I noticed something alarming the other day which is a problem I think a lot of retro gamers are having these days.
I can’t play with a lot of my retro gaming stuff anymore. Its just become too damn valuable.
This is a weird problem that most people would probably like to have, but its still a problem worth having a talk about because I think it will eventually completely destroy retro gaming as a hobby. In fact, I think it is inevitable.
It occurred to me when my 6 year old son discovered some of my rarer Famicom games the other day. I found myself telling him that we couldn’t play with them because they were so rare. Which made me feel stupid. Did I really just tell a kid he couldn’t play video games because we have to keep them in a box and make sure nobody ever touches them so they don’t get any damage?
Yup, that was me, I did that. What have I become?
Well, a collector I guess. Which is not the same as a retro gamer.
The hobby of "retro gaming" that I entered back when I bought my first Famicom in 2008 consisted solely of playing old video games on their original hardware. This isn't the only way to define it of course but its how I've always approached it. I love the “real” experience that involves untangling a ton of cords, blowing on carts to try to make them work, having a game freeze mid-way through because you accidentally bumped the console and all that stuff.
Now being a retro gamer also entails a certain amount of retro game collecting in the sense that a gamer needs to accumulate games to play which is basically what collecting is. Back in 2008 the two activities went hand in hand. But recently a huge gap has been opening between them since they aren't exactly the same and they operate by different rules. While playing games necessitates collecting them, the opposite is not true - you don't need to play games if you collect them. Collecting by itself, which lots of people are doing now, is all about hunting, discovering, cataloguing, preserving, displaying and just plain owning things. It’s a very different set of activities. And these activities are starting to conflict with each other in ways they didn't before. To illustrate how this is happening, I'd like to introduce a concept I call the "Gimmick! Trap."
The Gimmick! Trap
The game Gimmick! for the Famicom provides a good example of the problem I’m worried about and its longer term implications for retro gaming as a hobby distinct from retro game collecting. Basically the problem is that nobody can play an original copy of this damn game anymore.
Ten years ago I was lucky enough to stumble along a nice CIB copy of Gimmick! for just 100 Yen (about one dollar)! And you know what I did with it? I took it home and played it with my wife.
Now even back then Gimmick! was a fairly valuable game, but it wasn’t bonkers insane valuable. I later purchased a second copy for a friend which I only paid 3900 Yen for (about 40 dollars) which came out of the glass showcase in Fukuoka’s Mandarake (kind of which I had kept that one). That was just a loose copy but still, the price was still in the ballpark of what a new game costs anyway, so just busting out my copy and playing it on the Famicom didn’t really entail any major downside.
Today though? CIB copies of Gimmick! now routinely sell for over a thousand dollars each. A thousand dollar asset to your average person (like me) is a big deal. There is just no way I can justify ever playing that game again. A simple and commonplace incident like one of my kids spilling juice on it and ruining the label would reduce my wealth by hundreds of dollars. I can’t take that risk.
Now you might be shaking your head and saying “Seriously? You lucked out and bought a game that is now worth 1,000 times more than you paid for it and you are complaining? STFU!” And you’d be right, which is why I want to make clear that I am not complaining about this (hooray, my copy of Gimmick! is valuable!) but rather using it to illustrate the fact that this shift has occurred with an increasing number of games. For those of us who view retro gaming as a hobby that involves playing original games on original systems, we’ve basically had to scratch Gimmick! off our list of games that we can ever play that way (well, except for particularly wealthy ones who can afford to take the loss if their kids have a juice related mishap in its presence, but they are in the minority).
Another side-issue with the Gimmick! trap is that it is going to affect different parts of the retro gaming hobby with differing levels of severity. For example, most Famicom carts are still plentiful and can be had cheaply for anyone wanting to play them (thank god!), but the same cannot be said of most Famicom accessories. The console has a lot of really interesting controllers and oddball items that were only sold in small quantities and tracking these down to play with them was once one of the funner aspects of being a Famicom guy like myself. My inflatable Top Rider motorcycle is a good example of these:
I have an old one which works well but has some wear on it (and I didn’t pay much for it) so I felt OK in giving it to my kids to play with last year. Those things are crazy hard to find though and in decent condition they now sell for hundreds of dollars each. My kids may very well be the last children to ever play with one because nobody in their right mind is going to plunk down 500$ on an inflatable motorcycle for their kids to play with. The other great inflatable controller for the Famicom – the Exciting Boxing inflatable boxer which you can punch – which I unfortunately don’t have now sells for thousands of dollars each and my kids (and I) will probably never get the chance to play with one. So the range of stuff out there available to be played as opposed to just collected is really getting quite slim in terms of accessories.
