Retro console repair/maintenance guide

Repairs repairs. Repairs repairs repairs repairs repairs. And how to do them. I don’t do practical posts (although I’m not above doing the odd poor parody of practical guides), but in buying a good number of second-hand, older consoles over the past few years I’ve come across several issues which are easily fixable, and I think it’s worth a write-up. The consoles I write about on this blog are by no means the oldest or the rarest (until I go ahead with my plan to turn this into a BBC Micro fansite) but nevertheless, nobody is manufacturing replacements for old consoles any more and that lack will inevitably only become more pronounced as the years pass. So for those who enjoy old consoles and want to keep them in good working order, the odd repair/clean is pretty much unavoidable.  

Playing old consoles today goes against today’s disposable consumer electronics culture, with people trading in one iteration of phone for another every five minutes. Visit a Third World country though and it becomes quickly apparent that the disposable approach to consumables is not universal, in fact it is a privilege only a minority can afford. The result is a generation in the West that is totally unaccustomed to the concept of repairs, myself included. But since getting my hands on old consoles and coming across these various issues with them, what surprises me the most is how easy most fixes are, even for me with my total and utter lack of technical knowledge. (And you know what they say, if you can’t fix it, you don’t own it.)

This guide basically for the most part is simply about cleaning. Dirt and dust cause most of the issues console-owners will run into in the normal course of things, assuming that owners keep their consoles away from radioactive hazards and fire-breathing lizards and all the other stuff typically found in videogames that might in reality be bad for consoles. The most important thing you’ll need for caring for your console is a good cleaner. There’s two options – contact cleaner or isopropyl ethanol. Either one will work. They’re quick to evaporate and are very effective on electronics, but only high quality isopropyl ethanol (90%+ ethanol content) is suitable for cleaning a CD/DVD lens.

For these basic repairs, which will work for any cartridge or CD/DVD based console, you will require some combination of the following: Q-tips, a lint-free cloth (a glasses cloth for instance), contact cleaner/isopropyl ethanol and a decent set of screw drivers.

Let’s kick it off with everyone’s favourite: cartridge-based consoles.

Everyone has blown into a cartridge or cartridge slot on some console at some point in their gaming lives. It seems to work… up to a point. But many times blowing is not enough, as I discovered with my N64. Despite blowing to the point of feeling faint, after owning my N64 for several years it was to the point where I’d have to insert and reinsert every game into the console several times before it would work.

Cleaning cartridges

n64 cartridge contacts

But if you’ve only got one cartridge that’s not working, that’s another story, and the odds are you just need to clean the copper contacts on that particular cartridge. Individual cartridges are very simple. A lint free cloth (a glasses cloth for instance) or cotton buds (Q-tips) are good. Wet the cloth/cotton bud with either contact cleaner or isopropyl ethanol and give those metal strips a gentle wipe on both sides. Leave the cartridge for a few minutes before testing to let the cleaner fully evaporate.

Cleaning cartridge slots

n64 cartridge slot

The only downside to cleaning the cartridge slot is that my copy of Mario Kart 64 doesn’t play at double speed on certain tracks the way it used to.

Slightly more tricky is cleaning the cartridge slot, which you should do if the trouble occurs with any game as opposed to just one problem cartridge. I hadn’t even considered fixing my N64 until recently, but I’m glad I did it, because it worked like a charm and it only took a minute. The principle is exactly the same as an individual cartridge but obviously you’re cleaning inside the slot. To clean inside the console, wrap a credit card or thin piece of plastic (I used an old library card) in a cloth. Damp the cloth with your choice of cleaner (contact cleaner or isopropyl alcohol), and push the card gently into the cartridge slot. Gently slide the card left and right inside to clean fully inside. Voila.

That’s cartridges, now let’s move onto disc-based consoles.

Everyone knows not to blow in one of these. There are two common issues I want to discuss here which have come up multiple times with my consoles, especially the Sega ones for some reason. The first is an unclean lens, which is the easier to fix of the two. The second is a laser calibration issue. Bad laser calibration means the console will read CDs/DVDs inconsistently, if at all. It means the CD/DVD reader is starting to give out, but recalibrating the laser will extend its life for a while longer at least. It can be hard to distinguish between these two issues, so what are the signs of each and how can you tell the difference? In the case of an unclean lens, you’re liable to get messages to the effect of “disc not found”, whereas a calibration issue is more likely to read a game disc as a music CD (which is less strenuous on the laser to read), and possibly to crash mid-game. Obviously you should also make sure it’s not just a dodgy CD/DVD with lots of scratches. Just like with the dodgy cartridge slot, an underpowered laser can give some interesting results in games. When my Dreamcast was having laser calibration issues, Sonic Adventure would run without sound (actually making it a better game), and while the levels and hub world seemed fine…

The hub world and the levels were fine, but everytime I went into the Chao garden this would happen.

