The Video Game Critic's Guide to Cleaning Games
How I Learned To Love Used Games

Updated Feb 20, 2014

DISCLAIMER: The author takes no responsibility for damage incurred as a result of employing any of the cleaning methods listed below. These are general recommendations based on his own personal experiences.

There was a time when I bought all of my systems and games brand new. When you start collecting classic games however, this is no longer practical. The idea of owning used games was not something I immediately embraced, being somewhat of a germ-o-phobe. In time however I came to realize that it's quite possible to transform a dirty, grimy cartridge (or system) into something that looked almost new. I just takes some time, patience, and a little elbow grease. This article provides guidance on how to clean used cartridges and other game-related items.

Cleaning Materials

cleaning items

A few inexpensive household items is all you need:
  • Bottle of rubbing alcohol You can pick up a bottle for about a dollar, and it's really your main weapon for fighting dirt and germs. Water is NOT a valid substitute! Do NOT use it! Alcohol not only kills germs but evaporates quickly. This is crucial because water can seep into labels and corrode cartridge contacts. I have always used 70% isopropyl, but I hear it is also available in 93%, which is probably even better.
  • Cotton swabs In order to access cartridge contacts (pins) and hard-to-reach nooks and crannies you'll need a healthy supply of Q-tips (any brand of cotton swabs will do).
  • Lint-free rag Do NOT use a cloth that will shed tiny pieces of fabric that can get caught up in your cartridge. I personally prefer to use rags cut out of old bed sheets.
  • Goo Gone This item is necessary if you have stickers or residue you want to remove from your cartridge or packaging.
  • Disc Doctor This is only necessary if you need to repair a scratched-up disc.

Removing Stickers

Used cartridges, game cases, and boxes often have unsightly stickers affixed to them. You'll probably want to remove these (if possible) before doing any cleaning. Please note that before applying any liquid chemicals to plastic cases, it's a good idea to remove the paper inserts (if possible) or instruction booklets just in case any cleaning products seep through.

If you're dealing with a plastic case (Genesis, Saturn, CD/DVD cases), getting rid of the stickers is not a big deal. If the sticker doesn't come off cleanly or leaves residue, simply soak the area with Goo Gone, wait a minute, and rub it off with a rag. Repeat as necessary. In the case of hard-to-remove stickers you may need to use a smooth edge to gradually pry up the edges.

What if a sticker is on cardboard packaging like an SNES or N64 box? Applying any liquid to cardboard is always risky. If the sticker doesn't look so bad you might as well just leave it in place. Otherwise try to remove it slowly after pulling up a corner. If it tears, there's not much you can do. If there's just some sticky residue left however, you can usually remove it by wiping the box with a rag lightly dampened with Goo Gone. Be gentle, and if you notice any discoloration (to the rag or box), you'll probably want to abort mission. Fortunately SNES boxes tend to have a glossy coating so I've had pretty good luck cleaning those.

Cleaning the outer shell of a cartridge

Before you get the cartridge wet, examine the label. Some of the cheaper labels are made of porus paper and you should avoid getting those wet at all. These are pretty rare, but the 20th Century Fox games for the Atari 2600 are one example. In rare cases (like Atari 2600 Pengo) the labels can actually be wiped away if you're not careful. Use caution and if unsure, try using an alcohol-dipped swab in a small, inconspicuous area. Fortunately 99% of labels (NES, SNES) have some kind of plastic coating so you can wipe them down easily. Sometimes alcohol will appear to discolor a label around the edges, but this goes away once it's dry. Always exercise caution however, and if there's no visible dirt you may want to leave the label alone.

Wipe down the remaining plastic parts of the cartridge with an alcohol-soaked rag. Use cotton-swabs to clean any ridges and crevasses. Keep scrubbing until dirt is no longer coming off onto the rag. Except for scratches and tears, you can usually get the cartridge looking good as new.

Cleaning the inside a cartridge (pins/contacts)

Okay, so this is where the rubber meets the road. It's nice to have a cartridge look clean on the outside, but the inside is even more important. In some cases dirty cartridges will not function and present a blank screen. Worse yet, plugging a dirty cartridge into your NES (or any other cartridge-based system) can harm the system. The dirty cartridge contacts can contaminate the console's pins, making it less reliable or even non-functional. And it's much harder to clean the internals of a console than a cartridge, so never stick a strange cartridge into a system unless you know it's clean.

