The Guide to Playing NES Today

A helpful starting point about how to get the most authentic NES experience in the modern age.

By Kyle England. Posted 04/25/2014 09:00 2 Comments     ShareThis

So, you found your old faithful Nintendo tucked away in your closet and got the 8-bit bug again. Or perhaps you found one in your uncle’s attic, a thrift store, or a garage sale and wanted to see what the fuss was about. Maybe your console has been dutifully hooked up all these years, and you’re just looking to give it a new spring in its step. Whatever your reasons for booting up a real Nintendo Entertainment System nearly 30 years after its release, this is your handy guide to get the best out of it today.

First of all, you have to ask yourself if the hassle is worth it. For five dollars (or less in some cases), you can buy NES classics for the Virtual Console on Wii, Wii U, and 3DS. Are you looking to merely play the games of NES, or do you want to recapture the authenticity of the ’80s gaming experience? The tactile feel of the original controller and the kachunk of the cartridge give a feeling of ownership and warmth to the experience. Still, this comes at a cost, as it can be a headache to get an optimum setup if you are impatient. But if you share the passion of many and prefer the authentic setup, it’s worth the effort! Let’s get started!

Using the Right Television

The TV you use is hugely important for your NES experience. In this case, just as you have chosen for your gaming, it is best to go with old reliable technology. Without modifications, NES looks best on a CRT television with a composite connection. These are the heavy, fat TVs that have been replaced with flat panel LCD and plasma TVs in the past 15 years or so. Most HDTVs on the market do not automatically upscale standard definition content, so if you plug your NES (or most any SD signal) into it, you will get a blurry mess. The NES outputs at a resolution of 256 x 240, which newer TVs can do tenfold.

So, if you have an old CRT monitor or television lying around, that’s your best bet. If you have nothing but a modern television, you’ll have to tolerate the subpar visuals. Plasma TVs are slightly less harsh on the signal than LCD televisions, which can give you ghosting images as well as muddy visuals. You can also purchase an upscaler, a device which makes old signals look good on HDTVs. However, good upscalers can be incredibly expensive.

One thing to note about the television you use: if you are playing a game that uses the Zapper, you MUST have a CRT. Otherwise, the light gun just won’t work. This stuff was made with 1980s technology in mind, after all. (Read here for even more in depth info about retro gaming TVs)

Booting up the NES

Ok, so you’ve found a good TV and hooked up the NES. Next, you need to open the slot, insert your cartridge, lock it down into the spring, and fire up the console. Except… you get the dreaded screen of flashing colors. This is an overwhelmingly common issue with the standard NES model. One problem that can cause this would be the faulty connectors within the system. The way the VCR-like cartridge slot was designed is inherently flawed. The connectors that read the game are pushed apart over time and can’t read the games properly. If you are lucky enough to own the Top Loading variety of NES, you can avoid this issue altogether.

If you have a case of the flashing screen, there are several things you can do. First, make sure your cartridge connectors on the game are clean. You can use a cotton swab and some rubbing alcohol to freshen it up. Try inserting and removing the game repeatedly to see if you get lucky. You might think of blowing on the game, but actually your breath isn’t good for the connectors, despite everything you know. If you can’t get the system to read the game whatsoever, you might want to consider fixing the 72-pin connector inside your NES.
Watch this video for a ton of great information about fixing up your connectors:

You’ll need to open up your console, which requires just a Philips head screwdriver. This is a great opportunity to clean out dust and debris that are inside the casing as well. You can either fix your connector by bending the metal back into place, or you can purchase a brand new connector online—they sell for $10 or less. However, the new connectors can sometimes be TOO tight on cartridges, so be aware of that. I won’t give a step-by-step tutorial on installing or repairing the connectors, but the video I posted does a great job at explaining, and you can find many more tutorials online. Once you’ve cleaned your cartridge and fixed up your system connectors, you should be golden. If your NES still isn’t working, you’ve got a worse problem, and might want to look into finding another system to try.

Maintaining and Storing your NES

By now you’ve most certainly played and enjoyed your favorite NES games in the way they were meant to be played. Make sure you can play them again next time by properly storing and maintaining your equipment.

Be sure to always remove your cartridges when you aren’t playing a game. If a game sits in the system for a long time, you risk bending the NES connectors too much and losing connection again. Ideally, you will also keep all of your games cleaned, and only ever use clean games in the NES; this keeps both the games and connectors from getting dirty.

If you wrap your controller cord up, be sure to leave some slack at the part where it connects to the gamepad. This will prevent stress on the cable that can make it unresponsive. Store your system in a dry place that’s not in direct sunlight. A closet shelf is good, a moist basement is bad. Finally, if you can, keep your games in dust sleeves or in store them in such a way that their connectors won’t get dirty.

Hopefully, you will be able to successfully play your NES with the highest quality possible. Besides the connector, this thing is a tank that will last for years. As long as you keep it clean and maintained, you can keep playing your NES for a long time. Do you have any of your own tips to share for retro gamers today? Impart your wisdom in the comments!

2 Responses to “The Guide to Playing NES Today”

  • 1549 points
    penduin says...

    Two additional hints for fellow would-be retro gamers:

    First, controller extension cables can be bought for cheap and will probably be necessary depending on the size of your living room.

    Second, TV settings, if a using a CRT is not an option. Basically, you want to turn off every “feature” your 1080p LCD TV has, especially when playing old games. Overscan? No. Sharpness? None. Adaptive color enhancement? No. The one exception is if there’s a “game mode”. That you want, to cut down on display lag as much as possible.

    One last note about TV settings… Set the display mode to 4:3. The sides of the screen will be black, because that area did not exist on an old tube television. Do NOT stretch these poor games out to 16:9. They weren’t made that way. Everything will look gross and wrong. (Some Genesis games prove to be an exception to this – the Genesis has pixels which are noticeably taller than they are wide, and games like Earthworm Jim actually are closer to “correct” when they are shown stretched. Weird, eh?)

  • 12 points
    Sunnyleafs says...

    I would also recommend buying a game cleaning kit on ebay. Look for one that includes the cleaning solution (works better than plain rubbing alcohol), as well as the security bit needed for the screws on the carts. If you want to get the connectors on the circuit board completely clean you’ll need to open the cart. It’s a simple process but makes a big difference – your carts will play on the first try every time.

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