Primer: Collecting Retro Video Games

As the gaming industry develops its technology further to create increasingly realistic graphics and believable AI, the market for its antiquities of its past remains strong. Some games for long-retired platforms are as hotly desired as new releases. For some collectors, the 8-bit era has never gone out of vogue.

It can be a little daunting to enter these waters now. There are great sources hiding in plain sight while the most obvious suppliers – like eBay – can be treacherous to the uninitiated. But the payoff can be just as high for collectors.

Are you looking to start your very own museum of video game history in your living room? Or just looking to relive the treasures from your past sold in some garage sale years ago? Here are some tips for starting your retro video game collection.

Note: “Retro” can be a very misleading term. For the purposes of my blog, I use “retro” to refer to anything from previous generations or platforms, which may not be in production anymore, but the older the game/system, the more fitting the term. It’s a little weird to refer to PlayStation 3 as something retro, but it’s transitioning into this status right now.

1) Set priorities

There are countless options to pursue for your collection, and once you are out seeking items it can be overwhelming. So many games, so little time, so little money!

Your first priority should be setting your priorities. Ask yourself:

  • What platform or series do you most want to collect? Do you want to pull your PS2 out of that box in your closet, or get back the PlayStation you traded in at EB to buy the PS2? Do you own all the games in your favourite series? Start with the favourite system you still own, or the one you never owned.
  • What condition do you want your games in? The market for CIB (Complete In Box) games is particularly strong for older cartridge games from the start of the medium to the N64; many collectors are not content with just the game itself but want its box and manuals as well. Before you collect too much, you should decide how important the games’ physical condition is. Do you need all the physical trappings or do you just want the game itself? Do you care if your games don’t have the original jewelcase slips?
  • How much will I invest in this? In terms of time and money, that is. It can take some time to hunt down that cherished piece for your collection in the proper shape, and it may cost a pretty penny when you find it. It’s also easy to go on a spree when you find a store with a wealth of treasures. Limit yourself early.
  • What do I most want to actually play? For some, it’s enough to collect a library, but the point of games is to play them. The ones you have an urge to play should go to the top of your list.

To illustrate: Let’s say you love the 2D Metroid games but never played the Prime series, and your GameCube library is lacking. You decide to get Metroid Prime and Prime 2: Echoes for GameCube, and you won’t accept the cases if they aren’t original or have reproduced covers. Prime is naturally your top priority, since Echoes is its sequel, and you set aside a small amount of money to pick it up when you find it. Down the line, Echoes or even Prime 3: Corruption for Wii will come to the top of your list.

If you approach this with some clear intents, you may walk away empty-handed sometimes but you’ll have more cash to buy the things you want most later.

2) Find dedicated local stores and events

It benefits you and your community to find things locally. You don’t have to pay exorbitant shipping fees or wait for purchases to arrive, and shopkeepers in your neighbourhood can use your patronage. Online vendors make things easy, but approach them as Plan B – you’ll likely find better bargains the “old-fashioned” way.

In the age of social media, Facebook and Twitter can be great resources for finding these stores, and what can’t be found on Google? Look up “retro video games” (or use “vintage” instead) and you may be surprised at the options hiding within driving range.

Keep an eye out for big events as well, such as swap meets or game tournaments. These are great opportunities to connect with retailers. (Live in Ontario? Then check out the VGCC – they host a fantastic event in Waterloo twice a year, and their website has a directory of stores.)

Don’t underestimate the power of flea markets, thrift shops, garage sales, and sites like Kijiji and Craigslist, either. Many flea markets have dedicated game booths, and some people don’t know how valuable their kids’ forgotten consoles truly are. More people are flocking to online classifieds to get better resale deals than those EB/GameStop offer. All of these help other people in your physical community.

3) Shop around

One of the greatest pros and most frustrating cons of this pursuit is the fluctuation of prices. Some merchants sell popular games at increased prices to capitalize – not much you can do about the basic principle of supply vs demand. Others are more realistic.
This is where the internet is your friend. Start with price guides, or by seeing what the game you want goes for on eBay. Then check out those local shops you found nearby, or try Kijiji, and see how prices fluctuate or compare to the norm.

