Guide: How To Avoid Fake & Bootleg Retro Games On eBay

Guide-Avoiding-Fake-Games-on-eBayIt's the nightmare we have all battled. You've successfully sniped, battled with PayPal, waited for the item to arrive in the post and pulled it from the box that you paid extra to have it delivered in. It was worth the extra expense as this is a game you've wanted for years - something you never thought you would be able to get. It was certainly worth the price you paid, even though you could have got five other titles for a similar amount. Or was it...?

The cold numbness starts the second you undo the packaging. It's the right shape, size and it's the cartridge sticker says it's the game you paid for but something is off. The box text isn't as sharp as it normally is, the printing is glossier than other titles in your collection, and the metallic paint that's usually so shiny is not anything but glittering. Your heart sinks. The game you always wanted, the game you've paid so much for, the game you needed to complete your collection is here but it's fake. You feel disappointed, embarrassed, annoyed but sadly you aren't the first and you won't be the last to buy a retro game or item that's probably younger than you are.

Telling a real item apart from fake one has always been a problem in the world of collectibles. If something is of value, then inevitably someone will attempt to create a copy and pass it off as the real thing. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with those who buy or sell reproduction items for personal use, (as long as a reproduction item is very clearly identified as such when it is sold), those who knowingly pass the counterfeit off as being authentic are nothing but frauds. With the world becoming more than aware that there's money to be made buying and selling old games, there is an increasing need to be wary of fakes. This is especially true considering that bargains at boot fairs are less common, and eBay is quickly becoming the 'go to place' for building a retro collection. The problem here is that you obviously can't hold, feel or study a game physically in the amount of detail you would like, mainly due to the virtual barrier between yourself and the eBay seller. Purchasing decisions have to be made on the few pictures that the seller provides and the sometimes vague description. While you can ask for more information, the ticking clock of the auction's run time may leave you in a troubling situation - risk all, or await a response?

Becoming vigilant when buying retro games

Fortunately for us, there are some steps you can take to minimise the risk of being disappointed with the arrival of a less than legit item. The most obvious of which is knowledge of the finer details about what you wish to buy. Alarm bells should ring for example, if a seller claims that their Super Nintendo game is the real deal, despite the fact it's in a plastic video case. All Nintendo games up to the GameCube arrived in cardboard packaging (with the occasional exception such as the Street Fighter II Turbo metallic tin gift set) so anything else may be bordering on being anything but genuine. Similarly knowing which titles were released in which territories helps cut back on buying a fake. Take for example 'Mega Man: The Wily Wars', a Mega Drive exclusive released only in European and Japanese shops, yet somehow American equivalents sporting Genesis branding have flooded various online shops - an instant giveaway.

Sadly though, many of the more sophisticated sellers do their best to hide any obvious errors, but there are still other telltale ways to get an idea of their legitimacy. One of the first and easiest things you can do to ensure the item you are buying is authentic is to deal with reputable and established dealers, ideally one who you have bought from in the past. If it's someone you've not heard of before, eBay's feedback system should allow you to benefit from other buyer's misery. Beware though, it's not impossible for the feedback itself to be artificial of course. Therefore while looking for any negatives, make sure that a variety of buyers have left feedback, and also keep an eye on the date. A 100% positive seller may seem great, but they should only be trusted if this mass of praise wasn't left within the last 24 hours.

The most recent and more detailed feedback will give you an idea of what the seller has sold in the past to help you make a decision. Ideally this seller should have sold games before and had people happy with what they have received. Of course if the seller has sold many identical or near-identical old items in the past you have to wonder how he has got hold of an endless supply. Someone may well have a copy of 'Panzer Dragoon Saga' that they are willing to sell, but it's highly unlikely they'll have a storeroom full of copies. If they have sold the same rare item more than once before, be weary as the deal may be too good to be true.

It's worth keeping in mind how those willing to consciously sell copied games operate. They will tend to list many, many items at once. The logic behind this is simple; they need to sell bulk quickly because a tidal wave of negative feedback will be left when collectors start getting their shady goods.


Keep your eyes open

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, but that doesn't mean the words are true. Creative angles can disguise a game's age and blurry dark photographs obviously give less information to a buyer than pin sharp high resolution ones. Likewise "stock" photos are completely pointless, since they do anything but detail the game you are planning to buy. So, if that's all the listing shows, it's worth emailing and asking for a additional (or potentially real) photographs. As a general rule the more photographs the better, as a forger's best friend is vagueness. The more information given, the more likely they are to slip up on a finer detail - hence why the bare minimum of detail is given.

From a picture though, you should be able to tell how worn and aged a game is. If something is meant to be old, it should look old. There is beauty in the immaculate, but there's also risk. We all want our games to look as nice as possible, but if they look like they were printed yesterday there's a chance they could have been. A battered old game box make look ugly, but it's more likely to be real. As you gaze over a picture of damaged case ask yourself how the imperfections happened. Look for genuine signs of age; look at the wear patterns on the bottom surfaces and where the packaging has been opened and closed. The sun tends to make colourful boxes fade, so less vibrant colours suggest age. In an ideal world, our collections would all look brand new, but as older games get older the chances of this decrease. It's about finding a balance between a game being believably old and so damaged it's not worth the bother.

Having said that though, collector's seeking out mint condition titles can still do so as long as they are vigilant. As a general rule of thumb, it's crucial to stick to reputable sellers who are descriptive with their sales and generous with photography. If the game is really a mint condition relic of the past, they should have no shame in showcasing the many different (and glorious) angles of a time defying product - one that is clearly yet to be 'loved'.

