Photo by Nick Carnera
Photo by Nick Carnera
The world fell in love with Pokémon when it was still in black and white. The year was 1998, a few months before the eventual release of the Game Boy Color, and children everywhere traipsed through Vermillion City, Lavender Town, and Indigo Plateau on the bus back and forth from school. Our goal was to catch 'em all; to become the best, that no one ever was. We dutifully catalogued our Pokedexes, we dueled our rival trainers to the death, we hit the level cap over and over again. Few fads in pop culture burned as bright as the first Pokefever in the mid-'90s, but unlike the Beanie Babies, or the Pogs, or the many forgotten trading card sets that litter the cultural bedrock, those old Game Boy games are peaking in value at this very moment.
Last November, a sealed, vintage copy of Pokémon Red sold for $84,000 at auction. Check the listings, and you'll find similar listings for Pokémon Blue and Yellow, which represented the initial trio that innervated the global youth. Yes, we are currently living through a boom in games collecting — ancestral copies of old Mario cartridges are destroying financial records — but Pokémon carries a special place in the zeitgeist that exceeds even the most fervent of nostalgias. After all, Pokémon cards are also back in vogue, with Logan Paul arriving at his showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. with a PSA 10 graded Charizard wrapped around his neck. The mania has circled around from the paperboard, and has latched onto the core Pokémon fiction — the Game Boy classics themselves. Anything associated with the Pikachu genealogy can rake in the dough.
This isn't a huge surprise if you lived through it. Yes, Mario, Link, and Sonic are arguably more iconic than Nintendo's Pokémon division. After all, Pokémon arrived on the market more than a decade after the company made landfall in the United States during its unprecedented mid-80s golden age. But there was something about Pokémon that kids really took ownership over — the game was more intimate than anything available on the Nintendo 64. It was a chance to cultivate our own private menagerie of magical beasties, to name them and train them to our own proclivities. All of this lived inside of your Game Boy, which was likely the first video game handheld the children of the '90s had true dominion over. Older brothers weren't showing up to kick you off your copy of Pokémon Red, and parents couldn't adjudicate screen-time when you were hiding under the covers for a few more hours of action. There was real liberty to Pokémon that a lot of millennials still recall, years later, now that all of those juvenile barriers have long atrophied away.
So how much does that cultural resonance transfer into Pokémon's raw net worth? It's hard to say. As we said earlier, collectibles are white hot right now. The sports card market is cranking, as are the numbers for vintage comic books and vanguard crypto coins. A rising tide raises all ships, and clearly Pikachu has benefited from the gold rush. That said, there are precious few intellectual properties that rest on the same nexus point as Pokémon. The franchise is in the midst of its fourth decade of existence, and the genuine appreciation people have for its stature only seems to grow with time. Millennials might not have the same ardor for 19th century baseball cards or cereal-box decoder rings as the archivists of old, but they sure do love Charmander, Bulbasaur, and Squirtle. If collecting is all about returning to your own inner happy place, then Pokémon fits the bill perfectly.
At this point, you might be wondering if you have some highly valuable cartridges lying around in the garage. The permutations in video game values seem to balloon every day, but here's a quick guide for any mavericks out there. By and large, most of the money here is tied up in the first three games in the series — Pokémon Red and Blue, which were released simultaneously in 1998, and Pokémon Yellow, which arrived the following year. While the main difference between the Pokémon Red and Blue games were the exclusive Pokémon you could catch, the Yellow version had different story elements and features from both (famously, getting Pikachu as your starter and seeing it follow you around in the game—just like in the television show). The Red, Blue, and Yellow games capture the series in its original, most canonical form. (There are only 150 Pokémon in the region, and Professor Oak is your guide and mentor.) Later games in the series, like say 1999's Pokémon Gold and Silver, don't quite have the same juice. For instance, a recent high-grade Pokémon Gold went for $3,600. Not bad by any means, but a far cry from the number we cited above.
How do you know if your copy is worth anything? First things first, we need to work through the basics. Your cartridge needs to be factory sealed and appraised highly by any of the organizations that issue numerical thresholds to consumer artifacts. That Pokémon Red we talked about earlier sat at a 9.8, which is basically mint condition. On top of that, it is generally understood that those early Pokémon games had three distinct print runs with minor differences on the box art that distinguishes them. It goes without saying that the older the cartridge appears to be, the more money it can command on the market.
The clarion call for early-run Red and Blue boxes is the screenshot on the back. Flip that cardboard around and take a look at that grainy gameplay image on the right hand side. Does it depict the Pokémons Sandshrew and Meowth locked in combat? Then you likely have an early-run box. Is it instead Pidgey vs. Ratata? Then, it is speculated that it comes from either a mid or late-era print run.
Want to dig deeper? Take a look at the ESRB content rating on the front. Over the course of the late-'90s, the ESRB subtly changed their typeface from white, pixelated letters to the black color-scheme we know today. Ergo, late-era boxes have the modern ESRB logo, while mid and early boxes use the earlier, outmoded variant. (And yes, no matter when your Pokémon box was produced, the game was always rated E for Everyone.)
That brings us to Pokémon Yellow, which is much harder to date than the other games of its time. However, thanks to the intrepid work of Kinggr on the Elite Fourum message boards, we can conclude that the earliest Yellow boxes were printed without an ESRB rating entirely. Kinggr came to this conclusion by comparing and contrasting various different versions of Yellow packaging with the Red and Blue peers. If you want a complete breakdown of his work, I recommend reading the distillation here, but the upshot is that if you own a pristine copy of Pokémon Yellow that's lacking its ESRB stamp, you ought to give your local auction house a call.
It will be interesting to see where the run on Pokémon goes from here. Will it always be limited to the series' prehistoric era? Or are we about to see the same infatuation come for the Game Boy Advance titles from the early 2000s. Or, better yet, Pokémon Diamond and Pearl for the DS, which remains my favorite Pokémon games of all time. If there's anything we've learned so far during this boom, it's to never underestimate what this series can do.
Otis has a Wata 9.6, A++ Pokémon Red, Rattata screenshot variant with pixelated ESRB (early production), available on the platform.
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