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I am thinking of collecting Super Famicon/SNES games but one thing holding me back is the integrity of the cartridges.

I am aware of the issue of batteries running out of charge and not being able to save data anymore. For the purposes of this question, you can disregard this mode of failure.

How long will the console itself last before it is beyond repair?

How long will the cartridges work in the console before they are beyond repair?

Assume that the user can perform basic maintenance like cleaning contacts etc. and that the consoles and cartridges are stored in a typical household environment.

I understand that it is impossible to give an exact number of years for the lifetime of these items, so a general ballpark figure would be acceptable. (i.e. 50 years, 100 years?)

  • What kind of condition are you storing them in? – Wilson Apr 5 '18 at 7:38
  • @Wilson In a typical room in a standard house. Not exposed to the elements but no fancy environmental controls like humidity or temperature control. Lets assume the carts will all be on open display with no protective cases for the purposes of this question. – Shengus Apr 5 '18 at 7:46
  • Mildly askew question, as I don't know the answer: is there any risk of those depleted save-game batteries leaking and corroding the board? – Tommy Apr 5 '18 at 14:56
  • @Tommy Yes there does appear to be a chance of leaking but I don't understand why it happens – LateralTerminal Apr 18 '18 at 20:26
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I am thinking of collecting Super Famicon/SNES games but one thing holding me back is the integrity of the cartridges.

There must be two grades to the collecting: (1) collecting original hardware and (2) collecting original hardware which functions.

How long will the console itself last before it is beyond repair?

As you already said it is mostly impossible to project how long real hardware will live without any failures. However you have two ways to guide you:

  1. Warranty period - when manufacturer guarantees you the operation of the device, and will perform replacements to return the device into working condition. This must not be applicable to the devices you are going to collect as their warranty must be void many years ago;
  2. Useful life of the (whole) device. You may be able to find such information in the marketing booklets, but you must understand it is marketing term, and has nothing to do with guarantees from manufacturer;
  3. Trying to identify cumulative MTBF (mean time between failures) for each component, and somehow mathematically estimate MTFB for whole device using probability theory. For example, 27C512 EPROM is said to retain data for more than 200 years.

Anyway, the applicable ways 2 and 3 above are assessments, and you must be ready that hardware fails sometimes. Old one as well as new one.

But the good thing is that if you store devices in proper conditions, and you have checked they are in working condition, the probability of old device being broken "by itself" (from age, not from misuse) is much lower than new just manufactured and bought device.

Assume that the user can perform basic maintenance like cleaning contacts etc. and that the consoles and cartridges are stored in a typical household environment.

Absolutely correct - store in cool dry place, with minimum of dust, ideally in anti-static bags and away from the heat (sun light or heating equipment).

I understand that it is impossible to give an exact number of years for the lifetime of these items, so a general ballpark figure would be acceptable. (i.e. 50 years, 100 years?)

The point of genuine hardware collection is (usually) having genuine devices, if they work or not, while should be very important, is a second question.

And repairing old hardware is an art these days, it may happen that hardware which was professionally repaired can be valued more than original from dusty shelf, because repaired and properly maintained hardware should be perceived as the one potentially living for another 100 years :)

PS. Last, but not least - there may be some components which degrade with the time - for example plastic cases or capacitors. You may not be able to know how much they will live until broke or become unusable, thus it would be a good idea to unpack some of cartridges and at least perform manual inspection, showing them to professional if in doubt.

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    Protection from ultraviolet light is likely to be the biggest thing - UV degrades plastic components, and the data stored in the EPROM if it's able to get to it. – Jules Apr 5 '18 at 12:20
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    @Jules Nintendo cartridges use commercially-produced masked ROMs, not EPROMs, so no real danger there. They aren't erasable / degradable in any conventional sense. They'll basically last until they either get damaged by a massive electrical spike from malfunctioning equipment, or the plastic DIP carrier actually biodegrades (hundreds of years). – mnem Apr 5 '18 at 18:17
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    I absolutely disagree (and am even tempted to downvote) to your statement The point of genuine hardware collection is (usually) having genuine devices, if they work or not - That is like preserving books and ignoring the content. IMHO, a working game (even if it is only a game) is a cultural item, while a non-working one is just a heap of old plastics - It has lost at least 90% of its value. – tofro Nov 6 '18 at 23:05
  • I do not understand what exactly you disagree with. The attitude will differ from retro community to retro community; some people only collect working devices, some collect "boxes", some collect defective devices in hope to repair them in the future. In general geniune devices which have been repaired and maintanted by the specialist bring more value than just original device from the attic due to their "new life" - and it is also personal point of view. "Value" is complex term, and for others it may mean something different. Not necessarily an amount on the ebay item. – Anonymous Nov 7 '18 at 6:34
  • Electrolytic capacitors degrade when unused. I don't know how much of an effect that is, but perhaps it's worth powering equipment on periodically in order to keep those caps happy. – Wayne Conrad Nov 7 '18 at 21:07
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Different cartridges will last different lengths of time, due to their different components. Factors that affect lifespan include:

