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The Study of Cartridge Blowing
September 24, 2012 8:35 PM   Subscribe

Did Blowing into Nintendo Cartridges Really Help? Mental_Floss takes a look at what a daily blow does to an NES cartridge.
posted by hot_monster (55 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have nothing to say... This article made me smile. Who didn't blow into the cartridges?
posted by Night_owl at 8:50 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Pencil eraser.
posted by stbalbach at 8:50 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


The thing that fascinates me is how did we all know to blow into the cartridges, whether it helped or not? How did this practice spread across the entire country?
posted by shakespeherian at 8:51 PM on September 24, 2012 [14 favorites]


As someone who works on connector reliability in electronics, let me just say - I TOLD YOU SO!



There. I feel much better now. I'll be forwarding this article to some colleagues so they can share the laughs.
posted by blurker at 8:58 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


The thing that fascinates me is how did we all know to blow into the cartridges, whether it helped or not? How did this practice spread across the entire country?

Because somebody tried it once, and they put the cartridge in, and hey, it worked! Blowing on it must have caused it to work. They told their friends, wash, rinse, repeat, and soon "everybody knows" that blowing on NES carts makes them work.

See also: Homeopathy.

(And yeah, I blew on NES cartridges as a kid too.)
posted by jcreigh at 9:01 PM on September 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


But...but...dust!!
posted by asnider at 9:04 PM on September 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yes.
posted by fyrebelley at 9:13 PM on September 24, 2012


What I mean is I think it's interesting to imagine a network of kids who all know someone who knows someone such that a stupid piece of placebo effect like this becomes universal.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:17 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


You kids. I was blowing into my Intellivision cartridges. AND IT WORKED!
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:32 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I did this when I was a kid growing up in Canada. I wonder if this was truly an international thing?
posted by smorange at 9:35 PM on September 24, 2012


It doesn't work? That's a blow.


I'll get me coat
posted by fallingbadgers at 9:39 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes the dust issue of course, but wasn't it also an effort to cool down an overheating cartridge? Or was that something else?
posted by Brocktoon at 9:40 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I remember a friend who had a roll of quarters because for some reason his NES wouldn't read the carts unless the game was all the way down in the machine. A roll of quarters just about perfectly fit to hold it in place.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:51 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I did blow into the cartridge out of desperation if my primary trick (that is vaguely touched on in the article) didn't work. The inside of the housing had a bevel that, if you pushed the cartridge in without jamming it all the way in, would push the cartridge in just the right amount when you pushed the thing down. ZIF. ZIF, people.
posted by cmoj at 9:54 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


You kids. I was blowing into my Intellivision cartridges. AND IT WORKED!

We had an Intellivision and those cartridges always worked no matter what. I didn't learn the blowing trick until Nintendo came along and introduced glitchy cartridges into my life. Intellivision was the best game system ever.
posted by The World Famous at 10:11 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


The thing that fascinates me is how did we all know to blow into the cartridges, whether it helped or not? How did this practice spread across the entire country?

Right? Even if you had asked me at the time, I doubt I could have told you who told me the trick. I just knew it. Or rather, I knew of it, because what I remember was being told that it was a myth and could actually damage the cartridge. But sometimes you did it anyway, because a game was malfunctioning and there wasn't anything else to do and placebo or not, this 'worked.'

But there wasn't a video-game channel back then. I don't think there were television shows about (console) gaming at all. I doubt I read about the trick in a magazine. Somehow it just became ubiquitous. We all did it.
posted by cribcage at 10:19 PM on September 24, 2012


The day my Dragon Warrior 4 cartridge finally refused to be resuscitated from the dead just one more time was the day my childhood official ended.

...damn you stupid 12 year old mind, for not understanding the material properties of copper + moisture!
posted by T.D. Strange at 10:23 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


How about banging the top of the TV to make it work? That was all science, right?
posted by vidur at 10:40 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


How about banging the top of the TV to make it work? That was all science, right?

If percussive maintenance is good enough for NASA, it's good enough for me!
posted by Rangeboy at 10:50 PM on September 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


I blame the spreading of blowing on cartridges (and most other grade school urban legends of the 70s and 80s) on military kids. Seriously, they brought all kinds of new shit to the neighborhood.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 11:03 PM on September 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


The thing that fascinates me is how did we all know to blow into the cartridges, whether it helped or not?

