Spotting fake GBA cartridges

IMG_0474
On the left, a fake cart, on the right the original one.

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.

Fake Zelda
eBay seller answer to my complain.

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.

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A good week for retrogaming

Two spectacular releases coming directly from the past!

The last week was a very enjoyable one for retrogaming lovers… Blizzard finally release the remastered version of its all time best classic, StarCraft: Remastered!

The price for this jewel is pretty reasonable. For few bucks you get a fully remastered version, with all the graphical assets updated to 3D, rendered over the original perspective. This allowed to tap into the latest highest graphics resolutions, up to 4K, and to change the aspect ratio (to completely fill out modern monitors).

The remastered version come with the Brood War expansion pack included, and it is integrated in the latest Blizzard Battle.Net client, and with its modern multiplayer functions.

The gameplay code comes directly from Brood War, and is unaltered with it, to the point that you can playback old saved replays. Is good to experience the gameplay as it was conceived almost 20 years ago, even if some micro-managment aspects of it may look tedious, to players coming from StarCraft 2 (e.g. unit selection limits, pathfinding issues, hot keys triggering special abilities for all the units in a group).StarCraft RemasteredThe other spectacular release of the week was Sonic Mania. This is really the spiritual successor of the Megadrive classic Sonic the Hedgehog games, coming from the hands that lovely craft the Retro Sonic fan game, and its Retro Engine.

This game is available on PC and all the latest consoles. I’m glad that this include also the Switch, since it is becoming my favourite system to play this kind of titles (I’m waiting September to see Thimbleweed Park on it).Sonic Mania.png

Happy birthday MAME!

Right after Diablo celebration, an even more important 20 years anniversary in retrogaming. Thanks to Matteo for the heads up on this date!

Happy birthday MAME! In this day, 20 years ago Nicola Salmoria published the first release of MAME: Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator.

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This is one of the most successful Italian open source projects, grown quickly to a global scale. It become an absolute reference to the inner workings of emulated machines.

This project was a headlight, in a moment of history in which copyright term extensions were casting dark shadows, in the preservation of our primitive forms of digital art. People around the world stood up, in order to prevent historical software from disappearing forever, in the very likely event that old hardware it was running on ceased to function.

It also demonstrated a real public interest in this form of preservation, paving the way to many commercial initiatives. This trend started few years after the MAME first release, with titles for consoles like the Namco Museum, Tecmo Classic Arcade or Taito Legends (the latter involving also Nicola Salmoria), and continued to our days with online services like Nintendo Virtual Console, Microsoft Game Room, and to some extent also Sony Playstation Now.

On top of all of those achievements, MAME was also the first retrogaming project that I started to use, 20 years ago. I became aware of its existence at my university, between an Algebra lesson and one of my frequent visits to the Centro di Calcolo of Politecnico di Milano. That place was a powerful attractor, for geeks looking into the latest technological trends, and a good location to make lifelong friendships as well 😀!

Celebrating 20 years of Diablo

Retrogaming is everywhere, and I love it…

This month Blizzard celebrates 20 years of Diablo, allowing to venture in all the levels from the first episode of the saga in a retrogaming stile, in a rift recreated inside Diablo III.

The simulation was implemented reusing most of the assets of the last episode, with the exception of a couple of bosses. To complete the simulation, the dock was completely redesigned, the player movements was locked to eight directions, the perspective was adapted, and low resolution with color dithering was implemented with a 3D shader – nicely rendered on my retina display 😀.

Thanks to Blizzard for the gift! It will be available until the end of January, and in every future January as well. Now I’m eager to play again with the necromancer character, arriving this year directly from Diablo II 🤓.

The Gamebar is here

All the schematics of my first retrogaming project are now public.

Last summer I’ve started to work with few friends at some cool arcade retrogaming projects, all based on Raspberry Pi and Retropie.

We started looking around for needed hardware: arcade controls, interface boards, and of course chassis options.

I was willing to come up with something different from a traditional upright cabinet, or from a more manageable bartop. I wanted real arcade controls, but at the same time full portability. A device that could be hooked at an external screen, like old consoles, but at the time time equipped  with an internal screen, speakers, and a rechargeable battery to power everything up. The Nintendo Switch was not yet announced, anyways it doesn’t count since I envisioned portability for two players, but with real arcade controls.

I sketched up some concepts, and started to try few CAD modelling tools. I’ve found one that was extremely powerful, easy to use and at that time free for small projects: Onshape.

I’ve worked at this project in the free time for a while, adapting the design with the intent of manufacturing it with 3D printing and CNC cutting, blending and milling. I still have to come up with the first prototype, but I would like to start sharing the design:

The gamebar, front.png

This chassis is something different from traditional arcade cabinets, is like one of those dual player joystick – and indeed it can be used also for that purpose – but with a full computer inside, with logic boards, a screen, amplified speakers and a battery.

the-gamebar-back

I think that Gamebar is a proper name for it. I hope that it will become an appreciated alternative to bartops, in the retrogaming makers community.

I will come back with more details on the design process, and on the components selection, in future posts.

Today I’m happy to announce that the design is publicly available here.

Ready to play!

The blog scaffolding is complete, now is time to put some content in it.

movieland-arcade-vancouver-bcThis blog is ready to play! Its scaffolding is complete: the theme is configured, the widgets are prepared, the backgrounds images are loaded, and the credit attributions to use them prepared.

This place will talk about retrogaming: favourite and personal projects, endeavours taken with friends, and casual experiences.