Pandora’s Box – Just What Does “Real” Mean Anymore?

I am just a copy of a copy of a copy
Everything I say has come before
Assembled into something into something into something
I don’t know for certain anymore

– “Copy of A”, Nine Inch Nails

When it comes to items for sale on the marketplace, it’s often pretty easy to tell when you are looking at something that’s counterfeit. It’s a lot less easy to figure out when you’re dealing with an item like the Pandora’s Box. So let’s get the absolutelty obvious out of the way right now:

Every single one of these Pandora’s Box items, regardless of who makes or sells it, is 100% bootleg and counterfeit in every single way. However, for the purposes of this post (and your sanity), I want to establish a few ground rules here:

  • A Pandora’s Box manufactured by 3A Game will be considered “legitimate” or “real”.
  • A Pandora’s Box manufactured by anyone else will be considered a “bootleg”, “fake” or “clone”.
  • A Pandora’s Box by any other name (Pandora’s Key, Pandora’s Treasure, Arcade Game System, etc…) is also a bootleg, fake or clone. 

With these guidelines in mind, we can now attempt to approach a bigger question: How can we tell when we’re looking at a real Pandora’s Box instead of a clone? We’ll answer that in this post.

Real vs. Fake – Why Does it Matter?

In the end, what matters most is that you are happy with your purchase and you are happy with your play experiences. If you’re happy with what you are getting with a clone, please by all means don’t let me or anyone else make you feel otherwise.

For those of you who are possibly looking into getting one of these arcade game boxes, you’ll want to arm yourself with as much information as possible to try to ensure you get an item that is worth your time and money. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what you can do to give yourself a better chance of getting what you want.

Another happy customer.

Typically, the original Pandora’s Boxes have had the best experiences, especially in the single core CPU era from 2013-2016. Fewer duplicates in your game list, better chance of having properly configured controls and aspect ratio, that sort of thing. With the release of the Pandora’s Box 5 in 2016, 3A Game distanced themselves from the clones and bootlegs by including a faster quad-core ARM CPU along with more RAM on their boards. This meant that not only were more games possibly playable, it also meant that those that previously struggled would play better as well. The bootleggers cloned the Pandora’s Box 5 as closely as they could while still keeping to a single core. Some of the games newly added to the Pandora’s Box 5 would have such a hard time running on the originals that it was very clear which box you should be using. 

What happens if there’s a game on your Pandora’s Box 5 that isn’t set up properly? Well, thanks to the security built into it, you are unable to do anything about it. This is where the clones have some advantage as most of them are relatively open and you can replace the software being used with something like OpenPB4 which is kind of like a Retropie-like installation for Pandora’s Box 4 clones and fakes which would allow you to run better emulators, fix screen tearing issues and choose the ROMs you want. There are also some hacked images out there for some boxes that keep the same software but fix certain things about them. Annoyed with the strange music playing in the options menu? Perhaps that mp3 is replaced with silence on one of the hacked images.

However, things have changed quite a bit since the initial release of the Pandora’s Box 5 with the launch of Android based PB clones. These also are leveraging quad-core processors and Android-based emulators and allow you to install all the games you might want on them while remaining quite hackable. You can sideload any Android APKs you want on your box without an issue, from emulators to Android games to Netflix making them quite a decent option for an integrated gaming/media system. With Pandora’s Box 6 being released less than a month ago in an attempt to level the playing field with these Android boxes, your decision about going with a clone or the real thing becomes a bit… murky. I don’t currently have experience with these new Android-based clones so I can’t comment on them too much at this point but looking at them on YouTube, you can see there’s some new features and good work that’s gone into them and they also attempt to replicate the Pandora’s Box interface. 1

Distinguishing the Real From the Fake

Look At The Advertisement

So let’s talk about ways to figure out if the Pandora’s Box you are looking at is the real deal or a clone. First thing’s first though, it all starts from how they are advertised. One of the big tell-tale signs is the number of games included. 3A Game has released the following Pandora’s Boxes officially and keep an eye on the number of games included in each:

  • Just Another Pandora’s Box/Pandora’s Box – 310 Games (Rare)
  • Pandora’s Box 2 – 400 Games (Rare)
  • Pandora’s Box 3 – 520 Games (Rare)
  • Pandora’s Box 4 – 645 Games
  • Pandora’s Box 4S – 680 Games
  • Pandora’s Box 4S+ – 815 Games
  • Pandora’s Box 5 – 960 Games
  • Pandora’s Box 6 – 1300 Games (Brand New)
I'm not sure if the color scheme is horrible or lovely. I haven't decided yet.
Ad for an Android-based Quad Core clone on Amazon.

