Ike's Improved Guide to NES Maintenance
Editorial note: Always be sure to take all necessary precautions when dealing with electronics and be sure you always know what you're doing. Everything you do, you do at your own risk, and Hardcore Gaming 101 won't take responsibility for any damage done to you or your hardware.
Some number of years ago I wrote a short guide on how to deep clean your NES and games in order to make them play again so you don't have to go spend money on one of those awful "famiclone" machines or have to re-purchase your games because they don't appear to work anymore. I made the guide up very quickly using my crappy 8 year old camera and have since upgraded so I can bring you the goods in high definition(!) I'm going to re-write the guide to be a little more in-depth and get some better pictures. For questions and comments please use the thread on the forums.
This guide has several intended purposes. Those are:
To be idiot-proof and simple as possible. I'm going to cover the most basic method for cleaning your games and system. It won't require you to unscrew anything unless you want to. You're going to get a much better, deeper clean if you do, but I know there are at least a few of you who are a bit anxious at the prospect of opening your system up. I'll cover both methods here.
To be cheap. The total cost of supplies for this venture should be under or around $10 depending on your proclivities. Brasso will be your most expensive component, and that runs usually no more than $3.50 USD.
To be effective. A lot of people are under the myth that NES consoles are sensitive and break easily. This is total crap. These things are among the toughest electronics on the planet, but like all electronics, don't function well when they're dirty.
There are a few things that contribute to a dirty console, the biggest one being people blowing in the cartridge. Don't do that! The human mouth is a disgusting, wet hole filled with bacteria and digestive enzymes that aren't meant to be found culturing in a Nintendo. The thing of it is, blowing does work. It works because you blow moisture onto the brass contacts of the cartridge, thus increasing the conductivity between the console and game. However, when you wet the cartridge and then shove it into a damp, dark environment to sit for possibly decades, corrosion will occur.
I have also heard of people dipping their carts in water to improve conductivity. In fact, I purchased a copy of Kirby's Super Star that had been just one such victim of this method, because the outside screws were also corroded in addition to the inner contacts. I mention this because, using this cleaning method, I was able to get this copy of Kirby to work again. It still works perfectly to this day. This stuff is effective.
This guide will be focusing primarily on the NES. The method also works for SNES, N64, Genesis, and the Master System. I can't vouch for TurboGrafx stuff because I've never had the pleasure of working with one. However, I think the same method should apply, as I've gotten Master System cards to work using it. Use at your own risk on that one.
There are two factors to consider before reading any further that could render the rest of this pointless.
Make sure the thing actually works. Plug it in, turn it on, and make sure that it's actually getting power. If it's not getting power or you're missing the power cord, borrow a friend's power adapter, ask at your local retro shop, whatever, and test it with that cord. If it isn't getting power from your own cord, test it with a second cord! It's possible the cord itself could be fried, and replacing the adapter is much cheaper than replacing the console.
If it turns on, great! If it doesn't, even after two attempts, don't bother cleaning it. It would be like polishing a turd. Test it first before investing any more time or money in it!
Test your pin connector. When you slide a cartridge into the NES, the long section that the game clicks into is the 72-pin connector. This is the major problem area, the thing we're focusing on, and the part people waste the most time and money on.
What's going on here? Well, people had a tendency to leave games in the NES for extended periods of time, even while not playing them. The NES works by reading data off of the game cartridge via the 72-pin connector making contact with the little brass teeth on the underside of your game. In order to get good contact, it has to press up against the pins pretty hard, and these pins tend to get bent downward. If all of the pins aren't making even contact with the board, the cartridge can't be read and you get a blinking screen, a garbled mess or a host of other issues.
Most of the time your pin connector is just dirty. Having dozens of dirty, possibly spit-covered games shoved into it repeatedly builds up a lot of muck inside. There are two factors that could impact the approach you should take to fixing your system.
If you slide your game into the system, it should give at least some resistance. If it does, you're good to clean using this method.
Your game should stay secured in the system. If you try to pull it out, it should pull back a bit. If you turn the console upside down and your game falls out, you're going to need to tighten up the pins, which requires you to open the console.
If you find your console too loose, go ahead and skip down to the last part, where I'll detail how to open up your system. You can attempt to clean it without opening it - it may work, but it may require more manipulation to get your games to work.
Brasso. This is absolutely necessary as it's the main component of our success. You can find a good size bottle of Brasso at any Wal-Mart, typically in the grocery section where you can find the other cleaning solutions. It's with the other metal polish and usually runs about $3.50 a bottle. (prices may vary at different locations.)
