Meet the VHD, a failed LaserDisc competitor and the biggest damn floppy disk ever

Joseph Redon holding the VHD game Road Blaster (Image credit: Future)

The VHD makes the 3.5-inch floppy look like a disk for ants. "Big" doesn't do it justice. There are entire computers today smaller than this beast. It's all disk, no flop. If the classic '90s floppy is the main thing you picture when you think of pre-CD storage, the VHD probably looks like a comically jumbo cardboard Best Buy standee. But it's very real, and one of the coolest failed storage mediums to come out of Japan's '80s tech boom.

Strip off the VHD's plastic shell, and what you'll find on the inside is, believe it or not, vinyl. As in, like, vinyl records. LPs. The same stuff that was dying, in the 1980s, as the CD took over the music industry. That vinyl disc is actually used to store video—hence the format's full name, Video High Density—at a quality even better than the LaserDisc, which was the hot shit at the time for movie buffs with money to spend on cutting edge home theaters. 

"It wasn't very popular or famous," says Joseph Redon, who runs the non-profit Game Preservation Society in Japan. "It was not used by anyone but people who were looking for quality. They were using VHDs."

I spent a day with Redon at his archive in Tokyo, which houses an extensive collection of Japanese PC games he's on a mission to preserve before they disappear. Along with an assortment of retro PC hardware, Redon has an unopened VHD player—a stereo receiver-sized attachment for an MSX PC—in his archive, along with several VHD disks. Because, naturally, the VHD's video capabilities were too good to be limited to movies. It was used for games, too.

"You hook the VHD Player to the MSX, so you can superpose the video to a program," Redon explains. "You need the program and you need the video. This cassette"—he gestures to a cassette tape, in the box alongside VHD game Road Blaster—"is the program. Road Blaster was very famous in arcades at this time. There is a movie, and then you have the program, which asks you to make an action at a certain moment, with certain timing. If you succeed, the video continues. If you fail, game over."

If you aren't familiar with 80s PCs, they often loaded programs into memory from analog cassettes. Hell, we're actually still using magnetic tape for some high-density storage. This is how most VHD games worked. They'd essentially be like LaserDisc games—with the novelty factor of incredibly high quality video (trying to) make up for game design that was limited to harsh quicktime events. They were Japan's take on Dragon's Lair.

This wasn't the original use case for the VHD, of course. "It was for watching movies. It was not for gaming," says Redon. "There is only one big issue with the VHD. Like VHS, every time you watch it, the quality degrades. But when you have a brand new VHD, you have the highest quality possible to watch a movie."

That vinyl disc inside the VHD shell is what makes it so fascinating. The vinyl doesn't have a groove, like an album, but it does actually use a stylus. Here's the techie breakdown, from a 1984 issue of New Scientist

"The VHD disc is pressed from conductive material and tracked by a stylus that senses changes in capacitance. But… the VHD disc has no groove. Instead, the information pits also generate servo-control signals which keep the stylus tracking the spiral. The absence of grooves means that, as with Laservision, there can be rapid access to any selected passage of the VHD disc programme. The stylus, which is much larger than the pit track (to increase the area of its footprint and cut down wear) just skids along the surface to select a frame number identified by digital code.... Unlike Laservision, though, VHD involves physical contact between the stylus and the disc. So at least some wear is inevitable."

The VHD only looks like a gigantic floppy disk because it needs that plastic shell to protect its conductivity. Any dirt or debris on the surface would ruin it, so the shell holds the disc until it's put into a player, where it's then spit out to be read. The fragility, and inevitable wear on VHD disks, makes for a particular sort of preservation challenge for Redon.

"Technically speaking, you cannot make a dump of this," he says. "It's a recording. So the best way to preserve VHD is you need to find, if possible, a brand new one, never used, and have the best possible equipment, and read it the best you can do from the first time."

The most expensive VHD game, according to Redon, is Time Gal, made by Taito. It was released for the MSX as well as arcade, the Sega CD, and eventually, smartphones. But the VHD version can go for $1,500 at auctions. Alice in Chemical Reaction, another game, is interesting because it stores its program as noise on the VHD, rather than on a separate cassette (this, of course, meant there was less storage space for video). In total, only 10 VHD games were released in Japan between 1985 and 1986.

And that's the VHD. Movie releases went on for a few years before it was completely dead, so if you want to watch The Goonies or The Evil Dead or Frank Sinatra in Japan on a lost storage medium, there are still plenty on Ebay, and Japanese Yahoo auctions for VHD players look like they cost about $10, on average. 

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).