Today in Tedium: One thing that should be clear from a close reading of Tedium’s archive is that tech ephemera springs eternal. There are always new things around the corner, somehow weirder then the last thing. Over the years, we’ve highlighted early attempts at turning game consoles into computers, working around official license schemes, adding cheat codes to games, and giving consoles internet functionality. But never have we highlighted a platform that somehow managed to do all of these things at once. Until now. And it is a weird one, involving a well-known game brand used in an unexpected context. Today’s Tedium talks about the time that the company behind the GameShark created a web-browsing cartridge and keyboard for the Nintendo 64. Really. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s Tedium is sponsored by Chargebee, which is promoting an upcoming free virtual event. More from them in a second.
The GameShark was a branding tactic that won over an American audience raised on the Game Genie
The story of GameShark actually starts with the Action Replay, a cheat device that originally came into being during the 1980s via the British peripheral company Datel, which evolved from making CB radios into one of the most common developers of gear for modern video game consoles around.
Starting in the 1980s, the firm moved into computer peripherals, hitting on a major hit with its Action Replay devices, first for the Commodore 64, then the Amiga. These cartridge-based devices didn’t work like the later cheat cartridges, though they shared some of the general features. Its headlining feature was the ability to store the information currently on a computer into the cart’s memory, then pull it up near instantaneously in a save state long after the fact—which made it possible to both avoid long loading times from floppy disks or cassettes, and also made it possible to back up a full game into memory. (This use case also makes more sense than the “Action Replay” name’s current context.)
One feature it had that proved useful to games in particular, however, was the “Pokefinder,” a tool which can uncover ways to change the underlying code of a game. This feature became a key part of the Action Replay’s many console editions, which date as far back as the NES.
There was just one problem: The Action Replay name was not a hot selling point in the U.S., where the cultural impact of the Commodore 64 and the Amiga wasn’t as long-lasting as it was in Europe. By the time video game consoles got the devices, a similar tool called the Game Genie had taken much of the early market—along with some of the important early legal battles. It took a while for Datel to find its ideal American marketing strategy.
Eventually, that strategy came with a new partner, a controller-focused distributor named InterAct Accessories, and a new name that seemed destined to cut through the MTV/Nickelodeon/Cartoon Network morass on the way to major success. That name? GameShark.
GameShark, in reality, was a rebranded Action Replay, a name that Datel maintained in other markets outside of the United States. But it also benefited from InterAct’s distribution as well. See, InterAct was well-positioned to give the cheat concept a leg-up. During the 32-bit console era, the company was the largest player in third-party accessories, well ahead of its largest competitor, Mad Catz.
A 1998 Baltimore Sun profile highlighted how InterAct had won the “grudging respect” of a gaming industry that might have otherwise ignored such a player in the past.
And that grudging respect might be why InterAct thought it could get away with bringing internet access to the Nintendo 64.
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The amount that Datel paid to Sony Computer Entertainment America in a settlement as a result of the Action Replay maker improperly using InterAct’s password to the Sony developer website to access proprietary developer information. The amount covered Sony’s legal fees related to the complaint. “InterAct and Datel have agreed to post an agreed-upon statement of regret on their homepages,” InterAct’s parent company, the audio and video accessories firm Recoton, stated in a 1999 SEC filing.
Why the company behind the GameShark decided to create a WebTV-style service for the Nintendo 64
The Nintendo 64, from an accessories perspective, was an unusual beast, in that it offered an array of upgrades that many of its competitors during that time did not—including, most famously, the RAM. Some of its accessories, notably the Rumble Pak, helped to inspire the broader market generations later. Others, like the Voice Recognition Unit included with Hey You, Pikachu!, remained oddball novelties for years afterwards.
But one feature that Nintendo had genuinely tried to bring to the market fairly early on was an online service. It had many of the pieces to successfully pull it off: For one thing, the console had been built with the help of Silicon Graphics, many former employees of which transitioned to Netscape during the mid-1990s. But the effort, associated with the company’s 64DD add-on accessory, stalled. (Per a 2015 Fortune article, it was revealed that Netscape cofounders Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark nearly started an online game service for Nintendo, instead of Netscape, but Nintendo would have retained ownership over their work, limiting the upside.)
Eventually, the 64DD, always something of a boondoggle, came out in Japan with a required-to-use online service called Randnet, which lasted slightly more than a year before it was shut down.
But with the 64DD confined to the Japanese market, it created an opportunity in the American market for an alternate online service, and it was one that InterAct was well-suited to take advantage of, even if it had no official support from Nintendo.
As a concept, putting a web browser inside of a gaming console made sense. The PC, while growing in popularity, was still nonexistent in many homes, and alternatives would have required new types of set-top boxes to function. Those tools, most notably WebTV, were on the market by this time, but not doing particularly well. A game console, however? It had already won the living room, and with a modem and the right tool, it could prove an essential tool for getting online.
Additionally, it helped that the target market was a bit younger than WebTV’s well-known reputation as a computer for the “olds.”
“The focus is entirely different,” InterAct founder Todd Hays told the Sun of the device, originally called the NetShark. “Everything that we’re going to do, from the advertising and packaging and marketing perspective, will be focused toward the core gaming demographic.”
One immediately apparent problem: The core gaming demographic, as defined by InterAct, was aged 7 to 14—which may have been a bit young, even in the early 2000s, even for a console that had a younger target audience than the PlayStation.
SharkWire Online, as it ended up being called, wasn’t just a modem sold for the Nintendo 64. It was also sold as a golden opportunity to bring a new audience online for the first time.
