Friday, May 7, 2021

The Coolest Vintage Mario Thing Nobody Knows About

 


One of the cooler and also  (for some reason) least known Mario "things" out there is a set of round Menko cards that were released in Japan in 1985  and feature artwork inspired by the first Super Mario Bros. game.

As you can tell from some of my recent posts I've become interested in tracking down and collecting all of the Famicom related menko which came out in the 1980s.  Menko are kind of like a cross between baseball cards and pogs and have a long history in Japan as kid's toys.  In the same way that American trading card makers like Topps cashed in on the video game craze in 1980s North America by producing sets of cards featuring Donkey Kong, Pac Man and other big name video game characters, in Japan a company called Amada produced Menko featuring a lot of Famicom related ones.

Unlike those Topps sets in the US which are well catalogued however nobody has ever sat down and done the same for Amada's vintage video game menko, in English or Japanese, so I've decided to try to do that here on this blog since this information deserves to be out there somewhere!  I'm not sure why so little info exists about them on the internet.  In comparison to American cards from the 1980s these ones are pretty hard to find, which is probably a big contributing factor.  

With this post I'll do the Mario set and tell you everything I have been able to find out about it.

First, the above two pictures show all the cards in the "base" set that I've been able to identify, 35 different designs in total.  The cards measure roughly 4.5cm in diameter.  Since 35 is an odd number I'm pretty sure I do not have all of them since most menko sets are usually produced in even numbers owing to the manufacturing process.  I'm not sure but I wouldn't be surprised if there are 40 in total and I'm missing 5.

The picture for each is different, but they al have some common elements.  "Super Mario Bros." is written in bold lettering somewhere on the card, and there is a 1985 Nintendo copyright line on the bottom.

Each card design also has a unique number, which you can see above Mario's hat in the above example.  These were part of a game, basically kids could take two cards at random and whichever one had the higher number would win.

On the left side of the above card are two circles next to Mario's foot. These are also games.  The upper one with a hand is for a rock-scissors-paper game (again, take two random cards and play them against each other, this one would win in a battle against one with a rock on it, or lose to one with scissors on it).  The lower one has the kanji  庄 in it, which is a similar game called Kitsuneken that works the same way.  There are three potential characters, one for fox, one for village headman and one for hunter (fox beats village headman, village headman beats hunter, hunter beats fox.  This one is a village headman one). 

The backs of these menko are blank.  Of the 35 I have only the two above have anything on the back. These are winner menko!

These menko would have been sold in packs in small candy and toy stores back in the day.    I've never seen an original box of packs of these, but with other stuff Amada produced they would usually come 40 to a box, Among those 40, 3 would contain a winner card like these which would entitle the kid who pulled it to redeem it for a prize from the store owner.  When kids gave them to store owners the store owner would scribble something on the back to indicate that it had been redeemed, then give the card back to the kid.  These two look like they were redeemed at different stores owing to the different scribbles on the back.

What prize would the kids get?  Bigger menko!

Amada made "parrallel" versions of at least some of the cards which were the same as the base set only bigger.  I've been able to identify 6 different sized versions of these cards in the photo below (the one on the lower left is a standard sized card)


There might also be a seventh mega sized one out there but I am not sure.  I wrote about this one a few weeks ago, it features Mario but I don't think it is from the same set since it is from Super Mario Bros. 2 and features a 1986 copyright line.  Its existence though at least suggests that there might be similar mega sized version of these out there, but maybe not.


These cards are pretty cool in part because of the artwork, which really reflects how early these were released in the life span of Mario the character.  Mario himself looks very similar to the "standard" way of portraying Mario, but the other characters look quite different.  Princess Peach and Bowser on these two cards are good examples:
They really look nothing like how they are portrayed today (or even how they were portrayed just a few years after these were produced).  This likely reflects the fact that while a standard portrayal of Mario had been decided on back then, the details of the appearance of the less prominent characters were still up in the air and so the illustrators were a lot more free to use their imagination in rendering them.

