Did Blowing into Nintendo Cartridges Really Help?
When things went wrong inside your NES, the problem was usually a bad connection between the cartridge and its slot. That could be due to tarnishing, corrosion, crud in various places, weak pins in the slot, or other issues. The symptoms of a bad connection could include the game not starting at all, the console showing a blinking light, or the game starting up with garbage all over the screen (below, a photo of Zelda II shows this form of startup glitch). To combat these problems, in the mid-1980s my friends and I somehow learned this secret: if we took out the cartridge, blew in it, and reinserted it, it worked. And if it didn’t work the first time, it eventually worked, on the second or fifth or tenth time. But looking back on it, I wondered: did that blowing actually help? And if it did…why? Was dust the culprit, and I was blowing it out of the cartridge? I spoke with several experts (who insisted they were not experts, despite their backgrounds) to find out.
First up, Vince Clemente, producer of Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters — a documentary about players of the classic NES Tetris. Clemente said, “[Blowing in the cartridge] is actually terrible for the games and makes the contacts rust. You’re really not supposed to do it. But it works. [laughs]” This sums up the problem: although intellectually we knew that blowing into electronics was bad, we did it anyway. It seemed to work.
So I turned to another authority, Frankie Viturello, who hosts the gaming show Digital Press Webcast among many other gaming-related projects — he also worked in a game store for years. Viturello’s first response was: “While I admittedly may have dabbled in a little cartridge-blowing as a naive NES-playing youth, I’ve long-since been an advocate for not doing it with the stance that for whatever it may do to aid in the temporary functionality of an NES, it ultimately opens the door for damage and distress to the hardware.” So I went deeper — in the following mini-interview, I have added emphasis in various places.
Higgins: “How did this lore about blowing into the cartridges spread across the US?”
Viturello: “It was very much a hive-mind kind of thing, something that all kids did, and many still do on modern cartridge based systems. Prior to the NES I don’t recall people blowing into Atari or any other cartridge-based hardware that predated the NES (though that likely spoke to the general reliability of that hardware versus the dreaded front-loading Nintendo 72 Pin connectors). I suppose it has a lot to do with the placebo effect. US NES hardware required, on most games, optimal connection across up to 72 pins as well as communication with a security lock-out chip. The theory that ‘dust’ could be a legitimate inhibitor and that ‘blowing it out’ was the solution, still sounds silly to me when I say it out loud.“
Higgins: “Why would blowing into the cartridges have any effect? It feels like it works, sometimes.”
Viturello: “While there are some collectors/enthusiasts who will defend their position that the moisture in human breath will likely cause no damage to an NES cartridge, based on what I’ve personally seen over the past 20 years, I not only disagree with them, but feel strongly that the connection/correlation between blowing into an NES cartridge and the potential for long-term effects including wear, corrosion of the metal contacts, mold/mildew growth, is sound logic.
“So, WHY does blowing into a cartridge have any effect? I’m not a scientist and I don’t have any real empirical evidence, but I’m happy to speculate. The most reasonable explanations — in my opinion — are: 1.) The act of removing, blowing in, and re-seating a cartridge most likely creates another random opportunity for the connection to be better made. So removing the cartridge 10 times and putting back in without blowing on it might net the exact same results as blowing on it between each time. And 2.) The moisture that occurs when you blow into a cartridge has some type of immediate effect on the electrical connection that occurs. Either the moisture helps to eliminate/move any debris/chemical buildup that has occurred when the contacts and the pin-readers rub together, or the moisture increases conductivity to a degree that it can send the data through any existing matter that was previously interfering with the connection. Those are my best theories.”
Higgins: “What about other ways could you make a cartridge work when it was misbehaving? I’ve heard about stacking an extra cartridge on top of the one you’re playing, to force it down.”
Viturello: “Things like pressing down on the cartridge just helped with the connection because everything was horizontal in the pin-connector. Downward pressure pressed the cartridge pins more firmly against the connectors and eliminated some possibility for a missed or imperfect connection.”