Forgotten titles, abandoned projects, limited releases – the world of games is full of interesting tidbits of trivia that falls through the cracks and into the realm of obscurity. In Arcade Arcana, Chris Ullery shines a light on a hazy bit of video game lore, examining its relevance to the history of the medium and how it applies to gaming today.
Recently, Nintendo stirred up a bit of a commotion when it announced plans to enter into the brave new world of downloadable content. To many, it seemed almost appropriate that Nintendo, a company who has traditionally seemed to be a bit behind the times on this whole newfangled Internet thing, would finally be jumping on the DLC bandwagon some six years after horse armor solidified the term within the gaming vernacular.
And while it’s easy to shake your head and sigh at Nintendo these days for its seeming resistance to the online sphere, there was once a time when the company was on the absolute bleeding edge of downloadable technology. In fact, through use of a service called the Broadcast Satellaview, Japanese Super Famicom owners were able to access a wealth of innovative, downloadable content some eleven years before Bethesda was tricking out ponies for cash.
Just what was the Broadcast Satellaview, and how ahead of its time was it? Hit the break to find out.
The Satellaview was a joint venture between Nintendo and premium satellite radio station St. GIGA. A radio station that focused on ambient and new-wave music, the partnership with St. GIGA seemed entirely unorthodox. However, it wasn’t their musical tastes that interested the big N. Rather, they were intrigued by the possibility of using the station’s network to transmit game data via satellite into people’s homes, playable on their Super Famicom.
The unit itself was roughly the size of the Super Famicom console and plugged into the oft-neglected expansion bay on the bottom of the system. This device was then hooked up to a satellite dish that customers would either buy or rent from St. GIGA. A special game cartridge would act as a sort of access hub, allowing players to connect to the Satellaview network, which required monthly subscription to the channel.
With such a seemingly convoluted setup, not to mention the costs involved, one might imagine that the Broadcast Satellaview was something of a niche product. On the contrary, the service boasted well over 100,000 subscribers at its peak and ran for over five years, lasting from April 23, 1995 to June 30, 2000. To put that in perspective, the Satellaview enjoyed a healthy life during nearly the entire run of the Super Famicom’s follow-up system, the Nintendo 64.
In order to navigate the content a subscription offered, players used a special game cartridge with the appropriately Japanese-sounding title BS-X: The Story of The Town Whose Name Has Been Stolen. The game offered players the chance to enter in a character name and chose either a male of female character to represent them in a very Pokémon-esque fashion. Not exactly the kind of customization you get from a Mii or Xbox Live Avatar, but hey, it was something.
While the main purpose of the titular Town was to act as an interactive menu for downloading BS content, it was fleshed out a bit with some strangely game-like concepts. Players could earn in-game currency to purchase items and engage in various activities. Even more curious, later BS titles such as the SatellaWalker series would directly involve the town as part of their plots, featuring the player’s avatar as the main character.
Of course, all of this was a means to and end to access the real meat of the Broadcast Satellaview service. Special application cartridges could be purchased and run on the Super Famicom, containing what essentially served as a base game. However, playing these games while connected to the BS network offered expanded content for such games, increasing their longevity in much the same way we view DLC today.
But the real treat of the Broadcast Satellaview was the ability to download and play full games straight from the service itself. Throughout its entire run five year run, St. GIGA would set aside a period of its broadcast called the Super Famicom Hour. During this time, scrambled game data would get sent out over their network, during which time Satellaview owners could log on and download whatever was being featured for a given day.
Many of these games were ports of existing titles. Players could play full versions of classic titles such as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (known by the subtitle Triforce of the Gods in Japan), Dr. Mario, Dragon Quest, and Harvest Moon. In addition to these games, game-related applications could also be downloaded. Some of the more interesting content included character and music galleries from Chrono Trigger and add-on content for the RPG Maker series of game-creation software.
But it wasn’t just ports and DLC that graced the airwaves for access on the Broadcast Satellaview. A number of stand-alone titles, never made available in any other form, were what really made the system so appealing. Some were fun diversions, like a series of mini-games featuring everyone’s favorite pink puffball called Kirby’s Toy Box, or a remixed version of Excitebike, complete with Mario characters and the addition of power-ups.
In addition to these were far more substantial offerings that would have made any gamer at the time salivate. BS F-Zero Grand Prix 2 offered all-new vehicles and courses for racing fans, while those with a more creative bent got a sequel to Mario Paint. Strategy fans weren’t left out in the cold either: Intelligent Systems brought their two big tactical heavy-hitters to the BS plate. Super Famicom Wars extended their original war simulation game and would lay the groundwork for their breakout handheld hit Advance Wars, while Fire Emblem: War Chronicles of Akaneia expanded their strategy RPG world with a series of episodic content.
One of the big features for many of these titles was an innovation called SoundLink. SoundLink games differed from normal BS games in that they could only be played at very specific times when the game was actively being broadcast. While restrictive, the advantage to this was that St. GIGA could stream live audio data to a player’s system while they were playing. This would allow such games to be accompanied by significantly improved musical performances and live voice acting.
The bizarre nature of this setup created something of a cross between a traditional videogame and a radio drama, with players being actively urged on by actors playing the roles of characters in game. It also changed the way in which SoundLink games were played. With a limited window during which enhanced titles would be available (typically no more than a few hours), they would usually feature in-game timers and would focus on achieving as much progress or attaining as high a score as possible. Players would then be ranked against one another, with contest winners often receiving prizes.