Anyway, that is what I know so far about the 1985 Super Mario Bros. Menko set by Amada.  Its a pretty cool set with some awesome artwork on it and I think it deserves to be a bit better known than it is now, hence this post!

Monday, April 26, 2021

Air Raid has some thoughts on the $660,000 copy of Super Mario Bros for the NES

 



To put the recent $660,000 sale of a copy of Super Mario Bros. for the NES in context, I'd like to ask if anybody remembers how a decade ago there was a similar buzz about the below copy of Air Raid for the Atari 2600?  It made headline news for selling for $31,600  which seemed like such an insane price for a video game back then (ah 2010 was such an innocent year).

It seems quaint compared to today.  But to me the interesting thing is that since that sale and a couple of sales of loose copies in the two years after, Air Raid has completely disappeared from our retro game collecting conscience.  The game's Wikipedia entry doesn't have any information more recent than 2012 and my Google search for it doesn't turn up any news more recent than that either.  Its been relegated to basically footnote status in articles here and there about rare games in general, rather than ever being the focus of any interest itself.  

For a game that briefly looked like it was about to become the  all time holy grail of retro game collectors (or at least was a serious contender, alongside a handful of other rarities), its been a pretty big come down.  Probably that has been made all the more irritating by  the fact that it, a game that there are only 14 known copies of in existence, has been completely overshadowed by a game that sold like 40 million copies and is one of the easiest in the collecting world to lay your hands on.  

The downfall of Air Raid (or at least its displacement, its still obviously a valuable game) and its usurpation by SMB  raises a few questions that we might have a discussion about since they strike right at the heart of the retro game collecting hobby.  Lets review a few of these, in no particular order.

How much does the cultural relevance of a game matter?

One thing that divides these two games more than anything is that not just gamers but almost everybody today knows who Mario is.  He is one of the most recognized pop culture figures in the world.   Air Raid on the other hand is known by almost nobody, even within the gaming community.  It only sold 14 copies so its fame is ironically entirely based on its complete lack of fame during its initial release.  

This represents a hidden struggle within the retro game collecting community though - are the "holy grails" of our hobby going to be determined by what we collectors want to go after (rare and unusual stuff like Air Raid), or what society as a whole finds most familiar (stuff like SMB)?  

If you look at other collecting hobbies, its kind of hard to figure out where the value of SMB is coming from since it does not square well with how those hobbies have defined their holy grails.  

This baseball card here for example is a T 206 Honus Wagner, long considered that hobby's holy grail.  There are only about 60 copies of it known and they sell for millions.


If you aren't a baseball card collector though you probably have no idea what this card is or who Honus Wagner is.  He is a hall of fame baseball player who was a star in the early 20th century, but he is definitely not a household name.  This card is the baseball card collecting world's version of Air Raid, it became valuable solely because collectors knew it was very hard to find and its part of a set that a lot of them like, so the price went through the roof.  But its not something that had any pop culture significance beyond the hobby.  

With stamp and coin collecting too its the same story - if I posted pictures of the world's most valuable stamps and coins here you would have no idea what they were (well, unless you are a die hard stamp or coin collector).  The holy grails are entirely defined by people in those hobbies and not by the cultural relevance or recognizability of the items themselves.

One collecting hobby which  partially bucks this trend though is comic books.  The holy grail of that hobby is:


Action Comics #1, the first ever comic to feature Superman.  If you aren't a comic collector you might not know the details of this specific comic, but you likely recognize Superman and know why he is famous.  The value of this comic (which is insanely expensive, there are only about 100 copies of it in existence) is probably driven both by the fact that it is highly sought after by collectors AND because Superman is such a famous pop culture icon with the general public.  

So, retro game collecting has taken an odd turn away from a rare obscurity that hardcore collectors go after (Air Raid) towards an extremely famous but common game that everyone knows (SMB).  This turn seems to be without precedent in other collecting hobbies (or at least the ones I'm familiar with).

How much do Systems Matter?

