Feature: Slipped Disk - The History of the Famicom Disk System
Posted by Damien McFerran
We look back at Nintendo's first misstep in the domestic gaming hardware arena
Given what we now know about add-on hardware for games consoles, the very concept of the Famicom Disk System seems hopelessly flawed. Since this Japan-only system hit the market in 1986 we’ve seen the equally ill-fated Sega Mega CD, Sega 32X and Nintendo 64DD all come and go without making any discernible impression on the market. However, one should never underestimate the benefit of hindsight; back in ’86 the rules were still being written and certainly from Nintendo’s perspective the idea of expanding the potential of its best-selling Famicom home console (or NES as it’s better-known in this part of the world) seemed like an eminently sensible move.
To get a better understanding of how the Famicom Disk System came to be you need only survey the Japanese gaming industry back in the mid ‘80s. It’s no exaggeration to say that Nintendo was the dominant force, effortlessly brushing aside rival companies and snapping up third party support from all of the nation’s finest code shops. By 1985 Nintendo was finding that gamers were so ravenous for new product that it was almost impossible to keep up with the intense demand; given this passionate interest in all things Famicom-related, it’s easy to see why Nintendo started to investigate other avenues of making cash. Expanding the functionality of the millions of Famicom consoles already sitting in homes up and down Japan was the most logical course of action, so it was decided that the existing base unit should be augmented by a separate piece of hardware which would permit bigger and better games. With this objective in mind, Nintendo cast its gaze towards the home computing sector for inspiration.
“Floppy diskettes were quickly becoming the new standard for storage media on personal computers at the time,” explains Nintendo Life’s very own Corbie Dillard, an avid Famicom collector. “Nintendo saw this technology as a viable solution for not only storing the games themselves, but also allowing players' game data to be saved directly to the diskette, so the company went ahead and created a proprietary diskette – dubbed “Disk Card” - based upon Mitsumi’s Quick Disk format.” Fellow enthusiast Laurent Kermel – who is employed at DreamWorks Pictures as a 3D and CGI artist when he’s not collecting rare Famicom items – explains just how much of a technological advancement these unassuming disks were: “Famicom disks represented a revolution. They offered twice the storage capacity of existing cartridges and were a lot cheaper to produce. Players could also save their game's progress without relying on cumbersome passwords; it has to be remembered that cartridges with save functionality – using built-in batteries – simply didn't exist at that time.”
The most refreshing element of all this increased storage was that it actually cost the end user less to purchase a FDS game than a standard Famicom cartridge. “Because Disk Cards were cheaper to produce than cartridges, some of these savings were passed on to the consumer,” says Dillard. “Disk System titles retailed for around ¥2500-3000 – quite a bit less than the ¥5000-7000 price tag for most new cartridge titles at that time.” As well as offering increased capacity for larger games and the ability to record in-game progress, the Disk System also promised a more compelling aural experience thanks to an additional audio channel for FM Synthesis. “This allowed programmers to add yet another layer of sound to a game and was generally used for percussion-type effects playing in the background, although it was sometimes used for creating additional individual sound effects as well,” explains Dillard.
The system was launched in February 1986 for the princely sum of ¥15,000, which represented quite an investment on the part of the customer. However, Nintendo maintained that from that point onwards the cream of the Famicom crop would be exclusive to the Disk System and in the early years of the machine’s life, this was certainly the case. “The standard-bearers for the format are Metroid and The Legend of Zelda,” explains Sean Corse of Famicom Dojo. These highly ambitious new games were coded with the Disk System in mind and were – in the beginning at least – exclusive to the new format. “Both were long adventures that required multiple gaming sessions to complete, facilitated by the Disk System's save feature,” adds Corse. Other notable FDS “exclusives” were Hikari Shinwa: Parutena no Kagami (Kid Icarus), Akumajō Dracula (Castlevania) and Super Mario Bros. 2 (otherwise known as The Lost Levels in the West). Such quality software clearly had the desired effect: half a million FDS units were sold in the space of three months, and that figure would eventually rise to an impressive two million by the time 1986 drew to a close. It seemed as if the Famicom’s uncontrollable popularity had ensured that the new format would be a rousing success almost by default.
However, possibly the most audacious part of Nintendo’s new scheme was the installation of Disk System Kiosks in retail outlets all over Japan. “These allowed Famicom owners to purchase a blank Disk Card for ¥2000 and then insert it into the kiosk to have a game of their choice written to it for an additional ¥500,” explains Dillard. “Because the Disk Cards were rewritable, consumers could then bring their disk back to the kiosk to have a new game written over it when they'd finished their previous one.” This system was truly ground-breaking for its time and could be considered a forerunner of more modern distribution methods. “Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam provide essentially the same service, except the "disk" is your console or computer hard drive and the "kiosk" is a server you access over the internet,” argues Corse.
Another aspect of the system which was arguably ahead of its time was the ability to submit scores to Nintendo using specially produced “Disk Fax” machines scattered throughout Japan. “From 1987, Nintendo organised contests where players from all over the country could send in their best scores for games such as Golf Japan Course or F1 Race,” reveals Kermel. “These scores would be sent to Nintendo headquarters using Disk Fax units.” Specially produced “blue disk” versions of games were manufactured for this very purpose and the best players would be awarded prizes for their efforts. The entire notion is very similar to the online leaderboards that are so common in today’s internet-ready games.
