Friday, December 27, 2013

The Famicom Exodus: Will Japan ever Repatriate Them?

 A very brief history lesson: in the 19th century after Japan opened up to the West, Europeans became very interested in Japanese art.  Woodblock prints like the one above, for example, became highly sought after and art collectors from Europe and America bought them up like crazy, to the point that by the 20th century many of the finest examples were only to be found outside of Japan.  They were able to do so in part because the Japanese themselves didn`t place a very high value on those prints and thus works that would later be worth a small fortune were sold for mere pennies.

After Japan underwent its high growth era in the 60s and early 70s the trend partially reversed itself, with newly affluent Japanese seeking out and repatriating some of the nation`s antiques and artwork that had been sold abroad in earlier times. Of course in doing so they were paying thousands or even millions of dollars for things that had left Japan decades earlier for almost nothing.

This overly-simplified story of an episode from Japanese art history got me thinking about Japan`s retro video games.  In part this is because almost anything gets me thinking of retro video games, but also it is because there seem to be some parrallels in the modern day flow of Japanese collectible games.

The basic trend that I have noticed is simply that foreigners (like myself, though I do live in Japan) seem to be buying a lot of Japanese retro games, particularly for the Famicom.  The reverse, however, does not seem to be happening: there seems to be very little market in Japan for vintage games from outside of Japan.

As a random test of this I just did two searches.  First I went to American Ebay and did a search for “Famicom”.  That gave me 29,628 items for sale.  A lot of those would be Super Famicom stuff, and of course there would also be a fair number of pirated games from non-Japanese sources like China.  But just a casual scroll through the results indicates that about half of it is actual Famicom games, consoles or accessories originally marketed in Japan.  So I would say there is probably close to 15,000 Famicom items available on Ebay at the moment.

In short, while this is by no means a scientific survey, I think it can safely be concluded that there is a reasonably big and active international market outside of Japan for vintage Japanese video games.

The second search I did was to try to find out what the flow was going the other way – in other words, how much of a market is there in Japan for foreign retro games?  I did a few searches on Yahoo Auctions (the Japanese equivalent of Ebay) to try to tease out the scale.  First I did a search for “NES”, the term which is also used in Japan to describe the American version of the Famicom.  That turned up a grand total of 92 results in the gaming section, some of which were actually Famicom games.  I also did a search for that other colossus of American retro gaming, the Atari 2600, and only found 19 results, all but one of which were actually Japan-released Atari 2800 games.  “Colecovision” turned up zero results, while “Intellivision” only turned up 18 – all of which appear to have been games released for the Japanese Bandai version of that console.

This indicates that in terms of scale there seems to be a much much smaller market for foreign retro games in Japan than there is for Japanese retro games overseas.  While large numbers of Famicom games are leaving these shores for lands far away, the Japanese don`t seem to have much interest in vintage foreign games.

This is understandable given the fact that while Nintendo was a massive cultural hit abroad, creating a natural interest in the Famicom among people who grew up with the NES, there was no equivalent American or European game maker back in the 80s or 90s which similarly impacted the Japanese market.  The Atari 2800 and the Intellivision were both massive flops in Japan and after that generation it really wasn`t until the XBox came along that a serious American firm entered the console wars as a major competitor.

But that aside, the interesting question to me is what the long term effect of the seeming exodus of Famicom games from Japan will be.  On the one hand, there were millions of Famicom games produced back in the day whereas there are probably only thousands of games being exported, so in terms of overall volume the effect might not be so big (though over time it might add up).  

On the other hand though, it is really obvious that international demand for certain games is having a big effect on the Japanese market.  Gimmick, for example, has exploded in price over the past year to the point that it is impossible to find loose copies going for less than about $200.  The main reason for that isn`t because Japanese Famicom collectors suddenly had a heightened interest in the game, but because it is one of those games that was never released in America and is immensely sought after by folks over there.  

I hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with that, its great that people around the world have an interest in the Famicom.  I just think it is kind of interesting.  It also makes me wonder if, a few decades from now, Japanese Famicom collectors will have to start buying the best games off of Ebay from American buyers because there are so few copies left in Japan, as Japanese woodblock print collectors once had to do.  Food for thought anyway.


  1. Like I just said on Twitter, Sean, really interesting and thoughtful post as always! Hopefully there are more than enough Famicom and other retro Japanese games to go around so Japanese folk don't feel a need to "repatriate" them, as you said, but if there aren't, I'm sure some foreigners at least will be willing to sell them back to their original owners--for the right price, of course :)

  2. Thanks Bryan! I think there are definitely enough to go around, at least for 90% of the titles. With the harder to find ones though they are getting noticably harder to find. Like I mentioned with Gimmick, that wasn`t so hard to find cheaply (well, relatively cheaply - maybe $40-$50 for a loose copy) here a couple of years ago but now it is impossible to find one for under $150-$200 loose and pretty much all of that is thanks to international demand.

    Its not really a bad trend so long as people who appreciate the games are getting them, but the parrallels with the wood block prints just got me thinking!

  3. This is interesting! It seems like I recently read about this (the "depleting" of Japan's retro games) somewhere else, as well!

    When I was in Japan (ten years ago, so things are probably different now!) I was surprised to see a few stores in Akihabara selling US Genesis and 32x games at pretty high prices, I specifically remember Comix Zone, The Ooze, and Shadow Squadron, all priced over 7000yen. All the titles were ones that came out late in the MD's lifespan so I imagine they were there as alternatives for the even-rarer MD versions, but you could get them back home for so much less!

  4. Very interesting to read, I had no idea about this situation!

  5. Thanks!

    That is interesting about Genesis games in Akihabara, I`ve never seen them in other cities. I`ve only ever seen foreign games once in Japan, which was at a Mandarake in Osaka where they had about 10 or so NES games loose. Prices were probably more than you would pay in the US for them, which makes sense.

  6. I had a similar thought when a huge collection (7000+) of Japanese games, many still sealed, was bought by an American museum some months ago. Are there any Japanese institutions trying to preserve this part of the Japanese cultural heritage?

    Link here:

  7. Hi,

    Yeah, I remember reading about that too. Actually I did a post about that lot when it went up for auction on here, I think it had a 1 million Euro BIN price on Ebay at some point.

    And yes there is something similar happening in Japan. Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto has a Centre for Game Studies which is currently accepting donations to create a gaming museum. The Centre is actually directed by Masayuki Uemura, the guy who was originally in charge of developing the Famicom for Nintendo. Their website (almost all in Japanese) is here:

  8. Ive been tracking Sega Master System games in N.America over a year and found something interesting. I know the console was not popular here and I know the back story but I would have thought games would still be "demand priced" but its not the case. Even kids whom never owned a 8 or 16 bit NES collect them but not the SMS. I was really shocked when my "Manhattan Priced" shop here in NYC was selling me complete copies for under eBay price….. they sell every thing triple price generally.I thought it interesting when I saw this similar topic here on the Fami. I touch on this in this months article more. Love the blog as always !!!

  9. I remember when I first started buying things from Yahoo Japan auctions years ago. It was like discovering a secret fishing hole full of stock. Nowadays, there are so many westerners there now that competition is pretty fierce. Not quite as bad as Ebay, but noticeably more challenging and expensive than before.

    In terms of appetite for Western games in Japan, although definitely in the minority and on a very small scale... there is a group of SEGA Megadrive fans in Japan that take Western only Genesis releases then convert them to look like factory official Megadrive carts. All complete with very high quality insert, instruction booklet and cart sticker. Much better quality than the Western made reproductions of Japan only releases. Once again, this but a drop in the bucket vs. the big picture but I found it interesting and totally right up my alley because I've always wanted japanese style versions of many western only releases (since I only collect imports these days - better art/packaging imho).

