Famicom Disk System – Gaming Historian


Sometimes, a console just isn’t enough.
Today, I want to talk about one of my
favorite add-ons of all time:
the Famicom Disk System. It’s an add-on
for the Famicom, that played games using
proprietary floppy disks, and for a short
time
Nintendo considered it the future of
their system and company.
The games were bigger and even cheaper
for consumers, but ultimately
advancements in technology quickly made the system obsolete, but that doesn’t
mean the Disk System was bad, it was an
impressive piece of hardware and had
some great games.
Many of the ideas and introduced and
inspired were revolutionary.
So let’s dive into the history of the
Famicom Disk System:
What it was; why it was created; and how
it failed.
The year was 1985, and
Nintendo’s Family Computer system was on
top of Japan’s video game market. In just
one and a half years,
Nintendo sold more than 3 million
systems, and there was no sign of slowing down.
All across the country, retailers called Nintendo, asking for more product to satisfy consumer demands.
One of the biggest demands was for
cheaper games. Video game rentals were
banned the previous year, which resulted
in fewer options for playing games on a
budget, but there was little Nintendo
could do about the problem.
Cartridges were expensive to make,
thanks to the cost of semiconductors and
chips. The average Famicom cartridge
cost around thirty dollars at the time,
even simple games. That year a company
called Hudson Soft approached Nintendo
about a possible new add-on for the
Famicom: one that played games using their patented “Bee” cards.
Hudson Soft had experimented with their
cards on the MSX computer, but with the
Famicom dominating the market,
it made sense to pitch the technology to
Nintendo. The cards were small, almost
like a credit card, but had enough
capacity to store full games.
Once consumers got tired of the game,
they could bring the card to a kiosk in a
retail store and write a new game to the card.
Nintendo loved the idea, especially the
concept of overwriting existing games,
but the technology was somewhat expensive, and they would be forced to pay royalties for every card sold.
Nintendo ultimately decided to pass on
Hudson Soft’s proposal. This rejection
eventually led Hudson Soft to partner
with the NEC corporation, and create the
PC Engine system, also known as the Turbografx in North America.
It played games using “HuCARD”s, an evolution of the “Bee” card.
Nintendo continued to explore the idea of
rewritable games.
Luckily, there was a popular form of
media that was absolutely perfect for
their concept: floppy disks. Floppy disks
had been around since the seventies, and
had become the standard form of media
for personal computers. They were cheap,
could hold more data than cartridges, and
most importantly, they were rewritable.
Nintendo chose to use Mitsumi’s “Quick
Disk”, as their media format. At the time,
5 and a quarter and three and a half
inch floppies were the standard size.
Mitsumi marketed their “Quick Disk”s as a
smaller cheaper alternative, that could be customized.
Thus, development began on
the Famicom Disk System,
bud by Masayuki Yukimura, and R&D 2, the same team that designed the Famicom.
On February 21st, 1986,
after several delays, the Famicom Disk
System was released. It retailed for
‎¥15,000, which was around $80 at the time.
To go along with the add-on, Nintendo released “The Legend of Zelda”, a massive adventure game
that utilized all 128KB of their
new disk media. Nintendo’s marketing
campaign featured a new mascot: a cute
little yellow character known as Disk-kun, or Mr. Disk.
The ads promise that all
the best new games would only be available on the Famicom Disk System.
It seemed as if Nintendo had gone all in
with their new peripheral.
Initially, the Famicom Disk System sold very well. Within three months they sold 500,000 units.
By the end of the year, that number
jumped to two million.
Let’s dive into the hardware. The disk
system came boxed with only three items:
the disk system itself, the RAM adapter,
and an RF cord.
So you might be wondering: “What about a power adapter?”
Well, those were actually sold separately.
The disk system can be powered by 6 “C” batteries.
Apparently, Nintendo thought people’s
outlets would be harmed by the TV and
the Famicom. Surprisingly the system last
quite awhile on batteries.
