Famicom Disk System

March 30, 2009

Back when I talked about the Famicom I mentioned it had an add on floppy disk drive as one of its most unique features. This was known as the Famicom Disk System (FDS). The drive was based on Mitsumi’s Quick Disk format. Nintendo added an imprinted Nintendo logo on each disk that matched an embossed plate in the drive. This was a rudimentary protection against piracy as it prevented standard Quick Disks from being used in the system.

Nintendo released the FDS in February 1986 in an attempt to address some shortcomings of the Famicom’s cartridge format. Principally, the FDS offered 128k (64k per side) of storage and the ability to save game data. This was important in a time when ROM space and battery backed saves were both expensive. The FDS drive itself could run on 6 C-sized batteries or its AC adaptor, and connected to the Famicom through a device called the RAM Adapter. The RAM Adapter was an oversized cartridge containing the FDS BIOS, a drive controller and 32k of RAM. Additionally, the RAM Adapter contained an FM Synthesis module that connected to the Famicom’s audio expansion pins, meaning FDS games could offer richer, bigger sounds than Famicom carts of the time.

Initially, the FDS was a big leap forward for console gaming. Its increased storage capacity and ability to save allowed complex games like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid to come about. FDS games were also generally cheaper than cartridge games. For example, Super Mario Bros. 2 (an FDS exclusive) was only 2,500 yen at launch. Additional distribution was available through a network of Disk Writer kiosks at department stores throughout Japan. These kiosks would allow a user to download a new game onto a blank or unwanted FDS disk for only a few hundred yen.

As revolutionary as it was, the FDS was not without problems. For one, it has all the same problems as any other floppy disk drive. It’s dependent on a rubber belt, which in the FDS has a tendency to melt and is of a very difficult to obtain size. Also, the disks themselves degrade over time like any floppy disk. Nintendo opted not to include a shutter on most FDS disks to keep costs down, so extra care must be taken not to let foreign material contact the disk surface.

Due to these and other issues, Nintendo decided not to release a version of the FDS for the American NES, though the bottom expansion port on the NES was designed for it. Zelda would not be released for the NES for over a year after the FDS launch, pending the introduction of the MMC1 mapper with its larger memory capacity and support for battery backed saves. Metroid would launch in the US around the same time, though its save system would be replaced by a cumbersome password. Both games lacked the additional sound channel provided by the FM synthesis module in the RAM Adapter.

In Japan, the FDS’s heyday would last only a few years. Cartridges soon reached a point where they could match the FDS’s capacity and battery backed saves were more practical. Cartridges had the advantage of being available to all Famicom owners, not just those who owned both the Famicom and FDS, so developers naturally gravitated back. Though the first two games in Konami’s Dracula (Castlevania) series were FDS exclusive, Akumajou Densetsu (Castlevania III) would debut in cart format. Nintendo itself released Super Mario Bros. 3 on cartridge to take advantage of the new MMC3 mapper. Square, despite being a big FDS developer with its Disk Original Group (DOG) released Final Fantasy on cartridge.

The FDS was manufactured through 2003, and supported by Nintendo Japan through 2004, and still retains a cult following. Gamers desire it for the enhancements (primarily the FM synth sounds and saving) that it offers over the NES or later Famicom cart versions of classic games. Many games would never be officially released in any other format. Overall, the FDS is worth it for discerning 8-bit gamers who want the complete experience of games like Zelda, Metroid and Castlevania. Just be prepared to deal with its quirks, and if you see any replacement belts for sale, buy them while you can.

A quick rundown of the games I have for it is as follows:

Akumajou Dracula — This would become the first Castlevania game upon its US release. The principle changes are being able to save after each boss and the enhanced FM synthesis based sounds. Also, in a rare case for games being adapted for the US, the Japanese version is actually easier. Enemies in later stages don’t do as much damage as in the US version.

Hikari Shinwa: Palutena no Kagami — Adapted for the US as Kid Icarus, again this game lost its save feature in the translation. In its place there was a cumbersome password. It did take advantage of the Famicom’s built in microphone on the second controller, as yelling into it would negotiate for lower prices in the item shop.

Kamen Rider Black: Taiketsu Shadow Moon — This is one of the worst games I have ever played. The graphics are good, the sound isn’t bad, and the intro cinematic is pretty cool. What kills it is the controls. They are impossible. Simple things like jumping and attacking are a constant struggle. Don’t bother unless you are a really, really big Kamen Rider fan. And a masochist.

Metroid — This classic game from the mind of GameBoy creator Yokoi Gunpei was meant as a showcase of the FDS’s capabilities, but wasn’t quite ready for launch. It has a number of very impressive FM synthesis powered sounds, from the opening music to the doors opening to the screams of certain enemies when shot. The ability to save is also much more convenient than the password system used in the US version. Metroid is one of the top reasons to invest in the FDS.

Nazo no Murasamejou — Nazo no Murasamejou could have been a much more significant game had it not been sandwiched between the juggernauts of Zelda and Metroid. It’s a very good overhead action game where you play a samurai tasked with defeating the demon-possessed daimyo of 4 castles, before taking on the source of the evil in the 5th. It’s also hard as hell and I can’t get past the second castle. ^^; For some unknown reason, it was never released on the NES.

Yume Koujou Doki Doki Panic — This game is most remembered for forming the basis of what we got in the US as Super Mario Bros. 2. The original version of the game does have some differences aside from graphics. First, rather than switching characters on the fly between stages, each character has their own progress. You must beat the game completely with each character to truly finish it. Also, there is no running with the B button, making some shortcuts inaccessible to some characters.

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