People of a certain age will remember the once common practice of blowing into Nintendo cartridges to make them work better. To people not of that age, it might seem strange. So, did blowing into a Nintendo cartridge work? And if it did, why do people like me recommend not doing it?
Why people blew into Nintendo cartridges
This practice was a result of the design of the original Nintendo NES. In order to make the console look more like a VCR and less like a game console, it had a front loading cartridge slot with a ZIF socket. This made looting the games much more like loading a tape in a VCR, a marketing decision tied solely to the video game crash of 1983.
It was brilliant marketing. But the problem was the socket didn’t grip the contacts on the cartridge very well. This led to arcing, which led to dirty contacts on the cartridge slot and on the cartridges themselves. Video game rentals exacerbated the problem. Popular games went from console to console as people rented them, depositing grime at each stop, and slowly eating away at the reliability of every console in town.
Nobody knows who first thought to try blowing into cartridges when they didn’t work. But it seemed to help, and word of this life hack spread like wildfire, even without the internet.
Later Nintendo consoles used a traditional cartridge slot, which made blowing into cartridges pointless. Nevertheless, some people carried on with the practice.
Did blowing into Nintendo cartridges work?
Experts disagree what blowing into Nintendo cartridges actually accomplished. They also disagree about whether it worked.
There is little question that if the problem was dust, blowing into a cartridge would dislodge some dust and potentially help. But dust was rarely the major issue. The major issue was usually caked on dirt on the contacts, or corrosion.
The droplets that you deposited on the cartridge when you blew into them may have served as a conductivity enhancer. The problem was that the results were temporary. The game would play, but there were side effects.
Those droplets are mildly conductive, but they are also acidic. That means that they were also corroding the contacts on both the spot and on the cartridge. I have disassembled many consoles and cartridges and observed lots of corrosion inside. The problem was that the system could get addicted to the practice, similar to how a gas powered lawn mower gets addicted to starter fluid, creating a short-term gain, but long-term reliability issues.
That’s why I don’t recommend the practice. Especially on newer Nintendo consoles, where it is completely unnecessary, but also on an NES.
What to do instead of blowing into Nintendo cartridges
Instead of blowing into Nintendo cartridges, the solution is to 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 have a blog post on cleaning both the console and the cartridges.
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.
It’s worked for me, and it will work for you.