How to Clean Your NES Console and Games the Right Way


Recently, Nintendo announced the NES Classic Edition, which includes 30 built-in games that can be played with the included NES controller that even works with the Wii U! With all of us 80's and 90's gamer kids now a part of the big, scary adult world, demand for the games and consoles that started it all seems to be larger than ever.

But what if you want to take it one step further and collect the original NES and software? It's not as hard as you think, and you can get what you're looking for without breaking the bank as long as you shop smart. However, it's important to remember that the NES is over 30 years old and may require some work on your part to get it functional again.

What about that weird rattling sound in that awesome copy of Ducktales that you scored for a sweet deal? Are you bummed that you forked out $50 for an NES that never stops blinking? Were you ripped off? Don't throw it in the trash just yet, because...

NES Blinking Light Explained

So what causes the blinking red light on an NES? Corrosion and dirt inside the console and on the games themselves can foul up connection between the two sets of pins, and/or be the result of a checksum error (hint: it's the 10NES chip. More on this below). 

Admit it: you blew hot, sticky mouth air all in your Nintendo games to get them to work. As much as this myth has been dispelled, it seemed to be a habit that was harder to get rid of than nuclear waste-infused cockroaches.

But it worked right? Sometimes, and only because the moisture riding your fevered exhale train somewhat improved connectivity between the game's pins and the NES's 72-pin connector. And as many of us know, this was not a permanent fix, as we all did it enough over the years to resurrect the population of Jonestown after they drank the Kool-Aid.

Unfortunately, moisture has a pesky habit of corroding metal, so over time, the pins inside the NES and the games start to resemble an old picket fence straight outta Tom Sawyer, and thus, the dreaded blinking red light. Dirty game or dirty console, it doesn't matter. You got the same result every time.

If you're interested in getting ahold of your own original NES console, just assume that little Jimmy blew it more than a blues harmonica and prepare to thoroughly clean it and any games you bought along with it. And the best part? You don't have to be a fat paid tech guru to do it right! So let's crack open that NES and get started!

NES Console Repair 101

The NES is not a complex machine. The iconic gray box is held together by 6 Philips screws on the bottom of the console. Inside, the 72-pin connector that your game plugs into is attached to the motherboard. It's a tight fit, but the connector simply slides off and onto the motherboard, which is good news for those who can't even turn on the stove without burning the place down.

It's always a good idea to have a spare 72-pin connector handy when repairing your NES console, but steps will be provided for multiple options to try before replacing it altogether. Details and pictures can be found over on Instructables, but the steps to remove the connector are outlined below:

  1. Remove the 6 Philips screws on the bottom of the console.
  2. Carefully lift the top off of console off of the base.
  3. Remove the 7 screws that hold in the metal RF shield and lift it out.
  4. Remove the 8 screws that secure the board to the bottom of the console.
  5. Disconnect the controller and reset button connectors and carefully lift out the board.
  6. Carefully remove the 72-pin connector by pushing it off the board with your thumbs on both sides.

The logical step at this point would be to replace the connector altogether. 72-pin connectors are easy enough to come by on Amazon and eBay for approximately $10, but other options exist for those who are more adventurous.

Personally, I'm not one for bending pins "back into place" or boiling the connector, so my strong recommendation is to get an aftermarket piece, reinstall it and call it a day.

But what if I said that you can make that blinking light go away forever?

Snip the pin, bend up and laugh triumphantly!

Snip the pin, bend up and laugh triumphantly!

That's right. Regardless of whether the game fires right up or not, you can make that damnable light go away forever by disabling the 10NES Lockout chip. It's not as complicated as it sounds and is a simple hack that will actually make your console more reliable. The whole history of the 10NES chip and Nintendo's shitshow with Atari is well documented, but for our purposes, a simple snip keeps your console humming like it just rolled off the line.

This is considered a mod and is not required to get your console up and running, so whether you elect to keep the pin intact or not, reassemble your NES by following the above directions in reverse, taking care to replace the screws where you found them. But wait! Did you forget all about that 20+ year old saliva festering inside of that innocent-looking gray square you're holding?

Before you go plugging any old game into your newly refurbished NES, it's important to...

Clean Your Games

Cleaning NES games is a process that involves some specialized tools and chemicals. Some folks would simply rub down the game's contacts with cotton swabs and window cleaner, however, any job worth doing is worth doing right, amirite right?

As a proud owner of over 80 NES games, I find taking apart the cartridge and directly cleaning the contacts is much more rewarding. If you want to go this route, you will need a cleaning kit and some security bits.

So why the specialized tools? All of the Windex cleaning repair videos that I watched failed to take into account that annoying rattle that some games may have when shook. Typically, this sound is the result of a loose cap or resistor and isn't always the sound of doom, but is annoying to listen to nonetheless.

I have a copy of Wrath of the Black Manta that had a similar problem, but upon inspection, was caused by an inconsequential piece of plastic that worked its way loose. Further, nothing beats removing the game's board and giving the pins a thorough cleaning with products designed for that very purpose. Keeping the cartridge intact may simply move the gunk further up the pins, (in)conveniently out of reach.

(Fun Fact: older cartridges may have an 'official' version of the Famicom-to-NES adapter (though an unofficial, much more user-friendly version by Hyperkin is now available), which can be used to legitimately play Famicom games directly on your NES! Anyone up for some Doki Doki Panic?)

Once you get the cartridge apart, remove the board and apply the cleaning chemicals per the provided instructions. The set I bought included a paste that would be liberally spread across the pins, allowed to dry and removed with a paper towel. After a quick spritzing of the included polish, my pins were like new and every game I've done the repair on has worked flawlessly ever since.

Regardless of what method you go with, it's a good idea to clean your games every six months, especially if you don't have any dust sleeves and your games are allowed to leave it all hanging out at any given time. Doing so will also increase the life of your 72-pin connector, which delivers the goods to your watery eyeholes, so take care of your shit!

But Nintendo Sucks! What About Other Consoles?

Similar steps can be taken for refurbishing Sega Master System and Genesis, along with the SNES and N64! The security bit I mentioned above should work on all of these consoles' respective games, but if not, they're easy to find online. Short of the types of games that they played, many of these consoles and games are similar in construct and are super easy to clean and maintain yourself without extensive technical knowledge.

My total investment for a complete cleaning kit and a new 72-pin connector is under $30 and I haven't even come close to using all of the chemicals. If you want to get your game on the right way, I recommend following these steps to a tee after scoring an NES on the cheap at your local yard sale and reliving the reasons why your lonely childhood was, in fact, awesome!