I recently set out on a mission to buy a used copy of Pokémon Emerald. Being a 10 year-old title, I wasn’t surprised to learn that my local used game stores didn’t carry it. So, as any proactive collector might do, I headed to the Internet.

Much to my dismay, it turns out that Pokémon Emerald is one of the most counterfeited video games of all time. Why? I have no idea, but it’s true. Bootlegged copies of Pokémon Emerald, Ruby, Sapphire, FireRed, and LeafGreen – nearly indistinguishable from genuine Nintendo copies – absolutely saturate online auction sites with scams and false advertising. Most of these fake copies come from China and play exactly as a real copy would, with one exception – they corrupt save files. Not maliciously, I should say. Those who might have played fake copies aren’t at risk of getting some virus; they’re just at risk of losing hours upon hours of gameplay.

Sadly, I learned of this too late. I had already bid on and won a copy of Pokémon Emerald from a user who had uploaded a blurry image of his game. I couldn’t tell if the game was real or not from the image, but what could I do? I didn’t want to go vigilante on the bootleggers, I just wanted a genuine copy of the game.

Fortunately – and this is only by mere happenstance – the copy I received in the mail was genuine. However, I did some research online and found that a good portion of the used copies still up for sale on the Internet are fake. I was lucky, but you may not be.

I hope this guide can be of some use to you. As I stated earlier, fake GBA games are nearly indistinguishable from real ones, but there are certain tell-tale signs. The major ones I’ve found are below.

“The game can be played.”

GBA Pokémon Games

Seeing this message displayed upon power-up is a sure sign that your game is a counterfeit. In case you don’t know, many old Game Boy and GBA games have internal batteries that act as save storage, rather than the flash memory that we use today. When this battery runs out in GBA Pokémon games, the screen is supposed to read – and I’m reading this directly from my Game Boy Advance as I write this – “The internal battery has run dry. The game can be played. However, clock-based events will no longer occur". If you see anything other than this message, your game is fake.

For the record, Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald can totally be played with a dry battery. The only drawback is that berries won’t grow back. Personally, I don’t care about berries.

Holographic Label

GBA Pokémon Games; Some Other GBA Games

Every third-generation Pokémon game comes with a shiny, holographic label. If your label isn’t shiny, it’s probably fake. Unfortunately, some bootleggers have found ways to imitate this effect, so this identification method alone might not be sufficient.

Also note the coloring of the two labels, which is distinctly different.

Imprinted Digits on Front of Cartridge

All GBA Games

All genuine Game Boy Advance games come with imprinted numbers on the right side of the game label, usually two digits. Having these numbers doesn’t necessarily mean your copy is real, but the absence of them probably points to a counterfeit. See the photo above for reference.

Large ESRB Text

All GBA Games

The ESRB stylization on GBA games has historically been difficult to imitate for bootleggers. One example of this can see in the comparison photo above.

Year, “Nintendo,” and Serial Number inside Cartridge Lip

All GBA Games

If you look at the front face of a genuine GBA cartridge, then tilt it so that the bottom opening faces you, you should see three things: a year, the word “Nintendo,” and a serial number, in that order. You may have to have good lighting to see this.

General Cues

All GBA Games

In general, look for any mistakes on the cartridge. Are there spelling errors? Does the cover art seem official? If you have any GBA games that you know are genuine, try comparing cartridges. There are other ways of identifying counterfeit copies by opening the cartridge up, but I wouldn't recommend them.

A YouTube video titled “The Many Ways To Spot Fake GBA Games, including Pokémon" covers much of what I’ve written here in video form.