Ironically, the existence of the Official NES Cleaning Kit may have validated the belief in cartridge-blowing, simply by implying that your NES would work better if only your cartridges were clean enough.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:38 PM on September 24, 2012


OK, so blowing on the cartridge had a sort of placebo effect at best. Good-o.

But rubbing the CD or DVD with the sleeve of my shirt is still based on good science, right?
posted by Foaf at 11:49 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


My friends and I had an extra step with this: pushing the cartridge in with the right technique. Some chose to slam it in, in one deft move. Others pushed one end down, then the other. Etc.
posted by Xere at 11:58 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


I dug out my old Sega Genesis a couple weeks ago and couldn't for the life of me get the games to work. I now know why.
posted by Marinara at 12:06 AM on September 25, 2012


Our preferred method of jamming the cartridge in tighter was to use the plastic sleeve that sometimes games came with, and in extreme cases, another game cartridge.

I was also in the weird position of having the Famicom and the NES at different times/places. I think it was even obvious to me then that the former was superior to the latter. The Americans had needlessly huge cartridges, perhaps to accomodate their giant fat hands. And the controllers were all square and sharp. WTF! Also, no disk drive, I mean come on.
posted by danny the boy at 12:08 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Until I see the science, I'll just keep believing that it worked on Atari 2600 cartridges and got passed incorrectly to the next generation of consoles.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:35 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I did this when I was a kid growing up in Canada. I wonder if this was truly an international thing?

I am Malaysian and distinctly remember blowing on my SMB and Contra carts. It seemed to come quite naturally without anyone telling me about it, so yeah, cart blowing is definitely universal.
posted by ianK at 2:47 AM on September 25, 2012


I figured out sometime in my early twenties that adjusting the cartridge slightly to the right or to the left while it was still in the machine was all it usually took to get a game running. It would have been nice to know this 15 years earlier when I was making myself hyperventilate trying to get my beloved Ghostbusters cartridge to load properly.
posted by Kevtaro at 3:14 AM on September 25, 2012


I remember a friend who had a roll of quarters because for some reason his NES wouldn't read the carts unless the game was all the way down in the machine. A roll of quarters just about perfectly fit to hold it in place.

Was your friend a Shaolin monk or something? My mind boggles at the discipline required to keep a full roll of quarters around to keep your NES working - I mean, if the thing doesn't load, wouldn't you just run out to the nearest arcade? I'm impressed.

How about banging the top of the TV to make it work? That was all science, right?


I can still hear that platicky booming sound our basement television would make when you whacked it with your hand just so to get the picture back. Later, us kids figured out we could use the VCR as a bludgeon to get the thing going.

The true tragedy of all this digital technology is the elimination of various routes to the healthy sublimation of familial violence.
posted by Chichibio at 3:37 AM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Hey, new anecdotes in place of old anecdotes! The only scientific bit is N's recommendation not to blow into cartridges (which is hopefully backed by their research), right?

I became really good at games like Zelda or SMB3 because my SNES would helpfully remove the save data at times, so I would try to finish a game in one go.
posted by ersatz at 4:12 AM on September 25, 2012


We did a little bit of cartridge-blowing, but discovered eventually that, once a cartridge started to malfunction, a quick application of pencil eraser to both the persnickety cartridge and, I think, to the contacts inside the machine, would almost always fix the problem. Hardly had any problems with the NES, after that.

I have no special love for the NES, probably because we had an Amiga in the same timeframe, and the games on that $3K computer were way better. But the SNES? That system will always have a special place in my heart. There's only a couple of NES games that are still worth playing (mostly Super Mario), but tons of SNES titles hold up, even today.

And the cartridges always worked.
posted by Malor at 4:12 AM on September 25, 2012


Despite the dire warnings against it and the endless cycle of oxidation it no doubt caused, I remember fetching the rubbing alcohol and q-tips to be a routine chore when using the NES at my cousin's house. This was done until he discovered that gently rocking a fully-inserted cartridge by moving your finger back and forth inside that little grip indentation did the trick 90% of the time and was far superior to blowing on the connector.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:34 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I caught my nine year old son disconnecting the nunchuk cable from his Wii remote and blowing into the connection the other day, because it wasn't working properly. Good to see traditions live on, even in new forms.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 4:54 AM on September 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


There were memes before the Internet.

