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Stories of the Video Game Collector

For many of us, waking up on a Saturday morning and playing some Atari 2600 with our brothers and sisters, still clad in our pajamas, are cherished memories we cling to tightly.  A simpler time.  A golden age.  While others move on to newer fads, though, some of us refuse to let go.

Hidden in the shadows of the modern gaming community is a segment of collectors that now search high and low for these games of yesteryear.  Taking a pass on the XBox One selection at their local Target, these gamers invade Goodwill, ARC, and their local flea markets for the dustbin treasures the majority have relegated to ancient history. Websites and Facebook groups, like the Colorado Retro Gamers, have also cropped up to help connect local collectors together for selling and trading.

Jesse Honea and Mike McMaster are two such collectors who spend significant amounts of time each week, often-times futilely, to find that one decades-old gem that could be the highlight of their collection.  In an age where video games fall into the $50-$60 range, these two spend hours digging through boxes of games that will sell between $0.50 and $5 in most cases.  Why do they do it?

“Having and playing the games is the best part.  However, the hunt is just as much fun for me.  Finding a rare game for cheap is definitely a great feeling,” says Mike. His favorite system is Intellivision, a lesser-known system from Mattel that was built to compete with Atari in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  For Mike, collecting the 125 games made for the system isn’t just a hobby either: it’s his life’s mission.

“Nothing will stop me,” declares Mike.

For Jesse, collecting these old games involves a lot of time and patience.  “I go to thrift and video game stores probably 4 days a week. I’m stingy, so I don’t always buy unless it’s a great deal,” Jesse explains.  The deal is everything.  While $5 seems like a minuscule price for a game these days, these collectors don’t have a dozen or two games in their collection like most people may have.  Nor 25. Nor 50.  We’re talking hundreds, if not thousands, of games on their shelves and they desire even more!  If that sounds daunting, it is, and in order to keep their passion in check they need to discriminate on prices down to the buck.  This means buying big bundles of games, or lots, in order to get the cheapest price per cartridge. (Think about how shopping at Costco provides you cheaper prices per pound of pizza roll.)

The typical collection for the long-time collector.  This one features 550 NES games, 130 SNES games, plus tons more titles from various other systems.

The typical collection for the long-time collector. This one features 550 NES games, 130 SNES games, plus tons more titles and consoles in their original boxes.

There’s also a dark side to collecting that always rings in the back of these collectors’ minds.  So much of searching out the big scores involves placing some trust in strangers and taking chances.  Craigslist and word-of-mouth are promising sources of treasure, and sometimes a collector’s hope for a Little Samson or M.U.S.H.A. means risking a visit to some areas of town you may not otherwise journey to.

“One time I bought a Colecovision off a woman on Craigslist.  It didn’t work, I asked for my money back, and her husband threatened to fight me over it.  Wasn’t worth fighting over, I kept what was good and cut my losses,” recalls Mike.  This is all part of the risk, purchasing hardware and software largely on faith.  If you pass on a great deal, you may rue that decision when the next guy comes along and grabs it moments later.

Jesse's Legend of Zelda collection spanning 30 years' worth of systems and merchandise.

Jesse’s Legend of Zelda collection spanning 30 years’ worth of systems and merchandise.

Many times, fortunately, the risk is worth it.  “I once found a TurboExpress at Goodwill for $6 [estimated $200].  I just happened to be there at the right moment!  Another time I found Ducktales 2 for the NES for $1 at a yard sale [estimated $130],” recounts Mike.  With the supply remaining the same, and demand constantly rising, the value of these finds will only increase.

Jesse recalls his greatest find and one for the ages. “My best find was when I found a prototype NES cartridge of Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode. I went to a video game store I go to somewhat often, and I asked if they minded if I went through some of their back-stock of $5 games. They said they were okay with it, so I sat down and went to work. The very first game I looked at had no top label, so I disregarded it and kept looking. I found maybe 20 or so uncommon games that I wanted. But then something brought my eye back to the first game again. I picked it up and looked at it. It had a black-and-white homemade label glued on the front, and it was much heavier than a normal game. I turned it around and saw another label with Vic Tokai’s address and phone/fax numbers instead of the typical back label. And where the center screw should have been, I could see a bit of the circuit board; I knew I had found something special.”

What Jesse found was an extremely rare and highly-coveted prototype cartridge.  These were used for testing by the game’s developers prior to the game’s official release. They provide a unique snapshot of the game in a state it was never meant to be seen by the public, so they’re very highly valued by collectors.  They’re extremely rare and each one is one-of-a-kind.  Since finding and publicizing it, he’s received offers of over $1,000 for it.  Some from well-known YouTube personalities! And he bought it for just $5. It’s this that is what the collector lives for.  Weeks of failure to find anything of significance can be washed away with one great find that will propel them back into the family basements and auction houses to find more, more, more!

So, will the obsession ever stop? Jesse insists, “Definitely not. I’ve been having too good of a time to stop.”  For Mike, he’s made that mistake once before.

“It’s crossed my mind, but I quit when I was 18 and found that my life wasn’t as fun without games.”

And for these two, the quest goes on.

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About John Blanco

John Blanco is an avid game collector and loves to write about his hobby as much as he participates in it. He run the Denver Retro Gamers Facebook group in Denver, Colorado, and coordinates swap-style meetups with dozens of other collectors every couple of months.

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