I love it when I make a great find - a game, or console that I’ve been wanting. Often times though, because we’re talking about older, used items, they often show signs of use. Grunge, stickers, and even Sharpie marker. I don’t let this stuff put me off, since there are plenty of ways to make it pristine.
Dirt, stickers, and permanent marker make your retro games look bad. Easily clean off most junk from a cartridge, console, or controller with a few tools & techniques. Cotton swabs, Magic Erasers, isopropyl alcohol, toothpicks, lighter fluid, dry erase markers, and Goo Gone will get you far.
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I have always enjoyed buying old stuff - auctions, flea markets, junks shops and yard sales. Over the years, I have picked up a number of great techniques for getting my finds clean. Retro gaming has its own unique scenarios (like Sharpie on game cartridges) that sent me looking for even more tricks.
My plan here is to unpack various ways to get that new-to-you cartridge, console, or controller looking sweet.
Basic Clean - Removing Schmutz From Old Games
Before you do another thing - I strongly recommend that you clean the business end of your cartridges before ever putting them into your console. Don’t dirty up your cart slot and impact reliability. See my previous post for a solid rundown on doing this with NES games. That post is applicable to all game carts, with the exception of how (or whether) to open the cartridges for other systems. The post you’re reading is focused on making your stuff look good.
Supplies for Basic Cleaning
- Paper towels
- Cotton swabs
- Windex, Simple Green, or similar cleaner
Unplug anything before using any kind of wet cleaner on it!
A lot of items you’ll get just need some basic TLC. Break out the general purpose spray cleaner of your choice (I use both Windex and Simple Green), spray some on a paper towel, and start rubbing. I recommend spraying it on the paper towel, and not the item, since it’s a good habit for controlling what goes where on your item. You may not want liquid on certain parts of what you’re cleaning (like a cartridge label), and it’s much easier to control what goes where if you are applying the cleaner via a wetted paper towel or cotton swab, rather than getting it all over you item, having it possibly run from one part to the other, etc.
Cotton swabs are ridiculously helpful in on the details. Narrow areas, like the fluted design on top of an NES, or on the front of an NES cartridge, are much easier to clean with a wetted cotton swab. Just insert and run it along the groove. Getting the bits out of the cracks between things (like the line where the top and bottom of a console come together) is also much easier with swabs. They also help with cleaning sharp angles, like the 90 degree where the power button sticks out of the NES front panel.
Next Level Cleaning - Leveling Up That Look
Once you’ve cleared away the basic dust and dirt, it’s time to look at the details, and really punch up how sharp your stuff looks. This means a combination of cleaning smaller features, and being more serious about the cleaning of larger areas that may still needs some sprucing up.
Important note: Printed areas, whether on plastic or on labels, can be very sensitive to cleaning. Read the details below carefully, and don’t accidentally goof something up. I’ve done it, and it’s disappointing.
Supplies for Next Level Cleaning
- Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol)
- Baking soda & water
- Tooth brush (I save my used ones for this)
- Magic Erasers (melamine sponges)
Toothpicks are a special secret for really getting things looking minty. The smallest cracks and lines, the areas around screws, the crusty stuff that won’t come out of grooves... a wooden toothpick is the best way to eradicate it all. After a standard wipe-down, I went over my Intellivision II very carefully with several toothpicks, and cleaned out all the grooves, the fluted “vents” on the left... etc. It went from looking pretty good, to a whole new level. You may not see this more subtle grunge at first, but one you remove it, you will see the difference.
Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) can take care of trouble spots. I typically use 91% isopropyl, since I have that for cleaning my cartridge contacts, but standard 70% is fine, too. They are the same price when I buy them, so no biggie. I find that isopropyl will get rid of things that regular cleaner won’t, and using it saves me the mess of baking soda (below), or the extra considerations of a melamine sponge (Magic Eraser - also below). Always keep in mind though that isopropyl alcohol is more aggressive than general purpose cleaners, and can remove print! I wiped part of the print-on-plastic logo off of my NES zapper (doh!) and dulled the look of an Imagic cartridge label (they are printed on that recognizable silver reflective label).
