Half Steps: A History of Console Upgrades, Part 1: Famicom Disk System

To get an idea of the pitfalls and perils littering Sony's path to PlayStation Neo, let's exhume a few half-step consoles from the gaming industry's past. First up: Nintendo's ill-fated disk drive for the Famicom.

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Leaked documents from Sony's camp have confirmed the existence of PlayStation Neo, a sort of half-step that bumps up the "base" PS4's processor speed, memory, and graphics hardware while remaining compatible with all existing PS4 games and peripherals. A PlayStation 4.5, for all intents and purposes, and a bridge to get Sony from the beginning of this generation of console hardware to the next.

That makes PlayStation Neo a big deal. Manufacturers have been putting consoles under the knife mid-cycle for decades: trimming fat, adding backlights, and bolting on optical drives. But none of those consoles received a horsepower boost substantial enough to risk dividing consumers into haves and have-nots.

Developers, too, seem troubled. Base PlayStation 4 and Neo machines will have similar architecture; only clock speeds will differ. Even so, Neo will be the first half-gen upgrade to mandate that developers ensure cross-platform compatibility on the same platform.

Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. To get an idea of the pitfalls and perils littering Sony's path to PlayStation Neo, let's exhume a few half-step consoles in order to learn what some did right and others did wrong.

Family Computer Disk System (FDS)

Base Platform: Nintendo Family Computer (aka Nintendo Entertainment System)
Release: February 1986

Image: A Famicom saddled on top of a Famicom Disk System. The RAM Adapter, a peripheral that lets developers offload data and carve out dedicated space for images, fits into the console's cartridge port.

Nintendo has been sanding rough edges off its consoles since it pivoted from playing cards to video games in the 1970s. The Japanese manufacturer's Famicom premiered in Japan in July 1983 before making its way to the United States in October 1985.

Like the Atari 2600 before it, Famicom played games on interchangeable cartridges, branded by Nintendo as Game Paks. However, Game Paks had several flaws. Storage capacity ranged from 8 KB to 1 MB. More storage capacity meant higher production costs, so most game sizes hovered between 128 to 384 KB. Furthermore, data could not be written to Game Paks due to their usage of read-only memory (ROM) chips, leaving players without a convenient way to save their progress.

Disk Cards, Nintendo's proprietary term for floppy usable by the FDS, dispensed with most of the disadvantages of Game Paks, and introduced a fleet of new ones. Each side of a Disk Card could hold 56 KB for 112 KB total, more than enough for most games. Cards were rewritable, so designers could create grander experiences secure in the knowledge that players could save their progress and play over multiple sittings—an issue of increasing significance as games matured from ports of arcade games meant to last an hour or two, to large-scale adventures like The Legend of Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda is inexorably tied to the FDS. After designing Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. coin-op games, Shigeru Miyamoto directed Super Mario Bros. and Zelda in tandem—Mario as a Game Pak for Famicom, and Zelda as a launch title exclusively on FDS. Zelda weighed in at 128 KB, extra poundage made possible thanks to the RAM Adapter, a special cartridge needed to connect the FDS to Famicom. Users plugged the RAM Adapter into the Famicom's cartridge port, then ran a cable connecting the Adapter to the bulky red FDS.

The Disk System's RAM Adapter dedicated an additional 8 KB for tile and sprite data, and an extra 32 KB developers that functioned like a container that developers could use to hold data while the console's main memory banks crunched other tasks.

Nintendo did not position the FDS as the Famicom's successor. The last thing Nintendo wanted to do was premiere a brand new console that would displace millions of satisfied Famicom players. (The company faced just such a backlash when it announced that the Super Famicom/SNES would not be backward-compatible with old Game Paks.) Releasing FDS as an add-on gave Nintendo a way to expand on rather than supplant profitable hardware.

Playing to the floppy disk's inherent recyclability, Nintendo installed Disk System kiosks called Disk Writers in retail outlets across Japan. The idea was that consumers could purchase a blank Disk Card, pop it into a kiosk, then buy their game of choice, and write it directly to the disk. It was a groundbreaking distribution method that never quite took off like Nintendo wanted.

Image: A Disk Writer kiosk, only available in Japan. [Credit: Nintendo Age forums.]

