Retro gaming is becoming absurdly expensive, but thankfully there are options

I subscribe to Retro Gamer magazine, because it’s a long-running, high quality retro gaming publication that always has interesting features on stuff I’m interested in, ranging from obscure arcade games to beloved Spectrum titles that everyone in the UK played but no-one in the rest of the world has ever heard of.

But there’s one thing I detest about Retro Gamer. I hasten to add it’s nothing to do with the editorial content of the magazine, which is consistently excellent. I am referring to their seemingly perpetual back-page advertiser, a company known as “Chillout Games”, which promises “£££ paid for [insert superlative here] games” every month. And they’re not wrong; the prices they’re quoting are indeed, to use the vernacular, “£££”.

Chillout Games expensive retro games
No.

Take this month’s lineup of examples. Phantasy Star Online for Dreamcast? £21.42, and that’s at the lower end of things. Codemasters’ compilation Super Adventure Quests (aka Quattro Adventure) for NES? £40.22. Mediocre sci-fi bowling game Milo’s Astro Lanes for N64? £83.13. OutRun 2 SP for PS2? £83.99. Elemental Master for Mega Drive? An astonishing £190.78 — but not as enraging as the £710.70 quoted for Garou: Mark of the Wolves on Neo Geo.

These are deliberately extreme examples, of course, intended to make retro gaming collectors think of the games they’ve bought as “investments” that they can sell off and make bank on when those investments “mature” — anyone who does happen to own a copy of Garou: Mark of the Wolves is likely rubbing their hands together with glee right now. But this sort of situation is becoming an increasing problem generally, not just through companies like Chillout Games.

I recently acquired both an A500 Mini and a C64 “Maxi”, both of which have inspired me to explore their respective libraries in more detail; I grew up with the Atari 8-bit and ST ranges of computers, so the Commodore stuff that wasn’t multi-platform is mostly new to me. I thought it might be nice to actually pick up some boxed copies of games — particularly titles that had a lot of atmospheric source material and useful information in their manuals, such as early role-playing games.

I decided that maybe pursuing a collection of original Amiga and C64 games probably wasn’t worth the hassle when I discovered that boxed copies of classic early RPGs such as Ultima III: Exodus and Questron are constantly listed for three-figure prices, which is just absurd. As lovely as Ultima’s cloth maps and lore books are, they’re not worth two hundred quid; these prices are simply taking advantage of these games’ niche-interest nature and the fact that for some collectors out there, money is seemingly no object.

Where the problem came from

Many of you have doubtless seen this excellent YouTube video by Karl Jobst at this point. Don’t be put off by the clickbaity thumbnail; that’s just the YouTube way. The video is a lengthy watch, but worthwhile; in it, Jobst outlines exactly how much of a scam it is that incredibly common games like Super Mario Bros. for NES have been selling for astronomical prices.

The gist of the situation is that an organisation known as WataGames set themselves up as an agency for “grading” the condition of retro games. You send them your games, they seal them in a plastic box, slap a number on them and send them back to you so that you can supposedly quantify their exact condition, then sell them for an appropriate price. A questionable idea in the first place, since “condition” is such an inherently subjective thing, but that’s not the problem.

The issue is that these “graded” games have been getting their prices inflated by people in the know selling them back and forth between one another — and sometimes even simply to themselves. When the price gets to a ridiculous enough level, out come the news stories about “Super Mario Bros. selling for $2 million”, and this perpetuates the cycle as more and more people decide that they want a piece of the pie. Sure, their copy of Super Mario Bros. may not be in mint condition, but even a fraction of $2 million is still worthwhile, surely?

This, in turn, inflates the perceived value of retro games in general, as more and more people want to pick up games for cheap at flea markets and second-hand shops, then resell them for vast profits.

Of course, no video games are actually worth the prices that get quoted in these absurd news stories because it’s all a form of money laundering — much like the NFT scene, which unfolded in almost the exact same way as this whole situation over a shorter timeframe — but because “copy of Super Mario Bros. in good nick sells for twenty quid” isn’t much of a news story, people who don’t look into things in more detail end up with a skewed view of what’s going on.

