To put the recent $660,000 sale of a copy of Super Mario Bros. for the NES in context, I’d like to ask if anybody remembers how a decade ago there was a similar buzz about the below copy of Air Raid for the Atari 2600? It made headline news for selling for $31,600 which seemed like such an insane price for a video game back then (ah 2010 was such an innocent year).
It seems quaint compared to today. But to me the interesting thing is that since that sale and a couple of sales of loose copies in the two years after, Air Raid has completely disappeared from our retro game collecting conscience. The game’s Wikipedia entry doesn’t have any information more recent than 2012 and my Google search for it doesn’t turn up any news more recent than that either. Its been relegated to basically footnote status in articles here and there about rare games in general, rather than ever being the focus of any interest itself.
For a game that briefly looked like it was about to become the all time holy grail of retro game collectors (or at least was a serious contender, alongside a handful of other rarities), its been a pretty big come down. Probably that has been made all the more irritating by the fact that it, a game that there are only 14 known copies of in existence, has been completely overshadowed by a game that sold like 40 million copies and is one of the easiest in the collecting world to lay your hands on.
The downfall of Air Raid (or at least its displacement, its still obviously a valuable game) and its usurpation by SMB raises a few questions that we might have a discussion about since they strike right at the heart of the retro game collecting hobby. Lets review a few of these, in no particular order.
How much does the cultural relevance of a game matter?
One thing that divides these two games more than anything is that not just gamers but almost everybody today knows who Mario is. He is one of the most recognized pop culture figures in the world. Air Raid on the other hand is known by almost nobody, even within the gaming community. It only sold 14 copies so its fame is ironically entirely based on its complete lack of fame during its initial release.
This represents a hidden struggle within the retro game collecting community though – are the “holy grails” of our hobby going to be determined by what we collectors want to go after (rare and unusual stuff like Air Raid), or what society as a whole finds most familiar (stuff like SMB)?
If you look at other collecting hobbies, its kind of hard to figure out where the value of SMB is coming from since it does not square well with how those hobbies have defined their holy grails.
This baseball card here for example is a T 206 Honus Wagner, long considered that hobby’s holy grail. There are only about 60 copies of it known and they sell for millions.
If you aren’t a baseball card collector though you probably have no idea what this card is or who Honus Wagner is. He is a hall of fame baseball player who was a star in the early 20th century, but he is definitely not a household name. This card is the baseball card collecting world’s version of Air Raid, it became valuable solely because collectors knew it was very hard to find and its part of a set that a lot of them like, so the price went through the roof. But its not something that had any pop culture significance beyond the hobby.
With stamp and coin collecting too its the same story – if I posted pictures of the world’s most valuable stamps and coins here you would have no idea what they were (well, unless you are a die hard stamp or coin collector). The holy grails are entirely defined by people in those hobbies and not by the cultural relevance or recognizability of the items themselves.
One collecting hobby which partially bucks this trend though is comic books. The holy grail of that hobby is:
Action Comics #1, the first ever comic to feature Superman. If you aren’t a comic collector you might not know the details of this specific comic, but you likely recognize Superman and know why he is famous. The value of this comic (which is insanely expensive, there are only about 100 copies of it in existence) is probably driven both by the fact that it is highly sought after by collectors AND because Superman is such a famous pop culture icon with the general public.
How much do Systems Matter?
This is something unique to our hobby and doesn’t have exact parallels in other collecting hobbies. The video games we collect were tied to consoles on which they could be played. These had limited lifespans and thus limited opportunities to have an impact on all of us.
Atari was of course the biggest console maker of all in the late 70s and early 80s and had a massive impact on the early development of the industry and the popular understanding of home gaming. But it lost most of that significance with the 1983 video game crash, hanging on for a few years mostly as an “also ran” in the console wars of the third generation of consoles onward before fading mostly into oblivion. Today its basically just a name and logo that gets slapped on Flashbacks and other products by companies that have nothing to do with the original Atari (Wanna stay at an Atari hotel? Somebody just bought the right to slap the name on those because of course they did).
In other words, it is no longer significant and over time memories of its heyday are fading. Nobody under 40 today remembers a world in which an Atari was a must-have item for kids. This probably precludes any game from that console like Air Raid, no matter how rare, from every aspiring to be the holy grail of the broader retro game collecting hobby.
