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The memory card holds a special place in my gaming heart. One of the evolutionary aspects of console games, memory cards pushed past the battery backup conundrum and allowed games to store larger amounts of information and push the onus of control to the player. Rather then forcing players to use passwords or restricting save points to “slots” on cartridge batteries (which die), memory cards allowed transportation of data between consoles and opened up a whole new world of innovative techniques and game elements.

With the venerable memcard losing ground to the hard drive, I’ll still look back on the little piece of plastic as one of the best parts of gaming for myself over the past decade in gaming. But before we can appreciate the memory card, we need to look at what used to exist before the system of portable storage was developed. We’ve come a long way, and it was definitely a rocky road.

The first interaction I had with memory cards was with the original Playstation. A little plastic card, it held a single megabyte of data, allowing you for the first time to store multiple save points from not only one game, but many different games. You could organize, delete and copy different save files between memory cards, as well as eventually store the “blocks” on PC for backup and trading. This was completely revolutionary technology, not only for consoles but for data storage in general.

Originally, games developed on cartridges were forced to use one of two types of a user’s information storage. The first, originally conceived on early 8-bit systems, involved providing complicated passwords, which could be up to 16-20 characters long. This system was generally hated, since it relied on complicated systems of password generation to save certain stats, such as items, which was why they tended to be long.

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Some games would only show the passwords for a little while, or only in particular circumstances. Sometimes passwords wouldn’t work at all when entered, forcing people to check magazines or asking friends. Unfortunately for developers, there were few other ways to allow players to save their progress, since cartridges didn’t allow the capacity for saving data onto the ROM chips. This was until until the NES was released in the late eighties.

Developers realized they could utilize a system similar to computer BIOS systems, where data could be saved on a small part of the ROM and avoided erasure by keeping it powered with a small battery. This “battery backup” system revolutionized how games were played. For the first time, players could enter information into the system, as well as have it stored once the system was turned off. Multiple players could now play through an adventure, with games like Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda, which would have been almost impossible to play before, were now easily possible.

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Battery Backup systems, though, were not perfect by any means. Batteries could fail at any time, making the save process completely useless, since it was very difficult to replace them. If the batteries or ROM were temporarily dislodged or bumped, the ROM could be erased, removing all of the data on the cartridge. What was the best option available, became strangled by a lack of available space to save data and reliant on a battery which could easily fail.

The Playstation’s memory card was almost essential from purchase. For the first time, all games were on CD-ROMs, which were impossible to write data to. If you wanted to save your progress, you needed to buy one of these things. But once you got it, you could instantly see the potential. Games like Gran Turismo allowed you to save an entire garage of modified cars, and even trade them with other players using their memory cards. Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid were able to store phenomenal amounts of information, and access it at a very fast rate on the fly.

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Eventually, you could purchase devices that allowed you to backup your save files on your PC, essentially making your storage capacity unlimited. You could “trade” saves with friends or strangers via websites/email in order to get certain items or reach certain levels. Storage was now global. What PC users had been able to do for a long time was now available, and portable.

Other systems took up similar systems of portable flash-ram storage and used it in different ways. The Dreamcast and PS2 used the card for authentication, allowing storage of system data and online settings, which for the first time also let a player personalize their console, simply by inserting a memory card. The ability to move your digital self around, before iPods and Laptops became the norm, was immensely satisfying.

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The Dreamcast took the memory card in an interesting direction with the VMU. What was essentially a memory card with an LCD screen, it allowed the player to view statistics from the game, as well as control it directly, organizing data and even playing some basic games uploaded from the original DC disc. Unfortunately, the VMU never really took off – aside from being very expensive, it became more of a gimmick. replicated briefly on the “Pocketstation”, a similar direct access memory unit that never made it out of Japan.

If you think back to the days when all of this was new tech, I’m sure you can remember a time you had to label your cards, and remember to take them around to friend’s houses. But once the Xbox came around, the new era of digital storage had truly taken hold. While the original box did have memory cards available, the predominant form of saving was the quite hefty inbuilt HDD that came included. Finally, consoles had caught up with the original king of expansion – The PC.

Nowadays, it’s all online. There’s no need to transfer saves, or bring them around to friend’s places. Generally, you’re more likely to add your profile to a friend’s system or throw your Mii on your remote if you go local. Times have changed, and thus, so has the evolution of the console storage saga ended gracefully.

So the next time your PS3 or 360 auto-saves seamlessly onto the SATA HDD stored inside the system, have a quick think back to the beginnings when it wasn’t as easy as an animated icon in the corner on the screen.

  1. Great article! I never realized how much I miss memory cards until I went back to play some old PlayStation games. It’s so satisfying to see that little icon with 100% completion on it staring back. It’s so much more tangible than an autosave feature. I’ve never been able to fully trust autosave features, either. I remember getting halfway through “Condemned,” and reloading just to find that my progress was gone.

    Have you had any corrupt data or lost memcard horror stories happen?

  2. I need to buy that PS2 Memory Cards—>PS3 HDD adapter. Thanks for reminding me!

  3. Good article! I remember my wanting to smash up my ol’ Saturn because, if you left it too long, the batteries would die in that, too, and all your hard-earned saves would evaporate into the pixelated afterlife.

    Portable memory reached its heady heights during the Dreamcast era, though. Personally, I loved the VMUs-you could even take them into the arcade and plug them into certain machines to load up your stats – plus they connected directly together without the console itself!

    The only real need for memory cards nowadays is if you want to take certain files to someone’s house and put them on their system or use saved stats against his/hers simultaneously.

  4. I really enjoyed looking through my memory cards and remembering the good times I had with the games on there.

  5. avatar CJ

    VERY impressive article…

  6. Nice! I love my Memory Cards. They were damn expensive but a really great thing. I don’t really know what it is but I like the look of them as well. It’s just like a big box of audio cassettes. I’m getting old…

  7. And just like Chris, I also need to get one of those adapter things.

  8. avatar JOKER PEN TRICK

    Don’t forget that the 360 never really ditched the memory cards with them being essential for core users such as myself who could not find a hard drive in the early six or so months after the machine launched, you can also use them on the demo units in stores to access unique stuff.

  9. avatar Izkata

    It is sad how the VMU never took off. We still have our Dreamcast and several working VMUs, and the Chao game from Sonic Adventure 1 was rather fun. I was the only one I knew who ever got my Chao to actually fly in the Sonic Adventure game – he was hell to track down once he started being in the air more than on the ground.

  10. avatar pkrockin

    The battery save did not allow multiple people to play through Final Fantasy – it only had one save slot.

  11. avatar NES Man

    You can’t bump a battery in a NES cartridge out of place. They’re soldered in place.

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