By Brandon Keenen, Chief Marketing Officer for Antstream Arcade.
2020 was a financial success for the games industry, but nowhere has this expressed itself as uniquely as in the retro gaming space, where prices spiked thanks to a wave of renewed interest in the classics. While this was great news for anyone sitting on a copy of 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (or even other, more playable games) for fans of retro gaming, both hardcore and casual, it’s the latest sign of a worrying trend in the scene.
The price of retro hardware, software and paraphernalia has been steadily rising for years, as the available supply of working consoles/machines/games steadily dwindles and dedicated collectors snap up the choicest titles for their own personal hoard. Obviously – scarcity can increase value. But this does seem like a good time to stop and ask the question: What exactly is driving this craze? Nostalgia – obviously. But on a deeper level, is it about the appeal of good, old-fashioned gameplay, or is it about the owning and feel of a thing?
Millions of pounds are spent every year on retro gaming items, from ancient arcade machines to original console releases. You only need look at auction sites and specialist online retailers to see just how popular retro gaming is at present. Price Charting is an excellent place to track this over the last year. In March 2020 a loose edition of Earthbound 2 would sell for about $165, by July 2020 it was $290. Super Mario Sunshine would go for $45 in March, in July $60. Galaga for the Atari 7800, normally $7 now $11.50. In fact, looking at the breadth of data Price Charting provides, it would be fair to say retro prices have jumped across the board thanks to the pandemic.
Nostalgia is fine. It makes us feel good, and the desire to return to the past is naturally very strong right now for a lot of people. But there is no getting around the fact that monetisation of nostalgia has been weaponized. Not just by independent collectors and resellers of retro consoles, but by the biggest companies in gaming as well.
Take, for example, the Retro Console re-release trend. The NES Mini was released in 2019 for $59.99/£49.99 with a grand total of 30 games from the console’s catalogue of 716 titles. The SNES Mini was released in 2017 for $79.99/£69.99, with a whopping 21 games included from the console’s catalogue of 1,757 titles. Worst of all was the release of the Playstation Classic in 2018 for $99.99/£89.99, including only 20 games from its library of nearly 8,000. These limited-run consoles barely scratch the surface of what is out there in terms of retro games, and as they have become ‘collectors items’ in their own right, the chance of anyone getting to discover retro gaming through them is low.
It is impossible to play the vast majority of retro games anywhere without paying over the odds. The collectors (who hoard) and the retro purists (who want to experience games in their original form) are both happy to pay a premium for retro hardware and software, but they don’t account for anything like the majority of retro gaming fans. What about those who just want to dip back into that one arcade game from the 80s that they loved? Or those who want to experience the games of the past for the first time, only to find they can’t? For every game officially available on an established platform there are dozens of classics and curios lost in the fog of backwards incompatibility. It’s no wonder the retro gaming space has such a reputation for piracy and copyright issues.
While it is very unlikely we will be able to convince game developers to give you an emulator and a ROM if you can present them with a proof of purchase from 30 years ago, we can still bring retro games to a mass audience legally without the inflated cost of retro consoles, cartridges, and other hardware. In this digital age, there is no reason for the games of the past to be so inaccessible and unplayable. We have the technology, we just need the will to bring them together and make them playable for future generations. We need to, if the retro community is going to continue to grow.
There will always be collectors, and there will always be retro purists. But even the most evangelical of fans don’t want the retro space to be limited to those with the biggest bank accounts. Nobody benefits from the games of the past being shut away in official libraries where they can’t be played, or locked away in the vaults of collectors like some kind of modern day dragon’s hoard.