The Nintendo Entertainment System’s reputation as the home console of the’80s has only been burnished over time. And as its notoriety has increased in retro game circles, little myths and legends have popped up that capture the attention of gamers of that era.
Rumors and questions have popped up regarding the little changes made at various points during the NES’s life cycle, from its release 1985 to the early ‘90s.
Nintendo has unwittingly fueled these fires, not so much on purpose but more out of omission. Back in the ‘80s the company didn’t feel the cosmetic changes they made to their consoles and cartridges were worthy of much explanation. And in the intervening years they haven’t seemed to change their about that. That means there’s little official word to go on.
So silence on Nintendo’s part left room for all kinds of fun speculation and conspiracy theories. Do the different-colored seals on NES games denote a launch-code pattern in the event of a Russian attack? Were those games with red-top stickers a subtle message implemented by sleeper agents to communicate with Communist operatives in the U.S.?
and finally, what’s the deal with the different amounts of screws on the backs of certain cartridges? Like the article we wrote detailing the differences between NES sticker labels (and unfortunately Russian espionage had nothing to do with it), here we finally explain, comprehensively, why some cartridges had five screws on the back while others had only three.
The five-screw cartridge
If you have an untampered NES cart with five screws on the back, you’ll notice a couple things. First, the screws are typical flatheads, and they appear on each corner, with the final screw located in the middle of the back of the cartridge. You’ll also notice that on the front of the cartridge the game will have a seal of authenticity colored black/gold. This means that you’ve got one of the very first cartridges Nintendo ever released for the console. And they kept putting out games this way for the first couple years of their existence.
The cool thing about these carts was that, because the screws were simple flatheads, hobbyists could easily remove them and get into the game. Of course, this accessibility was a small part of what killed the overall quality home-console gaming during Atari times, when anyone and everyone could get into the hardware and hack the software. More on this below.
The three-screw cartridge
Around 1988 Nintendo decided to make some minor cosmetic tweaks to their game packaging. The company decided the text on their black official seal was too wordy, and the also figured it was time for a change of color. So After a minor tweak, in 1989 they changed the seal to white/gold, with fewer words in the text. They also took this opportunity to implement further quality controls and cost-saving measures—namely by reducing the amount of screws in the back case from five to three. So now the screws appeared on the bottom corners, with one in the middle. The top of the case was now secured by tabs rather than screws. It may seem minor, but saving a couple screws on each of countless manufactured games cartridges does add up over time.Also, Nintendo changed the screws from flatheads to a unique hex top that required a special screwdriver to remove. It may not have been Fort Knox, but it was one additional way Nintendo could ensure quality control and keep their gear from becoming the free-for-all that sank the Atari 2600.
So there you have it. If you’ve got a cartridge with five screws on the back and a blac/gold seal on the front, you know you’ve got one of the NES’s first games. And if it’s three-screw with a white/gold seal, you know it was manufactured in 1989 or later. If you looking for a rarity list, here is a nice list from Nintendo Age.