This is something unique to our hobby and doesn't have exact parallels in other collecting hobbies.  The video games we collect were tied to consoles on which they could be played.  These had limited lifespans and thus limited opportunities to have an impact on all of us.

Atari was of course the biggest console maker of all in the late 70s and early 80s and had a massive impact on the early development of the industry and the popular understanding of home gaming.  But it lost most of that significance with the 1983 video game crash, hanging on for a few years mostly as an "also ran" in the console wars of the third generation of consoles onward before fading mostly into oblivion.  Today its basically just a name and logo that gets slapped on Flashbacks and other products by companies that have nothing to do with the original Atari (Wanna stay at an Atari hotel?  Somebody just bought the right to slap the name on those because of course they did).  

In other words, it is no longer significant and over time memories of its heyday are fading.  Nobody under 40 today remembers a world in which an Atari was a must-have item for kids.  This probably precludes any game from that console like Air Raid, no matter how rare, from every aspiring to be the holy grail of the broader retro game collecting hobby.

Nintendo on the other hand has continuity.  It became the dominant console maker in the 1980s and while it hasn't won the console war in each subsequent generation, it has never failed to be considered one of the top three makers.  That continuity gives the NES a huge advantage since the characters and even the games themselves are constantly being kept in the eye of current gamers on new platforms like the Switch.  So it makes sense that the holy grail of the retro game collecting hobby would be a Nintendo one rather than an Atari (or Colecovision or whatever) game.  


How do we define rarity?

SMB for the NES is obviously not a rare game, as pretty much every game collector has been quick to point out every time a story about a copy of it selling for insane $$$ has appeared.  Its value lies entirely on the basis that the specific $660,000 copy is the highest graded sealed hangtab version of the game in existence.  So its a "one of a kind copy of a 40 million of a kind game".  If this seems arbitrary its because it is (note that you need  to use four adjectives to describe it in a way that defines its value - its the "highest graded sealed hangtab" version).  I have a copy of SMB that my three year old daughter accidentally dropped in our toilet (don't ask).  It is the only copy of SMB that has ever been dropped in my toilet known to exist! And I have established countermeasures to ensure that no further copies of SMB will ever be dropped into my toilet again! Guaranteed population one of one!  Give me $660,000 for it please!

See?  Its so easy to turn a common thing into a rare thing depending on how one defines its rarity.

The fact that our hobby's new holy grail has its rarity defined like this makes our hobby weird.  In all the above examples from other hobbies, the holy grail was valuable not just because it was the "highest graded version" of a common thing, but because the thing itself was really rare.  

This fact can still be explained with reference to those hobbies though.  This concept of "highest graded version of a common thing being valuable" comes from them after all.  The crucial difference is that it developed decades after those hobbies emerged and had already defined what their holy grails were.  

Retro game collecting in contrast is relatively new and is still going through this process of establishing what constitutes its holy grail in the shadow of current trends in those hobbies, which have now established themselves in ours.  So, shit, we're now stuck with something as uninspiring as an unbroken layer of plastic wrapping being the main thing that defines our holy grail.  

Should we be concerned about the millionaires?

Another difference related to the timing of our hobby's development is that the global economy today is a lot more dominated by a rentier class of millionaire ass holes than it was when the baseball card and comic book collecting hobbies were taking off in the 70s and 80s.  These people view collectibles as an asset class and a good place to park their money.  So entrepreneurs are busily at work  creating narratives about various games like SMB which fit the expectations of those millionaires.  This leads to nauseatingly awful prose like that found in this passage that grossed $660,000 for Heritage Auctions, which successfully convinced some millionaires that shrink wrap is the most important thing in the history of video games. 

I mean, yeah hey I got no problem with Heritage Auctions doing what they gotta do to shake that money tree, more power to them.  But I'm not sure the rest of the hobby should follow that rabbit down the hole because it really makes no sense except  when viewed as an effort to attribute value to a relatively mundane thing and convince millionaires that this is something they should care about.  Crucially they have to convince not just ONE millionaire, but several of them since they need a few to bid against each other.  And....yup, it wasn't that hard to do actually.  This should really be a good rule of thumb for anyone buying video games (or anything really) in the hope they will one day be worth something.  If the thing has the potential to be described to a bunch of millionaires in a way that will make them want to compete with each other for it, its probably a good buy.  I'm still working on a convincing storyline for my toilet copy of SMB that I hope will fund my retirement.  