“It was a big idea, but it was a simple one,” InterAct marketing head Jay Randy Gordon noted in a promotional video. “‘How do we give kids email through their console?’ … Then it became, ‘How do we give them GameShark codes?’ Better yet, why don’t we give them an internet-type surfing experience where they can learn about music and games and movies and sports, all through their video game console?”
The service, with hardware and software produced by Datel and internet access provided through the GTE network, was technically a way to get on the internet—it relied on the same Spyglass Mosaic web browser that was the initial basis of Internet Explorer—but it wasn’t exactly a full-fat form of internet access like WebTV was. Considering the target audience was ages 7 to 14 and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) had just passed, it makes sense that it was specifically marketed as a walled garden experience, with InterAct responsible for a digital portal that brought in only approved content to ensure it was safe and family-friendly. (You could email anyone you wanted, however.)
Despite the younger target audience, the device was promoted with edgy marketing. The commercial for the device seemed inspired by The X-Files, and the promotional video used MTV-style bumpers that didn’t particularly seem like they were targeting a preteen audience. At one point during the promo video, the director of the commercial is shown saying this: “I’m so drunk I can’t even tell what we’re doing.”
To give you an idea of some of that edginess, here’s how the service was described in the official GameShark magazine, Dangerous Waters:
SharkWire Online opens the door to the SharkWire Online community, where you’ll have a direct link to all the coolest sites on the Web. Imagine just turning on your game system, attaching the SharkWire Online add-on and linking to our site for info from airwalk.com, gamepro.com, and everyone’s favorite, GameShark.com! It’s as simple as that You can stay up on the latest haps in the world of fashion, music and, of course, games! Download game saves and GameShark codes, read the latest gaming news, or learn new strategies. As a part of the SharkWire Online community, you can also swipe tips and cheats with other information-hungry garners.
(The article also noted that it was a way to get online when the main computer was in use, “so when your dad and the family PC seem like they’re joined at the hip, you can chat with your friends from the comfort and convenience of the coolest place in the entire house—your room.” Whoever wrote this description apparently lived in a house with three or four separate phone lines.)
It’s worth noting that when InterAct made its play, there was some skepticism about whether it would work. A 1999 Washington Post article noted that it was targeting an audience that was already full of digital natives. “It’s a risky idea, with so many young people already comfortable using the Web or America Online from their PCs,” writer Shannon Henry noted.
And certainly, evidence is strong it wasn’t a big success. The service, while initially promoted as coming out for the PlayStation as well, only came out for the Nintendo 64, and even then its release date was at the start of 2000, well in the back half of the console’s lifespan. And setup was complicated. It came with a keyboard, a standard PS/2 design that plugged into the dongle-like cartridge, and the cartridge required the plugging in of another game to get past the lockout chip, because it was unlicensed.
Despite only working with the assistance of another game, SharkWire lacked a key feature that predecessor devices like the prior console generation’s Xband had: The ability to play multiplayer games. It was set up for email, a limited amount of online content, and that was about it. On top of all that, the $9.95 per month cost of getting onto the network only covered 10 hours of access.
And at the time of its release, there was already evidence that later console generations would render the idea almost instantly obsolete: Sega, which had already made online services available for the Saturn and Genesis, actually offered a built-in modem with the Sega Dreamcast that had been released before the SharkWire, and later offered a full-fledged online service that, while it was more expensive than SharkWire, offered full internet access. The Xbox and Playstation 2, and to a lesser extent the Gamecube, also offered substantial online services.
By 2003, InterAct’s parent company, Recoton, went bankrupt, which had the effect of not only shutting down the SharkWire service, but separating the GameShark name from the Action Replay devices—the name lived on as a secondary brand for its onetime competitor Mad Catz for a time, but Mad Catz eventually retired the brand name entirely.
Eventually, Datel started selling the Action Replay to the U.S. market itself—even though, again, the name doesn’t fully make sense without its history.
The Nintendo 64, for whatever reason, has proven just as reliable for oddball nostalgia as some of its predecessors—in some ways, more so.
Recently, the tech YouTuber Modern Vintage Gamer, who tends to focus on vintage hacks for gaming consoles, highlighted another unusual unlicensed device released during the same era, the Doctor V64, a backup device whose design accidentally became a major asset for its creator, Bung, because it had connectivity that allowed the obvious piracy device to become a developer kit on the cheap. Given that insanely expensive SGI machines were originally used in development kits, it was a major discount in price, one that at least one major studio, Acclaim, took advantage of.
InterAct’s play with the SharkWire Online wasn’t quite so outre, but it did represent a pretty fascinating diversion for a console that represented the first prominent example of Nintendo zagging while the rest of the industry zigged.
Retrospectives of the service haven’t been particularly kind: An after-the-fact NESWorld review, for example, characterized the service as offering a limited value to gamers, especially considering the cartridge’s high cost and the fact that it missed the important 1999 holiday release window, ensuring lost sales.
“The monthly subscription fee and the limited ‘internet’ access must’ve scared off lots of potential buyers,” the site noted.
But it represents a fascinating answer to a trivia question nobody probably thought to ask: How do you get a Nintendo 64 online? Easy: You stick this unlicensed cartridge into your system, put a licensed cartridge in to get past the lockout chip, plug in a modem, plug in a keyboard, and surf for cheat codes on a service that offers access to 0.000001 percent of what the internet offered in the year 2000, because the target audience was 7-year-olds.
Hey, it’s better than what Nintendo was offering the U.S market at the time—which was nothing.