Over the last few years the retro computer game (retro gaming) scene has exploded in popularity, not only among a nostalgia-fueled middle-aged demographic who remember these things first time around, but among younger millennials as well. Perhaps it’s the wonderfully primitive and pixelated graphics that appeal, the simple yet frustratingly challenging quests, the magnetic attraction of well recognised iconic games, or perhaps the warm-hearted global community of fellow players that has emerged? Whatever the reason vintage video games are back.
As the gaming industry celebrate nearly 50 years of continuous success, it is hardly surprising that the V&A in London are due to open up a major exhibition this September assessing the overall impact of video games on our society. Games have evolved quickly over the years, but for those who still have an old box of them collecting dust somewhere, was keeping these relics a financially savvy move?
The history of computer games stretches back to the very early years of computers when off the clock, bored programmers would amuse themselves coming up with fun programmes they could play with their friends. The first widely recognised game was called ‘Spacewar’ which a programmer at MIT came up with in 1962. Because the game required the use of the Institutes giant PDP1 computer to run, it was in no way portable and evening games nights were set up for those interested to play. The game’s notoriety quickly spread among the computer community and this sparked others to create their own variations as well as look at ways to find a commercial application. In 1973 Atari released their Pong game. It was a small plastic console which plugged into the back of any TV allowing a couple of achingly simple pre-programmed games to be played, but it sparked a revolution.
For vintage gamers the very early games such as Pong (simplified tennis) and Spacewar are historically interesting but not necessarily appealing otherwise. Instead it is the games of the early 1980s to late 90s which get the pulse racing as the improvement in computer graphics and the emergence of cheap home computers in 1980 such as the Spectrum, Atari and Commodore led to a rapid explosion in the number of games available to the public. Soon iconic games such as PacMan, Snake, Donkey Kong, Duck Hunt, Super Mario, Pole Position, Street Fighter and Tetris (to name just a few) would spread like a fever among a younger population. With the release of the Nintendo Gameboy in 1989 gaming also got even more portable.
So what of their values now? Well in most cases the sheer quantities of each game produced means you should only expect back anywhere from a few pounds to the mid tens of pounds, and this is true of the more iconic games and gaming units also. Where the value begins to rise is among games that for multiple reasons were only released in limited quantities. Here the values are usually within the low hundreds of pounds range, and the most publicly famous is the Atari 1982 ET game which was released at speed alongside the Stephen Spielberg movie of the same name. Such was the instant and stupendous failure of this game, Atari rapidly ditched all their stocks of it into landfill very shortly after release. The story alone made this the Holy Grail for collectors for many years, until in 2014, a TV documentary (Atari: Game Over) convinced the local city to dig up the landfill and ultimately extracted thousands of slightly mushed copies. These dug up versions can amazingly sell for around £1,200 each.
Rarity then in games is directly related to the numbers known in existence with the most spectacular prices going to those where merely a few (or only one sometimes) are still known to exist in that particular form. Some examples are ‘Atlantis II’ which has sold online for $7000, an almost unique game called ‘Red Sea Crossing’ which sold in 2012 for $10,000, and a near mythical game called ‘Air Raid’ by Atari which also sold in 2012 for $33,000. There are similar games that have hit stratospheric prices and it is fair to say that as the field of retro gaming increases, so too will the value of the most desirable games. However as one rare game hits the tabloids because of its value, often three other people realise they have a copy lurking at home somewhere also. Therefore prices can fluctuate wildly still.
In truth retro gaming is not really about the money, but the pleasure of immersing yourself back into 1981 and the silly and innocent virtual reality challenges we were set back then. Sexual objectification, overt violence and unhealthy addictions were not yet considered a problem for the gaming world. Instead you got to move an over-simplified egg around a screen to collect as many asterisks as possible before the blue blob caught you! ………..Ahh whatever happened to the good old days hey?