An Adventure in Repairing a Dozen Super Famicoms
Sometimes in a moment of inspiration, our judgment is clouded. That happened to me when, for some unknown reason, I clicked the purchase button on a crate of broken Super Famicom (SFC) game systems and 80 random, broken Japanese games. It’s very unlikely that I’ll recover the cost of these systems, but repairing them will be a rewarding project and I’ll have done a small part for the environment by keeping them from the landfill.
As I work on these systems, I’ll be writing a few articles along the way to walk through the repair and restoration process. The odds of me being able to repair all 12 of these systems aren’t great, but my goal is to restore 75% of them. I’ll keep one for myself and give a couple out to some friends. For the remainder, I’ll bundle in some games and sell them on eBay.
The Failures I Expect to See
Although I’ve worked on a few different game systems, I have yet to work on an SFC or even its close American cousin, the Super Nintendo. There are a couple of common faults that older consoles tend to have, with cartridge slot issues perhaps being the most common. I’m sure to run across at least a few of those. And as with all older electronics, I’ll need to give the capacitors a good inspection and clean up and replace any leaky ones.
You do sometimes get failures with off-the-shelf chips on older consoles, as well. Earlier this year, I had to replace an input buffer IC for the player 2 controller on a (non-Super) Famicom Even though that console was made in the 80s, I was able to find a new replacement chip. I usually don’t get that lucky, though – many of the chip failures are custom ICs that just aren’t made anymore. One advantage of having so many of these SFCs, however, is that I should have plenty of donor parts.
Before jumping into the process of cracking each system open, it’s best to get an initial read on what’s actually wrong. I started by using a known good power supply, A/V cable, game, and controller to test each SFC. Going console by console, I turned on each one and attempted to load a game.
A couple of the consoles seemed to work right away. A few more worked after multiple re-insertions of the game cartridge. This indicates that the cartridge connectors on those systems may just need cleaning. Even though I was able to load a game on those units, I didn’t spend any time playing them. Therefore, it’s possible there are other issues with them, such as faulty controller inputs.
After examining each one, here’s the initial diagnosis. 5 out of the 12 were actually functioning normally, and the other 7 had various issues:
|1||Yes||Multiple cart insertions. Dirty cart slot?|
|2||No||Eject button jammed down|
|3||Yes||Multiple cart insertions. Dirty cart slot?|
|5||No||Blank / garbled screen.|
|6||No||Works for a few seconds, then stops.|
|7||Yes||Multiple cart insertions. Dirty cart slot?|
|9||No||Works for a few seconds, then stops. Rattling inside.|
|10||No||Blank screen. Won’t read carts.|
|11||Yes||Worked right away|
|12||Yes||Worked right away|
For the remainder of this first article, I’m going to examine the first 3 systems that I tested and see if I can get them in stable working conditions. I’ll tackle the other systems in articles later down the road.
My initial diagnosis on System #1 was that it seemed to be working after a few re-insertions of the game, which led me to believe that it just had a dirty cartridge slot. To verify this and check for other potential problems, I went ahead and disassembled it.
Upon opening the system, I discovered lots of dirt and grime. The cartridge slot was definitely very filthy, so that’s probably why it didn’t work initially.
There was also old, dried flux all over the board. I spent some time giving it a good cleaning with 99% isopropyl alcohol (IPA) to remove the flux, as some flux can become slightly conductive over time.
I also noticed a couple of spots that might be corrosion. Most notably, this spot on the top side of the board.
It looked like the traces were still intact, so I gave it a good scrub with a fiberglass pen, tested those traces, and covered them with some new solder mask.
I then connected the console to a 9v power supply (center negative, which is what these systems take) and fired up the Japanese version of Super Mario Kart. It started on the first try and looked like it was working. I then plugged in a controller and played a few minutes of Mortal Kombat II from a North American SNES cartridge, testing both controller ports.
Everything seemed to work well, so I reassembled the system and set it aside for now. After I get them all running, I’ll go back, clean up the housings, and retrobright them to restore them to their original luster.
Super Famicoms: 0
Next, I moved my attention to console #2. According to my early diagnosis, the system would power on, but the screen would remain blank. I also had noted that the Eject button seemed to be jammed down. The first thing I did was to crack it open.
