The original 1985 Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is a relic given today’s more advanced game technology.
But for anyone who has managed to keep or find retro video games in pristine condition, a competitive market of collectors is driving up prices with buyers willing to spend thousands for the right games in the right condition.
Nichole Garcia, a donated services representative at Goodwill Keystone Area’s Hanover store, was aware of that market when she came across a brand new NES and 27 sealed cartridges for the system.
The games, all released in the late 80’s and early 90’s included two heavy hitters for collectors, Metroid (1986) and Metal Gear (1987), and ultimately sold as a package on Goodwill’s bidding platform for $30,000.
“My brother-in-law sells collectible items and knows about Nintendo systems and games,” Garcia said. “When they were posted to our shopgoodwill.com site, I sent him a link. He thought they would sell for well over $10,000. I had no idea the final bid would land where it did but was thrilled.”
The bid started at $9.99 and grew to its final amount after eight days and 143 bidders. The package of cartridges is the highest selling item that Goodwill Keystone Area has put up for bid.
Goodwill Keystone Area includes 40 thrift stores and donation centers across 22 southeast and central Pennsylvania counties.
For a collector of retro video games, that $30,000 price tag isn’t surprising.
This month marked the first time a video game was sold for over $1 million– a copy of 1996’s Super Mario 64 which sold for $1.56 million on Dallas-based auction company Heritage Auctions’ online auction.
The popular auction site also sold a copy of Super Mario Bros. on the NES for $660,000 in April.
At $30,000, the goodwill auction was actually a steal, according to Zac Grieg, president of Just Press Play, a Lancaster County video game store with three locations.
“I would have certainly bid that auction higher,” Grieg said. “Those games in that lot, from what I could tell and the condition they were in, if they were graded and sold that would have been over $100k.”
Making the Grade
While just finding a copy of a game can be a win for a collector, getting your hands on a complete, sealed game and getting it graded is where the real money is, according to Grieg.
Collectible grading as an industry has been around for some time in the coin, comics and card collecting space but video game grading took off with the advent of grading services like Wata Games and the Video Game Authority in the mid 2000’s.
To grade a game, collectors send their copies to a grader, who evaluates it based on the wear of the seal and sends it back in a case with the grading attached. The highest graded games usually drive the highest bids at auction.
Metroid on the NES sold as part of Goodwill’s $30,000 auction. That game alone sold for $46,800 on Heritage Auction last year with a Wata grade of 9.4 A+.
Happy Memories of Pokémon
Game collecting as a hobby has exploded in recent years and even more so during the pandemic.
This year has been one of the best on record for Hanover-based Vault Games. Owner Robert Betz attributes this year’s success to new collector’s joining the hobby during lockdown.
“Since we reopened during the pandemic the demand for video games has been really high with everyone stuck at home,” he said. “Not many small businesses are saying this but we are probably having one of the best years we ever had after COVID.”
Those new collectors have shifted the market. Where at one point retro collectors looked for rare, undersold games, many new collectors are more interested in buying and selling games that they grew up with.
“Historically, game collectors have always gone for rarity,” said Grieg. “The people that are now coming in, they want things they played as kids. Everyone played Mario, Zelda, Pokémon and Tetris. A couple years ago, a sealed Tetris was $100. Now it’s worth $5,000 to $10,000.”
It isn’t common for retro video game stores to stumble on finds like Goodwill’s NES cartridges but it does happen. A sealed copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 on the NES was sold to Just Press Play over 10 years ago and is now part of Grieg’s personal collection.
While sealed and graded games hold the highest price, many collectors still want to play their games and would rather search for used copies which are generally much more affordable for the average player.
“Video game collecting is great because you can start with the cartridge then go out and find the manual, or you can collect every game your favorite character is in,” Grieg said. “It’s so inclusive. Everyone grew up with this stuff and it’s fun to see it reach the levels it has.”