Retro video game collecting is a hobby gamers get into for myriad reasons; some want to relive their childhood memories; others aim to have a physical library of video games and consoles so massive that it dwarfs Beast’s library from Beauty and the Beast; some have even decided to make their own custom cabinets for the retro games they love. Retro games are an art form that many want to preserve, especially now that many games have gone the digital sales route.
I reached out and talked to a wide variety of retro video game collectors to find out what advice they would give to new collectors, what sparked their interest in collecting retro games, and their thoughts on key issues in the community, like the risings costs of being a collector.
Among them are Andy Steig who runs the Retro Community on Twitter, and is the host of the weekly retro gaming podcast Cafe, BTW. Cristal, whose YouTube channel ZapCristal revolves around retro gaming topics and discussions; Editor-In-Chief and Co-Owner of Forever Classic Games Alex McCumbers, Lucas White is an editor at ReKT Global; Curtis McDaniel, whose collection of games currently sits at around 10,000 titles; Ken Sahr, a retro cabinet collector and builder; and Matt Paprocki, a writer for Rolling Stone, Playboy, and the Washington Post.
So let’s start with the simple stuff! How long have you been a collector of retro games and consoles?
Andy: I still have some of my original games from my childhood. I started collecting seriously as a hobby about 12 years ago.
Cristal: Ever since I’ve had knowledge of it, I’ve been collecting. In the beginning, it was more of a young child
sentiment of ownership. I started gaming at a very young age so even though, I didn’t know or use the
term collecting or collector to refer to what I do. I still was very zealous of what my parents were able
to provide us for birthday gifts as well as for the holidays. Fun fact! My mom still has all of our childhood
games and consoles.
Alex: I’ve been collecting games since I was three years old. I used to get NES games at pawn shops and many of those carts I still have to this day.
Curtis: I have been collecting since roughly 1989 when I got my first game console, the Atari Personal Computer.
Ken: As far as cabinets and arcade games go, my coworker turned me on to them about 5 years ago. He was trying to make room, and I had just moved from a town home to a house with a garage, so it was a perfect match. I ended up buying a four-slot Neo-Geo MVS cabinet as well as a Showcase cabinet from him, and that started it all.
When deciding on which retro game to add to your collection, what factors go into your decision in terms of the type of game, and console? Also, what qualities do you look for from an aesthetic point of view when it comes to a classic cartridge, disc, and/or console?
Andy: I love the original Sega Saturn, and when I’m out in the wild, I look for the US-run games of the Saturn. It’s a fascination of mine! That said, I currently focus on three different consoles at a time. Now it’s the Sega Saturn, NES, and OG Xbox. So, I pretty much lock-in and concentrate just on those games. As for qualities for NES, it’s almost impossible to find many boxed games, so I’m OK with just the loose carts. Though with other games, I prefer to have ‘Complete in Box’ (CIB). So, box instruction manual and game.
Cristal: I only collect things that I grew up with or what I currently enjoy as a gamer. I intend to actually play and
use every one of my items, so it’s very important to me that it is in great playable condition. It doesn’t really have to be CIB for me. It kind of depends how much sentiment I hold for it, to determine in what quality I would want to collect any particular item. So, the higher the sentiment, the more excellence I look for, and so forth.
Alex: Nowadays I either look for a bargain (which led me to snagging the entire Onimusha franchise and loving it) and the quality of the game. Those same Onimusha games were in pristine condition when I found them with the original manuals. Physical releases stand out to me mentally. I’m a writer, I have a staggering list of games digitally, many of which I may never play. However, when I see a game on a shelf and I hold it in my hand, I remember it or make a bigger commitment to playing it.
I also usually collect games that can stand the test of time, such as a GBA cart or a PS4 game. Durability is important because I play all of my physical games eventually, and I like loaning them to friends. I tend to avoid PS1 games, especially if they’re available digitally in a way that is true to the original release. That said, a game I really like such as the Final Fantasy franchise I’ll pick up just to own. Lastly, I love how games look on a shelf and I love the design of box art. Sometimes I do buy a game from a shop just because the artwork is cool.
