My Fascination With The Fami Disk
The missing link between computers and consoles from the 80s
I have been fascinated with Fami Disks after learning about them a few years ago when I started rebuilding my retro game collection. During the late 80s, most gamers in North America had no idea they even existed. There was no internet, no online shopping, and, most of all, no way to import game hardware from Japan easily. An entire generation of Nintendo peripherals lived and died without any of us even knowing about it. But to me, the Fami Disk represents the “missing link” between computer and console gaming.
My collection of five or so Fami Disks is rather meager. From this group, the most prized being a brand new, never opened copy of Metroid. But the one I thought I’d talk about, keeping in line with my last post, is my copy of The Legend of Zelda II: Link’s Adventure.
If you are unfamiliar with Fami Disks, they were Nintendo’s solution to distributing games before cartages ware cheap enough to mass-produce. Prior Fami Disks, game cartridges had no way to save a player’s progress since onboard memory and batters were too expensive to manufacture.
Nintendo’s disks are similar to 3.5" floppy disks used by computers of the time but with a few unique exceptions. First, the disk is a different shape so that they wouldn’t fit in a conventional computer disk drive. Second, they lack a metal cover to protect the actual magnetic medium inside of the plastic shell. Finally, recessed on both sides is the word Nintendo which acts as a form of piracy protection.
Because of these characteristics, they have a very unique look to them — a drastically different concept to what the final Nintendo cartridge became. And having a few in my collection made me think it would be interesting to explore some of the little details that make them so unique.
Each game came in a plastic case that contained the disk, a hard plastic protector, and a manual. Seeing how the outer case is transparent, instead of the traditional cardboard box most games shipped in, they showed off exactly what you’d be getting inside. A complete Fami Disk game makes for an impressive little package. These disks are easily one of my favorite collectibles aesthetically since they are so different from anything else that came before or after.
The manuals are the same size as the disk and are like mini books about the game. The cover of the manual is the front of the disk box. So it also acts as the cover of the game. A considerable amount of care went into each image’s design. Since it was what attracted you to the game on the shelf, it had to catch your interest right away.
In North America, the box art for a lot of Japanese based games changed on their way over to the states and usually didn’t have the same level of care put into them as these Fami Disk covers. Compare this to the box for Zelda II in the US which is just a sword on a gold golden background.
One thing missing from the back of the Fami Disk packaging, however, are screenshots and a description of the game itself. All you see is the disk, wrapped in a soft paper-like case similar to what I remember 3.5" computer disks using. It’s hard to describe the material, but I have a distinctive memory of its texture that comes back to me as soon as I touch it. The other thing unique to the Fami Disk is that they have a Side A and Side B, similar to a cassette tape.
I vaguely remember the larger 5.25" floppy disks, from the Apple II, having this as well. It makes for an interesting experience when you first boot up Zelda II and go to start the game, only to be asked to flip the disk over to Side B and wait for it to load.
Ironically, the Twin Famicom I play these disks on, as well as the original Famicom, has incredibly short controller wires. So you don’t have to go far to flip the disk over when prompted. It’s not like today when you’d put a CD in a console then go to the other side of the room where your couch is. Famicom systems themselves had a very different design than the North American NES. You played on them directly in front of a TV, roughly a foot or two away from the actual hardware.
Playing a Fami Disk involves waiting through various load times. Growing up playing these games on the NES, I never experienced load time at all. Playing a game from a floppy disk is a slow and noisy experience. After you get past the initial boot, any time the system needs to read from the disk, you can hear loud mechanical clicking and moving while the drive scans for the right section of the disk.
Unfortunately, these disks are not going to withstand the test of time. Like all disk, the game’s data is written magnetically to the disk itself. This actually allowed you to overwrite the disk entirely in Japan at specialized Fami Disk kiosks instead of having to buy a brand new game. The inside case cover clearly illustrates ways to avoid damaging the fragile disk.
Eventually, these disks are going to stop working. Even now, it’s almost impossible to find a Fami Disk drive that still functions as is. Before you buy one, make sure that the belt is new or recently replaced. Even my fully restored Twin Famicom continues to display read errors when loading. It may be a combination of the disk’s age or what it was like to play Nintendo games off of a disk.
Luckily, I’ll still be able to enjoy the funny animation of Mario and Luigi fighting over the light button while the system waits for you to insert a disk.
Hopefully, this will continue to keep me entertained long after my collection of disks become ornamental relics of a long lost time in gaming.