Eight years after starting up in France, the retrogaming (also known as classic gaming) market is consolidating and setting record sales. The tenth art is gradually carving out a niche in the auction room.
© Diane Al Homsy for the Pastor auction house
With a "Legend of Zelda" cartridge for a Nintendo console fetching no less than $870,000, and a Super Mario 64 cartridge going for $1.56M, gamers dropped their joysticks in surprise at the record-breaking sums achieved at the Heritage Auctions sale in July. Even Nicolas Pastor, an auctioneer from Le Mans, in charge of a retrogaming-themed sale in May, never dreamed of results like these: "I thought it would happen one day, but not so soon." The retrogaming market—playing and collecting old video games—has decidedly moved up a notch.
Initiated by Millon & Associés, the first auction in France (and Europe) entirely dedicated to this specialty only took place in 2013. The highlight of the sale was a Dino Force cartridge designed for the limited-edition PC-Engine console. Only three copies of this shooter game developed in 1992 were released before the production company went out of business. A rare item, then, which sold for €10,000. With ten retrogaming sales under its belt, Millon & Associés has noted a growing craze: "Over the last four sales, between 85% and 90% of lots have found takers, selling for around their high estimates or even more. If we held the 2013 sale again today—one with superb quality items—we would do much better, and would sell even more lots," says Alexis Jacquemard, director of the auction house's pop culture department.
Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Megadrive, Neo-Geo, Saturn, Dreamcast, PlayStation are all consoles that delighted children and teenagers in the 1980s and 1990s, and are now highly sought after by nostalgic 30- and 40-somethings. The profile of collectors is becoming younger: "I see people who didn't grow up with these consoles and are now on the lookout for them," says Kenji Calle, founder of the Retrogameplace sales site. 20-year-olds are interested in consoles that predate their births. The recent re-release of the Nintendo and Megadrive in modernized versions (with not cartridges but memory cards containing pre-installed vintage games) has introduced a new generation to retrogaming. And like any market indexed on the age curve, more recent pieces are gradually entering the specialty. Some titles for PlayStation 2 and GameCube, two consoles released in 2000 and 2001, are already seeing their price index rise. "It's an exponential market. Not everything is going to skyrocket in terms of price. But in our country, retrogaming has become a specialty similar to any other classic specialty," says Alexis Jacquemard.
While gamers are looking mainly for games or consoles, collectors are particularly attentive to the condition of boxes. "With Zelda on Super Nintendo, the cartridge on its own is worth €70. With a box in good condition, it's at least €300," says Kenji Calle. As video games are first and foremost cultural products, the quality of the experience contributes significantly to the resale price. This summer, Millon staged a sale entirely dedicated to Nintendo's small pocket Game & Watch consoles from the 1980s. If Life Boat was the title that sold for the most, at €2,000, it was not just for its rarity, excellent condition or the presence of the double-manual in English and French: "It's really nice to play, and that's part of the equation," says Alexis Jacquemard.
However, a few obscure points remain—like product design. "In my view, the aesthetic success of a cartridge or packaging is not yet substantial enough as regards the final price," says Nicolas Pastor, adding: "It's a market still seeking maturity." Historical and critical work on retrogaming is underway, and it's a huge task. Opinion leaders are emerging, and their views carry weight. "The game Super Mario RPG was released only in Japan on Super Famicom in 1996, and was difficult to find in France. You had to go to the specialist stores in Boulevard Voltaire in Paris. A copy in good condition is now worth €40. Two days before the sale, a Youtuber made a video about this game and we sold it at twenty times the price. There's an obvious link between cause and effect," says the auctioneer from Le Mans.
Beware of Counterfeits
At Millon, a new kind of exacting collector is emerging: "The idea is that the serial numbers of the cartridge, the leaflet and the box should match in every way." If these collectors insist on serial matching or full matching, it is because retrogaming is also prey to counterfeiting. The skullduggery lies in cart-modding: the exchange of a worthless cartridge chip for a blank chip on which a much-sought-after game has been programmed. Originally, this practice was used to translate games into another language, make them compatible with a console or play finished games that were never released. But some malicious sellers "cart-mod" rare games, then resell them by passing them off as original pieces. Internet tutorials explain how to spot fake boarded boxes, and even how to recognize official blister packs to avoid buying a re-blistered game at mint price. To guarantee a product's authenticity, more and more collectors are resorting to grading: a practice borrowed from Pokémon card collectors. The game is sent to a grading company, which gives it a grade based on its condition, rarity, etc., and then returns it to its owner in a sealed plastic case. The Super Mario 64 sold for $1.56 M was graded and had received 9.8/10. Despite this exceptional rating, the amount provoked a spate of outraged comments in the retrogaming world, like "pure speculation", "market manipulation", and even "money laundering".
A black cloud is looming on the horizon of the retrogaming world: for several years now, current video game publishers have only used dematerialized forms. An increasing number of new titles are only available on download platforms. Only Nintendo seems to be sticking with traditional cartridges, with its Switch handheld console. "There's a feeling that publishers want to break with the medium and do away with it. But if, in the long-term, there is no longer physical support, there will be no more new collections to make," says Kenji Calle. However, the big record companies have demonstrated what not to do: after dropping vinyl in the 1990s and 2000s, to the great grief of fans, they are now making up lost ground by flooding the shelves with more or less successful editions. The experience of a video game starts with its box, whose elaborate illustrations leave an indelible impression on players and contribute to the cult of a title. Video game publishers would thus have every advantage in keeping future collectors' desire alive. Tomorrow's retrogaming is being prepared today.