“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 between WATA Games and Heritage Auctions have surfaced, 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. They were so unsure of themselves that they promised retail stores a refund for any unsold systems. They ended up selling nearly 62 million of them. Those first trial market sets 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., 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. 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! This can happen with individual games sold too. Such 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 also 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, changes in moldings, PCB design changes, and IC stamps have shown to be reliable indicators of 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 or on a cartridge and look at the moldings, the chips, and the circuit boards. Some ICs and PCBs have a copyright, but those can be misleading as well. More important is the second line of the stamp on certain ICs, especially the proprietary ones, which seem to refer to a date code for when the IC was manufactured. For example, the IC stamp on the security lockout chip inside a test market NES typically reads “8539 A”. This likely 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 was 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 date 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; these are obviously not test market units, and can be easily identified. 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 would only reference the IC manufacturing date, and so correlating them with other IC stamps inside a unit would 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 N0040647 (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, 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). 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 any real value for a US copy of Super Mario Bros, no matter how old or sealed it is, as it’s just a newer copy of the same game.
I personally own a Famicom copy of Super Mario Bros that looks to follow the same manufacturing process as early Gyromite games from the test market sets. I once ordered a bunch of old ratty SMBs and took them all apart. This one has the same glob top design, a PCB stamp (1SM instead of 1GY), as well as a serial (6500232) – just like early Gyromite carts did. Another SMB contains ICs, and is stamped 8602 (January 1986), suggesting Nintendo switched certain lines to ICs (at the latest) in early 1986. Given early Gyromite’s manufacturing timeline, and both SMBs using the same early part number on the sticker, the glob top is probably from fall 1985. Regardless, both of these copies of SMB predate any know released US copies, including your million dollar graded copy. Hope you didn’t spend your kids’ college fund on that thing. I bought mine for $2.
Certain game ICs (and a few inside the console) use a YMW format in their stampings. 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.
The Japanese Market
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 Americans are paying $800,000 for a sealed copy of Zelda for NES, I was able to grab a sealed copy of Zelda for Famicom Disk System on the Japanese market for about $1500. Zelda was originally released on Famicom FDS media a whopping 18 months before it ever came to the US, yet Americans are paying nosebleed prices for a later port of the game, which incidentally has degraded sound, slightly altered 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. An unopened NES also recently went to some dummy for $40,000. It’s the same system inside; Famicom is actually superior given it has an extra sound channel, a microphone, and lacks the lockout chip used to control the game market in the US. With a $20 converter, I can even play NES titles on it. Yet 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.
The Japanese versions are far more interesting, 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 cheap copy of the Doki Doki Panic Famicom disk (which I do) than a million dollar US knockoff of it, or the original Zelda on Famicom Disk (with all its beautiful sprite glitches, enhanced sound, and original translation) than some fake-gold game cart squeezed out a year later. Most of the original games are still in English, but even for those that aren’t, these days you can just hold a translation app up to the TV screen to get an instant English version. 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 new investors on the scene don’t love the game. They’re just chasing the asset, which is as meaningless as Dogecoin. Since they’re completely ignorant of a game’s valuable history, many will get burned should this all come crashing down. 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 (some call it the action game version of Zelda), which 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 – that 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. Speaking of Zelda, it originally debuted on Famicom Disk with enhanced sound 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. How about Gall Force, a great spaceship scroller based on the anime movie from that same year? Vs Excitebike anyone? It had its origins on Famicom disk too, as did many others. 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 the wonderful advances in electronics (like portable TVs, or boom boxes), you lived through an amazing exposure to Japan in the 80s – a big portion of your makeup is a product of Japan.
Avoid Graded Items
This is another very good reason to avoid graded games or equipment. 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 an appraisal for that reason. Was the Super Mario Bros. that sold for over a million dollars really a first edition? The ICs would tell the story, but they’ve never been released. 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 valuation they determine for an item, it’s in their best interest to give the highest grading possible. Since they don’t publish population reports, having a low bar for high appraisals pays handsomely. Locking it up in a sealed box ensures that nobody else will audit their work, even if it is incomplete, or downright incompetent. I would much rather buy a unit that I can authenticate myself with a screwdriver than one sealed up in a box that relies on someone else’s narrative. 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. How 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.
- There is no “Deluxe Set” wording or accompanying photo; this space is mysteriously blank on test market boxes. It was added later for the worldwide release.
