When I got back into retro games and bought a console, I got an Atari 2600 and a SNES (Super Nintendo) at $20 for the pair. All the cartridges I bought were less than $5. But often now, I’m seeing some steep prices. What’s up?
Why are some people asking so much for retro video games? Retro games have been popular since the early 2000s, but have recently spiked in trendiness. More buyers are looking, so the law of supply & demand is affecting prices. As with anything, know-how and patience can get you good deals.
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Culture moves in cycles. Old school games and systems were long considered passé, while everyone was busy chasing after the new hotness. Then somewhere along the way, people started to realize what they had given up, and they decided they wanted it back. New players who had never played the old stuff looked over their shoulders and said “Hey - what’s that… that’s cool!” …and the retro gaming movement began to pick up steam. What was “old junk” some time ago is now desirable stuff.
Contrary to some internet conspiracy theories, there is no nefarious force driving up prices - it’s just the nature of markets, and the forces of supply and demand. If you want an original console, the fixed supply (since they don’t make them anymore) and increasing demand, means prices rise. It’s important to note here that there are alternatives, and modern consoles are being made that will play the old games - so you aren’t limited to using original console hardware. (If that sounds interesting, you can read about modern consoles that play old games). So that’s the consoles, and individual games are also subject to the same drivers, though many times you can still find them at low prices (more on that in a bit).
So when a limited supply meets increasing demand, the market will bear higher prices - and they go up. But there are details to consider within that, which affect the pricing on games and consoles.
Retro Game Price Factors: Seller Side
This whole thing breaks dow into seller side, buyer side, and factors involving the systems/games themselves. Let’s get started with factors on the seller side.
Businesses are involved, and they are doing the work of finding, testing, and (in many cases) guaranteeing hardware - and that has a cost. When I go to my local retro gaming shops, they have systems and cartridges which they’ve already done a fair bit of work to bring to the table (like the expense of maintaining a store and employees that people can bring their stuff to). They even offer me a 90 day guarantee that things will work properly. For electronic items that are sometimes 40 years old, that guarantee can be significant. Businesses like this offer me these key things:
- Convenience - I don’t have to scour Craigslist ads and drive halfway across the metroplex, or visit every garage sale in hopes of stumbling across something. They have created a convenient collection I can look through. That saves me time and money.
- Confidence - Reputable businesses have at least tested their inventory, so you know it should work. The better ones offer an additional guarantee that if you should have a problem, you can bring it back. You don’t normally get that with an individual seller. That reduces my risk.
Individuals are also selling their systems, and smelling money as they see how others are pricing their gear. Many of these individuals don’t understand pricing though, and may be making one of the following mistakes:
- Prices not based on reality - If an individual seller scans eBay or Craigslist, they may see some top dollar prices being asked, and think CHA-CHING! But just because things are listing at certain prices doesn’t mean they are selling at those prices.
- Individuals are not stores - They don’t have the costs that stores do to maintain an operation and pay employees. But most importantly - how many individuals are actually offering a guarantee that their stuff is tested and works, and won’t fail on you when you get it home? If they don’t offer that assurance, why should they price items like people who do?
Retro Game Price Factors: Buyer Side
While there are many reasons to love retro games for their own sake, any time trendiness and nostalgia come into play, you know prices are going to heat up.
The snowball effect of more and more people getting involved due to seeing others doing it - is a common phenomenon. More people wanting in, means more competition for the same goods. Another factor here is that someone who is newer is likely to see prices, and not realize that they used to be lower. Or they may not be interested in shopping around to find some of those still-lower prices. Or, they may not care. They just want to plunk down their money, and get something. If you’re new, it’s important to realize that market prices rise to what the market will bear - and if you’re more savvy in your buying, you don’t contribute to the over-pricing. Patience and research are key.
Nostalgia can distort how we see things as well. For those who have fond memories of a certain system, finding one again can feel like a fantasy fantasia, complete with Dream Weaver playing in the background. It’s important to realize that nostalgia, combined with disposable income (If you’re old enough to be nostalgic about retro games from your childhood, likely you are at a place in life where you’re making some extra money) can mean emotional decisions that involve some overspending. Pump the brakes though, and do a sanity check. You won’t die if you fail to act on the immediate impulse. Invest a little into seeing what a reasonable price might be, and then decide. You could keep some money in your pocket.
Read below for tips on finding good prices.
Another key thing that’s happening in the retro game marketplace is that while some people just want to play games and have fun, other people are coming at this as collectors - and collectors think differently. A collector isn’t (only, or perhaps primarily) driven by wanting to enjoy playing games. They have a whole other motivation that revolves around acquiring desirable items - desirability can be determined by rarity, condition, completeness… standard factors that are native to collecting, but largely unrelated to gaming itself. Some collectors will pay high prices for terrible games, just because they are rare, or just to have a complete set of something. Stadium Events for the Nintendo Entertainment System sells for between $13,000 and $41,000 according to this CNN article from 2011 (I can only imagine prices have gone up since then). Why? In a nutshell, it’s the same game as a commonly available title, but it was released by a different company under a different name at first, so there are a small number of this particular version. That’s it. Nothing to do with gaming - everything to do with the special world of collecting that applies to stamps, baseball cards, etc.