In terms of what you’ll find out there in places like eBay and Amazon, Pandora’s Box, Pandora’s Box 2 and Pandora’s Box 3 are relatively rare, so for our purposes, you can forget they exist. That leaves us with the 4, 4S, 4S+, 5 and 6. Generally speaking, the pirates and clones are all focusing on being more attractive to consumers than the original and they do that by always adding more games than the originals. So if you are looking through Amazon or Kijiji and you see a Pandora’s Box that has a different number of games than 645, 680, 815, 960 or 1300 games, you are looking at a clone without a doubt. I’ve yet to see any clone or bootleg that uses the same number of games as the originals. With regards to the Android quad-core clones, I haven’t seen them advertise anything less than 1388 games. 2 So as long as the seller is being honest about the number of games included in what they are selling, you should already have a good idea of what you are looking at.

Before the Purchase

Part of what makes figuring out if you are looking at the real deal or a clone is that if you are buying one of the twin arcade stick formats that is really popular right now, almost *all* of them, both clone and real, are in a million different types of cases with different looking stick art, number of buttons and layout. Even 3A Game offers *many* different choices for your purchase. For the most part, you can absolutely ignore almost anything a player would see when playing on one of these as criteria. 

The one big exception here is the back panel of the stick, the place where you plug in your HDMI and power cables. So far, every clone Pandora’s Box has been just a smallish circuit board screwed into the bottom of whatever box it is in and the box will have the holes for your various parts molded into the box itself. With a real Pandora’s Box, the circuit board is fully enclosed in a plastic casing and instead of having holes molded into the plastic in the shape of the various cables, there’s just a large rectangular slot that the Pandora’s Box slides into. So the side of the legit Pandora’s Box is exposed with the various ports open for use. 3

The back panel of an arcade stick with a legit Pandora’s Box 5 installed. Notice the exposed blue side of the PB5’s case?
The back panel of an arcade stick housing a Pandora’s Box clone. No exposed plastic case means it’s a fake.

So always look at the back of the box and take a look at those ports before buying. Molded port openings mean fake and just a visible plastic box means real here.

While In Use

For the most part, the user interfaces on most of the Pandora’s Boxes and clones are very similar. Of course, the very first thing you will want to check out is the number of games available in the list. Make sure it matches the number of games you are expecting from the list above. 4

If your box is not one of the newest Android-based quad-core PB clones, one of the best things you can try is running NBA JAM. NBA JAM was added to the Pandora’s Box 5 and ran smoothly due to its quad-core processor and likely will run well on any PB clone that also comes with a quad-core processor. Older clones that are still on single core processors will have a very hard time running it properly. Mortal Kombat is also another potential title to look at, however it was added to the Pandora’s Box 4S+ despite being too slow to run it as well. If both games run well, you know you either have a Pandora’s Box 5, Pandora’s Box 6 or one of the newer Android-based clones.

Another dead giveaway.

The ability to save states in your games is a feature that to this point is only present on the Android-based clones so that’s one dead giveaway. If there is any advertisement mentioning adding your own games means that it’s likely an Android-based clone as well… or you found yourself a legit Pandora’s Box 6 which is the first in the series to support it.

In Conclusion…

I feel that between the advertisement listing the number of games, a physical inspection of the case and trying it out with known heavier games like NBA JAM, you should now be able to look at anything claiming to be a Pandora’s Box and be able to figure out what you are looking at.

But if you really, really want to make sure that you have the real deal, you can always buy directly from the original source and skip all the uncertainty entirely.

Pandora’s Box – The Basics

So, we’re going to start this blog off by running through the basics of what a Pandora’s Box is, what it does and why you might be interested in such an item. In the near future, we’re going to tear one down to get an idea of what it consists of and how it functions and hopefully bend it to our will.

What is Pandora’s Box?

