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

Updated: Jun 7


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 online 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 several 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 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



Famicom Disk System mascot Diskun Mr Disk
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)


Video by Clyde Mandelin



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…



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
"Disk Writer" Kiosks

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 kiosks which further encouraged their use.



Kaettekita Mario Bros


Video by Japancommercials4U2



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


Video by famicomchannel