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Did doing this actually help at all? If so, how?

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The only thing I can think of was that it (re)moved any dust that might stop contact being made. –  ChrisF Jan 20 '11 at 21:37
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Another question is "How did all the kids across North America learn they had to blow in the cartridge?" –  Borror0 Jan 21 '11 at 7:03
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@Borror0: This is a good question, when I got my first gameboy I instinctively knew to blow in the cartridge when the Nintendo text went all corrupted. –  Callum Rogers Jan 21 '11 at 12:02
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The best question I've read in the stackexchange network. –  Trufa Jan 21 '11 at 12:47
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@DanielExcinsky In Mother Russia, Cartridge corrupt You! –  Ender Jul 17 '12 at 12:34

11 Answers 11

NES cartridges physically attached to the console - similar to USB drive. If dust got in the cartridge, it could get between the contacts on the cartridge and contacts on the console, preventing a good electrical connection.

Blowing into the cartridge can shift the dust away from the contacts, making a non-working cartridge functional again.

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really, wouldn't inserting and pulling the cartidge remove the dust? if i remember the connecters did scrape a bit when doing that. or was that on my sega. i blew them both anyway :P. and it worked. –  Andy Jan 20 '11 at 22:30
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If anything got dirty overtime, it's the console connectors. –  MPelletier Jan 21 '11 at 5:44

Popular belief among those of us who remember the original NES held that that blowing into an NES cartridge removed dust from the contacts, which allowed a better connection to the system. In practice, the method was similar to the following:

  • Plug in cartridge, turn on system
  • Curse when system does not work
  • Pull out cartridge, blow
  • Re-seat cartridge, try system again

In a few cases, blowing may have actually removed dust, but the truth is that most of the time, what actually fixed the problem was the act of pulling the cartridge out and putting it back in.

As the original NES required you to put the cartridge in and then down, another common trick was to shove a second cartridge in the slot on top of the first one, which prevented the bottom (game) cartridge from slipping.

Finally, Mental Floss has a detail analysis of the effects of blowing in an NES cartridge.

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no, i'm sure we where just breathing life back in them poor old cartridges. <3 nes and sega 8 bit –  Andy Jan 20 '11 at 22:29
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Ahh, those were good times. –  Error 454 Jan 21 '11 at 4:15
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And there I thought I was the only one trapping the cartridge at the bottom, only i did it with a seconds controller. –  Mike Jan 21 '11 at 11:44
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I'm downvoting since you just killed more that half of my childhood! Shame on you! –  Trufa Jan 21 '11 at 13:54
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+1 for jamming in a second cartridge. Jesus I must have done that 10,000 times. –  Satanicpuppy Jan 24 '11 at 20:15

Another popular theory is that the moisture from your breath was able to increase the conductivity of the contacts and increased the chances that they would successfully communicate.

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Contrarily, it was thought in my circles that (even though we thought blowing worked) the moisture damaged the cartridge. –  Raven Dreamer Jan 20 '11 at 22:35
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@Raven Dreamer why can't they both be true? –  Sparr Jan 21 '11 at 3:05
    
@Sparr - Didn't mean to imply they couldn't. –  Raven Dreamer Jan 21 '11 at 3:32
    
@Raven That is true. I once washed the @#$ cartridge with soap because it used to lose contact frequently. It never even connected again. –  Mugen Mar 17 '11 at 5:23

For the most part, it didn't do anything. When the system didn't work, most people's natural assumption was that the connectors were dirty. The most logical way to clean something like cartridge connectors was to blow on it. They also sold cleaning kits, but in my experience they weren't actually that helpful.

The problem wasn't the cartridges, but the connectors in the NES itself. According to Wikipedia, the problem is due to Nintendo's use of a "zero-insertion force" cartridge connector:

When a user inserted the cartridge into the NES, the force of pressing the cartridge down and into place bent the contact pins slightly, as well as pressing the cartridge’s ROM board back into the cartridge itself. Repeated insertion and removal of cartridges caused the pins to wear out relatively quickly and the ZIF design proved far more prone to interference by dirt and dust than an industry-standard card edge connector. Exacerbating the problem was Nintendo’s choice of materials; the slot connector that the cartridge was actually inserted into was highly prone to corrosion.

