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Deep-Pocketed Collectors Are Fueling A Retro Game Gold Rush

Joshua Entin holds high-grade copies of the NES games Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and Metroid.
Photo: Courtesy Joshua Entin

Danielle Smith has spent half a million dollars on rare video games, most of it in the last nine months. And she’s just getting started.

“I really just want the best of the best,” said Smith, 35.

That half a million bucks has only bought her around 200 games. Last week, she spent $2,650 on a sealed copy of Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo. Smith, a comic dealer from Florida, is just one of many deep-pocketed collectors who have only recently started splashing out in earnest on games.

“Comic book people and art people are coming in, and we want rare games that are hard to find,” she said.

Even longtime video game collectors like myself have been stunned at the news as of late. Games that just a few years ago might have only sold for a few thousand dollars are quickly exploding into five- and six-figure valuations. First, there was the sealed copy of Super Mario Bros. that sold on eBay for $30,000. This year, an earlier print of the game sold for $100,150. And it’s not just the first Super Mario that’s powered up in price. By now you’ve probably heard the story of the sealed copy of the NES classic Kid Icarus that sold for over $9,000. Sales of sealed games are shattering records left and right—and if you want to know why, just follow the money.

Numerous sources speaking to Kotaku for this story have all said the same thing: The past two years have seen an influx of new money coming in to the classic game collecting scene, primarily high-end collecting experts from other areas of interest like comic books, Magic cards, and coins. They see video games as the next big thing. Like a mint-condition Action Comics issue 1 might be the ultimate trophy of nostalgia for the superhero age of the mid-20th century, so too might a sealed Mario be the perfect bottling of the pop-culture moment of the 1980s.

And these new collectors are ready to spend to get their hands on the best, rarest, mintiest copies, because they’ve seen what happened in their own collecting fields when prices started to rise.

“I truly believe that we are on the brink of something really epic and incredible happening,” said Smith, who says she’s recently been selling off rare comics to fund more video game buys.

Thus far, the world of classic video game collecting has been mostly driven by avid gamers seeking complete sets of games for a certain platform. That’s what caused Stadium Events, an unremarkable and largely forgotten exercise game from the 1980s, to become for a time the most desired, rarest Nintendo Entertainment System game. You couldn’t complete your set without it, so up went the price, even though by itself it held almost no nostalgic appeal.

“You show Stadium Events to someone on the street, they’re not going to know what the hell you’re talking about. But you show anyone Mario and immediately they can sing you the jingle from the first level,” says Deniz Kahn, the president of Wata Games, a company that authenticates and assesses collectible video games.

That’s what Danielle Smith, and others like her, want. They want something that matches their comic collections: a small batch of games representing key moments in gaming, in the best condition possible. A “sticker-sealed” early copy of Super Mario, a sealed Metroid, a first-print Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Although she’s been collecting comics for 15 years, Smith’s personal collection only numbers around 90 books that, even encased in their protective plastic slabs, fit into three small boxes. But those boxes contain an Action Comics issue 1, the first appearance of Superman, that Smith estimates to be worth about $750,000. She’s also got a Detective Comics 27, the first appearance of Batman.

These books are extremely rare and valuable in any condition. But Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and Punch-Out are some of the most common NES games out there. In this case, the condition drives the value. A loose copy of Metroid with no box is a five-dollar game. But a mint, sealed, first-print copy is so difficult to find that its price would be more like five figures.

“Someone said, you know, there’s a lot of copies of that game, so you don’t want to buy more than one copy,” Smith said a collector told her at one point about Punch-Out. “And they’re like, there’s 50 sealed copies. And my mind was kind of like, what the hell? Like, that’s Action 1 rarity.”

Danielle Smith with her collection of Action Comics, including the first appearance of Superman..
Photo: Nerdy Girl Comics

Joshua Entin, 43, a lawyer from Fort Lauderdale, is another longtime Golden Age comic collector who’s jumped into the deep end of the pool with video game collecting over the last two years. He got the collecting bug from his dad, who would take Josh along as he scoured stores for old issues of EC Comics back in the pre-eBay days. Today, the younger Entin’s comic collection includes many books valued in the five-figure range, and in the last two years he’s spent about $75,000 buying up about 200 NES games: a sealed Zelda, a sealed Mario, etc.

Entin first saw the appeal of collecting games when he saw a game that had been authenticated and graded by Deniz Kahn’s company Wata Games, which is to the video game world what the Certified Guaranty Company, better known by its acronym CGC, is for comics. Its panel of experts assesses collectible games, assigns them a numerical condition rating, and seals them in an attractive plastic display case.