PRO TIP: It’s very easy to forget you are cleaning something with isopropyl, and just absent-mindedly wipe at something printed. Strictly separate your use of general purpose cleaners and isopropyl, to make this kind of slip harder to make.
Baking soda is great at getting dirtiness of off of textured areas. I bought some Commodore 64s and matching 1541 floppy drives that were scrunge-tastic. They were very discolored, and just grubby-looking. After thorough wipe-downs, it was still there, ground into the surface. Now, like many plastic surfaces from cartridges to computers, there is a subtle (or not-so-subtle) texture molded into them. Dirt can get embedded in this subtle texture, and not want to come off with standard wiping.
I mix about a tablespoon of baking soda (more or less, depending on what you’re cleaning) with a very small amount of water. Just enough to make it a paste. I often find I need to add a little more baking soda after the water, because I always add a little too much. Mix it up with the toothbrush (I just save my retired toothbrushes with my cleaning stuff). This can be messy, since the toothbrush bristles flick lots of tiny flecks everywhere. Do it somewhere you can do messy work.
Begin to apply the paste to your surface, and scrub with the toothbrush. Try to avoid getting too much on or inside things you don’t need it on, and will just have to clean off later. Work at it for a little while - maybe a minute or so on each area, depending on the level of grunge. When you are finished, remove excess clumps, and then wipe down with a paper towel wetted with the general purpose spray cleaner of your choice. The paste has a very fine texture, so you want to wipe down thoroughly to make sure you get it all off. When I finished my Commodore 64s, I was stunned at how much they changed. Really amazing stuff.
The Magic Eraser subtly resurfaces things with amazing effect. The melamine sponge is a fine abrasive that subtly removes material from surfaces. It’s actually abrading, like sanding something, but is doing it so subtly that it makes no scratches, and you are unlikely to see any of the surface removed like you would with sandpaper. What you do see though, is that surface junk has a way of disappearing. It’s very useful for things like scuffs or marks. I cleaned resistant marks off of my NES and Intellivision, and they were just... gone! Do keep in mind though, that because this is microscopically sanding your surface, being too aggressive for too long can wear away at surface texture if you aren’t careful. If you have concerns, I recommend you try it on something similar, but not important, and see how far you can go before you get results you don’t like. Also - because the process subtly removes surface, be very mindful of any printed spots, and avoid them to the degree you can. You don’t want to abrade them away at all.
One interesting and important note about the melamine sponge, is that because it is microscopically sanding things, plastic items with shiny surfaces tend to get a more matte/satin finish when you are done. This isn’t residue from your cleaning, but a subtle change in the surface that changes the way it reflects light. I actually like the matte surface look, and really like how crispy and clean my Intellivision II looked after I sponged it down. It just looks so fresh.
Another experience I had with this effect was with my Sega Genesis consoles. I picked up 3 for $5 each (you really can find great deals!), and when I finished the wipe-downs and toothpick treatment, I wasn’t happy with the look of the original finish, which was designed to be very shiny in places, but was scratched up. Glossy might be cool, but glossy with lots of little obvious scratches, looks lame. So I made a decision about changing the look of my Genesii (plural of Genesis?). I wiped them down thoroughly with a melamine sponge, carefully avoiding any surface printing, so as not to sand any of that off. The scratchy look is now gone, and my Genesii have a satin finish that I really like. Personally, I think the new finish feels more upscale than the original look, which I felt looked kind of cheap.
One last note on melamine sponges - I find I can go through them quickly, so I buy generics from Walmart in a 12 count box.
