Fake classic games are everywhere: At the flea market, in your local game store, on eBay, and maybe even mixed in with your own collection. The bootleggers who make them are churning them out, meaning that the market will only become more saturated with them as the years go by. If you’re going to collect games, you’ll need to learn how to watch for counterfeits.
Bootleg video games are nearly as old as video games themselves. There were knockoff Atari cartridges, ersatz “100-in-1" NES games, and enough PlayStation CD-Rs to reach the moon and back during their time. But those bootlegs were easily identifiable by their shoddy quality. More to the point, most people buying them knew they were fake. They just wanted to play the games.
Today’s counterfeit games, by and large, are meant to fool you into thinking you’re buying the real thing. And while many are aimed at those who just want to play games, they’re also trying to fool collectors, too. That means that today’s bootlegs are much more sophisticated in their attempts at chicanery. If you’re going to be spending significant money on old games, here’s what you need to know.
A fake will always have tells that should clue you in to its fakeness, but many of those will be discrepancies between the fake and the original. You don’t necessarily need to learn what a “fake game” looks like. You only need to learn everything about what a real game looks like. Then, if you spot a fake, you’ll know it, because it won’t look like what you know to be real.
The next time you go to a game store, a flea market seller’s booth, or a game convention, really look at everything. Understand the feel of the plastic shell on a Super Nintendo game or the thickness of the card stock on an NES game’s box. If there’s a particular game you’re after, try to find it at the show. What artwork is on the label? Is there an ESRB rating? Where on the label is it? What does the copyright line say, and where is it? Where are the company logos?
On any given fake, many of these things might be wrong. Take any opportunity you can to check out the real thing. That accumulated knowledge will arm you when a fake strolls into your life.
Labels are hard to fake. I mean, yes, anybody can print out a sticky piece of paper that says “EarthBound” on it and affix it to a copy of Madden 93. Labels are hard to fake well, and they’re basically impossible to fake perfectly.
The printing on official labels of classic games should be of very high quality, as they were produced on expensive offset printing machines. Examine a Super Nintendo label and you’ll find that the illustrations are crisp and clear, and even the tiniest text is sharp and readable. On a fake label, you’re going to see blurrier photos and text.
Labels should be precisely machine-cut, usually with nice rounded edges that were stamped out. If it looks like somebody cut it with scissors, that’s a bad sign.
Now, what if a run of fakes is professionally printed in a factory? A few years ago, fake labels were most often printed on some scammer’s inkjet printer. Today, there seem to be factories printing out professionally-made fakes by the thousands, if not millions. In these cases, since the quality of the labels might be hard to discern, you probably want to start looking at the design of the label.
First off, if the label’s design uses a piece of art that doesn’t appear on the official label, that’s probably a good sign that you should examine the game more closely for signs that it’s a fake. There are some variations on label art for different print runs of official games, so you do need to make sure this isn’t one of them. But the vast majority of games only ever had one label.
If even this is not dispositive, you want to look at the fonts. If one were to make a fake label, it would be easy to get one’s hands on high-resolution art, the Nintendo Seal of Quality, etc. But matching fonts is very difficult to do. Even if you know the font the original designer used, it’s going to be nearly impossible to match the size, kerning, weight, and other elements that they had selected on, say, their 1991 Macintosh. Fonts can often be a telltale giveaway if you compare them to the original.
Similarly, if a game had an ESRB rating, fakers will likely try to recreate the ESRB rating on the box from scratch, versus trying to scan and reproduce it. So look closely at the styling of the rating on the official label, and make sure the dimensions, graphics, and fonts are right on that, too.
Some fake games are made by cannibalizing real games for their plastic shells. In those cases, looking at the shell won’t help you figure out much of anything. But there are lots of unofficial game shells being mass-produced these days, whether in factories that are pumping out bootleg games or just empty shells that can be bought in any quantity on eBay.
Now, if you’re making a homebrew NES game, perhaps you have a legitimate reason for needing these! But fakers can use them, too. In general, these replacement shells won’t be as high-quality as the real thing. And even if they are well made, they’ll still look and feel somewhat different than the originals.
In cases where the plastic shell had a logo stamped into it, it can be quite easy to spot fakes, as those logos will never be perfectly recreated. Here I mostly refer to games for the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance. If the logos on the shells have the wrong words or the wrong proportions, they’re bootlegs.
Of course, a game cartridge isn’t just a label and a shell. Inside this humble packaging is a circuit board filled with only the finest 20th-century technology. If you really want to make sure the game you’re looking at is the real thing, you should check the board. You’re asking yourself two questions here: Is this an authentic board, and, if so, does it have the right game on it?
Don’t worry. You don’t need to be a computer whiz, a Brent Rambo, in order to know if a board is authentic. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a fake board look indistinguishable from a real one, and most fakers don’t even bother to try.
Before you can have a look at the board, you’ll need to open the cartridge. How easy this is going to be depends on the cartridge. While some games are put together with simple flathead screws, others use custom bits. Screwdrivers for these were hard to get one’s hands on in the 80s and 90s, but it’s trivially easy today; just search for “gamebit” on your shopping nexus of choice and you’ll find something like these. Game Boy Advance games use a “tri-wing” screwdriver that’s also quite easy to get.
If you’re buying games from your local flea market or game shop, bring your screwdrivers with you! Any reputable store will understand the need to check out the boards on an expensive item, and should offer to open them for you for inspection. If they adamantly refuse to do it, that’s a red flag. (Many professional eBay dealers will open the games and show the boards in their photographs, but you can’t expect a non-expert seller to do that for you. In those cases, you’ll just have to judge from the other clues.)