“I did see one of their games in a prototype case and I was blown away by it,” Entin said. “It was sealed, it was nostalgic, I thought it presented incredibly well.” That’s when Entin knew he wanted some of these games on his shelf. “A switch went off, and I said to myself, I have to get into this, this is awesome.”

The high-profile emergence of Wata Games onto the scene last year seems to have been the inflection point that caused many comic collectors to get interested in games. A similar service called Video Game Authority has been operating for over a decade, but Wata seems to be attracting new collectors in a way that VGA has not. Wata also shrewdly aligned itself with Heritage Auctions, the massive auction house that specializes in pop culture memorabilia. Heritage began putting Wata-certified games into its listings and thus created more awareness of the trend.

“They’ve made it easier for comic people because they use a similar grading scale,” said Smith. “It makes the crossover easier. Because a 9.4 is a 9.4, a 9.2 is a 9.2, and it’s easier for us to correlate that.”

NES games graded by Wata.
Photo: Courtesy Joshua Entin

This was all by design, said Kahn. “The closest parallel between video games and any other collectible industry that’s matured is, without a doubt, comics,” he said.

“Comics transcend just the books into the Marvel Universe, and the same thing with video games today,” he said. “In all three major Universal parks, we’re going to have a Nintendo-themed park. We’re now starting to see, between the Pikachu and the Sonic movie, that they’re making their foray into movies. It’s just something that’s recognizable, whether it’s the characters or the medium itself.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised that the next big thing [is] something like a Metroid movie or a Zelda movie,” said Entin, in the way that the Superman or Batman films raised the cultural awareness of the original comics. “Once that happens I think it’s going to take a lot of these to another level.”

Kahn sees the 8-bit NES era of the mid-1980s as the parallel to the “Golden Age” of comics, the days of Superman and Batman, characters that have survived for nearly a century. There were comic books before Superman, and those early “Platinum Age” books are much rarer than even Action Comics issue 1—but practically nobody’s interested in them.

So too does video games have its “Platinum Age”—the era of Atari. “Extremely rare, but not necessarily very desirable,” Kahn said. “Some of the rarest games don’t even command close to the same premium as NES.”

“I can certainly tell you I’m not alone in this newfound endeavor,” said Entin. “I’m certainly nowhere near as invested financially as many comic book colleagues of mine, and hobbyists that have come into this in the last year. There are some that I know have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of games” in the last year, he said. He gets offers from other collectors looking to buy his games from him “every day.”

Since they got into collecting, Entin and Smith have both discovered a passion for all the little details, the variations of the games that let you tell if a particular copy of Super Mario Bros. is a highly-valued first edition, or a comparatively less desirable later version. On Mario, you’re looking for the top flap of the cardboard box to be sealed with a small round sticker with the Nintendo logo on it, and that sticker should have a matte finish, not glossy. For Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, you need to look at the bullet-pointed list of features on the front cover. If the bullets are colored white, that’s a first print.

Most longtime game collectors aren’t so obsessive about these details. In general, once a collector got a Kid Icarus, any Kid Icarus, the gap in their set was complete and they’d move on to the next, more obscure, game. When the first stories about the Kid Icarus began to hit the news, before the auction went live, many posts in game collecting forums outright scoffed at the idea that the game could reach a price of $10,000.

There were always a few veteran collectors who had long obsessed over print runs and variations, but they mostly shared their knowledge with each other, buried in pages on pages of scattershot forum posts on enthusiast message boards.

The “Bros.” appears to Mario’s left, overlapping his hand, on a first edition Super Mario Bros. 3.
Photo: Wata Games

“There wasn’t a lot of education available for video games,” Danielle Smith said. She attended a recent classic gaming convention, Too Many Games, in Philadelphia earlier this year, and it was like she was speaking a different language. “I was surprised at how little knowledge some dealers, that have been doing this for—and I don’t want to say this in a negative way, so please don’t think I am—but they had no idea that, like, a ‘Left Bro’ Super Mario 3 was a first print.” (The first run of boxes for Super Mario Bros. 3 put the “Bros.” in the logo to Mario’s left side, which was changed by the second printing.)

“I was a little mind-blown by that because I’m like, this is your job,” she said. “I think that’s also why they’ve been so undervalued for so long.”

Smith, under the name Nerdy Girl Comics, is one of those few remaining comic vendors that still sets up shop at San Diego Comic-Con. As you might imagine, she doesn’t exactly vend boxes full of half-priced graphic novels. She’s got a glass case full of extremely rare books, all CGC-graded and encased in plastic. This year, she topped off the case with some Wata-graded games.

