The Variations & Reasoning of Nintendo NES Cartridge Screws

Vintage-NIntendo-NES-Logo

In 1986, Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System in North America, changing the entertainment industry forever. It was immediately so popular that people trampled strangers in department stores just to get one before it sold out. This trend continued as Nintendo and third-party programmers released one hit NES game after another.

Given all this hoopla, would anyone notice or care that the number of NES cartridge screws changed from 5 to 3? Nintendo didn’t think so. They just stopped producing 5-screw NES games and adopted the new 3-screw format without any explanation.

Obviously, they forgot that 100% of their core demographic are obsessive geeks (like us). And geeks notice details, especially when the items in question become rare, retro collectibles.

So, why the big (or rather, hardly noticeable) change? And why all the secrecy?

Furthermore, does it even matter? Actually, it matters more than you’d think. Read on to learn why.  

Will you here check out our store, if you're looking to buy or sell a rare or common NES cartridge, do it here. Check out all our Nintendo NES games for sale here.

What Is a 5 Screw NES Game?

5 screw nes games

As stated, the first NES cartridges released in North America had 5 screws, the same number as the Famicom cartridges released in Japan. If you have an unhampered NES cart with five screws on the back, you’ll notice a couple of things.

First, the screws are typical flat heads, as opposed to the uniquely-shaped security screws that became standard in later video games. On the NES cartridge back, one screw secures each corner, with the final screw located in the middle.

nes cartridge screwsAlso, on the front of these cartridges, there’s a black/gold-colored seal of authenticity. Nintendo kept putting out games this way for the first few years of their existence.

The NES 3 Screw Cartridge

Shortly after this, Nintendo switched to the 3-screw format and never switched back. This format used plastic tabs in place of the two screws at the top of the Nintendo cartridge. Also, Nintendo changed the screws from flatheads to a unique hex top that required a special screwdriver to remove.

nes screws

They gave no explanation for this, leaving room for all kinds of fun speculation and conspiracy theories. (We’re geeks, remember?) Actually, though, the answer is obvious.

Why the Number of NES Cartridge Screws Changed

The logical explanation is that plastic is cheaper than metal. Thus, subtracting two screws from each cartridge would save millions of dollars of production costs.

Plus, the security screws made the cartridges harder to open. This discouraged the sale of unauthorized/bootlegged NES cartridges.

Now, abnormal screws aren’t exactly Fort Knox. But they effectively helped Nintendo ensure quality control and keep their gear from becoming the free-for-all that sank the Atari.

How It Happened

Around 1988, Nintendo wanted to make some minor cosmetic tweaks to their game packaging. The company decided that the text on their black official seal was too wordy. They also figured it was time for a change of color.

So, in 1989, they changed the seal to white/gold with fewer words in the text. They also took this opportunity to implement the improved quality controls and cost-saving measures of the 3-screw format.  If you want to know more about NES Seals used on games, we have an in depth article here on our site, the Complete NES Label / Seal Guide.

Why Did Nintendo Release NES 5-Screw Games?

The money-saving benefits of the 3-screw format bring up an important question. If NES 3 screw games are so much cheaper to produce, why did they have NES 5 screw games in the first place?

Interestingly, this was also a way to save money. As mentioned, Nintendo used the same 5-screw format for Famicom games. And, apparently, they had a large surplus of the Famicom cartridge circuit boards that were printed for this format.

The problem was, these cartridges didn’t fit the pin layout of the North American NES system. Their solution: they made the NES cartridges slightly taller than the Famicom cartridges to include a Famicom-to-NES converter. Then, they could easily port games to the North American NES systems.

Why NES 5 Screw Games Matter to Collectors

There are two main reasons why this screw variation matters to NES collectors, though one is now obsolete. First, we just mentioned how the 5-screw cartridges include a Famicom-to-NES converter.

And, these cartridges don’t even have security screws on them. Since the screws are simple flatheads, hobbyists can easily remove them and get into the game.

Thus, in olden times, these cartridges doubled as easy-to-obtain adapters that allowed gamers to play imported Famicom games on the NES. Today, however, third-party Famicom/NES converters are far more common and easier to obtain.

