Deep-Pocketed Collectors Are Fuelling A Retro Game Gold Rush

Danielle Smith has spent half a million dollars on rare video games, most of it in the last nine months. And she’s just getting started.

“I really just want the best of the best,” said Smith, 35.

That half a million bucks has only bought her around 200 games. Last week, she spent $US2,650 ($3,893) on a sealed copy of Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo. Smith, a comic dealer from Florida, is just one of many deep-pocketed collectors who have only recently started splashing out in earnest on games.

“Comic book people and art people are coming in, and we want rare games that are hard to find,” she said.

Even longtime video game collectors like myself have been stunned at the news as of late. Games that just a few years ago might have only sold for a few thousand dollars are quickly exploding into five- and six-figure valuations. First, there was the sealed copy of Super Mario Bros. that sold on eBay for $US30,000 ($44,074). This year, an earlier print of the game sold for $US100,150 ($147,132).

And it’s not just the first Super Mario that’s powered up in price. By now you’ve probably heard the story of the sealed copy of the NES classic Kid Icarus that sold for over $US9,000 ($13,222). Sales of sealed games are shattering records left and right ” and if you want to know why, just follow the money.

Numerous sources speaking to Kotaku for this story have all said the same thing: The past two years have seen an influx of new money coming in to the classic game collecting scene, primarily high-end collecting experts from other areas of interest like comic books, Magic cards, and coins. They see video games as the next big thing. Like a mint-condition Action Comics issue 1 might be the ultimate trophy of nostalgia for the superhero age of the mid-20th century, so too might a sealed Mario be the perfect bottling of the pop-culture moment of the 1980s.

And these new collectors are ready to spend to get their hands on the best, rarest, mintiest copies, because they’ve seen what happened in their own collecting fields when prices started to rise.

“I truly believe that we are on the brink of something really epic and incredible happening,” said Smith, who says she’s recently been selling off rare comics to fund more video game buys.

Thus far, the world of classic video game collecting has been mostly driven by avid gamers seeking complete sets of games for a certain platform. That’s what caused , an unremarkable and largely forgotten exercise game from the 1980s, to become for a time the most desired, rarest Nintendo Entertainment System game. You couldn’t complete your set without it, so up went the price, even though by itself it held almost no nostalgic appeal.

“You show Stadium Events to someone on the street, they’re not going to know what the hell you’re talking about. But you show anyone Mario and immediately they can sing you the jingle from the first level,” says Deniz Khan, the president of Wata Games, a company that authenticates and assesses collectible video games.

That’s what Danielle Smith, and others like her, want. They want something that matches their comic collections: a small batch of games representing key moments in gaming, in the best condition possible. A “sticker-sealed” early copy of Super Mario, a sealed Metroid, a first-print Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Although she’s been collecting comics for 15 years, Smith’s personal collection only numbers around 90 books that, even encased in their protective plastic slabs, fit into three small boxes. But those boxes contain an Action Comics issue 1, the first appearance of Superman, that Smith estimates to be worth about $US750,000 ($1,101,841). She’s also got a Detective Comics 27, the first appearance of Batman.

These books are extremely rare and valuable in any condition. But Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and Punch-Out are some of the most common NES games out there. In this case, the condition drives the value. A loose copy of Metroid with no box is a five-dollar game. But a mint, sealed, first-print copy is so difficult to find that its price would be more like five figures.

“Someone said, you know, there’s a lot of copies of that game, so you don’t want to buy more than one copy,” Smith said a collector told her at one point about Punch-Out. “And they’re like, there’s 50 sealed copies. And my mind was kind of like, what the hell? Like, that’s Action 1 rarity.”

Joshua Entin, 43, a lawyer from Fort Lauderdale, is another longtime Golden Age comic collector who’s jumped into the deep end of the pool with video game collecting over the last two years. He got the collecting bug from his dad, who would take Josh along as he scoured stores for old issues of EC Comics back in the pre-eBay days. Today, the younger Entin’s comic collection includes many books valued in the five-figure range, and in the last two years he’s spent about $US75,000 ($110,184) buying up about 200 NES games: a sealed Zelda, a sealed Mario, etc.

Entin first saw the appeal of collecting games when he saw a game that had been authenticated and graded by Deniz Khan’s company Wata Games, which is to the video game world what the Certified Guaranty Company, better known by its acronym CGC, is for comics. Its panel of experts assesses collectible games, assigns them a numerical condition rating, and seals them in an attractive plastic display case.

“I did see one of their games in a prototype case and I was blown away by it,” Entin said. “It was sealed, it was nostalgic, I thought it presented incredibly well.” That’s when Entin knew he wanted some of these games on his shelf. “A switch went off, and I said to myself, I have to get into this, this is awesome.”

The high-profile emergence of Wata Games onto the scene last year seems to have been the inflection point that caused many comic collectors to get interested in games. A similar service called Video Game Authority has been operating for over a decade, but Wata seems to be attracting new collectors in a way that VGA has not.

Wata also shrewdly aligned itself with Heritage Auctions, the massive auction house that specialises in pop culture memorabilia. Heritage began putting Wata-certified games into its listings and thus created more awareness of the trend.

“They’ve made it easier for comic people because they use a similar grading scale,” said Smith. “It makes the crossover easier. Because a 9.4 is a 9.4, a 9.2 is a 9.2, and it’s easier for us to correlate that.”

This was all by design, said Khan. “The closest parallel between video games and any other collectible industry that’s matured is, without a doubt, comics,” he said.

