Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Cartridges? In MY Future? It's More Likely Than You Think.

So, it's been several years, and I haven't seen much that moved me to write up a nice big post, until recently.

The main speculation, and now rumor going around is that Nintendo's next console after the Wii U, currently code-named NX, might ditch the optical disk formats from the GameCube, Wii and Wii U generations in favor of cartridges or game cards like their handhelds have always used. As the title suggests, when I take what I know into consideration, not only do I think it's possible, but it's also very likely. I'll even take my own guess as to just what kind of physical storage would be plausible on both the NX console and its games, given Nintendo's prior hardware offerings.

Why it makes sense

For the TL;DR crowd out there, there are 3 major factors, and several minor ones that favor a return to cartridges as game medium of choice:

  1. Nintendo's reluctance to give up on cartridges,
  2. Optical disc limitations, and
  3. Improvements in solid-state storage.

So, for each main point, I'll go into further detail.

1. Nintendo's reluctance to give up on cartridges

As any gaming historian will tell you, Nintendo was the last of the major gaming hardware companies to move to optical media for titles. While this arguably hampered the acceptance of the Nintendo 64, allowing Sony to rise to prominence and dominance with its PlayStation line, this tendency may well serve them well should the NX use a cartridge or equivalent.

I can't really discuss this further without hitting the other two main points, so lets get those out of the way first.

2. Optical disc limitations

Here's where we get into contentious territory.

Put bluntly, optical discs as a storage medium are nearing the limits of their capacity. This is not a slight against the great minds that develop these formats, but simply an acceptance of the laws of physics. There is only so much physical space available on a piece of plastic 120mm in diameter, with a 15mm diameter hole in the middle of it.

To understand how we went from being able to store 650MB of data to 25GB of data in the same amount of physical space, we have to understand, at least, in a simple manner, how a disc is laid out physically. In simplest terms, the amount of data that can be stored depends on both the width of the single 'groove' spiraling around the disc, and the space within each groove that can accept a pit or a land. Compressing both of these dimensions is what has allowed CD-ROM's laughable limitations (compared to today) to advance to Blu-Ray's capacity in the same amount of physical space.

The bottleneck, however, is mechanical. The laser housing that reads the disc can only realistically move reliably in increments of only so much. What's happened to double the Blu-Ray capacity to 50GB was simply adding a second layer of pits to the disc. This in turn opens up a new failure point for readers. After all, the Wii's Super Smash Bros. Brawl used a dual-layer disc, and it was famous for highlighting the inability for some Wii consoles to read it.

The other consideration is something known as error correction. When data needs to be read properly, minor defects in the disc at the microscopic level could be catastrophic to sensitive information if error correction wasn't applied. Therefore, there needs to be some way to ensure the data is read the same way, every time, even outside a sterile clean room. In short, a complex mathematical equation handles this, and most reading errors are caused by the reading hardware, and not the disc itself.

A cartridge-based solution sidesteps this problem entirely.

3. Improvements in solid-state storage

Finally, we've come a long, long way from 2001 when it concerns solid-state storage capacity.

In the Nintendo 64, PlayStation and Saturn era, game cartridges topped out at 64MB of space. At the time, CD-ROM held 650MB at a minimum.

Today, however, you need only look to your 64GB SD card to see the progress that's been made since then. Capacity has exploded, and prices have free-fallen.

To illustrate this, just recently, an electronics chain with a local location sent me a set of coupons; one for myself, and four extras to pass to anyone I wanted. For myself, they offered a 32GB solid-state piece of storage hardware, in my choice of USB drive, SD card or MicroSD card. The end price? $0.00. Absolutely free. The pass-along coupons were good for 16GB in the same forms. Hell, to even purchase them would only have set me back $7.00 and sales tax. And this isn't ROM, this is read/write memory. I could put the entire contents of a to-capacity single-layer Blu-Ray disc onto this, and have space left over.