True story.
posted by tommasz at 5:02 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sometimes when Team Fortress 2 crashes I open Steam's config folder and give that a blow just in case there's some dust in the DLLs.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:16 AM on September 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


If you read through that article they don't study whether cartridge-blowing actually works (and the anecdotal " You’re really not supposed to do it. But it works" would say otherwise) but they do show that it leads to long-term damage of the connections. The problem is that the "experts" don't tell you what you are supposed to do with a glitchy cartridge and most the advice for cleaning the connections causes further damage to them. My personal nonscientific observations/experiments says that yes, blowing does help- "smack it, blow it, insert it, shift it" seemed to be the trick to get most games working.
posted by Challahtronix at 5:29 AM on September 25, 2012


How about banging the top of the TV to make it work? That was all science, right?

The Fonzie Effect is totally science.
posted by stormpooper at 6:27 AM on September 25, 2012


But...but...dust!!

The one piece of equipment I currently own that is most susceptible to dust? My smartphone. It lives in my pocket and lint and other stuff fills the mini-USB port and the headphone jack. Two effects of this are a) the USB cable falls out and won't charge the phone and b) contacts get shorted and weird things start happening (like the phone thinking it's connected to a car kit and turning on the speaker every time I answer a call).

Not sure what this says about the cleanliness of my pants, but I've never had a dust problem with anything else I've owned. Well... except for that one computer that melted down when dust seized the CPU fan. Or that zoom lens that failed when I was shooting in a snowstorm and some ice crystals slipped the zoom ring.

Electronics are susceptible to dust, I guess.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:47 AM on September 25, 2012


No one's mentioned having a Game Genie? That cartridge add-on totally messed up with the NES connector so that you'd never be able to play games again, unless you had the pressure from the add-on sticking out of it. Even if you want to play legit, you needed to stick the Game Genie on anyways.

It was sort of like how in Link's Awakening for the Game Boy. When you stole an item from the Item Shop, the game renames your name from "Link" or "Butts" or whatever to "Thief". Every time someone talks to you, you're reminded that you're a thief. Branded for life. Use a Game Genie? Cheater for life.
posted by cyberscythe at 6:50 AM on September 25, 2012


The cartridge blowing stopped working for me fairly early on. We had to insert cartridges JUST SO for them to work (seated as far forward in the loading tray as possible; should click a little on the way down), but even that eventually failed us; no doubt this technique was also destructive.

I remember my dad going on and on about the price of games; he said the parts were dirt cheap. (He apparently didn't think about dev or marketing costs.)
posted by smirkette at 6:51 AM on September 25, 2012


In this day of computers, I wonder if using canned air on the Nintendo cartridges would have the same placebo effect, or if only blowing would truly "work."
posted by IndigoRain at 7:11 AM on September 25, 2012


Malor is sort of right, with the pencil eraser comment.

I hesitated clicking on the article link, because I know what a really really gnarly pin connection looks like. Picture cartridges being "blown clear" by children who have had a snack and not brushed their teeth. Repeatedly. After a while, stuff starts growing. Not just the grey of dust bunnies, but the funk of ... stuff. I shudder at the thought, now, but I wish I'd taken pictures. I didn't realise that 35 years later it'd be "Pics or it didn't happen".

It could come off, and did. Mostly into the unit itself. It got so bad that we ended up running a tune up special - the console and 10-15 cartridges for $19.95, I think. Something like that. We'd get a run during school holidays, of course, and some folks were smart and started bringing them in before the school breaks to be "ready". But once we had a methodology down, parents could drop the sets off before work and pick them up at lunch or after work.

The concept for most cartridge based games are the same - a flat motherboard connection plug housed inside a hard plastic mold shell that is shoved into a console system. Kids blew in them, and tried cleaning them with tissue paper shoved in the small space, but ultimately we simply had to pull everything apart. There was no internet, but "blowing" spread like wildfire, and most folks hadn't heard of, or had access to, canned air...

