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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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Finally, and by far most importantly, the Disk System helped change the basic nature of console game design. To that point, consoles had focused on rapid, arcade-style experiences, which they could deliver far more effectively than personal computers of the era. PCs, on the other hand, excelled at deeper, more long-term game design, thanks to their greater storage capacity and rewriteable media. A few ambitious console games had made attempts at PC-like game experiences, but it wasn't until the FDS came along that console games finally managed to break away from the arcade mold.

We saw the first glimmers of this with The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, speedy and challenging action games set in huge, persistent worlds. Rather than force players to complete them in a single sitting, Nintendo took advantage of the Disk System's ability to record information directly to diskette to allow players to save their progress and return to their quest further down the road. Some games allow granted players the opportunity to create and record custom content — a feature that had been available in a handful of Famicom games (including Excitebike and Wrecking Crew) through the Data Recorder, true, but became an innate feature of the hardware rather than a rare option once the Disk System arrived.

Not surprisingly, publishers flocked to the Disk System. It became one of those most successful add-ons in history, rivaled only by the PC Engine/TurboGrafx CD and Sega CD (which, not coincidentally, patterned themselves closely after the Famicom Disk System model). All told, more than 200 games launched on Disk System, some as late as 1992!

And yet, the Disk System ultimately failed to make its way outside of Japan. Given all the advantages it offered, this might seem a strange decision by Nintendo. In truth, however, its Japan-only release made perfect sense. By the time it would have migrated westward, the Disk System had become almost completely obsolete.

Many of the Disk System's seeming advantages proved in the long term to be weaknesses. Those rewritable diskettes lacked the durability of carts. The low-cost media mostly resulted in a flood of low-quality software by opportunistic publishers. And that impressive storage capacity? Thanks to some innovations in cartridge design that came along soon after the Disk System's debut, it wasn't too long before carts offered far greater data capacity than diskettes — not to mention special on-board coprocessors that made possible programming gimmicks unthinkable on stock Famicom hardware... or on the Disk System.

There was also the not-so-small matter of piracy. While bootlegged Famicom carts had begun to pop up around the time the Disk System debuted, the cheap diskettes — based on an industry standard called Quick Disks — quickly opened the floodgates to piracy. The Disk System used a physical rather than electronic security technique: The diskettes themselves were embossed with the word NINTENDO, and several of the letters contained deep grooves. When a diskette was inserted into the system, small tabs would snap shut and lock themselves in those grooves. A standard Quick Disk, lacking the requisite grooves, would not seat correctly in the drive. A clever idea to be sure, but one quickly circumvented by pirates using special disk shells designed to duplicate the security grooves.

The NES gained traction in the U.S. throughout 1987 and ’88. The Disk System would have offered some modest benefits for American fans at that point, but it also would have fragmented a healthy and growing user base for no real benefit. Nintendo figures out how to allow NES carts to offer even greater storage space than disks, and they even managed to fake rewritability by offering a battery-powered SRAM chip (as in Zelda) or by forcing players to record passwords (as in Metroid). These techniques even made their way into Japanese carts as the Disk System waned in popularity.

Besides, with very few exceptions, the most important games to debut on Disk System eventually came to cartridge regardless, albeit with some modifications. Everything from Zelda to Castlevania II showed up here as their developers came up with workarounds to enable them to play on NES. The one real downside to the Disk System's failure to make its way west is that many of these great games had altered audio, usually for the worse.

In the end, I'd say that these minor differences have made my exploration of the Disk System 30 years later all the more interesting. Despite my frustrations with the ancient and unreliable hardware, I've enjoyed the Disk System for its parallel-universe take on a console and library I know so well.

Part of my appreciation, I suspect, stems from the same place that's made listening to music on vinyl so popular of late. There's a real sense of physicality to playing on Disk System: You insert the disk, which slots into place with a satisfying click, and the belt assembly grinds into motion. You can hear the mechanisms in action and feel the faint vibrations, something lacking even from contemporary disc-based consoles; PS4 and Xbox One may sound like a hairdryer in action, but that's just the cooling system. And unlike massive Blu-ray discs, Famicom diskettes only hold a limited amount of data on each side, which necessitates flipping them over from time to time. That, too, amounts to a satisfying physical ritual as you press the disk eject lever and retrieve the game from the drive to switch sides.

In a proper, retro-friendly setup — either using an old CRT or a modern TV with an external upscaler — Disk System games look and sound as crisp and vibrant as we old timers recall. And they sound different from their NES counterparts. It's quite surreal to play a familiar NES game like Zelda or Castlevania and hear different musical arrangements. It's not just the music that differs, either, but the sound effects. Many of Nintendo's first-party Disk System releases made use of sampled audio for many in-game effects, from item collection jingles to monster noises. Some of these sounds made it into NES games, such as the boss screams in Zelda, but for the most part Disk System effects differ from those of NES, lending an air of the unfamiliar to well-traveled paths.

Plus, the Disk System offers no shortage of unfamiliar games to discover. I've barely scratched the surface on these — knowing full well, of course, that the vast majority of them are terrible. But for all the dreadful, barrel-bottom garbage that appeared on the system, you also had creative inventions like Otocky and Konami's Indiana Jones-like Arumana no Kiseki, to which La-Mulana owes a tremendous debt.

Even completely terrible Disk System games can be worth exploring simply for their presentation. Because the game media itself cost so little, many publishers chose to keep their Disk System release prices on par with cartridge costs and make up the difference by cramming them into deluxe packaging. For example, the Wave Jack series, which included the first console project by Battle of Olympus creator Yukio Horimoto, shipped in oversized boxes containing fancy books and cassette tapes containing sound recordings by the idol stars affiliated with the game. So, too, did Otocky. And then you had releases like Relics: Ankoku Densetsu; a terrible Metroid clone, but one that arrived in a padded tin case containing an exhaustive reference book to the game's bestiary.

I wouldn't necessarily call the Disk System essential gaming. Again, the U.S. saw most of the expansion's best releases on carts, and in any case emulation and ROM piracy have made exploration of esoteric foreign machines like this a trivial task. And yet, as the console enters its fourth decade of existence, there's something precious in its weirdness — and in its fragility. Disk Systems and their games are finite resources. Those brittle diskettes will eventually disappear forever, age and magnetism and fine flecks of dust destroying their aging data. As for the hardware, few shops in Japan are willing to perform belt repairs these days; where a few years ago you could easily have a broken Disk System patched up for a small fee, these days places like Super Potato sell their machines "as-is" — tested, but with no guarantees for how long they'll remain up and running.

And so I'm happy to have experienced this odd, alternate take on the NES before it's too late. Eventually, my drive and discs will break down, and I'll have to settle for playing the games on an EverDrive. Someday, when morally grey avenues are the only way left to experience this fascinating piece of gaming history. For now, though, I'll savor every whirring disk, every dense mechanical clunk, and even the RAM adapter's frustrating communication errors. Together, these missing pieces provide the surprising answer to one of the most nagging mysteries of my childhood days with the NES.

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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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