The short answer is yes…. maybe. Or it could be no. It’s kind of complicated.
The long answer is, as you’d expect, long.
I’ve said it before, but I never really intended to “get into” retro gaming. That’s mostly because I’m that ancient that it’s all just been “gaming” to me, because I have been alive through everything from the Atari 2600 onwards, and I kept most of what I bought over the years.
That’s certainly one way to amass a retro gaming collection, but it was kind of by accident of time and interest, not as a deliberate choice. But what if you were thinking of getting into retro gaming in 2022?
Luckily, precisely because I’ve lived through it all and kept gaming through it all, I do have some expertise in this area. There’s quite a bit to consider.
What is retro, anyway?
I’ve heard more than a few definitions of what makes a game or system “retro” over the years.
Some people consider that anything more than 10 years old is “retro” in a gaming sense.
Some consider it a generational thing, so that once a new set of consoles comes along, the prior generations are automatically “retro”.
Some consider only games that came out when they were children to be “retro”.
Some figure it’s only really applicable to systems that used pixels rather than polygons.
I’m going to let you in on a secret here.
All of these definitions are wrong.
All of these definitions are also right.
There is absolutely no fine line when it comes to deciding what’s “retro” or not, because it’s ultimately a pretty silly definition when you’re talking about collecting something.
I know folks who are absolutely going hell for leather to collect up every physical Nintendo Switch game right now.
Is that a “retro” system? Hell no. Nobody’s going to argue that. But what’s the difference between them and someone trying to get hold of every physical SNES, Megadrive, Atari 2600 or Virtual Boy game?
Beyond the vomiting that the Virtual Boy games will induce, not much. You can’t even argue that there are a capped number of games for those older systems, because even now new titles are published for older systems, albeit a little “unofficially”. You won’t find a a Nintendo seal of quality on those items, but they do exist.
Retro gaming is just gaming. Period.
Why are you interested in retro gaming?
This is key, and it broadly tend to break down into three areas of interest
- You figure you can make a lot of money out of it
- You like collecting physical items and figure retro gaming is neat that way
- You like old games, whether for historical or nostalgic reasons
So let’s break down those approaches and what’s good or bad for you in each of those.
I want to collect retro games as an investment, because I’ll make MILLIONS!
Duck Tales is a classic NES game, even if Scrooge is a brutal capitalist.
Honestly, I hate this approach.
I really do, because retro gaming has hit an absolute hype bubble of late, thanks to stunts like million dollar Mario 64 carts that have led many to figure that retro gaming is the next big make-it-rich-quick scheme.
If that’s you… I’ve got some bad news for you.
I guess I should be careful here and say that strictly this isn’t financial advice, I’m not a financial wizard (I paid actual money for a copy of WCW Thunder back in the day, so I’m far from it), and so on.
Still, the hype bubble isn’t built around a strong core of collectors who are always going to spend more and more and more on your graded copy of Home Alone 2 for the SNES.
The picture that’s emerged is much more of a group of investors essentially trying a lot of pump and dump nonsense, hoping to not be the ones left holding the bag when the bubble bursts.
Are there select retro games that have appreciated in value over time? Sure, there are some — NEO GEO games in the right formats have slowly crept up in price, some very specific titles have collection appeal — your Radiant Silverguns and the like — but even there, the market of actual retro collectors has its limits, and they know what they are.
It’s actually worse in this context (which, again, I hate, because it makes my favourite part of the hobby harder to do) precisely because of those whole stupid million-dollar game news stories.
I’ve seen plenty of op shops/charity shops/second hand places suddenly decide that their copies of FIFA ’04 must be worth big bucks, because hey, it’s old AND it was popular, and that must be how it works, right?
Realistically, retro video games don’t strike me as a great “investment” opportunity. I do have some games that are counted as “rare” within my collection — titles like The Punisher for the Megadrive, or Elite for the NES — but they’re dwarfed by the many other titles that cost me about the same amount. If I cashed out what I’ve got, I’d still be way behind what I’ve spent.
Or in other words, if I was starting now with money as the chief objective… I wouldn’t start now.
I want to collect physical retro games (in perfect condition)
I like a nice game in good condition, but I always figure the “perfect” types are more akin to stamp collectors than game collectors.
While that ain’t for me, I must stress that there’s not too much wrong with this perspective if that’s what makes you happy.
We’re all spinning around space on this ball of rock for a limited time, and if you do love the idea of a permanently slabbed, perfectly shrinkwrapped copy of The Adventures of Bayou Billy on your display shelf, more power to you.
