“How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn’t grow on trees you know.” “If you would allow me to continue.. .” Ford nodded dejectedly. “Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.” Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed. “But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut.” Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The management consultant waved them down. “So in order to obviate this problem,” he continued, “and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and. . .er, burn down all the forests. I think you’ll all agree that’s a sensible move under the circumstances.” The crowd seemed a little uncertain about this for a second or two until someone pointed out how much this would increase the value of the leaves in their pockets whereupon they let out whoops of delight and gave the management consultant a standing ovation. The accountants among them looked forward to a profitable autumn aloft and it got an appreciative round from the crowd.”
Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Ask any frustrated retro-gamer, and they’ll tell you the past couple of years have seen a fake market bubble to jack up game prices. What appear to be credible allegations of fraud and collusion have surfaced between grading companies and auction houses, such as WATA Games and Heritage Auctions, which hopefully will mean fair prices will start to return to a hobby that was previously only frequented by hardcore nerds, rather than investors. But along with this fake gaming bubble came another new phenomenon: fake, high dollar “premium” Nintendo collections. One particular peeve of mine is the introduction of fake “test market” NES sets appearing on auction sites. A “test market” system is a reference to the first hundred thousand units sold as part of a limited release in 1985, before Nintendo knew whether the consoles would be viable. Nobody wanted to carry video games after Atari crashed the market in 1983, and so Nintendo USA, without telling their Japanese parent company, promised retail stores a refund for any unsold systems and a 90 day line of credit. They ended up selling nearly 62 million consoles. Those first 100,000 trial market systems are now considered by collectors to be the Holy Grail.
They’re also fraught with fraud, due to the prices they can fetch, especially if you find one graded. Many fraudulent test market systems include a few genuine components from the original box, but were either missing parts or pieced together. Because they came with the full caboodle – the Zapper, R.O.B., controllers, and two games – a lot of pieces can get lost or broken over time. The replacement parts included at auction often include retail parts from after Nintendo’s worldwide release, severely diminishing their value. Any test market system today could easily include post-release cartridges, light guns, robots, controllers, manuals, boxes, or even circuit boards; buyers and sellers generally believe there’s no way to tell the difference. All too often, someone will buy an empty test market box and throw something together with junk from eBay, selling a $200 system for thousands. In some extreme cases, even the original NES main board would be swapped out for a release board, leaving the only authentic parts the plastic shell! Such fraud can happen with individual games too. These shenanigans ruin the legitimacy and the value of the asset. Fakes have always existed, but with the inflated prices sellers think they can get these days, hobbyists and collectors stand to lose a lot more money than ever thought. Up until recently, test market systems have been considered “a real treat” when found in great condition, but thanks to a manufactured gaming bubble, they’re now fetching big money – and with that comes a lot of people looking to rip you off.
Fortunately, Nintendo left a number of clues, both in their plastics (which appear to have molding cavity numbers) as well as their ICs, which can contribute to versioning and authenticating their products. Some of these were possibly done for quality assurance or as an anti-counterfeiting measure. The identifying numbers on plastics and ICs have shown to be reliable at placing a part within a manufacturing timeline. PCB layout and even color changes are also valuable data points that have evolved over time. This post contains a list of things to look for when evaluating a test market system that should help identify unoriginal components, but is also useful for placing any NES or Famicom products into a timeline. The list isn’t exhaustive, but is the first analysis I’ve seen to attempt to authenticate a test market system both by outward indicators as well as internal plastics and deeper component analysis. I personally own two test market systems, one in the 40xxx serial number range, and one in the 90xxx serial number range, an early Deluxe system, Famicom systems (which follow many of the same conventions cited in this post), and have access to a few others. I have also compared my findings to photos of verified test market systems and PCBs found online, submitted to me by other hobbyists, obtained from trolling eBay sellers, and have access to a reasonably sized supply of early non-test market hardware and cartridges for comparison.
