Blowing into NES cartridges is something almost any member of Generation X can remember doing at some point. The schoolyard wisdom was that when your NES cartridge didn’t work and console gave a flashing red light, blowing into a Nintendo cartridge helped it work. In this blog post, we’ll explore why it became a common practice, and why it is not a good practice and what you should do instead.
Where blowing into NES cartridges came from
Nintendo went to great lengths to avoid calling the NES a video game console. They were well aware of the North American video game crash of 1983 and went to extraordinary lengths to avoid repeating it, even at the expense of the long-term reliability of the console. Two of the design decisions they made led to the practice of blowing into NES cartridges.
The 72-pin connector
The first design decision was not using a traditional top loading cartridge slot, but instead, using a zero insertion force 72-pin connector that didn’t grip the edge connectors on cartridges as tightly. The second was the use of a lockout chip, which prevented the console from loading unauthorized third party games.
The connector choice meant that the console and the cartridges didn’t make as solid of an electrical connection as the Atari 2600 did. I know people remember blowing into Atari cartridges as well as Nintendo cartridges, but it was unnecessary on Atari cartridges, and even harmful. More on that in a while.
The NES lockout chip
The lockout chip was a second potential point of failure. It meant there were additional pins, pins 34-35 and 70-71, that had to work. If the four pins the lockout chip need happen to be dirty, it didn’t matter if all of the other pins were working. You’d still get the blinking light.
The phenomenon of video game rentals made the problem worse. People would rent a game from the neighborhood video store, play it over the weekend, then return it. The more times a game got rented, the dirtier its contacts became. And plugging a dirty cartridge into a console made the console dirtier as well. The most popular games circulated around town, slowly but surely dirtying up those consoles. The problem was so gradual no one noticed it while it was happening, but eventually many consoles got to the point where they wouldn’t load a game unless you blew on the cartridge first.
This was the reason why Nintendo changed the design in the Super NES and N64 consoles, returning to a top-loading format. There is never any reason to blow into a Super NES cartridge or N64 cartridge, although some people continued the practice, because old habits die hard.
Why blowing into Nintendo cartridges worked
Nobody knows for certain why blowing into Nintendo cartridges worked. The generally accepted theory is that the moisture acted like a conductivity enhancer, allowing the pins to make good enough contact for the game to load.
But it was only a short-term fix. The problem is that moisture was not pH neutral. It was slightly corrosive. Given enough time, it would corrode the cartridge connector and the pins in the cartridge. This is why blowing into Super NES, N64, and Atari cartridges is harmful. It corrodes the connectors on the cartridges and on the console.
The tell-tale sign is when you look at the pins in an NES cartridge and observe green corrosion. A cartridge in that condition will not work reliably, and it’s likely damaging the connector in the console as well. Cleaning off the corrosion with a mild abrasive will return it to working order. Unfortunately, that wasn’t common knowledge in the ’80s and ’90s.
What to do instead of blowing into Nintendo cartridges
Instead of blowing into Nintendo cartridges, clean the cartridges and the slot they go into. This is also a very good practice on any other cartridge based console, but Nintendo got the bad rap because of the design of its NES.
As long as you keep your cartridges clean, a clean console gives far fewer problems today than it did in the 1980s. That’s because you’re not renting dirty cartridges anymore.
I started messing around again with 8-bit Nintendo consoles in 2005. I have not had any problems with cartridges malfunctioning in that length of time, which is longer than the console was originally commercially available.
Blowing into Nintendo cartridges is something most people probably haven’t thought of in a very long time, but almost any member of Generation X and even many elder Millennials will remember doing, even if they don’t recall why. It’s also possible they never knew why, they just saw other people doing it and it seemed to help, so they started doing it too.