We store cookies, you can get more info from our privacy policy.

Nintendo's Expansion Ports

Famicom Disk System

by Danny Bivens - October 26, 2011, 11:20 am PDT

The first step in a long history of expansions.

In a world and time when the Famicom reigned supreme in Japan, developers were not satisfied with the ROM cartridge format and its limitations. Not only this, but many gamers were wanting additional features for their Famicom games, such as the ability to save data. These were just some of the reasons why the Famicom Disk System was released in Japan on February 21, 1986.

Not only did the Disk System provide gamers and developers with more flexibility, the disk format also provided a larger capacity and the ability to rewrite data directly to the disk. The Famicom Disk System plugged directly into the Famicom via a RAM adapter that plugged into the cartridge slot. The RAM adapter housed an additional 32KB of RAM for temporary program storage, 8KB of RAM for tile and sprite data storage, and an ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) called the 2C33 that controlled various aspects of the floppy drive and the hardware. The system also had a more advanced sound chip that gave the games a unique sound that could not be easily replicated on a cartridge based game. The system could be powered with the included AC adapter or six C batteries. The disks themselves were proprietary 2.8” “Quick Disks” manufactured by Mitsumi Electronics and had a capacity of 64KB per side. Many of the titles used both sides of the disk cards for storing game data. Initially, most of the disks were produced without dust covers in an attempt to cut manufacturing costs, however the dust covers were included in later releases.

One of the big draws of disk based games was the cost. Not only were the games cheaper to manufacture on the disk-based medium, they were cheaper for the consumer as well. In the 1980s, Famicom cartridge based games usually retailed for around 5,000 yen. Brand new disk games could be purchased between 2,500 to 3,500 yen. Gamers in Japan also had a very unique option available to them that was only possible with the disk cards. Famicom Disk System owners could opt to purchase a blank disk card for 2,000 yen and then have the game of their choice placed onto the disk. They could use the disk multiple times to write different games to the disk card for the low price of 500 yen each time. 

"A variety of games can be re-written on one Disk Card." (Disk Card shown: Baseball)

The data was written to the disk cards via the Famicom Disk System Disk Writer, which was more or less a game vending machine. These machines could be found at various toy shops, department stores, and sometimes even convenience stores throughout Japan. Typically, store clerks would operate the machines for the customers.

With the advent of the disk cards, developers were not limited to the confines of the Famicom cartridges and were able to make larger games that could fit on the Disk System's larger capacity disk cards. Not only this, but at the time following up to the the release of the Disk System, players had no way to save their progress in games. The rewritable disks remedied this and allowed for more expansive gaming experiences. Some games, such as Famicom Grand Prix: F1 Race, even allowed gamers to utilize the save data on the disk to compete nationally for high scores in tournaments. Gamers could take their disks to Disk Fax Machines located throughout Japan and fax their high scores to Nintendo headquarters.

While the price and technical advancements of the disk cards were very attractive for consumers and developers, there were several issues that brought about the downfall of the Disk System. Piracy was a very big problem for the format, with pirated disk cards running rampant as well as several publications throughout Japan informing the tech savvy crowd how to copy disks. Other issues, such as reliability, were constant problems for Disk System owners. Many gamers were tormented by various disk errors relating to faulty disk cards or issues with the drive belts that would sometimes break or corrode to the point where it became unusable. From the release up until 2003, Nintendo did service faulty Disk Systems for customers. When the disk cards were working, gamers would often complain of long load times, sometimes lasting over ten seconds compared to virtually no load times with cartridge based games. By the 1990s, developers were beginning to pull away from Disk System development due to the advances made with the cartridge technology.

