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This is inspired by the question

"What does a Nintendo Game Boy do when turned on without a game cartridge inserted?":


Growing up in the 80s and 90s in the UK, it was "common knowledge" amongst my friends that turning on a games console without a cartridge inserted would cause damage to the console. We are talking about Game Boys, Master Systems, Mega Drives, NES, SNES and the like.

I assume this wasn't actually the case but I am wondering where this "fact" came from and if it was limited to certain geographies or demographics, or if this was opinion all over the World.

And of course, I am excluding those consoles that had a game built in and simply booted into that game if no cartridge was inserted (I can think of at least one example of a Master System that had an Alex Kidd game built in).

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    Re: where it came from; a reasonable guess would be the relatively scary things that happen if you try it on some consoles, maybe? The Game Boy scrolls down a black block as if not quite functioning correctly, the NES flashes an angry blue screen, etc. Though in the UK the Master System was the first really big-selling console, and that acts with full grace if switched on without a cartridge: even the first version just displays a message telling you to turn the machine off and insert a cartridge (and allows you to get to the hidden snail maze game via a joypad command). – Tommy Jul 22 at 15:18
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    I believe a lot of game consoles had scary warnings telling you not to insert/remove cartridges unless the power was off. I think this is just an extension of that myth. – 12Me21 Jul 23 at 5:32
  • No but they definitely have trouble when your 3 year old younger brother tries to shove a syrupy waffle in there instead – Sentinel Jul 23 at 9:52
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    @Sentinel Not his fault they made game consoles look so hungry. – Adonalsium Jul 23 at 18:18
  • If the myth were true for any console, then it would soon get a reputation for unreliability (given that it's not an unlikely user behaviour), and that would affect market share. Manufacturers would definitely want to avoid that. I suspect that the origin might be that when powering on and realising there's no cartridge in the device, then the user is likely to "correct" that by inserting the cartridge - without first switching back off. – Toby Speight Jul 24 at 10:14
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In general, no. Cartridges from the first few generations were really only breakouts for ROM chips and thus were mostly a collection of address and data lines with a +5V and GND at minimum and perhaps a few others. In the case of the Intellivision, it also had SYNC, serial lines and a video passthrough (to support IntelliVoice, Atari 2600 module, etc.).

The consoles were designed to look for a cartridge and start executing code on them immediately. If there was no ROM, there was no code to run and thus the machine either sat there getting the same empty signals into the CPU (effectively doing nothing) or if more advanced, the minimal firmware was able to display some kind of message (e.g. ColecoVision error screen or how the NES just blinks, though that behavior is more the 10NES lockout chip).

The risk of damage to a console, as far as I've ever been able to determine, comes from the possibility of static buildup on the cartridge or device being plugged in and having this discharge happen on one of the address or data lines. As such, many "hot swappable" connectors tend to have the pins for the GROUND slightly longer than anything else (e.g. USB does this) so that any discharge is safe before connecting the "fragile" data lines.

That being said, turning on a console without a cartridge should not be a problem since the device will either not work or would have been designed to handle the situation. As far as (un)plugging a cartridge with the power on, it is in general not a good idea to do this if you can avoid it. However, consumer devices like cartridge video game consoles were targeting a non-technical audience and typically were designed to account for people who didn't RTFM and wouldn't have thought that unplugging a cartridge would potentially do damage.

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    In some cases, the consoles were designed to make you physically unable to remove the cartridge while the system was on. For example, the power switch on the GameBoy had a physical tab which prevented the cartridge from being removed while in the on position. – Darrel Hoffman Jul 23 at 14:12
  • I suspect this was for one of two reasons: 1. prevent a loose cartridge from slipping out while you're playing since handhelds could be in all sorts of positions and velocities given that they're in your hands VS a console sitting on the shelf/floor/table. 2. a lot of GameBoy games had battery backups for saved games which could get corrupted if removed while the power is on. I know you can wipe NES Legend of Zelda's memory by removing it while power is on. – bjb Jul 23 at 17:51
  • SNES (US) also locked the cartridge in with the power button, but foreign carts or those missing the locking slot didn't lock in place. – Quasi_Stomach Jul 23 at 19:58
  • According to a tips book I bought some time ago, removing a cartridge with the power on and inserting another, than resetting, could sometimes cause otherwise inaccessible content to be revealed. The example given involved Revenge of Shinobi being the second one inserted, and I think the Japanese "Super Shinobi" title screen would then be displayed instead of the normal one. (I think me and my brother did actually try this and see it happen, too.) – AJM Jul 24 at 11:00
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    @AJM it makes sense since the CPU's program counter (i.e. position in the ROM it is executing from) and the RAM state would have not been in a natural position because of the other code base. I would imagine that the ROM layout would be typical across most cartridges (e.g. code in one region, data in another), so that would explain why this worked. Similar but different in execution would be "frying" a cartridge (e.g. Atari 2600 Space Invaders) which was trying to get the power switch inbetween the on/off states so it did a rapid on/off to confuse the CPU and RAM into a different state. – bjb Jul 25 at 17:10
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The documentation for the 6502 processor says nothing about what will happen if it attempts to execute opcodes beyond those defined by MOS Technologies. Among other things, the designer made no particular effort to ensure that such opcodes wouldn't cause bus-control wires to be pulsed in sequences that would not otherwise occur under any specified conditions. Systems using the 6502 were generally designed so that no sequence of pulses that could occur during defined operation could damage anything, but they could not offer such assurances for every imaginable way in which the 6502 might wiggle its outputs. Among other things, if there had been any situation in which the 6502 would simultaneously issue a read request while driving the data bus low, and the read request caused some other device to drive the databus high, and such a condition persisted for many seconds, the output driver on the 6502 could get fried.

