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If you’ve spent any time around an NES, blowing into a cartridge to get it to work is something you’ll undoubtedly be familiar with. While you might laugh about this lovely bit of nostalgia, if you’re trying to play retro games in the modern era, it’s not something you need to live with any more.
Several years back, I went through a process of trying to clean and organize my retro games better and ended up watching a few videos by NESComplex on YouTube which enlightened me on a lot of ways that I could get my retro games to work without the effort of blowing in them, holding the slot down on the NES with some cardboard I’d salvaged, and then crossing my fingers.
I’ve adapted my personal process a bit from what I learned on YouTube and I’ll share it with you here so you don’t have to deal with your cartridges not working. In fact, there’s probably only 1 or 2 games that I haven’t been able to get working through this method (I suspect they were actually damaged). It really does work, which somehow still surprises me like 7+ years later.
In Regards to Your 72-Pin Connector
One of the common bits of NES-specific advice you’ll see online is to replace your 72-pin connector. I’ve personally done this and it didn’t actually solve the problems of all my games not working properly. It certainly won’t hurt to replace the part (eBay) but there’s a decent chance it’s won’t be a bullet-proof solution for solving your NES woes (at least in my personal experience anyway).
At some point, I sold a working NES on eBay with a brand new 72-Pin connector where in the description I SPECIFICALLY mentioned the need to clean the games if the system didn’t work. The buyer sent me a message complaining that the system didn’t work. I wasn’t the least bit surprised.
Most of your NES games are around 30 years old and there’s a VERY high chance they’re filthy, even if they don’t look like it. Cleaning them is your best shot at getting them to play.
The Tools of the Trade
For starters, it’s a good idea to get the bits (eBay) that you’ll need to take out the screws on NES games and SNES games as it makes the whole process easier. There’s only 2 sizes and you can get a set for pretty cheap on Amazon or eBay. These bits will cover you for NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, and Game Boy games. Y-tips are on GBA games, so you’ll need to get a tool for that separately if that’s what you’re looking to clean.
Open the Cartridge
The first thing I always do is open up the cartridge with the bits I mentioned above. While you might be able to get away with not opening a cartridge, I don’t recommend it as it’s much harder to wipe up the excess cleaning materials we’ll be talking about shortly.
Erase the Past
The first thing I do is use a white, artist’s eraser as a method of cleaning off any gunk that might be lingering on the contacts. This step isn’t essential, but imagine that similarly to pencil on paper, using an eraser helps to take some of the junk off of the contacts. I like to think it helps the make the next couple steps more effective.
The next thing I do after cleaning up the tiny bits of rubber from the eraser is to put a bit of copper polish on a q-tip (or a cotton ball) followed by scrubbing the contacts on one side of the cartridge (being careful to keep as much of the polish on the contacts as possible). After that, I repeat the process for the other side of the cartridge.
When I’ve scrubbed the contacts on both sides well, I use an old, junk, cotton t-shirt (or any soft cloth should work fine) to wipe off the all polish.
The Final Touch
After I use copper polish, I repeat the contact-cleaning process with WD-40. The initial cleaning does fine, but you’ll probably notice more dirt coming off the contacts when you scrub with WD-40. Be sure to use a q-tip or cotton ball here as well so the WD-40 doesn’t run to places beyond the cartridge contacts.
If you use copper polish, there might be some dry excess if you don’t do a thorough job wiping it off. The WD-40 helps to take any excess polish off the contacts.
After I scrub both sides, once again, I wipe it dry with my old t-shirt and then reassemble the cartridge.
A Few Extra Notes
You might not need to use every method I’ve outlined above. You might be fine using either WD-40 OR copper polish alone. This is simply the process that I’ve had luck with.
Don’t use rubbing alcohol. I’m not sure why, but on the back of NES cartridges, it literally says not to use alcohol to clean the contacts. I feel like alcohol isn’t as effective at getting the games to work as copper polish and/or WD-40 anyways.
Get some caps from bottled water or soda to keep your cleaning substances in if you’re cleaning a lot of games at once. It makes the process a bit easier for controlling how much you get on your q-tips/cotton balls each time. If I’m only cleaning 1 or 2 games, I’ll typically just prep q-tips over the junk t-shirt as the cleaning stuff ends up there anyways.
Be careful not to over-tighten the screws on reentry. If you’re using an electric screwdriver, they might strip out a little easier than you’d expect.
I know there’s other cleaning options for your retro games that exist these days. I can’t vouch one way or the other for anything you’ll find out there. I simply know that this method is tried and true for me personally.
I hope you found this helpful and I hope it solves the issue of your games not working once and for all!