Saturday, August 15, 2020

Early Efforts at Online Interaction on Nintendo Consoles

We tend to think that Nintendo consoles first entered the online arena with the GameCube, its Modem and Broadband Adapters and Phantasy Star Online.  In the west, this is the case, but every Nintendo home and portable console (except that hunk of eye-straining junk called the Virtual Boy) has had some way to access the non-local world.  Sometimes these methods were first party supported, sometimes third-party exclusives and there was even an unlicensed publisher or two in the mix.  This blog entry will give an overview of the subject.  I will describe briefly each device or method, As this blog entry's purpose is not meant to give a comprehensive review of each of these devices.  I will include links for more information to sites and videos with more information.  

The Famicom Disk System's Disk Fax Service

The first opportunity that Nintendo players had to interact with the Japanese nation instead of their immediate vicinity appears to be with the Disk Fax games Nintendo released for the Famicom Disk System.  Nintendo released Golf - Japan Course and Golf - U.S. Course in 1987 with blue disks and metal shutter to protect the disk surface.  These games were also nationwide contests to achieve the best scores and players input their name and information in the program.  When you thought you had played your best rounds, you went to a store with a Disk Fax kiosk  The kiosk would read your disk and transmit the information to Nintendo's servers.  The prizes were limited-edition Special versions of these games which were not sold in stores.  Later games in the Disk Fax Series were Famicom Grand Prix: F-1 Race, Nakayama Miho no Tokimeki High School and finally Famicom Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally in 1988.  By 1988 even Nintendo realized that the best days of the Disk System were behind them and ended the contests.

The Disk Fax service and contests are better described in the reviews at this (great) site :

Family Computer Network System

The Nintendo Famicom was Nintendo's first console and while its toy look appealed to younger gamers, its near ubiquitous presence in Japanese households was very attractive for some more adult activities to take notice of the console.  In September of 1988 Nintendo released the Famicom Net System, a device which sat on top of the Famicom and plugged into its cartridge port.  The device included a built-in modem connected via telephone lines.  Unique card-like cartridges were used to provide programs which could use the modem to send and receive data.  A special controller with a numberpad incorporated plugged into the expansion port to allow users to easily enter numbers.

The Network was intended for adult pursuits, namely stock trading, personal banking and horse race betting.  However, it did have some more family friendly features, namely the Super Mario Club which allowed people to read reviews of games from a database.  The decline of the stock market signaled the end of the Famicom Net.  Everything but the Super Mario Club and the horse racing servers were offline by 1991.  JRA PAT was supported until 2015 according to some reports.  While prototypes of games were developed for the Network System, they never saw release.  A very rare variant is the Family Computer Network System Dataship 1200, which has the Famicom hardware and the Modem hardware built into a console which only accepts the Network card software.

Nintendo tried to bring over the concept of a modem for use as a betting tool for the Minnesota State Lottery, but the initial tests did not prove a success with the state's regulators, who saw the use of a video game machine as being too friendly to minors who could not participate in lotteries.

Two good videos which demonstrate the Network System's capabilities to the extent they can be demonstrated are : and


Nintendo's most ambitious effort at online connectivity prior to the DS Wi-Fi connection was the Satellaview.  The Satellaview was a very ambitious add-on peripheral released late in the Super Famicom's life (1995).  The main add-on, which included the communications hardware, plugged into the Super Famicom's expansion slot on the bottom of the system.  However, as the expansion port on the Super Famicom does not provide full access to the bus, a special cartridge was included with the Satellaview system,  This cartridge could accept mini-cartridges to store downloaded games.  

Unusually for the devices here, the Satellaview communicated by a satellite technology originally intended to broadcast digital audio over satellite.  The device permitted users to download and play games, some in parts and only at certain times when the game was broadcast.  The user-interface was designed around navigating around an Earthbound-like town.  Some of Nintendo's most unfairly obscure efforts like the BS Zelda and F-Zero games were to become fondly appreciated by western gamers years after the service was discontinued.  The Satellaview was launched on April 24. 1995 and discontinued on June 30, 2000, but Nintendo stopped producing software and content for the system in March 1999 after a dispute with St. GIGA which ran the satellite service.  

