It is extremely difficult to be practical about retro game collecting in 2021. If you’re reading this post, then you already know how ludicrous our hobby has become. For a variety of reasons, the popularity of retro games (especially complete-in-box) is surging, and prices have made a lot of collecting out of reach. I unfortunately don’t have any magic solution to make everything cheap and easy, but I do have a few suggestions about how to move forward with retro collecting in a more pragmatic way!
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Please keep in mind that I’m someone that “collects to play”. I don’t plan on having any of my games just sit on the shelf forever! I’ve probably completed about 80% of my games, and hope to finish them all someday-that drive is a big part of my collecting philosophies and the tips below.
All that said, this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to retro game collecting. It’s a few ideas and tips that have really helped me enjoy the hobby while navigating all the surging prices and interest! I hope it helps you out.
Only collect what you really love
This might seem obvious, but I often find myself swayed by the internet rather than my own gut! Between social media influences, YouTubers, and the power of nostalgia in difficult times, it might seem like you need ALL THE THINGS to be properly retro game collecting. You don’t! What is it that makes YOU happy in gaming? Is it a specific series? A certain console? Maybe a set of games you loved as a kid? It’s different for everyone, and you shouldn’t let anyone else sway your opinion!
My two my favorite series are Zelda and Metroid, and I’m so proud to have every game in each of them. I also just recently started a small collection for Sega Genesis. My library is only a dozen or so games, but they’re almost exclusively the ones I played and loved growing up! I honestly don’t want much more than that.
Another bonus to this is that what you enjoy most may currently still be pretty affordable now. I bought my copy of Mystical Ninja on the N64 at Blockbuster for literally $10 CIB back in the day, just because I adored the game for how unique it was, despite its quirks.
Try a digital version of the game first!
This is a huge one. With game prices being outrageous, it’s good to try more expensive titles digitally to know if you actually like them or not! A personal example that comes to mind is Ikaruga, on the GameCube. I’m not the biggest “schmup” fan but had always heard amazing things, so I downloaded the port on my Switch (on sale for $9.99). After playing for a bit, I certainly appreciated the mechanics and ideas of the game, but I was just terrible at it. So it’s not one I play often, and I don’t have the urge to pick up a physical copy of it at all!
Since I’ve been on a Sega kick recently, I’ve been eyeing some Sega Saturn games too. But since Saturn collecting is quite out of hand, I’m going to download a few highly rated digital titles on my XBox One before I make any rash decisions! A lot of newer consoles have a treasure trove of retro titles available for purchase on them. My PS Vita, for example, is full of digital old PS1 RPGs that are hard to find physically. And now I can play them on the go!
The Virtual Console on the Wii U is a great place to start if you’re a Nintendo collector (sadly the original Wii VC, which was a gold mine, has been shut down). The Wii U is where I first played both Earthbound and Aria of Sorrow, which are now two of my all time favorites that I did end up buying physical because I loved them.
I’ll even do the same thing for indie games that are “short and sweet”-try it digitally first on sale, then double dip for a physical release later if I really like it!
Shop smart, and be patient
If you’re swimming in cash, you’re probably able to charge ahead and buy whatever you want. But for the rest of us, it’s important to shop smart. The old “cheap” methods of buying games seem to be withering (garage sales and flea markets are a rough gig now in terms of “time to benefit ratio”). Given the little time I have as an adult with two kids, I generally stick to two main sources-my favorite local shop, and eBay listings.
I stop at my favorite retro game shop (Bowser’s Basement) at least bi-weekly-they have very reasonable prices, constantly expand their inventory, and I love supporting a local business. My girls have a blast coming with me too! Don’t forget to ask the owner of your local shop if they have a certain game or accessory even if you don’t see it displayed. They may have a trade that just came in, or something in the back for you. It never hurts to ask!
In terms of eBay, I have email alerts for specific things I’m looking for that I check every morning. If something looks good, I’ll add it to my watchlist and go from there! (check out my tips for buying retro games on eBay). Sometimes I’ll hit a long (LONG) dry spell before anything reasonable shows up, but again, patience is a virtue!
I’ll still be opportunistic if an awesome deal presents itself in another way, but with just these methods I can add to my collection at a “healthy” rate and cost.
Consider carts only
I very much understand the appeal of “complete in box” (CIB) games. Box art is gorgeous and very nostalgic, and reminds you of buying games in the era they released. But prices have gotten truly outrageous for a lot of CIB classic games. You can save an insane amount of money by buying individual carts! And if you want to display boxes on a shelf, I strongly recommend Custom Game Cases. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ve probably seen that my entire SNES collection and a good chunk of my Game Boy, GBA, and N64 collections are housed by Custom Game Cases!
