. There players would join chatrooms with other gamers who were online at the same time and looking for a match.
Because it was direct dial this meant that at some point two NetLinkers would need to exchange phone numbers and one would then dial the other via the NetLink modem. Unfortunately, this meant that long distance charges, which were high in those days, would apply. As a solution, a NetLink white pages was created to help gamers find other local players.
In the end, only five NetLinkable games were released in the US, out of the two dozen that were proposed. They are:
· Virtual On: Cyber Troopers: NetLink Edition
· Sega Rally Championship Plus: NetLink Edition
· Saturn Bomberman
· Duke Nukem 3D
· Daytona USA CCE: NetLink Edition
Every game except for Saturn Bomberman only allowed for up to two players, which was especially disappointing in the case of Duke Nukem 3D. However, allowing up to four simultaneous players made Bomberman a huge hit in the NetLink community. Daytona USA CCE: NetLink Edition was made available by mail order only and has become the one of the rarest Saturn games, often fetching more than $500 at auction.
Playing games online wasn’t the only “online” component that NetLink added to Saturn games. Any game saved file could be sent as an email attachment to another NetLinker. Planetweb stored hundreds of saved game files on their website for download. This was especially helpful when, say you really want to play as all the characters in Fighter’s Megamix or Sonic R but don’t want to unlock them all yourself.
NetLink Today and its Legacy
Because of the direct dial nature of NetLink games, they’re still playable online today. All a person needs is an analog phone service and an opponent. Finding other players isn’t so difficult either as one might think. Many former NetLinkers participate in a reunion thread on ConsoleCity forums. There’s a Facebook NetLinkers Fan Page, and a website called The NetLink League where match requests can be made on their forums.
Planetweb went on to port their NetLink web browser over the Sega’s Dreamcast in time for its 9.9.99 launch, and continued to make improvements, eventually allowing for MP3 support and custom pJava. They continued to support Dreamcast until the end and even made a PlayStation 2 browser for the Japanese market before ultimately leaving the console business forever. On December 11th 2009, Planetweb was bought out by Monotype Imaging and is no more.
Sega continued their roles as the world’s trailblazer in the realm of online console gaming. Saturn’s successor, the Dreamcast, shipped with a 56Kbps modem which could be upgraded to broadband. Direct dial was a thing of the past as Dreamcast gamers were able to connect to networks and join lobbies to find opponents free of charge. Games like NFL 2K1 and Phantasy Star Online were revolutionary. Some online Dreamcast games could even compete with their PC counterparts, such as Quake III: Arena and StarLancer.
Microsoft picked up the torch from Sega when they launched their Xbox Live service in 2002. Sony soon followed with a service of their own, and even Nintendo has online capabilities for its home consoles.
Sega may have only sold an estimated 50,000 NetLink units in North America, half of its original goal, but the lasting impact is felt today as gamers all over the world go online for a game of Madden, Halo, or Call of Duty… most of whom aren’t even aware of the NetLink or the contributions it made.