With most cartridges the metal pin contacts are located on the bottom edge. The more exposed they are, the more they are susceptible to dirt, but also the easier they are to clean. Atari 2600 cartridges can be tricky because many have a protective lid covering the pins. To move this out of the way, insert a small flathead screwdriver into one of the rectangular holes on the bottom, and finagle it a bit to slide the cover upwards (into the cartridge) and expose the contacts.

Dip a cotton swab in the rubbing alcohol and run it vigorously across the contacts (both sides). Take a look at the swab and you'll notice it's discolored (usually gray). Pretty gross huh? Repeat with a fresh swab. I like to pour a little alcohol in the bottle lid, and use that to dip the swabs into. Continue cleaning until you can't get any more dirt off (the swab remains white). It's possible to go through a dozen or more swabs if the cartridge is filthy enough. Once the pins are clean, run the swabs around the plastic interior to make sure that's clean too. I have never felt the need to actually open up a cartridge to clean the inside.

CAUTION: Be sure to let the cleaned cartridge sit out for about an hour before sticking it into your console. You can break your console by sticking a wet cartridge in there, so err on the side of caution.

So what if the cartridge still doesn't work? This happens all the time. Repeat the cleaning process. Even if you don't see dirt on the swab, it only takes one tiny particle to cause a malfunction. I would repeat this 3 or 4 times before falling back on your final resort: sandpaper. Take a small piece of sandpaper, fold into a rectangle, and rub it along the contacts a few times. If there's any remaining dirt, this should knock it loose. Just don't overdo it or you'll damage the pins. After sandpapering, be sure to repeat the swab cleaning method, because the sandpaper will leave a lot of grit.

Despite the conventional wisdom of NES fans, blowing into a cartridge is not recommended and can have long-term consequences for your games and system. Saliva particles can blow into the cartridge and contaminate the contacts. You don't want that.

While these tips apply mainly to used games, I've also discovered that even new cartridges can become dirty if they're been on a shelf long enough. If you buy an unopened classic game, I'd advise you to clean its contacts anyway.

Cleaning CDs and DVDs

When you acquire a used disc, use rubbing alcohol and lint-free cloth to clean both sides. Clean the label side however you want, but you should always try to clean the "data" side by wiping from the middle hole to the outer edge, all the way around (this also goes for music CDs).

Contrary to popular belief, CDs and DVDs are pretty durable. Most play perfectly fine even with light scratches, and few are ever beyond repair. There are several commercial products that "repair" scratched discs. I have an old one called the Disk Doctor, and yes, this thing really does work. By mounting a disk and turning a crank on this little device, you can effective polish away the scratches. I have enjoyed a high success rate, but I'm sure some deep scratches and cracks are probably beyond repair. Note: Polishing a disc will result in a distinctive, permanent pattern on the underside of the disc.

Find disc repair kids on eBay, Amazon, YouTube

Cleaning Cases and Boxes

Like cartridges, used game cases can be pretty filthy too, but these can be treated just like cartridges. Once you've removed any stickers, use alcohol to clean plastic cases. Be sure to remove any paper inserts (Genesis games for example) in case alcohol seeps under the plastic cover. Use cotton swabs to clean the edges you can't reach with a rag. Personally I never bother cleaning the case interior, but that's up to you.

If a case is badly damaged or scratched up, sometimes it's easier to just replace it with a new one. I keep a supply of empty jewel (CD) cases for this very purpose. Often if you remove the manual, insert, and disc, and insert them into a fresh case, it looks like a brand new game. Replacement cases are available for just about any type of case, and they tend to be inexpensive in bulk.

Find replacement CD cases on eBay, Amazon, YouTube
Find replacement GameCube cases on eBay, Amazon, YouTube
Find replacement Xbox cases on eBay, Amazon, YouTube
Find replacement Xbox 360 cases on eBay, Amazon, YouTube
Find replacement Playstation 2 cases on eBay, Amazon, YouTube
Find replacement Playstation 3 cases on eBay, Amazon, YouTube

It is possible (but not recommended) to treat game boxes with alcohol. If you do, the rag should only be slightly damp and you should only go over the box lightly. If the liquid manages to soak into the box, damage can occur. The same applies to instruction booklets.

See also The Video Game Critic's Guide to Removing Smoke Smell from Manuals.