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A scan of a 1995 issue of Next Generation. Image: Satellablog/Imgur

Nintendo's Forgotten Console

Heidi Kemps

How the company tried to make downloadable content work in 1995—and how preservationists today are racing against time to retrieve a chunk of gaming history.

A scan of a 1995 issue of Next Generation. Image: Satellablog/Imgur

If I were to bring up "a Nintendo console lost to time," what would your first thought be?

Perhaps you'd think of the infamous Virtual Boy, one of Nintendo's few outright disasters in the console space, or maybe one of the company's early pre-NES consoles that contained several variants on Pong. What you probably wouldn't think of is the Satellaview, a Japan-only add-on for the Super NES/Super Famicom.

Released toward the end of the console's lifespan in 1995, the Satellaview was a unique piece of hardware that offered functionality that was well ahead of its time: downloadable content. It lived a longer-than-expected life in obscurity, with exclusive games such as BS Legend of Zelda and Radical Dreamers that had a seemingly fleeting existence.

It's also the subject of one of the most challenging digital preservation efforts in existence.

"The Satellaview is still one of the biggest oddities of Nintendo game history," said a German Nintendo fan and Satellaview enthusiast who asked to be identified only by the online handle ChronoMoogle. "Many games are still unpreserved, hidden in memory packs floating through the Japanese retro game market."

On June 30, 2000, the Satellaview broadcasts through which players could download new games ceased entirely. Many game historians and collectors feared that games and bits of content distributed exclusively through the Satellaview service would be lost forever.

But thanks to the extensive efforts of devoted fans and preservationists, steps are being taken to find—and restore—some of the most obscure pieces of Nintendo's gaming history.

Shooting for the stars

The Satellaview was the product of an alliance between Nintendo and a now-defunct Japanese satellite radio company called St.GIGA.

St.GIGA broadcast one of the first digital satellite radio stations in the world. It served a devoted but niche clientele, delivering ambient and new-age music and high-concept programming through subscription radio broadcasts.

The Satellaview featured exclusive games such as 'Treasure Conflix,' 'Radical Dreamers,' and versions of 'Dragon Quest' and 'Harvest Moon'

The station's listeners loved it, but it wasn't enough to pay the bills, and by the mid-90s St.GIGA was facing financial uncertainty. That's when Nintendo stepped in: The company bought a large stake in St.GIGA and convinced it to partner up on a device called the Satellaview.

In an era before the internet was widely accessible—and before high-speed internet was available anywhere besides college campuses and other technology havens—the concept of the Satellaview was amazing. St.GIGA would devote a six-hour block of its programming exclusively to the Satellaview in the afternoons and evenings, which would allow players to download content during those windows. In addition, at particular times, players would be able to enjoy "Soundlink" games, which were played alongside a high-quality digital radio broadcast of music and voice.

Satellaview wouldn't just offer games, either. It would deliver digital entertainment and news to subscribers in the form of e-magazines and other programming, as well as expansion data for other software—a predecessor to the entertainment apps and downloadable content we see on current console marketplaces.

Much like current play-limited demos on the Wii U and 3DS, many titles could only be run a certain number of times after downloading—or, in the case of Soundlink games, only played at a specific time. Episodic releases of game content would keep players coming back—and keep subscription money coming in.

The first episode of BS Legend of Zelda: the Ancient Stone Tablets with original Soundlink audio.

The Satellaview wasn't the first console to let you download games. Sega's Japanese incarnation of the Genesis, the MegaDrive, had a modem add-on with a handful of software downloads, and Sega and Time Warner partnered in the US for a short-lived game-downloads-by-cable service called the Sega Channel.

It wasn't even Nintendo's first foray into connectivity: there was a very early modem service for the Famicom that, much to Nintendo's chagrin, turned into a popular gambling device.

Satellaview was, however, the first such service to look like it could truly succeed. Nintendo had high hopes for the device, with then-president Hiroshi Yamauchi claiming in 1994 that Nintendo would sell 2 million Satellaview units yearly. This helped get some third party developers on board with Satellaview development, including the then-separate role-playing game powerhouses of Squaresoft and Enix. Nintendo was also prepping some exclusive games for the service, including new entries in the beloved Zelda series.