Type of ROM

The game code and data is stored on a read-only memory chip, or ROM. Various kinds existed over the lifetime of the system. ROMs degrade through various means, such as

  • Exposure to UV light, which may vary depending on the plastic used in the case, the label and the position of the chip in the cartridge.
  • Heat produced by the console sitting under it, other parts in the cartridge and the ROM itself
  • Electrical damage such as voltage spikes and over-voltage conditions, which given the nature of the SFC power supply are not that uncommon.

Fortunately repairing ROMs by replacing them is not difficult and essentially restores the game to as-new condition.

Circuit boards

The cartridge circuit board will eventually deteriorate, with the tracks degrading and lifting away from the board. Due to their age they are unlikely to use very fine tracks so may last longer and be easier to repair.

Very cheap circuit boards will eventually de-laminate, especially if heat cycled (heated and then cooled) repeatedly. Repair is possible but can be tricky.

Batteries

Some cartridges used battery backed memory. The battery can usually be replaced with some soldering ability, but if it leaks it can damage the PCB and other components beyond repair.

Case durability

The plastic housing of the cartridge will degrade over time, as all plastics do. Again, exposure to UV light and heat will age it more rapidly. Discolouration will happen first, and while it can be chemically reversed it is difficult to do with the label in place.

Replacement housings are possible, either from a donor cartridge or 3D printed or professionally made.

Edge connector

The cartridge connects to the console via an edge connector. These are notorious for getting worn or dirty. Cleaning is possible, and re-surfacing is possible, but eventually the PCB substrate itself will disintegrate.

Typical lifespans

A properly archived cartridge with any batteries removed or regularly replaced might expect to last 50+ years. If stored any other way, it will vary greatly but as an electronic engineer and based on experience with older systems I'd expect to see the failure rate start to rapidly increase in the next few years.

  • Battery leaked in my gbc cartridge. The game still played but there were weird graphic glitches over certain sprites. It was very interesting that it worked at all. – LateralTerminal Apr 6 '18 at 14:46
  • @LateralTerminal Aren't those dry button cells in the GBC carts, such as CR2032s, or are there alkaline or similar button cells used in some carts? – David Gardner Apr 10 '18 at 18:30
  • CR2032 or CR2025 but they both can still leak apparently source and source says the lithium one's shouldn't leak (but they still leak somehow) and here's a picture from Wikipedia to prove that they do leak. If someone can explain how they leak even though they shouldn't please respond! :D – LateralTerminal Apr 18 '18 at 20:04
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TL;DR Your console and cartridges are very likely to out-live you.

Game consoles and cartridges are made from plastic, fiberglass, metal, and semiconductor material. None of these are biodegradable. They are likely to remain intact for centuries, so long as they are protected from the outside environment. Even without protection from the environment, complex retro-electronics have been known to survive for years and still be usable. This video describes a 1977 TRS-80 Model 1 rescued from the back of a rusted out pickup truck.

In a safe, indoor environment, the most vulnerable part of your collection is the chips themselves. Discrete components like capacitors may fail more often, but are also trivial to source replacement parts. Barring any chip manufacturing defects that would shorten their life, chips are susceptible to things like cosmic and terrestrial radiation and "electromigration" that will eventually cause them to cease to function. However, these failures are rare and with luck will not effect your console or cartridges. Even if they do, repairs should still be possible for many years to come, often using spare parts from the large pool of still-functioning devices. After all, nothing you are proposing to collect is particularly rare (barring a few obscure game cartridges that were commercial failures).

Finally, for cartridges in particular, I think your worries are unfounded. The critical aspect of the cartridge is the actual data it contains, and most of this code/data has already been preserved on newer media across the Internet and on private, isolated, storage media. The data should be around for centuries. The actual "collectible" parts (IMHO) are the parts that degrade fastest - which is the labels and packaging. The only cartridge likely to remain very valuable is the "boxed copy" with the packaging being well-preserved. Protecting paper/cardboard/box art from long-term wear and damage is another topic, but I think the more pertinent one for serious collectors of retro game cartridges.