The Disk System was announced for release outside of Japan and although it did not utilize the expansion port on the Japanese Famicom, it is very likely that Nintendo was hoping to make use of the expansion port on the bottom of the NES. As mentioned above, the RAM adapter for the Disk System contained a special sound chip. Nintendo had originally produced the Famicom with two cartridge pins that would allow the use of external sound enhancements, in this case, enhancements coming from the RAM adapter that was plugged into the cartridge slot. In the NES, these pins were removed from the cartridge slot and positioned at the bottom expansion port, making it impossible for NES carts to make use of the sound enhancements. With this in mind, if Nintendo planned on releasing the a Disk Drive capable of connecting to the NES, it needed to be connected via the expansion port to utilize the enhanced sound capabilities. Despite all of this, the fate of the the add-on in Japan ultimately prevented it from ever seeing the light of day in North America or Europe.

The Famicom Disk System was a unique device from Nintendo and definitely taught some invaluable lessons which they took to future consoles. For instance, sticking with cartridges during the Nintendo 64 era as opposed to a CD-based medium could very well be an example of Nintendo looking back at some of the load time issues that plagued gamers back in the Famicom days. Though there were quite a few games initially released exclusively on the Disk System such as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Castlevania, most of these games saw release on cartridge within and outside of Japan. Nintendo had looked into the possibility of bringing the system to North America and Europe and even went as far to more modify the internal architecture of the NES to realize this.

By the time the Famicom was nearing it's end in Japan, the Disk System unfortunately became irrelevant as cartridge based technology advanced to levels that were not thought possible during its inception. In fact, Super Mario Bros. was meant as the final cartridge game, Shigeru Miyamoto's attempt to pack in everything possible into it's 40k of space. However, two innovations, memory mapping chips, which allowed for far larger cartridge sizes, and battery-backed SRAM allowed Nintendo to return to the cartridge format, and thus ending the hope of releasing the ill-fated expansion outside of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Images

Talkback

DanielMDaniel Mousseau, Staff AlumnusOctober 26, 2011

I believe it was so Nintendo could change/add any extra code to the motherboard/processor. That's probably why they were never needed after launch of the console. It was just easier for development and all that.


That's just my thought.

BlackNMild2k1October 26, 2011

Quote from: DanielM

I believe it was so Nintendo could change/add any extra code to the motherboard/processor. That's probably why they were never needed after launch of the console. It was just easier for development and all that.


That's just my thought.

Then why would they include it in the production model and not just the dev kits?

CericOctober 26, 2011

Quote from: BlackNMild2k1

Quote from: DanielM

I believe it was so Nintendo could change/add any extra code to the motherboard/processor. That's probably why they were never needed after launch of the console. It was just easier for development and all that.


That's just my thought.

Then why would they include it in the production model and not just the dev kits?

I'm not a game dev but wouldn't it make sense to have the production model also be the Dev Kit with just an addon that plugged into the special slot?

That's not really how it worked back then.

Shame that the test model SNES apparently hung out with a couple of smokers.

It's not caused by smoking. There's an interesting article about the science of the yellowing here and how to fix it here.

famicomplicatedJames Charlton, Associate Editor (Japan)October 26, 2011

Strangely my Super Famicom is fine but my Famicom is a disgusting yellow colour! (as you can see from my photos above)


More on topic though, I would have loved to have been in Japan during the disk system days, getting to use the disk writer in a shop etc!
I'm too afraid to get a Disk System now though, knowing how unreliable they are.


The next part of the feature, SNES/SFC, is a really interesting part of history.

AVOctober 26, 2011

This is a wonderful article, I really think a podcast would serve it justice . Most of the expansions should have been built in to begin with, and nintendo KNEW they should have but didn't. 

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorOctober 26, 2011

The NES Top Loader and SNES-mini both removed the expansion ports...  Oddly, though, the redesigned N64 (i.e.: The Pikachu edition) actually included the expansion port... but there was no removable cover - the port is inaccessible without actually removing the bottom half of the casing.

I've heard there are revised GameCubes floating around out there that are missing the second serial port, but I've never seen one (never really spent a lot of time looking though).

BlackNMild2k1October 26, 2011

Quote from: UncleBob

I've heard there are revised GameCubes floating around out there that are missing the second serial port, but I've never seen one (never really spent a lot of time looking though).

