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Retro Review - ReelMagic Video Card

Before there was Facebook, tablets, smartphones and Netflix, there was a ground breaking, world changing, technology that shifted the direction of content consumption. No it was not the Internet... It was Full Motion Video, or (FMV).

For those too young to remember, the early 90's was seeing a shift in how we took in information. Yes before the Internet, the big word on the street was, "Multimedia". The magic in multimedia however lacked the fundamental feature of true FMV or at least in a way that didn't require the use of a magnifying glass, I'll explain later. First lets see where the magic comes in..Reel Magic.

Sigma Designs, a company that specialized in video cards, was the first to market a fully compliant MPEG board for the general public in 1993. This oversized 16-bit ISA board, which could be added to the modest of PC's such as the 386SX, allowed users to experience true VHS quality video at 30fps. However, with a MSRP of $499 it wasn't for the typical PC user. I guess that price was partly justified since on its release, it had no competition. The card not only supplied a hardware decoder it also offered an on board 16-bit Soundblaster compatible sound card. As mentioned earlier typical emerging video of the time was a stamp sized mess and suffered massive pixelation and choppiness. Sigma offered something better. Below is the typical ad that hi-lighted what you could experience with ReelMagic.

I was taken in by ads like this and not sure how I scrapped up 500 bucks at 16 years of age but I do remember the look on my friends face when they saw Dragon's Lair looking like it did in the Arcade. They were simply blown away!

Lets take a look inside the box and see what $500 bucks got you back in 1993.

Inside... is the User/Install Guide, Demo CD, Install software, Pack-in game (Dragon's Lair), and other misc bulletin Updates/forms. The Demo CD showcased various sample MPG files and upcoming software titles.

The ReelMagic Card was not a standalone video card. You still needed a primary video card to run your everyday tasks. The RM card simply played video as an overlay through a special accessory pinout that internally connected to the primary video card.

This gets to one of many of the problems. Included in the bundle, is a list of compatible video cards. Why would you need that, well, apparently this card was not compatible with every video card manufacture which made things very complicated with consumers. Can you imagine shelling out the money for this expensive piece of hardware only to install it and not work.

The other problem Sigma had was support. Their initial launch titles began with key players like Readysoft, Sierra and Activision. But that soon fizzled out since not many people thought that a $500 card to watch video was worth the cost. During the same time Phillips, developer of the CD-i console, also bought into this technology and was plagued with the same out come...too much money, not worth the price. BTW you can play Cd-i movies as well as Video CD's with the ReelMagic board. Did they really think that watching Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan on a 15 inch VGA monitor was something that would catch on? Probably not but it was still cool to see.

By the time Win 95 came out, faster processors along with software decoders removed the need for additional hardware to decompress full motion video. So its demise was inevitable. Still those few years, Sigma offered cutting edge tech that touted the only solution for true FMV at the time. Owning one back in 1993 like I did, was neat to say the least, other than the exculsive novelty, it simply gave me bragging rights of having the coolest tech of the year. Today trying to find these cards is difficult and the software... well you have a better chance hitting the lottery. Chime in below if you had one of these cards or even remembered it.

Today FMV is everywhere and isn't even an after thought. But the next time you stream that video through your phone, think back when it took magic to accomplish such a task... ReelMagic.


Want more ReelMagic? A more in-depth coverage will be available in one of our upcoming Magazine issues, including detailed photos, game list, reviews, screenshots, various versions and history.

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