Regrettably, despite Wata Games’ bullshit being pretty common knowledge at this point, retro game prices are still vastly inflated, and are likely to continue being that way for some time. Hopefully at some point the bubble will burst — but that old physical media isn’t getting any younger, and thus it behooves us to consider other ways of enjoying and preserving classic games.

Official rereleases

Retro gaming: Namco Museum archives
Namco Museum Archives (Switch)

The most obvious choice is, of course, to support official rereleases of classic games on modern platforms, or via mini-consoles. Not only does this show that there’s still a demand for these old games, it’s also a hell of a lot easier to set up a Nintendo Switch with a modern TV than it is an old NES. Consequently, however much of a Famicom fan you might be, these days you’re almost certainly better off picking up something like Namco Museum Archives for Switch than attempting to nab originals of these games, to give just one example.

A number of publishers are getting wise to this strategy, even with more recent titles. Classic Japanese shoot ’em ups for the Xbox 360 have had their prices go through the roof over the course of the last decade, for example, so a simple port to modern platforms is easy money, as it will attract those people who want to play those games but don’t want to pay three-figure prices. Consequently, we’re seeing the triumphant return of titles like Mushihimesama, Deathsmiles and more, putting them firmly within reach of average gamers and expanding their audience long after their original release.

On top of that, the fact that developers and publishers understand the importance of a worldwide audience and localised versions of games much better than they did in the past means that we’re now getting new versions of classic games that never made it west. The Double Dragon and Kunio-kun Retro Brawler Bundle is a great example; the few games from that series we did get in the west were heavily westernised, and the rest will be brand new to English-speaking gamers.

With this in mind, it hopefully goes without saying that if there are old games you love but you don’t want to pay a premium for, it’s worth letting the current rights holders know that you’d be interested in a modern port or rerelease. These days you never know what might happen!

Evercade

Retro gaming: Valis (Evercade)
Valis (Evercade)

Blaze’s Evercade retro gaming platform is an absolute powerhouse for those interested in supporting official rereleases of classic games and building up a physical collection. The system, which is available in both handheld and TV-connected “VS” form factors, runs on cartridges. Each cart contains a collection of games, usually themed around an original developer or publisher, and all of those games are officially licensed. Each cart also contains a full colour manual providing instructions for the games and, where space permits, some interesting facts about the games’ development and historical context.

The Evercade is a capable little device, comfortably running everything from Atari 2600 titles to PS1 classics and technically impressive arcade games, and its library covers a combination of big hitters and interesting obscurities — with the latter being its particular strength. At the time of writing, Evercade is the only platform on which you can play officially licensed home versions of Gaelco’s beautifully presented arcade games, for example; most of these aren’t especially well-known, but as soon as you play one you’ll be wondering why people haven’t been raving about them for years.

The Evercade also presents a viable alternative to collecting expensive, rare games for classic platforms, too, since several cartridges have been specifically put together with how hard-to-find original copies of their component games are in mind. The Renovation Collection 1 cart is probably the best example of this, but this also extends to more niche-interest collections like the two Atari Lynx compilations.

On top of that, Evercade is also proving to be a thriving platform for modern indie developers, too. Carts such as the two Mega Cat Studios collections and the Indie Heroes compilation showcase the amazing things today’s devs are doing with old systems — and the Internet-connected Evercade VS is even running a “Game of the Month” programme right now where you can download and play a new “modern retro” indie game for free each month, no subscription required.

To find out more about the Evercade, stop by the official site.

Piracy

Retro Gaming: Lotus 2
Lotus 2 on Amiga is one of the best arcade racers of all time, but it’s never getting an official rerelease due to the licensing required.

Any mention of piracy from a gaming editorial site tends to get a certain type of person online pointing their fingers and jeering about promoting piracy “not being a good look” — but at this point it’s absurd to deny the fact that were it not for piracy, a lot of games for classic platforms simply wouldn’t be preserved at all, and would be completely lost.