- The photos on the box depict prototype versions of Gyromite and Duck Hunt without the Nintendo Seal of Quality.
- Serial number less than or equal to 100,000 (it is believed only about 100,000 test market consoles were produced). Serial number prefix is N0; European models start with a different prefix and those units came a year later, even though many have low serial numbers.
- The bottom of the PCB reads NES-CPU-01 and Nintendo logo. Any newer revision boards are from later systems.
- The loading door is missing the trademark ™ after Entertainment System, as the trademark hadn’t been approved yet. The trademark for “Nintendo Entertainment System” wasn’t applied for until 8/1986, and so it’s likely they didn’t start using the TM on their consoles until around this time. (More info needed)
- Top and bottom of the console is smooth, not textured.
- Bottom of the console has “NO.1” debossed on the plastic near the center of the console.
- Sticker on bottom includes ‘INSIDE WASHINGTON STATE’ phone number. These were part of the first several million units. If it is missing, the serial number sticker may be a counterfeit.
- The baggy the console comes in it blank; it has no CAUTION wording in red or any wording at all. This is also true of early Deluxe systems. Only newer systems came with the CAUTION wording. Often times, lost bags are replaced in these sets with bags from newer sets, or reproductions. Baggies with text in English were from newer systems released in the US, while baggies with both English and French were from newer systems released in Canada.
- U1O 3193 lockout chip IC has a date stamp of “8539 A”
- U7 and U8 ICs read a date code of or near “8536 H” (“8538 H”, etc)
- PPU 2C02 IC reads “RP2C02E-0”, serials typically in the “5H or “5J” range (year/month/week format)
- CPU 2A03 IC reads “RP2A 03 E”, serials typically in the “5H” or “5J” range (year/month/week format)
- Five screws on back
- Both Duck Hunt and Gyromite PCBs incorporate a Famicom converter board
- Round SoQ
- Again, there is no trademark after Entertainment System, as the trademark hadn’t been approved yet
- Front label does not have ‘Made in Japan’ text. NOTE: Several retail game cartridges also did not have this text.
- Front label does not have a game code, such as ‘NES-GY-USA’ or ‘NES-GY-CAN’ (Canada)
- Any French on the bag indicates a Canadian game cartridge, and was not part of the initial test market release
- 3193 lockout IC on Famicom converter board reads a date code of “8539 A”
- Gyromite: back of the PCB (side without the Nintendo logo) has a black stamp just above the converter connector that reads “1GY” followed by a serial number. The serial number appears to be unique between units but is incremental. On my two test market games, the earlier cartridge observed read “080817”, while the later test market cartridge observed read “087833”.
Game Boxes and Manuals
- In spite of popular thought, black paper seals at the top of the games were included on original test market sets. Beware of boxes with no black paper seal.
- Round SoQ
- There is no trademark after “Entertainment System”
- Bottom right of the back of box does not have codes under “Nintendo Entertainment System”; e.g. if it has Game Pak (“NES-GP”) near the bottom, or other codes, it’s from 1986 or later, and not from a test market set. These codes were not used until ’86.
- Similarly, the top back of the box will not have game codes such as NES P DH or NES P GY. These were not in use until 1987, and would not be on boxes from a test market set.
- Gyromite manual has Table of Contents and highlighted the word CAUTION in its warning about use of gyroscopes.
- 75-300 converter has VHF MATCHING BOX printed on it, whereas newer converters are longer and do not have this text.
- A/V cable should NOT have a white plug. Nintendo A/V cables supplied only red and yellow. If it has a white plug, it’s aftermarket.
- Literature did not have baggies with CAUTION wording in red, this was added long after the official release. The bags should have no wording at all. Documentation is often replaced to complete sets. Early deluxe systems also have no wording.
- Instruction manual does not have NES-BP in upper-right, or a 1986 copyright. Both of these were added in 1986 after Nintendo adopted part codes like these.
- On the inside of newer (post-release) instruction manuals, there is a “Look for the seal of quality” boilerplate and logo on the inside of the cover page. This does not exist in early test market period manuals; the space is left blank.
- Early test market period manuals have a Chapter 1 title of “INTRODUCTION TO THE NES”. On later (1986 post-release) manuals, the title of Chapter 1 is “NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM(NES) INSTRUCTION MANUAL”
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.
- The bottom PCB board should read RFC-02-CPU (or conceivably 01, though I’ve never seen one; perhaps this was Famicom’s R.O.B.). Newer R.O.B.’s from 86/87 appear to have been bumped to CPU-RFC-03.
