If you aren’t immersed in the world of high-end video game collecting, it’s probably hard to understand why someone paid in excess of $1.5 million for a single, shrinkwrap-sealed boxed copy of Super Mario 64 last Sunday. But if you talk to people who have been collecting games and following this insular world for decades, you’ll find… well, they also think it’s hard to understand.
The confusing part isn’t even the sheer amount of money being spent on a video game box that no one will ever open, much less play. Ever since an early sealed printing of Super Mario Bros. sold for over $100,000 in 2019, the general consensus in the world of high-end game collecting was that an eventual seven-figure game sale was inevitable. But even after a $660,000 Super Mario Bros. sale two months ago, many didn’t think the flashy million-dollar barrier would be broken so quickly. “I honestly thought that this was a milestone that we wouldn’t pass until years from now,” Heritage Auctions Video Game Consignment Director Valarie McLeckie told Ars.
More than the timing, though, game collectors that spoke to Ars expressed near-universal shock that this was the first game to command such a high price. In the past, the small handful of games that have sold for $100,000 or more have all been extremely rare and notable in some way. The Legend of Zelda that temporarily set an $870,000 sales record earlier in Heritage’s recent weekend auction, for instance, was described in the listing as “the only copy from one of the earliest production runs that we’ve ever had the opportunity to offer” for an iconic game.
“I could understand the logic behind a lot of the expensive ones. This felt like the first one that I didn’t understand the ‘Why?’”
Sure, Super Mario 64 is an important game in a franchise with a huge number of fans. But it’s not the first home video game appearance of Mario—early printings of Super Mario Bros. are more analogous to Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1, the holy grail of comic collecting.
And yes, it’s hard to find a copy of the N64 best-seller that wasn’t torn open and played immediately by some kid the second they got it in the late ’90s. But it’s not impossible. Over the last two years, clearinghouse PriceCharting.com lists 30 public sales of “graded” sealed copies of Super Mario 64 (i.e., those which have been evaluated and put in a protective slab by a rating agency). Dozens of additional sealed copies have been sold “raw” and ungraded in that time.
None of those sealed Super Mario 64 boxes sold for more than $38,400 before this $1.56 million sale.
“I thought that a lot of [these high-end sealed-game sales] made sense up until this last weekend,” said Kelsey Lewin, co-director of the Video Game History Foundation and co-owner of retro game store Pink Gorilla. “I could understand the logic behind a lot of the expensive ones. This felt like the first one that I didn’t understand the ‘Why?'”
Long-time sealed-game collector Bronty, who sold that $100,000 Super Mario Bros. two years ago, put a finer point on it. “A $400K result I might have understood. $1.5 million? What the fuck?”
Twilight of the completionists
“What’s basically happening is that people are getting in with a lot more money in their pockets than has been going around in game collecting so far,” says former Wired gaming editor and current Digital Eclipse Editorial Director Chris Kohler. “And they’re saying, ‘You guys are doing it wrong.'”
Kohler has been collecting video games since he was a teenager in the ’90s, or about as long as video game collecting has existed as a hobby. For most of that time, he says, the vast majority of game collectors weren’t all that animated by the idea of today’s hot mint-condition, shrinkwrap-sealed specimens. Instead, the biggest collectors generally wanted to own a complete, playable set of all the titles on their favorite platforms, either as loose cartridges or unsealed but “complete in box” copies.
Eventually, as these completionist collectors got near the end of their checklists, they all ended up competing for the same rare titles. Thus, obscure games like Stadium Events or Chase the Chuck Wagon would sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars to collectors who needed one of the handful of extant copies in order to finish their collections. For these completionists, the fact that these titles had little-to-no intrinsic value in terms of nostalgia, gameplay, or historical significance was beside the point.
“What’s basically happening is that people are getting in with a lot more money in their pockets than has been going around in game collecting so far… and they’re saying, ‘You guys are doing it wrong.’”
Collectors who focused on sealed video games existed in the long ago days of 2018 and prior, but they were a small niche. “None of us were collecting sealed games before this,” Lewin said. “Sealed games of course went for more money than not-sealed games, but it was such a small amount of traditional retro game collectors that were buying the sealed games that I personally hadn’t felt like it was affecting my ability [to collect].”