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The Nintendo 64 was released in 1996. Its "Controller Pak"s, which was the name of the memory card that you put inside the controller to save the progress in certain games, require a battery for them to retain the data. It can be seen in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Su1Yr6rzmxE

If and when the battery runs out of power, or breaks down, or is removed, the save files are gone forever. In other words, it uses the kind of primitive "battery memory" that was also used in game cartridges starting with Zelda for NES in the 1980s.

However, the Sony PlayStation, released in 1994 in Japan, also had memory cards which had no batteries inside them, as proved by this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yf5u1Jvvrkc

So, if Sony was able to do this two years earlier, why did Nintendo still opt for this archaic hardware design? Clearly, "persistent flash memory" (as I believe it's called) was quite invented and available. I actually always assumed that there were no batteries in the Nintendo 64 "Controller Pak" memory cards.

The price seemed to be roughly the same for both.

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    Because they were designed differently by different people who had different ideas? All engineering is like that; there is no single solution. Any answer to this must surely be a matter of opinion., guessing what was in the designer's head. Dec 21, 2021 at 13:18
  • Nintendo be like: "We have done it this way for years and it works okay. Don't change it."
    – Arsenal
    Dec 23, 2021 at 9:20

1 Answer 1

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Most likely different acrchitecture comes from idea how memory cards will/should be used and what are the available interfaces to access them.

The PS memory cards do have flash memory, but the bus to the memory card is serial SPI compatible bus. The used memory chip is AT29LV010 which has 128 kilobytes of flash with parallel interface. Therefore to connect it to a serial bus there seems to be microcontroller doing the translation. Anyway, the Flash can't be accessed arbitrarily, it has 1024 blocks of 128 bytes, and even writing a single byte means a whole 128 byte block must be erased and reprogrammed, and it takes 20 milliseconds to do that, and typical endurance for a page is "only" 10000 erase/program cycles so the filesystem area may wear out after a couple of years of use.

The N64 memory card just uses 32 kilobytes of battery backed-up SRAM, Toshiba TC55257 series. The card has a parallel memory bus so the chip can be directly be used on the bus with no extra electronics. It means that any memory location can be individually changed extremely quickly and there are no delays or limitations of wearing out menory cells. There is simply a power switching chip of some kind and the SRAM only consumes 0.3 microamps in low power standby mode. As the CR2032 battery has 235mAh it means the SRAM could run for 89 years but the battery self discharge will be much faster.

So it might have just been more convenient and cheaper to make a simple battery backed up SRAM card using good old technology with new chips that consume very little battery. If it is good enough and does the job as specified then why do something differently.

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    So basically, the PS cards, while lasting forever if not used, wear out quicker if you write a lot to them, whereas the N64 ones can be overwritten indefinitely as long as the battery doesn't run out?
    – Jacon
    Dec 21, 2021 at 18:19
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    Yes, except for the forever part. Flash chips could be rated to retain data in the order of 10-20 years at some elevated temperature, so in practice it could be more than 20 years at normal temperatures.
    – Justme
    Dec 21, 2021 at 20:14
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    @RedwolfPrograms maybe. But the idea that someone would want to hold on to save files for decades was probably not in the water supply in the mid 90's. I mean, I've been playing console RPGs since the first Dragon Warrior for NES, meaning I had almost a decade of them under my belt by that point, and I still wouldn't have guessed that I'd still have/care about those save files in my mid-forties. I'm guessing even if they'd thought of that it would have been dismissed as overkill. Dec 22, 2021 at 3:17
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    @Redwolf That's very similar how many modern SSDs and HDDs work for various reasons. It does come with a lot complexity though.
    – Voo
    Dec 22, 2021 at 11:20
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    Not to mention that battery-backed RAM is not only more durable than flash, but also an order of magnitude (or two) faster.
    – Jeffiekins
    Dec 23, 2021 at 5:21

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