The History of Video Games #20: The Famicom Disk System


The Complete Famicom Disk System

Hi everyone! In the previous article we investigated gaming on the Nintendo Famicom and NES. In this we will investigate the first major in-generation console upgrade and a change of media. Carts were out and disks were in with the Famicom Disk System. Let’s dive in…


Full disclosure, I have zero first-hand experience of the Famicom Disk System, therefore all information below has been sourced from public domain on-line sources. Any errors are unintentional, and if I do get something wrong feel free to correct me in the comments section.



Origin


The Famicom Disk System (FDS) was not a standalone console, rather it was an addon for the existing Famicom console. It was released solely in Japan on the 21st of February 1986 at a retail price of ¥15000 (US$80). No equivalent was made for the NES.

The FDS was born out of a desire, from both retailers and gamers, for cheaper games. Cartridges were expensive to manufacture due to their use of multiple microchips and semiconductors. This cost was then passed on to the retailers when buying in bulk and then onto customers when purchasing individual games. Cartridges also took longer to manufacture than other storage media and chip shortages caused delays in cart manufacture. These resulted in delays and supply problems.


The need for less expensive games was in part due to the Japanese government’s 1984 ban on the rental of video games*. Since players would no longer be able to rent games, they would have no choice but to pay full retail price for them, which was not always affordable due to cartridge’s high sticker price.


Nintendo sought to solve these problems by using a cheaper alternative to carts that would also be quicker to produce, store more data (allowing for bigger games) circumvent the chip supply issue and be re-writable - allowing for the beginning of digital distribution.

NB* - The ban was the result of a petition sent to the Japanese government. It was created and signed by a number of personal computer organisations due to piracy. The then predominantly personal-computer-based video game rental market was being exploited by pirates, who would rent games in order to copy them, either for personal use or for duplication and sale on the black market. This experience may explain why Nintendo games were unavailable for hire from places like Blockbuster Video.

Physical Media


To further promote the FDS Nintendo created a mascot, ‘Diskun’, or ‘Mr. Disk’

Nintendo was allegedly inspired to use disks due to their popularity and widespread use in the home computer market.


The Famicom Disk System's floppy disks - called ‘Disk Cards’ by Nintendo, were semi-proprietary 2.8 x 3.3 inch (71 mm × 76 mm) double-sided, 56K-per-side - 112K total - floppy disks. Disk Cards were a modification of Mitsumi's Quick Disk 89 mm 2.8 in square disk format, which was already in use in some Japanese computers, word processors and electronic (synthesizer) keyboards due to their reduced cost compared to other floppy disks.


The Disk Cards allowed for an additional channel of sound, in turn enabling richer in-game music and sound effects. Another major advantage of disks is that they were ‘writable’, which allowed players to save their progress to disk, thus avoiding the awkward password system in use with most Famicom games.



Legend of Zelda Audio Differences & Comparison (Famicom Disk System vs. NES)




122K was notably more than that boasted by most carts. This allowed for significantly larger games than those that could be crammed into a Famicom cartridge. Even so, many games spanned both sides of a disk, whilst some would span multiple disks. (The latter being a trope that we will see again when investigating the 16-bit era). This would result in players having to swap disks during the game which is both annoying and ‘flow-breaking’.


One immediately apparent disadvantage of Disk Cards compared to carts is their loading times. Although the loading times for both booting a game and loading between levels were negligible, they were noticeably longer than the near-instantaneous booting and loading of carts. Their other inherent disadvantages would not become apparent for several years after release. More on that later…



Standard Disk Card. Note lack of protective metal shutter







Hardware


The FDS consist of two main components, the RAM adaptor cartridge and the disk drive itself, plus the cables for attaching the RAM adaptor to the Disk Player. To use it, the RAM adaptor is inserted into the Famicom’s cartridge slot and sits atop the Famicom, whilst the Famicom sits atop the disk drive, with cables connecting the two. Games are then played with the Famicom’s hard-wired controllers. The FDS and the Famicom were designed by the same design team - Nintendo Research & Development 2, and its colour scheme matches that of the Famicom perfectly.