- The test market CPU10 microcontroller reads “8532 A” for a date stamp. Retail units manufactured shortly after the test-market release typically have higher increments, such as “8549 A”
- The test market Sharp IR2C25 motor controller has a date stamp of “8530 A”. Retail units manufactured more recently typically have later stamps, such as “8538 A”, though some still seemingly using ICs manufactured before October ’85. One unit was seen with a microcontroller from 86, but motor controllers stamped 8702, indicating a spread of ICs across growing inventories during the initial post-release pipeline.
- There are two locations for the C2 capacitor near the lower-right of the controller board; one above R4 and one below it. Test market units (and units from 86) appear to use a smaller capacitor and locate it above R4 (just under the label “102”). Units manufactured more recently seem to populate the C2 slot underneath R4 with a slightly larger capacitor, roughly the same size as C5, C6, and C7 capacitors.
- Early units (including test market units) appear to use a resistor soldered to the back of the PCB. Units from as early as 86 lack this resistor.
- Earlier R.O.B.’s appear to have a blue wrap around the rainbow wiring harness (CN2), whereas newer units appear to use a white wrap. Some post-release units have been found to have the blue wrap as well.
- The two small drive gears directly attached to the motors within the torso: one is white, and one is pink. This appears to be the case on all early R.O.B.’s, other models I have examined have had two pink or two white drive gears.
- In R.O.B.’s head, infrared transceiver is Sharp IR3T07, date stamp in test market units reads “8529 B”, later deluxe retail models have been observed with later stamps, such as “8637 B”
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.
- The inside of the left half of the Zapper has a molding identifier of “L1” debossed in the plastic on test market units. This was changed sometime around end of 86, newer moldings have “L12” or another value debossed in its place.
- The fire control box housing (the little gray box inside the Zapper that holds the trigger and switches) will have a “1” embossed on a test market Zapper. Newer, non-test market units (again, even from 85/86) will have a “3N” or other marking in place of it.
- The inside of the lighter gray halves of the zapper (the “shroud” for lack of a better word) read “L1” (left) and “R1” (right) on test market Zappers. Release units from 1986 use L2 and R2, and newer units typically use higher values (e.g. L3, R4, and so on). These appear to be the first parts with noticeable differences post-release, so pay special attention to these.
- The optical board appears to use a small black encasement around the light sensor, whereas this encasement is not present on later retail market Zappers; on newer Zappers, they were a naked sensor held up only by the two prongs.
- The capacitors on the optical boards of test market Zappers appeared to use a seafoam green capacitor (Tk A580), whereas the later retail Zappers analyzed used a light blue 8840 capacitor. Some early deluxe models also used the sea foam green variant.
- The transistor on the optical board of the test-market units, labeled B C E, read C458 B 4D 2″, where the retail units observed were stamped “C458 C 8H 5”. This is consistent with the incremental revisions of components observed in the R.O.B. microcontroller boards.
- Controller plastics appear to be versioned just like the light gun plastics; test market back plastic is debossed with a molding code of ‘A-1’ while newer controllers read higher values, such as ‘C3’.
- A code is stamped on the back of the PCB. On the test market controllers observed, these read ’35X7′, while newer controllers read values such as ‘8932’. Some deluxe models are stamped with “86ZP”. The significance of these stamps is unclear, but they do appear incremental just like other codes; later controllers may have included the year in the first two digits.
- On the front of the controller PCB, test market controllers had the board part number ’56 8583B’ positioned to the LEFT of the logo, while newer controllers positioned the (same) part number to the RIGHT of the logo.
- The supposed part number (56 8583B) is only present on the front (green side) of the PCB of the test market controllers examined, while it was also located on the back (brown side) of newer controllers, along with other stampings such as “VH-5”
- Newer controllers label wire colors on the back of the PCB, while the test market controllers examined did not have any labels.
- Test market controllers examined positioned the crimpings for the controller wired vertically (straight up and down), while newer controllers were staggered diagonally.
- Test market controllers examined had dark brown PCBs, while newer controllers had the standard medium-light brown PCBs. The deep brown PCBs were also used on 86 post-release models for a while, but incorporated the PCB changes to the crimpings mentioned earlier.
- Test market controllers examined had a resistor visible on the back of the PCB. Newer controllers did not. Early post-release 86 models that included the darker PCB appear to have eliminated the resistor.