I originally wrote this post for spectaclerock.com.
When a PC is powered on but it finds no disk to boot from, it says to you in gray letters: “No bootable device — insert a boot disk and strike any key.” A Mac shows instead an archaic icon of a floppy disk with a blinking question mark. If you turn on a Nintendo Entertainment System without inserting a cartridge first, its power light simply blinks on and off as your television set displays a gray screen. But — there is a subtlety here not often found in computers. If the NES senses a cartridge but cannot read its contents properly, it will sometimes show its initial screen but with corrupted graphics, or with the first note of its song strung out into an endless tone.
This is a harmless occurrence whose traditional remedy is taking out the cartridge and blowing into its contacts, to clear out any dust. It’s a familiar, comfortable ritual to anyone who owned a NES in its heyday, like cleaning your glasses or trimming your fingernails.
When I was a child, I once turned on my father’s Atari 2600 with a cartridge half-inserted by accident. Instead of displaying a message, an icon, or even corrupted graphics, it emitted an unholy, piercingly loud shriek.
I found out later that this process is called frying, and that if you do it skillfully, you can alter gameplay — by causing sprites to act contrary to their programming, or the world of the game itself to warp.
But as a kid, I was scared shitless by the sound.