While the fledgling format obviously had incredible advantages, it wasn’t all positive. “The disks were a lot more fragile than cartridges and most of them didn't come with a shutter to protect the magnetic film from fingerprints, dust or scratches,” laments Kermel. Instead of a protective shutter, Nintendo opted for the cheaper alternative of a wax sleeve in which the disk was stored when not in use. Gamers who had spent the past few years treating their fairly rugged carts with disdain now had to handle Disk Cards with almost painstaking care; even placing a disk near a television was a no-no, because the magnets inside the TV’s speakers could demagnetise the data. Taking all of these points into account it’s hardly surprising that many disks eventually become unplayable, plagued with random “bad sectors” which led to numerous loading errors. While Nintendo was happy to exchange affected titles, the fragile nature of the medium made it seem like a poor second to the robust and seemingly indestructible cartridges that Famicom users were accustomed to.
Piracy was another issue exacerbated by the introduction of re-writeable software. This is unsurprising when you consider that the disks were very similar to those used by home computers such as the Atari ST and Amiga – both of which suffered terribly from users copying software rather than actually buying it legitimately. “Even with safeguards to modify the disk drive tech in a proprietary fashion, it couldn’t stop those who were sufficiently determined,” explains Corse. “There was quite a bit of money to be made in porting cartridge-only games to disk and selling them at insane profits. Nintendo went though several revisions of the FDS drives and introduced on-disk piracy prevention software but these were cracked in a matter of months. Bootleggers were able to hook two units together and quickly copy disks, and programs like "Disk Hacker" allowed you to copy disks on a single machine with disk swapping. It’s impossible to calculate how many sales were lost due to piracy, especially for the lower-profile third party titles.” This aspect of the Disk System saga would have a long-lasting effect on the outlook of Nintendo itself. “Given how terribly Nintendo got burned by this massive downside to their own device, it's almost understandable how concerned they were with the possibilities when switching to CD and DVD formats later on,” adds Corse.
While such rampant piracy was obviously a concern and would have put off many third parties from supporting the system, Nintendo’s typically despotic attitude towards publishers arguably had a more significant effect. Nintendo already had many companies under lock and key thanks to the excessive agreements relating to the licensing of Famicom cartridges, but when the company sensed that the Disk System could herald a new era of success, it went for the jugular.
Nintendo wanted half of the copyright for every single FDS title published – a truly overwhelming demand which basically meant that externally-developed games would become, in part at least, Nintendo’s own property. While many publishers were all too happy to sign on the dotted line to begin with, they were dissuaded when the FDS began to lose the technical lead it had over cartridges. “Soon after the release of the Disk System, cartridges reached the 128k mark and started to include inbuilt batteries,” explains Kermel. With two of the key advantages of the format being removed so early in the game, the FDS struggled to remain a viable option. “In the beginning, many companies jumped on the FDS bandwagon because it allowed them to make bigger and more innovative projects,” says Kevin "Vinnk" Tambornino. “However as chips and carts got cheaper companies started having the option of bigger cartridges and battery backup memory for save games.” Third parties preferred cartridges because they could be purchased by any Famicom owner, not just those select few that had committed to the Disk System cause. While Nintendo was quick to point out that Disk System games were far less expensive than cartridge-based ones, publishers weren’t so keen because the lower cost made it harder to turn a massive profit – something that they had been led to expect after years of growth with the standard Famicom system.
The Disk Writer Kiosks were an even bigger threat; offering new games for ¥500 didn’t leave much room for anyone to make significant returns. Some companies even went as far as to shift entire development teams from working on FDS software to producing cartridge-based games. “Final Fantasy was originally a Disk System game but before it was released Square shifted it to cartridge,” reveals Tambornino. The ramifications of this switch could certainly be deemed incredibly significant, given the subsequent global success of the RPG franchise. “Had Square not switched formats, Final Fantasy would now be co-owned by Nintendo,” he adds.
To make matters worse, the Disk System units themselves began to display worrying reliability issues. “It wasn’t uncommon to be treated to a cryptic disk error that only displayed a number without explanation,” says Corse. These problems could be related to a number of factors, such as dust on the disk, demagnetisation or issues with the reader head speed, but many users discovered that the rubber belts inside the machine – that controlled the spinning of the disks – were the ultimate cause of the fault. The bands would start to break over time, with some even melting during use. Nintendo’s proclivity for proprietary components made replacing this seemingly everyday item more complicated than it probably should have been. “Unfortunately, like the disks themselves, the drive band is not standard. An actual rubber band is not the correct elasticity to serve as a replacement,” says Corse. The only option was to get in touch with Nintendo to obtain the correct type of band.
