Sega cable channel proving unbeatable with video game junkies THE NEXT LEVEL

July 26, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

For six hours a day, 10-year-old Adam Swinder stares at his television screen, doing battle with zombies, saving the planet, rescuing cheerleaders, being transformed into a flying dragon.

"Fifty games every month, how could things get better?" asks Adam, completely absorbed by the nation's first video-game channel.

Get ready, Baltimore. Be forewarned, parents. The Sega Channel, a video-arcade-on-cable that allows subscribers to play video games 24 hours a day -- or until your Sega Genesis machine blows a fuse -- is here.

Video addicts such as Adam love it -- and so do parents who are going broke from buying game cartridges or renting them at the video store. While some may see peril in a machine that allows kids -- and adults -- to play video games until their thumbs drop off, folks such as Adam are too busy trying to reach the next level to care.

Seated on the floor of his Hamilton home, Adam is taking full advantage of the Sega Channel's invitation to "Stop just watching TV." A self-proclaimed expert with six years of experience playing Sega games, Adam is hard at work obeying the challenge of Altered Beast, a game in which the player is commanded to "rise from the grave and rescue my daughter."

Altered Beast is pretty intense stuff. His character starts off as the recently dead, then evolves -- through various acquisitions -- into a human, then a barbarian and finally a gladiator. But Adam is up to the task, and by the time he reaches the game's second level of difficulty, in which his once-dead hero is transformed into a flying dragon doing battle with a huge, menacing eyeball, you get the feeling that the man's daughter is going to be all right.

"I can get all the way up to level three easily," Adam says, more as a statement of fact than a brag. "It gets really tough after that."

Adam got the Sega Channel three weeks ago -- almost as soon as it became available in Baltimore.

Sega officials won't reveal exact numbers, but they say the fledgling channel, launched in December, is offered on 200 cable systems nationwide, making it available to more than 10 million households.

In these parts, cable subscribers in Baltimore and northern Anne Arundel County can sign up with Sega, and plenty of people are clamoring for it.

"We can't install them fast enough," says Paul Janson, general manager of Intermedia of Maryland, one of two cable companies servicing customers in the northern half of Anne Arundel County. "We're already [booked] through the end of July for installs."

It's not hard to see why video game addicts are lining up to sample Sega's offerings. For a monthly fee of about $12, plus a one-time installation fee ($25 through United Artists or Intermedia; Anne Arundel customers of Jones Cable pay $29.95 to rent the converter, plus $10 if they won't install it themselves), players can play the 50 games as often as they want. That's not a bad deal at all, considering game cartridges usually sell for $50-$60 or rent for $3 each.

"It's worth it," says Mary Swinder, Adam's mother, who learned about the economic benefits the hard way.

"Kids like to break the code, they like to beat the game, and that takes a couple weeks," she says. "One time I rented this game and gave it to Adam to play. I'm absent-minded, and I forgot about it. A few weeks later, he gave it back to me. When I took it back to the video store, the guy asked me if I wanted to buy it. For what I paid in fees that night, I could have bought two months of cable."

Still, not everyone thinks the channel is a child's best friend. Some warn that the Sega Channel may be fine in small doses but can be harmful if children park themselves in front of the TV all day and abandon other kinds of play.

"I'd really like kids to learn to play chess and other board games, like Monopoly," says Stevanne Auerbach, head of the San Francisco-based Institute for Childhood Resources. "They're important because children get to set their own rate, the pacing's not imposed by a joystick. I want them to learn to think things through."

A steady diet of speed-oriented games, she notes, can make it tough for teachers who have to convince children of the value of such slower-paced activities as reading and deductive reasoning.

"Games that are in the industry now," she says, "are still in the shoot-shoot mentality. They're not problem-solving, they're more of a reaction time. It's target-practice thinking."

Such concerns seem to have little effect on the channel's popularity. Mr. Janson says 240 Intermedia customers have signed on for Sega since it became available July 1. Coles B. Ruff Jr., general manager of United Artists Cable of Baltimore, estimates 100 city cable subscribers have signed on during the same period -- even though UA doesn't plan on advertising the channel's availability until September.

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