I recommend Brasso because it is specifically for brass. I wouldn't recommend other polishes because most of them are intended for silverware or silver jewelry and tend to be grittier. You can see a picture of a bottle to the right.
A metric fuckton of double-sided cotton swabs. You're going to go through a lot of these. Be mindful of which kind you pick up. In this case I actually recommend going with a cheaper brand because they tend to have coarse fiber that doesn't break apart easily, while Q-Tips tend to be too soft. I regularly buy packs of 100 of the cheapest available swabs at my local Big Lots for $.50 cents each. They're terrible in your ears but awesome on games.
Try to get ones that have paper sticks instead of the plastic ones. A lot of the cheaper ones use plastic and they tend to break and bend, and since you're going to be using some force here you'll want some tougher swabs. You can get packs of swabs for anywhere from $.50 to $3.99 or so depending on how fancy you want to be.
A reasonably clean NES game. Obviously, the cleanest games are going to give us the most success, but regardless, we're going to give the game itself a deep cleaning as our first step. Details will come at the bottom of this list. Basically, though, you'll want a game that's not filled with spiderwebs and roach legs.
Since this guide is also for cleaning the games themselves, I will provide demonstration photos of a reasonably dirty game.
Windex and/or Rubbing Alcohol. Windex is the preferred substance, but it can get kind of expensive for how little of it you're going to need for our purposes. If you decide to use rubbing alcohol, it's important that you get some with a high alcoholic concentration, preferably 70-90%. Most stores sell 50% solution, which is too much water to use in a device prone to rust. Alcohol is a drying agent and thus evaporates more quickly than the water in the solution, which creates problems down the line. Windex works a little better because it has detergents that break down dirt, and it evaporates quickly, and it kind of smells nice. You can get rubbing alcohol for about $.99 to $1.99 per bottle.
A Nintendo cleaning kit. Ideally, you own one of these lovely devices in good enough condition that it can be used. These come in several types; the official Nintendo kit comes with two or three paper swabs that you can clip into the cleaning cartridge. Some of the more generic models instead have an insert covered with a thick, rough plastic scrub. For our purposes, the plastic ones are preferred. The paper ones used by Nintendo's kit tend to fall apart quickly and are difficult to clean.
Security bits. You'll need a 3.8mm bit to open most NES carts. Older carts can be opened with a small flathead screwdriver. This is only if you intend to give a thorough treatment to both your games and your system, but is not necessary in most cases. Picture to the right.
Optional step: Open your cartridge if you're able to do so. For the purposes of getting photos, I've used an open cart.
Grab your swab and apply a small amount of Brasso to one end. Just enough to cover 2/3rds of the head of the swab should do it. Swab lightly over both sides of the pin set, enough to cover it evenly over the board.
Once you've evenly coated the pins, vigorously rub your cotton swab over them. Press hard and use small, strong scrubs, as you're trying to rub off what could be years of grime and tarnish. The reason we use Brasso is because it's a powerful cleanser as well as a pretty good metric for telling how much dirt remains on the cartridge.
This one, pre-scrub, is pretty average. There's no rust, and not a lot of dirt, but mostly tarnish. This is what 90% of NES games look like when you buy them from a flea market or most stores. Also, take note of how little of the cartridge actually contains a PCB.
Swab it with both sides of the one you're currently using. After that, take your Windex or rubbing alcohol and wet a new swab. You'll want to keep scrubbing with fresh swabs when the head turns black. Eventually you should be able to rub your swab across it and not pick up very much dirt. You'll want to clean off as much as possible for best results. Dry it afterward.
This is after a scrub for a comparison shot. The right side is cleaned, the left side is not. The reason we're using Brasso is because rubbing alcohol, Windex, or whatever alone will not remove that tarnish, which is what's causing most of our problems.
Your cartridge should be nice and shiny. Ideally, you should clean all of your cartridges this way.
This is post-scrub. It's considerably shinier. We're preparing to use this cartridge to scrub the inside of the console itself, and thus we need it to be as clean as possible.
Take your cartridge and repeat the process with the Brasso. Apply a small amount of it to both sides of the pin board and make sure it's spread evenly across. You don't wanna glob on a whole lot of it, it won't take much.
Take the cartridge and insert it into your NES. Remove it and reinsert it 3-4 times. Afterward, swab off the remaining Brasso. Chances are, some dirt has come out of the console. Clean your cartridge in the same manner described above.
Take another swab and wet it up with your Windex/alcohol. Apply it to the cartridge in the same manner you applied the Brasso, but don't dry it. Repeat the process described above and allow it to scrub the 72-pin connector. After you've scrubbed it some, dry it with a swab and try to remove any excess dirt. You may have to do this 3-4 times before you get all the remaining polish out of it.
