We console gamers are a finicky bunch. Unlike our computer-gaming counterparts, we typically expect everything to work right out of the box. In fact, this is typically why we invest in a console over a computer. We don’t want to be bogged down by hardware assembly, installation times, and optimum display settings. And when our consoles do fail straight out of the box, we usually get pretty upset.
And yet, because of this, it is easy to forget that a game console is nothing more than a machine. And, like a machine, its parts can become worn and dirty. Eventually some parts fail entirely, and need to be replaced.
The Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES for short) is a fascinating machine. On one hand, it rescued the gaming industry from the video game crash of 1983 and gave us timeless games like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. On the other hand, it had a number of odd design choices that made the system temperamental at best. For example, take a look at the front-loading design of the North American NES compared to the original Japanese Famicom:
In principle, both systems connect to games via a series of 72 pins on the motherboard inside of the console. However, The original Japanese Famicom (short for family computer) had a nifty little top-loading device that allowed you to see what game you were playing on the system. For historical reasons I won’t go into, Nintendo wanted to make their North American system look more like an “American-friendly” VCR, so they devised the front-loading NES. Unfortunately, this buried the 72-pin connector deep within the machine itself. The result is that it’s hard to get all 72-pins on both the motherboard and the game to make a proper connection at once, even with the loading mechanism “pushing down” on the game to provide a more firm connection with the pins. What happens when all 72 pins aren’t connected properly? Well, you get the infamous blinking NES screen of death.
The good news is that there are a couple of things you can do to restore an NES into basically perfect health, and the first (and easiest) step is to simply clean your games before you put them into your system. An NES has two enemies: oxidation and grime. If you read and understood the previous paragraph, you should immediately understand why. Both oxidation and grime prevent good connections between the game and console, so even when there’s a firm connection between the pins, build-up can prevent conduction between them, thus making the game useless.
The down side to this is that, like a car, even the most well-kept NES system will break down over time if it is not properly maintained. Unless you live inside of a frictionless vacuum, the oxidation of metal parts in inevitable. The pins of an old NES games are made of copper, and contact with oxygen – which is pretty much everywhere – produces patina (rust’s weird, inbred cousin). So even an NES that’s been sitting in the closet for years will slowly break down. Grime, on the other hand, is produced from simple long-term usage. The main culprit, however, is blowing on the games, which produces all sorts of nasty results. If you want a case taken to extreme measures, check out this hilarious story about a kid who literally licked his Nintendo 64 games to get them to work.
Unless you’ve resorted to french kissing your games though, most NES games can be restored to good health in only a few minutes. Cleaning eliminates most problems with old NESs and will usually make an NES game work on the first try (unbelievable, I know). If cleaning your games has no effect on the console, it might be time to replace the console’s 72-pin connector, but I’ll get to that a little later.
Before beginning, gather the following materials:
- A 3.8 mm security bit screwdriver
- A white, plastic eraser
- Plain ol’ rubbing alcohol
- A clean, dry towel
Step 1: Acquire a 3.8 mm secuirty bit
Step 2: Open up the game
Hell, it’ll void the warranty, but considering the NES is now pushing 30 years, I doubt they’re still refunding broken games. If this is your first time cleaning an NES game and you’re unsure of your skills, try this out on a game you’re not particularly attached to. I specifically chose StarTropics because I somehow managed to acquire two copies of the game.
As you can see in this photo, there are three security screws holding the game closed. Simply unscrew those with your security bit. Don’t worry if you don’t have a screw driver for the bit – your hands can provide enough torque to open the screws without one. Once that’s done, you can take off the cover by gently lifting the back cover from the bottom. Be careful not to break the two hooks at the top of the cartridge. They do not need to be forced like it might look – they’ll unlatch easily at the right angle. As I said, you should be able to gently lift the cover right off.
Step 3: Clean the pins with rubbing alcohol
When I was a kid, my neighbor told me that if you needed to get your NES games working, all you needed to do was clean them with rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip. Miraculously, the trick worked every time. But hey, the back of every NES game says that you should never, ever clean your NES games with alcohol or other solvents. So I guess my secret trick must have been slowly destroying my games in the long run, correct?
Not at all. In fact, alcohol is a fantastic cleaner because it evaporates quickly and leaves no residue. Even better, Nintendo released its own official NES cleaning kit. Their secret formula? Pure rubbing alcohol. So I guess they wound up looking a bit hypocritical in the end.
Hmm, now check that out. Quite an empty cartridge for such a small chip. I understand the developers needed to advertise their game with a sticker, but that’s taking it a bit far, isn’t it? Well, believe it or not the entire game is stored on the ROM on that board. The memory chips (along with a battery, if the game needed one) are housed on the back, which I neglected to take a photo of at the time.
Oh, but check out those contacts. They’ve certainly seen better days. You should know what to do by now. Take your Q-tips and dip one end into the rubbing alcohol. Begin to rub the end across the contacts. You can also rub the Q-tip up and down each contact if you feel like it. It really doesn’t matter. You should also lift the board out of the cartridge to clean the other side of the contacts. What’s nice is that the board isn’t secured with anything, so it lifts right out. Don’t worry about placing it back in – the board is notched in such a way that it will only sit in one way.
With any luck, you should see a lot of dirt coming up off the contacts and on to the Q-tip. Repeat this method until the contacts look nice and clean. I would also recommend using the dry end of the Q-tip (or a dry towel) to soak up any excess fluid. Some people have also suggested using window cleaner, but I didn’t test this method, so proceed at your own risk.
Step 4: Clean the game with an eraser (optional)
Sometimes a game’s pins are so old and bad that they really need a good cleaning. In this case, feel free to pick up an eraser and scrub off some of the dirt. Some people actually argue that this is a better method, and I can certainly agree with the results (left pins are dirty, right are cleaned with an eraser). It will also apparently take off light oxidation. If you wind up going by this method, I strong recommend picking up a white, plastic eraser since these leave no residue. Either way, following up with an alcohol rubbing wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
Step 5: Replace the cover and try it out
Replacing the board and cover is not a complicated task. Simply place the board back into the notches on the cover. The board should be designed so that it will only sit in the cover in one direction. Then, replace the cover on the back of the game. Again, be sure not to break the hooks at the top of the cover. The cover should be placed at a slight angle, allowing the hooks to slide into place. In the end, the cover should mate firmly with the opposite side, and you should have no problem replacing the screws. Once that is done, all that’s left is to do is to test it out.
If all else fails…
Cleaning your old NES games before playing them will usually get them to work on the first or second try. Sadly though, the games are only 50% of the problem. Like the games, the 72-pin connector inside of the console can also become dirty, damaged, and worn out. If you’re finding that cleaning your games is not enough, you may want to think about replacing the 72-pin connector in your NES.
I know – sounds scary. Opening a game console and risk ruining it? No way! Believe it or not, it’s a fairly simple process that can usually be done in 20 minutes or less. However, I’ll leave that topic for a later article. Until then, try some of the abundant guides on the Internet on how to perform the procedure.