Earlier this month, a sealed copy of Super Mario 64 sold for $1,560,000 at auction, a staggering price that nearly doubled a record set just two days before by a similarly pristine copy of The Legend of Zelda. The auctions could mark just the beginning of even more eye-poppingly large video game sales. It seems very likely that Mario’s first 3D adventure won’t be the last game to command a million-dollar sum.
“I think we’ll see more million dollar games, probably sooner rather than later,” Chris Kohler, editorial director at Digital Eclipse, a developer that works on rereleases of classic video games, tells The Verge.
Collecting and selling stuff — both physical and virtual — for expensive prices has become a popular trend. Pokémon cards are massively popular. Some NFTs, a form of digital collectible, have sold for millions of dollars. And people have been pouring huge amounts of money into assets like cryptocurrencies and GameStop’s stock.
Video games continue to be hugely popular — more than half of Americans turned to video games during the pandemic — and retro games have already had a recent history of becoming collectors’ items. Just over a year ago, a sealed copy of Super Mario Bros. claimed the record of being the most expensive video game ever by selling for $114,000, a figure that was huge at the time but is less than a tenth of what Super Mario 64 just auctioned for.
Kohler expects that the next game to break the million-dollar threshold could be a very early printing of The Legend of Zelda, like what sold this month, or another Super Mario Bros. Danielle Smith, owner of Nerdy Girl Comics, agrees. “I think that the market has kind of spoken for itself and that Mario is king and Zelda is queen of video games,” she said. Smith also said that Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis could potentially be a valuable title. That’s not only because of his cultural cache right now: “Sonic the Hedgehog sealed is really hard to come by,” she said.
It’s not just Sonic. People who are coming into collecting top-notch games may find that supply is much lower than it is in other collectibles markets. “I think that we are going to continue to see record breaking sales [in games],” said Deniz Kahn, president and founder of Wata Games, the company that evaluated both The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario 64 for quality before they were listed for auction. “At the end of the day, there’s just simply not enough supply of these high end, high grade, sealed, vintage video games to satiate the demand.”
That’s slightly different than other collectible categories. “Over the last few years there have been a lot of people who have started collecting other areas, like comics or coins or cards, and their markets are very mature,” he said. In comics, “at this point all of the copies of Action Comics #1 have been flushed out of attics into collectors’ hands. People in the [gaming] hobby — collectors, investors — we’re all realizing that the populations of these sealed games are so incredibly low when you compare them to, say, sports cards or comic books,” he added. “There aren’t hundreds of these in high, perfect grade out there. In some cases, there’s one, or 10, or five.”
Another thing that may be driving up prices is that the games are selling at public auction, meaning that everyone can see the price of an eventual sale. Before that, according to Kahn, “when a five figure video game sale would occur, which was a big deal four or five years ago, I knew about it and maybe 10 other guys knew about it. It all happened behind closed doors.”
All of the recent record holders have been sold on Heritage Auctions, and the games sold have been graded for quality by Wata Games on a 10-point scale similar to what’s used for comics. According to Kohler, the partnership between Wata and Heritage makes it safer for people to have confidence that the game they’re bidding on is of the quality that’s advertised. “You’re not just buying it from shadyguy123 on eBay,” he said. “You know you’re buying from Heritage Auctions.”
“The sales that occur [on Heritage] are now almost an indicator of health,” Kahn said. “It’s a pulse on the market.”
The person who bought the million-dollar Super Mario 64 hasn’t come forward publicly, so it’s unclear exactly why they dropped such a huge amount of money on the one game. But Valarie McLeckie, consignment director of video games at Heritage Auctions, said that those who have been buying ultra-rare games are driven by nostalgia. “The types of people who are buying these games are seeking mint-condition examples of the games they played as a kid,” she said in an email.
Kahn speculates that for some, Nintendo 64 games may hit that nostalgia sweet spot that encourages them to buy. “I think [for] the generation that’s really heavily getting involved in alternative assets, the Nintendo 64 era, for example, resonates a lot more with that demographic,” he said. “I think that might also be the reason that we’re all very surprised that the first million-dollar-plus video game was a Nintendo 64 game. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that. But it goes to show the power of emotion and nostalgia and how much of a role that plays despite all the other factors that drive demand.”
These record-breaking sales could have a positive impact on video game preservation, which is already a challenging problem due to the way technology changes and decays. If more people try to sell their video games to get in on the market, treasures that had been buried could see the light of day.
“What I think that people do not understand is that so much stuff, even to this day, gets thrown in the trash,” Kohler said. “If there’s one really great beneficial impact that something like this is going to have — especially because it passed that magical million dollar number where everybody, the mainstream news, is all paying attention to it — the beneficial impact this has is [that] fewer people will throw away their video games.”