29 de novembro de 2022

Original Vs. Fake - A comprehensive guide for laymen.


Warning: No cartridge or PCBs were harmed in the making of this article. Well, two of them don't have the sticker anymore but they'll be used in another project. And my deepest apologies for the amateurish photo quality but it is what it is to explain all this. Also, being a translated article I did my best to convey all the information written in my main language to English. And now, on with the show

The 90s are definitely my favorite period in videogame history, where eternal classics were released all across the more popular platforms of the era. With the rising success of certain consoles, it was expected for  bootlegs/repros/fakes (call it what you will) to pop up everywhere. Some of the more infamous are the cartridges used on the Famicom clones (aka Famiclones) such as the Family Game, which were sold for cheap well below the originals on the NES, and were available everywhere from markets, small shopping malls and even places that didn't sell videogames at all. But the ones we're focusing on are the Game Boy cartridges, since that console is one of my favorites ever, and I've the fondest memories of all.

It was very common to find  Game Boy bootlegs, some more elaborated than others, with box and even instruction booklets. However, the print quality was something that gave away the origin of the product itself. Even as a kid, I quickly started to notice the small details and differences, and knew how to distinguish an original cart from a fake one, even though I keep some in my collection since the original are quite pricey these days. Nowadays there's still some of these carts circulating among the retro scene as well as some more recent ones that are even more easy to tell apart. And how can one distinguish an original from fake? That's what we're going to see through this little guide.

As mentioned above, the packaging was almost a 1:1 copy of the original although sometimes the printing quality wasn't the best, and that was the first red flag. The box itself was the first thing to take notice and a good way to tell it wasn't original since it could exhibit small imperfections from measurement misalignment when compared to an original one or out of place cuts. The cardboard used sometimes was of a different color from the original boxes which was 99% of the time gray. Another possible red flag was the fact that most of fake games were often the North American versions, something one could tell by the Nintendo Seal of Quality being the Official and not the Original. But here's were the first mistakes might occur by many people that assume that the Official seal, which is oval shaped, is fake and by extension all games with it are fake. A common mistake and very usual when people don't know what they're dealing with. The Official oval shaped seal was always used on North American Game Boy games, while the round Original seal is used in games from the PAL regions (Europe and Australia). In Japan no seals are used to represent this. To my surprise, sometime ago I've stumbled upon two fake cartridges with the Original seal, something I never thought I'd see, and it's proven interesting from a technical standpoint as I'll show ahead.

In more recent days it's more common to find the loose cartridges so we have to analyze them by parts. The outer shell is full of signs that help distinguish an original from a fake very easily.


The original cartridge color is usually gray, with a shade that's nearly identical across all original cartridges with no variations that I could tell apart. Obviously there are exceptions like the Pokémon games that have other colors and such. At first glance, any fake cartridge exhibits a different shade of gray, sometimes very close to the originals but most tend to be purple~ish. Comparing side by side is a good way to tell them apart and notice the differences. When it comes to cart measurements, most of fake cartridges has the same dimensions of an original but in certain cases they can be a little different by one millimeter, something that really shows when inserting the cartridge on  Game Boy, and there's a little resistance instead of sliding right in. This is perfectly apparent in any Game Boy model, from the original to Game Boy Advance SP.


The lettering used on the top portion of the cartridge were "Nintendo GAME BOY ™" can be read is very characteristic, and one of the main things that allows us to tell the difference. On a fake cartridge, the letter "O" in "Nintendo" seems to be misaligned with the rest of the letters. However, some don't seem to have this difference in this spot but have it on the "GAME BOY" portion, where small differences pop up often seen by a trained eye since the spacing between letters might be different, and even some letters have a different shape namely the "G" in "GAME" and the "O" in "BOY". The "" also can present different sizes which differ from the original cartridges. Also a lot of fake cartridges have an indentation that is much more shallow, while others are more close to the originals.


Probably the most easy method to spot a fake cartridge is by looking at the sticker and its printing quality. If the image shows imperfect trimming, bland colors or even ghosting, lack of shine in the quality seal, and the "Game Pak" seal, which usually have a golden and silver shine, then you got a fake in your hands. Sometimes, almost rarely, even an original cartridge might show some of these traits, possibly due to a production error. Another small detail often disregarded by many, maybe because they don't even know of its existence, is a small number engraved on the lower right corner of the sticker, which is present in original cartridges. On a fake cartridge, most of them don't have this, and some replicate the North American versions even though it's barely visible at first glance. Curiously, two cartridges I came across replicating European versions have this and easily visible.