Lucas: I collect with intent to play, so I’m mostly only gonna go for stuff I actually think looks good or fun. I also consider the novelty, so I have several licensed and pro wrestling games even though most of them aren’t great. They’re usually the cheapest, too! Since I collect to play, I don’t care that much about having the box for cart games, but for disc games I’m not into disc-only collecting. Looks sloppy! If a cart has some kid’s name scribbled on it with marker or whatever that’s totally fine; adds a little extra charm and humanity to it. On that note, a torn sticker is a no-go, unless there’s a funny replacement or just a small wound.
Curtis: I will grab anything really – be it big box, Atari, NES, anything. I do look for carts and disc with minimal defects. The closer it is to complete, the better.
Ken: For me now, I look at buying arcade boards to add to my cabinets. There’s a company that makes a great product that allows you to put multiple boards in a single cabinet, and switch games by hitting a specific button combination. It’s great when you know you have limited space but still want to be able to play a ton of games. My brother and I also buy specific boards that we’ve learned how to repair (mostly Double Dragon) and fix them up to put them back out in the community. We’ve fixed boards for arcades in both Texas and Florida, and it’s cool to know people are playing games we fixed. As for the games that I buy to add to the collection, it’s mostly the nostalgic ones from the late 80s/90s that I go for. I was a big Capcom and Konami fan, so when I see those for sale it’s hard to resist. For cartridges, it’s really about the box/packaging for me. Unfortunately, growing up I had no idea that maybe I should hold on to those and take care of them, so when I see the boxes and manuals for games that I owned as a kid, that really brings me back.
Matt: I have a rule I set decades ago: If it’s under $5 and I don’t own it, I buy it. Any console, any era. Over the years, that led to me buying games for consoles I didn’t have (but I rectified that eventually of course). I’m not a stickler when it comes to condition, but I will buy a game if it’s in better shape than one I own, then sell off the extra copy.
If someone wanted to start collecting retro games or building retro arcade cabinets, what advice would you give them?
Andy: The market is at its highest level right now, and tough for new collectors to get started. I always tell them to focus on some of the more recent generations like PS3, Xbox/Xbox 360, 3DS games, and PS2. They have high prices on certain games but, most importantly, are affordable. I also say go to as many garage sales, retro swaps, or local retro stores. eBay is good and bad for the most part. It’s best to see and feel the games in person. At any swap meet or some retro stores, always negotiate. They’ll work with you on price. Just don’t try and go after the holy grails. Focus on what you can afford.
Cristal: Collect for yourself and not for the world. It’s not a competition and your collection shouldn’t define your value as a person, nor do you need to be validated by society. The truth is, not everyone cares or understands why one collects video games or consoles or even collectibles. So choose wisely, and do it for the enjoyment and not for temporary reasons. This hobby is like quicksand, it moves rapidly and in a very unstable way if doing it for monetary or other reasons. Do it at your own discretion.
Alex: There is so much information available online and a lot of it is exceptionally detailed. There are also lots of books for retro gaming. I always tell people to pursue what they really enjoy. If that’s RPGs or making a MAME arcade cabinet, start with the research and then plan it out. Most shelves work just fine for collecting, but what about loose discs or loose carts? I really enjoyed putting my GBA carts into DS cases I saved from the trash at a Gamestop, completing the look with custom artwork that mimics the original GBA box. Original hardware is sometimes best but there are tons of awesome hardware solutions for carts and rom file.
Lucas: That’s a tough one, because as the pandemic hit the prices on retro games skyrocketed. In many cases it’s prohibitively expensive, and I’ve mostly backed off myself save for the occasional Mercari deal. Emulation is looking a lot better now, especially with the rise of handheld devices out of China or hardware like the Steam Deck. One thing I would say is that just buying games off eBay or whatever isn’t really satisfying from a collecting point of view. Finding games in pawn shops or at conventions is way better for the dopamine!