For all their advantages, Disk Cards came with plenty of downsides. Nintendo removed the plastic covering typically found atop floppies in order to cut costs, leaving the magnetic film vulnerable to dust, scratches, and fingerprints—not ideal for media meant to be pawed by small children. Additionally, many games flooded over two, three, or four diskettes, requiring users to swap disks mid-game, like Laserdiscs.

Piracy posed a big problem as well. Personal computers of the era, such as Amiga and Commodore 64, cultivated a bootlegging culture that tanked publishers unable to recoup development costs. FDS owners quickly realized there was no need to go to an FDS kiosk and pay to download a new game when they could connect multiple FDS units and use special programs like Disk Hacker to bootleg games.

FDS's piracy grew so rampant that many historians cite it as one reason Nintendo dug its feet in and resisted switching from cartridges to optical media long after its competitors.

Nintendo released a dialect of BASIC in Japan, bundled alongside a keyboard, so users could play with writing code.

Image: Nintendo released a dialect of BASIC in Japan, bundled alongside a keyboard, so users could play with writing code.

Nintendo's autocratic stance on third-party relations certainly didn't help the FDS. The Famicom single-handedly revivified console gaming; until Sega came along, Nintendo was the dominant market leader. To call Nintendo's third-party publishing contracts dictatorial would be an insult to dictators: developers were forbidden to port games to other consoles; had to purchase cartridges directly from Nintendo; and turn over a significant cost of royalties to Nintendo. When "negotiating" FDS contracts, Nintendo demanded 50 percent of the copyright on all FDS titles—making them co-owner in addition to co-publisher of every game.

Finally, the FDS split the market. Publishers signed Nintendo's contracts in blood because the FDS was popular. Follow the money, in other words. But as game sizes increased, the technical advantages of Disk Cards to Game Paks shrank, and publishers renewed their interest in creating games for markets with a larger install base. Disk Cards sold for less than Game Paks because they cost less to manufacture, but that meant publishers had to sell that many more Cards to recoup losses.

Nintendo manufactured the FDS from 1986 until 2003, selling approximately 4.4 million units across Japan—a paltry figure placed alongside the Famicom's 61.91 million units worldwide. The lesson: never split your user base.

FDS never made its way stateside, but that failure begat another innovation. When The Legend of Zelda arrived in the US on a cartridge, it included a lithium ion battery for saving data, a much more reliable mechanism for recording game progress relative to the Disk Card's naked exterior.

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Nintendo Life's "Feature: Slipped Disk - The History of the Famicom Disk System" article, as well as various commercials Nintendo produced touting the FDS, were helpful in writing this article.

Long Reads Editor

From The Chatty

  • reply
    April 27, 2016 8:35 AM

    David Craddock posted a new article, Half Steps: A History of Console Upgrades, Part 1: Famicom Disk System

    • reply
      April 27, 2016 8:56 AM

      Nice writetup!

      I had no idea the disk system was still around in 2003, that's bonkers.

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        April 27, 2016 9:04 AM

        Thanks! Yeah, it's crazy to think the FDS saw the NES, SNES, and N64 come and go, and was around for the first two years of the GameCube, before Nintendo retired it.

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      April 27, 2016 9:05 AM

      Awesome article.

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      April 27, 2016 9:22 AM

      dude, yes! thanks.

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      April 27, 2016 9:36 AM

      I've always wanted to see one of those Disk Writer kiosks! I've seen them mentioned time and time again, but never have seen a shot of one. Looks pretty much exactly like I thought. Kickin!

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      April 27, 2016 10:12 AM

      Another fuckin' awesome historical account by David Craddock. Christ I'm glad you're back on the payroll.

      When is that goddamn X-COM book coming out? ;)

    • reply
      April 27, 2016 11:35 AM

      This is the start of what should be an excellent series.

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      April 27, 2016 12:47 PM

      I really want to get one of these on one of my trips to Tokyo. I feel like it would just be a cool little thing to have on the shelf.

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      April 27, 2016 4:15 PM

      Great write up! Didn't know they released a version of Basic on cart.

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      April 28, 2016 12:24 PM

      Rad article man, good stuff you totally got to do more I loved it, thanks for this.