Granted, astronomical prices like Stadium Events are a special case, but it’s the tip of the iceberg on a larger phenomenon of collecting that has overshadowed actual gameplay in some ways. More people want more games (that they may not play) because they want bragging rights to a “nice collection.” If you want to see how this has become a trend, look on social media, or do a google search for something like “my retro game collection.” The same template of modern shelving units neatly filled with TONS of games, multiple consoles on display, fancy lighting… this strain of retro gaming is a collecting-focused phenomenon. The odd similarity of all the images strongly suggests that it’s a form of behavioral contagion.
A subset of the collectors is the speculators. They’re buying, hoping the value will go up over time. While I think classic video gaming has long term value and interest, I believe that’s largely rooted in the enjoyment of playing. I don’t see people who just like playing good games paying exorbitant prices that speculators are hoping for. Depending on your interests, you may not see a huge influence from this group, but it does distort the market in different ways. Speculators may horde games they don’t play, reducing the supply, and they may heat up pricing expectations in a frenzy spiral that pushes overall pricetags higher.
An additional thought - when you mix trendiness with collecting and speculating, people’s evaluations of their behavior may become less rational, and you can end up with feeding frenzies. The classic historical example is the Dutch Tulip Mania of the early 1600s, where people got into such a froth over buying and selling tulip bulbs that prices were no longer anchored to the realities of what was actually being bought and sold. It was just a runaway madness, resulting in a spectacular crash. More recent examples would be the wild Beanie Baby market in the 1990s, and in certain ways, the housing market of the early 2000s, culminating in the crash of 2008. Word to the wise: Don’t Believe the Hype!
For a detailed picture of some of the things that happen in the heavy nostalgia/obsessive completist world, I recommend this documentary I watched on Amazon, Nintendo Quest.
Retro Game Price Factors: The Consoles & Games
Pricing is always an interplay of buyer, seller, and item. Having covered the issues that come into play with the people involved, let’s take a look at the items themselves.
Desirability, availability, and condition are your big considerations.
Some systems are considered very desirable, while others are seeing less interest. Realize that if you go for something that’s trendier right now, you may pay more for it overall than a less trendy system (or game).
Concerning availability - if there are fewer of a particular system or especially of a game, you will likely see that push prices northward. On a related note - as you play through the familiar games, you may decide to go looking for “hidden gem” games you never heard of, only to find that the prices can climb dramatically. I’m always on the lookout for items that are off the beaten path, and recently came across some NES titles that looked interesting. Being a fan of Japanese Mecha, I took a look at eBay prices for Metal Storm on the NES. Cartridges ranged between $100 and $400. Hmmm. Maybe not.
Finally - condition. This is actually an interesting area. While you can pay extra for something guaranteed to work, you can pay less for something known not to work. If you familiarize yourself with the common failures various systems and games have, and feel adventurous, you can pick up real deals on non-working items, and then invest a little effort into repairing them. Sometimes, the fix is simple, and virtually cost-free. Know your stuff!
Keep Prices in Historical Context
Nobody wants to overpay, and I love the rush of getting a good deal. But it’s also important to keep in mind what this stuff really costs compared to what it was originally. The Nintendo NES (bare system, no game) retailed for $89 in 1985. As of today’s writing, that’s around $210 adjusted for inflation. My local game store sells them, checked and guaranteed for 90 days at $75 - about 1/3 the price.
Tips for Finding Better Prices on Retro Gaming Gear
There are multiple angles you can work to get better prices on the retro games and consoles you buy. Depending on what you’re up for, they require patience, research, some risk, and a sense of adventure.
- Grazing instead of hunting - Poke around in stores, or on eBay or other marketplaces, and just see what people have. Look based on availability and price. When you do that, you can find some very interesting (and surprising) things, just by being available and open to what comes your way. As soon as you become fixated on wanting a particular thing (especially within a particular timeframe), you increase the chances of having to pay more.
- The kindness of others - Let your friends and family know you’re interested in old video games. They can be your eyes and ears as well, and let you know if they see anything. Some of them might even have something laying around they are willing to part with for little or nothing. You never know. I made it known that I was interested in old game systems, and my brother-in-law gifted me with an Atari 2600 and Super Nintendo with a good collection of games, as well as an original GameBoy with games. Very nice of him. A friend of mine on Facebook saw a free Commodore VIC-20, and grabbed it for me, because he was aware of my interests. Let people know.
- Watch markets, and look for the people who are pricing things as someone selling a used item, vs people trying to get in on a gold rush. If you spend a little time watching the range of prices (taking things like condition into account), you’ll start to get a sense of who’s got which mindset, based on what they’re asking. This takes some time, and the willingness to let things go by, trusting that a good deal will come along.