Welcome back to Free to Play. In previous entries to this series I have examined both the law of supply and demand as well as digital downloads of classic games, but I’ve never looked deeper into how digital downloads affect prices since I focused on the why. This was an interesting article for me to write. My hypothesis going into the research got completely demolished by the actual numbers so I had to start from scratch. This is how things are supposed to be: you adjust your assumptions/beliefs based upon the actual evidence. Are you listening, Congress?
For this article I selected three rather expensive games that were recently released or re-released to digital download services along with one “control” game that’s been available on Virtual Console for essentially the entire lifespan of that service. All prices were pulled from the very excellent Price Charting which I could not recommend more as a tool for game collectors wishing to get accurate price information. The prices were pulled during June 2016 so the most recent month shown is May 2016. I also included the “current” price as determined by Price Charting’s eBay bots. I ignore most prices in the early 2000’s as almost all retrogames were on a steady climb in the first few years. One thing that I do assume – and I believe is safely done – is that prices affected by digital download only really affect the month immediately after. Let’s get to it.
The Misadventures of Tron Bonne was a semi sequel to Mega Man Legends that was released near the end of that console’s life. It has become a beloved game and one of the most expensive PS1 titles to collect. The price for the game for all of 2015 averaged out to be about $164. In early 2015 Sony announced that it would be coming to the Playstation Network as a digital download and then released it on May 5, 2015. What’s very interesting is that apparently this created a short spike in prices immediately after the announcement, but before the release. The month before release the price rose almost 10% then dropped by almost 25% the next month. It’s currently going for about $145, which is lower than it was going into 2015, but still not the lowest it’s been since the digital release.
One thing that I find interesting is that for most of 2016 it’s risen out of the recent drop in price to get back to the current $145 range. In December, 2015 it was at a low of $120, which is a price that it was back in 2014. It’s still too early to tell if the price is coming up sharply or just a short term lift.
Here’s the Price Charting Graph from January 2015 to current, with the cursor set on May 2015.
Suikoden II was a JRPG released by Konami back when they still did games and not stupid fanservicey pachinko bullshit. It’s considered one of the best of the genre and easily one of the best on the original Playstation which has a well deserved reputation as a JRPG machine. It was released somewhat later in the PS1’s lifespan and so has become one of the more collectible titles for that system, though the prices are still low enough that it’s stayed mostly in the $100 – $120 range. It was released on the PSN for digital download on December 9, 2014. Interestingly, the price has actually mostly rose since the digital release for almost the entirety of 2015 until finally starting to drop in September, 2015. It’s averaged around $90 for all of 2016 which is a low only reached last in November, 2011. One spike in price I can’t really explain is in May, 2015 where it jumped over 35% then immediately dropped more than it gained the next month.
Except for the aforementioned spike in price, this game has essentially plateaued pricewise.
Here’s the Price Charting graph for Suikoden II from December, 2014 to current day.
Earthbound, or Mother 2 in Japan, was a JRPG unlike anything else released for the SNES. It simultaneously deconstructed standard JRPG tropes while celebrating both childhood and why games are fun in the first place. The fresh setting where medieval European influence — typical of JRPGs — was changed to modern day America, while magic became “psychic powers.” This was innovative, especially among the glut of traditional JRPGs in the 16 Bit Wars. It’s easily one of the best JRPGs you’ll play and one of my absolute favorite games ever. However, in the West Nintendo absolutely BOTCHED everything about the marketing and this made the game rather hard to find. It’s one of the “Holy Grails” of SNES collecting and prices have been high for years. For the longest time it was unavailable on Virtual Console, so when Nintendo announced it would be available for the Wii U Virtual Console on July 18, 2013, many gamers rejoiced. Those who did not feel like dropping the average $200 for a loose copy could pick up the Virtual Console version – Wii U only – for just $10.
The price of the game had been steadily rising at the time of the VC release, and with the exception of a large spike of a single month, the price of a loose cart stayed at or below the March, 2013 price. However, the price rose back up in June, 2016 where it essentially plateaued – the plateau here is the longest of any game discussed today – and only fell in the last two months. I am leaning towards writing that off as the response to the recent release of the game for the New 3DS Virtual Console. I could be wrong, but it’s been falling since that release, though it’s only been three months. The Price Charting graph from March 2013 to current is shown below.
But what about our control game? For this I picked one of the greatest games ever made, Super Mario Bros. I picked this one as A: It’s one of the highest selling games ever made, and B: It was one of the earliest VC games released, along with a handful of other ports/re-releases. It was released on Virtual Console Christmas Day in 2006 and has been available on all other forms of Virtual Console, including the 3DS. The original VC release goes further back than Price Charting’s graphs but starting from exactly a year later the price has continually rose. I feel the need to state that I, like many other collectors, consider 2007-2009 or so to be the birth of the current retro gaming bubble. The NES has essentially been the cornerstone of the game collecting market since its rise so it would only make sense that the original “killer app” for the NES would be a popular purchase, and it certainly is. In December, 2007 a loose copy of the game went for $3, yet it’s currently at $9. To me, the interesting part of the data is 2012. That year the price went up and down more than the water in cup held by Michael J. Fox. It often dropped lower than the earliest quoted price, which I find rather bizarre. On a side note, for any newbie NES collector wanting this game, look for either the classic Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt two in one or the slightly less common SMB/DH/World Class Track Meet three in one carts as they tend to be cheaper. Here’s the entirety of the Price Charting graph.
I actually went into writing this piece assuming that the general trend would be “major digital re-release = lower prices.” I was absolutely wrong. I had made the assumption that it would be an increase in supply yet I didn’t account for both an increase in demand and for the fact that just playing the games wasn’t why many buy them. A good amount of both retro gamers and game collectors prefer the actual physical hardware for their gaming and have a bit of a sore spot about emulation. I’ll discuss why emulation isn’t evil at a later date, though I at least understand their gripes. Essentially, every PSN digital re-release or VC game are emulated games – the VC games are interesting in that each game includes the emulator, instead of having it separate – so for anyone who dislikes emulation that’s a good reason to avoid them. The only PSN digital releases that aren’t emulated are obviously current or last gen games running on the actual hardware, or PSP games running on a Vita as the Vita has the PSP hardware built in. Otherwise, you’re just playing a fancier version of an emulator you likely have installed on at least one device.
Let’s get to the part that’ll likely get me crucified in the comments. Part of the reason that the digital releases don’t affect prices as much as you’d think is that we collectors want the actual cartridge or disc. We want to have those actual copies on our shelves, and to be able to say we own them. This is NOT a bad thing. Half of the fun of retro game collecting is the thrill of finding a rarer game and to have it in your collection. Picking up a game on PSN or VC will never have that thrill, and that’s okay. It’s really not meant to; instead, these re-releases are for those who’d love to play the classic titles but don’t want to fork over the cash for a physical cart or simply don’t have any way to play them otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with liking either option, but it finally hit me that neither satisfies the demand for the opposite. It’s hard for something to have any effect on a price when a large section of the respective market has no interest in the offering. While it may drive demand down a tiny bit, by and large the ones who are willing to settle for a digital release are the ones who aren’t about to pay the inflated prices so many highly desired retro games currently demand. While I understand the reluctance to settle for the digital versions, I’ve often bought them if only to encourage companies to release them more. For example, I happily bought Earthbound because I don’t collect SNES and I hope it will help convince Nintendo that there are a lot of Western fans of the Mother series and we deserve our damned release of Mother 3. As always, I hope you at least found this interesting and you enjoyed the article. Thanks for reading.