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Retro Care: Fixing Your NES's Flashing Purple Screen


Chances are, wherever you live, your NES is old enough to vote by now. And chances are, for a piece of family-oriented electronics, it's probably held up quite well. I know mine has. Sure, my nieces never put peanut butter and jam sandwiches in it or anything (though a friend of mine's little brother did that to his...), but it's been subjected to enormous amounts of use, dust, and general abuse. It's been moved to and from friends' houses, cottages, and, ultimately, from apartment to apartment and home to home. Really, my NES doesn't owe me anything, but like a faithful old pet, I want it to last forever. The day my NES gives out for good I guarantee you I will cry. And, like one of those creepy families that embalms their pets, I'll probably keep its useless husk in our house as a memento of my ever-more distant childhood until the day my husband's legendary patience with me wears out and my NES ends up in landfill somewhere. And when that happens, don't tell me where it's buried. I may just sneak in with a spade after dark.

But I digress.

At this point in my NES's lifespan I ought not be thinking of such morose eventualities as, given the proper TLC, it may well outlive me. And wouldn't that be ironic? Recently, however, it has been showing its age - much as I have. And, as I must now work out and practice yoga like a believer to remain as limber as I used to be (back then all I had to do was guzzle Coke and sour cream n' onion chips by the litre), so too does my NES need a little more work. Recently, it's been flashing purple at me whenever I try to load Super Mario Bros. 3. It gives me some trouble with most of my games, but it seems to be the least happy with the ones I love most. With the exception of Cobra Triangle. I love that game, but it's just too hard to play regularly. (I guess I've gotten soft in more ways than one.)

Last time we reviewed how to keep your cartridges clean, and I gave you a quick overview of the techniques out there to fix more serious problems with an NES. This week, I'll get in to more depth and show you how we went from a flashing purple screen to good health. Follow me into the 8-bit Operating Room, after the jump.

To fix my beloved old NES, I followed these two sets of instructions. Josh's visual guide made life a lot easier, while Greg's walk-through of how to bend connector pins was vital.

***Requisite legal mumbo-jumbo: If you try to fix your NES following this walk through, you do so at your own risk.*** But if you're going to do it, you'll need a Phillips-head screwdriver, something like a pin or screwdriver from an optical kit, rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs.

0) Super-obvious thing to do before your first step: Clean your cartridges. Chances are this will fix things for you. If that doesn't do the trick, keep reading.

1) The first thing I did was completely unplug my NES from all its cables. Then I pushed the power button to make sure that there wasn't any residual charge in the system.

2) Removing the plastic top from the NES was actually quite easy. The first turn of each screw was a bit rough, but that's to be expected. The last time these things were adjusted was in the 80s, after all. I'd be a bit stiff after all that time too. Anyway, after the first turn they were easy enough to remove. If they don't come out perfectly you might want to turn your NES right side up and shake it lightly.

3) Actually taking the top off the NES is a bit trippy. It's like that scene in Return of the Jedi where Luke Skywalker takes off Darth Vader's helmet. It takes a few stages, and even though you have a good idea of what's underneath, it's still...weird. And you're still not quite to the bottom.

4) Next come the RF shield and electronics. I'll forward you again to Josh's guide to exactly where each screw is for both the RF shield and the motherboard. Anyway, this is where things start getting really Darth Vader-y. Take off the RF shield, unscrew the motherboard, and you're in to the guts of the system.

5) The 72-pin connector should slide off with a bit of work. I had to pull one side and then the other to sort of shimmy mine off. Then it's time to get out the cotton and alcohol. Dip one end of the cotton swab in the alcohol so the swab is just damp. You do not want it dripping; remember that even though rubbing alcohol evapourates quickly, you do not want it getting all over your electronics. Scrub the metal leads on the motherboard that the 72-pin connector fit around. Then wipe them dry with the other end of your cotton swab. Do the same thing to the connectors on the pin housing you just took off the motherboard. Give it all five minutes to dry.

At this point you can opt to put your NES back together and plug it in to see if everything's working again. If it is, hooray! Get your game on. If it isn't, open 'er up again and move on to step 6.

6) You may need to bend the pins in the top part of the pin connector to ensure that they fit snugly with your cartridges. If you do so, I recommend you follow Greg's walk-through. I'm not going to re-write it all here. But, basically you bend both sides of the fork-shaped leads up just a bit - about a milimeter. Trust me, it doesn't take a lot of force to do this, and it doesn't take a big change in the height of the lead to make it fit snugly with your game. In fact, after you carefully and painstakingly adjust every lead, you'll find it takes a bit of muscle to get your games back out of your NES.

7) Once you're done, put everything back together and plug in your NES. If your games work again, hooray! However, if you're unfortunate like me, you still get a flashing purple screen (or some other error) with your games. What to do now?

8) Re-clean your problem games. I did this with Super Mario Bros. 3, which had the most trouble booting up. It should come as no surprise that it was the dirtiest cart seeing as it got the most use when I was very young. I cleaned it a second time around, having already done so a few weeks ago, and found that it was still pretty dirty. I've read that blowing on your carts is actually one of the reasons they get buildup on the leads. I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Anyway, after letting it dry for a few minutes, I plugged the cart back in, and still had purple screen. Arrrgh. However, at this point I started getting a garbled-looking Super Mario Bros. 3 title splash along with the purple screen. Progress?

9) After a moment of quiet despair I returned to the internet and trudged through many articles and thread posts rehashing what I'd already done. Then I found this. It suggested that I gently slide the cartridge to the right after popping it in, but before turning the power on. I did so, and it worked as though my system was brand new again.

So at this point nearly all my NES cartridges work perfectly again. A couple, like SMB3, require a wee bit of jostling to get them working perfectly, but I don't care. I've got all my old games back and in working order, and my NES should be working well for a long time to come.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them below. If you have any issues that you'd like to see addressed in a future Retro Care article, go ahead and email the author.


Bill said:

Thanks for these posts. I need to do a major clean on all of mine as well, & my poor NES hasn't been cleaned in years :(

I find these topics very interesting!

And girls who like girls who like rumble packs!

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Bill on Retro Care: Fixing Your NES's Flashing Purple Screen: Thanks for these posts. I need to do a major clean on all of mine as well, & my poor...

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