Cleaning N64 games is a controversial topic. It doesn’t have to be. There are some techniques floating around that can be harmful. But I also bristle when I see people say there’s one and only one right way. Here are some techniques for cleaning N64 games, based on my decades of experience fixing computers and game systems.
First step: Disassemble
The first mistake most people make is not taking the cartridges apart. You can clean them much more thoroughly, and quickly, if you take the cartridge apart. To do this, you need a special game security bit. Get a set, which has two bits in it. The N64 cartridges use the smaller one. Open the case, then remove the shielding inside to expose the circuit board.
At this point, you can thoroughly clean a game in a few minutes. Without disassembly, it takes half an hour and you probably still won’t get the game very clean.
This is a good time to stop and ground yourself. Grounding yourself keeps you from damaging any of the chips on the board. Get a grounding strap and attach it to a cold water pipe, the center screw of an electrical outlet, or the metal computer case of a desktop computer that’s plugged in. Some people attach them to anything metal nearby, which won’t work. The closest metal shelf isn’t grounded, unless you wired it to a cold water pipe or a nearby electrical ground.
Second step: Don’t use harsh abrasives
I’ve seen people use steel wool, scouring pads, sandpaper, and all sorts of things on their cartridges. That’s overkill and it causes unnecessary wear on the contacts. You want them clean and shiny while wearing them down as little as possible. If you use harsh abrasives, you can wear down the plating off the contacts, and the grooves you leave attract more dirt, so the contacts get dirty more quickly. In the long run, things like steel wool and sandpaper are going to cause you other problems. So avoid them.
Techniques that work for cleaning N64 games
Once you have the game open, you’ll notice the gold contacts are probably a bit dirty and more than a little discolored. You want bright and shiny, not dirty and discolored. Dirty, discolored contacts cause the game to malfunction or not load at all.
Two household items that work well for cleaning N64 games are metal polish or a pencil eraser. You’ll also want some alcohol to clean up afterward. Use either denatured alcohol or isopropyl alcohol of at least 91% purity. There are people who will tell you rubbing alcohol is the worst thing you can use. It’s not, but avoid it. Spring for the better bottle.
Personally, I find metal polish gets the job done faster and easier, but if you prefer an eraser, that’s OK too. Both of these methods are abrasive, but they are less abrasive than sandpaper and steel wool. You can remove dirt with alcohol, but alcohol won’t do anything about corrosion. Run the eraser up and down over the contacts until they’re clean and shiny. Or apply a bit of metal polish to a cotton swab or a cloth and wipe it down.
Once you get it good and clean, follow up with a cotton swab soaked in the alcohol. This cleans off any remaining residue. Yes, a rubber eraser can leave residue. Let the alcohol dry. I heard one guy say it takes 4-24 hours for alcohol to dry. It doesn’t. It takes a few minutes. Wait until it looks dry, and you’ll be OK. By the time you’re done cleaning up the case and get it reassembled, it’ll be dry.
If you’re dead set against using alcohol, use contact cleaner. Contact cleaner is better, but more expensive. It may dry slightly faster and will indeed leave zero residue.
One last thing you can do is spray the contacts with a conductivity enhancer such as Deoxit or CRC 2-26. These products improve conductivity and reduce oxidation. They work by drawing the two surfaces slightly closer together at the molecular level, a phenomenon called chemical coupling if you want to research it yourself. It sounds like black magic, but these chemicals have applications well outside of video games.
Cleaning the case
If the case is grungy, wipe it down with some alcohol. If the case is really grungy, use some type of magic eraser knockoff to clean it up. It will remove dirt, minor discoloration, and even permanent marker. You can also remove permanent market by scribbling over it with a dry erase marker, then wiping the scribbles off. The solvent in the dry erase marker readily dissolves permanent marker. A coworker showed me that trick on a dry erase board at the office one day about 10 years ago.
Removing stickers from N64 games
If the case has extra stickers on it, the best way to remove them is to swab a little bit of lighter fluid or rubber cement thinner on it. Either of these solvents readily soaks through the paper and under the label and releases the adhesive. If the sticker isn’t porous at all, apply a bit around the edges and let it wick under. Lift each corner as much as you can, then repeat. With some patience and this method, you can remove stickers from the case without much difficulty.
Sometimes you can even remove stickers over the factory labels, but be careful. I can’t guarantee it will always work. You also want to be careful not to get the solvent under the labels you want to keep. Always work very slowly and carefully when removing a label over a factory label to avoid tearing the factory labels.
The cartridge case is keyed, so you can’t put the board back in the wrong way. Replace the board, and if it doesn’t fit, try another way. You’ll know when it fits right. Replace the metal shield and the two screws. Then snap the case back together and replace those screws.
As you can see, cleaning N64 games doesn’t have to be hard. You can do some damage if you’re not careful, but there’s more than one way to do the most critical part, which is cleaning those metal contacts.