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Vintage Nintendo Games: A Quick Guide to the Main Variants

Graphic by Otis

Vintage Nintendo Games: A Quick Guide to the Main Variants
Claire Zhang

If the recent record breaking NES video game sales (see: The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., and Super Mario Bros. 3) have gotten you curious about the world of NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) retro game collecting, you might find yourself confused by the many variants out there and how they relate to the potential value of these original Nintendo games.


Here’s the scoop: in general, the earlier the production year, the more valuable the game likely is to collectors. NES game boxes contain various features that help collectors determine when the game was produced. These features are responsible for the multitude of variants out there.


We recommend starting simple by examining the three main variant features: hangtabs, seals of quality (SOQ), and “Rev-A.”


Many similar types of variants also exist for non-NES games, but we’ll focus on NES games in this article.



Basics: The Wata Grading Scale


Before we start with variants, it’s probably a good idea to understand the most basic video game grading scale. Wata gives two grades for a collectible game: 


(1) a numerical grade that indicates the condition of the game on scale from 0-10, and
(2) a letter grade that indicates the condition of the game’s seal from C to A++


The seal that is graded is different from the “Seal of Quality” or SOQ, which will be discussed in the next section. The seal that is graded is the production method used to seal a game box shut. Early Nintendo games were sealed with sticker seals and later Nintendo games were shrink wrap sealed. There are variants between these seals, but we won’t be getting into those in this article. 


What Do the Main Variant Features Look Like and What Do They Mean?


Hangtabs

Source: Wata


All of the first NES games were produced with cardboard hangtabs perforated into the back top portion of the box. This feature was designed for retailers, who used them to hang the game on a hook for display. The last hangtabs were released in September of 1987.


Seal of Quality (SOQ)

The Nintendo Seal of Quality was placed on every licensed Nintendo game to show that the game was approved by Nintendo and published by a recognized licensee.


There are only two types of Nintendo SOQs for the NES: Round and Oval. The distinction between the two hints at the game’s production year, since Nintendo switched from Round SOQ’s to Oval ones in March 1989.


Note that the SOQ is different from the production method used to seal the game itself, such as a sticker seal versus a shrink wrap seal, which is graded on the letter scale discussed previously.


Rev-A

“Rev-A” signified a change in the design of NES game cartridges from the original 5 screw to the new 3 screw design. If present, it can be found next to the Seal of Quality. 


Nintendo added this code to their boxes in January 1988—before the Oval SOQ was implemented. Thus, any Oval SOQ game must have the Rev-A code. 


However, there is variation on games with Round SOQ’s, as seen below. The round SOQ’s with NO Rev-A are earlier productions than the round SOQ’s with Rev-A.


Source: Wata

What Do These Features Mean for the Production Year and the Potential Value of My Game?

Here’s our quick guide: 


It’s important to remember that not all NES games came out in the earliest run. Therefore, after using this quick guide, you will also need to look up the release date of your game. 


A game that was released in February 1988 for example, will definitely not have a hangtab, nor Rev-A, so there’s no use hunting for a variant of such a game. It just doesn’t exist. 


However, there could be Round or Oval SOQ variants of the game, and the Round one would indicate an earlier production year. 


On the other hand, if you’ve got a game that was released around September 1987, you’ll definitely want to look for a hangtab to see if you have the earliest version—that game may be worth something! 


Applied to the Otis NES Game Collection

None of the Otis games currently have hangtabs, thus we do not point them out here. See if you can spot the SOQ and Rev-A indicators in the asset images for these old games!

Super Mario Bros: Rev-A, round SOQ

The exact original North American release date of Super Mario Bros. is unknown and a subject of debate. However, it is generally agreed that the game was released in late 1985 as one of the original 17 earliest “Black Box” games. The Otis copy has the Rev-A marker, thus it is not among the earliest production runs. However, the round SOQ dates it to mid-production, meaning this copy came out before the latest production runs with oval SOQ’s.


Golf: Rev-A, round SOQ

Golf was released as one of the Black Boxes in 1985. The Otis copy shows Rev-A, indicating that it is not among the earliest production runs. However, the round SOQ dates it to mid-production, meaning this copy came out before the latest production runs with oval SOQ’s.


Contra: Rev-A, round SOQ

Contra was released for the NES in February of 1988, thus, all copies of Contra would show Rev-A. The round SOQ (instead of oval) on the Otis copy indicates it is part of the early production run.


Zelda II: The Adventures of Link: Rev-A, round SOQ

Zelda II (the second installment of the much beloved The Legend of Zelda series) was released in late 1988. Thus, again, all copies of Zelda II would show the Rev-A marker. The Otis copy has a round SOQ (instead of oval), indicating an early production run of the game.


Tetris Collection: Rev-A, oval SOQ 

Tetris I was released in August 1989 and Tetris II was released in October 1993, both at the point when all NES games featured oval SOQ’s and the Rev-A marker. As a later game addition to the NES lineage, there are no “early” variants of this. 


Super Mario Bros. 3: Rev-A, oval SOQ

Super Mario Bros 3 was released on February 12, 1990. Again, at this point, all NES games featured oval SOQ’s and the Rev-A marker. Thus, there are no “early” variants of this. 



These three features (hangtab, Rev-A, and SOQ’s) capture the main variants of NES games. There are many, many more permutations—from seal types (matte, vs glossy, vs shrink wrapped) to codes and trademarks and individual box design quirks. 


If you’d like to keep getting into weeds, we highly recommend Wata’s Definitive NES Black Box Variant Guide. Heritage Auctions also provides a comprehensive glossary




Otis recently dropped our earliest production NES game with NO Rev-A and round SOQ: Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, Wata 9.4, A+ Sealed.

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