The other day, i plugged in a copy of Mortal Kombat 3, and the console I was using was one of the new dual consoles(nes+snes games). I got a message at the start that said something about pirated games. How can I know if I bought say Earthbound at a Vintage Stock or Ebay is going to be authentic? Some of these older games are fairly expensive.
There are a couple of tell-tale signs which actually seem common for just about all Nintendo, cartridge-based systems. Look for these qualities when attempting to identify counterfeit cartridges.
- Take a close look at the label. Is it blurry? It's probably a fake if it is. Most counterfeits use decent scans for reproduction labels, and the quality is more than obvious when you see it. Still, it is worth comparing against an image of a legit version because a handful of games actually had poor images. Kid Dracula for Game Boy is one example I have in my collection. It looks fake to me, but it's not.
- Compare the image to other legit copies and look at image cropping. These labels were also reproduced. If the bootlegger could find a better image on, say, a poster, they would take it and then crop it into a similar graphic overlay for all of the traditional SNES and "Nintendo Seal of Quality" notes. If the cropping of the image is off, it's a bootleg.
- If it's a Nintendo cartridge, check the labels for an impressed stamp. You should see at least 2-digits pressed into the caution label on the back. If the cart doesn't have a caution label (like the handheld games) then it's pressed on the front label. This is a QA stamp so that if there are any problems when a game is released to the public, Nintendo can identify the manufacturing source from within their assembly factories. This stamp is not on bootlegs and I've never seen a legit Nintendo cartridge pre-DS era without them.
- If you are not buying it online feel the plastic texture. It should feel different. When you feel it, you will know. Personally, I think some bootlegs often feel a little like worn sand paper-- slightly grittier than the standard texture. This is because most bootleg cases come from a mold that was made from original cartridge shell. The roughness in texture comes from the nature of making a duplicate from an original.
- Are the corners of the labels rounded or square? Legit labels are rounded on the corners, where square corners are certainly fake.
- Does the cart feel heavier than most, or another game of the same type? Some of the earlier bootlegs used cheap EPROM chips and they are thicker and noticeably heavier. The games often feel a little thicker too, because these chips often take up all of the space within the height of the cartridge and make it slightly bulge. It's not visibly noticeable but you can easily feel it if you've handled your share of NES cartridges. The only exception to the weight of of some cartridges is that early NES games would have a Famicom to NES converter board in the cartridge. These were limited to just a select early titles. The Famicome-to-NES converter isn't super rare, but it is uncommon. It is worth mentioning because an old title like Gyromite may very well have a Famicom converter in it and those cartridges way more because of the extra hardware.
If you are in the market for a really valuable cartridge or if the game happens to be super-hot and easy to sell at the moment, then you may want to take the next step to verify the legitimacy of the cartridge.
First, if you know of a super-reputable store online that has a great return policy, you can trust them. They know which games are rare and if they have a great reputation, then they know that they HAVE to do this checking themselves. Otherwise, they will get bad rep for selling bootlegs. You will still want to verify the cartridge with these steps but it helps to have a way to back out, assuming you buy a cartridge and find out it's a fake.
If you can't buy it through a reputable dealer then be sure to see the game in person and check out the game with your own eyes and hands before making a purchase.
The first thing you will need to do is purchase a cartridge screwdriver set like this one. These are used to open up Nintendo hardware since they use special screws on their games. Open the cartridge and look for the following signs of legitimacy.
For this list of items to search for, I'll be using Paperboy as an example. I'll be referencing the annotated points on these images:
Each Nintendo game usually has a serial number printed somewhere on the cartridge. For your specific system, do some quick googling of where this is located. Some earlier carts (the NES black labels), these may not have the serial number printed on the label but from probably 1986 on, all Nintendo games should have these serial numbers. For our example, see #1 in the first image. Regardless, the serial numbers can be easily found online for any specific game. This serial number should be partially printed on the chip that holds the ROM data. It is laser etched on the chip after the game is flashed to the ROM chips. In my example, see the #2 annotations. On these flash chips, you see "NES-PY-0". Note, on the front of the game, the serial number was "NES-PY-USA". The reason is because the "NES" is the system identifier, the "PY" is the game identifier and the "USA" is the region identifier. For the sake of the chip in the cartridge, all that is needed is the system id, the game id and the "0" which represents the revision. Regardless, if the game identifier (e.g. the "PY") is correct, then the chip is legitimate. If this is not etched on the chip, it is a bootleg.
Does the PCB (the green board with the printed, metal leads that plug into the Nintendo) have the "(c) 198x Nintendo" phrase printed on the board? (See annotation #3 in the second image.) If it doesn't have this, probably a bootleg. Nintendo tightly manages the manufacturing of their equipment. If the Nintendo copyright isn't on the board, it is likely a bootleg, but late in the NES era, Nintendo did allow for some game development studios to manufacture their own boards. Specifically, Konami and Sunsoft are the two that I am aware of. Regardless, a bootleg cartridge will not have a stamp of a legitimate third party company on it. However, if Nintendo is stamped on the board, take a second to look at the "O" in "Nintendo". Since I originally posted this response in 2019, technics have improved in bootlegging. Manufactures are now putting the same screen printed stamps on boards, but the "Nintendo" stamp is hard for them to get correct. This is because there is no Nintendo "font" that's readily accessible. The "O" has a very specific pill-shape to it. If that pill-shape does not look like a proper Nintendo logo, it is a bootleg.
