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On Discovering the Famicom Disk System: Nintendo's Alternate Reality Version of the NES

On the occasion of the Japan-only peripheral's 30th anniversary, Jeremy takes a journey through its twisted rendition of the familiar NES experience.

Retrospective by Jeremy Parish, .

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Throughout the late ’80s and into the ’90s, the Nintendo Entertainment System occupied a place of honor in the American living room. The console sat quietly next to the enormous tube-style televisions of the day, a simple-looking box in two tones of grey, elegant in its understated simplicity.

Despite its unassuming appearance, the NES offered its share of mysteries as well. What kind of name was "Nintendo"? Why were so many games bearing the "seal of quality" so terrible? And most of all, what was up with that expansion port cover on the console's bottom?

I understood the concept of expansion ports, of course. My family's first computer had been a console expansion — the Coleco ADAM, which connected to a socket on the ColecoVision system similar to the one on the NES — and I'd hoped we'd eventually pick up the Coleco expansion that turned the console into an ersatz Atari 2600. (We never did.)

The port's presence on the NES confused me, however, because the system didn't seem to have any devices that took advantage of it. Those wild launch peripherals, the Zapper gun and R.O.B. (the "robot operating buddy") plugged directly into the controller ports, and even later devices like the Miracle Piano Teaching System didn't need the underside expansion. In the end, so far as I could tell, it went completely unused. Later, I learned of a crazy plan for the Minnesota State Lottery to use it as a modem adapter, but that product fell through... presumably due to the sheer, bizarre randomness — not to mention regional specificity! — of such a project.

As a kid, I didn't know about the origins of the NES. I had no idea the system was originally created in Japan, blind as I was to America's late-’80s xenophobic crusades against the system. So I didn't know that the Japanese NES, the Famicom, actually did see ADAM-like expansions, including a keyboard for programming in BASIC, and a cassette recorder for storing data — peripherals Nintendo initially planned to localize along with the console itself, back when it was to be called the AVS (Advanced Video System) rather than the NES. Those plans were scrapped when retailers made it clear they had no interest in another clumsy game/computer hybrid sitting around as dead stock. And fair enough; my family owned an ADAM because retailers slashed prices on them to rock-bottom in desperation to clear them out.

Interestingly, though, despite the Famicom's patchwork computer aspect, the NES's expansion port didn't exist on that console. Not precisely, anyway. On the original hardware, Nintendo incorporated the expansion port's capabilities into both the cartridge slot and a special controller port on the front of the system. When designing the NES, though, Masayuki Uemura and his engineers reworked the hardware's expansion format. Some elements were integrated into the standard controller ports — a natural evolution as Nintendo moved away from the hard-wired controllers present on the Japanese machine. Other elements, however, were shuffled around to the bottom of the machine to sit inside that vestigial and ultimately pointless expansion port.

This overhaul had repercussions on the NES library for years to come. Soon after the NES's launch in America, Japanese publishers began to brew up special cartridges that made use of the expansion pins that were removed from the Famicom cartridge slot when it was reworked into the NES. As a result, American gamers ended up missing out on some of the more ambitious Famicom games, which couldn't run on NES hardware. One of Konami's games even came with its own FM synthesis chip installed, giving it audio capabilities more on par with the Sega Genesis!

While this revision led to certain Japanese versions of games becoming infamously superior to American releases, particularly Castlevania III, Nintendo's engineers hadn't rearranged the hardware frivolously. The NES cartridge slot pinout changes resulted in part from Nintendo's desire to gain control over game licensing, as the Japanese Famicom market became flooded by horrible, low-quality third-party software — the same phenomenon that had tanked the Atari 2600 in the U.S. Determined to nip that crisis in the bud, the company added a security lockout chip to the U.S., forcing prospective third parties to become official licensees and allow Nintendo to handle game manufacturing. The Japanese cartridge port expansion pins were replaced by security chip connectors in the NES.

The other factor had to do with realities of the American console business. Retail buyers had rejected the AVS because it looked like yet another game system in the vein of the ones that were cluttering retail and gathering dust despite their 25 50 75% OFF stickers; Nintendo's solution was to switch up the NES hardware so it looked like no other console before it. The inclusion of R.O.B. and the Zapper as pack-in hardware was one aspect of this plan, but an equally essential tactic involved changing the system's physical design so it no longer resembled a traditional console. The slim, tapered design of the Famicom became a chunky grey box accented with a glossy black grille, and the top-loading cartridge slot was turned sideways in favor of a spring-loaded, front-facing design that resembled a VHS deck.

The front-loader gimmick ultimately proved to be more trouble than it was worth, but Nintendo saw it as a necessity to infiltrate American retail shops. Whatever long-term compromises it involved came as a tradeoff for getting the console to consumers at all. The design change undoubtedly necessitated the removal of expansion capabilities from the cartridge slot, though; the need to insert NES carts completely into the console meant that non-standardized carts — like the ones used for Famicom expansions — would be physically incompatible with the NES.

Nintendo almost certainly didn't arrive at the decision to relocate those extra pins to the bottom of the console by chance. The NES hardware launched in America, in limited numbers, in October 1985. Four months later, the Famicom received its greatest and most spectacular add-on peripheral ever, a device that practically counts as a separate platform all on its own: The Famicom Disk System.

