On Monday, Heritage Auctions sold off an unopened copy of the 1996 Nintendo 64 game Super Mario 64 for $1.56 million. According to the auction house, there were 16 bids, and the final price is the highest ever for a single video game. The vintage video-game trade has been booming over the past three years, especially during the pandemic, but this selling price even has seasoned collectors shocked and scratching their heads.
“I myself and many other in this space are just blown away with these results,” said Donald Brock Jr., owner of the collectibles site Columbia Comics. “If you look at the collectibles market since the pandemic happened, it’s exploded. You would think that money would tighten up a little bit, but it’s done the exact opposite.” To put the Super Mario 64 sale into perspective, Brock notes that the first comic book that sold for $1 million was Action Comics #1, which featured Superman’s debut, in 2010. It was printed in 1938, so the comic was 72 years old before it reached a million-dollar selling price. The first baseball card that sold for more than $1 million was the T206 Honus Wagner in 2000; the card was printed in 1909, so it was 91 years old at the time of the sale. In contrast, Super Mario 64 is only 25 years old and still rocketed past the $1 million mark during Monday’s auction. “That is a very short period of time to reach that pinnacle,” said Brock.
There are several trends that have converged to fuel this rapid rise in vintage video-game speculation. A large contingent of comic-book collectors, for instance, have been moving into the space over the past few years in an attempt to diversify their investments. There also seems to be a tendency among cryptocurrency investors to cash out and collect video games. “You tend to see some increases in buying games when cryptocurrency is doing really well, and sometimes it corrects a little bit as that goes down,” said Josh Hamblin, owner of the SideQuest Games store in Portland, Oregon. His business used to consist mostly of people coming to “buy some games to play for the weekend,” but he’s recently found that collector’s items have become a significant portion of the store’s revenue and have been taking up more of his time. Hamblin also said that collectors are usually people in their late 30s or 40s who grew up with these games and now “have the extra money to play around with some collectibles.”
The titles that are fetching the highest prices are typically Nintendo games from the 1980s and 1990s, especially those for the company’s NES console, which came out in 1983. As is the case with comic books, the titles that feature the first appearances of characters from well-known franchises like Super Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon are the most coveted. Though Super Mario 64 features Mario’s first 3D rendering, the character had starred in numerous console games before that and first appeared in Donkey Kong. This, combined with the fact that there are scarcer titles than Super Mario 64, has many collectors confused about why it was the one to break the $1 million ceiling. “It’s really shocking that it was this game,” said Hamblin. “N64 Mario kind of gets a bad rap with a lot of collectors as not being a great game.” He noted he would’ve expected the NES game The Legend of Zelda, which just sold for $870,000 in an auction on Friday, to be more valuable than Super Mario 64. Hamblin said, though, that the particular nostalgia that this obviously well-heeled collector had for Nintendo 64 Mario may have been a driving factor in the high sale price.
Indeed, given that Super Mario 64 has already sold for well over a million and that there are arguably more valuable titles out there, it’s likely that this won’t be the only seven-figure video game auction. “If this is the true price, there’s copies of The Legend of Zelda that should sell for more than this. There’s a really high-grade sticker seal Mario that should sell for more than this,” said Brock. “There are other copies of game that are earlier prints of these popular franchises that, if this trend holds true, should sell for more than $1.5 million.” One of the main reasons why these vintage video games have shot up in price so quickly is that there just aren’t that many unsealed versions up for sale. Unlike with collectibles like action figures, there hasn’t traditionally been a culture around keeping video games untarnished and in their original packaging—most of the time, people are buying a game to open and play. Thus, there’s currently more of an imbalance between supply and demand for unsealed vintage video games.
So what do you do with a video game worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more? There’s almost no chance that any of these collectors are actually playing these games; rather, they’re keeping them as trophies in their private collections or waiting to resell them at a later date for a profit. In either case, the games have to be kept in pristine condition. Copies up for sale are often graded based on their condition by companies like Wata Games, which evaluated the Super Mario 64 cartridge for Monday’s auction. In order to keep games in good condition, collectors will often store them in safety deposit boxes at a bank or in plexiglass cases. Games need to be protected from UV rays, which can cause fading on the package design and lower the value. Dry, temperature-controlled rooms are optimal since oxidation is a nightmare for collectors. For instance, Hamblin recalls buying a collection of 200 sealed PS1 games from Georgia, but the humid climate had caused some rusting on the staples that were holding together the game manuals, which dramatically affected condition. It turns out that Mario’s most dangerous enemy might not be Bowser, but rather moisture.