Your Guide To The Dos And Don’ts Of Retro Video Gaming

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From vinyl, to furniture, to clothes, retro is in, and the same applies to video games. Once the domain of only the most dedicated gamers, retro video game collecting is slowly, but surely transforming into a mainstream hobby. Hell, you might have considered starting up a classic video game collection of your own, but where does one start? Which are the best consoles to focus on? What should be avoided?

Here’s a quick list of which classic consoles you should be focusing on, and a few other things to know before getting your retro game hoard started.

Note #1: For the sake of this article, I’m defining retro gaming as anything that came before the advent of polygons and 3-D gaming.

Note # 2: All the prices listed in this article are taken from Price Charting, a truly invaluable resource if you want to get into game collecting.

6) Atari 2600 (1977)

Availability: Fairly common in the wild (used game stores, flea markets, garage sales) although selection tends to be very random. Will have to hit the internet for some stuff.
Cost: $25 – $30 for the system. A buck or two for most games.
Best Games: Yars’ Revenge, Warlords, Frogger, Pitfall, Adventure
Most Valuable Games: Air Raid ($2,800), Eli’s Ladder ($1,500), Video Life ($1,200), Pepsi Invaders ($900), Cakewalk ($400)

The first video-game console, or at least the first one that actually mattered. The Atari 2600 brought video games home, and was host to a lot of classics like Pitfall, Adventure and a handful of okay arcade ports. Be forewarned though, the Atari 2600 is Retro with a capital “R”. This was an era where graphics were mostly symbolic (you’ll be looking at a lot of squares, circles, and other basic shapes), background music was largely unheard of and the d-pad hadn’t been invented yet. Set your expectations accordingly.

If you decide to get into Atari 2600 collecting, systems and games are cheap and plentiful. Of course, the Atari 2600 is nearly 40 years old at this point, so finding a console and controllers that work properly can be mildly challenging – it may be worth paying a minor premium to get a console that’s been well taken care of. As for games, you can often convince game stores to sell you their Atari stock in bulk, and only pay pennies for each game. That said, there was a lot of weird, random stuff released for the 2600 (Atari wasn’t so big on quality control) so if you want to snatch up some of the rarer Atari games, you’ll be paying a pretty penny.

5) TurboGrafx-16 (1989)

Availability: Quite rare in the wild. The basics can be tracked down online without much trouble, but you’ll really have to chase down the less common titles.
Cost: Anywhere from $100 to $500 for the system. $20 to $50 for most games.
Best Games: Bonk’s Adventure, Bomberman ’93, Military Madness, Alien Crush, Ys I & II
Most Valuable Games: Magical Chase ($1,500), The Dynastic Hero ($550), Bonk 3: Bonk’s Big Adventure ($350), Godzilla ($300), Legend of Hero Tonma ($300)

It’s unlikely you or any of your friends had one, but there was actually a third player in the 16-bit Wars. The TurboGrafx-16, made by NEC and backed by Hudson Soft, was crushed by the Super NES and Sega Genesis, but it actually had some really solid games, particularly if you like space shooters, pinball or platformers starring big-headed cavemen.

The TurboGrafx-16 came in a baffling array of models. There was the basic TurboGrafx-16, which played game cards, and an add-on that played CDs. Later there was the Turbo Duo which came with the CD drive built in. The basic TurboGrafx-16 costs around 100 bucks, but unfortunately, due to flimsy disc drives, any of the CD-playing options are hard to track down and will cost you $500 or more. The fact that the TurboGrafx was such a resounding flop also means its games are fairly rare, and cost a lot more than your average retro titles. The TurboGrafx-16 is definitely one of the more expensive, frustrating consoles to collect, but the enviable quality-to-crap ratio of its library might make it worth it to you.

4) ColecoVision (1982)

Availability: Somewhat rare in the wild. Most games can be found fairly easily online.
Cost: Approximately $50 for the system. $5 to $20 for most games.
Best Games: Donkey Kong, BurgerTime, Gorf, WarGames, Jumpman Jr.
Most Valuable Games: Wizard of Id’s Wiz Math ($200), Dragonfire ($70), Gyruss ($50)

Of the many pre-NES era video game consoles, the ColecoVision probably holds up the best. The system’s specialty was arcade ports, and it was home to some very respectable versions of Donkey Kong, BurgerTime, Star Wars and more. These ports still didn’t look quite as good as their arcade counterparts, but, at least, they were recognizable (unlike some Atari ports) and more importantly, they actually played properly. You will have to get used to the system’s wonky knob and keypad-having controller, though.

The ColecoVision wasn’t nearly as popular as the Atari 2600, so you’re unlikely to find one at your local junk shop, but the system and its games can be tracked down easily online without breaking the bank. A solid option if you want to go old school, but not too old school.

3) Sega Genesis (1989)

Availability: Widely available, although slightly harder to find than Nintendo stuff.
Cost: $10 to $20 for the system. $5 to $10 for most games.
Best Games: Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Phantasy Star IV, Shining Force II, Gunstar Heroes, Ristar
Most Valuable Games: Outback Joey ($2,000), Crusader of Centry ($160), MUSHA ($160), Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel ($130)

Depending on which side of the 16-bit wars you fell on, the Sega Genesis is either the best damn system ever or an overrated joke, but putting aside a 20-year-old corporate rivalry, there’s no denying the Genesis was home to some damn fine games. Sonic, Phantasy Star, Gunstar Heroes, Mortal Kombat with actual blood – the system had a lot going for it.

