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).  


  1. I'm with you on this one. If a person wanted to spend so much on that cartridge, more power to them. But I'd have to think that in time, most of the people who are currently interested in the item will think to themselves, "Okay, it's sealed in plastic and has a high grade. Not worth such an absurd expense." And then they'll move on to something that has appeal for better reasons, like your super-rare, guaranteed 1-of-1 toilet cartridge. (That story had me laughing!)

    1. Yeah, its really hard for me to see the inherent value in it. When we are talking about something that is actually rare (like the Atari Air Raid game) I totally get it. The item itself is rare and interesting. It sort of sells itself in a sense. But when it comes to stuff like this copy of SMB which they have to really dig down deep to explain the reasons why it is "rare" I think they've taken it a few steps too far for most people.

      I mean, I don't want to underestimate the stupidity of the market for this kind of stuff, which is certainly insane enough to sustain prices like this for a while, but I'm not sure if this will hold up in the long run.

  2. Hard disagree with you about the Wagner card being like Air Raid. A bad take based on a false premise. Honus Wagner is literally the best shortstop of all time.

    Just because you haven't heard of him / his Q rating amongst Gen Z'rs isn't high doesn't mean that the card only holds value because of its rarity. To say cultural relevance doesn't matter in sports cards is ludicrous. The "grails" now are all related to Jordan, Lebron, Tom Brady, Mike Trout, etc.

    1. Medium level disagree with your hard disagree.

      You make a fair point that the Wagner/ Air Raid comparison is flawed since it implies that Wagner was a nobody, which clearly he wasn't (you'll note that I mention he is a HOFer and was a star in the early 20th century though). It wasn't meant to be a perfect comparison and clearly it isn't. My point was simply that he isn't a household name (which makes him closer to Air Raid than to Mario).

      I hasten to point out, since my honor as a baseball fan is a bit insulted by the suggestion that I don't know who Honus Wagner is, that I do know who he is. I've been a baseball fan for forty years, I've made the pilgimmage to Cooperstown twice and I write a blog about vintage baseball cards ( ). My point was just that he isn't a cultural icon like Mario is, which is the relevant point. Hell, he isn't even the most famous Pittsburgh Pirate. Since this is a blog about video games and not baseball I didn't think it was necessary to get into the "Who is the best shortstop of all time" debate, but yeah fair point, he was a big star and I did not intend to be-smirch his reputation with the comparison.

      But to make my overall argument clear - if the baseball card hobby in its early days did what the video game hobby is doing today, it wouldn't have settled on the Wagner card as its holy grail. Likely it would have gone with a Babe Ruth card since he is the baseball version of Mario in terms of broader cultural recognition. But instead of making one of his 1933 Goudeys or something the holy grail, it went with the Wagner.

      Also, you are misrepresenting what I said a bit when you say:

      "To say cultural relevance doesn't matter in sports cards is ludicrous."

      I agree, it would be ludicrous to say that. Which is why I never said that. What I said was that in the specific case of the Honus Wagner card, broader cultural relevance isn't what gave it its place as the most valuable card in the hobby.

      That isn't the same as saying cultural relevance doesn't matter to all sports cards. Clearly it does. But even on that note I notice that its only in the past few years that cultural relevance has started to really matter in a big way. This is noticable with the skyrocketing in the price of cards of guys like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, etc - all guys with broader cultural relevance. They were undervalued before but now card collectors are starting to go after them more, because of that cultural relevance (which has always been a factor, but wasn't as big a factor before).

      Its a fair point that my post would have benefitted from a bit more discussion of that, but again its a blog about video games so I didn't want to get into a detailed analysis of the sports card market and instead just focused on the single question of how the Wagner, its most valuable card, earned its place.

      I think my overall point is still valid.

    2. Sorry to impugn your honor as a baseball fan, I did not read clearly enough. I just thought the comparison to Air Raid was flawed. Sure, the T206 is what it is because of the scarcity, but it's not like Wagner is a nobody. It was combination of scarcity and cultural relevance that made that card what it is.

      And given the way the card market is going (there is a Babe Ruth rookie about to sell for millions, if you weren't already aware) -- I'd expect the superstar premium to continue, and that's exactly why I expect SMB to maintain its status as the "grail".

    3. That is a fair point about recent market trends, especially in the past year or so. I think cultural relevance matters way more in sports cards now than it did a decade ago. There seems to be a big divergence happenning between the real A list HOFers who are household names (Ruth, Jackie Robinson, etc) and the more medium level HOFers who are only well known to baseball fans (like an Eddie Matthews). Of course these guys were always more valuable, but the gap is widening.

  3. I love this article because it meticulously deconstructs the whole situation we're in now. Very well done. It's all accurate. The only thing to add is that ones inside our hobby, from the husk of NintendoAge, are responsible for redefining what matters and effectively bringing the hobby to a new low. They did this by applying comic book collector logic, which as you illustrated, doesn't apply here.

    Yet somehow it stuck? How did these millionaires not see right through this? If they did maybe a hour of research, they'd realize exactly what you pointed out - there is no true demand for the Air Raids of the world, because there is no Super Air Raid 3D Allstars and the demand lies in common games because those are the Supermans and Batmans and things do not line up. What NA did was reflow a toilet so it backs up when you flush it.

    Also additionally, it's all the best condition highest graded hangtab no code no TM circle seal SMB1 in existence. Just a desperate attempt to create an Action Comics #1 out of thin air. It's bullshit and I still can't believe people fell for it.

    Your blog is always a fun read but articles like this show you got great chops. Whatever a chops is. But you've got it.

    1. Hi Dave, thanks a lot for the kind comment, its really nice to get positive feedback!

      I've often wondered about the Nintendo Age clique, I had an account on their forums which I used a bit about 10 years ago but not much. Then I checked back last year after a lengthy absence and realized it had disappeared completely, with loads of people complaining about them selling out or something but I never got the full story about what was going on.

      "it's all the best condition highest graded hangtab no code no TM circle seal SMB1 in existence."

      Ha! Exactly, its just way too much of a mouthful to really be worth all that. I suspect the wealthy buyers don't really care, but as a regular collector I just find myself not impressed at all by it.

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