Recovering a strange period of Nintendo history
Over the last decade, Nintendo’s been known for their reticence towards online play even as it’s come to define video games in the 21st century. But what many might not know is that the company was actually an early experimenter in the field of internet-enabled gaming, releasing an add-on to the Super Famicom way back in 1995 that enabled players to download new titles and remixed classics. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s likely because this peripheral—the Satellaview—was a Japan-only product.
Too Far Ahead of Its Time
The Satellaview was a unique proposition in the mid-90s world of console gaming. Japanese subscribers could download unique games to their cartridge or a memory pack, which varied from demos and trivia broadcasts to remakes of classics and brand new titles. However, unlike modern online gaming services, the Satellaview system was only accessible from 4 to 7 PM, with some games only available to play live. If you tuned in while Nintendo’s radio partner St. GIGA was broadcasting via satellite, you got to try these out. If not, well, you had to wait until next time. Some of these games—most famously the Link to the Past remix BS The Legend of Zelda: Ancient Stone Tablets—even included live voice acting to guide a player, a technological feat impossible with home console technology alone at the time.
Because of the live nature of the broadcasts, Satellaview games were similar to episodic adventure titles of today’s world, albeit in a time-limited manner similar to old radio serials. But back in 1995, the state of console gaming technology and the internet itself wasn’t really ready for bite-sized gameplay chunks. Players needed the hardware, a decent enough internet connection, and a subscription to the service itself, none of them being particularly cheap.
With the Satellaview’s prohibitive pricing, many people didn’t buy multiple 8MB memory packs for the add-on, simply deleting old data to make room for new games. Couple that with the limited number of times you could play most of these games in the first place and it was a recipe for media preservation disaster. St.GIGA eventually shut the service down in 2000, and with it, the publisher took all the data for the Satellaview that wasn’t on a memory pack.
But all hope was not lost. Satellaview memory packs remained in the wild, still containing their old treasures. And where there is data, there are dedicated hackers working to preserve the history of gaming even when companies actively attempt to bury it. Through their efforts, many Satellaview titles have been released from their physical prisons and dumped to ROM files accessible via software emulation. But even more so than other preservation efforts, this has been a slow and expensive process, as Satellaview pieces are also highly sought after by collectors who may not be interested in the data they contain.
There’ss a small problem with dumping Satellaview ROMs, however, and that’s the legal grey area of emulation. Technically, if you own the game itself, you can do whatever you want with the files for your own personal use—including dumping the files onto your computer. But the second you distribute the ROMs for public use, it’s illegal. Nintendo, more than any other company, is notorious for going after sites that host their ROM files, most recently filing a cease and desist against popular site Emuparadise earlier this year.While the desire to protect their property may be understandable, one could also argue that many of these games have been long since discontinued and their emulation does not represent a significant threat to Nintendo’s profits.
Emulation has always been a controversial subject, but with the innards of older game cartridges beginning to go bad, there’s no denying the value of ROMs in terms of media preservation. This is especially true in the case of the Satellaview, where when the service shut down, everything was gone. Without emulation and ROM dumping, there would be nothing left of this five year period of the Super Famicom’s history.
Fortunately, Nintendo does not seem to care enough about the small community of Satellaview enthusiasts to start sending cease and desist letters to dedicated Satellaview sites. However, many ROM hackers are still afraid of the gaming company bringing a lawsuit against them, which is unfortunate considering they are doing the work Nintendo and St.GIGA neglected to do two decades ago.
It Belongs in a Museum!
Despite all these hurdles, though, there are still dedicated fans looking to preserve as much of the Satellaview’s library as possible. These hackers scour old Japanese sites and gaming magazines just to find out what games were even broadcasted in the first place, then try their luck with memory packs to try to find them.
Some of the more well-known Stellaview titles, such as Radical Dreamers and Ancient Stone Tablets are easy to find, readily available to download, and well documented. Others, though, are barely even known, let alone available to play. Earlier this year hackers found a new version of Wario’s Woods, initially revealed in a Twitter thread about another game. Due to their efforts, dozens of Satellaview titles are now preserved and available for download. While the collection may not ever be completed as memory packs continue to age and their battery-based save systems degrade, having the library we have now is nothing short of a miracle.
While companies like Nintendo have done their best to demonize emulation, the fact is that—to paraphrase an old Sega ad—hackers do what Nintendon’t when it comes to preserving the company’s history. As video games continue to move away from physical releases to exclusive digital downloads, it’s more important than ever that we learn from the history of systems like the Satellaview and celebrate the heroic efforts of those who work against the relentless burial of our past.