Since the Wii U uses a proprietary version of the single-layer Blu-Ray format, its games top out at 25GB of data, but few, if any, titles actually reach this capacity limit. Xenoblade Chronicles X comes closest, at 22.7GB. Titles might also include post-launch DLC, currently stored on internal flash memory.

Even then, a single 32GB ROM chip would handle pretty much any title thrown at it between now and 2023, and if space were to become an issue, it's not much of a stretch to think Nintendo wouldn't get 64GB chips, or provide a secondary 'slot' that could make up the extra space a larger game could need.

Optical Disc vs. Cartridges, Round 2

So here, it's time to assess which is better come the NX launch in mid-2017. It's time to debate like it's 1999 again, except the outcome is much, much different.

Again, there are three major reasons, listed here in case you want to skip ahead to my guess as to how the NX may deal with storage, and expanded upon below:

  1. Access time,
  2. Durability, and
  3. Ease of use

1. Access time

Let's face it. Optical discs, and even platter-based hard drives, are slow.

Every gamer in the early CD days can recall the various 'Now Loading' screens that fractured their gaming experiences. This is because the game needs to read the data off a spinning disc, catch the area where the data is stored, and read from it into the console's RAM. There was only so much data that could be held in the RAM at any given time, and even though adding more RAM, and solutions such as fetching data ahead of time when possible, or installation to a faster solution such as a hard drive mitigated it, the spinning disc remains the bottleneck for data transfer speed.

This speed limit is enforced, once again, by physics. After a certain number of revolutions per minute, a CD, DVD or Blu-Ray disc will explode. Since even automated manufacturing processes will have minor imperfections, the RPM speed is clamped to where no disc should ever disintegrate outside of severe defects. But every microsecond more it takes for the disc to reach the laser is another microsecond not spent loading new data.

In contrast, cartridge-based access times are as fast as the console can get the signal from the chip. Only individual titles can cause delays in data access.

This is not to say, however, that cartridge-based titles can't suffer from loading times. One must only look to the Super Nintendo to find a couple notable examples.

First, and most notably, is the Super Nintendo port of Capcom's Street Fighter Alpha 2. This was a very ambitious port of a CPS2 arcade fighter to the platform, and included the S-DD1 chip in the cartridge, which compressed the graphics to such an extent that every round had a several-second load time at the beginning. Even then, there had to be many things dropped (not even the 'top-end' ports to the PlayStation and Saturn were arcade-perfect) just to squeeze this title onto a 16-bit cartridge.

Another is Takara's port of SNK's Fatal Fury. This one's decompression times are much shorter than the ones found in Alpha 2, but are marked by a black screen with the text 'WAITING!'. I can only assume this was caused by Takara either wanting to get as much graphical detail from the Neo Geo original onto the SNES cart, or using an un-optimized compression format.

Note here, though, that in both cases, the console itself is executing its code as fast as it can. It's the game's code that introduces this loading. And further, both of these titles are ones written by a 3rd party.

In contrast, Nintendo's compression formats, while effective, are also highly optimized. The late Satoru Iwata himself was famously able to give Game Freak's programmers enough space on the Game Boy cartridge, not only to finish the Johto region of Pokémon Gold and Silver, but also to include the entire Kanto region, thanks to his compression expertise.

2. Durability

Here again, cartridges, with a few exceptions that have been overcome, simply outlast optical discs. Further, cartridge readers, i.e. the console itself, significantly outlast optical disc-reading consoles.

The first difference is one any engineer should know: Any moving part is a potential failure point. Consoles that use optical discs have many moving parts. Consoles that use cartridges have none.

Here's the most common issues regarding optical disc media:
  • Laser becomes unfocused
  • Laser loses power
  • Laser housing stops moving
  • Drive doesn't spin
  • Tray doesn't open properly
  • Disc get misaligned and scratched
  • Data cable moves improperly and scratches disc
  • Laser rubs disc and causes scratches
  • And others
Depending on the issue, They can render the console inoperable, or cause your discs to become scratched to the point they become unplayable, even on a known good console. For a title that costs $60 new, that's not an appealing situation as a gamer.

