I mentioned when talking about the Famicom Disk System that despite its being a great add on for the Famicom, it had all the same flaws as any other floppy disk system. One of the most common problems with any floppy-based computer is that the floppy disk media itself degrades. Most commonly, the magnentic signature that stores the data weakens over time. This is not a death sentence for the whole disk, however, it just needs to have the data copied back onto it. For other computers, this is trivial, as you can easily make a backup copy of the disk.

For the FDS, however, this is not so easy. It doesn’t have any sort of file and disk management since it was just a game console. Also, the copying of disks was intentionally discouraged since that would mean the games could be pirated. Initially, the only thing Nintendo really did was alter the shape of the disk by putting a recessed Nintendo logo into it. This meant that standard QuickDisks would not physically fit in the FDS, as the FDS had a matching raised plate.

There were ways around that, of course, pirate game makers just modified their disks to match. They would either slightly modify the Nintendo logo, or just cut big holes in there to make it work. In addition to pirate games made in this method, there were also some disk copying utilities. One such utility was Disk Hacker, which I recently came into possession of.

As you can see, it’s physically a little ghetto, but it gets the job done. The utility is pretty idiot proof, at least if you can read some basic Japanese. There’s no menu, no options, no controls. You never need touch the controller once. Just do what it says on screen. When you first load the utility, the title screen briefly appears.

This will disappear on its own, and you will be presented with the following text:

ゲームディスクヲ イレテクダサイ。

This is asking you to insert the game disk. Pop out Disk Hacker and pop in the game you wish to make a copy of. The FDS will churn a bit, then you’ll see this:

ナマディスクヲ イレテクダサイ。

This is asking you to put in a fresh disk, or the disk you wish to copy onto. Put that in, and again the FDS will churn a bit. When it’s done, it will most likely go back to asking you for the game disk. The FDS RAM adapter only has 32k of memory, but one side of an FDS disk holds up to 64k, so it’s going to take two passes. Put your game disk back in with the same side facing up you did last time. After that you will once again be prompted for the target disk, so put that in, again with the same side up you used before. When Disk Hacker’s job is done, you get this:

オワリマシタ。

This simply means, “Done.” Shut off your Famicom and remove your newly cloned disk. If you are copying a two-sided game, you will need to repeat the process from the start for the other side. All in all, it only takes a few minutes to copy a disk.

This method is not perfect for everyone, as there are a few concerns. The most obvious one is, where do you get blank disks? Well, you don’t. Not unless you stumble onto some unused stock from the Disk Writer kiosks. What you can do is ask your favorite retro/import game dealer for some non-working FDS games, which is what I did. Any dealer who sells FDS games gets dead disks from time to time, and is probably sitting on a small mountain of them. More than likely, they’d be glad if you’d take them off their hands for a few bucks. The vast majority of them probably aren’t physically damaged, their data has just degraded or become corrupt. Once they’re rewritten, they’ll work great.

The less obvious, but bigger problem is your FDS drive. Nintendo wasn’t stupid, and got wise to this method. They implemented two changes in later FDS drives to prevent it from copying disks. First was an expanded power board that included circuitry preventing large-scale write operations. You could still write a save file just fine, but try to write a whole disk and it stops you. This can be patched around if you have the soldering skills. The second measure is a chip inside the actual QuickDisk drive that serves the same function as the circuitry on the power board. There’s nothing that can be done about this chip.

If you need to identify whether your FDS drive is capable of writing disks, there’s a great thread on Famicom World that explains how to quickly do so. Remember, you need both the smaller, regularly shaped power board and the 7201 chip to write disks. This is also the case if you are planning to build an FDS Loader cable that bridges your FDS drive to a PC for dumping and rewriting disks. If you have the electronics skills to do this, it’s much better than using Disk Hacker because you wouldn’t need blanks, you could just restore a degraded disk from a previous dump file.

That’s all I’ve got to say about Disk Hacker. If you have the right kind of FDS drive, and come across a copy, it might be a worthy investment for backing up your precious games.