The chance of a game being less than authentic does also depend on the name on the box. Annoyingly those who are counterfeiting games know retro gaming as well, if not better, than you. They may not know the Konami code but they do know what sells, and what commands the highest price. For a game to be copied, it really does need to be worth the effort of producing the box, cartridge, inserts and of course listing it. Expensive rare games rather than common cheap sports titles are the ones that tend to be counterfeited as a result. Also the popularity of a system factors into the type of game being faked. Unusual titles for niche systems may be able to be sold for a higher price, but they have a smaller audience. This reduced audience often means less people will be looking at the listing, there's therefore less chance that the fake will be bought. Always remember that up until the game is sold the forger has made no money. This is why it is estimated that as many as one in five Nintendo DS games sold is a fake; the number of forgeries is in response to the handheld's popularity (coupled with how easy it is to clone the cartridges).


The Price is Right

You would think that price is a good indicator of authenticity, but in reality it says very little. A forger knows that if an expensive item is listed too cheaply, those in the know will simply ignore it as being too good to be true. As a result, most fake games are sold for 80% of their usual selling price. This is a value considered cheap enough to catch the eye of a collector, but expensive enough that they won't dismiss it. Clearly, fellow collectors are your biggest competition when it comes to grabbing yourself a bargain and the more devoted collector will likely have alerts set up on their smartphones and tablets. This means that when an item is listed matching their specific keywords and criteria, they'll receive a notification and (depending on the collector) will probably act immediately if it's a game they desperately want.

Sadly this means in today's retro gaming landscape it's hard to grab a bargain if you're just causally searching through the many pages of eBay – collectors will have swooped down on it as soon as it was listed, and whoever acted first secured the goods. As a result if a "Buy it Now" auction has been up for several days, it may well be worth asking why other collectors have ignored it? If it's such a bargain, why hasn't it been bought before now? It may well be that it's simply been over looked, but there's a greater chance that fellow collectors have sussed it out and dismissed it for some reason.

Help is on our side!

Fortunately, eBay tends to side with a buyer in disputes regarding these situations especially when many people are filing grief reports against a single seller. The dispute service is somewhat protracted though, and it'll be at least 12 days from the end of an auction before you open a case to get a refund. This is presuming the seller doesn't complicate the proceedings by claiming ignorance or maintaining what you have bought is exactly what he claimed it was. To this end, it's always worth reading every word in a seller's description just in case the phrase "looks just like the real thing" or "a very convincing repro" is used. Such clever wording can later derail the dispute procedure. It's always better to spend five minutes studying the listing as opposed to five hours writing emails to eBay expressing your doubts about the legitimacy of the game you've legally committed to buying.

Again, knowledge of your object, before you click on buy, is the most valuable thing you can obtain. Buying anything you can't hold is a risk but without such danger our collections simply won't grow. Even with the most judicious bidding, all of us will at some point buy something that isn't quite what we hoped. The law of averages is against us but hopefully it is never a tremendously expensive error. If not I'm sure one day you will laugh about the fact that your copy of 'Stadium Events' is actually 'Duck Hunt' with a different sticker on. And to think that irritating dog used to be chuckling at you for missing the ducks.

With all this in mind, don't be afraid to speak to fellow collectors here on RetroCollect or elsewhere online to seek advice. After all, we're all in the same boat here. Eager to be gaming and reluctant to be swindled.

Last Updated ( 04 December 2014 )  

Julian Hill

Julian is the author of the popular blog Boxed Pixels, and is currently on a mission to document his thoughts as he buys boxed complete SNES Games.

Described by PlayStation Access as a "gamer, Dad and all round hero" he has been playing games since they had four colours on screen and blips for music.

Other recent articles:


+1 (Link to this comment) espontaneo 2014-12-05 18:37
Good advice! I would also add that I have bought a couple of dodgy games but have not had any issues getting a refund from paypal. So don't despair if you are duped.
(Link to this comment) Fortysixter_UK 2015-02-01 14:49
Nice little article. Frankly once games are worth forging, they are usually out of my acceptable price range ( Snes Demon crest etc etc ) So I just have to be happ copy with an emulated ROM, although of course, what you really want is the physicality of the game, even if it is just going to live un-touched in a cupboard/cabinet .

Buyer beware. It happened to me one years ago, when I bought a GBA game and the back of the cart said " Nintondo". Whilst the game booted up and played, the label wasn't quite right, the box came flat packed but was otherwise in perfect condition and there was no insert tray.

I dismantled it and compared it next to a legit version I then bought and the PCB was of a much lower quality. Negative feedback was of course left, and a report went into Ebay.

If you can make this stuff and it's for your own collection, then great. But if you are selling it on under the guise of an original, then the fraud police should get involved.
(Link to this comment) xghostpilotx 2015-05-29 06:39
Would advise people to report any fakes they see to ebay....seems to be alot of sellers on there, buying fakes in bulk and passing them off as the real things. The most common fakes are the Pokemon GBA careful when buying them.
(Link to this comment) Dance21 2015-07-27 11:02
Great advice I have noticed a couple of sellers on eBay from Greece and Italy selling lots of sealed and new games. I've not bought from them but have wondered are they Resealed Games? It has happened to me from a uk seller and UKG picked it up when I tried to grade it. Beware it looks like a growing problem
(Link to this comment) supersmith2500 2015-09-10 23:06
I got ripped off once at Tynemouth Market. I happen to have a fake Final Fantasy IV cart and it doesn't have Nintendo's seal of approval. Even Square-Enix's logo doesn't look right and so is the ESRB rating as it is defintely rated E+10.

Even the battery save back-up doesn't work. GBA and DS games are the ones you have to be really careful about. Here's an example:

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