But you must add one to your collection. How does it not bother you that you do not own one of these mythical revised Gamecubes? It's like I don't know you anymore.


...

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorOctober 26, 2011

Quote from: BlackNMild2k1

But you must add one to your collection. How does it not bother you that you do not own one of these mythical revised Gamecubes? It's like I don't know you anymore.

You'd think that - but, out of the 7 Game Cubes I own, 6 are original -001 units and one's the Panasonic Q.  I don't even own a -101 unit. ;)

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorOctober 26, 2011

Found a neat site that shows all three hardware revisions of the GameCube...

http://www.classiccmp.org/dunfield/vg/nintendo.htm

The GCN went through three revisions, although only one really changed the bottom ports.  A semi-educated guess would be that the second revision is limited to the "Limited Edition" Platinum consoles.  As I don't have any Platinum GCNs (not counting the Q, of course) or any -101 units, that would explain why I haven't come across one.  I'll have to be on the look-out now. :D

Kytim89October 26, 2011

There should be a similar thread made for all of Nintendo's controlles and peripherals.

ejamerOctober 27, 2011

Quote from: UncleBob

Found a neat site that shows all three hardware revisions of the GameCube...

http://www.classiccmp.org/dunfield/vg/nintendo.htm

The GCN went through three revisions, although only one really changed the bottom ports.  A semi-educated guess would be that the second revision is limited to the "Limited Edition" Platinum consoles.  As I don't have any Platinum GCNs (not counting the Q, of course) or any -101 units, that would explain why I haven't come across one.  I'll have to be on the look-out now. :D

Nice link.


I have a platinum console with the digital outs - apparently pretty rare. A friend was convinced they didn't even exist until seeing mine. Pretty lucky I guess, since it was picked up second-hand from EB Games as a backup system for the GameCube titles that I purchased after owning a Wii.


Oddly, tracking down an official component cable for the system was MUCH more expensive than the console itself.

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorOctober 27, 2011

Quote from: ejamer

Oddly, tracking down an official component cable for the system was MUCH more expensive than the console itself.

Don't look at my five sets then. :D  Four of which I scored from GameStop for under $5. :D

But to your other point, I think the only Platinum systems with the Digital Out are the original releases that were marked "Limited Edition" - it's my guess (without any hardcore evidence) that when the Platinum system became standard was when they removed the Digital Port (and revised the base).  Could likely be wrong though.

CericOctober 27, 2011

My Component cable for the GCN was ordered directly from Nintendo and I probably posted about it here somewhere.  It was Night and day.  When the component cables for Wii became first available through Nintendo I ordered a set of those because I didn't want a repeat of the GCN.  Though I have adapter to connect my GCN to everything in US but DVI and HDMI (VGA, Coax, Component, RCA, S-Video, etc.)

ejamerOctober 27, 2011

Quote from: UncleBob

Quote from: ejamer

Oddly, tracking down an official component cable for the system was MUCH more expensive than the console itself.

Don't look at my five sets then. :D  Four of which I scored from GameStop for under $5. :D

...

I'm not disappointed. Mine were well under the going price - it's only when you compare them to paying $10 for the entire console that it feels expensive.


If you are lucky, you can still score GameCube component cables at GameStop for cheap. Where you live plays a huge part in that though.


http://www.gamestop.com/accessories/gamecube-n64-component-cable-used/32149?utm_source=linkshare&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_campaign=deeplink&cid=afl_10000087&affID=77777&sourceID=FKSJxY2VJAk-YdQjxU0sI4sci3bux6kWNg


Of course, some hits are false-positives and sometimes you get lucky finding mislabeled cables where there aren't supposed to be any. A great deal if you stumble into any though!

yoshi1001October 27, 2011

I've thought about getting component cables for my GC to cut out the input lag when I do recordings of Game Boy Player for my YouTube channel (I actually own a component video capture device). Generally, I've seen these things sell for $60-$100 on eBay. By the way, did you notice the component port is labeled "Digital Out" even though component is analog?

