In The '80s, Japanese Gamers Could Go Online (On Their NES)
"I'm going online on my NES" sounds like a nonsense phrase, like "I'm playing soccer on my guitar" or "I'm getting the salad at McDonald's." The Nintendo Entertainment System came out in the 1980s, while the wonderful ability to take video game consoles online and allow children in other continents to call you all manner of slurs only took off in the 2000s -- but it did exist before then. And yes, you actually could connect your NES to the internet in the '80s ... as long as you lived in Japan and owned one of these babies:
The Family Computer Network System was a peripheral that allowed your Famicom (the Japanese equivalent of the NES) to connect to a phone line and do stuff like trade stocks or ... well, uh, that was about it when it came out in 1988. But Nintendo had some pretty ambitious, straight-up sci-fi sounding plans for this thing: Company president Hiroshi Yamauchi wanted to grow Nintendo from a mere toymaker into "a communications corporation" and saw the Network System as "an appliance of the future ... one day as pervasive as the telephone -- with Nintendo technology at its heart."
One in three homes in Japan already had a Famicom, and Yamauchi wanted to take advantage of that to "link Nintendo households" and create a "large-scale network which to this point has been inconceivable." Video games were still a bunch of pixels going BEEP BOP BEEP BOP, and this MFer already wanted to hook everyone up to the Matrix via their love of Mario.
Yamauchi approved a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to sell Japan on this wacky concept. An ad for Famicom's stock trading program invited viewers to "Walk away from the present and solve the mysteries of the future!" like they were being drafted to be a Doctor Who sidekick. But the most mind-blowing part of this ad is the revelation that the Mona Lisa was looking at stocks on her Nintendo console all along (she's smiling because Suzuki is up).
Yamauchi wanted Nintendo to guide humanity into the next step in its evolution by providing "New forms of recreation, and a new means of accessing information." He envisioned a future in which people turned to their Nintendo consoles for "a vital supply of information ... in the fields of entertainment, finance securities and health management, to mention but a few." The Famicom would handle everything from banking to shopping to booking flights ... and, oh yeah, gaming too, we guess.
Nintendo created some prototypes for simple games that could be played online, and even set up software called the Super Mario Club which could be used to look up and submit reviews for Nintendo titles. All of this data (including search history) was tracked by Nintendo, though there's no word on whether they ever used it to sell people hyper-specific t-shirts like "Don't Mess With A Lactose Intolerant Mommy Born In June Who Has A Score Of 1059101 At Balloon Fight."
Sadly, neither the technology nor people's brains were ready for Yamauchi's ideas yet. The network had serious stability issues at launch, but more importantly, most people just weren't getting into this fancy information age stuff -- at least not through their Nintendos. One of the network's applications did catch on, though: the horse race betting one. Up to 100,000 people were betting on horse races through their Famicoms, which is impressive compared to the 14,000 or so that used it for banking. In fact, this mode was so popular that it was ported to the Super Nintendo and the Dreamcast, and, technically, it could still be used until the landline betting system was discontinued in 2015. Now people have to walk up to the horses and express their support directly instead of calling them on the phone.
At least Yamauchi lived to see others realize his dream, and if he saw the Nintendo Switch's online capabilities today, he'd probably smile. Unless he tried to get into a fight on Smash Bros. and it started lagging out. Then he'd throw the Switch through a window.
Top image: Nintendo