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!
23 thoughts on “Practical Retro Game Collecting in 2021”
Great post. This seems as good a time as any to say that your photos are always incredible – you clearly have an eye for it, and you clearly take amazing care of your collection.
As far as collecting goes, I’ve focused on a functionally complete Ultima collection, including a copy of each game (as opposed to all the different variant of each game) plus all the official guides. Many of them are my original contemporary copies, which means the boxes for Ultima IV and V are ROUGH, since I got those aged 8 and 9, played them for many hundreds of hours each, and even made notes on the insides of the boxes. They hold so much personal history for me, even if their condition would make them near worthless to anybody else. And wow, the packaging of those games! Multiple manuals and reference cards, wonderfully written and illustrated and beautifully printed on the most gorgeous paper stock. Incredible cloth maps. Little artefacts from the games. Multi-page catalogues for other Origin games. It’s on a whole other level!
Thanks so much for the kind and thoughtful words! And wow, the Ultimate games sounds like they’re just beautiful in terms of the care and detail that went into packaging them. Seems like the perfect “collecting quest” for you and I hope you are able to complete your set someday!
Great article! As a father of 3 with disposable income that was born in 1980, you can only imagine the amount of nostalgia that is baked into my DNA after living through both the 80’s and 90’s! I have gone round and round on collecting. One day thinking it the greatest thing ever, the next wondering what I am doing with my life. Now that I am living a “complete” adult life, with kids, mortgage, etc., I have really had to reexamine how I collect, let alone find time to actually play video games. I THINK I have finally settled on just being patient and accepting what is available digitally. Being honest with my self means admitting that there is more to buy than I could ever have time to play. So why own what will just sit there?! Don’t get me wrong, I buy a ton of digital releases. I still have a large backlog but now in my life I would rather blow $7.99 on a game that might get a few plays than spend unknown amounts of money on a physical game that would get that same play time. Take for example Neo-Geo. I literally own every ACA Neo Geo released on the switch. ALL. OF. THEM. What I have found is that I am a 1cc kind of guy. I can spend 70 hours on a game trying 1cc it. But I can do it in bed, in my car, on my couch, on vacation, etc. I own a Neo Geo AES too. If I wanted to own and 1cc say…Last Resort I would have to pay like $700! While I do have the money to do so (I consider myself very fortunate) I would have to go to the game room, hook up the cables, get the game out, hope my kids don’t need me, sit alone in a dark room and play for maybe 30 minutes, maybe a few hours if I am lucky. Now some people would love that, and I get it. I had that mindset. But not anymore. I gather the same enjoyment, time commitment and financial freedom from that $7.99 download on the Switch. Plus as someone in my early 40’s I have been examining my own mortality as of late (start of a mid-life crisis?) and it has also led me down the rabbit’s hole that electronics aren’t meant to last either. Caps leak, power supplies go bad, metal rusts, discs rot, lasers die. There is a very good chance that I would be stuck with a dead copy of Neo Geo’s 1992 King of the Monsters. I know there are repair services galore these days but I’m just not that guy. When my phone slows down even once, I immediately start window shopping for a replacement. Plus all the repros, conversions, and bootlegs out there it just isn’t safe anymore. I know I am rambling a bit now so I’ll just leave it at that. I fault no one for doing what makes them happy, this is just the opinion of a 40 year old dad of three’s view on what was and what is to come. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to redownload my TG-16 games on the Wii U shop before it closes for good! 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing your story Kyle! A lot of this is really resonating as a father of two who is just about to hit 40 🙂 Totally understand what you’re saying and I think you have a great outlook on playing beloved games in the future. I also really appreciate that you’re not judging others, but simply sharing your well thought out approach to playing retro games. Hope you were able to download your favorite TurboGrafx-16 games!
I love this article and agree 100% with these points!! I used to collect here and there but sold everything off in a bind once. Then the prices got insane so I’ve been collecting the mini releases. I’m 35 years old so I grew up in the Golden age of gaming. It was a very special time I always want it to stay with me in some way. Happy gaming!!
Thanks so much for the positive feedback my friend!! I’m 37 and totally hear you on our era being the “golden age of gaming” 🙂 I love your approach to collecting the mini consoles as a way to always have some access to awesome retro games-brilliant!