The Disk Player System is capable of running on six C-cell batteries or the supplied AC adapter. Batteries may last up to five months with daily gameplay (dependent on the quality of the batteries and length of play sessions of course.) This optional battery-powered mode was implemented due to the suspicion that most domestic plug sockets would already be used by the Famicom itself and the TV it was being displayed on.




*Homes in the West tended to have fewer power outlets than they do today, this may have been true for Japan too. If anyone has experience of Japanese homes in the mid-1980s feel free to share your power outlet related experiences in the comments section.


The RAM Adapter contains 32 kilobytes (KB) of RAM for temporarily caching program data from disk, 8 KB of RAM for tile and sprite data storage, and an ASIC named the 2C33. The ASIC acts as a disk controller, plus single-cycle wavetable-lookup synthesizer sound hardware. Finally, embedded in the 2C33 is an 8KB BIOS ROM. (From Wikipedia)



"Disk Writer" Kiosks


"Disk Writer" Kiosks

From the Famicom World forum: https://www.famicomworld.com/forum/index.php?topic=13340.0



As part of the FDS ‘ecosystem,’ Nintendo introduced the Disk Writer Kiosks, (DWK) which were installed in electronic and toy stores throughout Japan. Players could use these kiosks to install new games on their Disk Cards for as little as ¥500 - which equated to approximately US$3.25 / £2.62. This was roughly one-sixth the price of most new games. Blank Disk Cards could be purchased too for ¥2000.


Instruction sheets detailing how to use the kiosks and games were provided by the retailer, or available by mail order for ¥100. Some game releases, such as Kaettekita Mario Bros‘The Return of Mario Bros’ were allegedly exclusive to these kiosk’s which further encouraged their use.



Kaettekita Mario Bros




NB - many FDS games were solely in Japanese. This may cause difficulty for non-Japanese speaking players. For games as simple as Kaettekita Mario Bros this is unlikely to be a problem, however, it may render more complex games and text adventures unplayable.


By 1987 Nintendo sought to expand upon the Disk Writer Kiosk concept. In selected locations, the disk Writer kiosks were adapted to also serve as ‘Disk Fax Systems’. Players could save their high scores to disk at home then take them to a DWK. The DWK would then collate and send these scores as a facsimile - or ‘fax’ - to Nintendo. This lead to nationwide leaderboards and competitions, the winners of which received prizes, such as gold-coloured Punch-Out!! cartridges and Famicom-branded sets of stationery. Nintendo allegedly had plans to introduce a similar system in the US, however, it appears these plans were shelved - possibly twinned with Nintendo’s decision not to bring an FDS equivalent to the US NES market.



Famicom Disk Fax & Disk Writer Kiosk Pics




Disk Writer Kiosks and the Disk Fax system are considered by some to be one of the earliest examples of digital distribution and competitive social gaming. As such, it could be considered the forerunner to digital distribution services and social gaming networks such as Xbox Live. The Disk Writer Kiosk service was extremely popular and remained available until its closure in 2003.


Games

The FDS games library contains some 200 titles. Some were ports of standard Famicom games, often with enhancements such as additional content (due to greater storage capacity) and better music due to the additional sound channel.

Other games were (initially) exclusive to the FDS, with some of these being Disk Writer exclusives - i.e. available only from the Disk Writer Kiosks.


Top 10 Best Family Computer Disk System Games




All Famicom Disk System Games in One Video




Noteworthy FDS originals include The Legend of Zelda, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Kid Icarus, Ice Hockey, and Akumajō Dracula (Castlevania). Some formally FDS exclusives were later ported to the Famicom and NES as cartridges, which is why the NES has The Legend of Zelda and Castlevania.

Sales

The Famicom Disk System sold over 300,000 units within three months, jumping to over 2 million by the end of the year. Nintendo remained confident the Disk System would be a sure-fire success and ensured that all future first-party releases would be exclusive to it. Unfortunately, this would not be the case


The Decline of the FDS

Standard FDS Disk Card - Note lack of protective shutter


The FDS started to encounter some major setbacks which got worse over time, most of which were directly tied to the disks themselves.