Curtis: Find what your passionate is about first and foremost. Don’t collect just to collect, otherwise it takes up space and then you’ll start regretting it. Once you get what you want, then decide if you want to go further, and at that point you’ll be able to figure it out.
Ken: I think arcade cabinet building and restoration is a great hobby where you can really learn a lot about a lot of different things. There’s the obvious electronic side where you’ve got to get everything to work properly, but there’s other less thought-about aspects too. A lot of these cabinets have been through a ton of wear-and-tear, so being able to do wood repairs is something I’ve had to learn fairly quickly.
Learning basic soldering and how power works are also skills you’ll pick up quickly. The one constant for these arcade machines is that they’ll break in some way sooner or later. A lot of them are using 40 year old components. Most of the replacement parts are very cheap, you just have to do the legwork of looking up schematics and figuring out how to replace what’s broken. I definitely still consider myself a novice at all of this, but every cabinet I have has taught me something new.
Matt: Do the leg work. Get out, go to garage sales, flea markets, thrift stores, etc. Don’t just look for games – find other interests like books, movies, electronics, clothes, or anything else. Otherwise, you’ll get frustrated and dejected because no, you won’t find games 90% of the time. But if you’re into other collectibles, you’re bound to find something almost every time.
Lately there have been some collectors who feel they’re being priced out of this hobby. How can this be remedied (if at all) and what do you want the future of games-collecting to look like?
Andy: I think that’s accurate. The good news is nostalgia is hot! You have developers releasing mini retro consoles and remasters. That helps with preservation, and the more these developers pay homage to the old games, the more access we will have to them in the modern era. Emulators can be good, but I’d recommend officially licensed games through publishers. Yet, emulators can be a cheap way to play games you can’t afford.
Cristal: I want us to remember and reshape why we even do it in the first place. I think that when you start a hobby for the wrong reasons, it is easy to be disappointed. But your WHY is so important to what you do with this hobby and really, with life in general. The truth is, we don’t really need these things but we choose to collect them. So sit down, have an honest talk with yourself and find out, ‘why you collect?’ You might be surprised of the answer that will arise within you.
Alex: The bubble can eventually burst and make original games more affordable. My biggest worry is games not being archived properly or someone with an expensive collection not properly taking care of those releases. It’s also perfectly fine to not hold onto games as long as some have. Is a game more valuable collecting dust on your shelf or sharing that game with someone who really wants to play it?
Lucas: Well, the fact is there’s a shelf life on this hobby in general. The more time passes, the more carts and discs are lost to damage, rot, degradation etc. Same with hardware. It’s gonna get to the point where things like Everdrives, clone consoles etc. are the only feasible option. If you want to keep playing retro games into the future you’re gonna eventually have to follow the technology. Or just wait to see if the bubble bursts.
Curtis: Soooo this is a big problem right now due to some sketchy folks overpricing and find someone to buy it at that price. Would be nice if people did a bit more research. For the future, I would just like to see more availability of older titles – be it carts or classic consoles.
Ken: That’s definitely a huge issue. COVID has gotten a lot more people into both console and arcade game-collecting. In general, people wanted to spend more time at home (or were forced to), so there were more people buying them. That skyrocketed prices in 2020 and beyond. I do think eventually it will taper back down, especially for arcade games. Once people get out more, those games are going to be taking up space and collecting dust and people will sell them, probably for less than they bought them for.
I think the best thing you can do to remedy that in the meantime is really focus on what you want to collect and play. Sure, it’d be cool to own all 716 NES games, but focusing on the ones that you really had a nostalgic experience with is a great place to start. And honestly, half the fun of this hobby is finding deals. There’s stories every weekend in the summer about people finding insane things at yard sales. The hunt is all part of the fun.