That’s the other reason that 5-screw NES games are often desired: rarity. The rarity of discontinued items almost always increases their value. Even a tiny detail like screw quantity makes a difference.

Full NES 5-Screw List

Here's the complete 5-screw NES games list, https://steemit.com/gaming/@retro-room/what-are-5-screw-nintendo-nes-cartridges-and-why-do-people-want-them">courtesy of steemit.com:

  • 10-Yard Fight
  • 1942
  • 3D WorldRunner
  • Alpha Mission
  • Arkanoid
  • Athena
  • Athletic World
  • Balloon Fight
  • Baseball
  • Breakthru
  • BurgerTime
  • Castlevania
  • Chubby Cherub
  • Clu Clu Land
  • Commando
  • Deadly Towers
  • Donkey Kong 3
  • Donkey Kong Jr Math
  • Donkey Kong Jr
  • Donkey Kong
  • Double Dribble
  • Duck Hunt
  • Elevator Action
  • Excitebike
  • Ghosts 'n Goblins
  • Golf
  • Gotcha
  • Gradius
  • Gumshoe
  • Gyromite
  • Hogan's Alley
  • Ice Climber
  • Ikari Warriors
  • Jaws
  • Karate Champ
  • Kid Icarus
  • Kid Niki Radical Ninja
  • Kung Fu
  • Legend of Kage
  • Legend of Zelda
  • Lode Runner
  • Lunar Pool
  • MUSCLE
  • Mach Rider
  • Mario Bros
  • Mega Man
  • Metroid
  • Mighty Bomb Jack
  • Mike Tyson's Punch-Out
  • Ninja Kid
  • Pinball
  • Popeye
  • Pro Wrestling
  • Rad Racer
  • Raid on Bungeling Bay
  • Ring King
  • Rush'n Attack
  • Rygar
  • Section-Z
  • Sky Kid
  • Slalom
  • Soccer
  • Solomon's Key
  • Spelunker
  • Spy Hunter
  • Sqoon
  • Stack-Up
  • Star Force
  • Star Voyager
  • Stinger
  • Super Mario Bros
  • Super Pitfall
  • Tag Team Wrestling
  • Tennis
  • The Goonies II
  • Tiger-Heli
  • Top Gun
  • Track and Field
  • Trojan
  • Urban Champion
  • Volleyball
  • Wild Gunman
  • Winter Games
  • Wizards and Warriors
  • Wrecking Crew
  • Zanac

The 5-screw versions of these games are usually the rarest. But some older games are more common in the 5-screw format. In most cases, the number of screws makes a significant price difference.

So there you have it. 5-screw NES games are usually rarer and more expensive than their 3-screw counterparts. And now you know why.   We have several NES games for sale in our store that do have the elusive adapter.

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Comments 3

Guest
Guest - Kowai Retro Gamer on Sunday, 03 November 2019 03:25

I have a question about NES screws. I know that the 5 screw carts had the flat head type screw and the 3 screw carts had the security type screw.

Did Nintendo release any 3 screw carts with the flat head type screw??
I recently got a BUNCH of games from ebay, that appear to be authentic, except for this one thing...

Thanx!!

I have a question about NES screws. I know that the 5 screw carts had the flat head type screw and the 3 screw carts had the security type screw. Did Nintendo release any 3 screw carts with the flat head type screw?? I recently got a BUNCH of games from ebay, that appear to be authentic, except for this one thing... Thanx!!
Guest
Guest - Josh on Sunday, 06 June 2021 06:04

I have Kung Fu that I received with my NES for Christmas in 1988 brand new. It has 3 flathead screws.

I have Kung Fu that I received with my NES for Christmas in 1988 brand new. It has 3 flathead screws.
Guest
Guest - Adam Williamson on Friday, 05 February 2021 18:22

Small note: there are some carts with the old seal, but three screws. Not sure if there are any with new seal but five screws. Label printing and cart manufacturing being different processes it kinda makes sense there'd be some overlap.

Small note: there are some carts with the old seal, but three screws. Not sure if there are any with new seal but five screws. Label printing and cart manufacturing being different processes it kinda makes sense there'd be some overlap.
Guest
Tuesday, 04 October 2022