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Flickr user Kevin Simpson
Flickr user Kevin Simpson

Did Blowing into Nintendo Cartridges Really Help?

Flickr user Kevin Simpson
Flickr user Kevin Simpson

When I was a kid with a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), sometimes my games wouldn't load. But I, like all kids, knew the secret: take out the game cartridge, blow on the contacts, and put it back in. And it seemed to work. (When it failed, I'd just keep trying until it worked.) But looking back, did blowing into the cartridge really help? I've talked to the experts, reviewed a study on this very topic, and have the answer. But first, let's talk tech.

Famicom, NES, and Zero Insertion Force

Nintendo Famicom system

The NES console marketed in the US looked very different from Nintendo's original Famicom console sold in Japan. The Famicom (short for Family Computer) is shown above -- it featured a top loading design in which you crammed the cartridge into a slot on the top. (It also featured a snazzy red-and-cream color scheme that to my eye looks a bit like Voltron.) By putting the cartridge in on top, the label on the Famicom cartridge served as a kind of billboard, advertising the game currently being played. When Nintendo created the NES for the US, a major design change was to place that cartridge slot deep inside a VCR-style gray box (shown below). It was similar technology, but hidden in a way that American consumers might assume was more like a familiar VCR -- and more importantly, different from game consoles like the Atari 2600, which were old news. Nintendo wanted to be new, and better -- so it hid its slot.

What Nintendo tried to emulate was a "Zero Insertion Force" (ZIF) connection -- a phrase that sounds like a bad joke about problems in bed, but is a real engineering notion. A ZIF connection is one in which the user doesn't directly press the cartridge into its host connector -- no insertion force is exerted by the user. This is a good thing from an engineering standpoint because users can do things like push too hard, and eventually connectors that require this kind of contact wear out. A typical mid-to-late 80s VCR is a variant of ZIF design: the tape goes in the front, then the machine grabs it and gently pulls it into place. That's a pretty durable design. That's not what the NES had, though. Its slot required insertion force, and it was buried inside a box -- making it hard to fix when things went wrong.

Nintendo Entertainment System

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.

Metal Versus Oxygen: FIGHT!

Nintendo designed its NES connector using nickel pins bent into a position so that they'd give slightly when a cartridge was inserted, then spring back after it was removed. These pins became less springy after repeated use, which make it hard for them to firmly grasp the game cartridge's connectors. To make things worse, the cartridges themselves had copper connectors. Copper tarnishes when exposed to air, causing it to develop a distinctive patina. While this patina was often not bad enough to cause problems, an overzealous kid (ahem, like me) might notice this effect and (ahem) attempt to remove it using all sorts of things from erasers to steel wool to solvents (side-note: my father, being a computer guy, had access to a magical substance called Cramolin -- apparently worth its weight in gold, it could clean anything). Enough overzealous cleaning could ruin a connector, rendering the cartridge unplayable. I know this because I did it.

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 (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.

Zelda II glitch
Zelda II glitch image courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Simpson, used under Creative Commons license. See more glitch images at Flickr!

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 is one of the hosts of 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."

Studying Cartridge-Blowing

Viturello actually conducted a nonscientific study on this very subject. He took two very similar copies of Gyromite, removed the plastic cartridge shell to expose the contacts (making them easier to photograph), and proceeded to blow on one of them ten times a day (all in one go, to simulate a zealous young gamer's efforts), for a month. The second copy was a control -- it didn't get the blowing treatment. The blown and non-blown games were stored in the same location in his house, so in theory, this test should reveal the visual effects of repeated blowing on cartridges -- though they don't include functional results attempting to play the games. There is at least one issue with the methodology of the test: the cartridges weren't exactly identical to start with (they look to me like slightly different revisions of the same circuit board), so it's theoretically possible that the contacts were coated differently between revisions. Still, it's the best evidence we have, and the results are super gross.

While I encourage you to read the study, I can summarize the results. Here's a look at the cartridges at the beginning of the test:

NES corrosion test - before

And after a month:

NES corrosion test - after

So that's pretty gross, right? It's unclear what the result is -- whether that's copper patina, mold, or what -- but it appears that some effect occurred. See also: this guy's response to the study relating the story of an extreme case of N64 cartridge licking.

Nintendo Weighs In

In a brief note on its NES Game Pak Troubleshooting page, Nintendo states:

Do not blow into your Game Paks or systems. The moisture in your breath can corrode and contaminate the pin connectors.

So the Answer is No

So, dear readers, all signs point to no: blowing in the cartridge did not help. My money is on the blowing thing being a pure placebo, offering the user just another chance at getting a good connection. The problems with Nintendo's connector system are well-documented, and most of them are mechanical -- they just wore out faster than expected.

Having said that, it's true that kids can be grubby, and getting crud into the cartridge or slot was a real problem -- I suspect that most of that crud was not just dust, though, and required a more thorough cleaning than a moist mouth-blast could provide. In fact, Nintendo released an official NES Cleaning Kit in 1989 in an attempt to keep both the slot and cartridges clean. Ultimately, Nintendo redesigned the NES console, releasing an NES 2 console in 1993 that's commonly known as the "top loader." Its main feature? A top loading slot. It was more like the original Famicom, using a slot that held up better to abuse. Similarly, the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) was a top loader.

Fixing Your Old NES & Maintaining Your Games

If you have an NES with connector problems, it can probably be repaired, and you might even be able to do it yourself. Check out iFixit's repair guides for some common fixes, including a relatively easy one -- fixing the springs that hold up the cartridge slot. While mine never broke, I had a bunch of friends with dead springs. We can fix it!

And when I asked Viturello about cleaning cartridges, he told me:

Viturello: "The best methods for cleaning game cartridges are: isopropyl alcohol and swabs or, more recently I and others have discovered that non-conductive metal polish such as Sheila Shine or Brasso is very effective and also helps to protect against some of the elements that would otherwise cause that natural tarnish that occurs through regular exposure to the elements and standard usage."

Share Your NES Memories

I know we have a variety of old-school gamers out there. Do you remember the tip to wiggle the cartridge side-to-side? What about whacking the cartridge with the palm of your hand before putting it in? I'm curious what tricks you guys got up to, trying to make your game systems work. Also, many thanks to Frankie Viturello for answering my questions -- check out the Digital Press webcast for gaming goodness. (Episode 5 is devoted to the NES.)

Update: I appeared on the How to Do Everything podcast discussing this story. It's fun, check it out!

Follow Chris Higgins on Twitter for more stories like this one.

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Big Questions
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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