Cleaning N64 game cartridges

Last Updated on March 28, 2023 by Dave Farquhar

Cleaning N64 game cartridges 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 game cartridges, based on my decades of experience fixing computers and game systems.

First step: Disassemble

Cleaning N64 games - disassembly
Once you open the cartridge, you can see the circuit board and the RF shield. Remove the shield to continue. You can already see this cartridge has dirty contacts.

The first mistake most people make is not taking the Nintendo N64 cartridges apart. You can clean them much more thoroughly, and quickly, if you take the cartridge apart. Unfortunately, Nintendo didn’t use Phillips screws, but security screws. To open the cartridge, you need a special game security bit, sometimes called a Retro-Bit. Get a set, which has two bits in it. The N64 cartridges use the smaller one. Open the case, then remove the metal 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, except maybe as a last resort.

Techniques that work for cleaning N64 games

Cleaning N64 games - Nintendo 64 game cartridge internals
After you remove the RF shield, pull out the circuit board and clean the metal contacts. These show signs of dirt and light oxidation.

Once you have the game open, you’ll notice the copper contacts on the edge connector are probably a bit dirty and more than a little discolored. You want bright and shiny, not dirty and discolored. Dirty, discolored copper 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 or 180 proof. 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. Here’s why.

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.

How to clean an N64 cartridge with an ultrasonic cleaner

Another option, if you have one or can borrow one, is to use an ultrasonic cleaner. Ultrasonic cleaners do an excellent job of removing even the most stubborn particles and debris from printed circuit boards, and the boards in N64 cartridges are small enough to fit in the inexpensive household ultrasonic cleaner sold by Harbor Freight. They also sell the cleaning powder. I’ve seen boards that were completely covered in greasy soot come out of an ultrasonic cleaner looking factory new. For best results, use distilled water rather than tap water.

If you’re on a tight budget, a cheap 300mL ultrasonic cleaner for cleaning glasses and jewelry is large enough for N64 cartridge PCBs. But a larger cleaner is more versatile if you also have carts for other game consoles.

If you only clean one board at a time, which you may want to do to avoid mixing boards up, here’s a trick to save money. Put a small amount of distilled water and cleaning powder in a resealable zip-top plastic sandwich bag, close the bag, then put the bag in the cleaner. Top off the tank with tap water, then run the cleaner.

Strictly speaking, you don’t even have to disassemble the cartridge if you use an ultrasonic cleaner, but the ultrasonic cleaner will destroy the game labels.

The only downside to using an ultrasonic cleaner is the longer drying time. You can accelerate it by warming it with a hairdryer or even blowing it out with some compressed air, but if you want to be really safe, let it sit overnight.

Finishing up the N64 cartridge

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 or mineral spirits. 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 N64 cartridge case

If your N64 cartridge case is grungy, wipe it down with some alcohol or glass cleaner and a paper towel. Step up to an old toothbrush or other soft brush to get the ground-in dirt and dust. If the case is really grungy, you can use some type of magic eraser knockoff to clean it up. It will remove dirt, minor discoloration, and even permanent marker. Those cleaners are mildly abrasive, so go easy with those to avoid removing the texture on the case.

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-applied game 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 game label to avoid tearing the game labels.

Reassembling your clean N64 cartridge

The N64 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.

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