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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.┬áIt’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.