November 20, 2023
N64 games are an nostalgic treasure trove. But let’s face it, nothing spoils the excitement more than a game that won’t boot up. When your cartridge is well beyond blowing into and falling into disrepair, fear not, there’s simple solutions to bringing these cartridges back to life. Armed with a few basic household items, you’re good to go. So grab your tools, don your digital archaeologist hat, and let’s embark on a quest to restore your N64 cartridges to their former glory!
Until the development of CD-based game consoles like the PlayStation, every gamer had to deal with cartridges. For a long time, cleaning cartridges and your console’s cartridge slot was just another chore you needed to do to keep your games in good working order. A chore most of us ignored.
Nintendo 64 game cartridges are some of the most notoriously difficult to keep clean. Any gamer who grew up with the system will remember furiously blowing into their cartridges when their game failed to boot up.
In a twist that ruined our childhoods, it’s become clear that blowing into cartridges is not a recommended practice and is often counter-productive, simply pushing dirt and debris further into the internal components.
N64 games aren’t getting any younger, so it’s increasingly important to know how to take care of them properly. With these simple steps, you can enjoy some retro Nintendo gaming for years to come!
Gear you may need
Depending on how deep of a cleaning job you want to do, you may need some or all of the following stuff:
- 3.8mm Gamebit screwdriver
- Phillips #1 screwdriver
- Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol), metal polish, or contact cleaner
- Cotton swabs
- Can of compressed air (air duster) or an electronic dust remover
How to disassemble your N64 game cartridges
While taking your game cartridges apart may be more work than you’re used to, the only way to thoroughly clean a cartridge is to open up the plastic shell and access the circuit board underneath.
Luckily, disassembling your N64 cartridges isn’t difficult. Follow these steps:
- Place the cartridge face down and use your Gamebit screwdriver to remove the two screws on either side.
- Grasping the top of the cartridge, carefully peel the shell off. Don’t force it, as you may damage the shell.
- One half of the cartridge will have a metal shield attached with two Phillips head screws, so get out your Phillips head screwdriver and remove them.
- The metal shielding is attached at the top end with pressure tabs, so you’ll need to press down on them firmly when you reassemble the cartridge.
- Remove the plastic shield on the bottom of the cartridge carefully with your hands.
- Now that the circuit board is exposed, you can gently remove it from the shell casing.
Congratulations, you’ve successfully disassembled an N64 cartridge! But don’t start celebrating yet – now begins the delicate process of actually cleaning the components.
Three ways to clean your N64 cartridges
There are three main methods for cleaning the circuit board. Which is most appropriate will depend on how old the cartridge is and how long it has been since it was last cleaned.
So, if your cartridge looks like something that Indiana Jones dug up, it’s well overdue for a deep clean. Besides, your games have done so much for you, the least you can do is give them the complete spa treatment!
1. Cleaning with an air duster
Whipping out an air duster is a safe and efficient way to remove dirt and other debris from your cartridges. Whether you’re using a can of compressed air or an electronic dust remover, all you need to do is blow along the bottom of the circuit board.
This method is much safer for your cartridge than blowing with your mouth, since the circuit board won't have to bathe in all the tiny moisture particles (or endure your breath, for that matter).
If you’re just trying to get a game working again, this method may do the trick. If the game still isn’t functioning, you’ll have to pull up your sleeves and move on to methods two and three.
2. Cleaning with rubbing alcohol
The copper metal contacts on the bottom of the circuit board are the part you need to clean, as they are what interact with the console itself.
- Dampen a cotton swap with a small amount of rubbing alcohol (be careful not to use too much alcohol.)
- Insert the cotton swab into the insertion gap.
- Start cleaning the copper contacts in a gentle rectangular motion.
- Replace your cotton swaps as they get dirty to avoid moving the grime around the cartridge. You’ll know you’re done when your cotton swab doesn’t get dirty.
After you’re done cleaning, leave the circuit board out to dry for around five to ten minutes.
You might be tempted to use a hairdryer to speed this step up, but absolutely DO NOT. The heat can damage your game permanently!
3. Cleaning with metal polish (nuclear option)
Desperate times call for desperate measures. If your Nintendo 64 cartridge still isn’t working, you may want to do a heavy-duty clean using a metal polish like Brasso.
The cleaning steps here are identical to what you would do with rubbing alcohol, except that you want to use a very small amount of metal polish and wipe more gently (since its pretty strong stuff). This method is typically a last resort for games so dirty that no other cleaning method works. We’re talking about relatively heavy duty chemicals and there’s some room for error, so it’s recommended to try the less invasive ways first.
As the Hail Mary option, the metal polish method may actually help you salvage games others have given up on. So, if you see someone throwing away a dirty N64 cartridge, you might be able to save it and add it to your collection!
To clean the cartridge slot, open it with your finger and use an air duster to blow out the debris. After that, run a cotton swab damp with rubbing alcohol along the interior of the slot.
Mike Alexander is a video game enthusiast, a chronicler of the 90s, and a collector of many things. Born in the mid-90s, he was able to catch the wave of some of the best things the decade had to offer, like Power Rangers, Pokémon, Bagel Bites, the list goes on. Despite the amount of time that has passed, he still enjoys many of those things today! If he’s not writing or gaming, he’s probably wondering why Warriors of Virtue didn’t take off the same way Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did.