Sean LaBrecque has repaired a lot of Pokémon cartridges. Each week, confused and upset customers bring copies of Pokémon Gold, Crystal, Ruby and various other shades to his Las Vegas-based vintage-game store, A Gamer’s Paradise. And they all ask the same question: “Why can’t I save my progress any more?”
Like all cartridge-based games released before the mass adoption of flash memory, the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance Pokémon games rely on batteries to save and back up data. Game data is stored in active memory, and that memory is kept on life support by a tiny three-volt battery that’s soldered to the game board. All of these batteries will eventually die; when they do, your game saves will be instantly lost along with them.
It’s a problem that affects – or will affect – thousands of old games, but few seem to die as quickly as those in the Pokémon series. “I don’t really see any carts other than Pokémon,” LaBrecque says. Even the oldest battery-backed cartridges are alive more often than not, so long as they’ve been well looked after. The Legend Of Zelda was among the first home console games to use a battery to save data, and has in many cases managed to survive some 28 years.
With the second generation of Pokémon games, Nintendo introduced a clock that caused certain events to happen based on the passage of time in the real world. Berries on trees regrow after a few days and some trainers offer new challenges every 24 hours. It was a step forward for the series, but one with consequences: to keep the clock running properly, the carts have to pull extra juice from the battery. Thus few Pokémon game cartridges retain the ability to save even after just five years.
The good news is that these batteries are replaceable. Using a soldering kit, old ones can be easily switched out. The majority of games, from the original Zelda on NES to Ocarina Of Time on N64 (one of the few N64 games to use battery saving), contain the same generic CR2032 watch battery, which
is available everywhere for pennies. Though many Game Boy games came with slightly thinner CR2025 batteries, most have enough room to spare for a CR2032 replacement, which can even significantly upgrade their lifespans.
Serious game collectors, such as videogamemuseum.com’s Mark Weber, future-proof their carts by installing battery clips onto their game boards after removing the original battery. Clips allow collectors to pop new batteries in and out without any future soldering required. Once the clip is installed, batteries can be replaced like any watch battery, though that’s not to say that everyone should risk taking a soldering iron to their most prized games. Michael Marks, who has written online guides for replacing batteries in old games, urges collectors to be careful. “I screwed up the first cart that I tried to fix,” he says. “I think I overheated the circuit board. Now I’m much more cautious about how long I’m holding the soldering iron to the board.”
The soldering iron shouldn’t be your first resort. Before deciding to replace a battery, it’s best to test it with a multimeter. If it still has close to three volts remaining, it doesn’t need to be replaced. But while there are battery-replacement methods that don’t require soldering knowledge, these are undeniably inferior.
Derek Mead, editor of Vice’s Motherboard blog, has successfully used a hot knife to remove and replace a battery in his copy of Secret Of Mana, but says he wouldn’t recommend that others use the technique. “I didn’t have a soldering iron at the time and I didn’t feel like ordering one off of Amazon,” he explains. “It’s a lot cleaner and easier just to solder it.”
LaBrecque makes a profit every time he replaces a battery in a game cartridge, but admits that most people are best off learning to solder. “It’s not hard,” he says. “Familiarise yourself with a soldering iron. Practise on something. An old Game Boy game is the perfect thing to practise on.”
Although most old games have been able to last this long on original batteries, LaBrecque expects that we’ll begin seeing them finally run out en masse in the coming decade. It’s unlikely that most batteries, even ones that have been kept out of extreme conditions, will make it much beyond the 30-year mark. And even owners of modern games and consoles shouldn’t feel too smug: flash-based memory isn’t truly permanent, even if it can survive up to 100,000 rewrites. God help the antique collector who, decades from now, gets their hands on a copy of Animal Crossing: Wild World, and leaves with only one question: “Why won’t this mole stop yelling at me?”