I do own an official Nintendo SNES S-Video connector (bought for my N64 after we got a new TV with said inputs).

Chozo GhostOctober 27, 2011

Its a shame the port on the NES was never used. Does anyone know if it would be possible for some hobbyist or whatever to create peripherals for that port somehow? It was supposed to be used for a modem but Nintendo never created that modem, but could someone else make it happen? All the patents regarding the NES have expired since 2005 so there is no legal obstacles to people doing stuff like that, but are there technical obstacles?

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorOctober 28, 2011

Quote from: yoshi1001

By the way, did you notice the component port is labeled "Digital Out" even though component is analog?

Actually... the port is 100% correctly labeled.  The port actually does send out a digital signal.

*Most* electronics convert that digital signal to analog inside the system, before it gets to the port.

With the GameCube, it actually sent the digital signal to the port - the Digital-to-Analog conversion was done in the Component Cables themselves - this is why the cables were so expensive new and why you've never seen an off-brand/third party set of GameCube cables that output component signal.

It's also what let people mod them into awesome VGA cables. The Wii was truly a downgrade in that sense.

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorOctober 29, 2011

Quote from: UncleBob

I think the only Platinum systems with the Digital Out are the original releases that were marked "Limited Edition" - it's my guess (without any hardcore evidence) that when the Platinum system became standard was when they removed the Digital Port (and revised the base).  Could likely be wrong though.

Well, I don't really have anything for/against the "Limited Edition" Platinum 'Cubes all being with the Digital Out port while the non-Limited Edition 'Cubes are without, but...

I stopped into a Goodwill today - they had a Platinum -001 GameCube...  No cords and $10 price tag (I passed) - but I did take a second to look it over.  it was a -001, but it did have the third port on the bottom.

TheBlackCatOctober 31, 2011

You didn't mention any of the problems with the N64 RAM expansion pack.  For instance it pretty much broke Space Station Silicon Valley.

KikoriMinoru Yamaizumi, Japan CorrespondentOctober 31, 2011

I've read many times that Game Boy Player is kinda laggy. Is this true?

TJ SpykeOctober 31, 2011

I never experienced any lag with my Game Boy Player.

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorOctober 31, 2011

Quote from: Kikori

I've read many times that Game Boy Player is kinda laggy. Is this true?

I've only had one such experience... kinda.

Back in the day, when I was running a solo-GameCube, a friend brought his over along with his Game Boy Player.  We hooked them up and played some Four Swords (GBA) on the big screen.  It was awesome.

Anyway, during one round, we came "desynched" - the Links on both screens would still respond to their respective controls, but they weren't in the same spot... so I could be walking up a path on my screen and be walking into a wall on his screen.  Likewise, he could pick me up on his screen and I'd be running around like nothing was wrong on mine.

The /official/ word from Nintendo is that you're not supposed to link Game Boy Players together...  but I've done it many times and this is the *only* time I've ever had a problem with the Game Boy Player - in any fashion.

StrawHousePigOctober 31, 2011

Oh wow, Warp Pipe and the LAN adapter. Never got a version of Warp Pipe to work right... something about the lappy I was using at the time... so long ago.

Never could get into PSO. Played it a few times but it seemed to mostly be people standing around chatting. No thanks. Plus it was a SEGA game and SEGA games *suck*!  ;D

Now that internet speeds are faster, we should try to get a Double Dash Warp Pipe tournament going.

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorOctober 31, 2011

Quote from: MegaByte

Now that internet speeds are faster, we should try to get a Double Dash Warp Pipe tournament going.

Totally up for trying that sometime.  Lord knows it went... poorly the last time I tried.

I don't know about a "tournament" though - we'll be lucky to get two people connected. ;)

It'd be cool if someone had come up with a Homebrew Channel hack that lets GameCube games see the Wii's Wi-Fi as a broadband adaptor. I'd imagine that would up the numbers we could pull in for such an event.

