Wednesday, October 19, 2011

We're swabbin' some slots!

If you're cleaning your NES cartridges, you can go
ahead and ignore all of these warnings.
Last weekend, I replaced the 72-pin connector in my NES. And as I noted at the end of the post, the blinking screen/power light issue was improved, but not completely gone.

To make matters worse, the wretched Cleveland winter is nearly upon us, and my coinciding plans of getting progressively fatter and lazier are in peril. If I have to sit up and wheeze into these NES games several times per day over the course of the next six months, I'm at serious risk remaining just doughy and mostly lazy.

Something must be done. And soon.

Since I know that the NES isn't at fault, I can make the logical conclusion (I went to college, after all) that my cartridges are to blame. And why not? With two decades of gunk and corrosion built up on those delicate copper connectors, it's a wonder they work at all.

Luckily, the Internet is full of techniques for cleaning game cartridges. So in the name of science, and as an investment in future laziness, I decided to take three of the most popular methods--rubbing alcohol, pencil erasers, and metal polish--and put them to the test against three of the dirtiest, nastiest games from my collection. Here are the results:

3rd Place: Pencil Eraser
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game

Super jank

Blinking gray screen

Initially, I was pretty skeptical when I read that people were using pencil erasers to clean their cartridges, but I guess it makes sense. After all, a rubber eraser should be gentle enough to wipe away gunk and corrosion without taking the delicate copper connectors with it.

This cart already had plenty of problems, then I added
hundeds of tiny bits of pencil eraser.
There's a slight problem, though. To do a really thorough job, I needed to take the cartridge apart to really get in there with the eraser. Normally, I wouldn't have a problem with this, but unlike the NES console, Nintendo decided to screw the cartridges together using some wacky security bits, and I don't own the correct driver.

I can buy the tool here (but I'm too cheap and impatient), or just jam the eraser into the slot in the cartridge and hope for the best. Neither seems like a great option.

In the end, I succeeded only in adding a load of pink eraser shrapnel to the myriad problems this cartridge has. No apparent change in corrosion.

While I managed to get the game fired up after three attempts, I'm going to go ahead and call this test "inconclusive" until I'm able to take apart the cartridge and do a better job.

This is the cleanin' kind, not the drinkin' kind.
Runner-Up: Rubbing Alcohol + Cotton Swab
Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt

Moderate amounts of jank

Blinking title screen

I can't even begin to count the number of times I've been told to never, ever clean a game cartridge with rubbing alcohol. In fact, "Don't clean with alcohol, stupid" is printed inside of every NES game manual. However, when the owner of a local game store told me that this is how he maintains his Neo Geo collection (!), I decided it was good enough for my NES carts. After all, alcohol evaporates almost instantly, which is certainly better than most other cleaning solutions (especially anything water based).

This cart looks okay in the picture, but think someone
(unsuccessfully) tried to take it apart.
The technique here is simple: dip a cotton swab into the rubbing alcohol and then scrub the heck out of the connectors, changing swabs frequently. You can stop once the swabs no longer come out black.

And swabbed I did. As a precautionary measure, I wiped the connectors down with a paper towel to ensure everything was dry before testing.

Initially, the rubbing alcohol removed a slight amount of corrosion from the connectors, but continued effort yielded little improvement. The game operated normally after two attempts

Add some bling to Jimmy and Bimmy.
(Tweet me if you get that reference. )
Winner: Metal Polish + Cotton Swab
Double Dragon III

Considerable jank

Blinking gray screen

Whether you're talking about paint, metal, plastic, or whatever, polishing works the same way: you're using a mild abrasive to clear away tiny scratches and imperfections on the surface, leaving behind a smooth and shiny finish. I read reports that brass polish and cooktop cleaner work well on NES cartridges, however, I had a bottle of Mothers chrome polish in the garage, so that's what I used.
Again, I was skeptical at the idea of polishing clean the connectors on an NES cart. After all, with just a cotton swab, how will I get the leverage necessary to help the abrasive in the polish do its job?

Ugh. Now that's a result.
I dabbed a small amount of polish onto the cotton swab (not directly into the cartridge slot), and much like the rubbing alcohol, scrubbed and scrubbed until the swabs came out clean, then followed it up with a paper towel for good measure.

It was almost hard to believe the amount of crap that the polish cleaned out of the cartridge. In fact, it was pretty disgusting.

Also, I'm not ashamed to admit that I grunted with great satisfaction--in much the way I imagine a cave man grunts at fire--when Double Dragon III started up on the very first try.

My very unscientific experiment yielded some surprising results. I was fully expecting the rubbing alcohol to work best, but polish proved to be the victor. What's more, I went back and hit Mario Bros. and TMNT with the polish, and cleaned out gobs of nastiness that was the other methods left behind. That's all the proof I need.

So go forth and polish those slots!


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  2. Something you didn't mention in this article but I feel needs to be addressed: When you replace the 72 pin connector DO NOT push the games down. Just slde them back into the NES and turn the system on. The new connectors are not exactly the same size as the original part so if you force the spring loaded dealy down it won't work right and will cause a lot of blinking.

    I discovered this on my own when I replaced my 72 pin connector. My NES now works 100 percent of the time now that I know not to push the games down.

  3. You shouldn't use polish on game contacts this only tarnishes the metal and causes damage to the pins of the console, you will find later that the pins on the game cartridge will be even more black than they were before. Rubbing Alcohol is the best thing to use as it will not damage the metal, to remove deep grime you should apply alcohol and then rub a light coarse material such as a scouring pad, then put on the alcohol again and rub off with a cotton bud or cloth...