The front of the disk system features
the disk slot, where you insert your
games, and an access light to let you know when data is being read on the disk.
The back of the system contains an AC
adapter input and the RAM adapter input.
The RAM adapter is the key to operating
the disk system.
It’s responsible for sending all the
data to the Famicom.
On the back is a hidden parallel port.
Nothing I know of utilizes this port, but
it’s possible Nintendo had plans to use
it in the future, maybe for a system link
cable or something.
Inside the adapter, is extra RAM for program and graphical data.
There’s also a special processor inside
that controls the disk drive and provides an additional audio channel.
This allowed for even more detailed
music and sound effects in games.
Listen for some of the differences
between these games, that came out on both a disk and a cartridge.
Well, that’s basically it. Overall it’s a
very minimal add on it acts perfectly as
a base to the Famicom and has matching
red colors together.
It’s a pretty gorgeous setup. When you
boot up the system, you are greeted with
an iconic jingle, along with some fun
animations of Mario and Luigi, but the
heart of any console is the games, and this is how
Nintendo hoped to attract customers to the disk system.
Games are stored on disk cards: each side can hold 64KB of data for a total of 128KB.
In some cases, a different game can be written on each side.
My copy of “Super Mario Brothers 2” has
“Volleyball” on side B, and the cover even
has a space to let you write in what
game is on each side. There is no plastic
shutter to protect the magnetic disk.
Instead, Nintendo put each game in a wax
sleeve in clear plastic case, most likely
to save money.
Games that came on a blue disk did have the plastic shutter, but more on that later.
There’s also the word “Nintendo” recessed
into every disk. While it may seem like a branding strategy,
this was actually an anti-piracy measure.
Inside the disk system was a stamp that
fits snuggly into these letters. If it
didn’t fit correctly, the game wouldn’t play.
While the upfront cost of the disk
system was somewhat high,
buying games for the system was relatively cheap. An average disk system game was between
$15-20 while the
average cartridge game cost $30.
Nintendo also setup disk writer kiosks
throughout retail stores in Japan.
For only about $3 customers could
write new games to their existing disks.
An extra $1 would net you the
manual. You can even buy a blank disk
for about $12 then write a new game to it.
It was a brilliant idea, and gave
consumers more options to try new games.
Nintendo even took it a step further, by
making an early form of online gaming.
In 1987, they set up contests where players would compete for high scores on specific games.
These games came on special blue
disks with plastic shutters and included
titles such as “F1 Race” and “3D Hot Rally”. Once you achieve a high score,
you could bring in your disk to a disk
fax machine at a retail store, where your
score would be sent to Nintendo. Winners
would receive exclusive prizes such as a gold “Punch-Out” cart.
Nintendo initially hoped the disk system
would be away for gamers to play casual
games for less money, but when developers found out how much extra data they could put in their games,
it became the future. Most cartridge
games at the time were around 32KB,
but thanks to the disk system they could
go up to 128KB. Players also now
had the ability to save their games
which allow developers to get even more creative.
One developer, Yoshio Sakamoto of R&D 1, stated the disk system allowed them to create less
stage clear games like “Wrecking Crew” or
“Mario Bros.” and create games on a larger scale.
Nintendo even entered new genre territory
by creating a few text-based adventure
games such as “Famicom Detective Club ” and “Time Twist”. The disk system also gave
developers more time to create games. Production of the actual disks took much
less time than a cartridge. “Kid Icarus”
was finished only three days before it was released.
Nintendo promised that all future big
releases would only be available on the
Famicom Disk System and for a time, Nintendo wasn’t kidding.
From November 1985 to November of 1987,
Nintendo didn’t release a single
cartridge game for the Famicom, only disk system games.
Many classics debuted on
the Famicom Disk System:
“The Legend of Zelda”, “Metroid”, “Kid Icarus”, “Doki Doki Panic”, “Castlevania”,
even the sequel to “Super Mario Brothers” was only available on the disk system.
