Cart Cleaning 101

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The nature of collecting old things quite frequently means dealing with items that have been forgotten by their owners. When this isn't the case, it often means these items carry the scars of years of (ab)use. When collecting old video games, dealing with cartridges that have been collecting dirt, dust, stickers and permanent markers is the norm. This guide was created to hopefully teach new collectors and enthusiasts how to reverse some of these conditions.

It's worth noting that this guide was created based around PAL Super Nintendo cartridges but should be applicable to almost all old game carts assuming a minimal amount of common sense is applied.

Preparation

A basic cart cleaning toolkit.

There are a number of different tools and cleaning materials used in this guide. If you are unable to obtain a certain product, it shouldn't be a big deal. For the most part, they can be substituted with a similar product unless otherwise noted.

  • Gamebit (3.8MM for Nintendo Carts)
  • Thin craft knife.
  • Possibly a hairdryer.
  • Cotton buds.
  • Cotton pads.
  • Magic Eraser (More about these later, including a warning on their use).
  • De-Solv-it citrus label remover.
  • Isopropyl Alcohol 100%.
  • A well ventilated working area.
  • Plenty of time and patience.

The Cartridge

The front of the example cart.
The back of the example cart.
The inside of the case, showing the PCB.
The front of the dirty cart. The back of the dirty cart. The inside of the case, showing the PCB.

The cartridge to be cleaned in this guide is a Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 cart. It's a good example for this guide because it has a sticker and "permanent" marker on the front, a sticker on the back and the internal lip and PCB contacts are quite dirty.

Screw Removal

To open NES, SNES, N64 and Gameboy cartridges you will need a 3.8MM bit, often referred to as a "Gamebit". Depending on where you live, this could quite possibly be the most difficult step of the entire process. But once you have one, removing two screws will give you access to the inside of the cartridge.

An open Super Nintendo Cartridge

Take note of which way the PCB (that green board) is facing and carefully put it aside for now, the next few sections will focus on cleaning the exterior casing.

Sticker Removal

The first things that need to go on the example cart are the stickers on the front and back of the case. If they are directly on the plastic they can simply be removed by carefully peeling them off. If they are in grooves or on the top of the case, it may be necessary to 'very gently scrap it with the crafting knife. Be very careful and press very lightly if you decide to take any sharp edge to the case, you want to remove the sticker not create permanent damage by carving chunks of plastic out.

Once the stickers are removed, you might notice leftover residue from the glue. This is normal and will happen almost every time. To remove it, use a cotton pad with some De-Solv-It.

The sticker on the front removed.
The residue in the front removed.
The sticker removed on the back.
The sticker on the front removed. The residue in the front removed. The sticker and residue removed on the back.

If the parts of the sticker you want removed is on the label, you will need to take a different approach. Attempting to remove a sticker which is over the label may have disastrous results. The best approach is to get a hair dryer and heat the edge of the sticker. Alternate between heating it and very slowly peeling it off. If you meet resistance, stop immediately and heat again with the hair dryer. Be patient and keep repeating this until the sticker is completely removed.

Marker and Dirt Removal

A significant amount of general scuffs and marks can be removed with a cotton pad or bud and Isopropyl Alcohol, including most marker pens. If the marker pen simply refuses to be removed when using Alcohol, it's possible to use a Magic Eraser. Be warned, the use of the Magic Eraser comes with a risk, if it's overused on a surface which is textured (such as the front of a SNES case) you may permanently damage it. Like with the rest of this guide, you will need to be careful and use common sense. You may also choose to forgo using the eraser at all and instead spend more time with the Alcohol attempting to remove the marker that way.

In alternative, if you go over permanent marker with dry erase marker and then wipe with isopropyl, you will take off 90-100% without risking damage caused by magic erasers.

Using a cotton pad and Alcohol to remove marker pen.
Removing dirt in grooves and gaps with a cotton bud and Alcohol.
Removing dirt in grooves and gaps with a cotton bud and Alcohol.
Using a cotton pad and Alcohol to remove marker pen. The more stubborn pen is removed with a Magic Eraser. Removing dirt in grooves and gaps with a cotton bud and Alcohol.

Interior and PCB Contacts

The inside of the case contains plenty of little sections that accumulate dirt and dust. Taking a cotton bud with a small amount of Isopropyl Alcohol into the various corners and lips is the best approach. Using a toothbrush is also a great way to get dirt out of the hard to reach corners.

Removing dirt from the inside of the case with a cotton bud.
Cleaning the contacts with cotton buds and Alcohol.
Removing dirt from the inside of the case with a cotton bud. Cleaning the contacts with cotton buds and Alcohol.

One of the most important parts of the process is cleaning the contacts. You will quite often find them in disgusting condition if the previous owner is not a collector or serious retro game enthusiast. Dip the end of the buds in the Alcohol and slide them across the front, back and edges of the gold contacts. If you use anything other then 100% Isopropyl (perhaps because it is hard to find in your country) you will need to be extremely diligent with making sure the contacts are completely dry with clean buds before putting the board back into the case.

An alternative method to clean the contacts that does not involve using Isopropyl Alcohol is to rub them rigorously with an eraser. That's a regular eraser or "rubber" for removing pencil marks, not the "Magic Eraser" cleaning product used for cleaning the exterior of the cart.

Once you are satisfied with the state of the contacts, put the board back into it's case in the same direction it was facing when you removed it and reattached the screws.

The Result

Congratulations, you hopefully have a clean (or at least cleaner) cartridge then when you started. Assuming the contacts on the machine that will be running the game are also clean, you will find that the game is significantly more reliable.

The front of a relatively clean cart.
The back of a relatively clean cart.
The front of a relatively clean cart. The back of a relatively clean cart.

If you make a habit out of cleaning every game before it enters it's place in your collection, you will find that you will have very few issues when it comes time to actually playing them. If you are also smart with how you store your games you will be able to keep them in a clean condition for a very long time.

Hours of cleaning large quantities of carts can be draining.
All worth it in the end.
Cleaning large quantities of carts requires patience. Store cleaned carts in bags to keep out dust.