Friends, I have a question for you: When someone says the phrase “Nintendo games”, what comes to mind?
I don’t mean this phrase in regards to the varieties of games Nintendo has produced over the years. No, I mean actual physical pieces of gaming media.
Does your mind go to the large grey cassette-like cartridges for the NES? Perhaps the smaller grey carts of the Game Boy? Or, if you’re of a certain age and grew up in Japan during the late 1980s, does your mind conjure images of yellow three-inch floppy disks?
That’s right. Three inches. Nintendo released games on floppy disks exclusively in Japan back in the 1980s, and instead of opting for the more common 5 1/4 or 3 1/2 inch sizes, they went with these smaller, oddly skinny looking three-inch disks.
Of course, it’s not the size that matters but how it’s used.
These were used for the Famicom Disk System, an add-on for the Nintendo Famicom, better known as the Japanese NES. Released in 1986, this was Nintendo’s attempt to make video games cheaper, more expansive, and more accessible than ever before. But, by 1990, it was discontinued, and several of the games that defined it would later see release on cartridges. So what happened?
Though the NES wouldn’t see release overseas until late 1985, the Famicom had released in Japan back in 1983. Like the NES, it was an 8-bit console that played games from cartridges. Unlike the NES, though, its controllers were hardwired, the system was only available of outputting audio and video over RF, and the game cartridges – though lacking in standardized size and colour – were on average only half the height of the North American and European NES carts.
While this compactness may initially seem like a plus, it instead led to some issues early on. Save batteries weren’t widespread, and though many later Famicom games would feature expansion chips inside of them, the technology just was not quite there yet by 1984. Games were fairly expensive, too, potentially costing the equivalent of $40 CAD new. In comparison, games for computers that came on floppy disks and cassette tapes were vastly cheaper.
Probably the most extreme example of this price difference were the £1.99 games for the ZX Spectrum computer in the UK. That’s a price of only around $3.50 CAD per game!
Nintendo’s system was selling incredibly well. By 1985, overall three million had been sold in Japan alone, but both those at Nintendo and those in charge of several of their vendors felt that they could make games that were even cheaper and more accessible.
Nintendo’s first attempt at bringing a more computer-esque storage medium to the Famicom came in 1984 with the Famicom Data Recorder. This Famicom accessory took standard cassette tapes, and in theory, seems like Nintendo’s foray into budget gaming. In reality, though, no actual games were released exclusively with the Data Recorder. Instead, it was merely used with four different titles as a means of saving progress and user-created content. It could even be used with an optional keyboard and a BASIC program to turn the Famicom into a very, well, basic BASIC-capable computer!
Whether it be due to cassettes coming with long load times or already being seen as ageing tech by the mid-80s, Nintendo decided to only support the Data Recorder for less than a year. This was because they had a new accessory in the works – one that took larger, more durable floppy disks that could store game data on each side, and that though more expensive than cassette tapes, were still cheaper than cartridges.
This was the Famicom Disk System, first released in February 1986 for the princely sum of ¥15000 – or around $175 CAD. That was a high price of entry for an add-on to an existing system. The FDS was not a small unit, with it becoming common practice to sit base Famicoms on top of it.
In addition. it required its own source of power. Unlike Sega, who would later infamously require its Sega CD and 32X units to use their own power bricks in addition to that on a Sega Genesis, Nintendo had an ingenious plan to keep the FDS’ power-brick profile low: Instead of requiring the brick, just sell it separately, and also give the option to power it with six C-cell batteries.
That said, despite all odds, the Famicom Disk System would be a huge initial success. Was it due to it being a rather attractive looking brick of a system, being adorned in the same shade of mid-life crisis Corvette red as the base Famicom? Was it due to floppies with FDS games on them retailing for, on average, only half the price of their cartridge counterparts? Or was it because Nintendo marketed the thing well, even going so far as to create a new sentient floppy disk mascot for it name Diskun?
Well, I’d argue that all of those probably helped, but that the FDS’ initial success was hugely thanks in part to its launch lineup. While the majority of games available at the FDS’ launch were just cheap disk-based ports of older Famicom games, there was one completely original game that made the system a must-have for many a Japanese gamer.
This was The Hyrule Fantasy, an overhead adventure title that would later make its way West as the original The Legend of Zelda.