Insert Credits

Millennial nostalgia.

Insert Credits - Millennial nostalgia.

The Ineffective Tradition of Blowing on A Nintendo Cartridge


For an entire generation the big N was synonymous with video games. You didn’t play video games like today. Oh no. You played Nintendo. Sure there was the Sega Master System and there were still old Ataris floating around at rummage sales, but for anyone born in the early ’80s Nintendo was Video Games.

The only problem was that the Nintendo Entertainment System was a damned finicky piece of technology and you could never be sure the game you were putting in the system was going to work even if both system and game were relatively new. You put the game in the Nintendo, crossed your fingers, said a prayer to whatever higher power you believed in, and hoped that you got the game start screen instead of that damned blinking red light and flashing purple screen that launched a thousand controllers across the room in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Behold the bane of an entire generation.

But not all was lost if you experienced this problem. We were a technically resourceful generation and a solution to the dreaded malfunctioning Nintendo made its way across the country in an era before the Internet via gatherings of neighborhood kids and playground conversations. The fix was easy. The fix made sense. The fix worked.

Blow on the cartridge.

Blowing Cart Infographic

To a bunch of little kids who were interacting with their first piece of technology more advanced than a television set the logic made sense. There were little shiny metal things on the Nintendo cartridge that made a love connection with little shiny metal things inside the Nintendo, and if the signal wasn’t making its way from the cartridge to the TV then obviously there was serious trouble with that love connection.

And so like many failing love connections all it took was a little blowi…

No. On second thought I’m not making that joke.

The logic was sound. There was obviously dust and other gunk building up on the metal connectors on the cartridge causing trouble. And how do you get rid of dust? Obviously you can’t use Windex or some other cleaner. This is a complicated piece of technology and the last thing you want to do is mess it up by melting the plastic or metal with some unholy chemical reaction.

So add a little air. Get rid of that dust. Pop the cartridge in and everything will be all right.

Except we now know that this little bit of playground advice, like so many little tidbits of playground wisdom that came before or since, was complete bull. The Nintendo Entertainment System, once an expensive piece of electronics that you wouldn’t dare take a screwdriver to lest you invoke the wrath of your parents who paid for the thing, has been in the bargain bin long enough that the idea of disassembling no longer comes with the terror of being grounded for a month or accidentally breaking your beloved game machine forever.

And it turns out that the problem is the 72-pin connector inside the machine. Not anything on the cartridge. Take your Nintendo apart, polish that connector with some of those forbidden cleaning solutions, and that blinking red light and flashing purple TV screen are banished. At least until the next time the connector gets so gunked up that it needs to be cleaned.

Blowing on the cartridge was a lie that could actually do more harm than good since it turns out the flecks of human spittle that inevitably come along for the ride when you blow into a cartridge are just as bad for the innards of a Nintendo as those cleaning fluids the playground sages warned everyone against lo those many years ago.

Horrified NES Cartridge

If the game did work after you blew in it then it was either a massive coincidence or it was because human spit was increasing conductivity in the short term even as it was destroying your game and your system in the long term. Which goes to show that self-proclaimed experts on the playground back in the day were about as knowledgeable as self-proclaimed experts on the Internet today.

Yet blowing on a cartridge was so ubiquitous that it persists to this day. Show me a person of a certain age who is having issues with any sort of analog media working and I’ll show you someone who has blown on a casette, CD, DVD, various video game system cartridges, etc. to get it to work. It’s our generation’s equivalent of banging on a piece of machinery in a vain attempt to knock something in place and get it to work.

And our kids are going to look at us doing this over the next few decades and think we’re a bunch of crazy old kooks.

Why Insert Credits?

Why the name Insert Credits? There are two good reasons.

When most people think of the pop culture arcade they think of the phrase Insert Credit. One quarter was all it took to ride the phosphorescent dragon for a couple of minutes.

Yes one George Washington was all it took to be transported to a magical world where you were defending the free world against incoming Soviet missiles or guiding an amorphous yellow pizza wedge away from a gaggle of terrifying ghosts in the four years before the world would learn that modern technology meant we didn’t have to be afraid of no ghosts anymore.

But that wasn’t the case by the time I was old enough to go to the arcade. No, the ravages of inflation meant that by the time my generation stood in front of those glowing cabinets there was a two quarter minimum if you wanted to ride the dragon. Heck, as we grew up and got to the point where we could drive to the arcade rather than having your parents drive you there (if you were lucky enough to still even have an arcade in your town at that point) then things had come full circle and it cost one George Washington.

Of the paper variety this time of course. Damned arcade inflation.

By the time I was at the arcade all of the new cool stuff said Insert Credits. Sure there were a few cabinets that said Insert Credit to play, but who in their right mind was going to go back to Pac-Man at one token  when the Simpsons Arcade Game, the Ninja Turtles Arcade Game, or Street Fighter II beckoned at the two credit price tag.

Though at least those two credits weren’t always exactly 50¢ since at this point we’d moved to the token economy instead of quarters and you could usually get a 24 tokens for $5 deal or something like that.

So Insert Credit might be the touchstone of the arcade generation, but Insert Credits was what the machines demanded by the time my generation came along to watch the long slow decline of the video arcade.

The second reason for the name Insert Credits is a lot simpler and probably a lot more influential than some complicated justification involving arcades and inflation: I already owned the domain and had the site setup and the name fits so why not?

Looking Back at 30

I took a job heading the children’s department of a decently sized library at 28. I figured I was still pretty young and in touch with what the kids were doing. It wasn’t that long ago that I was their age after all and it’s not like the generation gap was as huge between me and my younger millennial brethren than the gap between me and Generation X or the Baby Boomers.

Boy was I wrong. And let me tell you, your own conception of what “old” is tends to be your current age + 10, but nothing makes you feel older faster than suddenly spending most of your time hanging around a bunch of people where you fit squarely into their definition of current age + 10.

Sure I grew up with computers, but the computers when I was a kid are nothing like the computers of today. I was around when the commercial Internet was getting off the ground, but the only similarities between the Internet now and the Internet of the mid-’90s is they happen to share the same name.

Face it. If you’re on the older end of the millennial demographic like me there’s already a lot of “back in my day” stories that can be told, and the pace is only accelerating.

And that got me to thinking about some of the differences between the world I grew up in and the world of today. I was always amazed at some of the things that surprised the kids in my teen group. Space shuttles blowing up. Portable CD players. Dial up Internet. Music videos playing on MTV. So many things I took for granted growing up are already as dated as records and Betamax were when I was a kid.

Fast forward two years and I just turned 30 this past week which has caused a small bit of introspection and looking back. I’m not one of those who thinks all the best days are behind us and nothing can compare to the arbitrary couple of decades when my parents were paying for everything and I didn’t have any responsibilities deserving of the name, but we did have some pretty cool stuff back in the day.

So I figured I’d write about the experience of growing up millennial. I don’t know that it will be interesting to anyone other than myself, but you never know. It’s my hope that this will be a fun trip down memory lane for those who were along for the ride and an interesting look back for those darned whippersnappers with their iPhones and Tumblrs.

Welcome to Insert Credits: a site about millennial nostalgia in all its myriad forms!