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  • Avatar for IPA #1 IPA 2 years ago
    This is why I read USG. Thank you for the exceptional piece.
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  • Avatar for sean697 #2 sean697 2 years ago
    Fantastic article on the disk system. I agree I don't think this would have done as well over here. Unless somehow Nintendo had decided to release a famicom twin like system instead of the NES. In a way though it's a sense did go a lot for advancing battery save technology I suppose.
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  • Avatar for Compeau #3 Compeau 2 years ago
    Great article!

    Were any FDS games re-released on cart in Japan?
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #4 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @Compeau Castlevania was, and Zelda 1. Maybe a few others, but those were the big ones!
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  • Avatar for mganai #5 mganai 2 years ago
    Another advantage to disks in spite of the drawbacks: not having to deal with cart shortages.

    Of course, the loading times I imagine could be a bit of a deal breaker.
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  • Avatar for Killawogg88 #6 Killawogg88 2 years ago
    fantastic, love the retro articles! i want to get a disk system in the future just seems cool.
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  • Avatar for GarrettCRW #7 GarrettCRW 2 years ago
    The resistor mod available to the original NES proves that had the FDS come to America, it would have enabled expansion audio in all games by simply completing a connection. Alas, Ghosts 'n Goblins was released 4 months after Zelda and the FDS with the exact same amount of data. (Hooray, awful Micronics programming skills!)
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  • Avatar for GarrettCRW #8 GarrettCRW 2 years ago
    @jeremy.parish The second Twinbee game (released with the story sliced out as Stinger in the US), Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, Puyo Puyo, and technically Super Mario 2/USA (as a replacement for Doki Doki Panic) were the only other games reissued on cartridge for the Famicom. There are a ton of early Famicom games that got put on Disk, though (with Mario 1's Minus World being entirely different), with Ice Climber, Excitebike, and Clu Clu Land being the expanded Vs. System versions.Edited 2 times. Last edited February 2016 by GarrettCRW
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #9 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    Fascinating article, thank you.

    For some reason I always thought the NES disc system used 5.25 inch discs. Those things were horrendous! The 3.5 inch versions were a bit more manageable.
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #10 AxiomVerge 2 years ago
    Great, informative article!
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #11 mattcom26 2 years ago
    Really great article. I've heard all the bits and pieces but not as well summed up as this. And bittersweet to contemplate such an innovative system that's slowly fading away.
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  • Avatar for pertusaria #12 pertusaria 2 years ago
    Lovely article, thank you!
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  • Avatar for zidanix #13 zidanix 2 years ago
    Man, now I really want to get that Castlevania III disk system version. The audio is SO MUCH BETTER. At least I already have the Famicom from a trip to Japan my wife, then girlfriend took some years ago.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #14 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @zidanix Just so you don't waste any money needlessly, Japanese Castlevania III was cart-only. The first two games did debut on Disk System, but III was built around a custom chip and needed to be on a cart. So you don't need to invest in a Disk System for it! The game itself costs plenty as it is....
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  • Avatar for murdock57 #15 murdock57 2 years ago
    Amazing article. Thanks for taking the time to research and write this up, Jeremy. Just another reason US Gamer is the best!
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  • Avatar for docexe #16 docexe 2 years ago
    This was a fascinating read indeed. Makes me wonder how the NES would have evolved if the equivalent of the FDS had ever materialized on this continent. Also, given how cumbersome the set-up of the peripheral looks, I can’t help it but get the impression that Nintendo was just cobbling it up together back then as they learnt the whole “console manufacturer” thing.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #17 link6616 2 years ago
    It's always really fascinating looking at these different gaming worlds. Slices of gaming history that were parallel to your own but also distinctly separate. Great stuff.
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  • Avatar for Adorkably #18 Adorkably 2 years ago
    I thought the Nintendo's 72-pin connector contained pins that passed through to the expansion port on the console's underside. I was under the impression those pass through pins were included so if Nintendo had released the DISK System stateside its RAM cart would not require a wire going from the front of the console to the bottom. The inclusion of the pass through pins and the relocation of the pins that gave the Famicom access to external FM synthesizers, like the one found in the DISK System, were merely cost cutting measures.

    Maybe someone can help clear up this misconception of mine?
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #19 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @Adorkably Please see the comment below about the resistor mod!
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  • Avatar for Adorkably #20 Adorkably 2 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Thank You! I was totally overthinking the whole thing and confusing the hell out of myself. That tidbit made it easier to put together. This will definitely help with a paper/project I'm working on for a college independent study. =)
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  • Avatar for grappler51 #21 grappler51 2 years ago
    Great article! I never realized that there was a hardware difference between that Famicom and the NES that disallowed the use of extra chips... Some of that enhanced music, like Castlevania III and Lagrange Point is pretty great!
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  • Avatar for unoclay #22 unoclay 2 years ago
    Amazing piece Jeremy. Thanks for doing such quality work. Will send a link to friends.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #23 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @grappler51 It sounds like Ship to Shore Phono got the license for a vinyl version of Lagrange Point. You better goddang believe I'm going to be all over that.
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