Gamers today have it easy. When you turn on a modern console, you’re able to put in a disc and start playing your favorite video game within moments. You can even save and load games right from the hard drive. But with retro consoles, just getting your games to load can be like a real-life boss fight. When that title screen finally appears, I always celebrate like I just beat Mike Tyson in Punch-Out!! Actually, a finicky game cartridge is usually even more frustrating than taking on Iron Mike.
The last time I got out my old Super Nintendo, I tried to play The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. But when I put in my favorite game, I was greeted by a blank screen and silence instead of the Triforce and Koji Kondo’s triumphant soundtrack. Oh, crap. I checked the cables, but everything was hooked up correctly. I made sure the console was actually turned on. I took out the cartridge and put it back in. I flipped the reset switch a few times. Nothing worked. I started to panic.
If this had happened to you, you’d probably pull out the game, flip it over, and take a deep breath. Stop right there, criminal scum. Nobody blows into a cartridge on my watch. The “ol’ blow and hope” was how I fixed my games 25 years ago, but I know better now — and you should, too. Your friends might put up with your chronic Dorito breath, but your video game cartridges won’t. Contrary to popular t-shirt slogans and ancient ’80s wisdom, blowing into a video game doesn’t fix it. In fact, repeated blowing will actually damage the game permanently. Now, before you all tell me that I’m full of hot air…
…Here Comes the Science!
The exposed edge of a cartridge’s circuit board is covered in gold-colored contacts. These contacts slide between the pins inside your console, and that connection allows you to play the game. Although gold resists corrosion, those “gold” contacts aren’t the real deal. They’re actually plated with copper or tin, and console pins are made of nickel. These metals all oxidize when exposed to air or water. Oxidation is what rusts vehicles, tarnishes silver spoons, and turns classic video games into useless doorstops. The air you breathe out contains dozens of compounds — including water vapor. Your body actually loses 7 to 20 milliliters of water per hour this way. So, every time you blow into a game (or console), the water vapor in your breath eats away at those sensitive metal contacts.
My husband repairs and resells video games. He took apart these two games (pictured above) to show exactly what happens when you blow on a cartridge. The contacts on the SNES game are covered in corrosion. The steel clips from the N64 cartridge have nearly rusted through. Although cleaning can sometimes resurrect a game in this state, you can’t reverse all the damage. In 2008, gaming podcaster Frankie Viturello conducted an experiment to see cartridge corrosion in action. He found that regularly blowing on a game caused obvious oxidation in just 30 days. Nintendo tried to warn us, but we didn’t listen.
Well, It Always Worked For Me…
Actually, it didn’t. Your lungs aren’t full of tiny pixies who magically fix video games, so why do you believe blowing into a cartridge will make it work? This old gamer’s tale is a great example of correlation vs. causation. If you blow into a cartridge and it starts working, you might assume that that’s what fixed it. But there’s a lurking variable involved here — another factor hidden in plain sight.
A cartridge game develops glitches or stops working when there’s a bad connection between the contacts and the console’s pins. The NES-001 front-loader is notorious for this issue, but top-loading consoles aren’t immune, either. Think about this: each time you blow into a game, you have to take it out of the console and put it back in. That process rubs the contacts against the pins, cleaning them off and reseating the connection. Even if you regularly gave your games a saliva spray-down, removing and carefully reinserting the cartridge a few times is what actually made them work again.
Game broken, what do?
Let’s say your copy of Mega Man 2 just gave up the ghost. Removing and reinserting the cartridge didn’t help. Next, try cleaning your game’s contacts. Buy some high quality cotton swabs (cheap ones will shred) and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol (90% concentration or higher). Do not use anything abrasive or harsh — like dish scrubbers, ammonia, window cleaner, brass polish, or your mother-in-law’s frequent looks of disapproval.
Dip one end of a cotton swab into the rubbing alcohol. It needs to be just a little wet, not dripping. Stick this end into your cartridge and swipe it back and forth against the contacts for ten seconds, followed by the dry end. The swab will probably be very dirty when you take it out. Keep doing this with new swabs until no more grime comes off, Ythen flip the game over and repeat with the other side of the contacts. You can use this method with most handheld game cartridges, too. Dry off any excess alcohol, then try your game again.
If cleaning didn’t help, take the game apart to get a better look. Buy a cheap set of 3.8mm and 4.5mm “security bit” screwdrivers to disassemble the cartridge. Once you have it open, carefully remove the circuit board. Clean any badly corroded contacts again, but avoid getting alcohol on the circuit board itself. Really stubborn corrosion will sometimes come off if you gently rub the contact with a pencil eraser first. Reassemble the cartridge and give it another try.
If the game still doesn’t work, start troubleshooting. Do other games load but this cartridge won’t? If so, you should probably just buy another copy of the game — this one is borked. What if the contacts look fine, or the cartridge works in a different console? Well, if your console has problems with multiple games, then its pin connector might be to blame. When these spring-loaded pins wear out or get damaged, the console can’t make a good connection with the cartridge. Luckily, you can easily repair the pin connector yourself. Disassemble the console, then carefully straighten any bent pins and clean them.
When all else fails, you can always replace the pin connector entirely. The parts are cheap and easy to find online. The NES has a 72-pin connector, the SNES has 62 pins, the N64 has 48, and the Sega Genesis and Mega Drive both have 64. In many cases, simply cleaning the contacts and/or repairing the pin connector will fix a glitchy game or console. You can also use these techniques to refurbish your retro game collection and make some extra money repairing games for your friends. So, the next time a video game cartridge gives you the dreaded “blinking light of death,” just remember: DON’T BLOW IT!