In Japan, the Famicom Disk System arrived as a burgundy box that tucked beneath the Famicom hardware perfectly, its edges flush with those of the console itself. However, in order to connect to the console, the Disk System required an unwieldy RAM expansion cartridge. Where standard Famicom carts were tiny — less than half the size of NES carts, which mostly contained empty air — the RAM module was nearly the same size as an NES game and sat splayed across the top of the Famicom, popping into the cartridge port with a connector that jutted perpendicular from the cart halfway across its length. A cable ran from the adapter cart to a port in the rear of the Disk System hardware, connecting the console to the peripheral.
This awkward, graceless RAM adapter wouldn't have worked on the NES; even if Nintendo had resized it into standard NES cart shape, the cable would have caused the NES cartridge bay door to sit agape. But imagine a slightly redesigned Disk System that would sit beneath the NES. It wouldn't be able to connect to the console with a RAM cartridge... but a port on the bottom of the system could allow it to attach directly into the hardware itself. The mystery expansion slot on the NES seems quite clearly designed to have attached to a future Disk System expansion for U.S. gamers. Nintendo developed both the Famicom-to-NES console conversion and the Disk System hardware in tandem, and no doubt the need for more accessible independent expansion ports was one of the "lessons learned" that Uemura's team applied to the American console after studying the Famicom's fortunes in the open market.
Of course, that Disk System localization never happened. Despite ultimately playing host to more than 200 game releases, the Famicom Disk System remained exclusive to Japan. It holds a fond place in the nostalgic hearts of millions of Japanese gamers, but most Americans only know about it by reputation... if at all.
As a long-time NES fan, the Disk System has always held a place of fascination for me — one that I've only now fully begun to explore, 30 years after the device's debut. Well, that's not entirely true. I bought a Twin Famicom console — an all-in-one combination Famicom and Disk System manufactured by Sharp under license — during a trip to Japan probably seven or eight years ago. I was curious to try it out. But at the time, I had just completed the migration from CRT televisions to LCDs, and I didn't have the first clue about the upscaling and lag involved in running old standard-definition video content into high-definition flatscreen televisions. All I knew what that the games looked terrible and felt unresponsive. I quickly sold off the Twin Famicom and stepped away from vintage hardware altogether for half a decade.
Over the past couple of years, however, I've become quite well-versed (though by no means an expert) in the realities of old hardware. Armed with RGB-capable classic console mods, an upscaler, and a host of expensive cables, I recently decided to give the Famicom Disk System another shot. This time around has proven a far more satisfactory experience.
At the same time, I'm honestly grateful the Disk System never came to America. The entire platform feels like it's held together with spit and duct tape... though in truth, it's actually more fragile than that. The RAM adapter, like any cartridge, has copper contacts that are vulnerable to corrosion and filth, and dirty connections result in the same sort of graphical garbage and freezes you see with any other old game. That's only the beginning of the Disk System's physical shortcomings, however. The disk drive itself depends on a belt in order to spin up. Well, I say "belt," but it's really more like a glorified rubber band, and it's terribly delicate given the rigors of its intended duties. The belt of every Disk System is a ticking time bomb; the question is not if it will break, but rather when.
And that's not even getting into the fragility of the game disks themselves. Granted, cartridges can be fickle creatures as they age, but ultimately most carts can be made to work again quite easily by rubbing a bit of brass polish on the contacts and cleaning off the resulting gunk. Disks are free from corrosion, but they're prone to magnetic fields — and unlike carts, once the data becomes corrupted, it's gone forever. That alone is bad enough, but Nintendo made the baffling decision to leave the magnetic media of their Disk System games completely open and exposed to the air. Although the disks are similar to Sony's 3.5" diskette standard that was popular throughout most of the ’80s and into the ’90s, they lack that format's protective metal shutter. Disk System media sits open to the world in a one-inch window on both sides of the disk — which, as you might expect from a format designed to be played by careless children, frequently resulted in permanently damaged games.
Despite its glaring and obvious drawbacks, the Disk System had much to offer Famicom players of the era. For gamers circa 1986, it presented three compelling reasons to upgrade.
First, its diskettes possessed much higher storage capacity than contemporary cartridges. Super Mario Bros., which Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka (et al.) created to be the "ultimate" cartridge game, fit into 40 kilobyte of storage space — the maximum capacity for NES carts at the time. The Legend of Zelda, which the same team released six months later as the killer app for the Disk System, sprawled across a luxurious 128 kilobytes — more than three times as large as Mario.
Secondly, the Disk System made use of those expansion pins in the Famicom cartridge slot by adding an additional sound channel to the hardware. The Famicom, like the NES, could innately play four sounds simultaneously, be it music or effects. The Disk System introduced a fifth channel, allowing for richer audio. The Disk System's expanded audio used wavetable synthesis (bleeps and boops, if you will), but the peripheral enriched the console's sound capabilities in another way: Because disks contained more storage space than carts, developers could add more sampled sound for the Famicom's built-in digital sample channel.
The Disk System also offered a huge price advantage. Once players had invested in the peripheral itself, the games turned out to be wonderfully inexpensive — a fraction of the cost of carts. The disk media was much cheaper than solid-state ROM carts, and Nintendo pressed the price advantage even further by selling blank disks. Players could take those rewriteable disks to kiosks at popular retailers and download the latest game software for just a few bucks.