Granted, better technology has reduced these issues, but it hasn't eliminated them. I personally am currently the owner of a Wii U console that will only recognize and play Wii titles. I have a Wii purchased in 2008 sitting next to it (which does still read discs). The Wii U, then, is essentially useless to me until it's either repaired or replaced.

I can, however, pull my Super Nintendo out of the box it's in, hook it up to the TV, put a cart in, and play. So long as there exists a way to get the video signal to the monitor, this will be true today, or even 20 years in the future.

There is one shortcoming to older cartridge-based games, and that's battery-backed save data. Over time, the battery will run out of power to hold the data safe, and saved games will no longer be retained until it is changed, which is not an easy process.

This issue, however, has already been overcome. DS and 3DS game cards that write saves to the card use a small amount of writable flash memory, which doesn't require any power to retain. This is what Nintendo would use on the NX carts, so it's no issue at all.

3. Ease of use

There is no way, without brute force, to improperly insert a cartridge into any console past the NES.

It is, however, very possible to insert a disc upside down. There is no physical prevention mechanism in place to stop this. It's not very likely, but there's a saying that you can never go broke underestimating human intelligence. It has happened before, and will happen again.

Wherein I put on my robe and wizard hat

So, how do I see the NX using its internals as far as memory goes? In order to do that, we need to look at their history.

Nintendo has always kinda done their own thing, or their own take on what the rest of the industry does. XBox 360 and PS3 went with hard drives, Wii went with very limited internal storage (512MB). Ditto for Wii U (8GB or 32GB) vs. PS4 and XBox One.

Because of this, I fully expect Nintendo to keep their primary storage to a minimum again, no more than about 64GB maximum (and I expect they may even back down to 16GB if I'm wholly correct) of NAND. I'm not sure what that's an acronym for, but it's the internal flash storage for the Wii, Wii U and 3DS, and likely the DS. It holds the hardware's operating system, and in the Wii and Wii U's case, downloaded titles.

Should the NX use carts again, I can easily imagine the carts having their own area of writable storage where game patches and DLC could be kept. Putting the DLC on the cart itself would not interfere with per-user licensing of titles as we know them now, because the NAND could be limited to holding the OS and the tickets that allow content to be used in gameplay.

But what's a 'ticket'? It's a very small file already in use on the Wii, Wii U and 3DS that tells the console 'This hardware can download X data from the Nintendo servers'. It's what allows you to re-download things you have already purchased. It's also why Nintendo is so keen to keep on top of attacks on the hardware, because forged tickets can let users download legit titles for free.

However, updates seem to be handled well on Nintendo hardware. You can usually download patches and extra content even if the game isn't in the drive or slot. If these updates go to the NX carts, how do you solve this problem?

I envision a secondary storage space, quarantined from the NAND, that would act as a temporary holding space for game updates until written to the cart. Perhaps this could be as large as 32GB itself. Remember, the purpose of this memory isn't long-term. It's more transient, being freed up as game updates are written to NX carts.

But then again, there's also digital distribution to consider. There's no physical card to use, so what then? My guess is they'll do what Wii does unofficially, and Wii U does officially, and use an external hard drive. Sure, it'll be slower than the carts, but if they used USB 3.0, the speed is negligible, especially on a solid-state drive (and Nintendo could even recommend that for best performance).

Here's my guesses, based on these factors:
  • NAND: 8-16GB (yes, they might even go as low as 8GB)
  • Internal Storage: 32-64GB
  • Carts: 32+GB, with 8-16GB writable
  • USB 3.0 port for connecting SSD
It's possible I'm way off, but these are the numbers that make the most sense to me, given Nintendo's path in the past.

This might be a contentious post, or it may be agreed with completely. whatever the case, feel free to respond, as long as it's civil and on-topic.