18 December 1999

CVG 101: Cleaning Your Cartridges (originally for Classic Gamer Magazine)

[Classic Gamer Magazine introduction. This article originally appeared in CGM volume 1, #2 (winter 1999–2000). This is the article as I submitted it and may not exactly match what was published.]

Finally, after months of searching, you find a new and sought after cartridge for your collection. You take it home, plug it in your system, and . . . nothing! The game appears to be dead. Maybe it’s just dusty. You take it out, blow on it, and try again. Still nothing. Your sense of euphoria has been dashed by a cruel jest of the fates. Or maybe not . . . .

Just like everything else, cartridges get dirty over time. How dirty depends mainly on the environment they’re kept in, but you probably only care whether they work or not.Well, first let me suggest that you clean all the carts you find, because some of the dirt on the contacts is going to stay in your console’s cartridge slot. Using only clean cartridges will help prolong your system’s life. (Think of it as "safe sex" for your video game system(s).)

Before I proceed, I must say that neither I nor Classic Gamer Magazine take any responsibility for any damage you might do to your cartridges following any of the advice below. Although the techniques described work for most people, I can’t guarantee that something totally weird won’t happen when you try them, so please don’t blame me.

Okay, the first rule of cart cleaning is don’t blow into them! Although I don’t know of any studies that prove it, the conventional wisdom is that all you’re doing is blowing moisture right on to the contacts, which will only make them corrode faster. Although it may seem that you’re blowing the dust out of them and making a cartridge that didn’t work a second ago work now, it was probably just the fact that you reseated the contacts by taking it out and putting it back in. If you must blow into them, try using a can of compressed air from your local electronics store. This is exactly what those cans were created for.

There is a better, more thorough way, although it’s not as fast. First, go to your local pharmacy and buy some cotton swabs and a small bottle of isopropyl alcohol. The higher the percentage of alcohol, the better. The rest of the solution is water, you see. Alcohol evaporates quickly, but as you know, water doesn’t. Water causes corrosion, so the less, the better.

As you probably guessed by now, simply take a cotton swab and dip it in the alcohol. Then rub it up and down along the contacts. You will probably be surprised by how black the swab becomes. Now whatever you do, don’t dip it back in the alcohol because then you’ll just contaminate it. You can, however, rotate the swab to a clean area as you rub. You’ll end up with three or four "sides" to your swab. While I’m at it, I also clean the inside of the cartridge around the contacts so the dust there doesn’t settle back on them. Finally, make sure you wait until the alcohol has evaporated and the contacts are dry before plugging it in!

Oh, but you can’t get to the contacts because there’s just more black plastic on that end? Okay, then that’s probably an Atari-made Atari 2600 cart. If you look closely, you’ll see two tabs sticking out at each end next to a "hole." Take something like a nail file or knife and carefully poke it into one of those holes. You should see the "door" on the long slot in the middle slide up. Now simply push back on the entire black cover and the contacts should be exposed.

At this point, most cartridges will work if they didn’t already. Occasionally you have a stubborn one with harsher corrosion that won’t clean off with this technique. Now you have to bring in the big gun: a pencil eraser. Simply rub the eraser up and down on the contacts. This goes with the "grain" of the contacts from their many insertions into and removals from consoles. Don’t over rub, as the eraser can actually remove the conductive coating of the contact. Once you do that, your cartridge will no longer work no matter how much you clean it.

You might have problems getting the eraser to the contacts. William Cassidy once suggested cutting a slice of eraser and gluing it to a Popsicle stick. If that doesn’t work, you can try taking the casing off the cartridge to better get at the contacts. Many systems’ cartridges are held together with a screw under the label. This can lead to a dilemma if the label is in excellent shape. Do you want a beautiful looking cartridge or one that works?

There are a few options. You can use a utility knife to cut a small X over the screw, carefully peel the label back, and then fold it back down when done. You might also try removing the label (or peeling it back enough to get to the screw) and then re-applying it. If you do this, try heating the label with a hair dryer. This usually loosens the glue so that you can keep the label in good condition if you’re careful.

As time goes on, more and more cartridges will go "bad," when actually they’re just dirty. Keeping your cartridges, and thus your system, clean will increase their lifetime. And hopefully you’ll get a lifetime’s worth of play out of them as well.

Postscript (June 2013)

The date for this article is taken from the day Cav said he was going to start mailing out copies of the issue to subscribers. The issue's theme was video games and movies, but cleaning cartridges was the topic stuck in my head, so I went with that. CVG 101 was the kind of column that didn't necessarily have to follow each issue's theme. Also, if you have copies of CGM, you'll note that first issue had a header proclaiming the article part of "Lee's Classic Corner." I asked Cav to ditch that after the first issue and he did.