Its not all about the shrink wrap though, its also about the cultural significance.  The millionaires are really looking to invest in "Expensive Mario Stuff" and so the hobby has spit this out as an offering to them.  Every cultural icon has to have something valuable they can collect associated with it.  Mario posed a problem since most of his best known games were such smash hits that they aren't rare.  So they've settled on this contrived rarity to satiate that demand.

To Conclude

These are just a few of my thoughts about the big sale of SMB and a comparison with Air Raid, which I noticed nobody was really talking about so I thought I would add this to the online conversation.  I'm not really convinced that copy of SMB is destined to be our hobby's holy grail forever.  On the one hand it now has a "first mover" advantage since it grabbed headlines with that insane sale.  On the other hand, you could have said the same for Air Raid a decade ago and its basically fallen to the wayside in our conversation since then.  To me, the distinguishing features of this copy of SMB are just way too thin to allow it to maintain that position.  With the holy grails of other hobbies, one look at the item tells any collector what it is without having to rely on a bunch of detailed explanation to distinguish it from millions of things that look exactly the same (Its the highest graded copy of the version with the hangtab which still has its shrink wrap intact.......yawn).  

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Lot Lot Silver Member Stickers are Now Insanely Expensive

 
A really interesting and very rare thing sold on Yahoo Auctions a couple of days ago.  A copy of Lot Lot without the game!

But this was more notable for the sticker it contained: A Lot Lot Silver Members Sticker.

Back in the day Tokuma Soft had a little contest with both this game and Exed Exes.  If you finished the game with a certain score a password would flash on the screen. If you wrote that password  onto a postcard and sent it to them they would send you one of the above members stickers.  Oroti at Famicom no Neta wrote a really great post about this a couple of years ago, which has a treasure trove of contemporary promotional literature related to it:



Basically there were several ranks of member stickers you could receive depending on your score, and the number of these they would give out were limited in the following way.

Silver members (500,000 points) - 2,000 stickers

Gold members (2,000,000 points) - 500 stickers

Plantinum members (5,000,000 points) - 200 stickers

Royal Members - 10 stickers, with two divisions for 9,000,000 points and 10,000,000 points

So these are pretty rare, but the silver sticker ones are significantly more common than the others. 

What makes the auction so interesting therefore is that while the silver stickers are common, its really rare to find them in their original condition, with the envelope and everything, like that.  Most of them today are to be found stuck on the carts.

So when I saw that appear on Yahoo Auctions I started following it, wondering if I might be able to snag it on the cheap.  

Uh....nope!


It ended for 251,000 Yen, about 2,500$ US.  Yikes, and that is the price for the easiest to find of these stickers!  I can't imagine what a platinum or royal one would sell for!

I regret that I did not add one of these to my collection a few years ago when I had the chance.  I actually remember passing on an Exed Exes Silver Members Sticker for about 15,000 Yen a few years ago because I didn't think it was worth it.  D-oh!! 




Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Famicom Games and Inter-Generational Justice

 

My kids have built up a pretty decent sized collection of Famicom games over the course of the past year.  I mean, just look at all these suckers:

And they also have a little pile of Super Famicom games too.

This got me thinking about my own NES collection when I was a kid.  My parents gave me an NES Action Set for Christmas when I was 13.  It was great and my late sister and I spent an insane amount of time playing it for about a 3-4 years period.

During the entirety of that period I was able to accumulate a collection of.....(drum roll)

Six games.

That was it.  NES games didn't grow on trees, they cost like 30-40 bucks each. In 1980s dollars at that.  Six games was actually a decent collection back then, I don't think any of my friends had more than ten games either.  

Theoretically there may have existed the odd rich kid out there whose parents could shower them with video games at will regardless of the cost, but I never knew any of them. They must have existed though.