Some games counterfeiters have actually found ways to copy the PCBs and have printed the Nintendo Copyright phrase on the PCB. I've only heard of this on certain Game Boy Color games. However, these were easily identified because the ROM chips were blank, with no etching. As such, other collector's have also started checking the PCB copyright date. Apparently, a bootlegger took the time to make an exceptional PCB, but didn't realize that they were making games that were manufactured BEFORE the date on the PCB. This wouldn't be possible because the PCBs are created long before any games are flashed to the chips that are later soldered to the boards. A date that is earlier on a PCB than a date printed on a ROM, or dated after the release of a game is a certain problem.
Believe it or not, counterfeiting of games has been going on for a long time and with many games crossing the $1,000 threshold, counterfeiting is becoming more and more common. If you can follow my checklist, you're doing better than 99.9% of most collectors and shouldn't have any trouble.
Of course, if you ever get into any serious collecting, it's worth joining a community and following what people find. The counterfeiters are still getting better even though some of these games are getting to be over 25 years old. They will find a way to make them look as legit as possible, and won't stop improving their methods, so long as people keep collecting and shelling out loads of money for rare cartridge games.
As a Famicom collector with 185 games, 51 Sufami games and a handful of Famicom disk games, I have never once doubted the validity of the games I am buying- because I've never thought of it (probably because I do all my buying in person and not online). Most counterfeit games I have seen are of the multi-cart style, where you might get 40 games in one, and then it's really easy to tell they are fake.
But, for things that might be counterfeited, I can only suggest comparing what you see for sale online with images of the same game available elsewhere. Unfortunately Sufami and most NES games use a standardized cart design and color, but if you were buying Famicom games one of the giveaways would be the cart color itself. There is a thread on reddit that points out to basically compare with other images online, and get high-res images of the back of the cart as well to check on the validity- number of screws, type of screws, warning label. A big give away could just be wear-and-tear- if the game is OOB and looks perfect, that would be a red flag.
The only retro games I own where I doubt their validity are games on magnetic disc, like the aforementioned Famicom disks and older floppy disks (IE used on Commodore 64 / Amiga) as you can re-write that data pretty easily.
Just last night I received a copy of a SNES game that was a fake/reproduction that I bought off EBay.
How did I discern that?
Image/Look - Compare it to a real one. Sometimes this involves comparing images of a claimed real one on google or EBay.
Weight - The weight of the cartridge didn't feel right. I compared this to a copy of Mortal Kombat 2 I had owned for over 20 years and discovered this fake cart was 74g and the Mortal Kombat 2 cartridge was 91g. This is not always accurate as some cartridges had some different hardware in them, such as the SuperFX chip, but it was one sign that something was off.
Screws - The screws were the same gray plastic as the rest of the cartridge and weren't actual screws, they were merely part of the cartridge made up to look like the actual screws.
Label - The label didn't look properly glossy. It was curved around the edges, but there was a slight imperfection in the cutting on the lower right side and the images seemed to be "scrunched". The "Nintendo Seal of Quality" was slightly smaller than it should have been and lacked the detail you would normally expect, seemingly from a lower quality printer and or poor scan.
Cartridge not snapped - The cartridge (the front and rear) weren't snapped together in all parts of the cartridge, as if someone didn't finish clamping it together after it was made.
"New" - EBay seller, after looking at the auction again, described it as "New", when it was just the cartridge, which is not technically possible for an authentic game.
Manufacturer - EBay seller claims, in the details, that the manufacturer was someone I've never heard of, and not anyone associated with the original creation of the game/cartridge.
Item Creation Location - EBay seller claimed it was "made in China", which isn't normal for a video game, but since the fake/reproduction cartridge was made in China, that somehow fits their version of it, and demonstrates that it's not what you're looking for.
Electronics - If you open it up and you can see small blobs of solder on the board that don't look like they were done by a machine on an assembly line, then someone did it by hand and its not authentic. If the chips are really small (as in they look like today's chips), then its also a fake/reproduction cartridge as chips back when these old cartridges were created that were that small simply didn't exist or were too expensive to mass produce for game cartridges. Lack of "Nintendo" and such on the electronic breadboards can also be an indicator of it not being "real".
Conversation - If when you complain to the seller on Ebay that it's "not authentic" and they respond with "what's not real" and proceed to claim its the "same game, levels, story" and that the original carts "cost much more" , then you know its a fake/reproduction. That was literally the response I got when I complained. Notice when you say "not authentic" and the seller response with "what's not real" when you didn't even use the word "real"; they've clearly had that conversation before.
Rear Label - The rear of the cartridge didn't have the "warning" label on it.
"Nintendo" relief - On the rear of the cartridge, the SNES cartridges are supposed to have raised letters that say "Nintendo". This one had the oblong shape wherein the raised "Nintendo" was supposed to be, but it didn't have any letters in it.
Sometimes it may be hard to determine whether yours' is real. You may have to look for claims of "authentic" as many of the fake/reproduction cartridges I've read (particularly on EBay) don't claim they are "not authentic". It seems that "authentic" is no longer the rule on EBay, but the exception. I'm guessing this is more and more often the case on other websites as well. You may have to do your own little investigation as well. Some sellers seem to think that as long as they don't claim its "authentic" when its not, that somehow their conduct is "okay", minimizing the chances of someone claiming "authentic" when it is not, as they don't want to get themselves in trouble. Truth is, they're likely in trouble in spite of that, but that's their logic, not mine.