In fact, the behavior of every possible 6502 opcode byte has been thoroughly analyzed--even at the transistor level--in the last few decades, and while there are some that will lock up the CPU hard enough that only the /RESET pin will restore normal operation, there aren't any that will yield invalid bus states. The makers of game machines couldn't know that, however, and it's doubtful that even the makers of the 6502 really knew that for sure.

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    Can you clarify why lack of a cartridge would (or could) cause invalid opcodes to be executed? Your answer doesn't seem to mention cartridges anywhere so its hard to work out how to bridge from the scenario the question is talking about (turning on a console with no cartridge) to the scenario this answer is talking about (invalid opcodes going to a processor). Also I'm assuming that the 6502 processor is something that is in all consoles but if this is not the case then your answer should probably address that too... – Chris Jul 23 at 11:29
  • The 6502 and its successors were used in a few old systems, albeit typically a modified form instead of the original model. For example, the Famicom/NES had a SoC based on the 6502, and the Atari 2600 used a cheaper variant with a smaller address bus; the Atari Lynx and Turbografx-16 used variants of the 65C02 (an enhanced 6502 redesign from WDC); and the 65816 used as the basis for the SNES' CPU was the 65C02's successor. [Not counting old computers that used it and could also play games, like the Commodore 64.] – Justin Time Jul 23 at 17:00
  • Apart from that, I assume that the connection is supposed to be that the answer looks at whether the 6502 was capable of damaging itself or connected hardware in general, to answer whether it can damage itself/connected hardware in the specific case of no game cart being present? – Justin Time Jul 23 at 17:03
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I would be very surprised if a console would cause damage to itself if it's turned on without a cartridge. That's a serious defect!

I don't imagine there's any way to tell where this "lie" has come from. My guess is schoolyard scares, just like "you know if you call the police it'll actually recharge your phone battery?" (also a lie, don't do it)

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    I've never heard the Police one. – Darren Jul 22 at 12:57
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    The "police" legend comes from the fact that some phones will change the "low-battery shutoff" threshold when 911 is called, on the premise that excessive battery wear caused by running it below the normal shutoff point would be a minor concern for someone calling 911. The setting remains reduced even after the 911 call is complete. Perhaps there should have been an explicit setting to reduce the battery threshold to allow for personal emergencies as well. – supercat Jul 22 at 15:33
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    @supercat aka battleshort – pipe Jul 23 at 3:34
  • @pipe: I hadn't heard that term, but I like it. Another analogy would be disabling "safe mode" watchdog on the New Horizons probe. If a fault were to occur five days before the Pluto fly-by which would have a 90% chance of rendering the craft inoperable unless it spent the next 20 minutes on a "safe reconnect" procedure, in which case the risk would be reduced to 1%, going into the safe reconnect procedure would be a win. If such a fault occurred five minutes before the fly-by, however, even a 10% chance of muddling through would be better than a 100% chance of missing the fly-by. – supercat Jul 23 at 4:34
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My nephew used to have a Videopac 2000 (if I recall correctly). It worked with cartridges, and we sometimes used to remove cartridges and reinsert it (mostly with just a second or less delay), to see what happens. Sometimes the game got corrupted software-wise which meant for a quite unusual gameplay.

We did this so many times, that I can assure the Videopac neither the cartridges got damaged.

Not that I would advise this practice, I am sure it voids the warranty.

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    I doubt it would void the warranty, since they wouldn't be able to tell you'd done it. (Did Videopacs and GameBoys even have warranties?) – wizzwizz4 Jul 22 at 13:07
  • @wizzwizz4 They couldn't tell maybe, but afaik it was stated that you only should change cartridges while the device is switched off. – Michel Keijzers Jul 22 at 13:08
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    I think that's more a "it won't work otherwise, and might wipe your savefile". I can't see how it would break the console. – wizzwizz4 Jul 22 at 13:08
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    You could certainly break old computers by unplugging peripherals from the edge connector while it is powered on. A cartridge slot is basically the same thing, isn't it? – user3570736 Jul 22 at 13:27
  • @user3570736 It could be, but I just gave a user experience (that's why I wouldn't advise to do it). – Michel Keijzers Jul 22 at 13:49
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No. This was no more than an expected user error at the time. In fact some versions of the Master System (and I believe the Genesis) had an inbuilt game that would launch when you power on the console without a game inserted, and the GBA initiated a network reciever (for simgle-cart multiplayer games).

The way a console would typically boot up, it would try to reach out for a ROM on the cart. If it couldn't find that, it would simply hang.

There was a risk of damage if you didn't leave a game in a cartridge-based system that didn't have a cartridge slot cover, due to dust build-up.

  • If you count Snail Maze, all versions of the Master System have a built-in game. – Tommy Jul 23 at 16:44

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