Family Computer Disk System

Disk System box top view

The Family Computer Disk System remains a largely forgotten yet seminally important chapter in not only the history of Nintendo, but also in the history of video games as a whole.

Japanese Title: ファミリーコンピュータ ディスクシステム Famirī Konpyūta Disuku Shisutemu
Abbreviated Japanese Titles: ファミコンディスクシステム Famikon Disuku Shisutemu (Famicom Disk System) or ディスクシステム Disuku Shisutemu (Disk System)
Release Date: February 21, 1986
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Product Code: HVC-022(drive unit) and HVC-023(RAM adaptor)
Notable Credits: Disk System BIOS screen programmed by Takao Sawano. 

Nintendo entered the home console market in Japan in 1983 with the release of the Family Computer. Far from the immediate smash success that Nintendo saw in North America three years later when the system was ported westward as the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Family Computer enjoyed a modestly successful release. The first slew of games released for the system, both first and third party, were competent and accurate conversions of simple arcade games. There were also original titles produced; Clu Clu Land, Devils World and Door Door come to mind, but these all followed a distinctly early-80s ‘arcade’ design philosophy.

Disk System

The Family Computer Disk System was developed as the next evolution in Nintendos home console market in Japan. Released on February 21st 1986, just 5 months after Super Mario Bros. saw its original cartridge release for the Family Computer, the Disk Systems arrival was a clear signal that Nintendo needed to move past the limitations of cartridges. During the development of Super Mario Bros., it must have become apparent to Nintendo game designers that the types of games required to differentiate the Nintendo home offering from the rising tide of the arcade would require a unique architecture- not quite the complicated and engrossing games of Japans blossoming home PC market, but still a more tangible experience than the single screen Yen munching score chasers prolific in arcades.

However, by 1985 the constraints of the Family Computers cartridges seemed to be holding Japanese game developers at bay. In the early to mid 80s cartridge technology was restrictive; a perfect storm of expense and technological limitation. Super Mario Bros., with its scrolling stages, varied environments and lush soundtrack pushed the Famicom cartridge to the brink of its capabilities.

Disk System box sideview

As revolutionary as Super Mario Bros. was, its was only one crest in Nintendos new ‘second wave’ of Famicom games. The Legend of Zelda was developed along side Super Mario Bros., and necessitated a new piece of hardware to power Shigeru Miyamoto and his expanding vision. It is not clear whether development of Zelda began on the Famicom, or if it was intended to appear as the flagship title for Nintendos new diskette add-on from the start; regardless of its beginnings, The Legend of Zelda could have only arrived on the Famicom Disk System.

A sprawling and complex adventure, The Legend of Zelda was certainly the largest console video game to that point, and rivalled many PC home computer offerings. There was no score to rack up, no linear string of levels to master and no practical way for an unfamiliar player to see the game to its conclusion in one, two or even a dozen sittings. The Legend of Zelda was an open world game before the term existed, part RPG and part hack and slash adventure game. The scope and breadth of Zelda leant itself perfectly to home consoles, but not to cartridges, where lengthy, complex and cumbersome passwords would be required to progress through the game without having to start over with each session. By virtue of hubris and scope, The Legend of Zelda became the proof of concept for the new Nintendo Family Computer Disk System.

The Disk System used propriety diskettes called Disk Cards as its media format. A slight variation on Mitsumi’s 2.8″ QuickDisk, Nintendo licensed this tech from Mitsumi and added bit of casing (the indented ‘NINTENDO’ edge) to serve as a rudimentary form of copy protection, where in a die would be required to fit into the indentation in order for the drive to engage.

Disk Card

These disk cards offered two distinct advantages over cartridges. First and foremost was an increase in storage capacity. The Nintendo Disk Cards were two sided cards holding 56K per side, totalling 112K per disk. This greatly expanded on the size of on-board storage capacity found in cartridges at the time. The second advantage was that the new format, by virtue of being diskettes, the media was rewritable. This advantage was actually two fold; games could be taken in to retailers and overwritten at special kiosks with brand new games for a fraction of the retail price of a new game. These disk also offered a feature new to console gaming, but long seen on home computers; saving game data within the disks themselves. This feature made it possible to create much larger and involving adventures, allowing players to save their progress. This feature was built in to many of the early Disk exclusive titles such as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid and Kid Icarus. It can be argued that the scope and depth of these early titles played no small part in the success of the Disk System itself.

The Family Computer Disk System drive itself was a separate unit that interfaced with the Family Computer via the RAM adaptor. The RAM adaptor itself fit into the cartridge slot on the Famicom and connected via cable to the Disk System drive unit. The RAM adaptor contained 32KB of RAM for program storage and an additional 8KB of RAM for tile and sprite data and an ASCI known as the 2C33. The 2C33 contained an 8KB BIO ROM, which engages when the system is booted up without a disk in the drive. The BIOS screen features Mario and Luigi fighting over control of a switch which they use to change the background colour of the BIOS screen. The RAM adopter also acts as the disk controller for the floppy drive and includes an additional sound channel boasting a single cycle wave-table lookup synthesizer.

The Disk System can be powered by either 6 C-cell batteries, or an AC adaptor that was sold separately. The reasoning for the drives out-of-box reliance on batteries was due to most Japanese living rooms having only one power outlet for the TV, and with the TV in one socket and the Famicom unit itself in the other, batteries were a logical solution. The Disk System can last several months or even more then a year on one set of batteries.

Battery Compartment

There is some evidence that there were at least preliminary plans to bring the Disk System outside of Japan. The Nintendo Entertainment System famously featured an never-used expansion port on the bottom of the console that was supposedly added to bypass the need for the RAM adaptor on a theoretical North American Disk System contemporary.

Far from a disappointment, the Famicom Disk System enjoyed a long life and saw 229 releases from February 1986 to its final release in 1992. Nintendo actually officially supported the Disk System until 2003, offering drive calibrations and drive belt replacements.

The Family Computer Disk System remains a largely forgotten yet seminally important chapter in not only the history of Nintendo, but also in the history of video games as a whole.