Digital Distribution Could Learn from Nintendo’s Disk Writer Kiosk

A few weeks ago, I saw the Retro Game Master movie, half of which took place in 1986 Japan. In the film, the characters are often seen visiting a game store—a store complete with one of the coolest things Nintendo ever created, the Nintendo Disk Writer Kiosk.

In 1986, Nintendo released an add-on to the original Famicom (the NES in the West) called the Famicom Disk System. Attaching to the Famicom through a special cartridge, the Famicom Disk System allowed people to play games off of special floppy disks.

These disks had much more space and, for the first time, allowed players to save their games. Many popular Nintendo titles were released first on the Famicom Disk System, including The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Doki Doki Panic (which after some sprite swapping would become the Western version of Super Mario Bros. 2). But perhaps the coolest thing about the Famicom Disk System was its in-store counterpart: the Famicom Disk Writer Kiosk.

You see, back in 1984, renting games basically became illegal in Japan—a sad state of affairs that has not been reversed even to this day. Thus, the only way to play a game was to buy it. For Japanese kids in the 80s, buying games was a costly proposition—even though Famicom Disk games only cost 2600 yen (about $16.89 in 1986).

So in 1986, alongside the Famicom Disk System, Nintendo began sending out Famicom Disk Writer Kiosks to game stores across Japan. These kiosks allowed you to take a previously purchased Famicom Disk game—and for the low price of 500 yen (about $3.25 in 1986)—it would erase your old game and put a new game of your choice on the disk.

To use it, you would simply tell the store staff. They would then open the case and put the master cartridge in one slot and your disk in the other. During the disk rewriting process, you could even watch a cute pixel animation video of Mario and Luigi creating your new game.

This service proved more than a little popular and some exclusive titles were only ever released through Famicom Disk Writer Kiosks. In fact, the Famicom Disk Writer service continued in Japan until 2003 when the kiosks were finally removed from stores.

Today, the Disk Writer may be long gone, but its business model—somewhere in between rental and trade-in—is more than a little interesting when thinking about the future of the digital distribution of games. Imagine if you could buy a game off of the Wii U shop channel (or PSN/XBL for that matter). Then, after playing it, you were able to permanently delete it off your drive and download a different game at a massive discount. I’ll tell you one thing, that’d be a service I’d be dying to try out.

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