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.  


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.  


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)
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
Field Combat
Ninja  Kun
Hyper Sports
Astro Robo Sasa
Road Fighter
Ice Climber
Hyper Olympics
Nuts & Milk
Space Invaders
Yie Ar Kung Fu
Urban Champion
Front Line

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Mysterious and Lovely Famicom Milk Caps


One of the cooler and rarer Famicom things out there to collect are these guys: Famicom milk caps.  

These things are awesome, yet very little seems to be known about them.  They were distributed with bottles of milk for Japanese kids back in the 1980s, you could pry them out of the top of the bottles like this:

They feature characters from well known Famicom games from the mid-1980s.  The artwork on them is quite striking because it is unique and doesn't just mimic the art on the cart labels or anything.  

I don't know which milk company released these, which is the mystery I'm interested in solving.  There are a LOT of milk companies in Japan.  The little text that wraps around the edge of them doesn't provide any clues, it is just nutritional information about the milk.  The big kanji characters on most of them just say "Milk", except for the Takeshi's Castle one which says "Takeshi's Castle".  

In case you need help matching the milk caps in the above photo to the Famicom games they are:

Ninja JaJa Maru Kun
Takeshi's Castle
Binary Land
Ganbare Goemon
Super Chinese
Makai Mura
Super Mario Bros.

This is far from a complete list, I only have a small fraction of the ones out there.  Which brings me to the second part of the mystery: what does a complete set of these look like?  I've seen the odd group of these pop up here and there, but I don't know of anyone who has a complete set of them nor do I know of any checklist that exists.  These things are quite rare - most of them were thrown out decades ago so only a few seem to have survived which makes them difficult to find.  

There are a few up for sale on Yahoo Auctions right now and I can see some for Wild Gunman, Dig Dug and Pac Land which I don't have, as well as some different versions of Super Mario Bros, Makai Mura and Ganbare Goemon which have different pictures from mine.  

If I stick with this long enough, maybe someday I'll be able to track them all down and be the first to create a full checklist of them!

For now though I'm happy to introduce them to the English language Famicom collecting world, another thing to chase like the menko I discussed in my previous post.   Japanese collectors are already aware of these and prices seem to have gone up quite a bit (along with everything Famicom related) recently, they are listed for about 10$ each on Yahoo Auctions right now.  

Friday, April 9, 2021

Famicom Menko are Amazing


I picked these up the other day, a big pile of Famicom menko.  They are spectacular.

Menko are cards that Japanese kids use to play a game that mainly involves throwing them at other menko on the ground. It is very similar to pogs, though menko have a much longer history in Japan.

There are a few different kinds of Famicom menko out there which were sold in the 1980s, all of them I think  produced by a company called Amada which made a lot of Famicom related ephemera.  About 3 years ago I wrote a post about snagging some rectangular shaped Famicom Menko. The ones I got this week are round and come from a different set, but likely from the same maker.

I have to say, I like these round ones WAY better than the rectangular ones.   One problem with the rectangular ones is that most of the pictures on them are just screen shots from the games which, while kind of cool, also means some of the cards are pretty dull to look at (not all, but probably like half).

With the circular ones though all the pictures are extremely colorful, eye catching compositions which incorporate the game's box artwork.  Which is AMAZING!  Put them in a pile like the ones I have in the top picture on this post and they just blow you away.  

Another cool thing about these is that they were likely issued fairly early in the Famicom's life (all the games were released in 1985 or earlier so probably in that year) so it features some of the most iconic titles out there - Donkey Kong, Mario Bros. Ice Climber, Balloon Fight and so on.  Most of the games are Nintendo's own releases, but there are also games from Konami (Antarctic Adventure, Yie Ar Kung Fu), Taito (Elevator Action, Chack n Pop), Jaleco (Ninja Kun, Exerion, Formation Z) and Hudson Soft (Nuts & Milk, Star Force, Lode Runner, Raid on Bungling Bay).  

So anyway, if you are looking for some more Famicom hidden treasures out there, I recommend putting the round menko on your list. 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Famicom Galaga CIB Completes my Namcot collection


I haven't been posting much recently, mainly due to just being busy.  I did hit a milestone in my Famicom collection that I thought was worth mentioning though.  

7 years ago I did a post detailing my attempt to put together a complete CIB collection of the 18 little Namcot Famicom games. At the time I was just three short of finishing it - Burger Time, Valkrye no Bouken and Galaga.  

I was able to score Burger Time and Valkrye a few years ago, leaving me just missing Galaga to complete the set.  But I got distracted and totally forgot about it for years.  Then the other day my son was playing Galaga (I do have a loose copy of it, its a favorite) and it kind of jogged my memory: "Oh yeah, sitting in a box in a closet somewhere I have all the Namcot games CIB except Galaga.  I should do something about that."

So I got on Yahoo Auctions and looked for CIB copies of Galaga and HOLY CRAP!  I haven't perused Yahoo Auctions for games in over a year and damn, prices have gone through the roof.  I guess this is another one of those weird side effects of the Pandemic, everyone is buying video games so prices have soared.  

Anyway, the best price I could find on a dodgy, beat up CIB copy was about 20$, but I decided to instead go for a nice shiny copy (not new, but close to it), which cost me about 50$.  I think it was worth it, voila:

The collection is complete!

Well, kind of.  My copy of Battle City does not have the manual, and the box is in pretty lousy shape so I might upgrade that one at some point (unfortunately that will be expensive).  Druaga and Super Chinese are also a bit iffy and might also get replaced with nicer copies.  I really wish I had done this 5 years ago when doing so would have probably cost about 1/4 what it will today, but oh well!