Science and Tech
Five Forgotten Famicom Peripherals That Never Escaped Japan

John Markley | 15 Jul 2015 15:00
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Famicom Modem

Online functionality is so ubiquitous in modern console gaming that it's easy to forget there was a time when games weren't hell-bent on cramming the entire Internet down your gullet. Yet it wasn't all that long ago that the Internet was all but unknown to the average person, its use largely limited to academics, hardcore computer aficionados, and rogue artificial intelligences. Which, in hindsight, is probably something Nintendo should have considered before releasing the Famicom Modem all the way back in 1988.

It wasn't used for online gaming, which would have been prohibitively costly in an era when services offering online games cost several dollars per hour. In fact, it didn't have much to do with games at all. It was the product of a partnership between Nintendo and Japanese investment banking and brokerage services giant Nomura Securities, who were looking for a way for their customers to easily check stock prices and carry out trades.

The modem sat perched atop the Famicom, plugged into the cartridge slot. Users were connected to a server provided by Nomura where, using a special keypad controller, they could carry out stock trades and access stock prices and financial news, as well as other things like weather reports and cheat codes.

One can only hope that those were really good cheat codes, since they were the only connection to video games the retail version of the modem would ever have. Nintendo did develop prototypes of five online games, but none were released before the project came to an unsuccessful end 3 years after release. The network was plagued by stability problems, the economic bubble that had fueled a surge in demand for financial services burst, and public perception of video game consoles as children's toys deterred Japanese businessmen who didn't want to entrust their financial wheelings and dealings to a glorified He-Man Castle Greyskull Playset.

Its last gasp as far as video games were concerned was the Super Mario Club in 1991, a searchable network of game reviews accessed via Modem-equipped Famicoms placed in toy shops. Yet, this was not the end, only a prelude to the Famicom Modem discovering its true calling: gambling!

In 1991, Nintendo entered a new partnership with the Japan Racing Association, the organization that oversees horse racing and betting in Japan, to create a service that allowed people to place bets on horse races via their Famicom modem. Gamblers desperate for another surge of dopamine through their already-oversaturated limbic systems but reluctant to face the baleful light of the sun flocked to the service, driving far more Famicom Modem sales than games ever did. For a period in the 90s, more than a third of online horse betting in Japan was done via Nintendo consoles. It's nice to actually have a happy ending, for once.

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