Spotting Counterfeit Pokemon, Fire Emblem, and Zelda GBA Games

Today I was at the store, sitting in our closet-sized office, doing end-of-the-month admin stuff, when I heard what sounded like happy noises from the front counter, including one of my managers saying, “That’s great! We can ALWAYS use more of those!” I asked what we bought, and she answered that we had just bought basically the entire set of GBA Pokemon games.

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My stomach sank. I’m always scouring eBay, looking for big lots of video games that I can part out and sell at retail for a profit. I remembered seeing lots of these:

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Don’t Do It

Let’s get this out of the way first: Selling counterfeit goods is illegal. Yes, it’s even illegal if you tell the buyer that they’re counterfeit. At the very least, the code running these games is owned by someone who is not getting paid for the counterfeit games, so at the very least “repro” carts are copyright and trademark infringement. If you are a store owner, do not mess with this. It’s morally wrong, legally prohibited, and practically it’s not a great idea to bet your business on selling black market goods. I want to feed my family and provide jobs for my employees with the knowledge that I didn’t have to cheat to do so.

Spotting Counterfeits

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The above are all counterfeit games. Pokemon and Fire Emblem games are ridiculously hot right now so I’m sold out, but I do have a legitimate copy of Pokemon Sapphire in my workshop that is waiting for a battery replacement, so we can do a comparison.

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Some things to notice: The battery on legitimate games is there to run a clock, rather than to keep memory intact. When the battery dies on these games, you are given a warning that the game will still work, but that time-related functions will not work. These functions include berry growth, which is helpful and fun but not required for the main part of the game. When starting the bootleg game, which has no battery and thus can’t keep time without being powered by the Game Boy, no warning is given. It is my expectation that the code has been hacked to circumvent the clock-check at the start of the game, and that berries do not grow. I don’t have a ROM dumper to check the former and can’t really be bothered to check the latter, but there is no reasonable way to implement time-based functions without, you know, a way to track time.

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The backs of these games are clearly different when you have them side-by-side, but I’d have trouble telling if you just handed me one. The screw on the bootleg was silver-colored instead of gold-colored, but my experience with Chinese manufacturers indicates that this is not going to be consistent enough to be an easy tell.

The easiest way to tell the difference without taking the games apart is to look at the top-right corner of the blessedly-transparent cases. On the legitimate games you’ll see the edge of the battery. On bootleg carts you will see a chip on the top-right corner.

One final tell: There’s usually some letters and numbers physically imprinted on legitimate games near the Nintendo Seal of Quality. It’s too subtle to capture with my camera, but you can easily see it in good light. If there’s no imprinting, I would immediately be suspicious.

2016-09-05 16_19_28-5 GBA SP DS Lot Emerald Ruby Sapphire FireRed LeafGreen Pokemon Games Best _ eBa

Take a look at the Pokemon Emerald cart above. Even in the seller’s photo you can see the chip in the upper-right corner where the battery should be. The legitimate card DOES have a chip near that location, but it’s not all the way up in the corner, and it’s mostly obscured by the battery.

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Both of the above are counterfeit Fire Emblem games. These could be MUCH harder to spot since the cases aren’t transparent, but frequently the details are wrong on the labels since the games aren’t popular enough to get the same scrutiny. This Fire Emblem game is missing the Nintendo Seal of Quality altogether. Of course, if you open up the cases, the poor-quality boards and cheap blob-chip (these are chips printed directly onto the board and then covered with black epoxy to save cost) are giveaways. These particular copies don’t even make an attempt at having the Nintendo model numbers printed on board or using the “correct” chip model numbers, though of course that could change in later revisions.

What Now?

Well, I can’t sell these. I’ll keep them around for training purposes, but I would never sell them to a customer for legal and ethical reasons explained above. The employee who took these in wasn’t to blame, since he’d never been trained on spotting the fakes. I’ll point employees to this post in hopes that we won’t get burned again. I’ll place a note on the customer’s account to double-check the validity of games that he brings in from now on, but I won’t immediately ban him, because it’s very possible that he didn’t know they were fake. The eBay listings that are currently up don’t give any explicit indication that they’re aftermarket, and not everyone is informed enough to be suspicious of games below market prices shipping directly from China.

But now YOU are informed, so you’ve got no excuse. Go, and sin no more.

Update: My friend Michael from Desert Sky Games and Comics sends me an image one of of his copies of Fire Red:

Sure enough, more sleuthing determines that some of these games (which don’t need real-time clocks) don’t have batteries. From elsewhere:

Counterfeit on the left, legitimate game on the right.

If in doubt, it may be worth having known-legitimate games on hand for side-by-side comparison. That extreme-upper-right chip, the blob-on-board IC, and the lack of embossed letters on the Seal of Quality seem to be dead giveaways for fakes.