If Taito mysteriously vanished off the face of the earth tomorrow, it would still be remembered as the company behind some of the biggest – and best-loved – arcade games of all time. Space Invaders, Bubble Bobble, Rainbow Islands, Operation Wolf, Puzzle Bobble – these are just a few of the games which dominated arcades, consoles, and home computers in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s.
It’s a lesser-known fact, however, that Taito was once on the cusp of releasing its own console.
In the early 1990s, the Japanese company was working on a system called the Wowow. First shown off at the Tokyo Toy Show in 1992, the Wowow was an innovative piece of hardware for its time. Equipped with a CD-ROM drive, it was also a satellite receiver, and would have streamed games via a satellite uplink.
According to a 1992 article published in France’s Console+ magazine, it would have essentially been like a miniature arcade for the living room:
The basic idea is innovative: it’s about distributing games via satellite, like the streaming of TV programs, and to charge only the time really spent to play.
The Wowow would have provided arcade-quality graphics and sound, and the first games for the system would have been some of Taito’s biggest names from the era: side-scrolling shooter Darius, platformers Bubble Bobble and Parasol Stars, Rastan, and Kiki KaiKai.
Powered with Taito’s own hardware, which it used in its arcade cabinets, the Wowow would have been a joint venture with the Japanese satellite channel of the same name, owned by a company called JSB, and satellite communications company ASCII. As the pictures below prove, the Wowow made it to the prototyping stage, and aside from its usual golden brown hue, it looks like a fairly typical, chunky console from the era.
Taito’s Yukiharu Sambe was the engineer in charge of the Wowow project, and he recently spoke to Unseen64 about his work on the console. According to Sambe, only one game was actually ported to the Wowow: the arcade hit Darius, which Sambe had himself originally directed. Unfortunately, the Wowow was ultimately abandoned, as Sambe explains.
“Data transferring speed was not enough and many error correction packets eat up these precious data speed. User should wait more than several minutes to download one small game. And if we try to broadcast several games at the same time, the download time needs more time.”
Cost was also a factor: at the time, combining a games console and a satellite receiver in one affordable box simply wasn’t feasible. Nintendo attempted its own satellite-linked console later in the decade – 1995’s Stellaview – but that system never made it outside Japan.
The Wowow, therefore, never made it far beyond the prototyping stage, and with that prototype now seemingly lost, it exists only as a handful of contemporary magazine articles and grainy photographs. But the Wowow story provides a fascinating insight into a gaming industry on the cusp of change. The worldwide web was just a few short years from ubiquity, and Taito’s idea of a streaming games console was truly ahead of its time.
You can read the full interview with Yukiharu Samber at Unseen64.