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The way I understand it, Nintendo's engineers couldn't figure out how to design a disk system for the SNES, so they commissioned Sony to do it for them. Why would Nintendo do this if they already had this technology in the Famicom (which had a disk system)?

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The two disk systems' technology were completely different.

The Famicom's disk system used a magnetic-storage floppy disk, which (according to Wikipedia) had a total capacity of 112 kilobytes (56kB per side). These were also known as Super Disks. Even when launched in 1986, this was relatively small: since 1984 IBM's PC-AT could store 1.2MB on a 5 1/4" floppy.

When Nintendo approached Sony to design a CD-based expansion for the Super Nintendo, they were looking at a medium that could hold hundreds of megabytes of data, potentially including in-game audio and video tracks. The data format developed for this add-on was confusingly known as Super Disc, but the underlying technology bore no similarity to the Famicom's add-on.

As to why Nintendo chose to work with an external company to develop a CD-based system, that is another matter entirely. It is notable that Sega developed such an add-on (known as the Sega CD or Mega-CD) in-house, and it was successfully manufactured and sold worldwide, though the games for it met with mixed reviews.

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    They also went to SGI to develop the N64; I'm not sure Nintendo was overflowing with hardware talent beyond sprites and tiles.
    – Tommy
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 19:08
  • @tommy shots fired
    – Badasahog
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 19:18
  • I don't have a citation, but I remember reading once that it went like this: "Sony Engineer has an 'I could do so much better' moment listening to his son's Famicom. Convinces boss to propose the SPC700 chip to Nintendo. Contract negotiations lead to an 'OK, we'll make and sell you the SPC700 and, in exchange, you'll work with us on a CD-ROM add-on.' exchange." (And then Nintendo sabotaged it on the business side because the agreement would have given Sony all the royalties for any disc games or something to that effect.)
    – ssokolow
    Commented Jan 1 at 9:44

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