A Japanese promotional video for the then-new Satellaview system, showcasing the interface and some of the exclusive titles coming to the system.

Trouble in space

While Nintendo seemed to have a lot of confidence in the console at the beginning, it soon became clear that its expectations were overblown. "100,000 was St.GIGA's peak subscription total at around 1997, which is the best estimate we have for Satellaview's sales," said KiddoCabbusses, one of the most prominent members of the online Satellaview community who requested his real name not be used because of the potential legal implications of copying old games for preservation. (Nintendo declined to comment for this story.) "100,000 was huge for St.GIGA, but for Nintendo, it was probably considered a bomb."

Besides the console, digital tuner, and St.GIGA subscription, players would purchase small, 8-megabit rewritable memory packs in order to save downloaded game data. These packs slotted into the larger BIOS cartridge, an RPG-style interface called BS-X: Story of the Town with the Stolen Name. These packs could then be transferred into a handful of other Super Famicom cartridges released with an 8M pack slot, like Derby Stallion 96 and RPG Maker 2.

Novel as it was, the need for all of this equipment made Satellaview an expensive luxury: 18,000 yen, or $200 at the conversion rate of the time; between 5,600 or $60 and 33,000 yen or $360 for the receiving equipment if you needed it; and subscription fees on top. "Apparently the set-up cost was high enough as to be a deterrent," said Kiddo. "That and the availability issues… Satellaview hardware was sold either in very specific shops or via mail order." Considering the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation had just hit the market, it seems like most Japanese consumers with money to invest in new gaming hardware went with the more powerful systems over the Satellaview.

The BS-X cartridge BIOS interface, called The Story of the Town with the Stolen Name. In this RPG-style interface, you could interact with non-player characters, collect items, and visit various locales to download games.

Yet Nintendo—and a handful of third parties—continued to support the console, releasing several new games (and variants on old favorites) that would never be seen anywhere else, including titles in the Zelda, Mario, F-Zero, and Fire Emblem franchises. Squaresoft released original games like the odd aerial shooter Treasure Conflix and text adventure game Radical Dreamers (which would eventually inspire Chrono Cross years later), Enix provided a Dragon Quest title, and smaller third parties like Chunsoft and Pack-In Video supplied Satellaview versions of games like Shiren the Wanderer and Harvest Moon.

But as time passed and the Nintendo 64 appeared on the market, Nintendo seemed less and less interested in supporting the Satellaview.

The end of the Satellaview and the beginning of a fanbase

Tensions between Nintendo and St.GIGA came to a head in 1998, with St.GIGA continuing to lose money, neglecting to reapply for a necessary government broadcast license, and refusing to accept Nintendo's plan for debt management. Nintendo officially stopped supplying Satellaview content in early 1999, leaving St.GIGA only able to rebroadcast existing games and media until it shut down the Satellaview service in June of 2000.

"Nintendo's official word is that the Satellite distribution stuff was bleeding money," said Kiddo on the split. "[Also,] apparently before Nintendo partnered with Randnet [for the Japan-exclusive N64 64DD add-on] they were trying to transition St.GIGA over to N64, and for whatever reason, that wasn't turning out."

Video showing the last days of Satellaview broadcasts and a farewell message.

"The interest in Satellaview is built up from years of factors," said Kiddo, who currently maintains the Satellablog. "[I was] around to see the Sega Channel, and to see Nintendo Power talk about the Satellaview a bit. Being curious, [I was] checking out things about it for years because it always felt like something was 'missing.'"

It's that feeling of "missing something" that's inspired a lot of Western game fans to revisit old Japanese games that weren't released outside of that country—something that's easy to do nowadays thanks to emulation and the underground fan translation scene. But Satellaview poses a unique challenge in terms of preservation and emulation, given that the games were only ever released digitally—and only at certain times per the St.GIGA broadcast schedule.

