The satellite that gave the system its name was provided by a satellite radio channel called St.Giga, which was known for its experimental setup, with 24/7 ambient music provided through subscriptions. The change to more commercial fare that the Satellaview brought was risky, but turned out to be financially a good move, as at its peak there were over 200,000 Satellaview subscribers. Data was broadcasted on a schedule, where certain programs could only be downloaded at certain times of day – akin to traditional radio or TV than an on-demand system.
There were many different types of data broadcasted. There were so-called “magazines”, that were collections of simple images and audio data. There were gameplay guides. There was add-on data for certain games, such as new stages. But most importantly, there were games themselves. These were split into two categories: “Soundlink” games that were only broadcasted live and included voice actors playing the part of characters in the game making announcements, and non-Soundlink games, that could be downloaded, saved, and played at any point. A unique feature of the Satellaview was the “event” games, which were altered versions of a normal game that gave the player codes to mail to St.Giga upon completing the game or dying. Sending these codes in gave the player the opportunity to get a prize, such as a T-shirt or keychain.
Nintendo supported the Satellaview whole-heartedly, with many games that were released on the platform. Two Legend of Zelda games – an updated version of the original NES version and Ancient Stone Tablets, a sequel to A Link to the Past1 – were released, as well as Kirby minigames and Mario quiz games. They were not the only company to see value in the Satellaview system, as both Square (makers of Final Fantasy) and Enix (makers of Dragon Quest) made several games for the Satellaview.2
The Satellaview was supported for five years, with the last broadcast occurring in June of 2000 – an impressively long lifespan, given that the Nintendo 64 came out in 1996. However, Nintendo cut support in April 1999, leaving St.Giga to take charge alone for the last year with rereleases only.
In the years since it was cut, it’s become the subject of a preservation project run by fans. Many were attracted by the unique entries of famous series on the system. However, the nature of the Satellaview has made it difficult to completely archive and emulate. The fact that newer downloads overwrote old ones has meant that later games dominate the data found, and there is no way of knowing what data is on a cartridge just from looking at it. Furthermore, some of the data was not saved – it was put in working memory or displayed immediately. All of the music for Soundlink games, for instance, falls in that category. While Satellaview games are quite similar to SNES games, they aren’t quite the same, and as such emulators often have to be specifically tweaked to play Satellaview games. Not only that, but different games work better on different emulators.
Nintendo did not return to the concept of downloadable digital software for another seven years, until the 2006 release of the Wii and the accompanying WiiWare service. This improved on some of the shortcomings of the Satellaview – games could be downloaded at any time rather than waiting for a specific timeslot, and storage capacity was much larger – but lost some of the unique features, such as the contests.