My kids today have the functional equivalent of one of those hypothetical rich 1980s dads who can shower them with Nintendo games without having to worry about the cost.  Not because he's rich (I ain't) but because these Famicom games on average cost me about 200-300 Yen each, about what a bag of chips costs.  So they've got this massive collection that would have been accessible to only the children of the wealthy elite of 1980s, Bubble era, Japan.  I quite like this, it makes me feel like a big shot.  I can actually give my kids a Famicom game for a relatively minor accomplishment in the same way my parents might have given me a quarter for the same 35 years ago.  

You might envy them for that, but I also worry that this might be the ONLY type of advantage their generation has over mine.  The ravages of climate change, pandemics, exploding economic inequality, erosion of democratic norms, whatever the hell AI is going to do to all of us, and all the other bad stuff sweeping the planet is all going to be crap that they'll have to deal with as adults.  To a certain extent its also crap I have to deal with as an adult, but it'll likely be way worse for their generation. Its a pretty lousy deal if all you get in exchange for that is Famicom games aplenty as children and I wish I could give them something more, but for now it'll have to do.


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

100 Yen Shop Famicoms: Beginner's Guide

 

I was on Twitter the other day when I saw this post by RuiReiChannel, had written about building a DIY Famicom out of Petit Blocks, which are these super cheap block sets you can buy at Daiso, Japan's biggest 100 Yen store chain (100 Yen = about $1).  These are a big thing for Twitter users in Japan I discovered after going through the #プチブロック (petit block) hashtag rabbit hole on there.



I thought it looked pretty cool so I took up the challenge.

First step, stop at a 100 Yen shop and peruse their selection of Petit Blocks.  The one in our area it turns out has a lot of them:

Its pretty impressive that these only cost 100 Yen each.  They are basically rip offs of Nanoblocks, which are an almost identical toy line but sell for about 8 or 9 times that.  I have to say that the quality of the Petit Blocks is a bit lesser, but not 8 or 9 times less and for making Famicoms from scratch they do nicely. 

Unfortunately they didn't have the exact set that he used, which might have been sold out, so I just grabbed a couple that looked like they had lots of red and white pieces to see what I could cobble together.  One was a race car, the other a birthday cake.

So I cracked it open and after about half an hour of fiddling around, voila!

Its not perfect, I had to improvise a bit since the pieces and colors I had available were somewhat limited, but I think its basically recognizable as a Famicom. 
I think this is going to be Version 1, and I'll try to build a second model at larger scale to get a more detail in.  I might try buying some grey sets to build an AV Famicom too so I could give it to my kids (who have no idea what the red and white original Famicom looks like, but LOVE their AV Famicom).  

Monday, April 19, 2021

Mega Sized Super Mario Bros. 2 Menko

 

This is another recent pick up - a Super Mario Bros 2 menko that is about the size of my head!  

This is from the Famicom Disk System's Super Mario Bros 2, NOT the American Super Mario Bros 2 (which as we all know is Super Mario USA here, or Doki Doki Panic).  

This was released in 1986 by Amada and is considerably larger than their other Famicom menko cards.  From my general knowledge of how menko were distributed back in the day, these big ones weren't sold but rather were prizes given out to kids who bought the little ones and hit a winner ("atari") card which they could redeem for them.  These would not have been practical as menko due to their size, so they were probably intended for decoration or just plain collecting.  

This definitely belongs on a wall in my house somewhere, I think I might get it framed.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

A Big Box of Famicom Puzzle Boxes

 

Agh, I'm so excited about these!  Amada Famicom Puzzles!

I decided to pull the trigger on a big ticket item that was up for sale on Yahoo Auctions a few days ago.  This beautiful box arrived in the mail from the seller yesterday:

Open it up and you find three more boxes, with jigsaw puzzles for Super Mario Bros, Pooyan and City Connection:

Picking them up, they are so beautiful:

And under them you find 40 more boxes, each containing a random puzzle of a Famicom game inside:

The outside of each box looks the same.  It has Super Mario Bros artwork on the front, City Connection on the back:


They are so cute to hold, slightly smaller than a Famicom cart.

