If you're a video game collector like I am, you've probably purchased used games at Ebay, Funcoland, yard sales, etc. Most of the time they're pretty filthy. Many won't even work without a good cleaning. Over the years I've developed a few techniques for making old cartridges and CDs good as new. My success rate is nearly 99%.
Before you get the cartridge wet, examine the game's label. Some labels are paper-like (Atari 2600 20th Century Fox games), and you should avoid getting it wet at all. Labels that have a plastic coating on them are the easiest to clean (most NES games). Some games (like my Atari 2600 Pengo) have labels where the colors can be wiped away. The point is, you need to be careful with labels, and don't rub them too hard. If there's no visible dirt, you may want to leave them alone. Wet the rag with some alcohol and wipe the cartridge down. Sometimes alcohol can appear to discolor the edges of a label, but this usually clears up after it dries. Use cotton-swabs to clean the dirt out of tiny crevasses. If the label isn't damaged, you can get the cartridge looking good as new.
The most important thing about cleaning cartridges is cleaning the contact pins underneath. Dip a cotton swab in the rubbing alcohol and run it across the contacts on the bottom on the cart (both sides). You'll be surprised how dirty these things are. Use one swab after another until you can't get any more dirt off (the swab remains white). Give the cartridge an hour or so to dry before sticking it in your console. You can break your console by sticking a wet cart in there, so it's better to be safe than sorry.
What if the cartridge still doesn't work? Clean the pins again thoroughly. Even if you don't see dirt on the swab, there may be one tiny particle causing the malfunction. I would repeat this 3 or 4 times before trying your last option: Sandpaper. Take a small piece of sandpaper, and rub it along the contacts. If there's any remaining dirt, this should knock it loose. But don't overdo it - you don't want to damage the pins. After sandpapering, be sure to repeat the swab cleaning method, because the sandpaper will leave a lot of grit.
If this technique doesn't work, or if the CD is scratched badly - fear not. There's a commercial product called "The Game Doctor" that repairs scratched CDs. Yes this thing really does work. By mounting a disk and turning a crank on this little device, you can polish the disk surface and it effectly remove the scratches. I have used it several times and always had success.
If you have an old Atari 2600 cart, you may need to stick a small screwdriver in the holes on the bottom of the game in order to expose the contacts.
While these apply mainly to used games, I've also discovered that some "new" cartridges can get dirty if they're been on the shelf long enough. If you buy an unopened Atari 2600 game, I'd advise you to clean the pins anyway.
In my experience, NES games are the most difficult to clean.
Off the top of my head, I can name three cartridges where I've damaged the labels by using alcohol on them. I nearly rubbed off the wording on the Pengo and Firefly games (both Atari 2600), and the alcohol left "smear marks" on my Colecovision Pitstop game. These are rare occurances though. If you're not sure, try using an alcohol-dipped swab, on a small, inconspicuous section of the label.
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