Bootleg video games have been plaguing the industry for a while, but as time goes on it's become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between an official cartridge released by Nintendo and a fake. Take these copies of Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen on Game Boy Advance. To the naked eye, they look strikingly authentic, but only one of them is the real deal.

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Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

For those of you unaware, bootleg video games are knock offs, counterfeit versions of the real thing. They usually play about as well as the original, but sometimes you’ll encounter bugs, translation errors and compatibility issues. Plus, when it comes to collecting, it’s like having a fake first edition Charizard card in your Pokémon TCG collection. It’s just not the same.

While bootleg cartridges have been infiltrating the market for a while now, they’re starting to become more prominent with the help of online storefronts and the fact retro games are becoming harder to find and are more expensive than ever. Some sellers online are even trying to pass them off as the real deal as well, and many consumers are falling victim to them. So if you’re going to shell out some cold hard cash for your favorite classics, you’ll want to make sure they’re legit.

But how do you know what signs to look for? Especially when bootleggers are continuously refining their work, which can sometimes make it hard to spot the differences between knock-offs and legitimate ones. There sadly isn’t a magic marker you can draw on your games with to tell if they’re official like you can with some currency, but we do have a few strategies you can use to help weed out the fakes.

One of the best ways to spot a bootleg is to learn what makes Nintendo’s games legitimate in the first place. What their labels should like, what info each cartridge should have, and so forth. So in this guide, we’ll be covering a number of different Nintendo platforms, but we’ll be starting off with the system that’s most commonly reproduced: the Nintendo DS.

How To Spot Bootleg Nintendo Games

Nintendo DS Games

These tiny cartridges thankfully have a few dead giveaways that should help you tell the difference between an official cart and a fake one. On the bottom of the label you can find a string of letters and numbers starting with NTR, (which stands for Nitro, the DS’s original codename) followed by a four-character product number, then the region the cartridge was released in. For example, every copy of The World Ends With You in its respective region, should have the same code (NTW-AWLE-USA), unless a revision was released you may find a number 1 tagged on at the end like with this copy of Yoshi Touch & Go.

Now if you look at the back of the cartridge you’ll find another code that should start with the same product number found on the front. For example, a legitimate copy of Digimon World: Dawn should have A3VE on the front and on the back, but on this copy, the product number doesn’t match, making it a clear bootleg. This number is printed with a pretty light ink as well which can wear away over time with handling and cleaning as well. So if you find a game without one, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a fake either. However, some bootleggers are learning about this and are getting smarter, this copy of Pokémon Diamond has the correct number on the front and back, but that still doesn’t mean we should trust it.

If you’re still suspicious the next thing would be to compare the game to another copy, that you know to be genuine. Now if you look closely, you can actually tell the Pokémon Diamond logo is blurry in the background, as if the image was copied or manipulated and on a genuine copy, the image is clear as day. This fake copy of Digimon World: Dawn has a blurry image as well. The Nintendo Logo and Patent Pending details on the back also aren't as glossy or prominent as on a genuine cartridge. And if and when you pop in your copy of Pokémon SoulSilver and it claims to actually be Cory in the House on the home menu, that’s pretty suspect too.

Some games like Pokémon HeartGold, SoulSilver, Black, Black 2, White & White 2 also came in special black cartridge shells, which can help determine their legitimacy. Plus, if you hold one of them up to the light it should be a clear purple almost, sort of like holding a hundred dollar bill up to check and see if the ghost of Benjamin Franklin is there!

Game Boy Advance Games

The Game Boy Advance is also quite ripe with counterfeit cartridges, and some are getting pretty hard to tell the difference. Every GBA cartridge features the game’s unique logo, maybe a picture of a character. then the standard Nintendo logo, their Seal of Quality, the appropriate rating symbol, and a product number. So if you find a GBA game missing one of these features, it’s likely fake. This Power Rangers Wild Force is missing the Nintendo logo and product number, then we have this copy of Super Monkey Ball Jr.... This copy of Mario Kart: Super Circuit may look a bit off to our US readers as the Nintendo Seal of Quality reads "Original" not "Official”, but that was actually the way Nintendo utilized the seal in PAL territories. However, the region code is still incorrect and should end with EUR instead of NEU6.

Each and every authentic GBA game also has a number stamped into its label, which can be hard to spot at a glance, but if you catch the cartridge in the right light it’ll appear nicely. Take these copies of Pokémon FireRed. The real version actually has two sets of characters stamped on the right side, where the fake doesn’t have an. And aside from that, this is a pretty convincing fake. The label doesn’t shine as well as the real deal, the placement of the swirls in the background aren’t the same and it’s pretty worn out up top, but to the naked eye, it’s disgustingly close.

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Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

Now the best way to tell a fake which we couldn’t really do on DS, but we can on GBA, is to look at the board. By using a small Tri-Wing screwdriver we can open up the back of the cartridge and compare the details on the board to photos of a proven legitimate copy online. On the left is a real copy of Mario Kart: Super Circuit and on the right is a fake. That big yellow thing there is also a battery, which keeps the internal clock running on select GBA games, but not every GBA game uses one. So the fact this Mario Kart has one is a dead giveaway right there. Plus if we flip over the board we can see a numbered sticker and E4 inked into the back. Official GBA boards are not supposed to have these.