By the time 1989 arrived many publishers had ditched the machine entirely, returning to the more profitable Famicom cartridge format. Game stores began to complain that the now-ignored FDS kiosks were taking up valuable space and even Nintendo itself began to abandon the system; much-hyped FDS exclusives were re-tooled for release on cartridge, a sure sign that the company had ultimately lost faith in the floppy. Although it was alluded to at the time, a Western launch was never really on the cards, much to the chagrin of many Nintendo fans. “It was a bizarre decision, given that the NES hardware was designed with this particular expansion in mind,” says Corse. “However, one can count many good reasons in the wake of the Disk System's release. Would North America accept a glitchy system when the NES “toaster” hardware already had so many problems compared to the original Japanese Famicom? The piracy and unlicensed games were certainly an even greater issue and threatened to harm the "Official Nintendo Seal of Quality" branding that helped assure a sceptical public that the Atari Apocalypse would never happen again.”
While the FDS sold a fairly respectable 4.5 million units by the end of its lifespan, Nintendo had been banking on far more impressive figures. However, regardless of the various problems faced by the machine at the time, there’s a compelling argument that the entire concept was flawed from the beginning. “As a general rule, gamers don't like to have to purchase additional add-ons for their game consoles,” says Dillard. “When you start splitting your core audience like that, you're in for trouble.”
Had the Disk System offered something that the standard Famicom wasn’t capable of then the story might have been different, but the rapid progression of technology quickly made it redundant. “The Disk System was created to reduce production costs inherent in cartridges and to sustain game save states,” says Corse. “Following Moore's Law, the technology for both cartridge production and battery backup saves for ROMs improved to the point where cost was not the issue it was in the early '80s. This was put to the test when The Legend of Zelda came out in 1987 on a battery backup cartridge; following this breakthrough, Nintendo didn't look back. The only benefit offered by the FDS in the end was superior sound, but who would miss what they hadn't experienced?” Ultimately, the FDS was overtaken by the standard cartridge format it had sought to supplant; carts were more reliable, more robust and offered publishers a better chance of turning a profit on their hard work.
Ironically the system’s dismal retail performance, shaky reliability and issues with piracy have made it something of a darling with Nintendo enthusiasts. “It allows collectors to play lost games that were never available on cartridges,” replies Kermel when asked to explain the appeal of collecting for this system. “I myself rediscovered games such as Zelda no Densetsu, Metroid or Akumajou Dracula thanks to the enhanced sound chip. It is an amazing feeling to play Zelda as Japanese gamers did originally, way back in 1986. Also, some Disk System games have incredible packaging; because the software was cheaper to produce, several publishers created fancier boxes and instruction manuals.”
Tambornino was drawn to collecting not necessarily for the gameplay but the tantalisingly exotic nature of the platform. “Like collecting Laserdiscs in a world that has DVDs, most FDS collectors do it for the feeling more than anything else,” he explains. “Sure, there are some games that are exclusive for the format but most of the good ones have been re-released multiple times on other systems. From a visual perspective, the disks have art, design and themes that represented that part of the 80's. I remember reading about these games when I was a kid growing up; they seemed so exotic to me at the time and I never really saw myself owning them. Maybe I collect them now because I couldn’t then.”
However, collecting for the Disk System isn’t as straightforward as it is with the traditional cartridge-based Famicom. For starters, finding a unit in good working order is a considerable challenge due to the aforementioned reliability issues. “A brand new disk system bought at launch would usually last a few good years without problem,” explains Tambornino. “When buying one now you’re likely to encounter all sorts of problems, from broken drive belts to gears out of alignment. If you buy a Disk System which hasn’t been opened up then chances are the drive belt inside will be broken – it’s simply beyond its shelf life. The best systems to buy are mint condition units which have recently had the belt replaced.”
It’s not just hardware problems that make FDS collecting such a minefield: the delicate temperament of the Disk Cards themselves can make buying games tricky, too. “Any little bit of dust or scratches on the magnetic surface can make the disk completely inoperable,” says Corse. This is of course assuming that the game you purchase is actually the game you thought you were getting in the first place; the rewriteable nature of the software means that securing un-tampered software is equally difficult – but again, this can sometimes be part of the intrinsic appeal. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” says Tambornino. “In my experience what is on the label is only correct about 60% of the time – you never quite know what you are going to get when you load a game. But on the other hand you might stumble across a hidden gem; for example, I once found the highly sought-after All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros. on an unlabelled disk! If you buy disks from an import shop you might want to make sure they have been tested first, or you can simply take your chances – frankly that's half the fun.”
Ultimately though, such tribulations are unlikely to dissuade the hardcore retro collector. The FDS is beloved by such devoted individuals and despite the myriad problems experienced by the machine, it’s easy to see the appeal. “Being able to play the game that became our Super Mario Bros. 2 with the original characters and the additional sound channel the Disk System offers is great for long-time fans of the original US release,” says Dillard when asked to sum up why he’s a FDS supporter. “It's also nice to be able to experience the amazing Disk System soundtracks of NES titles like Metroid and the two Legend of Zelda titles before they had their music altered for release on the cartridge format.” Indeed, for Nintendo completists the FDS is an essential purchase and, as the number of working units in the field slowly diminishes over time, it’s only going to become more attractive for retro devotees with money to burn.
This feature originally appeared in its entirety in Imagine Publishing’s Retro Gamer magazine, and is reproduced here with kind permission.