Nintendo on the other hand has continuity. It became the dominant console maker in the 1980s and while it hasn’t won the console war in each subsequent generation, it has never failed to be considered one of the top three makers. That continuity gives the NES a huge advantage since the characters and even the games themselves are constantly being kept in the eye of current gamers on new platforms like the Switch. So it makes sense that the holy grail of the retro game collecting hobby would be a Nintendo one rather than an Atari (or Colecovision or whatever) game.
How do we define rarity?
SMB for the NES is obviously not a rare game, as pretty much every game collector has been quick to point out every time a story about a copy of it selling for insane $$$ has appeared. Its value lies entirely on the basis that the specific $660,000 copy is the highest graded sealed hangtab version of the game in existence. So its a “one of a kind copy of a 40 million of a kind game”. If this seems arbitrary its because it is (note that you need to use four adjectives to describe it in a way that defines its value – its the “highest graded sealed hangtab” version). I have a copy of SMB that my three year old daughter accidentally dropped in our toilet (don’t ask). It is the only copy of SMB that has ever been dropped in my toilet known to exist! And I have established countermeasures to ensure that no further copies of SMB will ever be dropped into my toilet again! Guaranteed population one of one! Give me $660,000 for it please!
See? Its so easy to turn a common thing into a rare thing depending on how one defines its rarity.
The fact that our hobby’s new holy grail has its rarity defined like this makes our hobby weird. In all the above examples from other hobbies, the holy grail was valuable not just because it was the “highest graded version” of a common thing, but because the thing itself was really rare.
This fact can still be explained with reference to those hobbies though. This concept of “highest graded version of a common thing being valuable” comes from them after all. The crucial difference is that it developed decades after those hobbies emerged and had already defined what their holy grails were.
Retro game collecting in contrast is relatively new and is still going through this process of establishing what constitutes its holy grail in the shadow of current trends in those hobbies, which have now established themselves in ours. So, shit, we’re now stuck with something as uninspiring as an unbroken layer of plastic wrapping being the main thing that defines our holy grail.
Should we be concerned about the millionaires?
Another difference related to the timing of our hobby’s development is that the global economy today is a lot more dominated by a rentier class of millionaire ass holes than it was when the baseball card and comic book collecting hobbies were taking off in the 70s and 80s. These people view collectibles as an asset class and a good place to park their money. So entrepreneurs are busily at work creating narratives about various games like SMB which fit the expectations of those millionaires. This leads to nauseatingly awful prose like that found in this passage that grossed $660,000 for Heritage Auctions, which successfully convinced some millionaires that shrink wrap is the most important thing in the history of video games.
I mean, yeah hey I got no problem with Heritage Auctions doing what they gotta do to shake that money tree, more power to them. But I’m not sure the rest of the hobby should follow that rabbit down the hole because it really makes no sense except when viewed as an effort to attribute value to a relatively mundane thing and convince millionaires that this is something they should care about. Crucially they have to convince not just ONE millionaire, but several of them since they need a few to bid against each other. And….yup, it wasn’t that hard to do actually. This should really be a good rule of thumb for anyone buying video games (or anything really) in the hope they will one day be worth something. If the thing has the potential to be described to a bunch of millionaires in a way that will make them want to compete with each other for it, its probably a good buy. I’m still working on a convincing storyline for my toilet copy of SMB that I hope will fund my retirement.
Its not all about the shrink wrap though, its also about the cultural significance. The millionaires are really looking to invest in “Expensive Mario Stuff” and so the hobby has spit this out as an offering to them. Every cultural icon has to have something valuable they can collect associated with it. Mario posed a problem since most of his best known games were such smash hits that they aren’t rare. So they’ve settled on this contrived rarity to satiate that demand.
These are just a few of my thoughts about the big sale of SMB and a comparison with Air Raid, which I noticed nobody was really talking about so I thought I would add this to the online conversation. I’m not really convinced that copy of SMB is destined to be our hobby’s holy grail forever. On the one hand it now has a “first mover” advantage since it grabbed headlines with that insane sale. On the other hand, you could have said the same for Air Raid a decade ago and its basically fallen to the wayside in our conversation since then. To me, the distinguishing features of this copy of SMB are just way too thin to allow it to maintain that position. With the holy grails of other hobbies, one look at the item tells any collector what it is without having to rely on a bunch of detailed explanation to distinguish it from millions of things that look exactly the same (Its the highest graded copy of the version with the hangtab which still has its shrink wrap intact…….yawn).