For want of a pin, the NES was lost. 

We began this project with a nonfunctioning artifact. Even when all the cords were properly attached, and a working game was inserted, the screen merely flashed grey and black. We might have progressed with our project regardless, which would have most certainly focused our work in a different direction. Indeed, we were also given an FC Super Loader with an NES attachment; the ‘FC’ stands for ‘Famicom,’ which was the original Japanese release name for the interior hardware of the NES. The ‘super’ refers to the Super Famicom, which is analogous to the Super Nintendo. The FC Super Loader is a type of hardware emulator that can play the original cartridges without the original console.

As we have seen in the reading and throughout this course, the process of interacting with any technology is often significantly more complex than we believe or perceive. With this in mind, I’m going to discuss 1) what was wrong with the system and 2) how we repaired it.
1) Upon first examination of the Nintendo Entertainment System, I found that the system was put together very simply, much like a matryoshka doll (and a far cry from the seamless, ergonomically designed Nintendo Wii that we read about in Jones and Thiruvathukal’s Codename Revolution). There were 6 screws holding the top and bottom of the plastic case together.

After removing those and flipping the rig upside down, I removed the top part of the electromagnetic shield (the silver metal structure seen below). The EMI shield is intended to protect the motherboard from charges that would destroy it.




The same principle applies to the anti-static wristband worn while opening up electronics, as seen in the image below:


Once the shield was removed, the spring-loaded game tray was visible.













Beneath that was the heart of the system: the motherboard.


Unsure of what the issue might be, I was mainly looking for any obvious damage or loose wires that might have been the cause. I found everything in generally good condition. The complexity and delicacy of any computer often comes through when something as simple as a frayed wire causes the entire system to break down. Indeed, the process I used to troubleshoot the NES is basically the same as the one I use to repair my computer; Open it up. Is there anything obviously wrong? A wire unplugged? A patch of corrosion? Nothing visible? Consult the internet!


I started with the broadest search term possible, since I wasn’t sure what the issue was. Googling ‘nes repair’ turned out a fantastic number of results, so I began to peruse both the websites and youtube videos that promised to repair the system. It quickly became clear that the problem was most likely an issue with the 72 pin connector, as seen below.


This innocuous black plastic piece houses 72 metal pins plated in (what is most likely, but not confirmed to be) copper. When working properly, a game cartridge (or ‘game pak’ as Nintendo called it) is inserted into the game tray, it is aligned with the 72 pins and a connection between the motherboard and the cartridge is made. This type of socket is known as ‘zero insertion force,’ because hypothetically no force is required to make a connection.


I decided I would focus my repairs on this piece of the hardware due to the overwhelming amount of discussion that pinned the blame for a broken NES on it. One website I visited suggested that the graphic issue that plagued our NES was known as “the blinkies,” but I didn’t run across that term on any other website, or in any youtube video I watched. In fact, the 72-pin-problem is so widespread that there is no term or diagnostic lingo assigned to it. Even the most basic search terms [nes repair, nes problem, nes fix] will return the appropriate repair instructions for this specific hardware fail. This is not to say that there aren’t other issues; motherboard failures seem to be the second most common problem, followed by worn-out springs on the cartridge tray. However, the fix in the first case is ‘buy another nonfunctioning NES and switch out the motherboard,’ and ‘switch out the springs’ in the second. Both account for standard, mechanical failures that happen over time. Motherboards malfunction; springs wear out.

But what about the NES or the 72 pin connector made it the failing point for the system? What was the issue? It seems to come down to two points:

  • inevitable compression of the pins due to repeated insertion and extraction of cartridges
  • the act of blowing on the cartridge introduced moisture into the internal systems

The first is a fairly standard issue with any analog technology. Brake pads wear out, mattresses sag, and the springs on a 72 pin connector become less springy. After years of being pushed apart by game cartridges, eventually the springs no longer come together as tightly as the need to in order to read the game. As such, the motherboard can’t recognize that there’s a cartridge in place to be played. The machine will turn on, but no graphics will appear on the screen.


The other possible cause is more interesting. Anybody who had even casual contact with an NES- or an SNES, for that matter- knew about the old trick of blowing on a cartridge to get it to work. For those that are unaware, even when the NES was new, there were some issues getting the game cartridge to line up perfectly with the 72 pin connector, resulting in some graphics failures. When a game didn’t work, you would pull it out and blow into the opening, hypothetically to get any obstructive dust particles out of the way. It was part superstition and part miracle; often times, a would-be-player would have to repeat this process- pull out cartridge, blow, reinsert cartridge- several times before the connection finally worked.


Origins of this superstition aren’t entirely known, but I would put forth the following pages from the original NES Control Deck instruction manual:

Under the subheader IMPORTANT! we are cautioned to “Be sure to keep Game Paks and Control Deck chamber clean and free of dirt, dust, lint, etc.”


