Fortunately for us, old videogame cartridges are incredibly durable. However, you will find that cartridges will often accumulate a buildup of dirt on the contacts that usually results in a scrambled picture. This occurs more often with cartridges that have exposed contacts, as opposed to most of the Atari-made cartridges for the 2600 that have a hinged cover. Don't throw away those scrambled cartridges however, because they're simple and cheap to clean.
First, you will need to buy some Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol and a box of q-tips. This should cost you about $5 at any grocery or drug store. This is basically the same thing you will find in expensive videogame "cleaning kits".
Simply dip the q-tip in alcohol, and clean the cartridge contact edge with the alcohol soaked q-tip. You should wind up with a dirty q-tip and a clean cartridge. Severely dirty cartridges may take several cleanings, with vigorous scrubbing. Don't worry, you're not going to damage the cartridge by scrubbing hard.
|Here's an example of the contacts you need to clean (the vertical gold bands). You can see the dirt that has accumulated on the contacts. It's okay if you get alcohol on the rest of the board, it's not going to hurt it.|
Here are two examples of cartridges, pictured from the open end. The top example is a typical Atari 2600 cartridge from a 3rd party manufacturer. The contacts are exposed, which make for easy cleaning.
The bottom example has the hinged dust cover, common with Atari-manufactured cartridges. Normally when you insert a cartridge into the console, plastic prongs fit into the two slots and open the hinge, allowing the system to have contact with the cartridge board. In order to clean these, you will need a thin narrow object (for example, a letter opener), which you will need to insert into one of the two slots that you see. Then you will be able to push the cover back and clean the board.
If you're still having problems, your system might be the culprit. Occasionally you will find a cartridge that is beyond repair, but we've found that 99% of all old cartridges will work after a little elbow grease.
If your game works fine and you just want to clean a dirty label, just be careful. You don't want to make things worse, and some labels are pretty fragile. Start with some mild soapy water, and clean the label gently with a moist cloth. For stubborn stains or blemishes, you can try Goo-Gone or alcohol but be very careful and start slowly to see how the label reacts. For information about how to clean the cartridge casing and labels, so the How to Clean Equipment page.