GameSpite Journal 10 | The Satellaview

Satellaview | Dev.: Nintendo | Mfg: Nintendo | Type: Sattellite Distribution Network | Debut: April 1995

Nintendo’s long history of home game systems is marred by a constant stream of interesting console add-on innovations that never quite made their way beyond Japan’s shores. In fact, Japan received its first exclusive peripheral less than half a year after the American launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System; the Famicom Disc System expanded the 8-bit machine’s capabilities considerably, adding much more respectable storage capacity, an additional audio channel, and the ability to write and rewrite to the game media. The FDS never made its way to the U.S. or Europe, though, and for good reason: By the time the NES had enough of an install base to justify localizing the device, it had been obviated by high-capacity carts with battery-backed save files. (Some carts boasted additional sound features, though those never made their way to the U.S. due to Nintendo’s bizarrely antagonistic licensing rules.)

Of all the peripherals to be denied American fans, the most maddening is surely the Super Famicom’s Satellaview system. On its surface, the Satellaview’s functionality was somewhat duplicated by the X-Band modem and Sega’s rival Sega Channel service: It was a modem-driven device that allowed software to be pushed to subscribers over phone lines for play on their consoles. In that sense, the Satellaview wasn’t particularly unique. Not only was it not the first online console service, it wasn’t even the only one of its time. Genesis owners enjoyed many of the benefits denied their SNES-loving counterparts, especially access to games that were otherwise unavailable in America.

What made Satellaview intriguing is both the breadth of its exclusive offerings and the supplemental features that enhanced many of its games. The former feature is definitely the Satellaview’s claim to popular fame, as it was the only medium in which some very interesting titles were available for play. These include a number of enhanced ports of classic Nintendo games like Balloon Fight and Excitebike and, most famously of all, the original sequel to Chrono Trigger, Radical Dreamers. A handful of the rewritable cartridges used to store Satellaview downloads are still kicking around with copies of rare gems like Radical Dreamers and Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 recorded on them; these are premium items in Tokyo’s retro game shops, commanding prices venturing on $1,000.

But at least those titles still exist in a semi-permanent form. The same can’t be said for the Satellaview’s most elusive offerings, the BS Legend of Zelda games. Nintendo revisited Zelda in several formats for the download service, including a straight-up remake of the original (featuring a normal-looking kid in place of Link) and a now-legendary “navi” version which incorporated a live broadcast into the game itself. As players ventured through the game, a live operator would transmit commands and narration. The play sessions for these chapters were limited to short durations, and they only ran a few times. While most of the actual game data of Satellaview downloads have been preserved for the ages, the obviously ephemeral nature of the broadcasts has caused this facet of Zelda and Nintendo’s history to be lost to time.

Today, the basic role of Satellaview is filled by DSiWare and WiiWare. That being said, Nintendo doesn’t seem to pour the creative passion -- not to mention marketing -- into its downloadable software that was seen for its 16-bit download service.

By Jeremy Parish? | Feb. 20, 2012 | Previous: Brandish | Next: Ogre Battle