LuigiBlood, who, like Kiddo, asked that we use his online pseudonym, is a Nintendo hardware enthusiast based in France who has done extensive reverse engineering on the system. His efforts have allowed for a degree of Satellaview BIOS support in modern SNES emulators, simulating the ability to "download" games through BS-X: The Story of the Town with the Stolen Name as one would have through the actual console in the late 1990s. He explained to me how the system functioned, which is quite different from how modern download platforms work.

"Because it's satellite like a radio, it's a constant stream of data. The BS-X looks for a list of used channels via a specific channel, and then downloads a list of files, [each of which are] linked to a specific channel," he said. "So when you go inside a building, and ask BS-X to download a game, it looks for the file, then looks to the list of channels it has downloaded right at the beginning, and then starts the download. For really huge games, it's separated into several files—in that case it's a file linked to a file, which can be linked to another file."

Reviving history, eight megabits at a time

The key to preserving Satellaview emulation lies in the 8-megabit flash memory packs used to store downloaded data. The packs were reusable and rewritable, sometimes being overwritten numerous times as players downloaded, played, and deleted games. In many cases, downloaded games seemingly "vanished" after the number of allotted plays ran out, or the time period for playing it expired—though it turns out they weren't really gone. "It seems like the data was left on there, guessing the implicit expectation was the user [would] delete it later," said Kiddo. Player habits varied: some Satellaview users would buy new 8M packs when they ran out of space, while many would simply reuse packs over and over, deleting data as necessary.

A good chunk of the storied history of Nintendo, perhaps the most beloved game company of all time, lies buried among a mass of unmarked memory packs

The thing about rewritable media, however, is that data is often preserved until it's overwritten by other data, meaning things that seem inaccessible can be retrieved with hacking wizardry. The money-saving inclination to simply overwrite the old with the new, however, makes finding certain games and episodes extremely difficult. Some titles, particularly the Squaresoft offerings, could be played infinitely after being downloaded, which makes them fairly easy to obtain.

"One of the frustrating things is that an 8M Pack with verified data can cost quite a bit," Kiddo continues. "[But] a lot of undumped material comes from 8M Packs sold as junk, empty, etc. and as such, it's basically gambling. Throwing money at something and seeing if you get what you want out of it." Western Satellaview fans often coordinate efforts privately to find and purchase 8M packs.

ChronoMoogle is among the people scouring numerous outlets for 8M packs to check for data, and laments how scarce and pricey they have become. "It's sad because the empty ones have no practical use in any way. They need to get dumped," he said. "Instead, collectors buy them and put them on their shelf as some piece of unusable gaming history."

He understands this mentality well—in fact, he was initially drawn to Satellaview from a collector standpoint. "I initially bought a 8m pack with the BS-X bios solely for collector purposes," said ChronoMoogle. "It happened to have an undumped demo on it." He sent it to the only "dumper" at that time, a guy named Matthew Callis, who copied and released the game, crediting ChronoMoogle. "That got me hooked, and I ended up preserving more demos and even some Satellaview-exclusive games this way," ChronoMoogle said.

Episodic offerings were one of the platform's biggest draws—and one of its biggest challenges in terms of preservation. "Satellaview's episodic content isn't too different from, say, Half-Life episodes or Telltale Games 'seasons' with their episodes," Kiddo explains. Each episode was a standalone download or Satellaview stream (depending on Soundlink dependence). It probably came naturally for an average Joe to just overwrite the old data with the new, which would explain why it was easier to find, say, [BS Shiren the Wanderer]'s 4th episode, compared to its first."

Since many of these games and e-publications were only broadcast online during certain time windows, even finding out everything that existed on the service has been challenging. "The only hints [to finding Satellaview download info] next to scattered Japanese websites are old Japanese video game magazines, which are also not really easy to come by," said ChronoMoogle. Kiddo added, "By now we have some large chunks of archived schedules, obtained from a mix of Famitsus and website data and whatnot."

Sound fantasy

Perhaps the biggest draw of Satellaview is the Soundlink games. While the small cartridge size of the SNES didn't allow for CD quality music and audio, the Satellaview's direct ties to a crystal-clear satellite radio broadcaster opened up an opportunity for a unique audiovisual gaming experience. The game session would start and end at a specific time, and events in-game would sync to the prerecorded audio streaming through the radio channel. The accompanying audio ranged from voice dramas featuring the game characters to traditional radio shows to fully orchestrated soundtracks.

