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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

For their money, Sega Channel users are getting to play such games as "Earthworm Jim," featuring a costumed worm that attempts to outrun and outgun a pack of hungry birds and other assorted projectiles; "Zombies Ate My Neighbors," in which zombie killers amass points for saving helpless humans; "Skitchin'," in which in-line skaters try to latch on to passing cars; the "Adventures of Batman and Robin," during which the Caped Crusaders hurl their "baterangs" at an array of evildoers, and "Beyond Oasis," in which your job is to help our hero, Ali, save his city from nasty, spear-wielding bad guys.

If any of these games seem overly violent, parents shouldn't fear. Like movies, the games are rated for content, and the converters come equipped with instructions on how to lock out certain games.

But it's not just kids who are becoming bug-eyed over the Sega Channel.

"Every bit of spare time that I've had, I've been in front of the television," says Darcy Vice, 33, an emergency medical technician whose Glen Burnie home was wired for Sega Friday. "I consider myself," she adds with a laugh, "what they call a vidiot."

Getting the Sega Channel installed at the Leer household in Glen Burnie was a collaborative effort. Brad, 9, and Justin, 6, paid the installation fee, while Mom and Dad agreed to pony up the monthly charge.

"It's wonderful. We couldn't live without it," says Carla Leer. Brad and Justin keep their Sega Genesis busy during the day, while she and her husband, David, usually take over the game player when their sons go to bed.

Unless, that is, they can't wait. "Sometimes I make them quit," she says, estimating their television is turned to the Sega Channel probably 80 percent of the time.

Even the cable folks are getting themselves hooked. Witness the two officials who actually got paid to spend an hour demonstrating Sega games at United Artists' Kirk Avenue headquarters.

"I would be playing this until it is time to go home," says Raymond Barton, customer service supervisor for United Artist Cable, who admits becoming addicted to "Skitchin' " -- and practically jumps out of his chair when his in-line skater gets run over by an approaching car. "I'd play this game all night long."

Save for a converter box supplied by the local cable company, the channel requires no special equipment beyond a Sega Genesis game player. Turn the machine on, let it warm up a few minutes, and soon Sonic the Hedgehog is bounding across your television.

A menu flashes on screen offering games in a wide range of categories -- from Family Room, which offers such kid's games as Barney's Hide and Seek Game, to Wings N' Wheels (games associated with driving or flying), Locker Room (sports games) and the Think Tank (educational games).

Once a game is chosen, it takes roughly a minute for it to be downloaded into your machine (the signal is sent via satellite). The picture quality is no different than if you were using a game cartridge -- the channel uses a digital instead of analog signal, a technical difference that boils down to meaning there's no such thing as bad reception.

Games generally are available for only a month at a time, with a new roster of 50 put on-line the first of every month. One category, Test Drives, offers players the chance to sample games not yet on the market.

Which suggests another motive behind the Sega Channel -- it's one heck of a marketing ploy. The folks at Sega would like nothing better than for so many people to try a game like "Zombies Ate My Neighbors" during its month on the channel that they go through withdrawal when it's taken off -- and beat a hasty path to their nearest electronics store.

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