Besides lettering and indentation  there are other small details in general that allows us distinguish an original from a fake. On the sides, cartridges have indented lines that come from the top. On original cartridges, there's a small gap dividing these lines. Some fake cartridges have these lines almost connected while others have the exact spacing. In some the spacing is a bit bigger. There are even some cartridges which exhibit even smaller lines, approximately one millimeter, something only seen side by side with an original. On the back, the lettering used in the words "MADE IN JAPAN" and "PAT. PEND." can differ from the originals even though fake cartridges use a nearly identical lettering. A very small detail that little know is a small number engraved on the shell interior, both front and back. The front one can be seen by looking at the PCB end on the top left corner (seen from this perspective). On a fake cartridge usually there's no number engraved but there are some exceptions.


A normal original cartridge, even with a battery back-up, doesn't weigh much more than a regular one without battery. There's a fine line so to speak when it comes to Game Boy original cartridge weight. A fake cartridge can weigh about the same as an original one, weigh less since it has less components inside (some have what we call blobs) or even weigh more since it uses bigger components, something that sometimes can be seen by a lump on the outside front shell.

PCB (Printed Circuit Board)

By opening the cartridge we'll have all our doubts cleared. Before diving into the PCB we can always inspect the back shell that has a number engraved inside on the top left corner on original cartridges. It might be possible that not all have this but speaking from experience I haven't came across one that doesn't have. The place where the PCB sits has two small details that allow it to rest in place. One is the screw hole and the other is a small plastic tip that is easily breakable, just by using the cartridge normally, let it drop on the floor and such. On fake cartridges, this small plastic tip might be thicker, and that can be seen if we try to sit an original PCB on a fake shell. The front and back sockets can also differ from the original cartridges and don't allow to use, for example, a front original and a fake back shell, and vice versa

When it comes to the PCB itself, and original one has several details such as model numbers, the word "DMG", used to denominate everything Game Boy related, as well as copyright text, and the word "Nintendo" engraved, along with the production year. The EPROM, SRAM and other related chips are all clearly identified, and one can easily find information online about these. The materials and components are extremely high quality, and even after 20/30 something years they still look good if taken care of properly

On a fake PCB there's several things to take notice, and some are kinda hilarious. On old fake cartridges there were used different chips for the EPROM, according to game size (512KB, 1MBit). Some use cheap chips, which information is easily accessible, and are clearly identified (Macronix, Texas Instruments, etc). Others use reprogrammable chips (stuff like Hitachi and Fujitsu, which I came across in two cartridges) that are too big to fit on a Game Boy cartridge. But these might prove useful for testing since they're both 1Mbit. The most common thing to see nowadays  is the so called "blob", which is some epoxy over the game's rom, most likely to cut costs. Curiously there are original cartridges that use this same method, namely some versions of Tetris. My copy of the game, which is the Spanish release, is just like this and I was kinda surprised when I opened up the cartridge (see first upper photo).

Another big question is cartridges with battery but honestly I haven't come across any fake Game Boy game that used battery back-up so I can compare it to an original but I know there's some fake copies of Super Mario Land 2 from that era so be aware. Nowadays if you stumble across any modern fake, it's possible that it has battery especially those from Aliexpress. I got some of these with some romhacks / translations, and some have battery back-up saving just fine.
There are some peculiar cases often associated with this fake cartridge world where some I came across PCBs which chips I couldn't find any information whatsover, probably all made in Hong Kong according to some references inscribed on them. In this particular case, I've found one on a multicart from the 90's (with a decent selection of games) which I've refurbished. Another funny case is the fact that some games aren't even the correct version printed on the sticker. As an example, here's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Back from the sewers, which is a fake cartridge of the North American version but the rom is from the Japanese version which is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2. This is the only difference (the name and title screen) since all the rest is the same, including the game being all in English. On all current fake cartridges, namely everything from Aliexpress, it's super easy to spot since the quality is pretty much terrible (see last bottom photo). But they've been improving over the years in some things.

Well, I hope this little guide helps you spotting fakes from original given all the information I could gather from tinkering around. It's not a big deal when you get the hang but there's always small stuff that might go unnoticed. Personally I don't mind having some fake/repro/whatever you may call it in my collection since the prices of some original games are absurd, and it's always a way to experience romhacks and translations on real hardware. And I enjoy doing the sticker labels and boxes to go along with. One example is Gargoyle's Quest II which the Game Boy version was only released in Japan. This romhack is fully in English, and perfectly playable on real hardware without problems.

And that's all for now!

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