The resulting findings are that the plastics, components, PCB layout, and other characteristics of test market systems have been remarkably consistent, suggesting there may have been only one production run for the first 100,000 units, across multiple assembly lines. While primitive components (like a capacitor) could theoretically differ if a lot ran out, the approach has so far been reliable at establishing a revision timeline. Contact me if you find any errors in this information, or if you discover something interesting! The more data points I have, the better and more accurate this information will be.
When you examine an item, you look for the newest artifacts, not the oldest. This is why, for example, people should ignore the copyright on a box. Some ICs and PCBs have a copyright too, but those are also misleading. More important is the IC stamp, especially the proprietary ICs, which are stamped with a manufacturing date code on the second line. For example, the IC stamp on the security lockout chip inside a test market NES typically reads “8539 A”. This refers to a year (85) and the week-number (39) that the lot of ICs were produced, as well as a revision (A, C, etc.). This is a common convention among IC manufacturers. With this information, it should be possible to identify the NES consoles and accessories that were manufactured ahead of the October ’85 release. Week 39 would place an IC manufacture date around September 23-29, 1985. This would indicate an aggressive manufacturing cycle, if Nintendo were to have 100,000 units manufactured for a mid-October release (or at least enough to fill the pipeline), but nonetheless tractable for a company their size and with their existing production lines for Famicom systems. They scaled quite well, selling well over a million units in North America alone in 1986.
Early systems from after Nintendo’s worldwide release have been observed with ICs that reference ’85 in week 49, putting them right around (or possibly after) Christmas 1985; it’s easy to see that these are not test market units, and can be identified by their stamps. Later retail units, such as those with NES-CPU-04 boards, have lockout chips stamped in the “8719 A” range. Lockout chips from NES-CPU-07 boards read dates such as “8929 A”, placing them around mid-1989 (the copyright on the IC still reads 1985, illustrating why copyrights are useless). A NES-CPU-10 board’s lockout chip read “9023 A”. NES-CPU-11 was found with “9109 A”. This dating convention has been consistent with the incremental timeline of all units I’ve examined.
Bear in mind that such stamps only reference the IC manufacturing date, and so correlating them with other IC stamps inside a unit is necessary to reveal a better picture of when the entire system was assembled. Manufacturing surpluses (or just the luck of which box of ICs got used first) could allow for some date skew as well. For example, one NES with serial number N0040xxx (personally owned) has the TC40H368P ICs in U7 and U8 stamped “8536 H”, but the same ICs in NES serial number N0001944 (found online) have a stamp of “8538 H”; the lower serial number NES actually has some slightly newer chips than the higher serial. This provides some excellent cross-correlation, suggesting the final assembly of test-market units probably happened around the same time, and possibly on multiple assembly lines. It also demonstrates that the test market NES systems with the lowest serial numbers don’t necessarily have the oldest components.
Another example of where component analysis can come in handy can be found inside Super Mario Bros, or any other cartridge, as all contained a Nintendo security chip. The very uninteresting Super Mario Bros US cartridge I own from 1987 includes a security chip stamped “8739 A”, while another from the same time period is stamped “8742 A”, just a few weeks later. I use Super Mario Bros here, because of the recent and very idiotic craze to sell early game cartridges for millions of dollars. Ironic, in that investors are valuing these early copies of SMB as the most valuable because of age, yet even the first copy ever sold is still predated by the Famicom versions released to the Japanese market before coming to the US (the same exact game image). The oldest known living copy of Super Mario Bros, according to the Video Game History Foundation (who documented it), was an old Famicom prototype containing EPROMs. The cartridge had a prototype label indicating CHR/PRG 0, and the EPROMs contained an image perfectly matching the first release image. The PRG EPROM is stamped “8534”, putting it around August 1985. By comparison, it’s hard to justify the inflated values for a US copy of Super Mario Bros using the investor’s metric of age, no matter how old or sealed it is, as it’s just a newer copy of the same game image originally burned for Famicom. The earliest copy of Super Mario Bros for NES that I’ve been able to locate was manufactured mid-October 1985, and probably went on sale around mid-November.
