ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM WAITO
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM WAITO
People have been collecting video games for as long as video games have been made. But recently, the size of the market has exploded. Last year, The New York Times claimed that games were quickly becoming the next big thing, right alongside traditional collectibles like cards, comic books, and antique coins. When I spoke to Josh Hamblin, owner of the emporium SideQuest Games, he told me that some of the price estimates for the most coveted items in the catalogue seem to double or triple in cost every year. The field is expanding overnight, and everyone is racing to get in while they still can.
The most coveted games in video game collecting remain those from the Nintendo Entertainment System — the console that made Link, Mario, Mega Man, and Samus Aran household names in the ‘80s. Much like comics, video games are often at their most coveted when they represent an origin story. That said, the true grails of video game collecting go beyond simply being iconic; they also usually have some flukey aspect of their history that makes them incredibly scarce. We asked Hamblin to walk us through some of these all-time video game grails, and here were his top three:
The Heavy Hitters:
Super Mario Bros. is the most iconic Nintendo game of all time. It's also about as mass-produced as a video game has ever been — literally launching as part of a bundle when the NES first made landfall in the United States back in 1985. So how is it possible that this particular copy of Mario Bros sold for a whopping $140,000 last year?
"Before Nintendo launched their brand in America, the video game industry had gone into the toilet. Sales were so bad in the stores that retailers didn't want to take on more video games. So Nintendo offered their consoles up on consignment, as part of a test market run in New York, New Jersey, and Los Angeles," explains Hamblin. "During that run, they didn't use any cellophane to seal their games. They put on this sticker seal. Once they had a bunch of success, they started producing way more consoles and games, and shrink wrapped them."
So basically, the Super Mario Bros. game that moved over a hundred grand needed to be purchased during a super exclusive test run in a limited set of American markets, and then it needed to go unopened for the next four decades. Take a close enough look at the box, and you'll see it: a little black sticker on the lip of the cardboard that reads "Nintendo." It's in mint condition, never torn open. That is the difference between just another Mario cartridge, and one of the rarest video games of all time. In fact, the cartridge above is so scarce that Ars Technica speculated that only dozens might exist out in the wild.
Hamblin tells me that this is a brand new market. That test-market copy of Super Mario Bros. is the only one in the collecting ecosystem, and again, it was first sold in 2020. There were 27 different games as part of that test run, and if more are found, the doors could be blown wide open. Decades after the NES was relevant, archivists are just now discovering the massive valuation that could be possible in the ongoing excavation.
It's hard to think up a NES cartridge more unique than the Nintendo World Championship. In 1990, coinciding with the 100 year anniversary of Nintendo, the company launched a series of esports-like tournaments throughout the United States. Kids, most of them in their middle school years, competed in timed trials across a suite of different NES classics. (The winners earned a Suzuki convertible, a savings bond, and a Mario statue.) To pull this off, Nintendo needed to produce specially designed cartridges that held several of their classic games with a time-trial function built in, so they could adequately determine which of their competitors finished, say, Rad Racer the fastest. Those custom World Championship cartridges were never released in a commercial capacity; but as the decades piled on, a small handful of them managed to enter the collector's ecosystem.
Today, many people refer to the Nintendo World Championship cartridge as one of the Holy Grails of Nintendo collecting. Ninety of them, made with a standard NES grey casing, were handed out to the tournament's finalists. An additional 20 were slathered with a sparkly golden exterior, and served as rewards for a Nintendo Power magazine contest. (Given the disparity, those gold cartridges command a higher price at auction. One managed to go for $100,000 in 2014.) Unlike some of the other games on this list, few buyers would have a great accumulation of nostalgia for the World Championship — this isn't a cartridge most grew up playing — but its incredible rarity makes it a dedicated collector’s dream game.
"They seem to double in value every year," says Hamblin. "Its significance is more historical than anything. There was a movie loosely based around the World Championship, and NES collectors have been chasing after them forever."
The first thing Hamblin tells me is that Stadium Events isn't a very good video game. "It's terrible. You can play Track & Field [another NES game] and have the same experience for a few bucks," he says. But regardless of quality, Stadium Events is consistently one of the priciest NES games on the open market. In fact, Hamblin recently sold a cartridge that was loose — as in, out of the cardboard box — for $20,000.
The reasons for the value comes down to a classic reprint fiasco. Initially, the game was shipped out to retailers under the Stadium Events name. But shortly afterwards, there was a lawsuit about the verbiage in the title, and Nintendo recalled the product in order to rename it as World Class Track Meet. Stores weren't supposed to sell any of those now-defunct Stadium Events cartridges to the public, but inevitably a few of them made it through the firewall, making it one of the rarest NES games in the world.
"Not all of them were returned and destroyed. It was a complete game that showed up and was immediately pulled," says Hamblin. "There's no significance to it other than the rarity. It's not like a Mario or a Zelda game that has a famous character in it."
That's one of the funny truths about collecting. Like Honus Wagner or Johnny Moore, sometimes you don't need to be a particularly well-known figure for the value of your likeness to shoot through the roof.
Bonus: The Hidden Gems
In addition to the three all-time grails above, Hamblin also mentioned some lesser known titles that are still coveted by collectors for their unique back stories.
Little Samson, a platformer developed by Takeru, was released in the United States in the winter of 1992, two years after the Super Nintendo had taken hold in the market. With such a late debut, Little Samson flopped upon release, and ended up resting as the last game Takeru ever developed. Those soft sales depressed the number of copies in circulation, and decades later, collectors are rediscovering just how clever Little Samson's core gameplay was.
"It's a rare game, and also a fun game to play. And traditionally, it was always more valuable than a Mario or a Zelda," says Hamblin.
Of course, as we covered earlier, the boom in video game collecting has been driven by an obsession over the beloved mascots most associated with a company like Nintendo. So, while Little Samson still enjoys its place as a valuable hidden gem, its share of the industry doesn't rival the Mushroom Kingdom like it used to.
"For example, if there was a sealed Little Samson, it might only be worth $30,000 to $40,000, where a sealed Super Mario Bros. 3 might go for $50,000 to $100,000, even though Little Samson is the rarer game," says Hamblin.
We'll conclude with one of the most mysterious games in Nintendo collecting. The Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, much like Little Samson, was released very late into the NES cycle. In 1994 to be exact, long after most American families had set aside that old, late ‘80s relic, and went pretty much unacknowledged out of the gate. According to legend, Surprise At Dinosaur Peak was a "rental exclusive" at Blockbuster — meaning, it wasn't available for purchase, and could only be checked out for a week at a time in the old video store tradition. That said, as more people have poured over the records, it's become clear that the origin story is a total myth. There is, quite frankly, no real evidence that The Flintstones ever brokered a deal with Blockbuster; which is further proof of how cloudy so much of video game history tends to be.
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