They do phenomenal work at very reasonable prices. The boxes are sturdy, there’s space for a manual, the cover art looks plenty nice, and there’s a satisfying “snap” opening and closing that reminds me of renting games back in the day! Plus, the spines look wonderful on a shelf.
Don’t be afraid of games in rough condition
I’m a bit neurotic when it comes to cleanliness, both in my retro game collecting and in my general life. I keep our house very clean, often so much so that my wife makes fun of me! So it’s taken me awhile to come around to this tip. You can save quite a bit buying games that are far from minty. There’s a few ways I approach this:
A lot of cosmetic issues can be fixed!
I know Kamal and I both go through a “cleaning ritual” when we add a game to our collection-it’s actually really enjoyable! Check out my tips for cleaning game cartridges if you want some help-a few simple tools and basic cleaning supplies can work wonders. Plus, you feel very accomplished getting a game back in pristine condition.
Old price stickers add to the charm
These used to drive me up the wall, since they’re often so hard to remove. But now I see price stickers as cool artifacts of a bygone time. So I don’t even try to remove a lot of them! Check out this cool price tag on my Nintendo Power guide for Donkey Kong Country 3:
Just be careful of carts with stickers on the front label itself-it’s a dangerous game trying to remove them!
Think of it as “adopting” an item in rough shape
I’m fully aware this sounds silly. But I really love the idea of buying a game or game accessory that needs some love and giving it a “home” in my collection. I feel even crazier now that I’ve typed this, but it helps!
Collect more recent “re-releases”
Games are constantly re-released these days, in a variety of different formats, and often with substantial upgrades! Sometimes you’ll see it directly released by the original developer, sometimes ported by another dev (like the excellent Ocarina of Time 3DS port from Grezzo, much cheaper than the N64 cart).
Limited Run has more recently been on a streak of re-releases too. My Game Boy Color Shantae recently came in the mail, and I just got this lovely version of Doom 64. Its original incarnation is not only infamously expensive but infamously dark graphically-it’s much brighter on the Switch release!
Like I stated in my classic Sonic rankings post, I’ve never owned a Sega CD. So to play Sonic CD, I downloaded the excellent re-release from Christian Whitehead on my Apple TV, literally for free!
A bonus to this method is that re-releases often have some pretty substantial quality-of-life upgrades. I can’t imagine playing Sonic CD without the Japanese soundtrack or widescreen support. It’s great!
Play on “authentic” hardware another way!
The NES, SNES, and Genesis Mini are all great options. You’re collecting some OEM hardware and can play a phenomenal selection of games on a quality first party controller! Another benefit is the addition of save states and rewind features, which help soften the crushing difficulty of some older games. Although you risk invalidating your warranty, more games can always be added via hacking too.
I love anthologies and collections, and probably own too many. Game compilations let you continue retro game collecting, but with much more “bang for your buck”! You’re almost always going to save a ludicrous amount of money when you consider how many titles are included in each volume. I included several of my favorites below-each has a plethora of classic games that hold up well, and are still pretty cheap to find today, even CIB:
Another bonus you may find via “collection collecting” is that a pricey game series isn’t for you. This happened to me recently with the Mega Man Zero/ZX collection on Switch. I’d always heard great things so I decided to try the collection when it came out during quarantine. And after playing the games for awhile, I felt they were…okay. Not quite my cup of tea, and not a series I need to collect physical for!
This is an awesome option because you can play on your authentic hardware with almost zero lag, but with access to a full game library! I’ve yet to pick one up but they’re extremely appealing, especially for consoles with prohibitively expensive libraries (I’m looking at you, Sega CD). They’re popular and consistently out of stock, but if you find one on Castlemania you can use coupon code “THECHOZOPROJECT” to save 10%!
Realize you’ll have to let some things go
This is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s an important mindset. It’s quite literally impossible for any of us to collect every single item we want. I mean, I’d love to get a working, complete, Nintendo 64DD system and full game collection. But it’s just comically pricey and impractical. And that’s okay! I can still enjoy the system through YouTube videos, game museums, and feature articles (if anyone wants to write a 64DD book, send me an email and I’ll back you on Kickstarter Day 1!).
Another that’s “gotten away” from me is Skies of Arcadia. I’ve always heard amazing things, especially from my best friend Kamal. But if I’m honest with myself, I’m no longer the biggest JRPG fan, and since prices have gotten astronomic, I’m okay letting it go and hoping for a (re) re-release.
Will prices ever come back down?
It’s entirely possible, but sure doesn’t seem like it! Who would’ve known this modest hobby of ours would get so out of control? I hope these tips and suggestions help you continue retro game collecting at least to some extent. Best of luck out there!
What tips do you have for practical retro game collecting in 2021? Do you think we’ll see any of this madness slow down, or is it here to stay? Let me know in the comments below!