I have a fairly healthy collection of NES games; you can kind of see them in this listing for one of my abecediaries on Etsy. If you haven’t figured by some of my previous projects, I’m a big fan. Because of this, deciding to use some of my spare NES cartridges as canvases for laser etching wasn’t easy. I reconciled my interest in creating some unique NES art and my concern about potentially destroying collectible items by making sure that the games I etched would remain playable.
This wasn’t a recent decision. The moment I first turned on the laser, I was all over the place finding things I wanted to attack with coherent light. I didn’t know much back then, though, so when I first fired away at a copy of Super Mario Bros., I melted things more than etched them. I had a terrifying lack of experience that had me trying to etch multiple layers into a single surface without even being aware of the 3D etching mode. The result was still mostly successful; several repeated etches, even with the default halftone pattern that the laser utilizes when processing grayscale, resulted in a slightly blurry 3D mario sprite. Similar test etches flanking our big bold Mario show off just how badly I handled this plastic.
Later on, with a little more experience under my belt, I gave Marble Madness a shot. This time, I used a previously destroyed copy of Defender of the Crown to perform several etch tests, one of which I also applied Rub n’ Buff to for no particular reason. I even cut a hole out of the center in a half-baked plan to glue a marble into place; this was scrapped when I realized it might keep the game from fitting into front-loading NES consoles.
The first etching test performed this week was on Wrecking Crew, which is a cartridge I started removing the label from about a year ago. That project was halted fairly quickly when I realized that the adhesive used for that cart’s label was otherworldly. No label to that point had withstood the power of Goo Gone, but Wrecking Crew, for whatever reason, was not willing to let go of its identity, even for a short while. Success came only with liberal applications of the aforementioned goo and some fairly knuckle-tiring fingernail abuse.
Some quick etch tests (performed on the old Defender of the Crown cart in spare label space) told me that the operating range for visibly etching without melting was between 10% and 30% of the laser’s maximum power, so I set up the 3D etching mode to work within those parameters and whipped up a simple depth map using sprites from the game’s title screen and first stage. Unfortunately, the result was difficult to appreciate due to how the plastic seemed to bubble up and blur the etching, even at lower powers. I believe this might have been due to the same issue I had with my previous foray into 3D etching, where using that mode produces a less precise etch side-to-side.
I gave it another go with (another) spare Super Mario Bros. cartridge, this time opting to leave much of the label untouched and etching only certain foreground and background elements from the title and first stage. This too was unsuccessful because of how lightly certain layers were etched—even with several passes. The glossy, untouched label space was also empty and boring. Of special impossible-to-miss note is the divot left over from molding the plastic. It’s present under the label of every NES cartridge and is a pretty unfortunate pock mark for all of these etching tests.
Tetris had to save the day! Instead of relying on the 3D mode and how the laser interprets depth maps, I manually edited the color palette of my Tetris sprite collage to fit with the eight specific RGB values visible to the laser, and applied power values to each color, again within the parameters specified above. The result was very hard to see, as Wrecking Crew was, so I decided to repeat passes until I was satisfied.
Three hours later I had completed six passes, each with its own set of eight etching “sub-passes,” and the resulting piece was much more visible than Wrecking Crew and far more interesting than Super Mario Bros. But the result is still a little too blurry and the depth effect a little too shallow for the time spent. This is definitely not cell-cast acrylic; this plastic was never meant to disperse under laser power gracefully.
All the same, I had a lot of fun with this and now have three unique, one-of-a-kind NES cartridges with custom designed and etched “labels” featuring sprite collages from within their games. Super Mario Bros. might have ended up looking a little uninteresting, but it still plays the same and 8-3 is still as tough as ever.