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Nintendo's Early DRM Was Simple (And Didn't Work)

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DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is in many ways the great scourge of modern gaming. Designed to limit the effects of piracy, it’s often more of a pain in the ass for paying customers than it is a hindrance to pirates.

It’s usually associated with PC games, but Nintendo is no stranger to it either. Back in the days when the practice was still known as “copy protection”, Nintendo had one of the simplest means of fighting piracy there was.


They used the Nintendo name itself.[jump]

In late 1985, Nintendo released the Famicom Disk System, an add-on for its popular home console (known in the West as the NES) that let users buy games that shipped on floppy disks. This had its benefits, in that you could enjoy bigger games (the original Zelda was a Disk System launch title), but for Nintendo, it also created a danger.


Unlike its expensive and proprietary game cartridges, floppy disks could be easily copied. So Nintendo had to come up with away to make sure that only paying customers could enjoy its games.

Its solution was a novel one, and one that only a console maker could really get away with: it stamped every game disk with a large, raised Nintendo logo. A recess for this logo was housed inside the disk drive of the console, meaning that unless a disk carried the logo and fit inside the drive bay perfectly, it wouldn’t “unlock” the game, and couldn’t be played.

In case anyone thought to crack open existing cases and insert copied disks inside the housing, Nintendo also added “functional limitations that ensured the data of one disk couldn’t be read in a single sweep, which a copier would require.”

Despite this, there was a means readily available to copy Nintendo disks: you just had to pay for the service. The company had over 3000 Disk Writers installed throughout Japan in 1985-86 that served as mechanical kiosks: customers could select a game and then insert a pre-purchased Nintendo disk, then watch as the machine wrote the code then dispensed the game for purchase.


Which all sounded great in theory. In practice, though, the disk system proved to be as susceptible to piracy as any other personal computer of the time, with workarounds quickly formulated that allowed people to copy games easily. The practice was so widespread that even magazines advertised how to do it, and products such as dedicated copying programs were relatively easy to get hold of.

While a problem, it wasn’t piracy that would eventually kill off the Famicom Disk System. It was instead undone by innovations increasing the memory capacity of regular cartridges. With the need for the disk’s extra storage space becoming irrelevant, and with the Famicom Disk System being an expensive add-on for the existing console, within three years of its launch it would be off the market entirely.


This story is just part of a great translation of a 1995 article detailing the history of the peripheral. To read more, head to the link below.

Part 9 – The Short-Lived Disk System [GlitterBerri]