“Comics transcend just the books into the Marvel Universe, and the same thing with video games today,” he said. “In all three major Universal parks, we’re going to have a Nintendo-themed park. We’re now starting to see, between the Pikachu and the Sonic movie, that they’re making their foray into movies. It’s just something that’s recognisable, whether it’s the characters or the medium itself.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised that the next big thing [is] something like a Metroid movie or a Zelda movie,” said Entin, in the way that the Superman or Batman films raised the cultural awareness of the original comics. “Once that happens I think it’s going to take a lot of these to another level.”

Khan sees the 8-bit NES era of the mid-1980s as the parallel to the “Golden Age” of comics, the days of Superman and Batman, characters that have survived for nearly a century. There were comic books before Superman, and those early “Platinum Age” books are much rarer than even Action Comics issue 1 ” but practically nobody’s interested in them.

So too does video games have its “Platinum Age” ” the era of Atari. “Extremely rare, but not necessarily very desirable,” Khan said. “Some of the rarest games don’t even command close to the same premium as NES.”

“I can certainly tell you I’m not alone in this newfound endeavour,” said Entin. “I’m certainly nowhere near as invested financially as many comic book colleagues of mine, and hobbyists that have come into this in the last year. There are some that I know have spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of games” in the last year, he said. He gets offers from other collectors looking to buy his games from him “every day.”

Since they got into collecting, Entin and Smith have both discovered a passion for all the little details, the variations of the games that let you tell if a particular copy of Super Mario Bros. is a highly-valued first edition, or a comparatively less desirable later version. On Mario, you’re looking for the top flap of the cardboard box to be sealed with a small round sticker with the Nintendo logo on it, and that sticker should have a matte finish, not glossy.

For Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, you need to look at the bullet-pointed list of features on the front cover. If the bullets are coloured white, that’s a first print.

Most longtime game collectors aren’t so obsessive about these details. In general, once a collector got a Kid Icarus, any Kid Icarus, the gap in their set was complete and they’d move on to the next, more obscure, game. When the first stories about the Kid Icarus began to hit the news, before the auction went live, many posts in game collecting forums outright scoffed at the idea that the game could reach a price of $US10,000 ($14,691).

There were always a few veteran collectors who had long obsessed over print runs and variations, but they mostly shared their knowledge with each other, buried in pages on pages of scattershot forum posts on enthusiast message boards.

“There wasn’t a lot of education available for video games,” Danielle Smith said. She attended a recent classic gaming convention, Too Many Games, in Philadelphia earlier this year, and it was like she was speaking a different language. “I was surprised at how little knowledge some dealers, that have been doing this for ” and I don’t want to say this in a negative way, so please don’t think I am ” but they had no idea that, like, a “˜Left Bro’ Super Mario 3 was a first print.” (The first run of boxes for Super Mario Bros. 3 put the “Bros.” in the logo to Mario’s left side, which was changed by the second printing.)

“I was a little mind-blown by that because I’m like, this is your job,” she said. “I think that’s also why they’ve been so undervalued for so long.”

Smith, under the name Nerdy Girl Comics, is one of those few remaining comic vendors that still sets up shop at San Diego Comic-Con. As you might imagine, she doesn’t exactly vend boxes full of half-priced graphic novels. She’s got a glass case full of extremely rare books, all CGC-graded and encased in plastic. This year, she topped off the case with some Wata-graded games.

“I put prices on them, but they weren’t really for sale,” she said of the games. “It was more to draw attention and just have conversations. At first it was astounding to me, how many people came to my booth and were more excited about video games than comic books.” Even at the “not really for sale” very high prices that Smith put on her games, she actually sold one.

“A longtime comic book buyer of mine ended up buying a Punch-Out from me,” she said. “He remembered playing that game when he was younger, and he was a boxer.”

“That’s what’s going to happen more and more,” she said. “They come into their mid-30s and maybe early 40s, and they have established careers, and this becomes a grail for them.”

Khan agrees. “For every speculator that comes in from comics, I think there’s at least two guys from comics that are coming in simply because they play these games too. They love it. They’re collectors at heart. And they see something new and exciting that they want to get involved with.”

That doesn’t mean the field is free of blatant speculation. “One thing that a lot of the people that are coming in from comics are doing, that I don’t do,” said Joshua Entin, is “buying every copy of, like, every”¦sealed Super Mario Bros. 11th or 12th print, whatever it is, that they can get their hands on.” Khan, too, said he’s seen people buying up multiple copies of games with popular characters.

As the prices rise on first-print games, even some veteran collectors might find that, unbeknownst to them, they have a $US10,000 ($14,691) game sitting on their shelf stuck in among their finds from the dollar bin. Some of them might decide it’s time to cash out. If this is all a temporary bubble, they’re right to get paid while the getting is good. But what if it’s not?

“The exact same thing happened in every mature collectible industry,” Khan said. “Coins, comics, baseball cards. People for decades were like, the prices are crazy, I’m selling out, I can’t handle this anymore. And fast-forward 20 years and they’re like, what the hell was I thinking?”

“That’s why I think a lot of these guys coming over from comics and coins are seeing this and willing to buy when these guys are selling, even if it’s “˜over market,’” he said. “I think ultimately the market’s going in an upward trajectory, but you’re going to have your dips here and there because there is a lot of speculation.”

It’s anyone’s guess whether this moment in classic video game collecting will be looked back on as a flash-in-the-pan speculation bubble or the moment when everything changed for good. But it’s no small thing that many seasoned collectors are betting serious money on the upward trend continuing.

“I compare this to the honeymoon phase in a new relationship,” said Smith. “Everything is still brand new and exciting.”

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