Before there was Xbox Live, before there was PSN, before you were even sticking crappy broadband modems to your Gamecube and PS2 to play all of the five games that were compatible, there was the Nintendo Satellaview.
Released in the twilight years of the Super Nintendo (known as the Super Famicom in Japan), the Satellaview came out in 1995, only a year before the Nintendo 64.
This peripheral system plugged in to the base of the Super Famicom and acted as a modem that allowed you to download game data via satellite. The system boasted rare gems such as two sequels to F-Zero and a sequel/spinoff to The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past.
Access to game content required not just the Satellaview, but also a receiver box for the main signal to be decoded and a monthly subscription fee paid to the satellite content service provider, run exclusively by a Japanese company called St. Giga. What’s more, game content was broadcast irregularly throughout the week and was only available during certain times of day according to a set program schedule. Think of the service as XM radio, but with game content instead of music.
Despite the high cost of entry due to equipment, service fees, and the limited window to access game content, the Satellaview was extremely popular in Japan. It peaked in 1999 with over 116,000 households subscribing. St. Giga was already a popular radio service, and their partnership with Nintendo only served to gain them more subscribers than ever before.
The service was canceled in 2000, just a few months before the release of the Gamecube, if that’s any indication of the Satellaview’s enduring legacy.
If you owned a Satellaview and signed on to it during certain times of the day, the system would allow you to download packets of data and play its exclusive releases. These games sometimes had “Sound Link”, which meant live streaming orchestrated soundtracks and professional voice actors reciting their lines live as well. This feature created the sensation of an interactive radio play, and must have certainly been an experience to talk about with friends if you all happened to catch the same gaming event.
Because of the live nature of the games, they were only playable during a set window, usually indicated by a timer in the top of the screen’s HUD. The data packets saved directly on to the 256k RAM carts, which meant that often once they were deleted they were gone forever unless Nintendo decided to do an encore broadcast. Even if you had access to the stored game data, the live soundtracks and voice acting were only kept on the system RAM long enough to finish the session, meaning lots of content is unfortunately lost to time.
So what did we miss out on? The F-Zero and Zelda games for starters. Sporting largely identical graphics, these games added new content such as modified tracks and new cars in the case of the F-Zero games. As for Zelda, there were two graphical updates/remakes of the first Zelda game, which were known as BS Zelda no Densetsu.
Similar to Super Mario All-Stars 16-bit updates of classic Mario titles, this game was released in two versions that had different overworld and map layouts from the original NES game. The game was played in weekly episodes throughout several months, requiring players to conquer two dungeons and gather their triforce pieces before the time ran out. Also, live acting throughout the play experience would point out special events that would trigger at set times, such as an old man that would temporarily grant unlimited bombs.
Also released exclusively to the system was the game Radical Dreamers, which acted as an in-between title for Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. While the game was more of a text-based adventure or interactive novel than an RPG, the voice acting and supplemental backstory to the original Chrono Trigger endeared the title to fans of the series. People lucky enough to keep the game on their memory cards are still able to play it (albeit sans-voice acting), and these ultra-rare cartridges fetch prices of over $5,000 on eBay.
Booting up the Satellaview required plugging in to the Super Famicom via a specialized game cartridge, which actually acted as a graphical BIOS for the system. This meant that accessing content was done through navigating a pseudo game environment, called BS-X : The Story of The Town Whose Name Was Stolen. Similar to the PSN Home, players could walk into different buildings to access different components of Satellaview content.
Depending on the time of day and what was available, you could download online magazines, contest announcements, or special upgrades to your character’s avatar and town. When game content was available, players were invited to a special building that was normally closed, and they would be allowed to cross a “portal” that took them to the game available that week, such as a special version of Excitebike with updated 16-bit Mario-themed graphics.
The holy grail of Satellaview games was the aforementioned spiritual sequel to A Link to the Past. This game was called BS Zeruda no Densetsu: Inishie no Sekiban, which is usually translated as BS The Legend of Zelda: Ancient Stone Tablets. The game’s plot was similar to Majora’s Mask, except instead of Link falling to a new world, it was your avatar from The Town Whose Name Was Stolen. Players had access to new content every week and were tasked with recovering two tablets within the limited time of the broadcast.
In addition to the exclusive remakes/updates available, sometimes the service would simply stream popular games that were already available as regular cartridges for free to subscribers. These games were exact duplicates of games like Dr. Mario, Wario’s Woods, or A Link to the Past.
While the Satellaview (also sometimes referred to as the BS-X) was Nintendo’s first content delivery system to provide actual game content, it was not their first foray into internet technology. The Famicom (the Japanese NES, if you haven’t read this article on the FDS yet) had a modem add-on released that would allow players to access news and weather updates and even make bank transactions and stock trades!
Like Cheap Trick’s popularity, much of the Satellaview’s library lives on only in fond memories of former Japanese subscribers. The ambitious service paved the way for online gaming well before many people had internet access on their PCs. Satellaview owners were privileged to have access to one-time gaming events that provided milestones in an inmpressionable gamer’s life. It also offered the chance for social interaction through swapping of anecdotes of their own unique player experience.
Now that the service is no more, many people are left with Satellaviews cluttering their closets. Some get put on eBay, some are lucky enough to have RAM cards with playable games still on them, but most only serve as a reminder for a golden age of 16-bit online gaming. Considering emulation enthusiasts have been unable to recover much of the BS-X game data, the only way now to live out the full experience is to watch recordings of the live events on Youtube, or maybe just sit back… and dream.
Jarrod Lipshy is a soon-to-be-graduating BA English Major who is scared as hell about finding a real job. He collects old video games and often thinks of frivolous uses for a time machine.