disc rot game over screen

Disc Rot – The Permanent Game Over!

If you’ve never heard of disc rot and don’t know what it is, I’ve got some bad news. Are you sitting down?

Disc rot is a naturally occurring process which causes compact discs to slowly degrade. The time between the occurrence of disc rot can vary greatly. There are however factors (both manufacturing and environmental) which can speed up the process. Ultimately though, all CDs will eventually succumb to it.

What is Disc Rot?

CDs are made up of multiple layers; four to be exact. The top layer is, of course, the label which is screen printed on. Below that is a layer of plastic. Next, you’ll find a layer of reflective aluminium and finally at the bottom, another layer of plastic. All these layers are glued together to form a CD. Unfortunately, glue loses its strength over time, and this is what makes CDs susceptible to disc rot.

Once air and moisture enter a disc, they begin to slowly attack the reflective aluminium layer. The layer essentially rusts and slowly rots away. Once the rot sets in its game over; literally. Data isn’t stored on the reflective layer. It’s actually stored in land and pits on the base polycarbonate layer. However, without the presence of the aluminium layer, it is not possible for the data to be reflected. This, as a result, renders the disc unreadable.

Layers of a CD disc

How to Spot Disc Rot

Disc rot is relatively easy to spot. If a game you own isn’t reading correctly, it may be because of this. To check, all you need to do is hold it up to a light source. Make sure the reflective side of the disc is facing you. If spots of light are traveling through it, I’m sorry to say you’ve got disc rot. You no longer have a game, but you have gained a coaster… Yay? A few spots doesn’t necessarily mean your game will be unreadable, however, it is a sign that its beginning to die.

disc rot example ps1 game
An example of disc rot on a Sony PlayStation 1 game. Image sourced from Atari Age.

Taking Measures to Prevent Disc Rot

All CDs have a lifespan and disc rot is practically inevitable. It’s strange to think that in years to come, many discs that exist today will be gone. With that said, don’t run off to sell all your treasured games. It’s very likely that many of them will outlive you. There’s no magic substance which protects CDs from this, you just need to be sensible with them.

From a practical perspective, they’re safest in their cases. Store them away from moisture and out of sunlight. This will help to slow down the process. Some people also recommend storing your games inside plastic ziplock bags to prevent air and moisture exposure. There’s some logic behind that, so if you’re particularly concerned and don’t mind your collection looking clinical, give it a go.

When you come to understand that CDs have lifespans, you begin to be thankful for digital archiving. Even if CDs rot away, the data will live on thanks to media preservation. If you do happen to have a CD containing unique data, I can’t stress enough how important it is to preserve it. Game discs containing the likes of prototypes should be digitally backed up before they disappear forever. For unique items such as these, it’s advisable to seek the help of an expert before attempting to do anything you’re unfamiliar with. Otherwise, you run the risk of damaging the disc in the process.

Are Certain Games More Prone to Disc Rot?

It’s believed that Sega Mega CD and Sega Saturn games are more susceptible to disc rot than others. More occurrences have been reported across these systems than others. This may well be due to the quality of the materials used to produce the games. Don’t think you’re safe because you’re a PlayStation collector though, games across all systems are at risk. Generally, older CD based games are at a higher risk, it can occur in newer games though.

Should You Be Worried About Disc Rot?

Not really. What’s the use in worrying about the inevitable? Most people never experience disc rot in their lifetime. If it was to occur within your games collection, chances are it would be extremely minimal. Don’t worry about disc rot and simply enjoy the games you love.