A recording of an F-Zero Grand Prix 2 Soundlink broadcast, with accompanying satellite radio audio. This particular Soundlink broadcast follows more of a radio talk/variety show format (including licensed music) than the drama seen in the earlier Zelda clip.

"Soundlink only ran games when a [specific] broadcast was happening, and the setup was designed around you only playing during the initial time," explained Kiddo. "After that the data was locked in your 8M, unable to be used casually. Makes it a wonder how anything got preserved at all."

Soundlink has proven to be one of the most challenging aspects of Satellaview preservation. "We still don't know how Soundlink works," said LuigiBlood. "Kiddo gave me a Satellaview and a Super Famicom so I could look into it, but I still don't know if Soundlink is something that just waits for the audio and then activates itself, or if it has to be enabled by other means."

While several Soundlink games are now dumped, they are missing a crucial part of the experience: the original audio broadcasts that accompanied them. If you try to play a Soundlink title through an emulator, you'll probably notice events happening at consistent times on the clock, no matter where you are in the game—these are designed to sync up with an audio cue. Several Soundlink broadcasts that were recorded by Japanese players on VHS tapes have made their way onto video sharing services like YouTube and Nico Nico Douga, so curious folks can see what they were like to play at the time, but baking these recordings into the games has proven quite challenging. Currently, efforts are being made to restore Soundlink audio using a fan-made SNES cartridge chip called the MSU1, which offers 4GB of streaming memory for things like high-quality audio and movie clips—but it's a very time-intensive process.

There is another factor complicating the Satellaview and Soundlink rescue efforts: a lot of the data was stored in PSRAM, temporary memory in the Satellaview hardware itself that is not recoverable. "The PSRAM was used as temp-storage for some Soundlink stuff," Kiddo said. "Unfortunately, in the case of BS Zelda: The Ancient Stone Tablets, that 'stuff' entails, um, huge chunks of the game."

Indeed, when BS Zelda: The Ancient Stone Tablets was dumped, preservationists and players alike were dismayed to discover that it had some corrupted graphics—visuals that were originally stored in PSRAM. Hackers using online recordings and screenshots of the game as reference have managed to patch in some similar-looking graphic data, though since these pieces were recreated, it's not entirely accurate.

What's out there

So what's still yet to be dumped? "Mostly demos, digital magazines and Soundlink games," said ChronoMoogle.

Collectors are also searching for half of the Kirby's Toy Box minigames, which were exclusive to Satellaview, a special version of Wario's Woods, and Pico Pico Pirates, a Satellaview original by Nintendo. There are emulator screenshots online, but the data has not been shared publicly.

But one question remains: Why isn't Nintendo keen on re-releasing any of this stuff itself? Nintendo did remake some formerly Satellaview-exclusive content from BS Fire Emblem for a 2009 DS game, but beyond that it hasn't been bothered to reissue any of this. Perhaps there is some legal red tape—many programs, like the Soundlink broadcasts, used the voices of radio personalities.

It's a very unusual situation in our modern digital age: a good chunk of the storied history of Nintendo, perhaps the most beloved game company of all time, lies buried among a mass of unmarked memory packs. While the Satellaview historians are devoted to saving the system's legacy, there's also a sense of urgency.

"Time is running out for Satellaview preservation," ChronoMoogle warned. "Flash data is [anything but] immortal… since [some 8m packs] are already over 20 years old, some already happen to have bit rotting."

He recently found one of the undumped ASCII shooters on display at a famous store called Mandarake in Japan, but it was not for sale. He asked whether the staff had copied the data for preservation. They had not, out of fear that the effort might damage the game and lower the value.

"The card might be in a safe display, but it's not safe from the eventual damage time will cause," he said. "For everyone reading: Every 8M pack should be checked by a dumper, even if they seem to be empty. They might contain one of the last undumped treasures of Nintendo gaming history. And it might be gone in a few years."