Released in 1986 three years after the release of the Famicom, Nintendo’s Disk System was a largely unacknowledged important step forward in console video games. By 1986 Nintendo had already made a case for pushing the limits the video game design. Titles such as Super Mario Bros. scoffed at the single-screen, score-chasing style of the early arcades and presented the player with goals- actual goals other than topping high scores; goals such as clearing stages and defeating bosses. In many ways these early Nintendo games took the best of the arcades and married that with the complexity (beyond a high score) that was common in PC gaming.
The bright colorful graphics and re-playability of arcade games, minus the inherent overt simplicity, combined with the length and goal orientated nature of PC adventure games, minus the pencil, notepad and manuals necessary to grind out those early PC efforts; this was the style of video games Nintendo’s famed R&D1 was rapidly evolving towards creating.
Nintendo, having always been on the forefront of innovation, needed a way to expand their games; to grant the ability to save a game file, much like on the PC. Passwords were a serviceable alternative; however with passwords there remained a disconnect between the player and his game. You didn’t truly feel like it was your file you were playing after punching in 8 to 58 character passwords.
Yet another unfortunate drawback to passwords was their complexity and room for error. For some games the password was no more difficult than a phone number; but the more complex the game, was the more intricate and specific a password system had to be.
This was all fixed with the release of the Famicom Disk System, which used proprietary storage media, similar too (but not compatible with, at least not exactly) standard 3.5″ diskettes. Early Nintendo releases took full advantage of the save feature granted by the media; games such as The Legend of Zelda (and eventually it sequel, Link’s Adventure), Metroid, and Kid Icarus, to name a few.
The Nintendo Disk Card (as it was officially named) was also fully re-writable. Disk Writer kiosks were set up in electronic stores and malls throughout Japan. Assuming one was bored of a Disk System game that they owned, they could simply take their Disk Card to one of these kiosks (or purchase a blank disc) and have a new game written over it for a fee much less than a new game. The Disk Writer kiosks even dispensed specialized fold-up instruction papers and Disk labeling stickers when a game was purchased and written to a disk.
Some Disk games only required one side of the Disk Card (such as Super Mario Bros.), allowing for another game to be freely written to the blank side.
It is, unfortunately, this precise ease of over-writing the disks that ultimately contributed to the demise of the console. Certain types and brands of 3.5″ floppy disks could be modified to work on the Disk System, and piracy predictably ran rampant. Piracy was such a problem, in fact, that plans for a North American version of the Disk System were ultimately scrapped. This directly lead to the development of the in-cart battery back-up save feature that debuted with the North American release of The Legend of Zelda.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (as it was released in North America) was in fact originally designed to connect with this undeveloped NTSC version of the Disk System, as evidenced by the parallel port in the bottom of the console. This was meant to communicate the Disk System directly with the NES’s motherboard, eliminating the need for the RAM adapter connection in the cartridge slot that was necessary for the Famicom Disk System to function.
Just a few short months after the Disk System was released in Japan, Sharp Corporation, under license from Nintendo, released a 2-in-1 version of both the Famicom and the Disk System called the Sharp Twin Famicom. Sharp released the Twin in several different styles, including a model with built-in Turbo controllers.
Although not nearly the success Nintendo had hoped it would be, The Disk System remains an interesting and important part of Nintendo’s development as a first-rate creator of both video games and video game hardware.