Any retro gamer worth their salt is all too aware that lately the price of physical retro gaming hardware has taken off like a crystal meth powered Usain Bolt. This is not an earth-shattering revelation, but almost nobody seems to be looking at why the prices have skyrocketed. Now, I have already sought to connect this rapid rise to basic economics with my article on NES Collecting & The Law of Supply and Demand but that doesn’t explain why the demand for a fully static supply rapidly increased. Can we determine why so many people started to buy up retro consoles?
I started from a origin that many see as almost the antithesis of retro gaming – emulation. I set up a simple Twitter poll on the Gaming Rebellion Twitter – I can abuse my social media powers – to ask retro gamers what system they emulated first was. When I first hatched the idea for this article with the boss man Aggro Sky, we were discussing why SNES prices had went so crazy and I had hit on the idea of it being the first system many emulated. My hypothesis was wrong. The twitter poll did show SNES to be a lot of gamers’ first foray into emulation but the greatest console ever made once again found itself at the top of the heap. The mighty NES was apparently how the majority of you experienced emulation for your first go round. This made me realize that my hypothesis may not be wrong as much as just not thought through well enough.
The NES was a large part of many gamers’ formative years. Many of us can honestly say our first video gaming experience was with Nintendo’s grey toaster, so it would make sense that for us our first emulated system was the NES, as it was certainly mine. At the time I first emulated the NES my computer simply wasn’t powerful enough to run SNES emulators very well. I wanted to emulate the NES because I missed the original system of my youth and I didn’t have any real attachment to SNES since I never owned one. After emulating the NES for a few years I decided I wanted the real thing, so I bought a NES with a huge box of games off Ebay for about $50. The set I got then would have cost me many times more than that now. This personal reminiscence should have been where I based my hypothesis, as it would have tracked with the known facts.
I honestly believe that a lot of game collectors started off buying NES games because of the nostalgia factor and because they were incredibly cheap at one point. I certainly miss the days of seeing NES games going for a dollar or less on the regular, especially compared to current prices. As more and more gamers got the itch to own the classic hardware demand skyrocketed for a very static supply which caused prices to increase. It would take a few years for the prices to get really insane, but once they did, this brought in those who sought only to resell games for profit and to speculate.
This also perfectly explains why the other retro systems are gaining in value so quickly. Not only do the aforementioned reasons come into play, but the sheer fact that the prices of the big name systems have gotten too much for many collectors. The old adage of “hit ’em where they ain’t” has come to forefront of collecting. Gamers who desire physical copies of retro games have found themselves turning to classic systems that aren’t the big names and in turn that led to higher prices. In any highly competitive market you’ve got to watch them – be quick or be dead.
The perfect example of this is the 16 bit generation. While I will argue all day long that the 16 Bit Wars were the greatest time in all of gaming, a lot of us missed out on classic games due to our choice of console. My brother and I were Genesis owners so we missed out on the SNES games. This is why neither of us were really into JRPGs until the Playstation came along. As such, when I got older and I started emulating, I naturally tried SNES emulation and the RPG classics my friends said I should try. Some of these, for example FFIII/VI and Earthbound, have become some of my favorite games ever so I looked into getting the actual carts. I really doubt that I have to state here that Earthbound is a very expensive cartridge which is why I still don’t own it. It’s almost certain that my story is a very common one, which is part of the reason why SNES prices have gotten insane. Due to this – and the fact that the Genesis is freaking awesome – Genesis was for a long time the “budget” 16 bit collection; but even that is changing. It was just recently that any Genesis game that was released to market – i.e. not one of those super rare competition carts – was seen approaching the $200 mark. Even the competition cart, Blockbuster World Championship, is only $2500, which is a far cry from the 5 figures that a Nintendo World Championship cart would bring.
This is where it gets a bit gloomy. As gamers turn their attention to lower priced systems the increasing demand for a static supply will drive the prices up. Genesis is still quite affordable to collect for, but the glory days of regularly finding Genesis carts for less than $5 may be ending. I do doubt it will reach the insane levels of NES or SNES prices, but retro games will continue to be a seller’s market for a good while unless we have a market crash. What I find quite interesting is that the “cadillac” consoles like Neo Geo or 3DO still command high prices like they did during their market periods due to the demand being pretty fairly strong for a small quantity of supply. Plus, a lot of collectors like to brag about what expensive pieces they collect.
This leads me to what I believe is the most important factor in the rise of retro game prices: Us. That’s right, we in the retro gaming and game collecting community. As a wise man once said “we have met the enemy, and it’s us.” We have for a long time mostly focused on the same consoles, same games and are all too willing to pay the high price tag for the “holy grails”, an opportunity we have long sought. Instead of patience we’ve been willing to fork out top dollar for Buy It Now prices and shady resellers. Now, I do not condemn anyone for wanting to own the physical hardware, or being willing to shell out their own hard owned money for said priviledge. I’d be one hell of a hypocrite if I did. But we need to accept the fact that the number one contributor to high game prices are the very ones who keep asking why prices are so insane now. As a group we seem all too willing to concentrate on whatever game is “trendy” at the moment and thus we spike the prices hard. Even something like a new AVGN video sets buyers on a feeding frenzy that only makes prices worse.
And that, my friends, is the true source of the high prices in retro games. I starting writing this article fully expecting to claim that emulation was the “gateway drug” that led people to buy physical hardware but I found myself looking at the real source of the high prices: us. Everything just boils down that the explosion in prices from retro gaming is mostly traceable to the explosion in retro gamers. There’s more and more of us every day, and that’s going to drive up prices. Sure, there are more than a few who are only in for profit or for prestige, but the day that the market crashes they’ll be the first ones out the door. The rest of us will still be there with our collections happily gaming away. As long as there are retro gamers who are willing to part ways with their hard earned dollars there will be sellers happy to offer them at higher prices.
This is not meant to be an indictment of retro gamers or collectors – again, I fall under both titles so I would be a hypocrite. I just wanted to go beyond complaining about the prices of classic games to see why the games have become so expensive, without really using economics jargon like I did last time. The massive growth in retro gaming has been great since it has allowed more and more ways to connect with others who share our interests, but at the same time it’s led to our most hated problem – the high prices. The rise of retro seems to show no signs of slowing, so prices are likely to at least stay where they are for the time being. However, at least now we have a good reason why instead of just screaming “STUPID DAMNED RESELLERS!!!” If nothing else, I hope you enjoyed this article and it got you thinking. Thanks for reading.