Monday, March 4, 2024

Top 5 Reasons Retro Video Games Have Gotten Expensive: An Historical Perspective

Top 5 Reasons Retro Video Games Have Gotten Expensive

The escalating prices of retro video games have sparked excitement, frustration, and widespread bewilderment over the years. This intriguing rise in the value of classic games is more than a fleeting trend; it's an historical journey worth exploring. Delving into this phenomenon reveals a wide array of factors that have propelled these plastic pieces of old technology to the status of prized collectibles, along the lines of coins, stamps, trading cards, and comic books. Let’s explore five key reasons behind this evolution—beyond the fact that many retro video games are still a ton of fun to play and offer unique experiences—shedding light on why video games have become treasured collectibles and not “just” entertainment.

1. The Rise of Fanzines

In the early 1990s, the gaming community saw the debut of fanzines like Atari 2600, Digital Press, and Slap-Dash, dedicated to the celebration and discussion of retro video games. Along with reviews, nostalgic stories, and the like, these publications sometimes included cartridge listings and rarity/price guides, serving as an early form of market analysis for collectors and enthusiasts. By cataloging and assigning value to games, these fanzines—and books, namely the Digital Press Collector’s Guides—laid the groundwork for the collectible market, instilling a sense of rarity and worth among previously overlooked titles. This early documentation and valuation of games have played a significant role in shaping the perceived value of vintage games today. While many gamers of this era viewed outdated video games as junk (old consoles and cartridges in fine working condition were routinely thrown in the trash), a collector’s market was emerging.

2. The Advent of Retro Gaming Conventions

The late 1990s marked the birth of retro gaming conventions, with events like the Northwest Classic Gamers Enthusiasts meetups, which evolved into the Portland RetroGaming Expo, and the Classic Gaming Expo, originally called World of Atari, setting the stage. These gatherings brought together hobbyists, collectors, vendors, and developers, creating a vibrant marketplace for buying and selling retro video games. The communal experience of sharing passion and knowledge about older titles and consoles contributed significantly to the increased interest in retro gaming. As demand grew, so did the prices, fueled by the competitive spirit, the desire to own a piece of one’s childhood, and the endless endorphin rush of filling holes in the collection. Today, some of the bigger retro gaming cons, such as Classic Game Fest in Austin, Game On Expo in Phoenix, and Too Many Games in Philadelphia, each host more than 10,000 attendees. PRGE is still going strong, and you can’t have this conversation without mentioning the Midwest Gaming Classic in Milwaukee.

3. The Impact of eBay and Online Sales

The advent of eBay, initially launched as AuctionWeb in 1995, revolutionized the way retrogames were bought and sold. This platform allowed sellers and buyers from across the globe to connect, significantly expanding the market. The convenience of online shopping, coupled with the ability to find almost any title, no matter how obscure, led to an increase in demand. This demand, paired with the auction format encouraging competitive bidding, drove prices upward. As more platforms emerged and the online marketplace matured, the accessibility to rare and sought-after titles became easier, further inflating the cost of vintage games. There were even auction sites, such as Game Gavel, dedicated strictly to video games. Similarly, online message boards such as AtariAge and Digital Press (an outgrowth of the fanzine) helped collectors connect for buying and trading. Today, many people buy, sell, and trade video games through such outlets as Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. The proliferation of retro gaming stores, both online and brick-and-mortar, has also played a significant role in expanding the market.

4. The Influence of The Angry Video Game Nerd and the Wii Shop Channel

In 2006, the world first witnessed the phenomenon of The Angry Video Game Nerd (originally The Angry Nintendo Nerd) and the launch of the Wii Shop Channel. AVGN, through his comedic rants about the frustrations of retro games, inadvertently sparked renewed interest in the titles he critiqued. Similarly, the Wii Shop Channel, by offering classic games for download, rekindled nostalgia for the original cartridges and consoles. This dual push of modern media celebrating retro content led gamers and budding collectors to seek out physical copies, driving up demand and, consequently, prices. Over the years, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, TikTok, and other such platforms have kept old video games in the spotlight. Hidden gems videos in particular seem to accelerate the desirability and value of harder-to-find titles. Certain famous influencers, such as Metal Jesus Rocks, have even been highly criticized for their roles in popularizing old games and, therefore, increasing the demand for them. Since MJR’s job is to discuss video games, and since that’s what his fans want, this criticism is pointless and even absurd.

5. Collecting Sealed and Graded Games

A more recent phenomenon impacting the cost of retro video games is the collecting of sealed and graded games. The practice of grading games, evaluating their condition, cataloging the variants when applicable, and sealing them in protective cases, has turned game collecting into a serious investment hobby. Collectors vie for the highest-graded copies of key titles, seeing them as valuable assets. Wealthy investors who may not even be gamers themselves nevertheless diversify their portfolios by purchasing retro games. Collectors from other categories, such as baseball cards and comic books, have taken an interest in retro game collecting. This shift towards viewing video games as collectible commodities rather than mere entertainment has significantly driven up prices, especially for titles that are complete-in-box (CIB) or factory-sealed. Early and rare variants (such as a hangtab Super Mario Bros.), factors that were barely noticed previously, are highly sought-after in today’s collector’s market. More desirable games can sell for six figures and, in rare cases, seven figures.

In Conclusion

The rising prices of retro video games can be attributed to a complex interplay of cultural, economic, and technological factors. From the early days of fanzines and conventions to the modern era of online sales, media influence, and professional grading, each has played a part in transforming the landscape of game collecting. As nostalgia remains a powerful force, the community around retro gaming continues to grow. There are even new consoles coming out, such as the Atari 2600+, that can play original software. With this in mind, it’s likely that the demand for these digital relics will only continue to increase, at least for the foreseeable future.

While recent trends have seen some marquee titles dip from their peak highs, a significant number of games continue to climb in value. For example, a CGC 9.2 A+ Early Production copy of Pitfall! for the Atari 2600 recently sold for $8,400 through Heritage Auctions (, breaking a record for that title. On Feb. 23, a VGA 90+ copy of Super Mario Bros. for the Famicom went for $26,400 via Heritage, far surpassing the previous record for that version of the game.

As the gaming consoles of today gradually transition into the classics of tomorrow, their game libraries will inevitably gain the "retro" label, sparking a new wave of nostalgia-fueled demand. Collectors on the fence about acquiring these soon-to-be classics might find themselves regretting not securing these games when prices were more accessible. However, the timeless advice for enthusiasts remains unchanged: focus on acquiring games that resonate with you personally, whether for the joy of playing or the passion for collecting. This approach ensures that, regardless of market fluctuations, the true value of your collection is measured in the enjoyment and satisfaction it brings to you.

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