Custom tools in hand, you’re ready to check out the board. If you don’t know what that board is supposed to look like, one thing you might want to do is search for “[game title] [platform] board” on Google Images and see if someone’s taken a photo of a legit board so you can compare them. If what you’re after is an NES cartridge, check out NESCartDB, which has a whole database full of NES board photos. For SNES boards, check out SNESCentral.
Broadly speaking, you want to be wary of two different kinds of fake boards. There’s the sort that someone made in their garage, usually by taking a legitimate board, removing the game ROM chips from it, and replacing it with the data from the more valuable game they’re trying to pass it off as. And there are the factory-fresh bootlegs that are currently being churned out.
In the first case, the board itself is still legit, but you want to look for signs that it’s been tampered with. These would include the ROM chips being desoldered from the board and replaced with EPROMs, which have a circular window on their tops so they can be rewritten with different data. This is usually covered by a sticker. A wire soldered between two points on the board would also be a sign it’s been messed with, since you don’t see this on untouched boards.
In the second case, you wouldn’t see any such things since the boards were made in a factory, but the boards themselves will look wildly different from the originals: Different shapes, different colors, different types of chips on them. In many cases, you’ll see what’s known as a “glob-top,” a chip that’s been completely covered by a blob of epoxy instead of soldered pin by pin to the board. These are almost never on authentic vintage game circuit boards (except in some very rare and specific instances).
It’s also possible that you might find a legitimate board inside your cartridge, but for a different game. In general, you should be able to identify what game is on any cartridge by looking up the product code that’s printed on the ROM chips. For NES and SNES games, it should comport with the product code that’s printed on the cartridge label. So for instance, the rare game Stadium Events says “NES-SD-USA” on its label, and “NES-SD-0" on the chips.
You can’t open Nintendo DS and 3DS games without breaking them, since they’re glued, not screwed. But you can still check the product code, since that’s stamped onto the back of the cartridge. For example, the label on a copy of Dragon Quest IV has the code “NTR-YIVE-USA.” In this case, YIVE is the unique code for the game, and the code stamped on the back of my copy is YIVENOJ19. On bootlegs, these codes generally won’t match up, if they’re even there at all.
You can actually see some of the board of a Game Boy Advance game without having to open up the cartridge. Just look inside the opening where the pin connector is exposed. On an authentic game, you should be able to read the word “Nintendo” printed on the board above the pins. (A flashlight might help.) If that’s not there, you’ve got a bootleg.
Yep, there are fake boxes and manuals, too. Often, people aren’t trying to pass these off as the real thing, as they’re so obvious as soon as you touch them—the card stock is wrong, they’re way too glossy and new, the manual cover has the stickiness of photo paper. But many collectors will add these to their collections anyway, just because they want to see a box, any box, sitting on the shelf.
So you do have to be careful when you see a box that looks too good. One telltale sign is that the vast majority of NES and SNES boxes were printed on gray cardboard, not white. So if the inside of the box is white, it’s almost definitely a fake (with some limited exceptions). Otherwise, evaluate it like you would a label: Compare it to pictures of the original, look for blurriness, incorrect fonts, etc.
Also, check to see if the box says “Reproduction” anywhere on it. I shouldn’t have to tell you that won’t be on an original.
Also consider the context in which you are purchasing these items. If you’re on eBay and you’re about to buy a copy of Ocarina of Time from a seller that has 100 of them listed and in fact seems to have a giant inventory of thousands of identical mint-condition American games even though they are located in *checks notes* China? Probably not the real thing, sorry.
Sometimes even reputable businesses make mistakes, though. 99 times out of 100, your local store might flush out Pokémon bootlegs, but there are just so many of them out there that it’s possible one might slip through. But no reputable business should have any problem with you wanting to open a game, or ask questions, or take a closer look at what you’re buying before you do.
Another question you might ask yourself: Does this game I’m buying… even exist? Right now, you can buy a cartridge on eBay that contains all four Final Fight games. Such a game never actually existed on the Super Nintendo. That goes too for role-playing games like Terranigma, which was released in Japan and Europe but not the U.S. If you see one of those on an American-style cartridge, it’s not an authentic game.
We’ve been talking about cartridge-based games, but what about CDs and DVDs? Generally, it depends on the platform. You don’t see many PlayStation 1 and 2 bootlegs, or Sega Saturn ones, because the security on these platforms is still uncracked, so only authentic discs will play on the consoles. This is not the case for TurboGrafx-CD, Sega CD, and Dreamcast, though. Fake games for those platforms are out there in abundance.
You can’t check the ROM chips on a disc, but there is identifying information on authentic copies. Hold a disc up to the light and look at the inner ring, and you’ll see writing there, embedded in the disc itself, not the art. Somewhere in this text should be an alphanumeric product code that matches a code on the disc art, case, or manual.
Other than that, the rest of the tips still apply here: Learn what a real disc, case, and manual look and feel like, and do your best to compare the item you’re holding to something you know is the real thing. The differences will be apparent.
I hope I have not scared you... too much. The majority of games you find at your local game store, at conventions, or from reputable eBay sellers are going to be the real thing—or if they’re fakes, will at least be identified as such. But if something strikes you as odd about any deal, definitely take a second look at it. The fakes are out there, and there’s only going to be more and more of them.
Correction, 1:30 p.m: The original version of this story mistakenly listed Sega Saturn as a platform with easily-bootlegged games; this has since been corrected. Kotaku regrets the error.