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The insanity of collecting retro games

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When I posted my retro 2021 desktop setup at the beginning of this month, I unintentionally left out a photo of my SNES/Game Boy/whatever physical cartridge collection. You can marvel at my very limited (past) 2007 gaming setup and collection over at Jefklak’s Codex - I’ll go ahead and steal a few photos there to sprinkle them over this article.

As you might have read in the You Shouldn’t Use Spotify article, I recently started thinking things through when spending my hard earned money. It was only a matter of time before arriving at the topic of retro gaming… And as with all things in this capitalistic world, things that become uncommon also have the tendency to become very, very expensive. Sadly, but perhaps not unexpectedly so, the same is true for retro game collecting. For instance, take a look at the second hand price history of what used to be a fairly common Nintendo DS game; Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow:

Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow price evolution at Game Value Now

The game was released in 2005. Ten years later, one paid on average $20 for it - about half of the new price. Since then, prices have gone up. And up. And up. The last sudden big spark is the COVID-effect on game collecting: almost any well-received retro game suddenly costs about a third more than it used to be. Thank you, boredom. The effect isn’t that dramatic for Dawn of Sorrow since DS games are “relatively new”. However, if you take a look at its older brother, Aria of Sorrow for the Game Boy Advance, a complete box sets you back for almost $160 - that is four times as much as the original price! Baffling.

As mentioned in Nintendo Life’s articleRetro Nintendo Games Cost Too Much, But Nostalgia Is Expensive, even GameCube games, that until recently were fairly affordable, have suddenly become (too) expensive. Why would you pay more than the original price for Smash Brothers Melee when the latest installment is available on the Nintendo Switch, and the gameplay is the same? Nostalgia indeed does seem to come at a steep price.

Why would you want to pay more than the original price for Smash Brothers Melee on GameCube?

Before the global pandemic, a few critics conspired that famous retro gamer Metal Jesus Rocks and his incredibly popular YouTube channel also negatively affects retro game prices with his reviews - and thus ultimately increasing demand. Metal Jesus is also a big fan of the Hyperkin Retron 5 all-in-one retro console. Yes, the one that used GNU GPL-licensed open source software without asking. I’ve also read about his awesome collection in the UK magazine Retro Gamer. No doubt that must have inspired others - I know it inspired me. Well, until I saw the prices of many games…

A part of my 2007 handheld collection. I was stupid enough to sell that limited edition Game Boy Micro. It is now goes for over $200...

Where does that money go to?

Imagine you’re buying a recently released game. I presume you want to support the game developers as much as possible. In that case, just like I wrote about not using Spotify, don’t just stream it: buy it - preferably from the devs themselves. Great, you now helped finance a possible sequel!

But what about retro games? I just paid $100 to a shady seller at eBay or a local flea market - does that mean a successor to Dawn of Sorrow is guaranteed? No. Konami fucked up the Castlevania series a long time ago, and the creator of the Igavania sub-genre, Koji Igarashi, left in 2014 to start his own studio ArtPlay. Even if the original devs did not leave at some point, money spent on second hand products simply do not end up in the hands of the creator. That does not mean that publishers and developers do not keep an eye out for games that are still in high demand.

The retro game collection hype created a lot of sleezy sharks that love to rip you off: from the common practice of counterfeiting catrdiges - which by now are difficult to discern with the naked eye - to asking absurd amounts of money for “mint” (boxed) versions of a game. This second hand market seems to bring out the worst in people. I’ve witnessed and I’ve been a victim of a lot of shady looking deals because of that.

Can you detect which GBA cart is fake?

That brings me to the question: is it really worth it? Do I really want to spend a hundred bucks on a game, of which the dev company is defunct, knowing that my money will ultimately end up supporting this malpractice? There is a lot of proper research on the financial and psychological impact of a second-hand market system, and a lot of improper “biz” (used games killed single player gaming, used games eliminates independent studios, …), too much for me to skim through, so feel free to point out where my thinking derailed.

Okay, so let’s pirate instead!

No harm done, right? The game is twenty years old, the companies behind it are long gone, so who cares? I wrote about this topic before. We’re entering a gray area here, although a lot of people would love to shout “No way, it’s black or white!" instead.

Although downloading emulators is of course legal, sharing copyrighted ROMs online clearly is not. There is no legal precedent for ripping and downloading ROMs for games you own, though an argument could be made for fair use, as lawyer Derek E. Bambauer points out. Legal matters aside, my main interest is if it harms anyone if you decide to do so for older games. I think it’s safe to say yes: many companies still own copyrights to older games - and many companies like Nintendo sill thrive on selling retro games.

There is no legal precedent for ripping and downloading ROMs for games you own, though an argument could be made for fair use.

Disney has a special strategy devoted to bringing classic animated videos back to life: they purposely put projects into a vault for many years, only to come back to it later on to reboot/remaster/whatever the original version. I’d be less inclined to buy the remaster if I pirated the original a few weeks ago. Super Mario 3D All Stars is a compilation of three retro 3D Mario games that was released by Nintendo a few months ago. They even added an unfair amount of pressure to consumers by limiting the amount of physical releases. These games were hardly remastered at all, yet sold like hot cakes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t buy it, although I owned all games at some point before.

A part of my 2007 GameCube collection. Even a mediocre game like Wario World, which saw a Player's Choice re-release, goes for $56 nowadays!

Okay, so let’s buy them digitally!

This remark misses the point. First, retro game collecting is mainly a physical act. For this reason, most serious game collectors wouldn’t even consider downloading ROMs - legal or otherwise For this very same reason, I completely detest the trend towards digital gaming. Second, many games are simply not for sale anymore. Of course, many big publishers smell money when they look at their old game collection, and love to periodically re-release old stuff for us suckers to double-dip - no questions asked. But many of the best games have had their prime time, and are unlikely to see the light again, due to legal issues, defunct companies, missing source code, … As you might have guessed, these games are especially expensive in the second hand market.

Sites such as Good Old Games use your nostalgic preference for old junk to cash in. As mentioned before, I love Wizardry 8, and I own the original CDs. The game is also available on GOG. However, Sir-Tech does not exist anymore. I have no idea how this works in detail, but somehow Nightdive Studios grabs hold of the rights for the title and re-released it on GOG in 2013. That means buying it through the GOG digital platform possibly helps re-vitalizing other classic PC games, since it is Nightdive Studios' primary occupation. However, that does not mean that any of the hard working people of the original game are supported in any way.

Buying Wiz8 at GOG does do something useful with your hard earned money. I doubt that buying a Castlevania Aria of Sorrow copy through eBay does the same - except perhaps the ability to put it in a glass cabinet to show off to your fellow retro nerds.

And yet, I really, really want to play Game Boy games on my original Game Boy. Seductive looking pieces of hardware like the Analogue Pocket only makes things worse. Why isn’t there a GOG-equivalent for obtaining legal copies of ROMs? I was so thrilled with the Wii’s Virtual Console system, and so disappointed at the same time, as Nintendo’s Spartan selection left people wanting for more. Furthermore, hacking your Wii to download that legally bought copy (in order to transfer it to a flashcard on your GB) was not only hard - it was also juridically questionable.

That said, I missed a big sale day at my local retro game store. I was looking forward to mindlessly adding more junk to the shelves… Don’t forget to bring your screwdriver to check the genuineness of the chip!

tags icon games collecting

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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