Welcome back. I’m not going to ask you to try to imagine anything this time, because I’m not sure how many of you would be able to form a good picture. Instead, I’m just going to ask, how many of you are familiar with something called a ”cassette tape?” For those who don’t know what I’m referring to, this was a very common method for portable music playback decades ago. Suffice it to say, it has many limitations compared to modern technology. I won’t say anything more about that right now, because it ties into the specific topic that I would like to cover today. For now, let’s return to the era of the Famicom.
If you read the previous entry in this series (and assuming you didn’t know this previously), you might have realized that there was a time when saving your progress in a game wasn’t anywhere near as simple as it is now (self-imposed challenges notwithstanding). Some of the earliest games even lacked any sort of save system entirely (not that it really mattered, considering that these early games also tended to lack anything resembling plot). As such, as soon as the power was lost, so was all of your progress. As games got larger, the benefits of a save system became apparent, but memory was a rather expensive commodity. Some developers attempted to compensate by way of a password system, but this still required either manually writing down the password, or at least memorizing it to input it later. Nintendo came up with an alternative solution, utilizing cassette tapes, as well as a product known as the Famicom Data Recorder.
Other than a matching Famicom color scheme, the Data Recorder is really just your average everyday cassette player. Also, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t released with the sole purpose of saving game data. In fact, it was released as an “expansion module” you might say for another peripheral known as the Family BASIC, which was a keyboard attachment for the console. The Data Recorder can be used to store user generated programs. It’s also worth knowing that the keyboard was actually required in order to use the Data Recorder with the console: the Data Recorder can be connected to a couple of ports on the keyboard, which in turn connects to the expansion port on the console.
I know what you’re saying: this is all well and good, but I still haven’t explained how this thing can be used for saving game data. To do that, you must connect the Recorder to the console while playing one of four compatible titles (for example, Excitebike), make sure you have some data ready that can be saved (Excitebike allowed the saving of user-generated tracks), Press the Record/Play button on the Recorder, select the Save option in the game, and be sure to press Stop once the screen changes to inform you that saving is complete. To load data, select the in-game Load option, then play the tape until loading is complete.
This system may seem pretty interesting, but it has one major flaw (at least, I’m betting, by the standards of modern gamers) that will probably mean you will have no interest in using one: although the console is capable of reading data from the tape, it has no ability to automatically locate a particular section of data. This means that, somehow, the user must keep track of what data is stored on a given tape, and then be able to cue that tape to the proper location in order to be able to load anything.
Okay, so, the Data Recorder may not have been an ideal example of a system for saving data. Still, I think it’s a pretty interesting curiosity; especially considering how much was required in order to make use of it with the Famicom. If nothing else, it’s a reason to have a greater appreciation for the easier save systems we have today. I mean, when’s the last time you had to manually cue a hard drive?
Thanks for joining me for this look at peripherals of the past. Next time, I plan to finish up our look at Famicom era peripherals by taking a look at something that you might think would be more at home in a desktop computer than connected to a game console.