“I put prices on them, but they weren’t really for sale,” she said of the games. “It was more to draw attention and just have conversations. At first it was astounding to me, how many people came to my booth and were more excited about video games than comic books.” Even at the “not really for sale” very high prices that Smith put on her games, she actually sold one. “A longtime comic book buyer of mine ended up buying a Punch-Out from me,” she said. “He remembered playing that game when he was younger, and he was a boxer.”

“That’s what’s going to happen more and more,” she said. “They come into their mid-30s and maybe early 40s, and they have established careers, and this becomes a grail for them.”

Rare video games share the space with rare comics at Danielle Smith’s San Diego Comic-Con booth.
Photo: Nerdy Girl Comics

Kahn agrees. “For every speculator that comes in from comics, I think there’s at least two guys from comics that are coming in simply because they play these games too. They love it. They’re collectors at heart. And they see something new and exciting that they want to get involved with.”

That doesn’t mean the field is free of blatant speculation. “One thing that a lot of the people that are coming in from comics are doing, that I don’t do,” said Joshua Entin, is “buying every copy of, like, every…sealed Super Mario Bros. 11th or 12th print, whatever it is, that they can get their hands on.” Kahn, too, said he’s seen people buying up multiple copies of games with popular characters.

As the prices rise on first-print games, even some veteran collectors might find that, unbeknownst to them, they have a $10,000 game sitting on their shelf stuck in among their finds from the dollar bin. Some of them might decide it’s time to cash out. If this is all a temporary bubble, they’re right to get paid while the getting is good. But what if it’s not?

“The exact same thing happened in every mature collectible industry,” Kahn said. “Coins, comics, baseball cards. People for decades were like, the prices are crazy, I’m selling out, I can’t handle this anymore. And fast-forward 20 years and they’re like, what the hell was I thinking?”

“That’s why I think a lot of these guys coming over from comics and coins are seeing this and willing to buy when these guys are selling, even if it’s ‘over market,’” he said. “I think ultimately the market’s going in an upward trajectory, but you’re going to have your dips here and there because there is a lot of speculation.”

It’s anyone’s guess whether this moment in classic video game collecting will be looked back on as a flash-in-the-pan speculation bubble or the moment when everything changed for good. But it’s no small thing that many seasoned collectors are betting serious money on the upward trend continuing.

“I compare this to the honeymoon phase in a new relationship,” said Smith. “Everything is still brand new and exciting.”

Source: Kotaku.com

Video Game Characters Are Terrible At Archery

Screenshot: Sony

Video game characters love their bows and arrows, but I hate to be the bearer of bad news—almost all of them are terrible at archery. As an archer myself, I’ve had to spend a lot of time teaching and observing the sport, so I thought it might be appropriate to explain why, in real life, some of your favorite arrow-shooting characters at best wouldn’t be able to shoot straight and at worst would severely injure themselves.

Link, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Illustration: Nintendo

One of the cardinal sins of archery is dry-firing a bow. A dry fire is the process of drawing the bow’s string back and then letting go without an arrow in place. A normal bow draws back to a conservative estimate of 30 to 40 pounds of tension created by the bending of the bow. As such you’re holding those pounds on your fingers. If you let that go without an arrow on it, all that energy comes rushing back into the bow, which could potentially shatter its limbs (the long ends of the bow), break the string, and/or make a god-awful sound. Think a tiny thunder roll in your hand. In rare cases, this could become dangerous to the archer, especially if the string snaps near the face, but more likely would it vibrate your arm and be more harmful to your bank account.

Whenever Link runs out of arrows, he pulls back his bowstring anyway. In the game, doing this is pretty useful to scope out enemies and such, but once he’s finished, Link just lets go of the string. Knowing how delicate weapons are in Breath of the Wild, this is a bad idea. What we see in the game as a cute little “ping” would be a disaster in real life; if your bow didn’t break, you’d have to spend the next 30 minutes checking for signs of damage. Life lesson: If you need to observe something, just use the Sheikah Slate.

Screenshot: Rockstar

Arthur Morgan, Red Dead Redemption 2

If you’ve ever tried archery, you know it’s not easy. In fact, you’d be surprised at how incredibly difficult the sport is. In Red Dead Redemption 2, poor Arthur Morgan is handed a longbow and told to hunt deer with it. Not only is Arthur a complete beginner, but generally speaking, longbows are the hardest bows to consistently aim at a stationary target, let alone a frolicking one.