Now that we have the internet, a replacement for blowing has turned up: OTC Rubbing Alcohol and Q-Tips, but that's still a bit iffy. It's useful if you don't have any thing else, but you need to be aware that the wrong pressure applied to a closed cartridge system can snap the board or connections, and honestly, you can't get a good scrub going at it sideways, schlubing a drenched, cotton shedding QTip along it blindly while the item is in the housing. If you must, hold the cartridge at an angle that prevents the alcohol from collecting in the cartridge (even just a couple of degrees), and wipe gently and sparingly.

Honestly, though I'd say don't bother with QTips. They shred, they come apart, they soak up a lot of liquid. Without a balance of gentle touch and light hand with the alcohol, you'll have that stuff everywhere and shreds of cotton cluttering up your surface. Get a head cleaner wipe and some cleaning paper - wrap the head cleaner in paper, dip lightly in alcohol, and wipe firmly but gently in a "pulling" motion from the back of the cartridge down to the front on each contact.

Now a days, buying or reviving an old system, I'd start with canned air (but if your system isn't working, you'll likely need to do more). When using canned air, use the kind with a tip straw. Hold the cartridge so you blow air "up" and the debris falls "down". Don't get too close - condensation will collect if you just empty a whole can into it. Use a sweeping motion and go across both sides of the contact area twice, then let the cartridge rest a bit to let any condensation disperse. Same with the console - tip and blow and shake out any loose crap.

Pulling it apart, which is what we did, went something like this.

Gather tools: our tools included screwdrivers, hair dryers (to peel off stickers on the Atari cartridges that really needed saving), rubbing alcohol, pencil brush erasers, and head cleaners. Sometimes cleaning paper if a system was really gunky - imagine tissue paper that doesn't shred to contaminate the system even more. Canned air was rarely used - when it was employed, it was mostly in the deeper bowels of the systems, and from far enough away to not crack anything.

If you can, open the cartridge, lay the contact on a flat surface (protected, grounded, static-free surface). First, brush off any visible, loose crap with the brush end of an eraser brush. Next, use the tipside of the eraser pencil to wipe down each contact from the part where it's connected to the main board "down" toward yourself firmly but not super hard. You want to attack the surface of the contact at an angle of around 80 to 45 degrees. Firmly, but not firmly enough to crack it. Don't worry about eraser crumbs - the concept here is the same as those new fangled "magic erasers" - you're using the crumbs to rub off the gunk. Gently brush away the crumbs with eraser brush.

Finally, use a head cleaner swab to wipe the contacts clean with a dash of rubbing alcohol, again, angling it so the liquid doesn't drip back into the circuit board.

Reassemble.

Cleaning the console units themselves is harder. You don't have to take them apart, but it makes it easier. This bit that grabs the connector is pretty thin, so the head cleaner swab and cleaner paper combo dipped in a sparing bit of alcohol will do it. Let every thing dry before testing.
posted by tilde at 7:27 AM on September 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


I did this with a USB thumb drive the other day. I'm not ashamed.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:53 AM on September 25, 2012



There were memes before the Internet.


Briefly, very briefly, that word actually meant something, and represented an interesting idea. Now it seems to mean "captioned image," and it makes me cringe every damn time.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:55 AM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


No one's mentioned having a Game Genie? That cartridge add-on totally messed up with the NES connector so that you'd never be able to play games again, unless you had the pressure from the add-on sticking out of it. Even if you want to play legit, you needed to stick the Game Genie on anyways.

I had a Game Genie. I did not experience this issue.

I did have fun entering random codes to see what would happen. Most of the time, nothing would happen. Occasionally, the game would get all glitchy looking. Incredibly rarely, the code would actually do something cool.
posted by asnider at 8:30 AM on September 25, 2012


Might have been particular to my NES, but I often tried gently pushing the cartirdge to a bit to the left (or was it the right?) once it was slotted inside the NES. This resolved many of the connection issues.

Ahhh. Legend of Zelda. Metroid. Metal Gear. And maybe Kid Icarus. Glory days.
posted by cavalier at 8:36 AM on September 25, 2012


Anyone can blow on an NES cartridge. Does anyone know of somebody successfully swallowing one?
posted by Fizz at 8:45 AM on September 25, 2012


While this patina was often not bad enough to cause problems, an overzealous kid (ahem, like me) might notice this effect and (ahem) attempt to remove it using all sorts of things from erasers to steel wool to solvents (side-note: my father, being a computer guy, had access to a magical substance called Cramolin — apparently worth its weight in gold, it could clean anything). Enough overzealous cleaning could ruin a connector, rendering the cartridge unplayable. I know this because I did it.