  • In a safe, indoor environment, the most vulnerable part of your collection is the chips themselves Nope, the electrolitic capacitors are the most vulnerable. – Bregalad Apr 6 '18 at 10:31
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    Capacitors usually only fail on re-powering a long idle machine. And they are easy to source and replace. For long-term longevity, finding replacement non-standard chips is hardest. – Brian H Apr 6 '18 at 16:47
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Capacitors and batteries are the main culprits.

1) Caps remove noise and ripples from DC voltage lines; without them, those circuits behave like antennae and pick up any and all EMF such as microwaves from cellphone towers and radio station carrier signals, nearby solenoids and other coils, etc. So caps are important. Also they are part of the voltage regulation; when you have a 9VAC input and a circuit converts that to 5VDC, you typically have a 7805 IC chip in a 3-pin "TO-220 package" maybe with a heat sink but always a large capacitor nearby. The large capacitor helps convert the remainder of the AC signal to DC, and without it you'll have an oscillating voltage riding on 5VDC which can fry any sensitive chips using that voltage. Some game systems or retro computers often are working fine and then die suddenly when you use it one day, often because of the power supply or the regulation circuitry. Most often because a power capacitor dried out. Replacing the caps, system is still fried... you burned a chip because of a faulty capacitor. Always replace the large electrolytic capacitors in old systems, and also in cartridges! Now, keep in mind, there are two main uses for electrolytics in these systems: for power and for decoupling. The large ones are for power regulation. The smaller ones are to "decouple" AC from DC, which you'll see all over the board every couple of inches, connecting + to - DC, so that any noise in the DC gets shorted to ground through the capacitor. So they're basically noise filters. For those, I prefer to use tantalum electrolytics, they last forever and should never need replacing again. I mean, if you love the system and never want to lose it... put in quality parts. While you're at it, replace the voltage regulators with beefier ones that have built-in protections. Not all 7805's are the same.

2) Batteries. Three main aspects here: they die and you lose your saves, or they die and rot and ruin your cartridge, or they're about to die and you want to preserve your game. They rot because they continue to try providing current by eating through their own casing. "Eating" is more like a chemical reaction as elements exchange electrons. I've seen people suggest you can replace the battery and keep your save if you do it fast enough. This is only because of the "5-tau" charge and discharge timing of RC circuits, where basically the nearby capacitor(s) maintain enough electrons to your memory chip while the battery is replaced. So if your battery is near dead and you're replacing capacitors too... You will definitely lose your saves. You can figure out where your + and - are on the board, away from the battery to give you working room.. Temporarily solder wires to run to an external battery, such as a CR2032 in a holder, to provide power while you replace the onboard battery and caps. Keep in mind that the two batteries will be in conflict, the new one will try to charge the dead one, so be quick to cut the dead one out. Those old batteries have welded tabs on them, making it a pain to find proper replacements. But the holders that fit properly (the soldering tabs are 18mm apart, which is 2mm short of the 20mm diameter of a CR2032) was a SMD/throughhole combo holder. The SMD tabs need to be bent down to become throughhole tabs. It also has to be low-profile (less than 5.5mm height above board). I looked at many coin holders and none fit properly without some silly contrivance to make it work, until I found these: digikey part# 952-1737-1-ND or manuf# S8421-45R by Harwin Inc. Be advised that the tabs are brittle from work-hardening and must be "annealed" to bend the tabs down without them breaking. You can do that by applying a hot iron to the bend until the copper starts to discolor. Then let it cool. Then bend it down. Solder it in, insert coin and you're good to go.

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    This is brilliant information! It doesn't quite answer the question, but it lets you make the answer much longer. – wizzwizz4 Nov 6 '18 at 17:03
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    Uncertainty is the environment over those years. The systems were only designed to last 10-20 years. 80% would still be fine after 20 years. There is a geometric curve so 40 years would be close to 20%. You can't properly test them without removing them, and if you're removing them you may as well replace them. 20 years would be the expected lifespan of typical capacitors (1000hrs@105C) in an ideal environment. If stored in a hot shed in the Arizona desert for 10 years, they're way past their lifetime. – Meow Meow Nov 7 '18 at 18:48
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In addition to the all previous answers:

We can assume that capacitors, resistors, batteries etc. are replaceable, PCBs losing contact are fixable too, no E(E)PROMS, just mask ROMs, mechanical failures are generally not important for electronics to function, etc.

The things left are ICs itself.

First thing to consider: degradation of plastic case could eventually lead to bonding wires being teared off the crystal.

Then, ICs are not something that would last infinitely, especially in powered on state. Basically there are atomic diffusion processes, that after a hundred of years may make IC unrealiable and then completely failing. When powered on, in addition to increased diffusion rates (because of temperature), electromigration becomes another concern.

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