As a novice, there is no way Arthur would be able to shoot a deer in the head from more than 15 meters away. His release is also trash. He splays out his hand and shoots his shoulder and elbow far back enough to knock out any comrades nearby. All in all, Arthur Morgan, the beefiest character on the list, should stick to two other types of shots: the bullet kind, and the ones he takes with Lenny.

Screenshot: Sony

Aloy, Horizon: Zero Dawn 

Game developers love to make a character look and feel good. Often, to get a point across, you might see an exaggeration of visual features that are important to a character. For Aloy, this is her fletchings. Fletchings, or vanes, are the feathers or plastic things you see on the end of the arrow, designed to help your glorified stick fly more predictably through the air. They’re really useful and pretty important when it comes to archery, but Aloy’s are ridiculously oversized. If you were to have fletchings that big, your arrows would be more unpredictable, as they would ricochet off the bow to the left. Or every arrow’s fletchings would be ruined, and your arrow damaged. Aloy, we get that you’re an archer—just tone down the feathers, okay?

Pit, Kid Icarus: Uprising

Photo: Nintendo

Pit’s bow is gorgeous but comically impractical. Made out of two swords jointed at the hilt, it is the most dangerous bow on this list, and not for the right reasons. Bows aren’t nearly as elegant as you might assume. Carry a lightweight object that’s close to your own height in just one hand, and accidents are bound to happen. I don’t know of any archer who hasn’t accidentally bumped someone else or themselves with their bow, and when your bow is made out of two menacing blades, the outcome could be gory.

Another labored part of archery is loading an arrow onto the bow. In every game, show or movie, loading a bow seems swift and beautiful, but in reality it is quite fiddly. You’d need to check the orientation of the arrow was correct before “nocking” or fixing the arrow to the string, all of which takes at least a couple seconds. Orientation of the arrow matters because otherwise the arrow’s fletchings will graze the rest of the bow, compromising its flight path.

When nocking an arrow, you’d also have the bow down by your leg. I actually rest mine on my thigh to hold it steady. Even if an archer were to hold the bow away from their body when loading an arrow, bringing their arm up to shoot would mean swinging a blade past their leg to aim. Pit loading an arrow in a flurry of movement without nocking the arrow wrong or slicing himself is improbable at best, and a quick amputation at worst.

Screenshot: Blizzard

Hanzo, Overwatch

Hanzo is a really difficult character to critique, because if you’ve ever played Overwatch, you know his third- and first-person techniques are completely different. In third-person, Hanzo holds the bow upright; in first-person he holds it sideways. Holding a bow sideways deeply limits the draw length of the bow because your body is in the way. You can only pull back as far as your torso is away from the bow, whereas holding it upright means you can pull back to your face or further. It’s also hazardous to your arm’s health. I once met a girl who tried shooting sideways, who proceeded to show me a photo of the damage she did to her arm. It wasn’t pretty, and I’m sure Hanzo’s arm wouldn’t be either.

Normally, another issue that I would have with Hanzo would be the lack of an anchor point, which is a specific place on your body you “anchor” your hand to in every shot for consistency. Anchor points are important for any archery that doesn’t require a sight, because it helps an archer reference to where they should pull back. In Hanzo’s style of modern barebow, the anchor point will often will be on the face—you’d use a finger to touch the corner of your mouth, or a tooth.

However, I cannot fault Hanzo for his lack of an anchor point, because Hanzo is Japanese, and the Japanese have a particular version of archery called kyūdō. It’s an art form, really, and those that perform it have a different way of achieving accuracy, basically relying on dedicated practice. The masters of kyūdō don’t rely on a physical anchor point as most archers do; they pull the string back to somewhere near the face and let loose.

I’ll give Hanzo the benefit of the doubt and say he’s a kyūdō master. But what I can’t forgive is the weight of his bow. Hanzo grits his teeth and shakes like he’s experiencing an earthquake every time he shoots. This indicates that he is way too weak to be handling his bow, especially if he were trying to shoot high-quality arrows on a battlefield. You’d get really tired really quickly, and your aim would be affected by a lack of stability—not to mention the backache you’d feel the next day. Fixes include getting a new bow or going to the gym, so unless Hanzo wants to trade in his weapon, he might need a few protein shakes here and there.

Screenshot: Sony

Ellie, The Last of Us

Every other character on this list should be ashamed for being shown up by a 14-year-old. Ellie is the most realistic archer in any of the games on this list. Every shot looks almost exactly the same. She is consistent and precise. The further away you aim, the more the arrow drops on the way there. Arrows break, which they would in real life if you hit bone.