Data for other games like Same Game and SD Gundam G-NESXT could be downloaded via the Satellaview service onto 8M Memory Packs which then would be inserted into the slots for these games to add new maps or graphical themes.  

Thanks to the efforts of dedicated preservationists and fans, some semblance of the Satellaview experience can be experienced today, unless most of the other options listed.

Watch here for a good overview of the hardware :

My blog entry here has links to more good info :


The XBAND modem was the first device released in the west that could connect players remotely.  This device was released for the SNES and Sega Genesis and permitted players to play with each other over the service.  The Modem ran at 2400 baud, which was usually fast enough for the two player games that were supported.  Unfortunately, games had to be reverse engineered and have their data intercepted, which limited the support of more games.  The XBAND Modem cartridge sat in between a game and the console and connected via telephone line.  The service began in November of 1994 for the Genesis and June of 1995 for the SNES and ended on April 30, 1997.  

The service let people use a messaging service and even had a custom keyboard controller for inputting messages.  News could be viewed via the software interface.  There were player rankings based on win and loss statistics.  Games could be played with random people or with friends from a stored "friends list".  XBAND was licensed by Nintendo and Sega.  Popular games like Super Mario Kart, Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat were supported.  

Here is an exhaustive video on the subject with interviews with developers for the system, demonstrations of how the system worked and some surprising news about development to recreate the system servers :


The Japan Racing Association (JRA) was an early adopter of cartridge-based betting devices for its horse racing.  There was a JRA PAT (Personal Access Terminal) cartridge for the Famicom Network System, but for the Super Famicom, JRA PAT released its own standalone cartridges.  In order to use these cartridges, you bought a bundle with the JRA PAT cartridge, the NTT (Nippon Telephone & Telegraph) Data Pad and the NDM24 Super Famicom Modem.  These devices were inserted into Controller Ports 1 and 2 on the Super Famicom.  The Modem was a black slab with a single input for a phone line and required its own power supply. If you wanted to share the wall-jack between this modem and a telephone, you needed to buy a splitter.  The modem communicated at 9600 baud.  The NTT Data Pad was a Super Famicom controller with a numeric keypad in the middle, essentially the logical successor of the Famicom Net controller.  It does not identify itself as a standard controller and many later games will not work with it.

The JRA PAT cartridges will not work without both peripherals inserted.  The original JRA PAT cartridge came in three revisions and there was a sequel called JRA PAT - Wide Taiyouban which has two revisions.  They were released in 1997 and 2000, respectively.Almost uniquely, these cartridges used flash memory to store user account information.  These cartridges are almost unique for their black plastic. 

Famicomdojo's video on JRA PAT and the Modem are about as good as it gets :

Technical info about the game's transmissions can be found here :

Morita Shogi 64

This is a cartridge for the N64, and it is one of the few unusual cartridges for that system.  This cartridge had a built-in modem and a phone jack sticking out of the top of the cartridge.  Shogi is a Japanese variant of Chess, so being able to play remotely with another player certainly had its appeal.  The game was released on April 3, 1998 but you apparently connected to a server to find opponents instead of using a direct dial connection, and the server was not up for too long.  This site shows the insides of the cartridge :


Who would have thought that the Game Boy could have some online capability?  Hudson Soft did, and it released the GB KISS in 1998.  "GB KISS" was Hudson's proprietary hardware which enabled game cartridges to communicate with each other via infrared LEDs wired onto the cartridges.  This was months before Nintendo included an IR receiver in the Game Boy Color.  The "KISS" referred to the very short distance that could be put between the two cartridges to send and receive data reliably.  