Matt: This won’t make me popular, but if you feel priced out, stop being lazy and impatient. Get off eBay. Why even consider those prices? Go out shopping. Support local game retailers. Never pass a thrift store without stopping in. Don’t just look at garage sale listings for video games – someone will beat you there. Find a community wide sale, wake up early, and browse. Find something you don’t want but it’s underpriced? Buy it, sell it, add to to your collecting fund, buy more games. Nothing wrong with making a profit to bring the cost down later. This is a hobby. It’s a hunt.
If you’re only looking for the most popular of popular games, you’ll struggle. In that case, download those games from digital storefronts to fill the nostalgia centers of your brain. If you want to truly collect, expand your horizons. Discover games you might have missed or never heard of. Or, stick with new-ish consoles. GameStop, portrayed as villains, have 4 for $20 (or better!) sales all the time. You can walk out with an entire collection for under $100, and their membership thing gives you $5 a month; that’s a free game every month if you choose smartly.
How has the creation of streaming libraries and services like Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Plus and Nintendo Switch Online affected the retro gaming market in your eyes?
Andy: As mentioned above this is extremely important for preservation. Does it affect the market? In my eyes not at all. Why? Well, the more we move into the digital frontier and the less we produce tangible games, the more likely that old games will stay valued and continue to grow in value.
Cristal: It doesn’t affect us in any way because we are not the target audience for it. It’s more of a convenience and accessibility factor for the general public. I’m actually happy for these services as it encourages newer generations who didn’t grow up with these systems to experience these games for themselves and perhaps spark an interest for retro gaming in general. I see it as a win, as a way to prolong a legacy for the future.
Alex: I think when it comes to offering retro games on modern consoles we’ve actually regressed significantly. The PS3/Vita/PSP being able to play PS1 titles for a standard price of $7 or less was an incredible value and many games ran great. I saved a ton of money picking up Mega Man Legends 2 on Vita and I loved playing Dino Crisis on my PSTV on Twitch. Really it comes down to quality. Xbox does amazing work with upscaling several of their legacy games. Nintendo’s online retro collecting is a laughing stock and the biggest shame of all. Trickling out extremely obscure SNES games while shutting down the much larger collection on the Wii/Wii U is baffling.
Some developers put out re-releases that are really exceptional like the Mega Man X Legacy Collection series or the Castlevania Collection. For now, that’s the best way to play most retro titles on modern platforms. Unfortunately, the new PlayStation service also comes in the wake of a better service being shut down and many games just are not optimized.
I do appreciate the PC market and services like GOG allowing classic titles to run on modern PCs and I’ve really enjoyed exploring games like Quake with new visual features or being able to jump into a mod in the Switch version of Doom II. The solution for retro games is emulation and it really bugs me that more companies are not embracing this software. Emulation has been accurate, feature-rich, and easy to use for decades. It’s one of the most important tools in game preservation and longevity.
Lucas: I don’t think these services have really impacted the market. I remember thinking it would several years ago, but when Suikoden hit the PSOne Classics line and the physical prices didn’t budge, it was a wrap. At the same time, these services are great for folks who just want easy ways to play games they missed, or replay favorites. Especially as things like CRT filters are gaining popularity, even the little nuances of retro gaming on hardware are being replicated by folks who care deeply about that stuff but also see the writing on the wall.
Matt: Occasionally, a retro re-release will calm the price of an authentic copy, but mostly, it draws more attention to it. There’s no one consistent answer as to how the market responds.
Curtis: I try and buy everything physical but unfortunately there are a lot that are digital only. I think it will make physical copies scarcer so raise prices and, well, that’s just the way it will be.
Ken: That’s a great question. I think these services are a great gateway to playing these games. I have a six-year-old son and he loves playing games like Dig Dug – something that I know he never would have seen and played had it not been for being able to find these games on non-original hardware. In that way, it’s exposing a whole new generation to playing some of these classics. I’m not sure what kind of effect they’ve had on the market, as I doubt someone is rushing out to find an original copy of a game they discovered on their Switch, but it could get them into the retro gaming scene as a whole. Maybe that exposes them to new games that they wouldn’t have otherwise seen, or maybe it takes them in a whole different direction, like speedrunning their favorite game or series.