Using actual Famicom hardware, I wanted to recreate a piece of fan concept art as closely as I could. I'll be going over the history of the Famicom Disk System as I work through this project, and explain my own methods for beginners.
If I wanted to make Arne's concept art real using actual Famicom hardware, I needed to think hard about miniaturization and where space could be saved. Earlier revisions of the Femidom's main board were thankfully small and had a combined voltage regulator and RF modulator that was separate. By doing a composite mod and making my own power PCB for the drive and main board, I was able to save a huge amount of space. I chose to do it in an older point-to-point style for testing as well, which looks really artistic up close. I'll likely spin up a small PCB that can be soldered on under the points where the mod needs it.
The next obvious part to go was the large custom connector to make the horizontal PCB of the cart connector interface with the vertical cartridge slot. It was an absolute beast measuring 45mm tall with 60 pins made out of folded metal around an injection moulded spacer and holder. The connector seriously put up a fight with desoldering, and needed a combination of a desoldering iron, wick, low temp solder and a hot air rework station before it wanted to come off from the PCB. Keen-eyed viewers can likely see that even though I tried my hardest to be clean and careful, one trace did rip off in the process. Thankfully a short jumper wire was the only thing needed to restore it. I then added simple male pin headers with the idea of using a PCB to shift the adapter PCB more centre of the main board. In essence, I was making a little PCB sandwich that was a lot thinner than the original hardware.
I like to add PCB artwork where I can with projects, it can really make things feel more personalized or professional. My cartridge shift PCB seemed like the perfect blank canvas, so I added a small logo I noticed on Arne's concept art. PCB artwork is done by taking advantage of how circuit boards are made and how they have plate copper and several different kinds of coatings that define where solder go and also label where parts are. This board has female header pins on one side and then a card edge connector that matches the pitch of the cartridge slot.
While there could have been more elegant solutions to make it thinner still like reverse engineering and making a revised PCB, I thought this was a good balance between saving height and working within my own skills.
"The Nintendo way of adapting technology is not to look for the state of the art but to utilize mature technology that can be mass-produced cheaply."
Gunpei Yokoi was quoted as saying that in his book Yokoi Gunpei Game House. It was a philosophy that helped shape the Gameboy and was carried on to numerous future Nintendo consoles like the Wii or DS where well-understood and mature technology was used in new and novel ways. I'd like to believe this way of thinking was even used on Nintendo's earliest console add-on, the Famicom Disk System.
It was introduced in 1986, just as Nintendo fever had taken over Japan and was just starting in North America. The add-on used floppy disks - a well-understood format by then - to contain their games and boasted holding up to 128kb compared to the much smaller cartridges at the time. To entice gamers, disk games were sold at a cheaper price than their cartridge counterparts, and could even be rewritten at certain kiosks in stores. For a while, Nintendo seemed to think that floppies really were the future and released some of their biggest titles on the format like Metroid, The Legend of Zelda and Kid Icarus.
Don't copy that floppy!
Let's take a closer look at the floppy disks Nintendo used as well. Nintendo chose to partner with Mitsumi and use their Quick Disk format, which had previously been used on Roland and KORG sequencers to store tracks. Each of Nintendo's disks was branded with their name stamped on the bottom which served as a rudimentary form of copy protection since the stamped name needed to fit into an opposite piece inside the drive. The discs were also very colourful too and came in colours such as a bright yellow or a softer blue.
The disks were also unique since they were also in a sequentially read format instead of a random access one. Simply put, Nintendo's discs acted more like a tape cassette instead of the floppy disk we all know from earlier home computers of the era. The data is contained in one large spiral, and the read head only needs to go from one end to another instead of seeking it out. This means there are less complex mechanics inside where the head needs to know where it is in relation to where data is stored.
The floppy drive was then interfaced with the console using a RAM adaptor. It contains a special connector to fit in the cartridge slot, a small amount of additional RAM, along with an ASIC that handles the serial data and also some sound processing. There was a planned and added-on port to the RAM adaptor that was never used, perhaps it was intended to link consoles together for multiplayer like the Gamecube or Xbox could do.
Nintendo was also surprisingly forward-thinking with their Famicom Disk System. Since data like saves and high scores could be stored on the disk, the company thought of how to share them in unique ways. One example was a competition held with Mario Golf, where disk owners could go to the kiosk they purchased the game from and fax their high score to Nintendo and receive a special cartridge from them!
Unfortunately, as forward-thinking and unique as the Famicom Disk System was, technology becoming cheaper and piracy ultimately spelled the end of the add-ons life. Ghost 'N Goblins was released shortly after the add-on and boasted a 128k ROM on a cartridge format thanks to falling prices in storage. Piracy was also rampant for the system, and while Nintendo released revisions of the hardware to try and thwart pirates, it was ultimately a losing game. The system still went on to sell 4.4 million units and is still loved by many for the games it introduced.
Though, what if Nintendo had kept with the Famicom Disk System and their idea of storing games on floppy disks?
Arne, a self-taught artist, imagined such a future where Nintendo had partnered earlier with...