Number 5 and the accompanying picture instruct players: “Before inserting a Game Pak, always check the Game Pak edge connector and remove any foreign materials. In order to keep the contacts clean, avoid touching the connector with your fingers.”

     


I’m certain Nintendo intended players to clean out the cartridges with a Q-tip or cloth, or preferably with one of the officially licensed Nintendo cleaning kits.

I’m equally certain that very few young people, sitting in front of a console, eager to play a game, would wander around the house till they found a suitable rag. Taking into account the first warning that dust might be at fault, but restricted from the obvious solution of using the fingers to wipe it away, a few clever players blew away any imaginary dust. Although it’s unlikely that every potential player read through the manual, enough must have to develop this solution and propagate it those that hadn’t. Thus the cartridge mouth-to-mouth was create to resuscitate failing games, and quickly spread in the way of any urban legend or superstition: by word of mouth.


NES has altered their stance on on cleaning the game cartridges to include the blowing superstition, as evidenced by their website:


The inclusion of item number 4 indicates that they are aware of and actively trying to disseminate the superstition. This may be partially to help slow the damage done to the old machines, but more likely it’s to prevent people from continuing this tradition with newer technologies. For example, the Nintendo DS and 3DS have similar shapes and functionalities as the original NES cartridges, with exposed metal parts that would be damaged from continuing this practice.

Left: 3DS cartridge. Right: DS cartridge.


Because the modern technology still draws on the old technology, it is subject to the same cultural legends. The design carries through over the years; so do the superstitions.


Curiously, projecting the issue of a malfunctioning cartridge connection onto dust particles, or other environmental obstructions, erases the fact that the issue itself was with the socket connection. Taking the cartridge out and sticking it back in would be a perfectly satisfactory fix for the misalignment issue, but instead it was suggested by the manual to be an issue of dust, and people add the extra step of blowing into the cartridge- because what could it hurt?


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/04/Nintendo-3ds-ds-cartridge.jpg

As it turns out, blowing into the cartridges constantly introduced moisture onto the metal connectors and into the internal NES hardware. The moisture could, over the years, lead to corrosion or rusting of the pin heads, making a connection between the pins and the cartridge nearly impossible. Many tutorials exist online that demonstrate how to safely clean the corrosion or rust from the connector, the cartridge, and the motherboard.


The other, less well documented problem that this superstition caused was mold. I spent a dollar on a Top Gun tie-in game for the purpose of taking the cartridge apart and investigating the insides. However, immediately upon examining the game, I discovered a thick layer of mold that had grown on the inside of the cartridge mouth. I’m not certain what damage to the cartridge hardware this kind of growth is doing, but I doubt it’s good. The important fact is that If enough moisture was introduced into the cartridge to stimulate the growth of mold, certainly there was enough to damage the hardware in general.


2) To complete the repair of the 72 pin connector, most websites recommend simply purchasing a new one (fairly affordable at $7-$15 online). Before going this route- which felt a little like giving up- I investigated other options for repairing the original equipment. The main suggested I found online was to manually adjust all 72 of the pins, to undo the years of compression that resulted from the design of the console. This would ideal make the contact between the cartridge and the pins tighter, allowing the motherboard to recognize the game.


Readjusting the pins was a monotonous task, completed with the help of a safety pin, a paper clip, and a pick. 



The change in the positioning of the pins was minute, but when I reassembled the console, the cartridge did plug in tighter than it had before the adjustments. However, there was no change in the graphics malfunction; there was still something obstructing the connection.


In the interest of getting the artifact working for the sake of the project, I forewent the other options for repair, which included cleaning the pin connector and the cartridges with rubbing alcohol or brass cleaner, or- bizarrely- removing the connector and boiling it, as one website suggested (I’m certain heating the pins with boiling water would cause the metal to expand, resulting in a possibly tighter fit with the connector; however, it would also likely rapidly advance any potential rusting). In the end, we purchased a new one at the used media store Pre Played on the east side of Madison for $10. They kept the piece behind the counter, not advertising it as a possible fix for a broken NES. The salesperson I spoke with told me that when they purchase broken NESs, they just replace the 72 pin connector and it works every time.


Once the new connector was in-hand, disassembling the NES and replacing the piece took less than 10 minutes. Even though my TV was a couple decades older than the NES, we were able to hook the two up with little fuss. The system worked! We were able to get all of the games up and running. However, even with a brand new 72 pin connector, there were graphic issues; we still had to remove and re-insert game cartridges, or adjust them slightly to the left or right in the game tray, to get them to function. We were thankfully able to resist blowing in the cartridges in a misguided attempt to rid them of dust.

   


 
https://sites.google.com/site/72pinslevel2/
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