For example: I went to a familiar price guide and looked up Tomba!, a somewhat obscure cult hit on the original PlayStation and a piece I’d like to add to my collection. Here’s what the guide returned today:

Fluctuating prices are your best friend and worst enemy.

The disc alone runs the gambit from $8 to $50; complete with jewel case and manual, it’s $54-65; and for an incredibly rare unopened-new copy, I’m looking at over $200. And this is all from online retailers, before factoring in shipping rates. When it comes to PlayStation, I just want a proper jewel case with the original manual and covers, and a functional disc – so I know $60 is a relatively fair medium. If I could find it nearby, $80 would perhaps be too much and $40 would be a steal.

You can also use what I refer to as the “Majora’s Mask Test.” Whenever I find a new retailer or visit a different booth at the VGCC’s big swap meet, I look for certain high-demand items – like The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on Nintendo 64. It’s a piece missing from my collection, so I’ve had my eye out for it for some time, and it’s one of the first items I seek in this situation. If a store has it at all, I’m impressed – and then the test truly begins. How much do they charge for a game like this, with a strong legacy and a high demand? Something in the ballpark of $50 (Canadian) is average, but most stores are closer to $70, if not $90. Meanwhile I once saw it for $30, and that store immediately earned my loyalty. (Side note: I passed on it that day and have kicked myself every time I’ve gone back since.)

I know my local retailers well enough to know that I can go to Retailer A in a flea market and have a decent chance of finding something rare like Majora’s Mask, but that they’ll also charge a higher price for it. I can go to Retailer B and have a smaller chance of finding it but a better chance at a lower price. Or I can try Retailer C in a neighbouring town that has average availability at average prices.

It can take some time to establish this familiarity with your local sources, but it pays off in the end – if you know where to go hunting, and if you know who will give you a better bang for your buck.

Holograms = $$$

4) Use online retailers as a last resort, but be wary

You’ve had no luck finding that perfect copy of Tomba! nearby, and your fingers are itching to play it again. It may be time to resort to eBay or its ilk.

But caveat emptor – by now it’s no surprise that you may not be getting what you pay for online, and the prices stray toward the high end of the spectrum. Many online retailers are the worst sort of opportunists, and you are a faceless sucker to them.

There are many reasons not to overpay for something on sites like eBay; aside from the harm to your own wallet, you’re also feeding the trolls. This is a particular bad time for “scalpers” on eBay, with Nintendo’s under-produced hot items like Amiibos, the GameCube Adapter for Wii U, and the special editions of Majora’s Mask 3DS and the New 3DS itself. Online sharks have been snapping up preorders to resell on eBay at horribly gauged prices – sometimes triple the retail price. People want these collectables desperately and the scalpers are exploiting them horrendously.

Please, for the good of all gamers, DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS. If you buy that jerk’s Majora’s Mask Special Edition New 3DS for double the price or more, you are letting him win and encouraging him to continue. Retailers should not be letting people pick up preorders like this, but regardless, you’re “letting the terrorists win” if you buy from them. And after all, is it really worth $800, even $1000, for a $230 console?

5) Have patience!

This hobby/endeavour lives and dies by availability. It may take you a long time to find a copy of that gem you desire at a price you can handle. You may make the trek to your favourite game store only to find they don’t have anything near the top of your priority list. Be prepared to leave empty-handed.

Think in the long term. If you can’t find the items you want on your terms, just put the money you’re ready to fork out back into your wallet and wait for the proper opportunity. Some soccer mom will clean out her basement soon enough and trade an unknown gold mine in at your favourite store, or another gamer will decide to let go of that game you covet.

Consider trading as well. I know of some stores that would rather trade games than take your cash, and swapping item-for-item with other collectors can be the cheapest way to build your library. Just be absolutely certain that you’re not trading away something you’ll regret down the line, or getting swindled.

A sizeable chunk of my own collection.