Ellie is no doubt the best. My only gripe with her is the back quiver, where she stores her arrows. I understand that Ellie might not have the time to find a better solution, but in general, back quivers are pretty stupid. You can’t see the arrows, for one, so if you were in a combat situation, every time you wanted to fire, you would have to reach back, maybe stab your hand on the end of an arrow, fiddle around to find an arrow, pull it out at a really awkward angle, and then shoot it. Not to mention the fact that you might not notice if you didn’t have any arrows left.

Back quivers also make collecting arrows an issue, because trying to place a stick in a pocket on your back is hard. How about when you’re trying to be stealthy? When you bend down, it’s very likely they would just slide out, clatter to the ground, and hey presto, Ellie would be dead. It would be a shame, too, as she would do well in an archery competition.

Ellie could instead use a field quiver, which goes around the waist and often has a lot of room for tools. Field quivers are unfortunately quite loud when it comes to movement, since arrows tend to rattle when loose, so my recommendation for Ellie would be a bow quiver. It’s an attachment to your bow to hold your arrows directly on the “riser” (the handle) in a fixed position. Advantages include no clattering of arrows, easy access to arrows, and a constant visual of ammunition—not to mention making the bow look a lot more impressive.

Screenshot: Kotaku (Square Enix)

Lara Croft, Rise of the Tomb Raider

Gaming’s legendary heroine is also the pinnacle of bad video game archery. Rise of the Tomb Raider smushes so many mistakes into this one gameplay mechanic that you’re going to need to buckle up, because I can’t hold back.

Lara Croft, explorer extraordinaire, has to do a lot of sneaking around to find the very best a tomb may have to offer, as well as killing a couple of unfortunate souls on the way, and a compound bow is often her weapon of choice to get the job done. Up until now, most bows we’ve seen on this list are simply a stick and some string. Compounds are the more complex, more technical younger brother of the traditional bow. They require a complicated mixture of “cables” (string) and “cams” (rotating discs that the cables sit on), from which they get the name “compound.” They’re faster and more accurate.

A compound bow has a couple other crucial advantages that make it an accurate and deadly weapon. The biggest thing is that its draw length, the distance between the bow and the string when it’s pulled back to the face, is specific to the archer using it. It’s basically custom-fit. Once you get it back to that draw length you can’t pull it back further without damaging the bow or compromising yourself.

The problem Lara displays is something you can demonstrate to yourself with a little audience participation. If you put your left arm straight out to the side, and your right hand by your chin/jawline, the distance between those two places is about what your draw length should be. That is indeed the distance Lara’s bow comes back to. Now put that right hand by your left armpit. That’s a significantly shorter distance, right? Well, when Lara crouches down, the string goes straight through her armpit to make up for this distance issue.

Screenshot: Kotaku (Square Enix)

The draw length being specific means you also shouldn’t draw short. The way a compound is designed means there’s an arc of “weight” to the bowstring. It’s really light when you start drawing, then gets really difficult to pull back, but becomes light again when you reach your draw length. Drawing about halfway, which Lara often does, means that holding the bow would be an incredible struggle, if not incredibly stupid. The accuracy of the shot would decrease—not to mention the fact that Lara’s arm gets in the way of the string.

This isn’t even the biggest issue I have with Lara’s shot, because Lara has a sight on her bow that she doesn’t use. When standing with the bow upright, she pulls it to the side of her face, looking down the length of the arrow to aim. That’s not necessary, and is less accurate, when you have a sight on the bow. When Lara crouches, the sight is oriented sideways, so she actually can’t see down it.

Her bow itself has another problem. There are arrow rests that can hold an arrow in place no matter what the orientation of the bow is, but Lara’s bow doesn’t have those, meaning that arrows should be falling right off of her bow in many situations. And yes, she even uses a back quiver. Ultimately, our Tomb Raider would be the worst character on this list emulate if you were going to pick up a bow.

I know that many people don’t care how accurate archery is in video games, but as an archer, this has been therapeutic for me. We’re always on the lookout to see how accurately our sport is represented in games, and are often disappointed. All I can really end this on is asking you to go out and try archery for yourselves. It’s a fantastic sport, especially if you hate running. Please, however, listen to archers when they tell you not to try the version of archery you see in games. You’d likely hurt our pride—as well as your body.

Calypso Mellor is a freelance journalist with a passion for point-and-clicks, piano, and puns. You can often find her in a field shooting a target from fairly far away, or alternatively on Twitter @imomellor.

Source: Kotaku.com