Nintendo announced the next leap at the very same trade show that unveiled their Password Paks. The Legend of Zelda, already available in Japan on floppy disk, would be coming to North America on a cartridge. Instead of passwords, it would feature the same true saving system as its Japanese counterpart. Nintendo pulled this off with a clever piece of engineering: inside of the cartridge was a small, long-lasting battery that effectively tricked the game into thinking it was never turned off, allowing it to store progress for up to three different gaming sessions.
The Legend of Zelda wasn’t the first battery-backed cartridge or even the first game to use a battery backup, but it was still a major leap forward. Previous battery-backed cartridges required gamers to insert their own AA batteries, making the cartridges awkward and heavy. The Legend of Zelda, on the other hand, just seemed like an ordinary game.
Nintendo had originally planned to bring their disk drive add-on to consoles around the world, but the Legend of Zelda—a marquee disk title just the year before in Japan—ended up being the the final nail in the coffin for the add-on instead. The Nintendo Disk System had initially been developed to provide more space for larger games and the ability to save a player’s progress as they went, but advances in cartridge technology rendered them obsolete within the year. Cartridge capacities had grown ever larger, and with the advent of battery-backed saving, both of the disk’s major innovations had made their way to vanilla consoles.
Over the next few years, both passwords and batteries would grow in popularity. At first, passwords were the go-to solution for simple progression, with batteries reserved for more complex adventure and role-playing games. But as the 1980s bled into the 1990s, battery-backed saving became more commonplace. Of the five launch titles for Nintendo’s second North American home console, two would feature battery-backed saving.
Cartridges had successfully fended off the threat of obsolescence once before, but at the dawn of the decade, they faced a new challenge: CD-ROMs. First available to Japanese console gamers with NEC’s 1988 add-on for their PC Engine console (North America’s TurboGrafx-16), the technology started going mainstream in the West with Sega’s 1992 add-on for their much more popular Genesis console. Games on CD-ROM offered a tremendous leap in storage capacity, hundreds of times larger than any cartridge of the day, but had an Achilles Heel—they had no way to store a player’s progress. Unlike cartridges, which were flexible enough to incorporate innovations like battery-backed saving within their hard plastic shells, CDs were just CDs. There would be no clever new add-ons within.
The solution? To keep using cartridges, sort of. Both NEC and Sega included memory for save games into their CD-ROM consoles, but Sega went a step further by also introducing their CD Back Up RAM Cart, which not only increased the space available for saved games, but also made it possible for players to bring their save games over to other consoles when visiting their friends. The Back Up RAM Cart effectively took the battery-backed saving technology of the Legend of Zelda and put it in a cartridge all by itself, sans game.
Image: Nintendo 64 Controller Pak, Sega Saturn Backup cartridge, Sony PlayStation memory card. (Not shown to relative scale.)