If you've got some compressed air, blow out the pin connector. Insert your cleaned cartridge and power on. Hopefully, it works on the first try. If not, repeat the last step. If it still doesn't work, insert the cartridge as normal, push it down and slide it back and forth slightly until it boots up consistently. If your pin connector is too loose, you're not going to get a good connection even with a clean system and will need to open your console.
So you want to open your NES...
This part is a lot simpler than it sounds. The NES has no moving parts and it's pretty well-built; the individual parts are pretty discrete and, for the most part, it's pretty obvious how they all fit together. Let's start at the beginning:
Flip your NES over.
There are six screws you need to undo on the underside of the NES. You want to get the four on each corner and the two in the middle of each side. Do not remove the silver screws in the black plastic section!
Remove the top of the NES. Remove the metal shielding.
After opening your console, you should see this:
There are 7 screws here to remove. Two on the left side of the cartridge slot, two behind it, and three on the right side. Remove them and set them aside. The top half of the metal shielding should lift off easily. Set it aside.
Unscrew the cartridge carriage and remove it.
After completing the last step, you should be seeing this:
We're going to remove the black platform where the cartridge sits. There are six screws to remove here, and two of them are special. There are two screws on either side toward the rear, and one toward the front side.
These are the rear two. You'll notice one of them is silver colored; this one is important, because it's a little longer than the brass ones and has a special place. You'll want to make sure it goes back where you found it.
Once you've gotten the screws out, pull the entire carriage forward a bit and you should be able to lift it out.
Lift up the circuit board and remove the 72-pin connector.
The entire circuit board should lift up out of the lower shielding. There's a section of the shielding that clips onto the lower port of the NES and should slide off easily.
This is the hard part, and it's really not all that hard. You'll need to get the 72pin off of the circuit board. This will require you to pull pretty hard. Please be careful not to cut yourself on this thing, because it's happened to me. The connector that hooks the 72pin to the board is very similar to the one that cartridges use, so it's going to require a bit of force.
Bend each of the pins slightly upward.
This is the part that's probably going to take the longest and will require some finesse. I've tried to get a decent picture of what I'm doing:
Each of the pins is sort of a long U shape. You can take a glasses repair screwdriver as shown in the photo and gently slide it underneath the pin. Slide it down to the point where the flat part of the screwdriver is sitting underneath the more solid section of the pin - you'll want to bend up the entire thing and not just one arm of it. Simply twist the screwdriver slightly outward to lift the pin. This does not require much force. The pins should start to look like this. (click the image for a huge link cause it doesn't show up so well in the small versions - the pins to the right of my thumb are lifted, the ones to the left are not.) Do this to each pin.
Clean the 72pin using your cartridge.
Remember that cart we prepped up earlier? Take it out and smother a little Brasso onto both sides of its pins, making sure to get an even coat. Instead of rinsing it, insert it into the 72 pin connector like so:
Bend the cart downward as though it's docked in the console and pull it out. This will scrub the pins themselves. Do this repeatedly and clean off the cartridge - you should get some black gunk like before:
Keep doing this until it's clean. You'll probably get some stuff inside the 72 pin connector. You can dig it out using your screwdriver and some rubbing alcohol. Try to leave as little as possible.
Reassemble the NES.
This is going to mostly be the reverse of the previous steps, with a few notes.
Reattach the 72 pin as before. It's going to require some force to jam it back on. Make sure the screw holes line up on the circuit board.
Slide the cartridge carriage back onto the circuit board. IMPORTANT: There's a little lip on the underside of the carriage that needs to go underneath the circuit. Slip it underneath like seen on the right (as usual, click for larger images):
You'll need to make sure it's securely attached and slide the bottom side port back into the bottom side of the metal shielding. Check the screw holes to make sure they're lined up. Mind the wires on the right side of the console and make sure they're not pinched.
Screw the carriage back into place. Remember: The silver screws go in the second screw hole on the rear side of the carriage.
NOTE: Click the carriage down into place and make sure it locks. If it doesn't lock into place, you've either screwed it down too tight, or the lip is not secured under the circuit board.
Reattach the upper metal shielding. Screw all 7 screws back into place. Check to make sure the carriage is still locking properly; if not, loosen the screws.
Reattach the top of the NES. Flip it over and affix the 6 screws to hold it into place.
That's pretty much it! Not a whole lot to be done, and this will save most NES systems. Yours are probably not even as dirty as this one was.
For questions and comments please use the thread on the forums.