How to Clean Video Game Cartridges

Everybody who grew up on cartridge based video games remembers having trouble getting them to work, especially those who had a Nintendo Entertainment System. With the growing popularity of retro gaming a lot of gamers have decided to pull out their old systems again only to find that they don't work. They plug the cartridge in and get a jumbled mess of graphics or a blank screen and think something is broken, especially when blowing in the cartridge doesn't fix the issue. What these people don't realize is that their games and consoles are just dirty. Years of use and storage mean years of dirt build up on the pins that transfer the game data from the cartridge to the console. Not to mention, the go to fix of blowing in the game or console just leads to spit and breath moisture build up that oxidizes and corrodes the brass pins.

Doing a deep clean of all your games and consoles can fix this issue for good and take you to a world where all your cartridges fire up first try. I have been asked countless times what's the best way to do this, and after years of trying different cleaning methods I believe I have figured out the best method. In this guide I will walk you through how to clean a NES cartridge, but this basic method will work on any video game cartridge. If you are a collector and partake in retro gaming often, you should consider doing this to all of your games as soon as you get them. It will save you loads of time down the road.

WHAT YOU'LL NEED

Before getting started gather up everything you are going to need:

  • A security bit screwdriver (see below for details)
  • Isopropyl alcohol (at least 70%)
  • A box of cotton swabs
  • A pencil eraser
  • Small piece of MDF (optional)
  • A dirty game

If you are a video game collector then you should just stock up on cotton swabs and isopropyl alcohol because you are going to need lots of it.

STEP 1: OPEN THE CARTRIDGE

The first thing to do is to open up the cartridge so you can get at the printed circuit board (PCB). To do this you will need a security bit screw driver, for almost all Nintendo cartridges. This will make taking out the star-shaped security screws designed to keep you out much easier. Some people make screwdrivers do this by melting acrylic pens and pressing the liquid acrylic over one of the screws or by cutting a slot into a flat head screwdriver. These methods will do the trick but they are unreliable and finicky. If you plan on doing this a lot you should just buy a set of security bit screwdrivers on Amazon. They are cheap and you will get both sizes that Nintendo uses, the larger of which is for opening up Nintendo home consoles prior to the Wii. Once you have your hands on the right screwdriver turn the cartridge over and remove the three screws (or possibly five) that keep the cartridge closed. It should be noted that some early NES cartridges are sealed with tiny slotted screws instead of security screws.

STEP 2: ASSESS THE CORROSION

Now that you have the cartridge open it is time to assess the level of corrosion. If you look at the pins of this copy of Super C I was cleaning you can see they are kind of brown, lack any shininess, and have dark marks where each pin of the NES cartridge connector comes into contact with the PCB. This is surface corrosion and the main culprit (but not the only culprit) behind the jumbled graphics and flashing screen that so many of us are familiar with. This corrosion acts as a barrier between the pins of the game and the pins of the cartridge connector in the console preventing them from making sufficient contact for the game to boot properly.

STEP 3: ERASE THE CORROSION

Now it is time to remove the surface corrosion. This is where the eraser and block of MDF come into play. Place the PCB on the edge of the MDF board as shown in the picture and rub the eraser along the pins. Like I stated above, the block of MDF is optional but I find it to be a great material for this purpose. It is rigid but has a soft and smooth surface that I know won't damage the pins on the opposite side of the PCB. I find this to be the best way to support the board while you are erasing the corrosion and makes the process a lot easier. You will notice right away the corrosion disappearing and shiny bright brass being exposed as you do this. Finish erasing one side of the board and then flip it over and repeat on the opposite side. When you are done get rid of all the eraser bits that flake off during this step.

Before
During
After

STEP 4: REMOVE ANY RESIDUE

The next step is to remove any residue on the pins. During the previous step you will likely have touched the newly exposed brass with your fingers leaving skin oils behind as well as eraser residue. Pour some of the isopropyl alcohol into the cap and dip a cotton swab in the alcohol. Next, run the cotton swab along the pins to remove any remaining residue. Do this to both sides trying to not retouch the pins with your fingers. Isopropyl alcohol is great for this step because it dries quickly, cleans very well and leaves no residue of its own. I generally use 70% isopropyl alcohol but some people prefer to use 90% or 99%.

STEP 5: REASSEMBLE THE CARTRIDGE

All that is left to do is let the alcohol dry and reassemble the cartridge. If you forgot to take note of the orientation of the PCB in the cartridge shell, don't worry because they only fit in one way. Once the isopropyl alcohol is dry, close up the cartridge shell and refasten the security screws. Now you have a clean game that should work first try, every time, as long as your console is clean as well.

2 Comments

  1. Sean on December 21, 2017 at 12:16 am

    Thank you for this guide. It doesn’t take much time or effort to do this, and all of my games work on the first try now. Really appreciate it!

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