• Cassie

The Rising Cost of Collecting Arcade Games

Updated: Aug 19



So… When the Heck Did These Things Get So Expensive?

If you, like me, spend a good amount of time on the various arcade game collecting internet forums or Facebook collector type groups one topic seems to come up often from the mouths of long-time arcade game collectors; arcade games aren’t as cheap to collect anymore. Prices for classic games have been on the rise over the last few years, sometimes so dramatically that many game titles are now out of reach for the average collector. While this blanket statement could be applied to any number of things (the housing market, the cost of groceries, etc.) there are more than several logical reasons why “The Good Old Days” of mostly cheap and abundant arcade games from say, 10 or more years ago aren’t likely to ever return.


Now for me personally as a collector of arcade games over the last 25 years I can indeed verify that at one time you could walk into a vending equipment auction with a few hundred bucks in your pocket and walk out with a few choice games. I remember one particular auction in the late 1990’s when I bought a beautiful dead mint condition Atari Dig Dug upright and Nintendo Popeye upright for under 300 bucks together. So why is it as we creep into the 21st century has there been a seemly astronomical rise in prices for classic arcade games? The reasons are multifaceted but at times mostly logical to not just collecting arcade games but for most hobbies, so let’s break them down one by one.


Nostalgia Isn’t Cheap

Timeline wise classic arcade games might now be at a “zenith point” for maximum nostalgia within the public mindset. The original release date for most popular titles collectors seek out were originally released between the late 1970’s through mid 90’s. Take a popular game title with collectors such as Atari’s Tempestwhich is now over 40 years old or Midway’s Mortal Kombat which is over 30, or even say a bronze age classic such as Pong which is now creeping up to 50 years old. Time has a way of catching up to us in a context that can be both fascinating and frighting. 2050 is now a closer reality for us than the year 1990. Any collectable has a certain “timeline” of being not old enough to be interesting to collectors (which results in cheaper prices for those who collect early), and old enough to be considered collectable by the masses which tends to result in those items being more sought after with higher price tags in tow.

Arcade game auction circa mid/late 1990’s


So now that we have established that both we and the games we love are getting older, what the heck does that have to do with the price of Space Invaders? Well for one, every year there are fewer and fewer classic arcade games available. This fact is a hard one to wrap your head and heart around if you love these games as much as I do, but sadly these classic games continue and will continue to dwindle in numbers. Events such as fires, termites, water damage, poor repairs, or games that have been carelessly modified beyond their original state are factors that are and will continue to dwindle the number of games in the hobby (more on this in a bit). A second factor is as any collectable gets older (due to the previous stated reasons and others) they tend to get more expensive. More people might join the hobby (more on that as well below), more collectors might hang onto games longer preventing rarer items from seeing the marketplace, the hobby might see more “investor” like collectors who drive up prices, and all these factors can create a speculator market that has infected many other hobbies in the past.


The biggest factor perhaps is that people will always pay for nostalgia if they can afford it. Nostalgia makes us feel great, young, and brings us happiness. There is even research that shows leaning into nostalgia can make you healthier.[1] Desire for nostalgia goes up, and prices for those items as collectables rise accordingly. It is also interesting to note how vintage home video game system collectable prices have skyrocketed beyond those of arcade game collectors recently. A sealed copy of the very first run of Nintendo’s NES version of Super Mario Bros. sold for 2 million dollars in 2021. [2]


Games Are Getting Harder to Find in Original Condition

Arcade games were originally purchased by game operators with one goal, to have the game make money for them and hopefully eventually turn a decent profit. Once the quarters stopped coming in consistently for any game title, the future of that original game was in question. Many original cabinets would be “converted” using game conversion kits to turn an original arcade game into a new game title sacrificing things like the original art or unique parts during that transformation. For some rarer arcade game titles that were perhaps never huge hits to being with, original unaltered machines were already a tall order to find before the hobby started growing in popularity.


Rotting classic arcade games in an abandoned location


Not all games were converted neatly, with care, or well, and poorly done conversions can make it more difficult for dedicated collectors to restore the game back using original parts or pieces. Obviously the rarer the title, the even more difficult it can become to find specific and unique original pieces for a game. Some collectors can wait years for just the right specific part for more obscure titles if they can ever find them at all. Some parts despite the best efforts of preservationist are not reproduceable at all unless you happen to own a time machine. Items such as CRT monitors (despite the creativity of some collectors with techniques like “tube swaps”), certain PCB components, or unique custom-made items likely haven’t been manufactured in many years. Some complete games are presumed missing completely with unknown fates or futures. Whatever stockpile of hidden parts in some backstock of rarer out of production items are getting lean today, leaving many collectors using non-original parts or needing to get creative in the area of reproduction to keep their machines up and running and looking good.


I think it would also be unfair of me towards arcade collecting fanbase not to mention the countless original machines over the years which have been ruined by poor restorations, repurposing cabinets for other reasons, terrible conversions to multi-game systems with little regard for the game’s original state, and simple neglect. This practice of hacking up restorable or savable rare titles into cheap multigame systems still goes on today, which ruins unique and interesting games forever. All these factors make original unaltered games harder to find, and worth more money in the eyes of collectors as the years go by.