With all that being said, the Famicom Disk System did have its flaws. Most consumers were
used to simply putting in a cartridge and
playing their game. Using the disk format
introduced a whole new set of issues:
the disks are fragile. Without any
protective plastic shutter covering the magnetic disk,
they collect dust and fingerprints, which
can eventually make them unplayable.
And because games were now on disks,
consumers had to get used to a new concept:
Loading times. Even the system had
reliability issues; most notably the
rubber drive belts that spun the disks,
which would break over time.
Many times, you will boot up the disk system to a
random error number with no explanation.
And of course, all of the parts are
proprietary, so getting replacement hardware is difficult.
Overall, the Famicom Disk System is a
great add-on for the Famicom that had
tons of potential, but ultimately, fell
short. By 1990, most consumers and developers had moved on, and in total
Nintendo sold about 4 and a half
million units. So what went wrong?
Well, quite a few things. Just four months
after the disk system launched,
Capcom released “Ghosts n’ Goblins” on a
massive 128KB cartridge, the first of its kind.
Not only that, but semiconductor and
chip prices were coming down,
so making cartridge-based games wasn’t
such an expense anymore.
When Nintendo brought the disk system
game “Legend of Zelda” to the United States, in cartridge form,
they came up with a battery backup save
feature, so by 1987,
there were almost no advantages to
having your game on a disk rather than a cartridge.
Nintendo also introduced very
strict licensing terms which angered
third-party licensees. If a company
wanted a cartridge game converted to disk,
Nintendo charged a hefty fee. They also
claimed 50% copyright
ownership of any disk system game,
something cartridge-based games never had to worry about.
There is also less money to be made in
disk-based games.
Retailers weren’t thrilled either. While
the disk writer kiosks were a fun idea,
they took up a lot of room in stores, and
had to be serviced regularly.
Piracy was also an issue. Despite Nintendo’s clever stamp on disks and various programming checks,
people found a way to get around
at all.
One clever trick was to slightly modify
the recessed “Nintendo” logo on disks.
This not only worked, but avoid copyright
issues, allowing pirated games to be sold in stores.
Copying devices and bootleg games were
so rampant they were even advertised in magazines.
Eventually, Nintendo admitted defeat and
switched back to making cartridge games.
They even took a few disk games, like
“Legend of Zelda” and converted them to cartridge form.
Believe it or not, there were plans to release the disk system in the United States.
Several patents were filed, but by the time they were approved in 1988,
Nintendo had canceled plans to release
the system stateside.
Despite Nintendo pulling the plug on the
disk system, it maintained quite a loyal following in Japan.
Nintendo serviced the system all the way
up to the year 2007, and even provided
disc writing services all the way up to
the year 2003.
Today it’s a collector’s piece for
Famicom enthusiasts, and has gained somewhat of a cult following.
It requires a bit more attention due to
the various hardware issues.
Even buying software can be tricky, as games were overwritten constantly.
You may think you are purchasing one
game, but once you pop it into the system,
you find out it’s something completely
different.
You can buy a Famicom Disk System with a new drive belt for around $50
on eBay, but keep in mind, you are also
going to need a Famicom. If you want to
get extra fancy, you can go for the Sharp
Twin Famicom. When the disk system was released,
Nintendo collaborated with Sharp, and created the Sharp Twin Famicom:
an all-in-one system that played both
Famicom games and Famicom Disk System games.
These go for a bit more, around $150. If getting a Famicom is just totally out of the question,
the disk system does work using an NES
top loader with a Famicom-to-NES cart converter,
however, the enhanced audio doesn’t work using this method. For more information,
I highly recommend checking out FamicomDiskSystem.com.
It’s a great resource, containing
technical information pictures and more.
That’s all for this episode of Gaming
Historian, thanks for watching.
Funding for Gaming Historian is provided
in part by supporters on Patreon, thank you.

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