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Bootleg/Clone cart ID guide

20 years ago flash carts were unobtainable, at least over here in Australia. I would occasionally hear the story of a friends' Chinese relative sending one over as a birthday or Christmas gift but to the majority of us, we had to settle for emulation or the real thing. 

Fast forward 15 years, when working overseas I would buy up any bootleg carts I would come across. These were very common over in Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia in the mid 00's and still common over in the markets in Dubai, China and India to this day.

Thanks to Aliexpress and eBay we now have these available to us for as little as $3 with free shipping. With all these carts looking alike, and many identical with different games I wondered how many were actually manufactured blank and programmed prior to shipping.

From an economic standpoint, it makes sense for China to produce a generic game cart and have the seller flash them, and add a label. Of course asking the seller how this is done often comes back with 'we buy from the factory' or simply 'we don't have that information' Perhaps they don't but I believe there is more to this. 

I'll start with the GBA series of carts. These have been most popular and widely available for nearly a decade. Early carts were unreliable, hand assembled and crude. These were true bootlegs of the day, there was big $$$ to be had and China went all out in the production of these 'glob top' boards. The ROM itself was OTP, or One-Time-Programmable. They came from the factory filled with binary 1's and the end user could only program them to 0's. Once programmed, there was no erasing and for their purpose, they worked good enough to make their way all over the world. I won't include any photos of them here, they can't be reflashed, only corrupted.

The latest design from China is the '4400' cart. This is my personal favourite and is the result of a decade of refinement, cost cutting and technological advance. This cart is the first to have gold electroplating on the contacts. An important feature for reliable operation and not having to clean it every 40-50 insertions. The battery is not included here though the pads are retained in the event the ROM cannot be patched for batteryless save. The SRAM capacity is 128kbytes - essential for the Pokemon series to not corrupt the save halfway though the game. The Flash itself is a grey market Intel IC of 32mbytes and has a waitstate of 0 cycles meaning it can run every game ever made for the GBA platform with no lag like some of the earlier carts. Including Mother3. This cart can be flashed under the 4400 option in Joey's software.

Next up is another GBA cart currently shipped from Aliexpress and eBay sellers. This cart is nickle plated, contains no battery but has pads for one, contains 64kbytes SRAM and 16mbytes of Flash. What is very unusual about this cart is the Flash IC, although labeled 29GL128, a 128mbit Flash IC, it actually contains 256mbit of storage. The CFI device ID is not that of a MX branded chip so who knows what is going on inside that thing. I do know Mother 3 boots fine from this particular cart but it ultimately depends where they source their Flash from, if your cart will be 128 or 256mbit. Can be flashed under the BV128 GBA option in Joey's software.

This is where it all began! One of the earliest generic GBA flash carts, Battery backup, Nickle plated, 64kbytes of SRAM, 16mbytes of Flash. A simple design, no fancy registers in the black blob, its a straight forward GBA cart. Not the fastest chip to erase and flash, but reliable even at 5v. Flashable under BV128 in Joey's software. I've still got my development cart with all the data and address pins broken out, and it still holds a library of NES games with saves!

This flash cart, labelled 'Magic Flash 512M' on the rear side was one of the early multiboot supported flash carts. That is, you use your GBA's multiboot feature (boot via link port) and have the PC transfer the ROM to it. This was very slow, taking upwards of 2 hours to fill the multi-rom supported flash chip. I never fully reversed the protocol used in this chip and therefore never added support for it. The save battery rarely lasted more than a few months and it used a LOT of power from the GBA. The first real marketed flash cart, but now incredibly rare.

This one just arrived, 128kbytes of SRAM, 32mbytes of Flash, reflashable under bv128 option in Joey Software. These also come in 128mbit capcity, you can read the value off the Flash IC. No battery, but option for install. The N and Y means Battery fitted.

This PPP08 cart was sent to me recently to add support. Although the Flash IC is used in other types of carts, the way they have used it is very unusual. Normally they would use it in 16bit mode which is native to the GBA, instead they have forced it into 8 bit mode and multiplexed the upper and lower data bytes. I can't see any reason for this except to break compatibility with other cart types. Either way, support is now added though it nearly had me defeated! 32mbytes ROM, 128k SRAM. 

Onto the GBC Carts!

One of the first 'Multi-Carts' available. There's a lot to like about this GBC cart, Gold plated fingers, 1mbyte of SRAM (divided into 32k blocks), extremely fast flashing in comparison to the other mentioned carts. Removable battery backup, 32mbytes of ROM with the smallest assignable unit of 32kbytes. Harder to find these days but still out there. The replacement is backwards compatible with this cart, with the addition of MBC1/3 mappers inside. Flashable under the BV256M option in Joey's software. Multi rom support via my ROM Compiler software.

This little guy... This was one of the first generation of GBC flash carts, not flashable with an external programmer. The flash IC itself is programmed externally before being soldered to the board by hand. There is room on there for an R/C timing circuit which ticks away happily though I never worked out how to enable the RTC feature contained within. This board comes with flash from 2mbytes to 8mbytes, and sram from 32k to 128k. This was the ElCheapo cart when modified to enable external programming, and a new Flash IC that would last more than a few write cycles. It does support primitive multi-roms in 2 mbyte blocks. Now unavailable :-(

The BV5 board! Some say named after me :-) A gold plated, MBC5 board with 32k SRAM, 2-8mbytes of Flash ROM, and write protection. Now more commonly found with no battery or diode. The diode is essential for reliable flashing (Not fitted in this picture) Rule of thumb here is, if it was shipped with no battery, no diode is required. If it has a battery, it needs a diode to reflash. There's a logical reason behind this... Flashable under the BV5 option in Joey's software.

A currently available, un-named flash cart. 32kbytes SRAM, 2-4 mbytes Flash, MBC5 support. Battery backed storage though also available without a battery. Not much to say about this cart, its hand assembled, low quality, nickle plated. The only thing this cart has going for it, is the locating hole in the centre means you can fit it inside a real game shell. Flashable using the ElCheapoSD option in Joeys software. If you can think of a name for this cart, I'll add it to the software. 


The ES29LV160_DRV cart... There are multiple versions of this cart, all almost identical. I've had many unsuccessful attempts to re-flash this cart. I believe the Flash IC used in this particular cart (MX 29LV320) is 3.3v only and unlike the rest of the carts, will destroy itself if you attempt to flash it at 5v. The identical copy of this cart with an unmarked Flash IC is however programmable. Again, rule of thumb, if it has the coin cell, probably going to blow up if you write to it at 5v. Nickle plated, 32k SRAM, 4mbytes Flash. Flashable under the BV5 option however hold off until I add its own entry in Joey's software - It needs to be handled a little differently. It will fit inside a GBA cart shell with slight modification.

Update! now reflashable, move the y bridge to the N position, remove the battery. Flash. 

 More to come as they arrive! Check back.