I've had experience restoring circuit boards, but for analog synths, not games.

I hope this kid knew to make sure the steel wool was cleaned off before re-inserting the cartridge into the system!

And Cramolin... I'll bet that crap is responsible for ruining a game or two. That stuff may clean anything, but it leaves residue that causes more problems down the road.

Polishing connections is a good idea, as long as you can remove the polish completely. (I used to use MEK, but that stuff's off the market. Acetone or Xylol works, IIRC.)
posted by luckynerd at 10:15 AM on September 25, 2012


The thing that fascinates me is how did we all know to blow into the cartridges, whether it helped or not? How did this practice spread across the entire country?

I think there's something that feels inherently unclean about an exposed electronic connector. It should have a cap on it or something. And that slot should have a cover or a plug when there's no cartridge in it. It's just natural to have the urge to clean it off before trying to connect it.
posted by straight at 10:20 AM on September 25, 2012


We've never had good luck with DVD players. Or maybe it's crappy DVDs. But they always skip, freeze, or otherwise refuse to play, but only for a second or two. I assumed it was a bad spot on the disc, or some glitch in the read ahead code (is there such a thing? there is in my mental model of how a DVD player works!).

Anyway, the options (in order of preference) are (1) wait it out, or (2) stop the DVD, try to repeat the chapter, or skip ahead to the next chapter and shuttle backwards, or (3) declare the disc "BAD" and throw it away.

When my kids were toddlers we watched a fair number of kid-videos - Blue's Clues, Brother Bear, Franklin, etc - and got to know which discs would freeze where, and for about how long. The kids wanted Mom or Dad to "DO SOMETHING" and do it "RIGHT NOW". Understanding the futility of doing ANYTHING we came up with a placebo: when a DVD freezes, clap at the DVD player once and wait a couple of seconds to see if it worked.

It was not uncommon for us to be preparing dinner or washing dishes, and hear a loud CLAP or two from the den as our eldest attempted to "fix" the DVD. Gradually our middle and youngest picked up on it, and it "worked" 90% of the time. If it didn't work, we threw the DVD away.

Fast forward to last week. We're laying about the living room with our pre-teen and teenage kids watching Thor on Netflix when the movie freezes... All three kids clap once, and in the few seconds before the movie resumes normal play my wife and I share a glance and chuckle.
posted by ElGuapo at 10:35 AM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah, looking back on it, blowing on it was The Accepted Solution but never actually worked reliably.

Every kid I knew said he had his own particular foolproof trick that would work every time - slamming it down was one. Then they tried it in front of me and it didn't work. It turned out that all of these methods worked about as often as blowing into it.

Then the one kid - the one who had a Famicom, which was incredibly fucking impressive in 1993 - showed us his particular never-fail trick. He was reluctant to do it, but he would use it in case of emergencies - I forget what emergency it was.

Anyway, he picked up the cartridge, made a grossed-out face, and licked the goddamn connectors. End to end, like an envelope.

Put the cartridge in. Worked first time.

His explanation was the same as the article's speculation: that moisture helps increase conductivity, which is why blowing sometimes helped.

I tried it my own self, a few times after that. It remains the only foolproof method that actually did work every time. I also found out why he didn't like doing it - it tasted motherfucking disgusting.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:52 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


gently rocking a fully-inserted cartridge by moving your finger back and forth inside that little grip indentation did the trick 90% of the time and was far superior to blowing on the connector

This, this, this!

It works every time, and it's not just the placebo effect, either. You can see it working.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:21 AM on September 25, 2012


It's not just me, right? That last comment sounds really dirty?
posted by OnceUponATime at 12:01 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, yeah. You're cleaning it, duh.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:27 PM on September 25, 2012


Am I the only one who looked at the article and immediately thought "Waitaminute.. that's no Metroid cart that I've ever seen.." ?

*Google-fu Action Montage*

Oh nevermind, I'm just showing my age by thinking the original NES Original Series cart was the only official cartridge art released.
posted by mediocre at 2:29 PM on September 25, 2012


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