Retro Gaming: It's getting worse

Not in a “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be” sense, but in the way that retro games pricing and desirability is measured, especially amongst “collectors”.
I have a large collection of retro games.
Actually, that’s not true. I own a large number of games for systems that are now defined as “retro” — I guess I can’t realistically argue against the proposition that the Atari 2600 might just be a tiny bit dated — but I don’t like to think of them as a “collection”, because that implies I have them for the sake of their ownership.
I don’t. I have them because I like to play them. Some days it’s Desert Strike, some days it’s Mega Man, and some days it’s WWF No Mercy.

Actually, most days it’s WWF No Mercy

This is something I’ve written about before.
See also: The Dark Side Of Retro Gaming
Last week, I had a rare week off, which I spent with my lovely wife in Tokyo. We went through animation museums, watched Kabuki theatre, drank some very nice sake, bought some classic animation cels… and went retro games shopping.
The Imperial Palace tour is highly recommended, although not particularly game-centric
The Imperial Palace tour is highly recommended, although not particularly game-centric

That’s the kind of thing that I do on holidays, because the thought of just lying on a beach somewhere getting skin cancer really doesn’t do it for me. You may differ, and that’s totally fine too.
In any case, there are worse places in the world to try your hand at a bit of retro games shopping than Tokyo, because as a general rule, the Japanese gamer tends to take pretty good care of his or her stuff. Cases are kept in decent condition, as are cartridges, as long as you don’t get stuff that’s been owned by a smoker. They’re easy to spot thanks to both the yellowing of the cartridge and the persistent smell that somehow makes its way through the shrinkwrap plastic that many Tokyo games stores throw around their older software titles.
Anyway, I intended to pick myself up a Famicom, because I’ve always wanted one, but actually ended up buying a Japanese N64, because it was considerably cheaper. That, and I could amass a pretty quick Japanese N64 collection for a very small sum of money, including a few Japan-only wrestling titles I’ve wanted pretty much forever.

There was essentially no way I was leaving Tokyo without a copy of VPW2

I was struck as I window shopped, and purchased here, there and everywhere, with two distinct thoughts.

Retro gaming is running out of time

This is a pretty natural consequence of “collecting” old games. They’re old games, which means by very definition that they’re not being made any more. There are only so many to go around, and while Tokyo is going to be more heavily strip-mined I’m sure than some of the more remote parts of Japan (especially if you don’t speak Japanese, and apart from a few small phrases, I don’t), the market of available titles is getting smaller and smaller.
Here’s a quick video example. The first time I visited the Super Potato branch in Akihabara about two years ago, it looked like this.

That was two years ago, and I literally could not have counted the number of titles on store shelves. Yes, Super Potato is an expensive way to buy (according to traditional wisdom, which I’ll get to in a minute), but the reality today (or at least last week) is that there’s perhaps a quarter of that stock on their shelves right now.
Or in other words, if you’ve always hankered after a particular retro game, you’re going to be better off getting it sooner rather than later.
That’s especially true in a costs sense. The one thing I noted that was markedly different from my previous sojourn through Tokyo’s gaming dens was that prices have risen. Again, that’s somewhat a factor of natural causes — no new games and all that — but what’s particularly notable is that it’s something that’s across the board.
Conventional retro wisdom says that if you want to pay too much for a game, go to Super Potato in Akihabara. Sure, they have one of everything (which they don’t any more, but conventional wisdom and all that, bear with me here), but they charge too much for it. That’s true of the genuinely R@RE!!!!1!! stuff without a doubt, but for the more everyday or only semi-rare titles, that’s not entirely what I observed.
It’s true that the Ikebukuro branch of Super Potato, a store that’s a little bit trickier to find had slightly lower prices in general than the Akiba branch — I picked up a boxed copy of Sin And Punishment there for 800 yen where the Akiba branch wanted 1700 for a bare cartridge — but equally there were titles on shelf in Akiba that were cheaper than anywhere else I saw them.
I even saw titles on their shelves that were cheaper than in a few branches of the more generally second-hand Book-Off! chain stores. It always pays to shop around, but don’t take too long lest a particularly fancied title you’d love to play (and I stress play) vanishes right before you.

The line between players and collectors is money

While browsing the shelves for a copy of Shin Nippon Pro Wrestling: Toukon Road 2, I overheard a rather belligerent guy asking a staffer rather angrily if they had a boxed copy of a particular game. Glancing across, largely because he was very noisy, I noticed he was holding a copy of The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.
Not exactly a rare title within Tokyo. I lost count around the thirty mark in terms of overall copies spotted, but he was gripping it tightly while demanding a boxed copy. I thought it was interesting that he was chasing a copy, because as a Japanese RPG it would be a touch on the inscrutable side without a decent functional Japanese reading ability. Maybe he was fluent, although I would have thought that you’d learn spoken Japanese as well if you went down that road.
I get that it’s nice to have “full” copies of games, but it’s hardly vital, so I commented to him that it’d play the same as the cartridge. Because he was being more than a bit pushy to the poor sales clerk, I didn’t point out to him that I’d seen about half a dozen boxed copies just down the road, but then that’s manners for you. In any case, his response said it all.
“Oh, I don’t want it to play it. I want it to put on a shelf in my collection.”
Sigh. To one extent, fine, if you’re going to do it with your own money, then whatever. At the same time, though, it’s a big part of the problem with being a retro gamer right now. If all the games are simply becoming display pieces, what happens to those of us who want to play the games the way they’re meant to be played?
As such, the answer seems all too obvious. Prices are rising, and I’m fine with that in a scarcity sense, because unless you count more recent systems as “retro”, they are genuinely becoming more scarce. At the same time, though, if you’re after a particular title but figuring that “there’s no way I’m not going to get it unless it’s also a bargain!”, you may want to rethink your sums.
For the record, by the way, the most expensive thing I picked up was a boxed copy (because it was literally the only copy I saw across dozens of stores) of Virtual Pro Wrestling 2 for 1780 Yen. I’m happy with the value on that one.
Lead image: Kevin Cheung

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

1 thought on “Retro Gaming: It's getting worse

  1. I have never sold any machine (PCs aside) I have owned, right from that first Commodore 64 through to current consoles. In the past 10 years I’ve been filling out the collection with game machines that were before my time (Atari 2600), one’s that you’d have to be mental to own (Atari XEGS) or ones that just weren’t available in Australia (PC Engine). I’ve now got a wall-to-wall glass doored cabinet full of them – all as-new examples without any signs of wear & tear.
    … and that’s where the collector in me stops. All the units are played, as are all the games I own. Except that I now use the word “own” somewhat subjectively. I can no longer afford to chase the retro gaming dragon. Games that are even slightly rare have got expensive – $7 starters for common 2600 games on eBay (& they’re terrible condition) right up & well past $100 for the rarer ones. Crazy. Instead I’ve bought RAM cartridges such as the Everdrive N8 for my NES which allow me to play the games without having to fork out the exorbitant prices for 2nd hand games albeit with some legal and compatibility issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.