Copying Famicom Disk System disks with Disk Hacker

April 15, 2009

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:


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.

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