Perhaps the most welcome quality-of-life improvement that modern gaming provides is the simplicity of saving one’s game. Players hate losing what they’ve worked on! It’s a fact. These days, people tend to get upset when a game doesn’t automatically save as they go. But when cartridge-based gaming reigned supreme, a proper save function was something of a luxury, especially way back in the 1980s. One of the earlier attempts at giving players a way to save and load games was the Data Recorder (HVC-008), released in 1984 by Nintendo for their Famicom system in Japan, the console that became the NES in Western markets.
Nintendo’s Data Recorder made use of compact cassette tapes, which had become an industry standard during this era for music and audio. The tech was really nothing new; home computers had made use of cassette tapes as a rewritable medium since the 1970s. In fact, there was functionally no difference in the Famicom Data Recorder and a typical audio cassette recording device, which were very common at the time.
So, how does it work? The same way old home computers made use of audio cassettes. The device is powered by four AA batteries or with a 6 volt adapter that can be plugged into the wall. It featured a built in speaker and two 3.5mm audio jacks, one for writing data (SAVE) and one for retrieving data (LOAD). These function exactly like a microphone input and headphone output do on typical cassette recorders. In fact, any cassette recorder with an input and output jack would work just fine in place of the licensed peripheral. When hooked up to the Family BASIC Basic keyboard (another console add-on exclusive to Japan), users can save their game by recording a set of tones sent from the console to the recorder. When they’re ready to load the game back up, it can play the tones back into the system, which is programmed to translate the sound and load data accordingly.
Lack of Support
Only four games were supported by the device: Excitebike, Mach Rider, Wrecking Crew, and Castle Excellent (later released in North America as Castlequest). In Excitebike and Mach Rider, users can create their own tracks, then save the tracks for later or to share using the Data Recorder. Similarly, Wrecking Crew includes a level editor, in which players can create their own levels to save and replay later. Conversely, Castle Excellent offers players a way to save their progress in this lengthy game.
All four of the supported games made it to North American audiences, but the Data Recorder did not. In fact, the device’s predecessor, The Famicom Disk System – which utilized floppy disk technology – was also stuck overseas, making the built-in save/load options for Excitebike, Mach Rider, and Wrecking Crew unusable on the NES. For Castequest (aka Castle Excellent), additional lives were included in the North American version to compensate for the lack of a save feature.
The Famicom Data Recorder is an interesting footnote to look back on. Its vintage aesthetic paired with the signature Famicom color scheme makes it a hot item for collectors. Unfortunately, however, it didn’t have the commercial impact Nintendo was hoping for. The requirement to have both the recorder and special keyboard certainly didn’t help its adoption rate, and the Famicom Disk System released in 1986 solved the issue of saving games by using rewritable floppy disks for the games themselves. As mentioned before, neither rewritable format made it to Western markets, so Nintendo opted to include batteries inside select NES cartridges (such as The Legend of Zelda), which allowed for saving progress. Although it was a short-lived experiment for Nintendo, it remains an intriguing relic of the era just before Nintendo began to dominate the video game industry.