What Restoring a 30-Year-Old Nintendo Taught Me About Right To Repair

Fixing things is human nature, so why are companies so against it?

Photo: Mike Wehner

In the late 1980s, somebody bought a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) from a physical store, brought it home, and presumably enjoyed it for untold years. The console, with serial number N12180601, suffered greatly in the decades to come, eventually landing on eBay in a condition that can only be described as “junk.” The seller, located in Angleton, Texas, was asking a modest price of $11.99 for the system, which was not only nonfunctional and damaged, but missing a plethora of parts.

I bought it.

Covered in dirt and grease, partially disassembled, burned by ill-placed cigarettes, missing vital internal components, and sporting bright white paint drips, the console was a mess. If your smartphone, TV, or modern game console were in this kind of condition you’d simply throw it out and buy a replacement. But the NES was built in the 1980s, back when companies didn’t care nearly as much about making money off repairs, and as such, it was salvageable with my bare minimum of technological know-how and my very questionable soldering skills.

This is what it looks like now:

I worked hard to bring the dead console back to life. It took time, patience, and lots of information from retro gaming enthusiasts online, but I made it happen.

If you want to watch the entire repair process from start to finish, I’ve edited eight-or-so hours of restoration footage down to just over 20 minutes:

Right to Repair

As you go about your day with your smartphone in your pocket or toting a pricey laptop around, a war over the guts of those devices continues to rage. More specifically, a war between two sides that want to decide who can and who can’t tinker around inside, modifying the function of the components, or fixing issues that pop-up over time.

On one side are the device manufacturers. Companies like Apple fought tooth and nail to prevent third-party repair shops from offering services for the iPhone, MacBook, and any other devices they sell. The iPhone maker fights against legislation that would make it perfectly legal for non-Apple-affiliate repair shops and individuals to fix their own devices if they want to, even going so far as to introduce a new kind of nonstandard screw head in 2009 to make it that much more difficult to open and repair its laptops and smartphones. Apple provided its own technicians the necessary tools to beat these screws, but for a long time, it was next to impossible to buy one from a third party.

Consumers fought back, and sites like iFixit exploded in popularity as owners of these devices created platforms for teaching one another how to open, repair, and modify their gadgets without sending them to the manufacturer or waiting for a repair appointment at an authorized repair shop. iFixit rates many new devices on a repairability scale, and the trend is clearly going in the wrong direction, with new smartphones, laptops, and other popular electronics routinely receiving incredibly low scores, indicating that it’s virtually impossible to repair them on your own.

Microsoft’s shiny new Surface Duo received a two out of 10 for being impossible to disassemble without breaking, for example. Microsoft’s Surface Laptop earned the title of the “least repairable laptop” with a score of zero out of 10. The OnePlus 8 Pro received a four out of 10, while the Samsung Galaxy S20+ received a three out of 10. On the Apple side, the newest 12.9-inch iPad Pro also scored a three out of 10, while the iPhone 11 received a somewhat encouraging score of six out of 10.

Keep in mind that these scores are simply an indication of how easy it is to get the gadgets open and gain access to vital components. If you have to actually swap something out, the challenge becomes much more intense, as none of these companies are very good about providing parts for DIY repair. Third parties step in to fill the void in most cases, but even then, some functionality is often missing after replacing parts. Good luck using Face ID after replacing an iPhone’s front-facing camera or the True Tone color feature if you replace the iPhone’s screen (even if you’re using an original Apple screen as a replacement).

All of these large companies push you very, very strongly in the direction of an official repair option, like Apple’s Genius Bar. Or, even worse, buying an entirely new device when that might not be necessary.

A Nintendo, reborn

When I dove into the NES repair project I was somewhat intimidated. Sure, it’s an older piece of tech which means it’s less complex than something like a modern laptop or game console, but its age also means there are so many more things that could go wrong. Capacitors die over time, traces on the circuit board can erode away after enduring moisture for an extended period of time (which this particular console clearly dealt with), and the aging CPU and memory chips could easily fail and corrode after sitting in a garage for decades without attention.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, I sauntered down to my basement workshop for an hour or two whenever I found the time. I disassembled, cleaned, checked for missing and damaged parts, and replaced capacitors, among other things. I used basic tools to tackle every issue I came across. I polished the filthy pins that connect the game cartridge to the mainboard, ensured that corrosion on the power unit didn’t break the connection between different components, and bought cheap replacement parts for the components that were entirely missing. I protected various parts with a sealant to prevent future corrosion and even managed to remove the yellowing from the plastic and fix the cigarette burns with a bit of epoxy and some gentle sanding.

In the end, the console not only works but looks much closer to “factory new” than I could possibly have hoped, considering its condition when I paid $11.99 for it. But the point is that without the available knowledge online and access to components needed to repair it, it would have remained a dead relic of decades past.

Give us a chance

With the Nintendo Entertainment System being as old as it is, I wasn’t really worried about voiding a warranty or having issues finding parts. It’s like an old car from the late 1980s or early 1990s; just head to the auto parts store and if they don’t have something in stock, you can bet they have piles of parts in the warehouse.

Tackling problems with a modern smartphone, laptop, or other gadget is a much bigger gamble. Parts are hard to come by (by design), and the manufacturer is actively stifling your efforts to fix it on your own. These companies almost never make repair manuals available to independent repair shops, much less the general public. They’d much rather have you pay them for the repair or — even better — pay for the repair and then buy an extended warranty or care plan so that you’re paying for your next repair ahead of time.

I get it. It’s a business. Those that defend the manufacturers will always argue that you can just buy something else if you don’t like it, but that argument misses the point. By making it next to impossible to repair the products you own, it creates a sub-business that, at best, makes it easier to justify covering both sides of a phone in glass or soldering components that don’t need to be soldered, and at worst, incentivizes building shoddy products in the first place.

Are modern electronics a lot more complex than my newly-repaired Nintendo? Of course! A smartphone is an almost unfathomably complex computer packed into a tiny little compartment. Laptop boards have so many components that it would make my Nintendo blush. They’re complicated machines that pose a repair challenge, even with the right tools and parts at your disposal. The point here is that the companies don’t even want to give us (or independent repair shops) the chance to try because, ultimately, it hurts their bottom line.

Unfortunately, if I had been trying to repair an iPhone instead of an old Nintendo, I’d have been largely out of luck. If I had been able to successfully bring it back to life, I’d have done so without any official repair guides, first-party replacement parts, or really any help from the company that made it. I got away with it with the Nintendo because it’s old and most of the parts are so antiquated that first-party repair parts are easy to come by on sites like eBay, salvaged from other, truly dead systems.

Buying a gadget these days means you own it… but only to a point. Repairing something you own shouldn’t be a privilege we have to beg for, but at this point, that’s exactly what it is. The Right to Repair fight hopes to change that, and now I fully understand why.

Writing interesting, overlooked stories. Enjoy my work? You can buy me a ☕ here: https://www.buymeacoffee.com/myke

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