A few more tips for the road:

  • Prices can fluctuate. When Twitch Plays Pokemon took the internet by storm last spring, the price of every Game Boy and Game Boy Advance iteration of the main series jumped about $20 at stores near me. I recently hesitated on Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for GameCube at Retailer A for about $30, and now it’s inexplicably $100 there. Conversely, the HD Remasters/Remakes that are flooding the new retail market can help deflate the price of the original cartridges. Trends can disrupt prices temporarily or redefine a game’s worth for years to come.
  • Think of storage sooner rather than later. All those game cases and boxes can take up a lot of shelf space, but there are a wealth of ingenious ideas for displaying your collection. You’re doing yourself a favour if you get off to a good start on this early on, before you have a mountain to shuffle around.
  • Test your new games! The first thing you do when you bring a new game home is make sure it works as advertised. The best stores clean, test, and guarantee every item they sell, but it doesn’t hurt to verify the quality of your purchase and make sure it will work on your own system. Check the condition of the case and cartridge and ensure it will actually play, or else you’re the proud owner of a new paperweight.
  • Make lists of games you own & want to own. Maybe it’s just my traces of OCD, but I find it incredibly handy to have a list of my collection and a wishlist on my phone, in this case in a dedicated game collection app. I highly recommend it, if you care to fret over such a thing.

That’s all the advice I can impart for now. What are the gems of your game collection? Who are your favourite  suppliers? What game would you give your life savings for? Let me know in the comments below! Good luck and game on!

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Growing Pains: Pitfalls of Internet Dependence

After a year of anticipation and saving, I finally obtained a brand new, shiny Playstation 4 this past Boxing Day. I reverently set it up, powered it on, and waited to be blown away… only to be undercut by Sony’s downed servers. Without being able to connect to the PlayStation Network servers, I couldn’t access my profile from PS3, update the games I’d bought, or redeem the voucher for LittleBigPlanet 3 included with my console. Nor could I check out Destiny, or start a worthwhile game of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I couldn’t import my World State from EA’s save date transfer service. The thrill of my new console was quickly quelled when half of its functionality was inaccessible.

It’s not Sony’s fault they were hacked – I won’t touch on the motivations of the attack, but it wasn’t their choice to have their servers down as the biggest annual influx of new console owners arrived. However, the incident did illustrate to me a major problem with today’s gaming industry: internet dependence.

Hard as it may be to process, the internet is still a fairly new aspect of our lives. Fifteen years ago it was a luxury item or curiosity at best; the majority of North American civilization may be dependent upon their smartphones for many major aspects of their daily lives, but those same people were at least born in a day where these wondrous devices were nothing more than science fiction.

And of course, the gaming industry has embraced the technology with open arms, as it should. It’s a natural progression as the medium grows – like the jump from two controllers to four, expanding the number of potential players from four people playing on the same local system to four strangers playing from four remote systems makes sense. These features have enriched and revitalized many franchises, and draw new players.

There are a handful of ways in which online multiplayer is currently bogging down games and, in a way, the industry as a whole.

Problem #1: Shoehorning
Some genres and games stand as online-only – MMORPGs, MOBAs, etc. These games, like World of Warcraft or League of Legends, are designed from square one as online games and arguably wouldn’t thrive if they had offline modes. There’s room in the industry for them.

But not every game needs an online multiplayer mode, let alone a multiplayer mode of any kind. Let’s use Assassin’s Creed as an example. The third entry in the series, Brotherhood, introduced an online multiplayer mode. On paper, it seemed bizarre; the first two games had been excellent single-player endeavours with no obvious room for such an addition. How could you translate Desmond’s experience reliving his ancestor’s accomplishments via the Animus into something 2-16 players could experience simultaneously?

To Ubisoft’s credit, the concept of the online mode was novel, if not ingenious: they put players in the shoes of the villainous Abstergo’s recruits as they used the Animus to become footsoldiers worthy of countering the Assassins. But the gameplay did not hold up as well. It was jittery and nervous, watching every generic character to see if one was behaving like a real person and not an algorithm, trying to find the person you were to kill and avoid the person trying to kill you. It was almost like rock-paper-scissors while suffering a panic attack. After a couple rounds, the concept was spent for most players. The gameplay was shallow, despite the wealth of unlockables and improvements to be earned, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the players who stuck it out and hit the level cap were just completionists hunting the exclusive Trophies.

