Zelda II glitch image courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Simpson, used under Creative Commons license.
In the NES, the user opened a front flap, slid a cartridge into the machine, and the insertion force occurred at the back of the machine, where the (hidden) cartridge slot lived — pins within the cartridge crammed up against the slot in the back. Then the user pushed the cartridge down (again emulating the behavior of a VCR) and powered on the console. This little ritual felt very satisfying, but over time the cartridge slot got dirty, its springs wore out, and the cartridges themselves got dirty. All of these factors worked together to cause poor contact between cartridge and slot, which meant your game just didn’t work — the machine couldn’t communicate with the cartridge over a bad connection, and frustration ensued.
Blowing into the cartridge
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 (above, 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. But… why?
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