The Strange History of the Nintendo Famicom

It’s safe to say that most of us have grown up with Nintendo. Many of us had a Nintendo Entertainment System in our homes or at least one of its descendants. We’re familiar with Mario and Luigi and the little gray box that put game consoles back on the shelves after the video game crash of 1983. Some of you are already aware that the Nintendo Entertainment System was the western branding of the Japanese Nintendo Famicom. But what is surprising is just how many differences there were between the two systems. In a time when console launches are often simultaneous and systems are near-identical between regions it’s strange to learn how the Famicom and the NES lead very different lives. The two consoles could have been creations from alternate timelines as each system had unique struggles, subtle game differences, hardware tweaks and unique peripherals. They each had their own strengths and drawbacks. Studying the Famicom‘s history gives an interesting overview of what could have been and what had changed between the system’s Japanese release and its North American launch.

The Nintendo Famicom had been launched a full two years before the Nintendo Entertainment System, launching in July of 1983 while the NES saw only a limited launch in October of 1985. Nintendo saw an opportunity to bring the Famicom to the North American market but in doing so it knew it had to make adjustements. Retailers had been burned by the video game crash and were reluctant to carry another game console. Additionally, Nintendo had learned a great deal from its experiences with the Famicom. A glut of low-quality software had plagued the system similar to what Atari had experienced leading to the crash. Games were also prone to piracy. This forced Nintendo to take additional measures to ensure their titles in the US were higher quality and as a result they included a lock-out chip on the NES and required companies pay a license fee. They restricted the number of games companies could release, enforced stricter quality control and required companies use Nintendo’s manufacturing facilities but the differences between the systems didn’t end there.

NES Prototype. Wireless controllers, build-in keyboard, tape deck.

Final Nintendo Entertainment System with controller.

The Nintendo Famicom was a different creature than the NES in terms of history, appearance and functionality. In fact the relatively tiny Famicom looks like an entirely different game console. The small plastic system looked more like a toy and carried design elements that were similar to the Game and Watch games that were popular at the time. The controllers were similar to what we got here with the familiar control pad, A and B buttons and Select and Start. They were red with a Game and Watch inspired gold face. The launch Famicom had square buttons made of the same soft plastic as the Start and Select buttons. Unfortunately those buttons were prone to catching and getting their corners caught under the outer plastic. Later consoles would use hard plastic round buttons similar to the NES controllers. In both cases the controllers were hard-wired to the system permanently with a relatively short cord. Each controller could also be stored in groves on the left and right of the system and the second controller had a built-in microphone – a feature that never made it to North America. There was an expansion port on the front used to support any peripherals like the light gun. Cartridges themselves were much stubbier than the NES counterparts, quite colorful and could be ejected from the console using a red eject button at the center of the system. Famicom cartridges were narrower too with a 60 pin connector vs the 72 found on an NES cartrige (so you can’t just slam a Famicom cartridge into an NES and get it to work without an adapter). Aside from these physical differences, the core CPU was identical.

Nintendo Entertainment System (left) vs Nintendo Famicom (right). The Famicom is dwarfed by it’s larger cousin.

Famicom cartridges were shorter than NES carts and often much more colorful. 

The Famicom console launched on July 15th, 1983 with a very modest selection of games – Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr. and Popeye (compared to 17 titles at the NES‘s release). There was no Super Mario Bros. to propel the Famicom’s initial launch and the system itself was a bit slow to gain momentum. Consumers could also purchase additional peripherals that were never saw release in North America. You could get a keyboard and tape deck for the system. Included with the keyboard was a BASIC programming cartridge allowing users to create and save BASIC programs. The tape deck could be also used to store game date like custom Excitebike tracks (the NES Cart has a Save and Load option in the game but neither work). There was a modem add-on used for banking, gambling horse races and the like and a 3D headset. Nintendo did develop a limited-release modem for the NES in conjuntion with Minneapolis-based company Control Data Corporation for use in playing the lottery but the device never went beyond a trial. The 3D headset was a commercial failure in Japan and for that reason never saw wider release.

Famicom BASIC with keybaord

Famicom Data Recorder. Excitebike was able to save user created tracks to the Data Recorder and the original North American NES release still has the Load and Save options but selecting them on the NES version of the game does nothing.

The two year gap between the launch of the Famicom and the NES is the source of a lot of the differences between systems. Nintendo learned a lot over the course of those two years and technology had improved greatly during that time. For starters, the early Famicom cartridges had a limited memory capacity. This meant more elaborate games were simply not possible at the time and Super Mario Bros. was the peak of what the cartridge could handle. As a result, Nintendo released the Family Computer Disk System (FDS) — a add-on floppy drive that used proprietary 3 inch floppy disks. The system attached by a cable to the to the cartridge port, required batteries and provided the system with additional ram and additional sound hardware featuring a single-cycle wavetable-lookup synthesizer. The disks themselves had the word “NINTENDO” pressed into them as a form of copy protection. The system would check for the impression and use that as a simple means to determine if the disk was a legitimate Nintendo disk. The FDS allowed games to be bigger, offered an additional sound channel and better audio sampling and allowed for players to save their games. For this reason, a number of Famicom Disk System games play and sound different from their NES counterparts including Zelda, Zelda II, Kid Icarus, Metroid and Castlevania II. In fact, games like Castlevania, Metroid and Kid Icarus all had the ability to save a player’s progress. Players weren’t forced to beat the game in a single play through in Castlevania nor did they need to write down long password strings like they did with Kid Icarus and Metroid. Consumers could also use special Disk Writer kiosks and either purchase a new game on a disk or overwrite an existing disk with a new game. It was an alternative to game rentals — which were banned at the time — and allowed users to copy games to their disks for an unlimited time and for a small fee.