One thing to note is that the Super Famicom (and the Super Nintendo) use a unique screwdriver bit called a Gamebit – and in particular, the 4.5mm version. There are many places online and on Amazon that sell them. However, I’m a big fan of the iFixit Manta kit, which includes both the 3.8mm and 4.5mm Gamebit screwdriver bits. The quality of the screwdrivers in this kit are superb, and I strip fewer screws with them.
As soon as I opened #2, I immediately found the reason why the eject button wasn’t working. In fact, the button wasn’t jammed at all. Rather, it had fallen through, because the lever assembly that it pushes down to eject the cartridge was completely missing! Someone had obviously been in this system before, chalked it up to a lost cause, and harvested some parts.
These parts are what should’ve been inside. The rod and spring hold the ejection lever into place. When the eject button is pressed, it puts force on the lever and pushes the cartridge out of the slot.
The missing ejection assembly won’t keep the system from working, however – there was something else wrong that I needed to figure out.
I removed the board and inspected it a bit more closely. In doing so, I found that there was some dried liquid on various places. It’s not uncommon to see lots of dried flux on older electronics, but I was pretty sure that what I was seeing was not flux. I think it’s likely that something was spilled, which may have been causing a short.
I also saw that the power switch was quite corroded. Compare the image on the left from System #2 with a different system, and you can see what the switch is supposed to look like.
After spending about 10 minutes cleaning the board with a toothbrush and 99% IPA, it came out quite clean. A visual inspection didn’t show any signs of corrosion of traces or components. I did, however, notice that some red liquid came off the board. Cherry Kool-Aid, maybe?
After all that, I fired console #2 back up, and wasn’t disappointed with the results. I did play a few minutes to test the controls, and everything seemed to work fine.
Super Famicoms: 0
Console #3 was another one that seemed to work right away, although it did require me to jiggle the cartridge a bit. I suspected that the problem was nothing more than a dirty cartridge slot, and all it would need is a good cleaning.
I proceeded to disassemble the system, and it actually looked quite clean – at least not as dirty as I thought it should be for a system that’s over 30 years old. As I was taking it apart, though, I noticed a couple of fingerprints that I didn’t think were my own. It’s always a concern when you know that someone else has been into a system before you. This likely means that they’ve attempted a repair that didn’t work and quite possibly have broken something else in the process.
After looking the board over, I noticed that the voltage regulator was different from the 7805s that I saw in the other consoles. Not only did it have a different manufacturer, but it was also in a non-metal housing. I don’t know a lot about how these systems were manufactured and where the parts were sourced from, so it is possible that it’s the original part. But because it’s different from the others, combined with my suspicion that someone else had already been inside this console, led me to believe that the regulator had been replaced.
I went ahead and game the board a more thorough look-over, examining it for damaged components, broken traces, and corrosion. I then gave it a good cleaning with IPA to remove the dried flux and spent some time on the cartridge slot in particular.
Here’s my method for cleaning the cartridge slot:
- I squirt some IPA onto the metal prongs inside the slot and give it a good scrub-down with a toothbrush.
- I use the toothbrush to clean around the cartridge connector housing and solder joints to get out any grime.
- I then cut off a square of paper 2″ – 3″ in size and fold it a few times, so it results in a thick strip. It’s thick enough when there’s some resistance when pushing it into the cartridge slot.
- I put the paper strip into the cartridge slot and squirt a little bit of IPA onto the paper.
- Then, I use a sawing motion, to work it across all the pins in the slot.
- Repeat two or three more times, until the paper strip comes out clean.
After a good cleaning, I plugged in the power switch and sound module, and inserted Mario Kart into the cartridge slot. Flicking the power, the Nintendo logo appeared on the screen, and the title screen music of Mario Kart rippled through the air. I wrapped up by plugging in the front controller panel and played a couple rounds of Mortal Kombat II to validate that the controller ports were both working.
Again, I wasn’t disappointed. Everything worked well, so I went ahead and re-assembled system #3.
Super Famicoms: 0
I’m on a roll so far, but it’s not likely that this pattern of just cleaning systems is going to get all these units back up and running.
In future articles for this series, I’m going to go through the remainder of the systems and try to repair each of them. I think I’ll also give each one a retro-bright treatment, so I’ll show you that process as well.