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Retro Care: A Primer For Games Past Their Prime

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If you're a shameless game hoarder like I am, not only do you have a big back-catalogue of cartridges sitting around your house, but you gladly accept new old games from anyone looking to off-load them. After all, you can never have enough copies of Cobra Triangle. Ever.

Also, if you're like me, you've noticed that your games don't work so well as time goes on. With more and more retro titles showing up on download services, it can be tempting to forego old cartridges and CDs, but as many a retro gamer knows, there's nothing like playing an original game its original system with the controllers that were meant to play them. Sure, titles like Ocarina of Time may have been tweaked to look better on the Virtual Console, but the good-old N64 three-pronged controller is sorely missing.

So what do you do when your games start acting a little funky? You might be tempted to move on, but most of the time they just need a little TLC. Remember, many of these games, controllers and consoles were manhandled by dozens (if not hundreds) of, shall we say, less-than-delicate youngsters. I remember well scraping sour cream and onion chip dust and gooey 7-Up fingerprints off my Super Nintendo controllers, back in the day. I can only imagine what some games, systems and controllers have gone through.

To help out all my fellow retro gamers, I started putting together a list of handy tips, a video, and some helpful links. As I researched this article, it rapidly became clear to me that with all the retro consoles, cartridges, discs and controllers out there, writing this could quickly become a monumental undertaking. Today, I'll be going over the basics of care for the typical old-school cartridge (which should apply to most cartidges from Atari through the N64), as well as care for NES pin connectors.

Check it out after the jump.

**Unfortunately necessary legalese** Of course, before you go doing anything to your old, hard-to-replace games and consoles: You do so at your own discretion. Gaygamer is offering you advice, but if you take it upon yourself to try any of the methods below, we won't be footing the bill if it doesn't work, or if things backfire.

On to the content: The internet experts are unanimous in declaring that the most-likely cause of cartridge malfunction is dirt on the metal leads that connect the game to the system. It's a time-honoured cliché that blowing on your cartridge fixes it, after all, but after a few decades these things can get quite dirty. Since most cartridges follow the same basic design, it follows that care guides for an NES cartridge (which are by far the most popular online) should work for most other breeds of cartridge as well. Of course, if you're at all concerned that your Vectrex or TurboGrafx cart might require extra care, by all means Google it.

This video was featured on Go Nintendo and Kotaku recently, and is a great demo of how to clean the pins on your old-school carts. Really, it's crazy easy; just moisten a Q Tip with isopropyl alcohol and give the pins a wipe. I've tried it and it works like a charm. The amount of gunk that came off my copy of Killer Instinct was, well, shameful. Was I really that sloppy? And that was nothing compared to my 16 year-old copy of Donkey Kong Country (really? Sixteen years?), which went from unplayable to mint-condition in less than five minutes. What the above video doesn't detail, but I discovered at Console Passion, is that swabbing the exterior of your cartridges with isopropyl alcohol can help take off everything from scuffs to stickers. This can also work with CDs, with a little bit more care required. I suggest you check out the link if your CD-era games need some TLC.

For general preventative care, I've found this article at ehow quite helpful. It takes the perspective of a long-term hoarder...er, collector. Their tips for preventing moisture damage over the years include storing games with silica packets and using food-grade plastic bags (which are, apparently, acid-free - an important consideration for long-term storage of packaging and manuals).

"But I've cleaned my games! It's my console that's wearing out!" you say? Well, things get a bit more complicated in that case. Gamespy offers an in-depth method of repairing the pins on your NES. It requires a lot more work than Q-Tips and alcohol, though. If you've cleaned your cartridges and think your NES is the reason your games aren't working, the author suggests you disassemble your NES and do a little surgery on the pin connector. Apparently, NES pin connectors were meant to last about 5 years before failing, so it stands to reason that many of them won't be working too hot any more. Associated Content has a similar article detailing the same process, but it also suggests cleaning the pin connector with a Q-Tip and rubbing alcohol. Of course, you should never ever disassemble or apply a liquid to an electronic device that is turned on or plugged in, so I would strongly advise you completely unplug your NES and make sure it doesn't turn on (the systems can carry a charge even after being unplugged) before you try this. The author of the Associated Content article recommends you make sure the Q-Tip you use isn't dripping wet, either. You want to wipe the pins clean, not bathe them. Josh at kfoo.net has the best diagrams of this process that I've seen, so you may want to reference his article if you proceed with DIY repairs on your NES. Beyond cleaning the connections, you may need to bend the pins inside the NES so they remain in the locked position. This makes it harder to insert and remove games, but the authors attest that this is one of the best ways to ensure that your NES will keep working long in to the future. After all, if the battery in your copy of The Legend of Zelda is still working, the cartridge itself should last for a long time, too.

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[Author's note: I will be attempting to clean my NES using the method above - though I'll try a cleaning first before bending any pins. Regardless, I'll bring you an update after I do.]

Of course, if there's something seriously wrong with your pin connector, you might try purchasing a new one. You can find inexpensive ones on eBay - some of them even come with guarantees. Replacing them is more straightforward than cleaning and bending the pins (you can find instructions in the articles linked above), but it's more wasteful and more expensive - if you can fix your existing pin connector, why buy a new one?

So that's our primer on taking care of your old games and systems. Watch out for future articles on care for your controllers, cartridges with dead batteries, and for systems other than the NES. After all, there are generations worth of consoles out there in need of some TLC.

If you have any questions about retro console and game care, send me an email and hopefully we can answer your question in a future Retro Care article.

1 Comments

Randy said:

Wait. This is news? I thought it was common knowledge by this point to clean your stubborn games with rubbing alcohol (despite those pesky warnings on the NES cartridges and booklets). If I hadn't done that, my childhood would have been a living hell with the constant battle of begging and pleading with my NES to play games for me "just this one time." Haha

Thanks for sharing, though! :)

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