Famicom Disk System attached to a Famicom. The system used batteries as it was believed that the wall outlet would likely already be occupied by the Famicom’s adapter and the TV plug. The Famicom Disk System Disks (Zelda shown) had the word NINTENDO recessed into the disk as a form of copy protection. Sadly most of the disks did not have a disk shutter to shield it from dust and dirt.

Playthrough of Dracula II: Noroi no Fuuin (Castlevania II) on the Famicom Disk System (Courtesy of Nintendo Complete with English annotation) showing load times, save states and musical differences.

So why didn’t we get a disk system here? For starters, reading data from a disk takes a bit of time. Not only would you have to wait for the system to read the disk data on load but you would also at times have to wait for data to load between game areas. You can see this pretty quickly in Zelda II after you leave the starting castle as you need to wait three to five seconds for the game to load the overworld. A Famicom Disk System game could span both sides of a disk — or multiple sides — requiring the user to take the time to eject the disk and reinsert the correct side. The disks themselves often didn’t have disk shutters which left the magnetic disk exposed to dust and dirt. The belt in the physical drive was also prone to failure over time and can be difficult to replace. Eventually the simple copy protection was bypassed by other companies as well resulting in additional piracy. Before long Nintendo had developed the MMC chip — special chips designed to extend the capabilities of the console and allowed games that far exceeded what the system was originally able to do. These chips meant that carts could now match and exceed what was capable on the disk system and do so in a much more reliable manner. Battery backups were also introduced allowing games like Zelda to have persistent save data. By the time the NES had launched, the Famicom Disk System’s time had all but passed and the Japanese market was turning back to cartridge based games and the additional functionality and reliability that the MMC chips provided.

Famicom Disk System book screen prompting the user to insert the disk and the Metroid save game screen. The North American release of Metroid would instead us a password system.

So while in Japan games like Zelda were released on a floppy disk, here in North America they were released on cartriges using one of the new MMC chips. This came with some benefits and some costs. These carts no longer suffered from load times and they were far less fragile than the disks. It also meant the loss of the additional sound channel that the Famicom Disk System provided and in some early cases meant games used a password system instead of save games.

This wouldn’t be the last time that North American consumers would miss out on enchanced sound. Third party companies also developed their own expansion chip sets that expanded what the NES could do. A few of these chips also provided additional sound channels – most notably the VRC6 used for Akumajo Densetsu (Castlevania III) and the Namco 163 chip used in Rolling Thunder. Nintendo’s NES licensing program required companies use only first-party hardware in its cartriges and as a result these games had to be converted to use one of Nintendo’s MMC chips. As a result, we lost out on the extra sound channels these third party chips provided. It’s a shame as Akumajo Densetsu (Castlevania III) has a mind-blowing score in it’s Famicom release but overall there were relatively few games that made use of these third-party chips, fewer yet that used the extra sound channels, and only a very small number that ever made it to North America.

Audio Comparison courtesy of Standard Definition Gaming

There were two other variations of the 8-bit Famicom console to appear in Japan. The first was the Sharp Twin Famicom which had a buit-in disk system. The second was the AV Famicom which was similar to the redesigned NES 2 and had NES style control ports and composite video output.

The Sharp Twin Famicom with build-in disk system and the AV Famicom/New Famicom with standard NES-style controller ports.

The gap of over two years between the launch of the NES and the Famicom gave Nintendo a chance to cherry-pick the NES’s launch titles and more importantly the system launched with Super Mario Bros. as its flagship title – a game that ecipsed everything that came before it. This allowed the NES to hit the ground running and prove it’s potential. Because the NES only saw limited release in 1985 and didn’t see a widespread release until a year later it made Nintendo second guess the release the sequel to Super Mario Bros in North America. The game — now known here as as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels — was released in 1986 in Japan for the Famicom Disk System. It was a fair bit more challenging than the original and was designed more as an extension to that game. Worried that it would be too difficult and alienate customers outside of Japane it never saw a release. Nintendo could have waited for Super Mario Bros. 3 to release and launch that as the sequel in the US but instead they retooled another game – Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic – into a Mario game and released it as Super Mario Bros. 2 in 1988 instead. Super Mario Bros. 3 would see a proper release in the US but it was held back almost two years after the Japanese release and launched in 1990. While the Super Mario Bros. games were not the only ones to see release date differences, theirs were probably the most significant.

Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic for the Famicom Disk System which was later converted into Super Mario Bros. 2 for North America.

It seems odd to think that the NES existed in a different form for over two years before it ever saw the ligth of day here. It’s strange to think that it didn’t have Super Mario Bros. for a good while after launch. It’s hard to immagine an 8-bit Nintendo with a microphone (it was only used for a hlf-dozen or so games), keyboard, tape deck or floppy disk drive. We’re generally pretty oblivious to the challenges the system faced — piracy and unlicensed games, hardware limitations — and some of the interesting quirks and accesories the the system had. But in the end the Famicom paved the way for the Nintendo Entertainment System which itself revived the dying console market and made Mario a household name.

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NES Prototype Photo – Photo By Russell Bernice and Chris Donlan (“Doonvas”), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31293613

NES Comparison Photo – By Bololabich – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59052453

All Other System Photos – By Evan-Amos – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38263611

Greg Grondin
Gregory Grondin is a full time Systems Analyst working for Mariner Innovations. He also works as a weight loss consultant for Weight Watchers and is part owner of Heroes' Beacon. You can follow his web comic series at http://www.spacepawdyssey.com

Greg is a fan of gaming and comics in general and an avid collector of Transformers figures.