If by "come up with a hack," you mean "write an operating system..."

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorOctober 31, 2011

Quote from: MegaByte

If by "come up with a hack," you mean "write an operating system..."

For those who dabble in such things, does anyone know if the GameCube emulator for the PC does LAN Modes on compatible games?  And not Online where the second player is the second controller - but actually supportive of the LAN modes built into the games?

Would it be possible to write a GCN emulator for the Wii?  Is the Wii actually powerful enough for such a thing?

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorOctober 31, 2011

Fun Fact: Since we're kind of on the subject.

For those who have never seen it, in Mario Kart: Double Dash, the LAN Mode is a selection on the main menu screen - it only appears of you have a LAN Adapter in your GameCube.

What's really fun though - the Demo Disc (the ones for the in-store demo units) that contains a Mario Kart: Double Dash preview... the LAN Option shows up on that menu - again, only if you have a LAN Adapter installed... but you can't select it at all.  Just kinda neat.

Quote from: UncleBob

Would it be possible to write a GCN emulator for the Wii?  Is the Wii actually powerful enough for such a thing?

No, at 1.5x specs of the GC, the Wii is far too weak to emulate the GC (a rule of thumb used to be that you'd need at least 10x power, and that would be with speed hacks). Instead, you'd need to rewrite the GC BIOS to take into account the additional hardware and emulate the LAN adapter. However, that additional hardware part is non-trivial because you'd have to write drivers for the Wii security and I/O systems, which the GC BIOS doesn't know exist. Going in the other direction, you might be able to run the GC game as Wii software, with hooks patched in memory to deal with the network and any Wii-isms. In either case, it would involve massive architecting that would be hard even if all of the technical information was publicly available.

Chozo GhostNovember 01, 2011

Quote from: MegaByte

No, at 1.5x specs of the GC,

Didn't Iwata or someone else at Nintendo say the Wii was 2 to 3 times more powerful than the GC?

It doesn't matter what they said. The Wii CPU and GPUs are clocked at 1.5x the GC, and the memory was roughly doubled (it's more complicated than that).

Kytim89November 01, 2011

wonder hiw many times more powerful the Wii U will be over the Wii?

ThePermNovember 01, 2011

well considering I think someone said next E3 you'll see the more final design of the Wii U, I hope it has an expansion port, so it is future proofed. I had forgot about the GameCube's port, and that I actually used it for the GBA player. The Wii was future proofed as well in the controllers, but not the system itself.

The Wii U has USB ports, which is the modern version of expansion ports (unfortunately, Nintendo didn't do much with them on the Wii).

famicomplicatedJames Charlton, Associate Editor (Japan)November 02, 2011

I learnt a lot from this feature, very interesting stuff here!
I'm especially into the SNES and N64 stuff, gotta love those add-ons!


Big thanks to Danny for digging up all this info and putting all in an easy to read manner, makes life easy for lazy people like me!  ;D

UncleBobRichard Cook, Guest ContributorNovember 02, 2011

We should really try a Warp Pipe Mario Kart match up.  Who's in?

CericNovember 02, 2011

Quote from: UncleBob

We should really try a Warp Pipe Mario Kart match up.  Who's in?

Maybe if I can find all my stuff.

Quote from: StrawHousePig

Oh wow, Warp Pipe and the LAN adapter. Never got a version of Warp Pipe to work right... something about the lappy I was using at the time... so long ago.

Never could get into PSO. Played it a few times but it seemed to mostly be people standing around chatting. No thanks. Plus it was a SEGA game and SEGA games *suck*!  ;D

That annoyed me about PSO.  When you found a group that wanted to play the game then it was great.  I'm glad the Monster Hunter Community isn't super chatty like the PSO one was.

Chozo GhostNovember 02, 2011

Quote from: MegaByte

The Wii U has USB ports, which is the modern version of expansion ports (unfortunately, Nintendo didn't do much with them on the Wii).