  10. Johnny Pop - that is interesting about the Sega Master System. The Japanese version has a few collectors and the games are usually priced high due to the fact that they are a lot harder to find than Famicom games. At the same time though, people do pay way more for the better Famicom games even when they are way more plentiful and easy to find! Another hard to find console here are the Epoch Cassette Visions from the early 80s, which are kind of rare but not many people collect for them so the prices remain fairly low compared to the Famicom.

    Stealthlurker - I have had the exact same experience. In the last year in particular Yahoo Auction prices have gone through the roof and the days of finding lots stocked with high value games going cheap seem to be behind us. Probably a lot of that is also related to the exchange rate, which has killed the yen in 2013 and made it way easier for Americans to bid up the prices.

    Interesting aboutt he Genesis releases too, I will have to keep an eye out for those.

  11. As you say, the Japanese market won't run dry anytime soon because there were so many games released.

    In most ways I actually think it is a good thing. The Japanese retro market has dwindled in recent years as you have blogged about earlier. The international interest keeps prices up, which will keep Japanese interest going. If for no other reason than people will be more likely to put up their closet items for sale.

    When it comes to Mega Drive, my theory is that the main collectors are Americans. The Mega Drive was rather distant third in Japan after Super Famicom and Pc Engine and I don't find there being the love in Japan of Mega Drive that you find for SFC and PCE. But I am not an expert in the area. What do you think?

    To answer the last question, I would say that it is possible that certain rarities will find its way back to Japan. Very limited edition consoles and games.
    However, for a less rare game, say there were 50 000 gimmick games released ( a number i have seen as being the minimum famicom release) , and 100 leave Japan per year, it won't have any big effect even in 10 years. I think that the Japanese collectors already have the games they want and won't put them up for sale, so it isn't an exodus.

  12. All good points! About the MD, it does have its followers in Japan but as you say, way fewer that the SFC or PCE. Mandarake has a pretty decent selection of CIB MD games and the prices are high (whether or not people buy them is another story). The PCE is actually probably the most sought after from that gen since it is harder to find than the SFC.

    It is interesting to think about a game like Gimmick. If there were originally 50,000 sold, probably only a small fraction of that still exist in really good, CIB condition. Maybe 5,000-10,000 or so I would guess. Then you would probably have another 20,000-30,000 loose copies with varying degrees of wear and tear, and another 10,000 or so would probably have been broken or lost over the years.

    These are just guesses, but if you`ve only got 5-10,000 really good copies of a highly sought after game, then there are only going to be a small number of those actually available in the market (since most collectors would keep at least one copy for themselves and not be willing to sell it), so even if you have only 100 or so leaving the country a year it can still have a huge effect on the supply of the game available for sale.

  13. This brings to mind thoughts I've had shopping for games in Japan... I wonder if some of them have a nerdy lament that I am clearly taking them outside the country, presumably to never return?

    I can fully understand Japanese people not being interested in most Western games - they don't have the history with them, and they might not be their taste. But when it comes to some aspects, particularly the world of American NES and SNES, I really think the average Japanese Famicom fan would find something to like there. Not only did we have unique cartridge and console shells (actually made in Japan), but we also had original games from the likes of Nintendo (many of them, like StarTropics, actually developed in Japan). I couldn't imagine being a Japanese Nintendo collector and never showing interest in the likes of StarTropics, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters... even more recent stuff like Elite Beat Agents. It's not only Western people - every collector needs to branch out to other regions in order to get the full picture of gaming.

  14. Out of curiosity I had a look on UK ebay for SNES and Megadrive stuff a while back, and the prices are ridiculous! A complete, but sun-damaged and with a battered box SNES was offered for over £200, a mint Super Famicom wouldn't touch that sort of money, not even in Book Off!
    There was also a bunch of actual Super Famicom's on there for similarly nonsense prices. I guess people thought they were on to a winner, buying them from Japan for a "cheap" 3-5000 yen and selling from for more like 30,000 back home... well, if anybody buys them, which is doubtful.