Update: One other detail I forgot to mention. In addition to modifying the FDS itself, some games also played some tricks with the file system that prevent some cloning utilities from working. Specifically, they would write some data at the end of the disk, but not mark in the disk’s header that those blocks are in use. However, the game will check if that data is there and refuse to run if it’s not. The some utilities would only copy the blocks marked used, while some would just copy the disk wholesale regardless of the header. The latter case would be able to copy these games.

I hate Time Capsules

April 7, 2009

With the introduction of Mac OS X 10.5 “Leopard”, Apple released their built-in backup software Time Machine. Time Machine just runs in the background, automatically copying your precious data to another drive. A great idea, now it’s easier than ever to get people to back up. But what about laptops?

Laptops are a huge part of the computer market today, especially for Apple. The problem is that they are, by nature, mobile and not likely to be chained to a desk with an external hard drive hanging off. That means people have to remember to plug that drive into their laptop from time to time, introducing a factor of human error and forgetfulness. There must be a better way right? Isn’t there a way to make backup as wireless as the rest of the laptop? Apple thought so, and released Time Capsule, an Airport Extreme base station with a hard drive built in. Leopard detects Time Capsules on the network and backs up to them over your wireless network with the one-click ease Apple is famous for. There’s just one teensy, weensy little problem:

HFS+ sucks

For those unaware, HFS+ is the file system used by Macs. That is, the organizational system by which the computer keeps track of where and how your data is stored on the actual disk. The problem is, it dates back a long time and as needs have grown, it has started to falter. Big drives with lots of files, especially that change all the time like on Time Machine, make a wreck of HFS+’s catalog. When that catalog gets messy, the drive starts running slow, or may develop problems accessing certain data. The traditional Mac fix for this has been Alsoft’s Disk Warrior, a miracle piece of software that takes your HFS+ catalog and rebuilds a nice clean one. Note, not fixes it, makes a new one. All nice and perfectly organized. Disk Warrior is almost critical on Time Machine drives just due to the sheer number of changes as data is added hourly, and old snapshots are removed. Eventually, all Time Machine drives are likely to need this done.

The issue on Time Capsule is that there’s no way to run Disk Warrior on it. Disk Warrior needs to unmount the drive and have direct access to it. How can you do that when it’s attached over a network? Well, you can’t. Not unless you gut the Time Capsule and attach its drive right to your computer. There’s another problem too. There are actually two HFS+ filesystems you need to worry about. The first is the one on the Time Capsule’s actual drive. The second is the one within the sparse disk image that your backup data is written into. Time Capsule (as well as network Time Machine backups to OS X Server) create a virtual drive as a sparse disk image to back up to, and since this is its own virtual volume, it has its own filesystem to worry about. If either filesystem has problems, your backup fails. Disk Warrior is able to rebuild the filesystem within disk images, and should be able to do it if you mount the Time Capsule’s drive as a shared folder. However, you still can’t rebuild the filesystem on the actual physical drive in the Time Capsule.

The worst part about it is that Apple sells this thing to lay users as a completely turn key system. Set it and forget it. That’s great until HFS+ eats its own tail, then what? Then you call your local Mac IT guy (me) to try and fix the damn thing. If it’s just the sparse image, there is hope. If it’s the filesystem on the drive, probably going to have to format it. It’s really frustrating to see people getting hit like this, from the random home users that call my office to the likes of Wil Wheaton. If your Time Capsule backup has stopped, and rebooting hasn’t solved it, I almost guarantee this is the problem. If your regular, local Time Machine backup has similarly stopped, this is probably the same issue, but at least that’s fixable.

Apple. For the love of god, get us a new filesystem that can actually handle your backup scheme. I am tired of dealing with this.

Update: In addition to the incident that prompted the writing of this post, just as I finished up somebody else walked in complaining that he can’t back up to his Time Capsule. Gee, I wonder what the problem is?