by Ryan Lambie
In terms of sheer convenience, the average 21st-century gamer is truly spoiled for choice: We can access games on our mobile phones and tablets. We can download them onto our dedicated handheld game devices, computers, and consoles. Through the advent of sites like Kongregate, we can play multiplayer games through our web browsers. Or, if we're feeling really retro, we can walk into a brick-and-mortar shop and pick up a game on disc, just as we have for decades.
Back in the 1980s, the technology of the era meant that consumers had far fewer options when it came to getting hold of their favorite games, but that didn't stop several pioneering companies from trying to change the way entertainment was delivered and shared. In the early part of the decade, the Atari 2600 and Intellivision consoles both got subscription services that allowed players to download games via a telephone line (in the case of the 2600's GameLine) or by cable (Intellivision's PlayCable).
Over in Japan, Nintendo had similarly big ideas later in the decade. The Famicom Disk System was a peripheral that, the company hoped, would not only coax its customers into switching expensive cartridges for cheaper floppy disks, but also change the way they purchased games entirely. Beginning in 1986, Nintendo installed a chain of kiosks all around Japan which, in exchange for a relatively small rental fee, allowed users to write games to disks and take them home.
It was an ingenious and remarkably forward thinking system, and proved enduringly popular; according to Kotaku, the Disk Writer service remained in action right up until 2003. Unfortunately, neither the Famicom's disk drive nor its kiosks were considered for release elsewhere in the world, where the console's western counterpart, the NES, remained a strictly cartridge-only system.
Nintendo wasn't the only major Japanese country experimenting with new ways of distributing games in the pre-internet era, either. In the early 1990s, Taito—the company known all over the world for such hit arcade games as Space Invaders, Bubble Bobble, and Operation Wolf—was planning to make an innovative console that could have changed the way gamers received and paid for their games.
Called the WoWoW, the console was billed as a joint venture between Taito, a satellite company called JSB, and Japanese media giant the ASCII Corporation. The plan was to share each company's resources to create a single system; Taito would provide the hardware it used in its arcade machines, while ASCII would provide the tech and infrastructure that would allow the console to connect to JSB's satellite.
Unveiled at the Tokyo Toy Show in 1992, the WoWoW was essentially a Taito arcade machine for the living room. Users would have been able to stream the latest games via satellite, and rather than buying them outright, would essentially pay a monthly subscription fee to JSB.
According to the French magazine Console+, the WoWoW's games would have essentially been identical to the ones Taito was putting out in arcades in the late 1980s and early '90s; titles planned for the system included hit platformer Bubble Bobble, its second sequel Parasol Stars, fantasy shooter Kiki KaiKai and hack-and-slash side-scroller Rastan.
At a time when video game companies were regularly trying to cram more technologically advanced arcade games onto less powerful consoles, the WoWoW might have garnered a devoted core following. In 1990, SNK's Neo Geo system attempted to bring arcade-quality games into its customers' homes, but at an eye-watering cost; a single game for the Neo Geo often retailed at around $200 or more. The WoWoW's pay-to-play system of delivery could have offered a similar experience, but without the terrifying price tag.
Work on the WoWoW clearly reached an advanced stage. A working prototype made its debut at that Tokyo expo in 1992, and photos from the event depict a svelte and futuristic looking system. As well as its satellite connection, the WoWoW came with a CD-ROM drive and appeared to accept some kind of slim cartridge, like the PC Engine's HuCards or the Sega Master System's My Cards.
A game was even successfully ported to the WoWoW: the hit shooter Darius, originally released in 1986. Unfortunately, it seems that transferring Darius to the WoWoW exposed a few technological problems. In an interview with Unseen 64, Yukiharu Sambe, the research and development manager who oversaw the development of the WoWoW, explained that early 1990s technology simply wasn't up to the task of transferring games by satellite: even a relatively small game like Darius (which by then was already six years old) would have taken several minutes to download, and the transfer time would have increased even further with multiple users connected at the same time.
Work on the WoWoW was therefore abandoned early in release, meaning Taito's sole foray into the console market was over before it had really begun. Three years later, Nintendo—still keen to push content delivery into new arenas—released its own satellite-enabled device for the Super Nintendo (or Super Famicom, as it was called in Japan). Called the Satellaview, the subscription service gave users access to games, digital magazines, and other content. Satellaview had a small yet healthy uptake in Japan, but like the Disk System, never appeared elsewhere.
Today, the notion of downloading games from services like Steam or the PlayStation Store has become so accepted that we scarcely even give it a second thought. Were it not for the technological limitations of the early 1990s, Taito's WoWoW could have had users downloading games to their living rooms years before the arrival of the World Wide Web.