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After recently learning that it has a battery inside of it, I unscrewed my Controller Pak (N64 memory card) to put in a new battery. The old one says "98" on it, referring to 1998. So it's likely running out of power.

The battery is soldered on.

Why do this for something which will inevitably run out of power and need to be replaced? I thought it was just going to be a normal battery swap like so many other things using those flat, round batteries.

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    You're not supposed to still play with a N64. You are supposed to have replaced it with a Game Cube then replace it with a Wii then replace it with a Wii-U then repace it with a Switch and re-buy your games for each generation. Simple answer, greed. Jan 19 at 7:17
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    @PatrickSchlüter I'm having a hard time thinking of any consumer electronics in an advancing field that are designed to last 20+ years. Seems more like a reasonable design choice than greed. Jan 19 at 14:40
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    It'd be vaguely interesting to know whether the Nintendo battery-backed memory cards have outlasted the Sony flash-based packs, but I guess it's both: (i) wholly irrelevant to the question posed; and (ii) not really an apples-to-apples comparison.
    – Tommy
    Jan 19 at 23:23
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    @NuclearHoagie - Casio SK-5 keyboard from 1987. Takes four AA. Still works flawlessly three kids and five grandchildren later. Intentionally or not, they designed it not to break. But musicians all suffer from two-foot-ides so it doesn't matter. "a reasonable design choice" for something that runs on line voltage: sure. But once they start soldering batteries on, then the decision's been made that it will not work in X years.
    – Mazura
    Jan 21 at 4:41
  • That doesn't matter either when it's for kids and will last a decade, after which they aren't children and now believe that they live in a disposable world because that's been their experience. - I have not, and I never will, pay money for The White Album.
    – Mazura
    Jan 21 at 4:42

4 Answers 4

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It's cheaper and possibly more reliable than providing a connector. These are disposable consumer products designed to be sold at the lowest price and highest margin.

Your question assumes devices like the N64 Controller Pak are designed to be user serviceable - they're not. Take a look at the N64 Controller Pak manual: the instructions are little more than how to remove and insert it and a warning not to mess with it. The majority of video game accessories and games, especially ones with lithium coin cell batteries are not meant to be user serviceable. The list includes Game Boy and Super NES Game Paks; Master System, Mega Drive and Game Gear cartridges; and Nintendo 64 Games and Controller Paks.

If they're damaged or develop a defect, the manufacturer's intended remedy is that you send it to them for a repair, preferably outside of warranty so you have to pay them. They're engineered to function well enough during their active supported profitable lifetime, and that's it.

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Conversely, there are some console memory cards that do have replaceable cells, like the Dreamcast VMU, however the purpose of that is to let players use the VMU in detached form as a game system, and also for save game management and copying (this is why the VMU has a symmetrical connector). VMUs were expensive.

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    Exactly the point. Cheap and reliable, two main factors in designing a consumer product . In addition a lifetime of more then 10 years is way past any reasonable assumption when designing such a device. As so often we need to keep in mind that we as retro nerds are in no way the target audience here. It's 10 year old kids who have dumped the console way before kissing a girl. There's a million cards thrown away for each we 'preserve'.
    – Raffzahn
    Jan 18 at 21:23
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    You might've also noticed when opening that thing up, the screws were not Philips, flathead, Allen, or any other common standard, but those weird star-head screws that you need a special proprietary tool for. (Admittedly they're easier to get now than 20 years ago). In other words, they absolutely did not want people attempting to service these themselves. Jan 19 at 17:27
  • "The majority of video game accessories and games, especially ones with lithium coin cell batteries are not meant to be user serviceable." Every game company is guilty of this, but IMO Nintendo is the most anti-repair. Jan 19 at 18:10
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    @DarrelHoffman Those "weird star-head screws" are called Line drive and they're essentially Japan's native equivalent to Torx, sort of like how, here in Canada, you see Robertson (square) wood screws everywhere as a technically superior competitor to Phillips that didn't spread for historical reasons. While I'm sure Nintendo did partly intend them to be an anti-tamper feature, just as using Torx for its mechanical properties is sort of an anti-tamper feature, there is a tamper-resistant Line variant they didn't use, like with Torx.
    – ssokolow
    Jan 19 at 19:22
  • It would cost almost nothing to make it changeable by someone with a soldering iron.
    – Joshua
    Jan 19 at 21:17
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Replacing the battery wipes the memory card, losing all your savegames.