For whatever reason, the Genesis just isn’t as popular amongst collectors as Nintendo consoles, which translates to some nice bargains for you. You can get a Genesis for basically nothing, and the vast majority of the system’s catalog can be bought for five bucks or less. If you want to take the cheapest, easiest route, Genesis collecting is definitely the best choice.

2) Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1991)

Availability: Easily available anywhere that sells used games.
Cost: $40 to $50 for the system. $5 to $20 for most games.
Best Games: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Metroid, Yoshi’s Island, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound
Most Valuable Games: Aero Fighters ($420), Hagane: The Final Conflict ($380), Final Fight: Guy ($250), Metal Warriors ($220), EVO: The Search for Eden ($200)

I don’t need to tell you about the Super Nintendo, do I? Nintendo basically took all their innovative NES games, made them prettier and polished them into perfect 16-bit masterpieces. Add in companies like Square and Capcom pumping out classics like Chrono Trigger and Street Fighter II, and the result is one of the most beloved consoles of all time.

That nostalgia means you’ll pay a bit more for Super Nintendo games than you’ll pay for Genesis stuff, but SNES collecting won’t exactly break the bank. Really, whether you pursue SNES or Genesis collecting is really down to personal taste. Personally, I suggest you do both.

1) Nintendo Entertainment System (1985)

Availability: Easily available anywhere that sells used games.
Cost: $25 to $50 for the system. $5 to $20 for most games.
Best Games: The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. 3, Kirby’s Adventure, Castlevania III, Punch-Out!!
Most Valuable Games: Stadium Events ($7,500), Little Samson ($820), Flintstones: Surprise at Dino Park ($650), Panic Restaurant ($380), Bonk’s Adventure ($320)

And somewhat predictably, we end our list with the Nintendo Entertainment System, the king of retro video-game collecting. Most people who decide to get into classic video games start with the NES, and for good reason – no other system offers the same mix of numerous iconic titles, wide availability, ease of use and reasonable costs.

Of course, the popularity of NES collecting has led to some inflation. While a lot of people are willing to just toss away Atari and Sega games, most folks are aware NES games are worth at least something, and some of the more rare games can be quite expensive and NES consoles are getting harder to find. That said, you can still amass a pretty nice NES collection without destroying your free time or wallet.

What To Avoid

Any Sega System That Isn’t the Genesis

The Sega Master System, Sega CD, and 32X can pretty safely be skipped. Granted, you can get them all dirt cheap (a lot of places with sell you the system and a couple dozen games for 20 bucks) but it’s not really worth it. Aside from the Genesis, most retro Sega consoles didn’t get much support, and what the games they did get weren’t much fun. If you’re collecting stuff you don’t even want to play, what’s the point?

Any Atari System That Isn’t the 2600

Much like Sega, it’s best to avoid any Atari system aside from their one big winner. Don’t mess with the Atari 5200, 7800 and Lynx, and for God’s sake, don’t touch the Jaguar with a 10-foot pole.

Neo Geo

The ultimate snobby game collector’s console. When the Neo Geo came out in 1990, its selling point was its arcade-perfect ports, which came at a very high price. This luxury price tag means few people bought Neo Geos, so they still cost an arm and a leg – a Neo Geo will still set you back hundreds, and pretty much all the games are in the $50 to $200 range. Sometimes much more. That would be fine if the Neo Geo catalog was amazing, but all the system really has is fighting games. If you really, really like ’90s Street Fighter clones, Neo Geo collecting may be for you, but for most gamers, the value just isn’t there.

Game Boy

The original Game Boy may be one of the most influential and successful systems of all time, but honestly, most Game Boy games aren’t that good. Also, playing Game Boy games on an actual green-screened Game Boy is a total pain in the ass. If you really want to play Pokémon, there are better ways to do it.

The Easy Way To Play Your Retro Games

Want to collect classic games, but don’t particularly care about playing them on their fragile original hardware? The Retron 5 is your best bet – it’s a single console that plays original NES, SNES, Genesis, Game Boy and Game Boy Advance carts. It even supports Japanese NES, SNES and Genesis games if you want to get into importing.

Where To Find Retro Games

Your first instinct may be to go to eBay, although you’ll find a lot of inflated prices there. Surprisingly Amazon actually has a lot of classic games for sale for reasonable prices, or you could head over to used games specialist JJGames. And hey, if you’re brave, you could always check out /r/gamecollecting.

Of course, you’re probably going to find your best deals out in meatspace. Hit mom ‘n’ pop game stores, pawn shops, thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales, and don’t be afraid to haggle or ask if you can plug something in and test it out if the circumstances allow.

There you are, a quick-and-dirty guide to the world of classic video-game collecting. Anybody out there into old games? Have any tips of your own? What’s your most prized game in your collection? Scroll down to the comments and let’s talk carts.