In Brotherhood, this was an oddity; in the years that followed, it was a detriment to Revelations and ACIII. ACII and Brotherhood are commonly seen as the high point of the series, while III is widely reviled as a disappointment or outright failure. Had the resources that were put into including multiplayer in those two games been reassigned to improving the core campaign, would these two entires not been the faltering point of the series?

There’s a certain pressure to include online multiplayer in the age of Call of Duty, but outside of the FPS genre, should developers really bow to it? Did the Tomb Raider reboot or Dragon Age: Inquisition really need this addition? They were excellent games in their own right, and the absence of multiplayer would not have condemned them.

Problem #2: Future Functionality
Another angle to consider is how games will hold up over time. The retro gaming niche is stronger than ever these days, as collectors heap piles of games higher and as parents introduce their children to the games they played when they were that age. You can easily find an old functional NES, pop in a Super Mario Bros cartridge, and take a nostalgia trip. (Of course, this is getting a little more complicated as technology advances, but there are still workarounds like the lineup of Retron systems.)

Will this be the case for the past two generations of consoles? Someday a man who was raised on the multiplayer of Modern Warfare on his 360 will dust off his console and try to show his son what he spent so much time playing as a kid – and will he find functional servers to play on? Highly unlikely.

This has already affected things like Nintendo’s servers for the Wii and DS. Last year they were taken offline and suddenly a host of games like Pokemon, Smash Bros Brawl, and Mario Kart lost a chunk of their features. It’s happened with a host of PC games in the past. How big will the outcry be when the 360 and PS3 lose their functionality?

There needs to be something there that can stand when the scaffolding of online features is kicked out from beneath us, something that can survive the test of time. It’s the same reason I can’t fully endorse e-reading – I’ve studied history, I know how important it is to have some kind of archive future generations can access.

Solution: Pass the Gravy?
Game developers should be treating online functionality as gravy – a little added flavour to the meat of the single-player campaign, or in certain dire situations, something to enrich a dry piece of meat and help slide it down your gullet.

I’m going to use Nintendo as an example here. They’ve stumbled to create a cohesive online platform for their systems, which Sony and Microsoft both did so easily at the start of the last generation – they still use an archaic Friend Code system, and there’s still some nuisances with their eShop when you own multiple systems, but they’ve made strides in the last year with the Wii U and Miiverse.

But look at the online features of their first-party games. Super Smash Bros has a robust competitive environment and the functionality is in place for players to compete against random strangers – but it’s just one of a host of options available from the main menu. It’s no different than setting up a battle with CPUs or your buddies on the same couch. It wouldn’t have been a huge demand on the developers’ time; unlike AC:Brotherhood‘s multiplayer, it wasn’t an entirely unique game within their game that required a whole host of its own assets. It’s the kind of mode Sakurai could have added later in development. Online play is the gravy to the main game’s roast beef – there if you want it, but the entree itself is so delicious you may not need it at all.

Mario Kart 8 is a similar situation. Online play is there at the main menu, but there’s no obligation to try it and it didn’t detract from the development of the main game modes. You’ll be able to pop the game into your system twenty years from now and get the full experience.

The Pokemon games on 3DS are a great example of the enrichment online play can bring. There’s a whole menu on the bottom screen for interacting with other players, which can really help you access Pokemon you might not have been able to find otherwise, or at least make accessing multiplayer features so much easier than in previous games – you can do these things at any time outside of battle or conversation instead of detouring to the nearest Pokemon Center. Without features like the Global Trading System or Wonder Trade, you aren’t really missing much, but with them you have one more neat little trick at your disposal.

There seems to be too much emphasis put on online functionality in today’s industry – to continue the metaphor, developers are spending too much time on the gravy, putting too much on the meat of their games. If it needs to be present, it needs to be on the side, there if you desire it but not smothering your meal.