Certain game ICs (and a few inside the console), such as the PRG chip above, use a YMW format in their stampings. 5K2 suggests 1985, October, and week 2, which is consistent with the lockout chip’s date stamp of 8541. My test-market copy of Duck Hunt has the CHR IC (containing character data) stamped with “4G2”. This suggests the IC was manufactured in 1984, 7th month (G), week 2. The early Duck Hunt cartridges were Famicom PCBs shipped with converter boards, and the game was originally released in Japan in April 1984. If the stamps follow convention, this was likely an early copy from that release, shoved into a NES cartridge for the 85 test market. When reading these, consider that Hitachi would skip over the “I” in the alphabet, shifting September and following months to begin at “J”, making December “M” instead of “L”. It’s possible whoever manufactured these ICs followed the same convention.
One strong indicator suggesting this is an artificial bubble is to look at Japanese market pricing, which seems largely unaffected by the spike in retro gaming prices. The Japanese Famicom market is still wonderfully priced; even titles popular in America are somewhat reasonable. While some dumb investors are paying $800,000 for a sealed copy of Zelda for NES, I was able to grab a pristine, sealed copy of Zelda for Famicom Disk System on the Japanese market for about $1200; even this is inflated compared to the $50 it cost maybe five years ago, but is still a steal. Zelda was originally released on Famicom FDS media a whopping 18 months before it ever came to the US, yet Investors are paying nosebleed prices for a much later US port of the game, even though it has degraded sound, altered graphics and gameplay, and is culturally altered. The disparity in pricing is the same for consoles. I picked up a brand new, unopened Famicom console for $350 recently on the Japanese market, and a second, earlier pre-recall unit with square buttons for $500. An unopened NES also recently went to some dummy for $40,000. The Japanese aren’t shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for sealed games or unopened consoles, further throwing water on the idea that these games have any deep intrinsic monetary value. These signs all point to a manipulated market.
The Japanese versions are far more interesting and historically rich, too, such as All Night Nippon Super Mario Bros, and the original sequel of SMB 2 released in Japan, before Doki Doki Panic was rebranded to use Mario characters in the US. I’d much rather own a copy of the Doki Doki Panic Famicom disk (which I found sealed for $150) than a million dollar US knockoff of it. Zelda originally debuted on Famicom Disk with enhanced sound (using the Disk System’s PCM sound channel), beautiful artwork, and some notable differences in graphics, sound, maps, and language. It also had some beautiful sprite glitches and was perfect in all of its imperfections. I’d much rather own the original over some spray painted port squeezed out a year and a half later. If you loved Rad Racer, you should try it in 3D and play the Japanese version of it (Highway Star), with a pair of Famicom 3D glasses. Most of these titles were originally in English, but even for those that aren’t, these days you can get by with a translation app up to the TV screen to get an English version. The original Famicom Detective Club series works well this way. For the difficult translations, such as Zelda 2, there are freely downloadable Japanese-English scripts. If you truly love the game, you’ll chase it back to its roots. The problem is these investors on the scene don’t love the game. They’re just chasing an asset, and making up imaginary markers of value, like black hang tabs that aren’t punched out or double black seals – neither of which mean anything to a hobbyist collector. At the end of the day, anything in the US market is just a cheap copy of something first born in Japan. Since investors are completely ignorant of a game’s valuable history, many will get burned when this all come crashing down and find that hobbyists don’t value games the same way. Given that some at the very top of the current grading and auction scheme have a long and documented criminal history of fraud, this is likely to happen at some point.
