I was recently looking around on eBay, trying to find a Game Boy Advance copy of Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
The first one that I bought had a strange looking label… so I decided to open it up and investigate a bit more. Once opened, it was evident that the PCB was indeed hosting a flash chip, even with pads to attach a programmer to it.
An original cart contains instead a mask ROM, and a smaller EEPROM to store games saves (see the above picture). The issue of fake carts is that they store the game and its saves on the same flash chip, and that this kind of chip wears out much more quickly that an EEPROM: you may lose all your progresses at any save 😱.
I sent a complain to the eBay seller. He promptly refund the fake cart, without any further question, leaving it to me at the end.
So I decided to use that cart, to show a comparison between fake and original games 🤓.
In a cart, shells with bad plastic molds, and PCB without Nintendo printings are a good starting point to spot fakes. Carts with bad molds will not fit well in the console, and printings can be checked without opening them (see the picture below). Unfortunately, nowadays plastic molds are quite good, and even the printings are cloned well:
My fake cart had an AGB-E05-01 serial number on it. Looking for this number on Google images, I found a site describing several common types of flash carts, including one with the serial number I was looking for. In general, printings looking as the ones from that site should rise a first suspect.
The PCB inside my fake cart was indeed matching one from that site 😀 (side note: to open a cart you need a tri-wing screwdriver, to remove the screw from the back of the cart, and to slightly slide down the front of it, as shown in the picture above).
I retrieved an original cart later, and we can see here a more detailed comparison.
In this case I was expecting a golden metal label, but the fake cart didn’t had it. It was a glossy label, but the background was a washed out green.
Zooming in we can see the dithering of a CMYK printer. These printers can’t manage metal inks, which are added in professional printer with a dedicated layer. The Nintendo seal of quality is always printed in golden metal. It’s hard for pirates to counterfeit at this level of detail, common scanners and printers are not enough. This fake label, in addition, was printed at a fairly low resolution (look at the details of the fonts in the fine print).
The shell plastic mold of the fake cart was good, but an original cart have a better refinement:
- This fake cart have a small plastic pin visible at the sprue gate, while the original is completely clean.
- This fake cart was closed with a cheap self-tapping screw, while the original cart use a normal screw (which requires the presence of threads, already sculpted in the shell).
Unfortunately, the most secure way to ensure that a cart is original is to open it 🙁. The absence of golden metal ink in the Nintendo seal of quality, and the quality of the label print is anyways a good indicator for a fake cart. The shell became quite hard to use as an indicator, unless on the back of it an unclean sprue gate is visible. The PCB printing is not safe anymore to use, unless you recognise a mismatch between its year and the year of release of the game.