Pandora’s Box is a series of multi-game bootleg arcade boards created by 3A Game, a Chinese company that has found a lot of success on the black market with arcade enthusiasts. Originally released as cartridges compatible with the popular JAMMA 5 standard for arcade circuit boards, Pandora’s Box was one of many pirated multi-game boards available for arcade owners. By popping one of these Pandora’s Box cartridges into their arcade machines, owners were hoping the hundreds of pirated arcade games to choose from would help them draw in more players and make more money.

The Pandora’s Box and clones are almost all Linux-based machines running upon Allwinner’s line of cheap boards using the popular ARM platform. 

The Story of Pandora’s Box So Far

3A Game’s Pandora’s Box 3 – 520-in-1 JAMMA Editon

It’s a little tough to piece together the history of 3A Game and Pandora’s Box as there is next to no information available out there that I can find on the company and so many of the sites that previously covered them have long since disappeared without much to find in the Wayback Machine. 3A Game released the original Pandora’s Box (released in 2013, 310 games) and Pandora’s Box 2 (2014, 400 games) without too much fanfare but it seems like the Pandora’s Box 3 (2015, blue case, 520 games) was the start of both major success and the rise of clone competitors from other Chinese manufacturers.

Late 2015 saw the release of the Pandora’s Box 4 (orange case, 645 games) followed by the Pandora’s Box 4S (pink, 680 games) in November 2016 and finally the end of the Pandora’s Box 4 series in mid-2017, the Pandora’s Box 4S+ (pink, 815 games). Around this time, we start to see knockoffs of the Pandora’s Box such as the Pandora’s Box 4X and Pandora’s Key 5, both with varying numbers of games, though always more than the originals. 2 The bootlegging of the Pandora’s Box became rampant everywhere to the point where almost every Pandora’s Box you’d find was likely to be one of these bootlegs and it became very hard to find the originals from 3A Game. 3

Advertisement for Pandora's Box 4 (645 games) and Pandora's Box 4S+ (815 games)
Advertisement for Pandora’s Box 4 (645 games) and Pandora’s Box 4S+ (815 games)

Another major development that happens around this time is the creation of game console boxes, essentially consolized versions of the Pandora’s Box that come inside of a 2 player arcade joystick. Plug in power and an HDMI cable and you can experience the same fun as the arcade operators in your own home, complete with coin and pause buttons. 3A Game begins creating what it calls the “family version” of it’s popular Pandora’s Box which forgoes the JAMMA connector and is intended to be used inside of the popular arcade sticks. It also begins selling many, many variations of these 2 player arcade sticks with different fighting game characters, button numbers and features with the Pandora’s Box pre-installed. The bootleggers also follow suit and soon there are far more of these 2 player arcade stick Pandora’s Box setups than the original JAMMA cartridges. And why not? Having something so easy to setup and get going to play some games with friends is quite appealing. These arcade sticks also usually can have a USB cable plugged in to allow you to use it on a PC, PS3 or Xbox 360 with later clones also boasting PS4 support.

In late 2017, 3A Game releases the Pandora’s Box 5 (orange/blue case, 960 games) and with this release, changes from the standard single core ARM CPU to a quad core ARM CPU as well as upgrading the RAM to 2GB. This allows games to run better and also allows games that were previously unplayable to start making their appearance on these boards. Unlike previous versions, the Pandora’s Box 5 is mainly sold in the “preinstalled into arcade stick” format while still also pushing out the JAMMA compatible version (orange case). They would also push out the “family version” (blue or green case) which is just the same as the preinstalled Pandora’s Box 5 with the intention of allowing players to upgrade their previously bought kits to the latest and greatest.

2 player arcade stick with Pandora’s Box 5 preinstalled.

3A Game includes some protection in their Pandora’s Box 5 to try to keep the bootleggers at bay for a little while. 4 The bootleggers instead continue to push out bootlegs of the Pandora’s Box 4 but with a lot of the games from the Pandora’s Box 5, resulting in even more games being too slow or unusable than usual. A particular mention should be made here for Mortal Kombat and NBA JAM, both running really well on the original Pandora’s Box 5 but horribly on all the PB4S bootlegs that come out. 5

As of 2018, 3A Game now is selling Pandora’s Box 5 kits in an opaque black case with no other real changes to the hardware. 6

