Most collectors were simply “nostalgic” for their childhood games, Dillon explained in a video interview. “There was no idea that games could become artifacts of the past that we want to conserve and preserve.”
A copy of “The Legend of Zelda” became the most expensive video game when it sold for $870,000 at auction last month — but the record stood for just two days. Credit: Courtesy Heritage Auctions
The market for vintage games is rapidly evolving, with auction houses taking notice and game-grading services, like Wata Games, providing certification for the emerging market. (Wata had given the record-breaking Mario game a near-perfect score of 9.8 out of 10, based on the condition of the box, cartridge and manual). An expert nod of approval can now transform a yard sale copy of “Pokémon” into an investment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Collecting is not just Dillon’s hobby, it’s also part of his job. He’s the founder and curator of Singapore’s James Cook University Museum of Video and Computer Games, which charts the sector’s evolution through a 400-strong collection of game memorabilia.
Retro video games have become a kind of modern relic, Dillon said — one intertwined with nostalgia, pop culture and technological history.
“They really show us how technology evolves with the kinds of tastes that we had years ago in gaming,” he said.
A customer buys newly released “Pokemon” games in 1999 in Tokyo. Credit: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images
But not everyone who held onto their old Nintendo or Sega titles will be sitting on a fortune. Many factors dictate the value of a video game, from the number of units produced and the region the game was released in, to whether the cartridge comes in its original box with all the manuals intact.
The “holy grails” are unopened, shrink-wrapped early editions of iconic titles. “If you open it, the value of the game halves,” Dillon explained.
The emergence of professional grading and classification has transformed the space, making it easier for buyers to assess the condition of their purchases. And while game collecting was, in the past, a hobby confined to eBay, Reddit, Facebook groups and forums, interest from high-profile auctions houses is helping boost prices by opening the market to new collectors, from traditional art investors to comic book and trading card enthusiasts.
“Recently, we have seen a surge in more eclectic requests from our clients looking for unique and rare collectibles,” she said over email, adding: “We believe people will always invest in traditional assets such as stocks and real estate, but alternative assets are exactly that.”
Rather than games with limited production runs, it is classic titles from the most popular franchises that attract the highest bids. Dillon said this may be partly because new collectors are more willing to invest in well-known characters that appeal to their sense of nostalgia, such as Mario, Cloud Strife from “Final Fantasy VII” or “Zelda” protagonist Link.
The $1.5 million copy of Super Mario 64. Credit: Courtesy Heritage Auctions
The future of collecting
With today’s games industry moving toward digital-only sales — either via third-party platforms like Steam or directly through PlayStation Network and Nintendo Direct — owning physical games may eventually become a thing of the past.
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As digital sales become the norm, Dillon envisions these limited-edition physical games becoming the next big collectibles. “Twenty years from now, today’s kids will have disposable income and they (will) want to recreate a collection of games from when they were young … they look for the collector’s editions that were launched back in the day, but they didn’t own.”
But Dillon won’t be selling his games anytime soon. “I still hope that I can pass my collection to someone, somewhere, and that someone will appreciate it,” he said.