Tuesday, 19 February 2013

How To Clean Retro Game Cartridge Contacts

We've all been there, staring face to face with that one particular retro gaming cartridge that simply doesn't want to be played. Maybe it's having a bad day, or there's a full moon, or perhaps one blow of the contacts just wasn't enough.

There never seems to be any discernible pattern to when a cartridge will or won't boot, or how many repeat attempts are required before it does. But never fear, this handy guide on cleaning your retro gaming cartridges will ensure that the problem is eradicated before it even starts.

Hit the jump to read on!

Why do cartridge based games fail to boot?

All cartridges interface with their respective consoles via metallic contacts which complete an electrical circuit. Now, take a moment to think about what those exposed contacts have been through over the last 20-plus years: dust, grime, moisture and spittle from the hundreds of gusts of air you've blown onto them. The dirt may only be a fraction of a millimetre in thickness, but that's all it takes for the contacts to fail to connect with those of the console. 

No contact, no circuit, no game.

In addition to this, any dirty game that's shoved into a retro console will leave dirty residue on the contacts of that console, which can and will transfer to the contacts of your cleaner games.

But it's not all doom and gloom as 99% of all 'faulty' game cartridges can be cured via the correct and regular cleaning of its contacts.

What you will need

-Isopropyl alcohol or contact cleaner
-Q-tips/ cotton buds
-3.8mm and 4.5mm Game Bit screwdriver (optional)

Isopropyl alcohol (a.k.a. isopropanol) is a cheap, alcohol based solvent that is perfect for the regular cleaning of electrical contacts due to quick evaporation times. Aim to buy a solution of at least 70% alcohol -- preferably above 90% as this will contain little to no water. If you're unable to find isopropyl alcohol in your local supermarket or electronics shop, chemists may stock it in the form of rubbing alcohol.

Most other contact cleaners you can buy will be mostly comprised on isopropyl alcohol, but will also contain other non-abrasive cleaning chemicals. Some will even claim to be able to coat your contacts with a protective layer. These products aren't necessary for basic contact cleaning clean, but if you have some extra cash on hand then there's no harm in trying one out.

The vast majority of Sega's cartridges and all of those produced by Nintendo (NES, SNES, N64, Virtual Boy and Game Boy) will be held together with proprietary security screws referred to as Game Bits. They come in two sizes: 3.8mm and 4.5mm. 

Opening a cartridge to clean the contacts isn't necessary, but does make it significantly easier to gauge how dirty the contacts are as well as easing the physical process of cleaning them. Screwdrivers capable of dealing with Game Bit can be found for next to nothing online.

How to safely clean the contacts

  1. Slightly dampen one end of the q-tip with isopropyl alcohol
  2. Lightly push the damp end of the q-tip onto one side of the contacts
  3. Sweep back and forth across the contacts, turning the q-tip every so often to a clean side
  4. Examine the q-tip and gauge whether or not a new one is needed for further cleaning
  5. Dry the contacts with an unused q-tip
  6. Repeat for the reverse side of the contacts

Further tips

If possible, buy better quality q-tips as cheaper one tend to fray easily.

Don't completely douse your q-tips in isopropyl alcohol or contact cleaner. Both products will still contain water which, if left undried, can permanently corrode the very contacts you're trying to clean.

Many people have reported success by using rubber erasers. Generally speaking this will work, but only temporarily. The heat and friction from rubbing the eraser across the contacts breaks away particularly grubby spots but will still leave behind thinner areas of dirt. A rubber eraser is nowhere near as effective as using isopropyl alcohol.

What not to do

Don't rub too hard. The q-tips only needed to be lightly brushed across the contacts in order to pick up dirt. Scrubbing the contacts too hard too often will, over time, permanently damage them.

Glass cleaner, copper and brass polish, and stove cleaner are three products that are commonly suggested online, but should definitely be avoided. All three of these will not only rub away the metal contacts themselves, but they can also leave a layer of residue that will inhibit the electrical current between cartridge and console.

Top: Not blown on, Bottom: Blown on

Don't blow on the cartridge

I know, it's a shame to turn your back on what is probably the most ubiquitous retro gaming ritual of them all, but blowing the dust off a cartridge was never anything more than a seemingly logical explanation of the the unexplainable. 

In fact, research conducted by Digital Press empirically proved that the moisture in one's breath not only has no effect on the functionality of a NES cartridge, but also corrodes the contacts through oxidation. Blowing on the cartridges doesn't work, don't do it, use isopropyl alcohol instead.

And that concludes my guide on safely cleaning retro game contacts. If you like what you saw then consider following me on Twitter @MegaWestgarth, on my Tumblr page and on Google+ at +Michael Westgarth.


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