Obviously we’re not talking about piracy of games on platforms that are still current and actively having titles released for them — though at some point in the not-too-distant future we’re going to need to consider how we might archive the vast quantities of digital-exclusive games on platforms like the PlayStation Store and Nintendo eShop — but rather the piracy of games from past generations, particularly those quite early in gaming history.

Indeed, piracy is regarded as so important to gaming history that even archive.org plays host to a number of complete collections of ROM files and disk images for a wide range of classic platforms. While archive.org is, of course, a communal charitable effort rather than something run by a particular governing body — and rightfully so — it’s about as close to “legitimate” as you can get online when it comes to the preservation of information and data.

Piracy is especially important for long-dead platforms that are never, ever going to have their games rereleased. No-one has a problem with the vast quantities of Atari 2600, 8-bit and ST games hosted on the massive database at Atarimania, for example, and the same is true for Commodore 64 and Amiga games linked to via Lemon64 and LemonAmiga respectively — although we have seen a few C64 titles resurrected over the last few years. These sites aren’t set up maliciously, and will graciously remove links or downloads to titles that are still commercially available — such as new titles for old platforms, or those which have had a modern rerelease.

The Commodore 64 is an especially interesting example in this regard, since most of the C64 games you’ll find archived online are already in pirated, “cracked” format, usually with additional features added such as the ability to save high scores or cheat in various ways. Not only that, but these cracked versions are often simply more convenient than the original titles, even in the case of modern releases.

Retro gaming: C64 games
Lift by Inufuto for C64

Take the Japanese C64 titles from Inufuto that we explored recently, for example. Inufuto released these in tape image format, which means that even in emulators they take several minutes to load. Although these aren’t commercial releases that Inufuto is making any money from, the cracking teams still got to them and hacked them into much more convenient disk images, making the “pirated” versions infinitely preferable for most circumstances.

So why don’t we have a “PS2Mania” or “LemonGamecube” out there? Well, it’s mostly down to the fact that unlike home computer systems, which didn’t require any sort of central licensing to release a piece of software, classic console libraries are still jealously protected by the original platform holders, and as such any effort to archive those libraries, no matter how well-intentioned, would doubtless be struck down extremely quickly.

We’ve seen numerous examples over the last few years of how rigorously and litigiously Nintendo protects not only its classic properties, but the libraries of its old systems in general — and there’s no reason to assume that Sony and Microsoft wouldn’t be the same way. So that’s definitely an obstacle we’re going to have to overcome at some point — and Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony all offering their own subscription services is absolutely not the solution we want, since that doesn’t allow people to own their copies of these classic titles — but I suspect we’ll figure something out.

Conclusion

Retro gaming: Rod-Land (Amiga)
Rod Land (Amiga)

Retro gaming on original hardware is a rich man’s game these days, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to take an easier option. Thankfully, easier options that don’t involve piracy do exist these days, and I’d encourage anyone with an interest in retro gaming to take advantage of modern retro rereleases and the growing library of incredible classics available for Evercade. Just through those alone, you can build up a thoroughly respectable library and respect a good chunk of gaming history.

For more specific cases, particularly when we’re talking about home computer games from 30-40 years ago, I don’t think there’s really a problem in taking advantage of the hard work that people from all over the world have done in preserving these games — and, in many cases, their surrounding materials such as manuals — for future generations to enjoy.

So I’m not going to feel bad about my USB stick jammed to the brim with WHDLoad archives plugged into my A500 mini, nor the one full of cracked C64 disk images stuck in the back of my C64 Maxi. If any of these games end up with an official rerelease, of course I’ll support them — but in the meantime, I’m certainly not going to line the pockets of an eBay seller or a reselling company with hundreds of pounds purely for the sake of a cloth map, ’cause you can be sure as hell that money’s not going anywhere near the original developers!

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Pete Davison
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