…the Chao Garden looked like this.

Interesting.

Straight out of The Shining.

In the case of my Saturn, I had both an unclean lens and bad calibration at the same time. If you can’t tell or are unsure about what the issue is, try cleaning the laser first, and if it doesn’t work try the bias. I don’t recommending adjusting the laser calibration without being certain first it’s not an unclean lens. Messing with the laser calibration is a lot like overclocking a PC graphics card or processor – it will burn the hardware out faster as a result. But if the alternative is a non-working console that sits around collecting dust, you aren’t really losing anything, are you?

Cleaning the CD/DVD lens

dusty cd lens

Cleaning the lens is fairly simple, as long as you have high quality isopropyl ethanol (see above). Wet a cotton bud/Q-tip with the ethanol, and clean the lens in a circular motion, moving from the centre to the outside of the lens – be very gentle. Make sure there’s no lint on the lens at the end. Shine a torch on the lens to make sure there are no streaks or marks on it, and let the ethanol evaporate before testing.

Adjusting the laser calibration

dreamcast laser calibration 1

The innards of a Dreamcast. The red circled bit is something called a “potentiometer”, or pot, for short. Although it looks just like any old screw, it actually controls the output strength of the laser.

Calibrating the laser is the one repair I’m going to talk about that requires actually opening up the console. Use whatever screwdriver necessary for your console to open ‘er up. The necessary screws typically sit on the console’s underside. Once the screws are out and you’ve lifted off the plastic shell of the console gently, with a bit of Googling you should be able to locate the exact screw that controls the laser bias for each console. It’ll be right around the laser, and it often has a splash of paint or something that makes it stand out. On the Saturn, it’s a small orange screw sitting just behind the laser. Adjusting the calibration means rotating the screw, usually only a very small amount, and always clockwise to make your laser work harder. It will likely take a bit of testing and readjustment, so don’t close up the console again immediately, at least not fully, expecting it to work perfectly. Test the console with a game for a minute or two and pay close attention to the sounds coming from the CD/DVD drive. If the screw has been turned too far clockwise, the CD/DVD drive might make loud noises and suddenly stop, or it might not even work at all. Simply turn it back anticlockwise a few degrees and try again. It’ll take some experimentation to find the right position. There should be a sweet spot where the drive doesn’t sound like it’s constantly struggling to keep up, nor sound like it’s doing too much and then having to stop itself.

Last, and in all honesty probably least, a bonus round of sorts: controllers.

There are, many, many potential issues with controllers, far too many to cover here. For now, I want to talk about an issue I had with a PS2 controller, which worked fine except that the X button would never register in games. So, buttons that don’t work.

dualshock 2 innards

There’s no choice: open ‘er up! Your best screwdriver should do the job just fine. I should say right now that (at least in the case of Dualshock controllers) opening the controller up and fixing the issue is the easy part. The hard part is putting it back together properly – the shoulder buttons are especially tricky to line up properly. Once the controller’s open, lift out the green board, and, on the back you should find a paper-like meshy thing that sits just behind the buttons. This registers each and every button press and transmits the info to, well, the console I guess. Bit of cleaner and a cotton bud gets the job done. Simply rub the cleaner (I used isopropyl ethanol) on the spot which corresponds with the troublesome button. I couldn’t see any marks or dirt, but it did the trick anyway – once I finally got those damn shoulder buttons to click back in place properly!

saturn controller port

Dusty contacts? Well, what are you waiting for?

Well, that covers all the cleaning/repairs I’ve had to do on my consoles so far. I hope this guide will be useful for someone at least, as general as a lot of it is. With the current disposable attitude so prevalent, it’s all too easy to assume that any issue with a console, especially if that console won’t play games at all, must require expert technical knowledge. But, actually a lot of the time all you need is a simple clean. So wise up and gear up, and hats off to a healthy console. Feel free to comment or ask anything below. Just don’t expect me to answer any queries on the art of soldering.

I’ll leave you all now with a few more pics of Sonic’s waking nightmare. I don’t know if anyone else has ever come across this, but I was able to revisit the glitchy Shining-esque Chao Garden several times before I fixed the laser.

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