When Nintendo Wanted to Bring Gambling Into American Homes

In 1988, Nintendo released a modem for its Famicom system in Japan. A crude device, it didn't allow for online play; just some downloadable stuff and access to basic news and information services.

The device was never released in the United States, but it wasn't for want of trying. Indeed, Nintendo figured at the time it had the perfect entry path for the add-on: the lottery.

The year was 1991, and with millions of Nintendo Entertainment Systems spread across the US, Minneapolis-based company Control Data Corporation had a bright idea: combine the consoles with advancing online technology to bring not online gaming into the homes of Americans, but online gambling.

Nintendo jumped at the idea. As it would, seeing as it gave them another chance to stack something on top of something else! With the company designing a new modem (the Famicom ones wouldnt fit in a NES) and providing them free of charge, CDC also got the blessing of the State of Minnesota to trial a system where the NES could be used as a means for people to play the lottery from their living room.

The three parties planned to sign up 10,000 homes for the trial, and while Nintendo handed out free modems, in an even sweeter deal, Minnesota also handed out free NES consoles to those involved who didn't already have one.

For a monthly subscription fee of $10 (remember, that's 1991 money), users would also get a special cartridge for the NES that let them access the lottery, after which they could play every game that month, right up to and including the big jackpots.

Users could pick their own digits or, if they weren't feeling lucky, let the computer pick numbers for them. The lottery's interface was even "gamified", with some screens livened up with graphics like men fishing for numbers.

When Nintendo Wanted to Bring Gambling Into American Homes
The NES modem, built for this program, slotting snugly beneath the console

This of course didn't go down very well with many people, who realised the dangers of not just associating what was still a "children's" brand with an act restricted to adults, but of placing the means to gamble in a way kids could easily access it.

"Kids are gambling now; this will allow them to gamble more," Tony Bouza, a former Gaming Commissioner in Minnesota told the New York Times in 1991.

Bob Heitman, GM of the Sierra online gaming network (run by famed PC publishing house Sierra), told the paper "It's Jimmy the Greek comes home to your kid's bedroom."

"I have a bad feeling for lotteries. As a family game company, I would not do it or advocate that our company do it."

To counter this, Nintendo said that over one third of its NES users by 1991 were over the age of 18, while CDC pointed out the service would not only be password-protected, but that signing up would require certified copies of identification be sent and approved, and that there would also be a $50 daily limit on spending.

Not that any of that ended up mattering. The test went nowhere, scuppered before it could even begin by the complexity of the tech and political pressure, and despite plans for a national roll-out of the program, Nintendo quickly and quietly dropped the scheme. And wouldn't return to online technology for a long, long time.

FUN FACT: Along with the Minnesota Lottery program, at the time Nintendo of America was also looking at a stock trading service for the NES and an online gaming network. All three plans were shelved around the same time.
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.
(Lottery screenshots courtesy of Nintendo Age)