At some point after the Pandora’s Box 5 release, bootleggers decide to switch their strategy a little bit and start moving over to running Android TV on various mobile quad core chipsets and recreating similar looking frontends as those they’ve been using for so long. Allowing the installation of your own ROMs on top of the 1000+ games already preinstalled as well as whatever Android APKs you want, the two player arcade sticks suddenly become decent media centers as well as game playing machines. These new bootlegs, often calling themselves Pandora’s Treasure or Pandora’s Key 7 and throwing “3D” in the name somewhere, now start advertising the inclusion of a few 3D games such as Tekken 3. Unlike the previous games, these aren’t actually the arcade versions but versions for PSX, PSP and others due to the inclusion of these emulators. The older style Pandora’s Box 4 clones did keep coming as well, with a bootleg Pandora’s Box 6 and Pandora’s Keys with varying numbers in the title.

Becoming available in late August 2018, 3A announced the release of the Pandora’s Box 6, adding further confusion to the marketplace by using the same name as many, many clones have before. Coming in a yellow/green transparent case, the Pandora’s Box 6 features the ability to add your own ROMs to the USB key and will scan to add them to the game list including preview video if you have one. 3A states that the PB6 supports Final Burn Alpha and MAME ROMs as well as PlayStation 1 disc images. While 3A Game claim that they have again bumped up the specs of the Allwinner CPU included in the PB6, it looks like it isn’t actually the case. It appears to mainly be 3A Game’s attempt to stay relevant in the market of arcade stick setups that have 2000+ arcade games installed along with all the various Android TV apps.

At this point, the Pandora’s Box 6 is new enough that finding reviews or any real info about it is scarce. I’ve ordered one for myself and will be taking a run at it just like our Pandora’s Box 5 as soon as I get it.

Performance Issues

Let’s talk a little bit about the type of performance you get from these Pandora’s Boxes and their bootleg clones.

Firstly, it’s very clear that the people making these Pandora’s Boxes and clones don’t actually know or care much about the games being played on them as as there’s a sizable amount of games on each of them that have problems bad enough to make them problematic or unplayable. You’ve got games that require a spinner or trackball 7, the occasional game that requires a forced reboot after NVRAM has been cleared 8, or have extremely high amounts of frameskipping. There often are also clones or duplicates of games, less so for the original Pandora’s Boxes but definitely more on the bootlegs as the bootleggers are simply trying to ship something with as high a number of games as possible. From my older Pandora’s Box 4 clone, 1299 games, I probably ended up disabling about 150 games total because of the above issues with most of the rest playing well enough.

Something you are going to have to come to grips with is that most of these Pandora’s Boxes have problems with screen tearing. I’ve been told that connecting through VGA fixes the issue but I haven’t had the chance to try that yet myself. The screen tearing is a bit better on the Pandora’s Box 5 and presumably 6, but it’s still not perfect and you will notice it sometimes.

There are also *no* save games, no NVRAM writing, no high scores, no typical emulation type options you might expect such as dip switches 9 or test buttons. This is a problem with games that feature long-term progression 10 but for the vast, vast majority of the games, this shouldn’t be a problem. But this can be a positive just as much as a negative because it keeps your time on the Pandora’s Box a very simple and quick experience. 11

Look, if you’re an emulation purist, these boxes aren’t for you. They will likely drive you crazy with all the flaws and issues. You often might be better off getting a small NUC PC and setting everything up there, however…

…Ignorance is Bliss

If you can see past the above issues and just want something simple to set down on your living room coffee table to let your friends button mash their way through some matches of Street Fighter without thinking too much, these Pandora’s Box systems can be a great fit for you. Most games run well and I find myself feeling more nostalgic when playing on one of these than I ever did with playing with frontends on PCs. You don’t want to tinker and screw around, you just want something you can turn on quickly, play a few games and turn off just as quickly and that’s the perfect scenario here.

If you are seeking better performance and don’t mind putting in the effort, you can easily use these PB sticks on a Raspberry Pi, or even replace the Pandora’s Box entirely with Retropie running on a Pi3B+. 12

What’s Next?

Now that you have an idea of what the Pandora’s Box is, I’ve already started writing bits and pieces of the next blog post, mainly taking notes while taking a look at the Pandora’s Box 5 and its SD card, trying to figure out what needs to be done to give us more control over the box. 

I hope that this has been even mildly informative without being too dry. Let me know what you think so far. 

Special Thanks