Nintendo’s handheld console upgrades were so common for so long you could practically set your watch by them: the leap from Game Boy to Game Boy Color via the Pocket; the GBA’s evolution from its original battery powered form to the blazing intensity of the Micro’s beautiful screen; the more recent range of DSis, XLs and New!s. And even now those Switch Pro rumours just won’t go away.
What’s often forgotten is all the effort poured into the company's home hardware while this was going on; expanding their capabilities, designing new storage mediums, creating specialised services and releasing exclusive titles that capitalised on the raw power and fresh opportunities lurking within the base console’s shiny new attachment. It was all very impressive with only one slight drawback — most of these accessories never left Japan.
Still, that’s never stopped Nintendo Life, has it? Join us now for a brief tour of Nintendo's home console add-on hardware, courtesy of the company that practically invented the half-step console upgrade.
Famicom Disk System (1986)
This 1986 expansion is perhaps the most well known of Nintendo's import-only hardware trilogy, adding a super-stylish floppy disc drive underneath the Famicom’s classy white and red shell. The titular discs came not in standard computer style packaging but thick Nintendo-ised cases and were capable of holding a whopping 112KB of rewritable data, allowing players to store their progress directly on the disc itself and saving them from having to laboriously copy lengthy passwords by hand (and saving publishers from having to manufacture expensive cartridges with extra chips and battery powered save slots).
Less immediately obvious than the new storage medium was the additional RAM and extra sound channel the Disk System brought to the Famicom, and what this meant for games created with this add-on in mind. In the '80s, games used to be so small and so densely packed that code had to be shuffled around and programs would literally fall from one line straight into the next, memory at such a premium the instant an enemy was off screen it ceased to exist. It’s a small miracle we ever got any games at all. The Disk System's combination of double-sided disc space and extra RAM gave game designers a little more room to breathe, to think bigger... and to create titles like The Legend of Zelda.
These games would — for the most part — be reworked and re-released later on Famicom/NES cartridges at a time when the cost of manufacturing beefier carts was deemed more reasonable (part of the reason why the Famicom Disk System was never released outside its homeland). Most survived the transition relatively intact, although there's something to be said for the richer soundscape of the FDS and the hardware's innate ability to save your progress. Some might say on the Famicom Disk System.
Notable Famicom Disk System games to consider:
The changes between the disc and cartridge versions of Metroid, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Castlevania, etc., as well as the complete do-over Yume Koujou Doki Doki Panic famously received to transform into Super Mario Bros. 2 make those versions worth tracking down for big fans of those early Nintendo classics- Also consider looking at the likes of Konami’s Esper Dream, the Famicom Detective Club games (in preparation for their Switch remakes), and inventive musical shmup Otocky.
Sandwiching the user’s Super Famicom between a base unit and a unique BS-X cartridge, 1995’s premium-feel Satellaview brought online gaming to Nintendo's 16-bit console, but not quite as we know it today.
In conjunction with St.GIGA, a Japanese satellite radio company, the hardware allowed paying subscribers to download games (either onto the system itself or onto an 8Mb Memory Pak slotted into the required BS-X cartridge), access magazines, news, and enter competitions. Downloaded games could be anything from visually updated Famicom classics and short minigames to true exclusives and full-length RPGs; some were even episodic “SoundLink” releases — a thrilling mix of traditional game data paired with live-streamed audio only available at set hours of the day in a specific time window (reruns were sometimes broadcast at a later date for those that missed them the first time around).
Notable Satellaview games to consider:
Sadly, most of us aren’t going to get to play Satellaview games these days without the help of a search engine and a SNES emulator — and unfortunately the live-streamed audio of the SoundLink titles is presumed lost forever. It’s worth spending a few moments lamenting the loss of Squaresoft’s Chrono Trigger-related adventure Radical Dreamers, BS F-Zero Grand Prix, Kirby’s Toy Box, and BS Fire Emblem.
After many years of worldwide speculation and trade show teasing, Nintendo finally released the 64DD for the N64 in 1999. Another under-the-console affair, the online-capable Japan-only accessory utilised pleasantly chunky rewritable discs able to store a massive 64 MB of data and even featured an internal clock, enabling games to potentially alter depending on the time of day.
Unfortunately, for all the time and money spent creating it (not to mention organising the Randnet online service that went with it), this is one import-only add-on that really struggled to justify its existence. A mere ten discs (not even ten games) were officially released for the 64DD, so it’ll be no surprise to learn the system came and went without leaving a mark on the gaming landscape. As many will know, the much talked about “Ura Zelda” expansion of Ocarina of Time didn’t end up on the format at all. The unusual Doshin the Giant is infinitely more accessible on the GameCube, and even if its 64DD expansion disc Kyojin no Doshin: Kaiho Sensen Chibikko Chikko Daishugo somehow turned out to be indisputably the greatest game of all time, it would still be incredibly difficult to justify spending the large sums of money needed to play it.
Notable 64DD games to consider:
The Mario Artist trilogy — Polygon Studio, Paint Studio, and Talent Studio — are a great showcase of the hardware’s potential, allowing users to create their own 3D models, 2D drawings, and animations respectively. The mouthwatering F-Zero X Expansion Kit offers an alternative window into an editable gaming world, working in conjunction with the original F-Zero X cart to enable users to create their own courses, and their own vehicles to use on them, too.
Oh, and SimCity 64. Um, that’s honestly pretty much everything. Sorry.
But what about the West?
The import-only status and slightly ephemeral nature of the three mentioned above may make them irresistible to lovers of the esoteric and committed hoarders of retro (finding readable Famicom Disk System games is only getting toughter with the passing of time), but to focus solely on those Japan-only achievements would mean forgetting that Nintendo’s very best hardware add-ons were available in all territories. Namely, the SNES’ Super Game Boy and the GameCube’s Game Boy Player.
They’re not especially fancy, or rare (although finding a Game Boy Player that comes with the required disc can be an expensive endeavour), and by design they don’t even let you play anything you don’t already own — but they’re perfect.
Thanks to these unassuming devices we got to see Super Mario Land’s tiny sprites freed from the original Game Boy’s smeary screen, play Pokémon as a home console game years before it officially became one, and tense up as Metroid Fusion’s SA-X walked onto a living-room-sized screen. And this is before we even mention the extra features, such as the Super Game Boy’s beautiful title screens, decorative borders, single-screen multiplayer support for Killer Instinct or the Takara-published ports of various SNK fighters. Wario Blast: Featuring Bomberman! and Bomberman GB even went as far as to support multitap multiplayer if played using a Super Game Boy.
By comparison, the Game Boy Player’s ability to make GameCube controllers rumble when used with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Super Mario Advance 4, and Pokémon Pinball: Ruby & Sapphire (and more) felts a little less exciting, but no less welcome. Given the requisite hardware and copies of games, it was entirely possible to use link cables and play multiplayer titles on separate TVs.
This was a rare occurance due to the amount of kit and the sizeable investment required, but it was neat feature nonetheless.
Notable Super Game Boy and Game Boy Player games to consider:
Every Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance game you own — every last one of them! It’s like playing them for the first time all over again. Just don’t try to play the accelerometer-controlled Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble cartridge using either add-on, for obvious reasons.
Do you own any of these add-ons or accessories — or any others? Do you wish you did? Let us know in the comments below!