Despite the cover art being the same on all of them, they don't all just contain Super Mario Bros and City Connection puzzles.  Rather the puzzles are a random assortment of games from the Famicom's early releases.  I haven't opened any of mine to see what is inside, but I've found a few online like these which give a representative sample.  

I think all of those games came out in 1985 or earlier so I would date these to around then.  I've also seen puzzles of 10 Yard Fight, and Route 16 and Sky Destroyer are also featured on the big box so there are probably puzzles of them out there too. I'm not sure how many exist in total, no checklist is known to exist of them.

You might ask why there are three bigger boxes containing larger puzzles and 40 boxes containing smaller puzzles.  The three bigger ones weren't sold in stores, they were prizes.  Kids would buy the little ones (which cost 50 Yen each) and out of the forty in the box, three were "winner" puzzles, which contained something on the inside which the kid could redeem for one of the three prize puzzles.

The box I have is complete, in the same shape as it would have been when distributed to toy stores.  This allows me to know exactly which of the three were the winner puzzles, since they came packaged in a plastic bag to allow the store owner to know which was which so they could randomize them. The three in the upper left hand corner of my box are still in the bag, so they must be the winners!

These things, particularly whole unopened boxes of them, are pretty rare so I was super psyched to be able to pick it up at a reasonable price.  What is a reasonable price?  Well, its way more than I would have paid for something like this 10 or even 5 years ago.  But that is ancient history (sadly).  There is just one other of these available for sale anywhere in the world right now and this is the starting bid:

That is 450,000 Yen, about $4500 US.  I did not pay anywhere near that much for mine (as proof of that I offer as evidence the fact that my wife has not killed me), and I doubt that anyone is going to buy it at that price.  But with the absolute insanity of vintage game related prices over the past year, you never know.  These things are ridiculously hard to find and pretty cool, so I wouldn't be too surprised if some tech millionaire with money to burn dropped it on something like that.  

Anyway, I'm glad I secured one for my collection.  As with my previous posts about Famicom Menko and Famicom Milk Caps, there aren't any checklists of these puzzles out there and very little information exists about them, so I'm kind of having fun delving into this end of the hobby where I can shed some light on these things.  These aren't the only Famicom puzzles Amada released, so another side project for me will be to try to put together a catalogue of all of them out there.  

UPDATE!

After writing the above post I just found this tweet from last year which contains still images from a TV show on Fuji TV (which I think might have been Game Center CX?  Not sure) that did a feature about these puzzles.  It answers some of the questions I wasn't sure on.




From these we learn a few interesting things about these types of puzzles.

1.  The puzzles were issued in 1985 in two types.  One (the one I have) was distributed in little boxes containing 20 piece puzzles which sold for 50 Yen each.  The other (which I don't have) were sold in little envelopes containing 12 pieces which sold for 20 Yen each.

2. Most importantly, the last image there shows all the games that were featured on the puzzles (at least the bigger 20 piece puzzles), so we can create a checklist!  Almost at least, some of them are hard to make out due to glare.  This however is a tentative checklist, if anyone can identify the two I couldn't (which might be two from among Championship Lode Runner, Mach Rider, Bomberman or Binary Land, but I can't tell from the picture), please let me know!

Super Arabian
Star Force
Wrecking Crew
Super Mario Bros
Lode Runner
City Connection
(Not sure)
Challenger
Sky Destroyer
Formation Z
Duck Hunt
Elevator Action
Devil World
Balloon Fight
10 Yard Fight
(Not sure)
Clu Clu Land
Zippy Race
Route 16
Chack n Pop
Exerion
Field Combat
Ninja  Kun
Hyper Sports
Astro Robo Sasa
Road Fighter
Ice Climber
Hyper Olympics
Nuts & Milk
Space Invaders
Geimos
Yie Ar Kung Fu
Urban Champion
Baseball
Front Line