Mar 26 2014
In the tradition of my very first Unreality article that discussed the ill-fated SNES-CD, I am starting a new, irregular column. It will cover forgotten and obscure hardware, as well as other off-the-radar gaming goodies. For starters, let’s meet the Famicom Disk System…
For those unfamiliar, the Famicom, which is on top in the above photo, was the original Japanese version of the NES. It was released in 1983 and – after a slow start – became one of the most successful and popular video game consoles ever released.
Original plans for the Famicom called for computer-like accessories such as a keyboard and a floppy disk drive, but these were scrapped in favor of a lower-cost, dedicated game console that wouldn’t intimidate non-techies. The fact that the system’s name is a portmanteau of the word “Family Computer” indicates a holdover in this design philosophy.
Once the Famicom became hugely successful, though, Nintendo reconsidered their position on home-computer-style accessories like the disk drive. Floppy disks had more storage space and could be produced cheaper than the Famicom cartridges being made at the time. Also, disks could easily be written on and rewritten, which meant the player could save their progress directly onto the game’s code. This was a first for home consoles, before battery-backed cartridges became cost effective.
The benefits of releasing the peripheral seemed to outweigh the risks, so Nintendo announced the system just a few years after the original Famicom release. The big red box on the bottom of the article header was the result; after several years of development the Famicom Disk System (FDS) was finally released in 1986, the same year that the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) hit the majority of retail shelves in America.
In a twist to the traditional narrative of failed peripherals, the system turned out to be another win for Nintendo. Despite the up-front cost of purchasing an accessory that cost over half the price of the original console, the Disk Cards that the games were stored on cost only about $17 US dollars apiece.
Furthermore, Nintendo released several games exclusively to the console. These included the Japanese sequel to Super Mario Bros. (titled “The Lost Worlds” for the American release of Super Mario All Stars), Kid Icarus, Castlevania 1 and 2, and a game titled Hyrule Fantasy: Zelda no Densetsu, better known as The Legend of Zelda here in the US. Zelda was later released in the US with a battery save, but wasn’t available on cartridge in Japan until 1994, unless you managed to import.
That’s right, friends, the only way to play the original Zelda was to play it on one of these.
Because of the Disk System’s immediate popularity in Japan, Nintendo promised retailers in 1986 that the peripheral disk drive accessory would soon be available for the American market. This promise was also given to developers who wished to take advantage of the storage capabilities of floppy disks, not to mention console owners who wished to save their games.
Because importing the systems or manufacturing them in the US were both not nearly as cost-effective as they had been in Japan, the idea was shelved indefinitely while Nintendo figured out a better strategy. In the meantime, advances in cartridge manufacturing bumped up the storage space and made battery saves practical, so while Japan enjoyed the soaring popularity of Disk Cards, cartridges continued their march into the US unabated.
Eventually, the prospect of bringing the Disk System over to the NES began to seem pointless as the release of the Super Nintendo loomed in the distance. Game cartridges also began to surpass the floppy disks capabilities with ease. Series like Castlevania migrated from being Disk-only to cartridge with Castlevania III, a game that’s Famicom release boasted an integrated chip with an extra sound channel.
The announcement of the NES Disk Drive slowly dithered in the back of peoples’ minds when games like Super Mario Bros. 3 were released with graphics that were once thought impossible on the NES and Famicom. The US version of the FDS peripheral was quietly put to pasture, and became the first of many broken or under-realized promises made by Nintendo.
What We Missed Out On
So if the system never even made it to the US, why was it so popular in Japan? For one thing, battery-backed games were usually more expensive even once made available, so often a password feature was used on the cartridge version. This gave birth to abominations like Metroid‘s enormous password screen, or Castlevania 1′s infamous difficulty. In the Disk Card versions of both games, which were originally FDS exclusives, you could simply save instead and load your progress whenever you wanted.
The save feature also granted another boon; besides the aforementioned low costs of new games, Disk Cards could be rewritten with new games on them for the equivalent of about 3.5 US dollars. All over Japan, Disk Writer kiosks were available that could be used to overwrite your game with new data. This meant you could take your worn-out copy of Dig Dug to an electronics store, say “I’d like The Goonies and Ice Hockey, please.” and the clerk would hand you back a disk with two games on it for less than ten bucks. This innovation made the floppy format beloved by Japanese people; some kiosks were continuously operating up until 2004.
Unfortunately for Nintendo, this also meant that rampant piracy plagued game sales. Once home disk writers became affordable, unlicensed copies of games sprang up everywhere. On top of this, the only security feature the disks had was that the letters “N” and “I” in “NINTENDO” were depressed further on the face, requiring two pins to line up in these grooves. Bootleggers didn’t take long to notice this feature, and it became a simple matter of mass-manufacturing cheap floppy shells with two dots in them and filling them with illegal copies of games.
The system wasn’t all about cheap/free software, though. Like the Castlevania III Famicom cartridge, the Famicom Disk System had a soundchip that contained a primitive wavetable synthesizer. This means that most games like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid had improved music with extra instrument layers, as well as completely different sound effects. Also, because of the uncompressed nature of the floppy disks, the picture comes in incredibly sharp and clear.
Consider for a moment that the American NES games typically were converted from the Famicom format to fit alongside the NES’s 72-pin hookup scheme. This meant that the quality was often degraded, leading to distorted sound, washed out colors, and pixels that were prone to bleeding or artifacting.
Because the FDS doesn’t have these problems, playing a game on the system feels like the difference between watching a DVD and watching a VHS; there’s less junk in between you and the audiovisual information. As an example, playing Metroid on the FDS versus the cartridge is like night and day: the blacks and neons really pop, and the added “woosh” sound effect of the doors opening really immerses you into the atmosphere.
Another interesting fact about the Famicom Disk System is that it was one of the only consoles whose hardware was licensed by a third-party electronics manufacturer. This means that you can buy an official Nintendo console not made by Nintendo!
The Sharp Famicom Twin console took the guts of the Famicom and FDS and melded them side-by-side into one unit. As a benefit, it uses one power cord for both systems and also has a high-quality A/V output instead of the Famicom’s typical RF converter. I highly recommend this version of the system to any die-hard console collector as it is less likely to have corrosion damage from the batteries, in addition to the better connection quality.
While the high cost of importing these systems is an obvious deterrent, I encourage anyone who considers themselves a diehard Nintendo or console fan to seek one out if you can. The games are often much cheaper than their American counterparts; I bought an unopened Disk Card copy of Metroid once for less than 40 bucks, whereas a sealed copy of the original NES Metroid fetches prices as high as $300 on eBay. This means that in the long run you will have easier access to classic games and added graphics and saves to boot! Not to mention that complete games come with gorgeous, fully-illustrated, bound manuals that put their stapled US counterparts to shame.
For those that can’t afford an overpriced piece of gaming history, though, take solace in the fact that the Famicom Disk legacy lives on. It was one of the first consoles to have a boot screen, with a BIOS that displayed the system status as well as a cutscene of Mario and Luigi battling over the screen’s color scheme. The iconic bootup melody would later be used for the Gamecube’s system menu, albeit slowed down 19 times. Enjoy that little tidbit until next time!
Jarrod Lipshy is a soon-to-be-graduating B.A. English student who is scared as hell about finding a real job. He collects old video games and enjoys the occasional opportunity to show them off to the internet.
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