One of the first video game/movie tie-ins was 1982’s ET; The Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. With terrible gameplay and universally damning reviews, Atari nearly went under and the home video game market as a whole reeled in response. In September 1983, it’s said that between 10 and 20 semi trailer loads of consoles and unsold game cartridges in their original packaging were crushed and buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Today, a mint condition copy of ET; The Extra Terrestrial in the original packaging on eBay will cost you almost $200. Welcome to the world of retro game collecting.
When it comes to technology, 20 or 30 years old qualifies as ancient history. Playing – or even watching – a modern Playstation or Xbox game can make you think you’ve stepped into a movie theatre compared with the charm of 8-bit graphics and MIDI music (the range of computerised tones that formed the entire soundtracks of old-style games).
If the whole appeal of retro games is lost on you, you might simply be in the wrong age group or moment of history. Disney’s Wreck It Ralph made nearly half a billion US dollars, and even though the cute characters, colours and recognisable gaming worlds no doubt won kids over, it was their Generation X parents who laughed at the gameplay tropes and characters they remembered.
The love of old games might be just one more reaction to our cultural/generational fear that the world’s changing and moving just too fast, a yearning for a simpler time when you had to buy a game cartridge at a store or go to a milk bar to play a video game – and where a controller had one button instead of eight.
The relative scarcity also makes collecting of old arcade and console games a kind of sport, something like stamp or coin collecting. Here’s an except from a blog post written by a dedicated retro gamer;
“As the saying goes, the thrill is in the chase. As an avid curator of video games of the retro kind… there is nothing like the adrenaline rush you get when hunting an old game. The allure of the hunt is intoxicating, and when you ‘find’ your prey, it is like a hit… it is the rush that I am seeking from trying to find my prey… Even when the hunt is fruitless, the passion lingers to hunt again.”
Ironically, the technology of today can put old games in more hands than ever. The programs that ran them are so simple and the file sizes so small by today’s standards they can be played through web browser plug-ins (called ’emulation’). The gameplay was also so simple it’s easy to translate to a handheld device you control with point and swipe gestures. As avid retro gamer and collector Alex Kidman puts it “Touchscreens don’t work well with complex button setups, but do work well for short, snappy action games, which is the essence of most classic arcade games.”
Kidman adds that while you might have the game in front of you through an emulator or web browser, the program itself (also called the ‘ROM’) is only half the story. “Emulation’s great in a preservation sense, but it’s not the original experience. Those games were built around specific interfaces, and playing them with a keyboard or non-standard controller isn’t the same. There’s a special kind of dedication in putting a cartridge (or card, CD or floppy) into a system. Playing an original game on an original system focuses you into the game, and that’s far more enjoyable.”
Retro gaming’s also about much more than just the games. People collect original accessories and controllers for console games like the Atari 2600 and 7800, Intellivision, Sega Megadrive and the Nintendo Game and Watch range, as well as both common styles of arcade videogame cabinets (upright and cocktail). Collectors buy and sell the art panels that adorned the walls of game cabinets, decals with the game’s identity, even in-store brochures advertising new releases.
In some cases, games came with other equipment or resources, like a steering wheel controller for a driving game. A Sega Mega System game called Ultima IV came with a map and guide to all the spells you could cast. A copy of the game cartridge isn’t too hard to find online or in the usual bricks and mortar outlets, but copies with the 20-year-old books in good condition are getting rarer.
What makes retro gaming even more attractive for a collector is that in the days when you couldn’t just download everything, the games publishers had complete control of the sales channel on their side, making several finds extremely rare today. Plenty of titles were released only to members of game clubs, or in certain parts of the world according to regional TV standards like PAL and NTSC. An extreme case is an Atari 2600 cartridge for a game called Gamma Attack – only a single copy was ever produced, and it appeared on eBay one day with an asking price of US$500,000.
But even if you don’t have that kind of budget and you have a lot of garage space and an understanding spouse, joining the retro gaming and collectors community will plug you into a dedicated underground of people who take their fun seriously.