There are some games that are subjectively more valuable to me than any early NES game, like my sealed copy of Nazo no Murasame Jō, a brilliant sister game to Zelda that was only brought to the US after nearly 30 years, or my sealed copy of Arumana no Kiseki (Miracle of Arumana), an Indiana Jones inspired adventure from Konami, based on the codebase from Goonies II and Rush’n Attack – and is actually better than the real Indiana Jones game. Metroid is also quite a treat on FDS, where it was first released complete with Zelda-style game saves, a beautiful title screen, and without the controversial sexualizing of Samus like the US copies. How about Gall Force, a great spaceship scroller based on the anime movie from that same year? Vs Excitebike also had its origins on Famicom disk, allowing you to save custom tracks. The original Super Mario Bros didn’t originate on Famicom disk, but due to the way the data is laid out, the disk version is the only copy with playable minus worlds. The Japanese artwork is also quite beautiful compared to a pixelated Mario. The disk system was truly Nintendo’s best years, and where it all started for many legendary games; and if you want to be where it all really started, you’ve got to look to Japan. If you were an 80s kid, Japan’s culture defined much of your childhood, whether it was arcade or console video games, Gundam-style robots like Voltron or Transformers, or the wonderful advances in electronics (like portable TVs or boom boxes), you lived through an amazing exposure to Japan in the 80s.
The narrative that a product’s components will tell often disagrees with the narrative of the seller’s eBay listing. This is a reason to avoid graded games. There is no guarantee any grading company performs deep component inspection to authenticate these items. In fact, grading is, by definition, not authentication, and shouldn’t include a FMV assessment for that reason. Was the million dollar Super Mario Bros game really a first edition in the US? The IC stamps would tell the story, but they’ve never been released publicly. While this could be verified by certain X-Ray techniques, if you didn’t want to open the box, original NES systems and black-box hangtag games were never shrink wrapped to begin with. But that’s irrelevant: based on WATA’s grading labels, you’d think the only thing they look at is the seal of quality and the number of screws. Given that companies like WATA charge a percentage of the FMV assessment they determine for an item, it’s in their best interest to give the highest grading possible and push the fair market value as high as it can go. Having a low bar for high FMV assessments pays handsomely in a market flooded by millions of “rare” games. You might be interested in this analysis of a VGA graded game I recently did to get an idea of the dishonesty there is in the grading process.
It is both telling and conspicuous that WATA won’t grade the more rare, sealed Famicom Disk games (I asked); this is literally where it all started for many of the most popular titles, so you’d think a legitimate grading company would be interested in them – especially a company with the slogan “WE. GRADE. EVERYTHING.” (others do, incidentally, just not WATA). Disk games in mint condition are far more rare than the US carts they grade, which came sometimes years later. By definition, because they are actually rare, there are fewer of them to grade or auction. Yet ironically, it is because they are rare that calling attention to the value of Famicom Disk games would significantly diminish the value of the saturated cartridge game market WATA has invested so much time overhyping. It’s in WATA’s best interest to continue hand-waving imaginary value over massively produced US cartridges than to call attention to items of actual value in gaming history. Actual rare items imply scarcity, which would not be profitable. A grading company’s business model relies on a steady inflow of items to take commission on – they need the illusion of rarity, but in an otherwise saturated market.
Locking things up in sealed boxes also ensures that nobody else will ever audit their work, even if it is incomplete, or downright incompetent. At the end of the day, I would much rather buy something that I can authenticate myself with a screwdriver than one sealed up in a box that relies on someone else’s narrative, especially the narrative of a company famous for overhyping.. If you’re of the same mind, the indicators to follow should be helpful, and maybe a bit revealing.
NOTE: There is tolerance for minor variation of the last two digits of any date codes, however all should predate actual test-market trials by at least a short time. ICs from different parts should also correlate closely with each other, at least for early systems. Later retail system could vary, if there were inventory surplus, for example. For early test market systems, however, no such constraints would have existed.
Focusing on the controller board located at the bottom of R.O.B. provides valuable information about which manufacturing run they came from based on the ICs and the layout of the circuitry. Some information can also be gleaned from the gearbox and infrared receiver.
Zapper guns had a much slower evolution, and so there are only a few ways to tell early post-release 1986 units apart from test market Zappers. Release Zappers from 1986 have many of the traits listed below. In one examined, the only thing that gave it away were some of the plastic identifiers.
Disk system box games were sealed with a special tamper-evident seal from Nintendo. Replacement seals appear to have also been available to dealers, which had the same tamper-evident material but were slightly (1/16″) larger than the original seals, perhaps for identification or to cleanly cover over a damaged original seal. The following indicators can be used to help authenticate sealed Famicom Disk System games.