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
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......