Further, Nintendo used the "10NES" lockout chip, which required constant communication with the cartridge to authenticate it as a legal cartridge. When it didn't have the communication, the result was "the blinking red power light, in which the system appears to turn itself on and off repeatedly because the 10NES would reset the console once per second. ... Alternatively, the console would turn on but only show a solid white, gray, or green screen."

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Oooooohhh, that's what made the screen blink. I always wondered about that! –  andronikus Feb 10 '12 at 19:56
    
Ah the gray screen of death. I remember you fondly from when our poor SMB3 cartridge would refuse to work. –  Zibbobz Dec 10 '13 at 14:59

Only a few years ago I was playing on a NES and discovered the cartridges would work best when barely inserted, just enough to clear when pressed down (this after I had cleaned the contacts). This was quite contrary to my strategies as a young kid. I was applauded for determining the "trick"; it seems my methods are more methodical these days.

So perhaps it was the reinsertion that did it and not blowing, specifically: inserting it less. I'd be interested to know how many other NES consoles had this idiosyncrasy.

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I have noticed this phenomenon in Super Nintendos and N64s as well. –  Muhd Nov 1 '11 at 20:58
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This was the method my brother and I eventually had to resort to for everything. –  Crowbeak Oct 29 '12 at 9:11
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This is what I ended up doing as well. If the game didn't work, I pulled it out slightly. Usually just enough to go down. –  Byrån Apr 1 '13 at 1:22
    
Downvoter: I re-added the single sentence that addresses blowing directly, if that's what you had issue with. –  Christopher Galpin Dec 10 '13 at 6:30
    
I did this too. I found a gentle touch was often a lot more effective than trying to brute force it down. –  Zibbobz Dec 10 '13 at 15:00

I did an experiment back in the day with an Atari 2600.

When inserting a game I would randomly choose, by coin flip, one of two things.

  1. Use some rubbing alcohol and a cotton swab to clean the cartridges contacts.
  2. Lick a cotton swab and clean the cotton swab with that.

Then record the success rate of the game starting on first insert.

I didn't keep the results but I do remember that by a very large margin the lick and clean beat the rubbing alcohol method. So I surmised that it was the saliva that did the trick. When other game systems came out I also assumed it was the moister in the breath that came out when blowing that helped and not any cleaning effects.

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This result isn't unexpected. The electrical connectivity of salt water (siliva should have some salt in it), is much greater than rubbing alcohol. –  user1873 Apr 1 '12 at 0:28

My brother and I did this all the time with our old nes. Beyond blowing out the dust there seemed to be some connection with moisture. If I blew it out and then breathed on it to make it damp it seemed to work better.

The question about how everyone knew to do it? I agree with the instinct theory. My brother and I worked out this system by ourselves. You look at it, and for some reason the first thing you think of is either to stick your finger in it or to blow in it, LOL.

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Oh, that's right I remember the scraping thing too. I would put the cartridge in and partially push it down and then scrape it back and forth over the connections a few times. –  computersaurus May 6 '11 at 21:42

Unlike the top voted answer, I have an NES hooked up right now and sometimes when a game does not work I try unplugging and plugging the game back in over and over again, believing that blowing doesn't help, and the game will not work. But as soon as I blow once the game works.

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I also found that inserting my cartridge so that it stuck out just enough that i couldn't press it down, and then kinda deliberatly scraped it against the corner of the mount as i forced it down worked. –  Ender Jul 17 '12 at 12:33

Everyone had their own little "rain dance" to get the cartridge to work. I imagine none of them actually did anything. Eventually whatever condition prevented the cartridge from working would disappear and post hoc ergo propter hoc the rain dance worked!

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Typically, blowing into a NES gaming cartridge will make it work. If it didn't work before, maybe there was dust inside, so blowing is the best option.

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Not only did word spread around, but a lot of media outlets showed kids blowing on the cartridge to make it work. Nintendo Power in particular would recommend it, as well as the official Nintendo Cleaning Kit, and it was well-known that dust was problematic.

Like every other answer here though, I have to point out that re-inserting the cartridge was what really did the trick.

I admit that I also blew into the console itself because of this voodoo, because if dust could get into the cartridge, why not the system? It was about as effective as cartridge-blowing.

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