Note that if you had a battery clip, there is a potential risk that the battery terminals might become oxidised or be jolted loose by vibration, which would also result in losing all your savegames. Evidently they took the choice to give you a decade of reliability in exchange for having to replace the whole thing at the end.

This was not an uncommon practice - many PCs of the era had soldered on motherboard SRAM retention batteries.

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    BTW, soldered-on lithium batteries, unless wired to "suicide circuits" which are deisgned to render a device permanently inoperable if they fail (common on Capcom arcade machines), are far less of a problem than batteries that--whether soldered or socketed--ooze corrosive goo.
    – supercat
    Jan 19 at 16:06
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    To avoid "losing all your savegames", the two approaches I can confirm as Just Working are to either buy an N64 DexDrive (only tested on a Windows XP machine, requires help from something like a GameShark to back up SRAM-based in-cartridge saves) or buy a Retrode and an N64 Plug-in adapter for it (depending on the production run, you may need to source and solder your own N64 controller ports onto it to dump Memory Paks in addition to on-cartridge saves). I don't know if an N64 GameShark would also enable PC-less "copy everything onto one Pak, replace the other's battery, copy back".
    – ssokolow
    Jan 19 at 19:42
  • (The people who make the Retrode have trouble finding a reliable low-quantity supply of N64 controller ports so the catalogue entry for N64 Plug-ins with pre-installed controller ports is sometimes out of stock for long periods of time. Here's a blog post about using a GameShark to dump on-cartridge saves... though it does mention you'll need to make sure you get a GameShark with a working parallel port to use with that aforementioned Windows XP machine. The Retrode really is simplest these days, if pricey.)
    – ssokolow
    Jan 19 at 19:45
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I doubt you'll find any actual reference here but things that look to be silly from an engineering viewpoint often make more sense from a financial one. N64 memory cards are mass-market consumer products and generally cost is a significant consideration in the design and construction. Leaving out a battery holder saved a tiny amount but in total likely summed up to a large figure.

They probably considered the "lifetime" of the card to be "X" years and as long as it continued to work for that long, the company was happy and customers were unaware of the "ticking time bomb".

Ok, so now you're a long way down the road and trying to use one of these cards that Nintendo considers obsolete. What do you do? You can solder a new battery in place and keep going or you can do what Nintendo wants and scrap the thing and buy a new "modern" Nintendo system.

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    Alas, Nintendo has very long since lost their way, so their "modern" systems/games could not be more mind-numbingly uninteresting to me.
    – user23842
    Jan 18 at 22:36
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    they want you to buy a crappy nintendo switch online subscription with inferior emulation to the real hardware.
    – qwr
    Jan 19 at 8:18
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    This doesn’t look silly from an engineering perspective. This is good engineering, you just have a different use case than what the product was designed for.
    – Cubic
    Jan 19 at 12:16
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    Soldering the batteries doesn't look silly from an engineering viewpoint, either. Consider the following use case: you save your game in progress on the N64 at your home, drop the memory card in your backpack so you can play it at your friend's house after school; on the way home, you decide to toss your backpack at your friend. Which battery option is more likely to remain connected: a soldered battery, or a socketed battery?
    – Mark
    Jan 19 at 22:29
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The N64 has an interesting design choice that influences the way the peripherals were designed. Memory cards were attached to the controller, not the console. This means that during normal use, a memory card would experience significantly more movement than would, say, a console-attached Playstation memory card (which would remain stationary for most of its life). When you fall off rainbow road one too many times and toss the controller on the floor in frustration, that memory card gets jarred around and a socketed battery could come out of its socket and your saved data goes *poof*. Soldering the battery in place is a quick and cheap way to ruggedize the design.

I had a third-party "rumble pak" clone that included a pass-through connector where a memory card could attach. The memory card that came with it used a battery socket, but the battery was soldered into the socket. From all appearances, it was initially designed to be replaceable but later changed after testing. After all, every time the controller rumbled, it would be slinging the memory card around. That sort of constant vibration is certainly enough to gradually loosen the spring clips that hold the battery in the socket until the connection becomes unreliable. Ruggedized battery holders exist, but space is limited and solder is easier.

This wasn't a new problem for Nintendo. They had years of experience producing Game Boy games that included battery-backed memory, which would see the same sort of forces applied to them during use (I can't tell you how many times I violently shook my Game Boy in frustration). They had already learned that soldering the battery led to more reliable results. In fact, the retention mechanism used in Game Boy games looks almost identical to the one used in Nintendo-branded N64 memory cards.

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