But you can't add more RAM to a system via a USB port, can you? Yet the N64 had an expansion port which allowed just that, and Nintendo released the RAM pack so it actually happened. It might not be a bad idea for Nintendo to include a port in the Wii U to allow the RAM to be expanded at some future point so that it can remain competitive against the PS4/420.

If that can be done via a USB port, then fine, but everything I know or think I know about USB leads me to believe it isn't really capable of that so some other sort of port is required.

Kytim89November 02, 2011

If the Wii U had a a spot for an internal HDD then it it would be the modern day equivalnet of the N64 memory expansion pack and port.

BlackNMild2k1November 02, 2011

Quote from: Kytim89

If the Wii U had a a spot for an internal HDD then it it would be the modern day equivalnet of the N64 memory expansion pack and port.

Wrong kind of memory expansion.

Chozo GhostNovember 02, 2011

What BnM said.

But I would also like to see a port or slot or drive bay or whatever you call it for an internal HDD to be added if the user so desires. I understand if Nintendo doesn't want to bundle a $50 HDD in the system by default in order to cut costs, but it would be nice if the option existed for users to add one in themselves. The PS2 was that way, so its not like that is unprecedented.

But yes, that is separate from the RAM which would be nice if that could also be upgraded later on.

CericNovember 03, 2011

Ram can't be added vi any cost effective standard connector, I think Infiniband and like is fast enough.

I have mixed feelings about RAM upgrades in consoles.  Harddrive style space is sort of a non-issue but, RAM starts diversifying the spec and makes moving targets for developers.

Chozo GhostNovember 03, 2011

Any game which would require a RAM upgrade could come bundled with the RAM upgrade. That's how it was with the N64 games which required the RAM Pak. I'm not sure how much a RAM module would cost, but hopefully it could be manageable.

CericNovember 03, 2011

Quote from: Chozo

Any game which would require a RAM upgrade could come bundled with the RAM upgrade. That's how it was with the N64 games which required the RAM Pak. I'm not sure how much a RAM module would cost, but hopefully it could be manageable.

That's partially it.  I mean Capcom is citing a slightly bigger cart for RE:Rev as the $10 premium reason.  Which is bull but, think if you had to pack in something else.  Not to mention if its popular we as gamers have 10 or so of them.  Not good for the environment.

In theory that's great but in Practice its Wii Motion+.

Chozo GhostNovember 03, 2011

Nothing wrong with Wii Motion+. Even if Zelda Skyward Sword alone were the only game to support it that would make it a success in and of itself. Wasn't Zelda one of the games on the N64 which required the RAM Pak? Considering the N64 Zelda games were top notch and regularly top the lists of the greatest games of all time, I'd say that makes the N64 RAM Pak a success even if absolutely no other game ever supported it.

Mop it upNovember 03, 2011

Didn't Sega teach us that add-ons are a bad idea, partly because they split the userbase? Adding anything significant to a system halfway through its market cycle just isn't a good idea. The N64 Expansion Pak and Wii Motion Plus are essentially just accessories, since only a handful of games actually require them. The Kinect and PSMove are a little more successful, but still aren't the new standard for those systems and haven't really gotten out of accessory status.

The only exception I can think of is the PlayStation's Dual Analogue and then Dual Shock controllers, but they were added before the system gained significant market share. There were also still few games that required them, so for people who bought one of the first systems they were not a necessity. This is also why the 3DS slide pad add-on may also work out, since it's happening early on and likely won't be required for just about everything.

Chozo GhostNovember 03, 2011

Quote from: Mop

Didn't Sega teach us that add-ons are a bad idea,

The way Sega did it was bad. The problem wasn't the addon itself or the idea, it was that it conflicted with the Saturn and competed with it which split Sega's resources and pissed off fans and developers alike. It should have either been the Neptune or the Saturn, but Sega released both and that was the problem. If it was just one or the other I think things would have turned out very differently.

Got a news tip? Send it in!
Advertisement
Advertisement