Thank you for your kind words!! A couple of months ago I acquired the Core Grafx mini from a UK fellow (TG-16 version was a little pricy) and I love it!! My only experience with that console was the old rad 90s electronics stores that had them on display or for rent so now I couldn’t be happier!! It even has Castlevania Rhono of blood its awesomeness!! Thanks again!!
Stumbled on this website by accident, but great article!
Haha thanks! Glad you found your way here and hope you enjoy!
Did anyone else just get really excited reading this article? There’s something about the 1990s that no other generation will get to experience. We were lucky.
I couldn’t agree more!
Jeremy I got so excited I busted out my pogs, neon Fanny pack and Crystal Pepsi!
In last 12 years at least retro prices have gone through the roof and it’s a hard pill to swallow but there’s nothing much you can do just try to concentrate on getting what you like and sometimes luck is as big a part of anything. Always keep your eyes open you never know when a good bargain may pop up in the craziest most unlikely place.
Great advice! Those “once in a blue moon” bargains, though rare, can definitely still be found if keep searching for them.
In addition to that, keep your eyes open for the deals you aren’t particularly interested in. I recently picked up Silent Hill disc only being sold “as is” due to the disc looking rough for $20. Now, I already have a complete copy but a $100 disc for $20 was worth the gamble.
It resurfaced and played perfectly at a local game store, so that was an easy trade in towards a game I did want.
That’s a great tip! I definitely need to be better at being opportunistic like that.
Also, love the photos in this post. Love the 6-pak in all its pragmatic, filled with killer games glory.
Love the clean, boxed Hyperstone Heist.
Love the 64DD because when Nintendo makes bad hardware decisions, they shoot for the moon.
And lastly, everyone loves seeing the Switch in TATE mode!!
Thanks Kamal! I didn’t even realize how much nostalgia is packed into these photos until I scrolled through the entire thing at once :).
Pragmatic game collecting in 2021 is being aware of what is at the top of your list and being “at peace” with the way you choose to play.
There’s no wrong answer here: if you’re able to play the game and you’re happy, mission accomplished! We’re all here to have fun and not judge how you choose to enjoy a work of art.
Buying an older title digitally not only gives you a taste without the immense spend for a physical title, but encourages publishers (Thank You Microsoft!) to provide avenues to enjoy content well past three original console’s lifespan.
Fact is there’s a “consensus” among the gaming/YouTube/IG community of what games are considered “best” and must haves and while some are spot on, it’s not universal. Like Zach said, you’re not going to like every game that’s considered top tier and that “gaming consensus” often misses titles completely. This is good for you and me because we can buy CIB or loose copies of a game for, you know, less than a kidney.
Also consider current or one generation previous to the current to start checking out games. Prices are typically lowest around that time in a console’s lifespan. You pickup what you like before the rest of the world comes in!
Agreed across the board Kamal! Great advice on looking one console generation back-games there are generally dirt cheap for a good while before the value starts to increase over time (you can even find good deals at GameStop/typical retail stores). Now is an excellent time to collect for Wii U/3DS/XBox 360/PS3, and you can find a plethora of stellar titles both old and new on those consoles!
Can anyone give me advice on how to start retro game collecting? As a boy with a single mother and older brother paying the bills, I’ve had no luck whatsoever. I usually end up getting something like the just about Japanese game only nes, that doesn’t take carts. So any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanksm
I would definitely start with the first tip in this post, which is to “collect what YOU love”. It’s literally impossible to get everything with prices as high as they are now, but if you narrow your focus down to one smaller set of games you’re passionate about (i.e. your favorite Genesis games, the Mario series, etc.) it becomes much more manageable and realistic. Gameplay videos on YouTube and digital editions of games can help you get a feel for older titles you have little experience with to see if you like them! And it’s a good idea to check PriceCharting for current going values to see how feasible it is to purchase.
Once you figure out what you actually want to collect, there a variety of ways to collect more “smart” that I’ve mentioned in the post, like finding re-releases, compilations and collections (I just got the Genesis 6-pak since most games on it are pretty expensive!), or mini-consoles. Going for carts only over complete-in-box also greatly helps! I also have a whole post on tips for buying from eBay that I linked to above, which has really helped me grab some amazing deals as long as I was patient!
Consider what your favorite system is and maybe get the “classic” or “mini” version of it. Maybe you can find an nes classic and hack that to load all the games you’d like? Or just download znes and run the emulator on your computer and pickup a cheap usb controller? Gets you in the game for < $15. Whatever works for you!