How Much of a Problem is this?
Its important to note that the Gimmick! trap has only befallen a few titles and isn’t generally representative of what is happening with the majority of games which, for the most part, remain available at prices reasonable enough that you don’t have to worry about it. Part of this is because high money collectors have seriously narrowed their focus to only either rare games or minty NIB games while ignoring everything else. So while gem mint NIB copies of Super Mario Bros. for the Famicom now routinely sell for thousands of dollars on Yahoo Auctions (which is crazy BTW), this hysteria hasn’t had any real effect on the price of loose copies of the exact same game which are about as cheap and easy to find now as they were a few years ago. So right now collecting isn’t posing a serious existential threat to retro gaming, but is more nibbling on the edges at it (with the exception of things like accessories like noted above).
That said, I have a nagging concern that this trend is going to get worse as time goes by and eventually retro gaming as I know it is going to be completely swamped by it.
Part of this isn’t really collecting’s fault but rather the simple fact that there are a finite number of old video game carts out there and by its nature the hobby of retro gaming involves putting physical stress on them. Video game carts were made to last and most can certainly take a beating, but on a timescale of decades all those pins won’t last forever. And for other media which weren't built to last like that (Game and Watches with their screen rot, whatever it is that does discs in after a few decades, etc) the problem is probably going to be way worse.
Retro game collecting doesn’t pose that same problem – collectors just buy these things to have them and are content for them to sit on a shelf, which is obviously way better for the carts in terms of long term survivability.
At the moment with most games retro gamers and retro game collectors aren’t really chasing the same thing (with most games at least) since collectors only go after the stuff in nice condition, while gamers can be satisfied with going after the stuff that can still be played even if it doesn’t look too pretty. So they, with a few exceptions (like Gimmick!), can mutually co-exist in peace and harmony without one's respective approach to their shared interest in retro games interfering with the other’s.
Over the long term though, the supply of playable copies of games out there is inevitably going to go down as we retro gamers “use them up” so to speak. This isn’t going to happen overnight and its going to be way more of an issue with games that only sold 200,000 copies compared to games that sold 10,000,000, but so long as we keep playing them its going to happen. Meanwhile if retro game collecting continues to develop and expand as a hobby (which current trends suggest will happen) then more and more of the remaining stock of old games is going to be getting locked up in people’s collections. And at some point, the frictions between retro gamers and retro game collectors which are only playing out in isolated areas now are probably going to expand as the two groups start finding that there is more overlap between them in terms of what they are looking for.
Take Rockman for the Famicom as an example of a game that might be on the verge of falling into this category. This is a game that is very popular for its play value among retro gamers AND very sought after by retro game collectors because it is so iconic. Until now though it hasn’t really fallen into the Gimmick! trap because there are a lot more copies of it out there, enough to satisfy the demand of both groups without driving the price completely through the roof.
But at the same time, it has been slowly inching its way to falling into that trap for a while now. Its more common than Gimmick! but a lot harder to find than similarly iconic titles like SMB (or the other Rockman games for that matter). I have a loose copy of it that I still consider playable, but I’m also aware that its getting close to that price point where I might have to say “Damn, I can’t justify playing this anymore”. If retro gaming loses a major centerpiece like Rockman then this issue is probably going to be way more noticeable than it is now. The more such games we lose, the closer we come to a tipping point where people realize that if they want to play the best retro games out there they’ll have to do so on modern hardware without using the original games.
When that happens, retro gaming as we know it will be dead.
Are We All Going to become Collectors?
Are we all going to become game collectors? Well, its not our only option. Some will decide to collect. Some will decide to play retro games on modern systems. Some will take up bird watching as a hobby. I have no idea what everyone is going to do. But the hobby that surrounds the vintage game carts (and systems and accessories) themselves is inevitably going to morph from one being centred on "retro gaming" as I define it, to one centred almost entirely on "collecting". Its already happening now and there really isn't anything we can do to stop it. The real question is when are we going to look up and notice that this trend which is playing out in very slow motion will have so totally transformed the hobby? I'm guessing we have at least a couple of more good decades of playable Famicom games being available at cheap enough prices that retro gaming is still viable as a casual hobby. But this is just a guess, we might be lucky and push it out well beyond that. If anything its impressive that we've managed to keep retro gaming using cart based systems up this long - I'm amazed that my kids have a bunch of carts which are about 35 years old and can still be played without any problems. I mean, that would have been the equivalent of kids playing with toys from the late 1940s in 1983 when the Famicom came out, which I don't think happened very often.