One series of games that heavily utilized SoundLink technology was the set of Zelda games that saw life on the Satellaview. Not counting the port of A Link to the Past, three different titles saw release on the platform. Interestingly enough, none of these games featured Link as the protagonist. Instead, the player’s avatar from The Town Whose Name Has Been Stolen filled in for the Hero of Time, meaning that players had the chance to star as themselves in their very own Hyrule adventures.
The first Zelda title on the BS service, simply titled BS The Legend of Zelda, was functionally similar to the series’ first entry. Featuring a slightly smaller, remixed version of The Legend of Zelda’s overworld map and new dungeons, players had only one hour each week to make as much progress as possible, though the overworld would be altered each week to limit players to certain sections.
The game was released in four weekly episodes, tasking players with managing their time wisely in order to collect the eight pieces of the Triforce by the end of the fourth episode and confront Ganon. To aid them, a mysterious old man would telepathically communicate with the player, occasionally aiding through the use of a room-clearing spell or summoning of a fairy, depending on the time remaining. BS Zelda was such a huge hit that a sequel, BS The Legend of Zelda 2, was created, featuring a further remixed overworld and dungeon set.
With such high praise for BS Zelda 1 and 2, it only made sense for Nintendo and St. GIGA to revisit the concept. Instead of using the first title for inspiration this time, they would turn to the franchise’s third entry, A Link to the Past, as the blueprint for a brand new Zelda game. The idea this time around was a bit more high-concept – instead of just loosely basing the title on an existing game, this new title was actually set after the events of the 16-bit masterpiece. That’s right: A Link to the Past actually had a direct sequel.
The Legend of Zelda: Ancient Stone Tablets took place six years after Link left the Master Sword to rest in the Lost Woods. Your avatar, having been whisked away to Hyrule, ends up in the care of Princess Zelda, who has just discovered that Ganon’s forces are seeping out of the Dark World. With Link away on a personal journey, it fell to the player to save the day, guided along by Zelda and Aginah, who you might remember as the brother of the wise man Sahasrala.
This time, the goal was to collect eight tablets which foretold the prophecy of the player’s arrival. With them in hand, the player could draw the Master Sword, enter the Dark World, and defeat Ganon once again. Similarly to BS Zelda, the game was divided into four weekly episodes, with the game’s design restricting or allowing access to areas as necessary. The game was again fully voice acted, and featured a number of time-based sidequests as well as opening and closing cutscenes.
As intriguing as the Broadcast Satellaview’s Zelda offerings were, they paled in comparison to what many consider the crown jewel of the service’s library. Masato Kato, lead writer for the legendary game Chrono Trigger, was never quite satisfied with the game’s conclusion, feeling there was still a story left to wrap up. He quickly began writing a follow-up scenario to the game, and in 1996, this tale was released by Square as a text-based adventure game for the Satellaview titled Radical Dreamers.
Gameplay in Radical Dreamers wasn’t nearly as involved as Chrono Trigger, relying mainly on dialogue choices and split-second decisions rather than complex RPG mechanics. Instead, the narrative took center stage, telling the story of a trio of adventurers – Serge, Kid, and Magil. The three belonged to a bandit troupe called the Radical Dreamers, and the game revolved around them sneaking their way into the shadowy Viper Manor in order to steal away an artifact called the Frozen Flame from its owner, a sinister man named Lynx.
Sound familiar? There’s good reason for that. Chrono Trigger’s eventual full-fledged sequel, Chrono Cross, drew upon Radical Dreamers for one of its key scenes, the infiltration of Viper Manor. While the actual events and characterizations changed somewhat – the dark and mysterious Magil, whose secret identity in Radical Dreamers served as a major plot point, would be changed into the significantly less important Guile – the game remains an important part of the Chrono series’ history. Its place within official canon may have been retconned to the inglorious status of “alternate timeline,” but its intriguing premise and wonderful score by Yasunori Mitsuda make it quite a shame that its fallen into relative obscurity.
Despite the success of the Broadcast Satellaview, it never saw any sort of release outside of Japan. When the service finally shut down back in 2000 – one year after Nintendo officially ended its partnership with St. GIGA – it unfortunately meant that players everywhere lost access to much of the system’s catalog. Game data was saved to 8 megabit cards that came bundled with the system, but many titles either required broadcast data from the service to function or had a limit to the number of times they could be played.
The end result of this? Much of the titles offered through the Satellaview have become lost games. This is especially true of the system’s SoundLink library. Since these games were so heavily reliant on sound and voice data being streamed during a live broadcast, the true experience of these games will never be able to be replicated. Add to this the fact that “rerun” broadcasts of some games would feature altered and changed content, and it becomes simply impossible to truly replicate what the Broadcast Satellite offered.
There is a small bit of hope, however. Some games, such as Radical Dreamers, did not feature access limitations or rely on SoundLink data to function, and so can be preserved as close to their original form as possible. In fact, Radical Dreamers saw an unofficial English translation by dedicated fangroup Demiforce back in 2003, opening that title up to Western audiences for the first time.
In addition, data cards holding game information have found their way into the hands of clever ROM hackers, who have managed to piece together enough from the game files to recreate emulatable versions of some BS titles. Without St. GIGA’s live service, these titles will never be able to be entirely accurate, but they represent the community’s best guess at how Japanese fans must have enjoyed them during the late 90’s.
While they’ve become the butt of a lot of jokes regarding the online sphere, it’s important to realize just how ahead of the curve Nintendo was at one point. So while you’re scrolling through DLC packs of $1.99 character costumes on your current-gen system, keep in mind that Nintendo – the same company responsible for groan-inducing online decisions like friend codes – was offering fully downloadable, online-enhanced sequels to legendary games on a 16-bit console. A decade and a half ago.