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Why your old video games may be worth millions
When Roberto Dillon began collecting retro video games more than 12 years ago, he scoured auction sites and connected with niche groups of hobbyists to amass a personal archive that is now hundreds of titles strong. But at the time, there was a consensus among collectors that buying old games was "a sort of fad," said the academic and game developer.
Most collectors were simply "nostalgic" for their childhood games, Dillon explained in a video interview. "There was no idea that games could become artifacts of the past that we want to conserve and preserve."
But this appears to be changing. In early August, an unopened copy of "Super Mario Bros," released in 1985, set a new world record when it sold for $2 million on the collectibles website Rally. Produced for the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), it was the third vintage title to smash the record for the world's most expensive game in under a month.
A few weeks earlier, a sealed copy of "Super Mario 64," from 1996, became the most expensive video game to sell at auction, fetching $1.5 million. In doing so, it broke a record set two days prior by an $870,000 copy of 1987's "The Legend of Zelda."
The market for vintage games is rapidly evolving, with auction houses taking notice and game-grading services, like Wata Games, providing certification for the emerging market. (Wata had given the record-breaking Mario game a near-perfect score of 9.8 out of 10, based on the condition of the box, cartridge and manual). An expert nod of approval can now transform a yard sale copy of "Pokémon" into an investment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Collecting is not just Dillon's hobby, it's also part of his job. He's the founder and curator of Singapore's James Cook University Museum of Video and Computer Games, which charts the sector's evolution through a 400-strong collection of game memorabilia.
Retro video games have become a kind of modern relic, Dillon said -- one intertwined with nostalgia, pop culture and technological history.
"They really show us how technology evolves with the kinds of tastes that we had years ago in gaming," he said.
But not everyone who held onto their old Nintendo or Sega titles will be sitting on a fortune. Many factors dictate the value of a video game, from the number of units produced and the region the game was released in, to whether the cartridge comes in its original box with all the manuals intact.
The "holy grails" are unopened, shrink-wrapped early editions of iconic titles. "If you open it, the value of the game halves," Dillon explained.
The emergence of professional grading and classification has transformed the space, making it easier for buyers to assess the condition of their purchases. And while game collecting was, in the past, a hobby confined to eBay, Reddit, Facebook groups and forums, interest from high-profile auctions houses is helping boost prices by opening the market to new collectors, from traditional art investors to comic book and trading card enthusiasts.
According to Illiana Bodnar-Horvath, head of marketing at luxury collectible auctioneer Macey and Sons, interest in retro video games reflects online investors' growing appetite for "non-traditional assets," such as sneakers, trading cards and non-fungible token (NFTs).
"Recently, we have seen a surge in more eclectic requests from our clients looking for unique and rare collectibles," she said over email, adding: "We believe people will always invest in traditional assets such as stocks and real estate, but alternative assets are exactly that."
Rather than games with limited production runs, it is classic titles from the most popular franchises that attract the highest bids. Dillon said this may be partly because new collectors are more willing to invest in well-known characters that appeal to their sense of nostalgia, such as Mario, Cloud Strife from "Final Fantasy VII" or "Zelda" protagonist Link.
At Heritage Auctions' July sale, which generated $8.4 million -- including the aforementioned "Super Mario 64" and "Legend of Zelda" sales -- Mario titles dominated the top lots, alongside early games from the "Final Fantasy" and "Tomb Raider" series.
But the laws of supply and demand still apply. However common these titles once were, finding near-mint condition copies in their original unopened plastic wrapping and box is another story. And other factors can boost the asking price: The $2 million "Super Mario Bros" NES cartridge, for instance, came in a special "hangtab" display box, while the $870,000 "Legend of Zelda" game was a rare early production copy.
The future of collecting
With today's games industry moving toward digital-only sales -- either via third-party platforms like Steam or directly through PlayStation Network and Nintendo Direct -- owning physical games may eventually become a thing of the past.
But game developers already have one eye on the next generation of nostalgic investors. Some have created digital collectors' editions containing exclusive artwork, soundtracks or add-ons. Others are sprucing up their physical offerings: Ubisoft recently released an $800 "Legendary Edition" of the game "Assassin's Creed: Origins," which included a 29-inch-tall resin statue of its main character, lithographs signed by studio artists and a hand-drawn world map, among other collectibles. Fewer than 1,000 copes were released worldwide.
As digital sales become the norm, Dillon envisions these limited-edition physical games becoming the next big collectibles. "Twenty years from now, today's kids will have disposable income and they (will) want to recreate a collection of games from when they were young ... they look for the collector's editions that were launched back in the day, but they didn't own."
But Dillon won't be selling his games anytime soon. "I still hope that I can pass my collection to someone, somewhere, and that someone will appreciate it," he said.