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19 Features

History Lesson: Satellaview - Nintendo's first attempt at online gaming

By Chris Scullion on Sunday 6th Apr 2014 at 9:00 AM UTC

The internet is A Good Thing, or so most people would have us believe.

While the Wii U well and truly has its head screwed on in this regard, it follows years of Nintendo dithering about whether to go online, a 'will they, won't they?' romance that properly kicked off in 1995 with the release of the Japan-exclusive Satellaview.

Although Nintendo had already dabbled with online capability as early as the 8-bit era with the Famicom modem, that did little more than let gamers access a basic text service with jokes, game tips, weather forecasts and, um, stock trading.

It wasn't until the Satellaview, released for the Super Famicom (the Japanese SNES), that Nintendo merged online with gaming to create a downloadable game service.

Squatting under the Super Famicom like a modem-cum-hermit crab (and setting the design precedent for the 64DD and the GameCube's Game Boy Player), the Satellaview add-on decoded games transmitted via radio waves from satellite radio company St GIGA.

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St GIGA was launched in 1990 as an experimental new-age station. It scheduled shows to synchronise with tidal cycles and became quite famous for its 'Tide of Sound', describing the way music varieties would organically segue into one another like the rolling waves. The station also had a terrific motto based on a Kurt Vonnegut novel: "I'm here. I'm glad you're there. We are St GIGA."

GIGA and Nintendo paired up in 1995 to transmit original games, digitised mags (think Teletext's Digitiser) and SNES expansion packs.

In a quirky touch, downloads were accessed through a game of their own, BS-X: The Town Whose Name Has Been Stolen (calm down, kids: the BS stands for Broadcast Satellite). This virtual village was packed with vacant houses that would gradually become filled with your downloaded trinkets.

One house could be a portal to a new Zelda, elsewhere an F-Zero bungalow could rub shoulders with a Dragon Quest condominium. What's this? Dr Mario just moved in down the road? There goes the neighbourhood.

Were the Town Whose Name Had Been Stolen to rediscover its name, it would probably be Rich Town or Fat Catville. Satellaview was pricey: 18,000 (£105/$175) for the peripheral and another 33,000 (£190/$320) for the *snigger* BS Tuner required to receive St GIGA.

This meant that before you even factored in subscription fees, users were paying the equivalent of £295/495. If you were content paying that much for a BS Tuner then your BS Detector was clearly out of whack.

But the punter-deterring price was a shame as the service was fat with Nintendo gems. F-Zero 2, BS Zelda *snigger*, BS Zelda: Ancient Stone Tablets *titter*, Kirby's Toybox - all big-name exclusives.

More interesting were expansions on fan favourites: tying up loose Chrono Trigger ends with extra questing, inserting Japanese celebrities into Wario's Woods, updating Super Mario Bros 2 with SNES-standard graphics, adding side stories to Harvest Moon and Fire Emblem 2. How about Excitebike remade with Nintendo mascots?

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A Japanese article discussing the SoundLink service, in which games were supported with live narration

Games were broadcast at set times to be downloaded onto memory paks (at yet more expense) and savoured at a later date (and even today, thanks to wily emulator types 'excavating' ROMs from second-hand paks).

To prevent the system grinding to a halt, larger games were broadcast in smaller, episodic chunks. It's odd to think of Harvest Moon and Dragon Quest arriving on a week-by-week basis a good decade and a half before Telltale Games made a name for itself 'pioneering' the bitesize form with the likes of Sam & Max and The Walking Dead.

A handful of games took the radio broadcast idea to heart, with real-time vocal performances accompanying real-time play. Known as SoundLink, these games could only be played at set times - the only way of co-ordinating players with studio-based actors. BS Zelda, for example, would pause mid-game to allow a narrator to offer hints to players.

Narration was supplied by notable voiceover artist Kiyoshi Kobayashi, best known for his work on anime Lupin III. Interestingly, he also dubbed the Jack Nicholson part in the Japanese release of A Few Good Men. "You aren't qualified to act as custodian of these facts!" Or something.

In the second BS Zelda game, Ancient Stone Tablets, entire cutscenes were performed. Since Nintendo couldn't guarantee players would reach cutscenes at the same time, it would have the voice actors perform the same lines over and over. It sounds crazy, but think of the potential. Games with a live director's commentary? Yes please.

In many ways Satellaview was way ahead of its time. The virtual hub predated PlayStation Home, it offered episodic gaming on a scale yet to be matched, and it saw more DLC support for full releases than we ended up seeing on the Wii.

The system was screwy, but it represented a very different Nintendo - a Nintendo willing to go out on a limb to deliver an all-new online experience. God bless Virtual Console and WiiWare, but would you call them daring and original? Now that would be BS.

A View To A Thrill

The Satellaview delivered regular games to subscribers, and while many of these were essentially downloadable versions of titles that could be bought in cartridge form, there were some other interesting games that could only be found on the service.

Here's a selection of the more notable offerings that only Satellaview subscribers could play at the time.