Skip to main content

Super Mario Squashed Vintage Video Game Collectors. Time to Buy Last of Us II.

As the new nostalgia-baiting, Chris Pratt-starring Super Mario Bros. Movie collects coins (*dinging sound effect*) at the box office, the speculating goombas of the retro video game market are getting stomped by a market correction. 

During the pandemic, alternative investing markets became invincibility star-level unstoppable. The price of sneakers, bitcoins, paintings, JPEGs of primates, cardboard pocket monsters, and Wu-Tang albums shot up as enthusiasts and speculators gleefully watched line graphs side scroll up and to the right. In 2021, an anonymous bidder paid $1.56 million for a copy of Super Mario 64 (a 1996 N64 classic, and a pioneer for 3D platformers)—still in its original packaging—through Heritage Auctions. It was a record price for a video game, just two days after an early production copy of The Legend of Zelda (1986) sold for $870,000.

Now it seems like the market is giving way faster than a sand pit (*Wahwah sound effect*). But assets, like heroic Italian plumbers, have multiple lives. Resurrection is part of the game.

“If you have the first million-dollar sale of something, in theory, that should be followed by many more millions of dollars,” says Kelsey Lewin, codirector of the Video Game History Foundation and co-owner of Pink Gorilla, a chain of retro game stores based in Seattle. “It didn’t really end up working out that way for video games.”

Courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Mario didn’t become Basquiat. The Super Mario 64 sale remains a record, and the overall market has since been “challenged, both by idiosyncratic issues as well as issues plaguing broader, speculative collectible markets,” the research firm Altan Insights wrote in a 2022 report, noting that its Fractional Video Game Index had dropped by almost 48 percent since 2021.

There were always rumors of the self-dealing among collectors. And that made sense. Self-dealing or creative manipulation drove up the price of a number of blockchain assets and is a feature of the art market. But Lewin knows both the buyer and seller in the record sale and he doesn’t doubt its authenticity. He’s just confused by the why of it all.

“There were dozens of known [sealed] copies of Super Mario 64,” she says. “It felt like firing too soon on the wrong thing. A million-dollar video game would have absolutely happened naturally. This one felt a little bit more artificial.”

But that statement underlines the opportunity. The first million-dollar video game was going to happen. Bubble or no, it’s reason enough for a hundred thousand former Duck Hunters to go rifling through the basement cabinets.

“We all thought it was going to be the very first Super Mario Bros. (1985) on the NES. And the earliest print possible,” Lewin says, explaining that a sealed copy of the first print has never been found. There’s a reason why. They were issued on a limited basis. “You would have to be one of the crazy people who picked up an NES in New York City at FAO Schwarz, bought some games, took it home, and decided to never open Mario in order to have one.”

The gamers vs. the ‘rich people.’

The Super Mario 64 exposed a deep division. 

While a legitimate game collecting market has existed since the late ‘90s, when enthusiasts bought, sold, and traded the scarcest titles then—see: your dad’s dusty Atari cartridges—it was a small-scale, low-stakes affair. In the 2000s, collecting grew out a genuine passion and nostalgia for the earliest Nintendo titles in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as that era’s kids grew into childless adults with a decent chunk of disposable income.

But the market has been particularly revved up in recent years largely thanks to non-gamer collectors. Around 2017, Lewin first noticed outsiders popping up at retro game conventions, migrating from other spaces, whether superheroes or other memorabilia, seeing an untapped opportunity. 

Whereas traditional gamer types don’t have a natural affinity for unopened, unplayed games, collectors familiar with the auction dynamic world fetishize such objects. “They were like, ‘I’m going to buy every sealed game. I think there’s really something here,’” Lewin remembers of those expos. Then the speculative buying of sealed games took off. Then the finance guys went Bowser online during the pandemic. They were viewed as invaders by the old-school collectors

“They think video games are meant to be played, and rich people are coming in and mucking around,” Lewin says.

“Collect what makes you happy,” says Nintendo obsessive Nick Gray, (@retrogaminguy on Instagram). “The masterpieces will always hold value. I personally only collect what resonates with me.”

Because he sees collecting as a direct path to joy rather than one mediated by cash, Gray doesn’t worry too much about speculators.  Unlike him, speculators gravitate toward massive characters with a lasting cultural imprint and intact shrink-wrapped plastic. Gamers like the weird, esoteric stuff (Game Boy sewing machine, anyone?) and are more interested in maintaining their relics and sharing their joy with others.

Courtesy of eBay


Buy Now

“The thing about these collectors is that there’s only a handful of them who are willing to pony up when it comes to anything over $5,000,” says Nate Walker, an avid retro gamer and the coordinator of the KC Retro Gaming Swap and Collectibles Show in Kansas City, Missouri. “That’s the truth, and they collect pieces and lock them away—Indiana Jones-type shit.”

Walker’s own collection is driven by a desire to “preserve” what he considers a crucial part of game history. But he also delights in hunting down a well-liked retro game for a few bucks at a yard sale, and flipping it for $100 on eBay. Having done that hundreds of times, he’s made some money.

And therein lies the inevitable irony; passion at scale becomes difficult to differentiate from speculation.

‘Get out ahead of the market’

It’s hard to feel bad for the speculators losing money on paper as the retro video game market goes down a pipe. But it’s also hard to argue that they were wrong. Alternative investments are creeping back like so many skeletal turtles. Bitcoin is pushing ahead. The art market is rocking (*course clear sound effect*). The current correction looks more like a buy opportunity than a kill screen.

For those eager to jump into the retro market via their own gaming credentials, Lewin has a couple pro recommendations: start small, keeping your goals modest, so you will quickly accumulate a “mini-collection to feel proud of,” she says. 

And “get out ahead of the market.” N64 and GameCube titles are what’s hot now, but soon it’ll be the very next generation in vintage gaming. “I think right now is a really fantastic time to collect for the PlayStation 4. Very few games are expensive yet, and most are under $25.” Hold on for 5 or 10 years, and you might be surprised what your stash is worth.

Future Collectibles for PS4

Best Sports Memorabilia Crossover

Madden NFL 18

Buy Now On Amazon $7.73 Jump to Details

The Last of Us Part II

Buy Now On Amazon $29.50 Jump to Details

$33.98 $39.99 15% off

Buy Now On Amazon
Best Sports Memorabilia Crossover

$7.73 $29.99 74% off

Buy Now On Amazon

$29.50 $39.99 26% off

Buy Now On Amazon