I’ll be honest, that whole slabbed and sealed approach does slightly upset me, because I like playing games, but if I were starting in 2022 with that kind of ideal… again, I’d be very, very careful.
There’s a LOT of fakes around, and the premium kind of pricing that attaches to the “mint in box” or “still shrinkwrapped” markets leads to so many fakes out there.
You might not be looking at it as an investment per se if the thrill of the chase is what makes your tingly parts fire up, but equally, in 2022 where it’s ever more difficult to meet people in person and properly assess the quality and legitimacy of an item, you’re taking on some big risks.
You’re also (sadly for your perspective) up against those exact same investment type folks, because pristine in box is exactly what they tend to gravitate towards as well. Which invites more scammers and fraudsters and problems, and the cycle continues.
I love retro gaming because I want to revisit my childhood, or appreciate gaming history
You’re my kind of gamer, because this is pretty much why I still collect in an era where I could easily (albeit not legally) emulate just about anything.
That approach does exist, sure, but it’s one that so easily tied up in choice paralysis and all too often a lack of appreciation for individual titles. It’s just so easy to jump to something else the split second you get frustrated with a game, never actually “playing” anything.
Even if you’ve never played a game, you’ve probably hit that problem with, say, Netflix. Too much content can make it way harder to commit, because human brains are weird squishy lumps of meat.
There’s something simple (and, yes, nostalgic) about actually putting a game into a system and firing it up. It’s a choice that compels you to play in a different way, I think, to that of clicking on an emulator ROM file.
It doesn’t hurt, sure, that it’s also one that can have strong nostalgic components.
I’ve kept most of my gaming stuff over the years, but these days I mostly collect for the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom, because after all these years it’s my favourite system (and one I’ve argued elsewhere is the best retro system of all time).
The big advantage if you’re after games to play rather than display or try to resell is that condition becomes less important.
Sure, it’s very nice to have a neat boxed copy of a game with its manual, no doubt. I have plenty of those, but I also have loose cartridges a-plenty, plus a whole wide internet out there full of retro game manual scans, walkthroughs and more. That does make it rather easier to take on a game even if it does have complex controls.
The Internet also changes the equation around accessibility. I’ve spent my time wandering second hand stores and op shops and the like, and that can still be fun (also good for board games if like me you’re keen on those) but it also opens up a lot of places to actually acquire games for older systems.
It also opens up the borders around games that were never released in your region. Roughly speaking, of my SNES collection, roughly half of them are actually SFC — that’s Super Famicom, the Japanese naming — games, because Japan can still be a rich source of surprisingly affordable games to add to a collection. Want a good cheap copy of Super Mario Kart? I’ve seen them sell with ease for less than $1 within Japan.
Sure, it’s tricky to get to Japan right now, but there’s a plethora of shipping agents and businesses that can handle that side for you, plus the bigger retro stores — your Super Potato and the like — that sell directly online.
The truly rare and obscure do still command top dollar, however, even in Japan. Indeed, many Japan-exclusive games are amongst the most expensive for their platform if you do go deep into certain collecting rabbit holes.
Still, you can get started for relatively modest prices, and the most popular and common games don’t have to break the bank.
However, if you are starting down this road in 2022, you’ve got other problems to solve. Modern TVs and most retro systems don’t tend to play well together. Even if you do have a TV with a composite connector, hooking it up to a modern TV can be a jarring experience, as the TV’s scaler tries to work out what the hell to do with an image that was originally intended for a CRT. The results can often shatter those rosy nostalgic memories fast.
Some newer TVs don’t even include much more than an HDMI connection, which makes it even more challenging. Gizmodo’s Asha Barbaschow recently wrote up a piece about getting a Wii to work with an HDMI-only TV, using a cheap HDMI adaptor, and that’s certainly an option with affordability at heart.
Not a great option (and she realised this, clearly) as those cheap HDMI adaptors pass through a woeful signal.
If you’re looking to collect to play and you’re not also looking to (or can’t accommodate) an older CRT TV or a more compatible panel, then budget for a decent upscaler as well. Your eyes will thank you.
Ultimately, I don’t want to dissuade anyone from my favourite hobby. I’ve been a journalist a long time, and one of my favourite pieces I’ve ever written was over at Kotaku, where I wrote this passionate piece about why I think every gamer should be keen on retro. I’m not going to rewrite it here… but I think it still holds true.