Certainly the KISS functionality was extremely local when playing with another person but it was also  the gateway to the wider world.  Hudson also released the GB KISS Link modem, which was a PCB with a parallel port and an IR LED set.  You could download new levels or maps for games from either the included floppy drive or from the Internet and use the Link to transmit this data to your GB KISS-featured game.  Both methods required a PC to host and transfer the files and access the internet.  However, some games like Nectaris GB had the ability to send custom maps to another cartridge, so not everyone needed the Link device.

In essence, the idea is not that much different than the Disk Fax service, but there was no such thing as the Internet for ordinary people in the late 1980s, but by the late 1990s, you could travel the "information superhighway" to get games instead of having to travel the physical highway to get to a store to access a network.

This fansite for Nectaris as about as much information about the Link as anything else :

64DD Modem

The 64DD was an add-on which only saw release in Japan for the N64 and allowed games to be loaded via magnetic media discs.  The 64DD plugged into the expansion port on the bottom of the N64, which was a fully-featured port unlike previous expansion ports for the Famicom, NES and Super Famicom.  The 64DD Modem is a device with is inserted into the cartridge slot and has a phone jack for a telephone wire. The modem was used for the Randnet Disk, which included a web browser and an email client.  The modem communicated at 28.8K.  The 64DD game Mario Artist allowed users to transmit their artwork to other players over the modem.  The Randnet service also came with a special keyboard and mouse.

Randnet was launched with the 64DD on December 1, 1999 and discontinued with the 64DD on February 28, 2001.

A video showing the hardware, to the extent it can be shown, is here :

Pictures of this hardware can be found here :

SharkWire Online

Unlike the XBAND, this device for the N64 was not licensed.  Released by those fine folks behind the GameShark cheat devices, the service launched in the USA after limited release in test markets on January 1, 2000.  The main unit plugged into the cartridge slot and a cheap (probably PS/2) keyboard came with the system which plugged into the main unit.  Because the system was unlicensed, you had to insert a licensed cartridge into the main unit to get past the lockout chip inside the N64.  Not all licensed cartridges would work as a bypass.  An N64 game controller acted as a "mouse" to navigate menus.

SharkWire offered online access with an email client, message boards, game reviews and news, a basic browser and a "gaming community".  It had a monthly subscription fee in addition to the cost of the system.  It was strangely marketed toward 7-14 year-olds.  The modem was only 14.4K, a bit anemic for the 21st century.  It did not have any non-local multiplayer functionality like XBAND.  Finally, it required the N64's Expansion Pak.  The system was no great success and offline by 2003.

More information about this service can be found here :

A video showing off the hardware can be found here :

Mobile Game Boy Adapter

The Mobile Game Boy Adapter was used for several Japanese Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance games.  The most notable GBC game is Pocket Monsters: Crystal Version and the most notable GBA game would be Mario Kart Advance.  All the Game Boy Color games are GBC exclusives.  The adapter connected the GBC or GBA via the link port to a Japanese cell phone with the appropriate connector.  There were three adapter cables released, one with a blue box, one with a red box and one with a yellow box.  Each cable supported a specific cable and the speeds ranged from 9600baud, 14.4M and 36.6K.  The blue box, using the PDC standard, was by far the most common of these devices in use.

Pocket Monsters: Crystal Version allowed players to battle and trade their Pokemon as well as participate in special events and view news from other players.  The Mobile Adapter is required to unlock the Battle Tower in the Japanese game but not in the overseas versions. Some of the data which could be downloaded by the Mobile Adapter could also be seen in Pokemon Stadium 2 for the N64 when a Transfer Pak was used.  Mario Kart Advance allowed players to compete against each other in races and exchange "ghosts".  Ghosts are essentially a playback of a player's race through a course.

The Mobile Adapter was released on January 27, 2001 and the network was closed down on December 14, 2002.  Much of the trouble was that cellphone service was not unlimited during this time period.  Too much online gaming would eat up precious time, so this was not a device intended for younger people.

The best site for in-depth information about the device is here :

A good video showing off many of the features of the device can be watched here :

1 comment:

  1. I was previously aware of the Stellaview and the Xband, but not the various Japanese-only systems. This was a really interesting article. Thank-you.