You can also tell a fake board on a copy of Pokémon FireRed or LeafGreen just by looking at the back of its board as well, without taking off the shell! These two games should have four golden rectangles etched in the board on the left side, but both of these bootlegs we have are missing them and instead are littered with a slew of bright gold circles. An instant sign of a fake.

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Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

Now, of course, everyone wishes they never stepped on their original Pokémon game boxes, or let their parents throw them out, and since so few of them were left in good shape, video game boxes and manuals are also getting reproduced like wildfire. From the front, it may be a little hard to tell which of these copies of Final Fantasy IV is fake, but one look at the back should give it away if you make the comparison, but to the untrained eye, you may be none the wiser! Funny enough, the screenshots on the fake box aren’t even from the GBA version of the game. The cartridge features an entirely different looking label than on the real thing too.

And speaking of boxes, check out this fake copy of Mario Party DS. The cover had the contrast dial turned up to 11, the spine is wrong, the back is wrong, the cartridge is horrible, and the manual which is my favorite part features the entire IGN review of the game, accompanied by artwork from Super Mario Sunshine. We wish we were kidding.

As far as original Game Boy and Game Boy Color games go, you can take a lot of the same information about Game Boy Advance games and utilize it for them too. This copy of Pokémon Gold may trick your Grandparents, but it’s not fooling any of us at this point. This copy is like a mash-up of the North American & Japanese cartridge style. If the label itself doesn’t throw you off, the fact top of the cartridge is supposed to say “Nintendo Game Boy” but this cartridge ditched the Big N. The cartridge isn’t even gold!

Super Nintendo Games

Super Nintendo games also have their fair share of bootlegs floating around too, especially as they continue to get more valuable. This copy of Contra III: The Alien Wars has so many things going wrong for it. The product code should read SNS-CA-USA, not SNS-ARM. The purple triangle is in the wrong place, the image is extremely blurry, the label is unnecessarily glossy, the logo on the spine is cut off, there isn’t even a safety label on the back and there’s supposed to be a Nintendo logo pressed into the back of the plastic too.

Every Super Nintendo cartridge should have metal security bit screws on the front keeping the game shut and secure. If you ever find one with plastic-like screws, that’s a definite sign too. The plastic screws aren’t even real and you can actually pop the cartridge open with just your hands.

Now when buying a more expensive game like Earthbound, Hagane, E.V.O., or even just something you suspect, it’s usually a good idea to ask the seller if they’ve verified if this is authentic or to let you open up the cartridge to verify the board is genuine. If you’re buying from a store you trust, you likely shouldn’t have to worry, but we’ve seen a few repros in brick and mortar shops and there, so it doesn’t hurt to be safe. All SNES boards should say Nintendo and the year they were made somewhere on the board and should feature a Serial code. This code can appear on multiple different SNES games, but you can take this code, search it on the SNES Central database, you can find if the game you’re buying was ever produced with that type of board. If not, you might have a good ol’ bait and switch on your hands, where someone took an expensive, rare game board and swapped it with something like John Madden Football! This was more likely to happen when video game rentals were a thing and someone thought they could pull a fast one on their local Family Video by swapping their copy of Super Mario World with Final Fantasy II because they weren’t ready to say goodbye to good ol' Cecil, Rydia and Rosa.

Nintendo & Nintendo 64

Over the years NES and more recently N64 games have also fallen victim to bootleggers. Now unfortunately we don’t have our hands on an example to show off, but if we take a simple browse through sites like eBay, they’re easy to find. Sellers often label them as "Brand New" and sometimes will note that their copies are reproduction carts, but not all sellers are created equally.

If you encounter one in person that you’re worried about, you can always open up the board with the same style tool used for SNES carts to check the board's authenticity.

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Image: Zion Grassl / Nintendo Life

Boxes and Manuals

As we lightly mentioned before, game boxes and manuals are becoming just as expensive as the physical games themselves and or even more, which is leading sellers to reproduce them as well. I purchased this manual online for Silent Hill 4: The Room on PlayStation 2 (not Nintendo, I know) and when it came in I noticed something about it felt off. The cover was glossy and sticky almost like photo paper and the interior pages weren’t as bright I thought they’d be. Then I noticed on the inside cover the manual reads "REPRODUCTION" in bold letters. So you’ll want to be careful when it comes to completing your favorite retro games too.

Thankfully some systems like the Virtual Boy, 3DS, and the Gamecube are all safe from bootlegs at the time of writing, but that could change any minute. Repros are becoming a bigger problem as the days go on, and bootleggers continue to get closer and closer to the real deal each day. Hopefully, sites like eBay will start to crack down on sellers that are getting these replicas out into the public. But until then all we can do is continue to educate and keep each other informed. Hopefully, these tips and tricks will help keep you and your collection safe from bootlegs.

Let us know in the comments down below if you learned something new and if you have any strategies or advice you’d give to someone who’s unaware of what to look out for.