Released in 1986, three years after the Famicom, Nintendo’s Disk System is a largely unacknowledged as an important step forward in console video gaming. By 1986 Nintendo had already began expanding the concepts of video game design. The bright colorful graphics and replay value of arcade games and the length and goal orientated nature of PC adventures were being melded together in the laboratories at Nintendo’s famed R&D1 and the software being developed was rapidly evolving beyond the on board specs of the Famicom itself. Titles such as Super Mario Bros. scoffed at the single-screen, score-chasing style of the early arcade games and presented the player with goals- actual goals, other than topping high scores; goals such as clearing stages and defeating bosses. In many ways these early Nintendo games took the best of the arcades and married that with the complexity that was common on the PC.
Nintendo, having always been on the forefront of innovation, needed a way to expand their games; to grant the ability to save a game file, much like on the PC. Passwords were a serviceable alternative to game saves; however with passwords there remained a disconnect between the player and their game. Indeed you didn’t truly feel like it was your character or your adventure after punching in an 8-58 alpha-numeric password. Another unfortunate drawback to passwords was their complexity and sizeable room for error. For some games, the password was no more difficult then a phone number; however, the more complex the game, the more intricate and specific the password system needed to be.
This issue was remedied with the release of the Famicom Disk System. The Famicom DIsk System was a diskette based add-on for Nintendo’s Famicom which used proprietary storage media, similar too (but not compatible with) standard 3.5″ diskettes. The disks were actually a slightly altered variation of Mitsumi’s Quick Disk format. Early Nintendo Disk System releases took full advantage of the save feature granted by the new medium; games such as The Legend of Zelda (and eventually it sequel, Link’s Adventure), Metroid, and Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic to name a few.
The Disk System was designed to sit below the the Famicom and interfaced with the console via a device called the RAM Adaptor that ran from the Disk System itself in the cartridge slot of the Famicom. The Disk System also required its own power supply whihc was sold separately from the unit. The Disk System did however give you the option of using six C-cell batteries forgoing the necessity of the adaptor.
The Nintendo Disk Card (as it was officially named) was also fully re-writable. Self serve Nintendo Disk Writer kiosks were stationed in electronic stores, convenience store and malls throughout Japan. Assuming one was bored of a Disk System game that they owned, they could simply take their Disk Card to one of these kiosks (or purchase a blank disc from the kiosk) and have a new game written over it for a fee much less then that of a new Disk game. The Disk Writer kiosks even dispensed specialized fold-up instruction papers and Disk labelling stickers when a game was purchased Some Disk games only required one side of the Disk Card (such as Super Mario Bros.), allowing for another game to be freely written to the blank side.
It is, unfortunately, this precise ease of rewriting the Disk Cards that ultimately contributed to the demise of the console. Certain types and brands of 3.5″ floppy disks, including Mitsumi’s own Quick Disk could be modified to work on the Disk System, and piracy predictably ran rampant. Piracy was such a problem, in fact, that plans for a North American version of the Disk System were ultimately scrapped. This directly lead to the development of the in-cart battery back-up save feature that debuted with the North American release of The Legend of Zelda. The Nintendo Entertainment System (as it was released in North America) was in fact originally designed to connect with this undeveloped NTSC version of the Disk System, as evidenced by the parallel port in the bottom of the console. This was meant to communicate the Disk System directly with the NES’s motherboard, eliminating the need for the RAM adapter connection in the cartridge slot that was necessary for the Famicom Disk System to function. Just a few short months after the Disk System was released in Japan, Sharp Corporation, under license from Nintendo, released a 2-in-1 version of both the Famicom and the Disk System called the Sharp Twin Famicom. Sharp released the Twin in several different styles, including a model with built-in Turbo controllers.
Although fairly successful for Nintendo at the time with nearly 4.5 million units sold, the add-on eventually fell victim to rampant piracy. When combined with the falling price of more advanced cartridges that supported chips able to supplement the Famicom’s on board power, as well as reliability issues with the Disk System’s drive belt doomed the experimental disk drive. The Famicom Disk System remains an interesting and important part of Nintendo’s development as a first-rate developer of both video games and video game hardware. On a personal level, the Famicom Disk System is my favorite video games console, second only to the Super Nintendo. There is something so fascinating to me about this quirky and bizarre piece of video game history. Perhaps it’s going back and playing games that I grew up with, such as The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, and seeing them in a different light, with new (to me) music and the original sound effects… it’s so alien and strange- but I can’t take my eyes off of the screen.