Special Cases - Permanent Marker, Stickers, & More
These are the frustrating bit, until you understand how to deal with them. Then, that ugly “BOBBY” written in all caps with a Sharpie, doesn’t put you off when you see the sweet deal at a yard sale. These can take a little more patience in places, but the result is rewarding.
Supplies for Special Case Cleaning
- Magic Erasers (melamine sponges)
- Lighter fluid and/or Goo Gone
- Dry erase marker
Since we are talking solvents here, don’t ever use nail polish remover (acetone), or you will be very unhappy. Acetone eats plastic. Enough said.
Permanent marker can very often be removed without much of a problem. You have two main options here - the Magic Eraser (melamine sponge) or the dry erase marker. You also have two scenarios - marker on plastic, or marker on a label. The labels are more sensitive due to their being printed.
If you have something written in Sharpie on a plastic cartridge housing, controller, or console, don’t fret. Because of how it microscopically sands a surface, the melamine sponge is a great way to get permanent marker off of a plastic surface. I have had a lot of success with this. Be patient, press firmly, and work at the spot. It will come off after a little bit.
The other route, the dry erase marker is a funny thing. You actually scribble over the permanent marker with the dry erase marker in order to get it to dissolve. It’s the solvent in the dry erase marker ink that does the trick. Polymer Solutions Inc has a nice little blog post that explains the particulars. They note that the alcohol is key, but I have not had great results using alcohol to remove Sharpie, while I have had some good results with dry erase marker.
If you have permanent marker on a label, it can be a bit more tricky. That’s because in removing the marker, you can also remove the printing. I’ve had success with both the sponge and dry erase marker. I even took black Sharpie off a white SNES game label with dry erase marker, and it worked very well. The different styles of label paper and surface, and the different types of printing ink, are all variables. Just keep in mind that unexpected results can happen, and so temper your expectations. In something mission critical, you may be better off just leaving the marker on the label, just to be safe. Use your best judgment.
Stickers and sticker goo can be pretty easily removed. Lots of people in the retro game world swear by Goo Gone. It’s a citrus-based cleaner designed to dissolve adhesive. I have had alright results with it, but it leaves a citrus oil residue. This doesn’t seem to harm labels, and it disappears over a few hours, but the stuff on plastic stays longer. I’m not totally sold on it.
Ronsonol lighter fluid is something I learned to use for sticker removal back in the days when I used to buy and sell lots of flea market and auction stuff. When used on stickers, it works pretty rapidly and well, and evaporates quickly and cleanly. Doing some further Google research, I note that lighter fluid gets a lot of positive mentions among record collectors removing stickers from old album covers, as well as book collectors getting stickers off of book covers. Please note that this is the fluid used to fuel Zippo-style lighters, and not charcoal lighting fluid, which is something else entirely.
With both approaches, you will want to take a fingernail or similar item (not too hard) to the edge of the sticker to work at it. It takes a little coaxing, but the weakened adhesive gives way, and you can get it completely off so that the surface looks clean as a whistle.
Actiplaque / blotchy cartridge labels don’t have a known solution. “Actiplaque” is the name given to this recognizable phenomenon where a cartridge label looks really blotchy, with dark spots. It got this colorful name, because it’s most often seen on the labels of Activision games. It’s apparently due to a combination of the label stock, and the silicone-based adhesive used to affix the label to the cartridge housing. This type of adhesive degrades over time, leaving a lot of Activision labels looking like a bag full of greasy french fries.
Be One of the Preservationist People
We tend to think about our game stuff as a means of having fun. That’s how I saw it, until I was part of buying 40-year-old computers out of a warehouse before it all got dumpstered and bulldozed. Rescuing 40-year-old machines filled me with a sense of history. This stuff - our retro games - are an important part of history. They are the early ancestors to the digital entertainment of today. Sure, there seem to be lots of them, but the number is finite, and it’s not growing, but shrinking.
Consider that the history of gaming is spread across the world, in collections belonging to people like us. Take care of your stuff, since you are caring for history.