Did Blowing on our Game Carts Really Do Anything?
I remember growing up and having a lot of problems with my NES… but not so much with my SNES. I had the first-generation 72-pin front loading model and, from what I understand, that was the worst one to have. Using the popular “Zero Insertion Force” (ZIF) connection method on the console, Nintendo designed this connector with nickel pins that would bend into position when a cartridge was inserted and then spring back after it was removed.
This ZIF method worked well in hard drives or VCRs where the disc was always held stationary, but in the constantly swapped NES, it was a pitfall. Seeing as how there was no mechanical arm to take the cartridge to and from the PIN slot, the force of the press-down would eventually wear out the springs and PIN set. It wasn’t even a matter of being gentle or not; the springs on the console would eventually lose their elasticity and you’d no longer be able to make the full 72-pin connection. I was fortunate enough to never have any severe spring problems but I know several friends who had to use another game cartridge just to hold the initial one down. The dreaded flashing screen or blinking light was a common occurrence with this error.
Later, Nintendo would introduce a top-loading model akin to the Japanese model. This one didn’t come with the built-in microphone functionality that the original Famicom had, but it was a much better NES. However, they didn’t address one important issue: the copper connectors at the bottom of each cart. At the time copper was the best source of connectivity between electronics and naturally was selected for its resilience and cheap production cost. Unfortunately it was also very prone to tarnishing (patina) due to oxidation. That combined with a natural accumulation of dust and hand/finger oils created a very unstable bond between the game and the console. Man, the problems just keep adding up!
To make things even worse, American gamers not only had to struggle with the redesigned vertical ZIF connection and the copper oxidation, but had to initiate the 72-pin connection in conjunction with the region security lock-out chip. If only one of these connections were off, no dice.
Naturally when our games didn’t work or when we got a glitched screen, we assumed the connection wasn’t being made. But instead of blaming the pin connector, most of us assumed it was dust/dirt. Now I don’t know how the theory came about, maybe we saw someone on TV do it once, but the general way to fix problems was to blow on the carts. Perhaps by just clearing out the debris on the connectors, we thought that we could get the game working again. After all, how complicated were these video game machines anyway? :)
Haha, well it turns out, blowing on the cart is actually the worst thing for it. Consulting the manager at the local retro gaming shop, Luna Games, he noted: “Yeah, don’t blow on the carts. The moisture in your mouth is just promoting corrosion on the connector. These games are extremely durable, they will never go bad. It’s merely the action of removing the cart and placing it back in the console that is causing this method to work.”
But can the simple act of blowing really cause long lasting damage on the game? I mean, the theory makes sense.
Moisture->Corrosion+Mildew = Bad
But if a game’s been blown (sorry! sorry!) is it damaged goods? Can it be recovered? I had to know, so I did more sleuthing on the matter. After a few consultations with mechanical engineers and the unearthing of an interesting experiment several years ago, I found my answer.
It turns out that yes, game carts do get damaged from breath, but only to a certain degree. A study done by Frankie Viturello of the Digital Press forums reveals that while damage does occur to the carts, it can be reversed by a proper scrubbing.
Frankie took two identical carts of Gyromite for the NES. For the first cart, he removed the plastic casing and left it naturally exposed to the environment. For the second, he not only removed its shell but also treated it to a blowing ten times a day. The first cart and the second cart were stored in the exact same place in the house and used under similar conditions. After one month, both the blown and non-blown games were tested and inspected, revealing a huge increase in corrosion and gunk on the contacts.
However, when both carts were cleaned and polished up, there was no noticeable difference between the two. However the experimenter notes that while both carts did work eventually, there may have been some changes to the contacts on the microscopic level.
“The build up of mold/mildew/growth on cartridge B never got much worse than what developed in the second week. While there’s no corrosion going on at a really visible to the naked eye level, there may be some microscopic chemical reactions going on … and that build-up at the very least could prevent the games from working from a not-able-to-make-full-connection standpoint.”
What’s the takeaway from all this? You probably shouldn’t be blowing in your carts. Heck even Nintendo states on their games that:
“Do not blow into your Game Paks or systems. The moisture in your breath can corrode and contaminate the pin connectors.”
But John! If we don’t blow in our carts, how will we ever clean them? Good question. The best way to properly clean and maintain your carts is debatable, but I personally use some rubbing alcohol diluted with water and some Q-tips/Mr.Clean Magic Erasers. Ideally you’d want to open up the screw and really get in there, but a few simple wipes on a closed cart will do the job. Luna Games mentioned that they feel the brass polish cream, Brasso, was particularly effective in cleaning games but any method would do, even Windex.
I usually recommend cleaning games immediately upon adding them to your system. That way you make sure the contacts are clean before they get anywhere near your console. The console itself is a pain to disassemble and maintain, so strike the evil at its source. Use the above method for the carts and an official Nintendo cleaning cart for the console. After that there’s barely any maintenance even with heavy use. I’d imagine a cleaning once a decade would be sufficient. Spend the rest of your free time enjoying the games… with friends.