Firstly, the disks were relatively fragile overall when compared to cartridges and other more conventional floppy disks. Secondly, the deletion of the metal sider covering the magnetic medium - removed by Nintendo as a cost-cutting measure - left the medium vulnerable to damage, dust accumulation etc. Nintendo instead shipped the Disk Cards with a waxy sleeve and a shell of clear plastic. This proved to be inadequate protection, however, and Disk Cards tended to become increasingly unreliable over time. The more expensive blue Disk Cards, which did include a metal shutter, tended to fare better. The disk drive unit also suffered from reliability problems, with the internal rubber drive belt that spun the disks being cited as a frequent point of failure.



Famicom Disk System Blue Disk with protective shutter


Another major problem for the FDS was piracy, just as it was with almost every other floppy disk-based system. The inherent writability of disks makes them very easy to copy. Nintendo had taken measures to prevent this via physical copy protection. Disk Cards had the word NINTENDO debossed into them. This wasn’t simply a marketing ploy or a recognition aid - it was an integral part of the FDS’ copy protection system. The debossed elements of the NINTENDO lettering coincided with matching protrusions inside the disc player, somewhat analogous to a lock and key. In theory, if a disk did not have the correct debossing it would not play in the FDS.

However, this did not last long in practice, as pirates soon found workarounds, as they always do;

“This was combined with technical measures in the way data was stored on the disk to prevent users from physically swapping copied disk media into an official shell. However, both of these measures were defeated by pirate game distributors; in particular, special disks with cutouts alongside simple devices to modify standard Quick Disks were produced to defeat the physical hardware check, enabling rampant piracy. An advertisement containing a guide for a simple modification to a Quick Disk to allow its use with a Famicom Disk System was printed in at least one magazine”. From Wikipedia


This copy protection failure may have been responsible for the development of the 10NES and lockout chip, a far more robust form of copy protection

Another alleged point of contention was Nintendo’s insistence on 50% copyright ownership of games released on the system. Some major developers, such as Hudson Soft and Namco, ceased releasing games for the platform as a result.


The FDS’ death knell was finally sounded by outside events. Firstly, Capcom released a 128K cartridge version of Ghost n’ Goblins. Since this was greater than the 112Kb maximum for Disk Cards this robbed the FDS of one of its main advantages, the hitherto superior storage capacity of its physical media. Secondly, developers for the NES had started to use the battery backup for saving game progress. Therefore, the FDS no longer had the console monopoly on password-less progress saving. Thirdly, semiconductor and microchip manufacturing techniques had improved, meaning cartridges could be created for less cost than before.


This encouraged many developers to port their formally FDS exclusive games to Famicom and NES carts. Many developers would then cease creating new games for the FDS in favour of the more widespread - and far less pirated - Famicom and NES.

If you would like further information on the FDS the video by Gaming Historian is an excellent resource.

Famicom Disk System | Gaming Historian




Legacy


Although the FDS life span was fairly short-lived, it ushered in several major innovations which would go on to be used in many of the systems that came later. The writable nature of the Disk Cards allowed players to save their progress easily. This in turn allowed for far larger games that were no longer constricted by the need to be completed ‘in one sitting’. The increased storage capacity allowed these games to utilize this expansive freedom to the fullest - with The Legend of Zelda being an exemplar of this. The Disk Writer kiosks were an early step towards digital distribution and the Disk Fax system enabled one of the first nationwide scoreboards and thus nationwide competitive play. Finally, many of Nintendo’s most beloved NES franchises, such as Zelda, Castlevania, Metroid etc. were developed for the FDS first, and thus may never have happened without it.


And that wraps up our look at the Famicom Disk System. Had you heard of it before? Did you know that Metroid, Castlevania, Zelda etc. were not originally Famicom or NES games? Have you played on an FDS? If so, what were your experiences of it? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.


Standard Disk Card image by: By boffy_b - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1116244