There is Indeed a Limited Supply of Classic Arcade Games

Any reader of my blog or watcher of my You Tube channel knows of my affinity for Atari’s ill-fated game Liberator. Despite Atari’s dominance in the arcade game marketplace in the early 1980’s they would only manufacture 762 Liberator arcade games. Liberator was a flop in the arcades, so it is logical to think many original cabinets were converted or trashed by operators. So that begs the question how many Liberators are left in their original condition? So, with that jumping off point how many of any title are left out there? Some games such as William’s Defender or Bally-Midway’s Ms. Pac-Man had huge production runs and are today more common to find by collectors. Some game titles also had much longer successes timewise in arcades which seemed to assure more of them would retain a better survivor rate. The question remains however how many of any title are left in the world? How many of those are still mostly original or in good working condition? They aren’t making any more of anything that existed in the past so there are only so many survivors to go around in any hobby or collecting market.


Still from the film Adventureland, Miramax Films 2009 [3]


Generation X and Y Now Have Disposable Incomes

Let’s also briefly touch on the economics of those who are buying arcade games currently. I am a member of the generation considered to be “Generation X”, born between 1965-1979. With this timeline in play, you can see I was indeed of the generation that was raised on the first wave of classic video games both in arcades and at home with my trusty Atari 2600. Despite the huge current wealth inequality currently within the United States (for reasons I will not be getting into with this article) some Gen X and Y folks who are right in that hot spot of nostalgia from their childhood now have disposable income to blow on fun stuff from their childhood. Generation X also has been for many reasons able to rebound economically after the housing crash of 2007, leading to having more disposable income. [4]I know many people from my age group who collect toys or other collectables form their childhood paying unseemly amounts of money for the pleasure of doing so. I personally have purchased several rather expensive games over the last few years that in previous years I would have never dreamed to do so.


Added to this many Gen X families who had kids, are in the timeframe of those kids moving out to start their own lives in families. This leads to more space in the house for things like game rooms or collectables, and yes, more money to spend on such things. A midlife crisis might have once meant Dad running out and buying a Corvette, but now maybe it’s buying a cherry Battlezone arcade machine. Young adults or 20-30 somethings also have little qualms about spending money on things such as pop culture collectables or vintage items for pure enjoyment or nostalgic value. I can’t imagine my father spending large amounts of money on a toy from his childhood where today it is commonplace to see a vintage toy from someone’s childhood on a workplace desk or even behind a fancy glass case in their home.


The Rise of the Barcade

The popularity of retro arcades and “Barcades” over the last five to ten years is yet an additional factor in the rising cost of classic arcade games for collectors. It seems every hip side of any city is home to at least one of such business endeavors. Vintage arcade games of decent and working condition are the life blood of the concept of a retro arcade bar, and many owners of such establishments are willing to pay a bit more for solid working examples of popular games. Other larger establishments are highly networked in the collecting community to seek out very rare or unusual titles, often purchasing them from private collections that haven’t seen the light of day for many years. Some owners will also “horde” multiple copies of games in order to make sure they have both a back stock of parts, and additional games to use while others are in repair since keeping a 30–50-year-old arcade game working properly in a commercial setting can be more than a slight challenge. Whenever a private collector starts competing in a marketplace with business owners the prices of those items are going to rise.


The Popularity of Licensed Multigame Cabinets

Chances are you could get in your car right now and drive down to your favorite big box style mega store and pick up some sort of officially licensed retro arcade game reproduction. Although these licensed arcade game replicas tend to be somewhat looked down upon by classic arcade game collectors, they are bringing newcomer interest into the hobby. It probably isn’t a large leap to spend 500 dollars on an Arcade1Up cabinet replica of say, Pac-Man to then turn around and spend around 1000 dollars if someone thirst for the “real thing”. There isn’t any real hard data on if these replica cabinets are helping drive up the prices on authentic vintage games, but anytime you have more focus on a hobby of any kind from outside sources prices are likely to rise. Recently the market for vintage comic books has risen dramatically thanks to the popularity of superhero films over the last decade.[5] When I first started collecting many years ago, arcade games as a hobby seemed like a very small somewhat “secret society” of collectors. Today with the wide scope of retro gaming all over different platforms, media representation, and reissuing of vintage games in many formats, classic gaming has perhaps never been more in the public spotlight.


Arcade1Up cabinets


The rise of advances in reproduction of original cabinets thanks to tools such as CNC machines, advanced inkjet printers, and 3-D printers has been both a help and a hinderance to the hobby in some ways. There are indeed many individuals with the talent and drive to create amazing reproduction items of superior quality to help these games survive for generations. Like many collectors I have several vendors I rely on for their top-quality work. There is also an unfortunate side to reproduction not only with those to provide a less than quality product, but those who would pass off such reproductions as a legit or original machine to a less than knowledgeable collector. Many reproduction cabinets I have seen sell for comparable cost to original games, and usually have little of the original charm or possible future value. While I personally have no beef with those who recreate rare or custom arcade game cabinets (I have made a few myself I am proud of), I do have issue with those who pass them off as something they are not to unsuspecting collectors.


The Hobby is Maturing, and That is a Good Thing

In any hobby there are always going to be a small number of very serious collectors. These higher end collectors tend to drive up the sale value of those high-end items that any hobby has deemed (for whatever reason) to be the most valuable. Uncomfortably for many of us, what this relates to with collecting is that there are certain titles and games that will just become out of our reach as the hobby continues to grow and the games get older. I personally long for a Computer Space, in my collection but I also enjoy paying my mortgage and car note each month. Many of these serious collectors also tend to hold onto their games much longer than the average collector and may not be as in touch with the collector networks to make themselves widely known. I personally know of two high end collectors who have shunned the collector fandom of the arcade collecting hobby for decades and have collections that would make most collectors green with envy.


The hobby also has a bit of a cache now, thanks to media representations and the growing interest in classic arcade games. The more exposure any hobby or pop culture item gets, the more people from outside that hobby will become interested and invested into it. Large pop culture books or films such as Ready Player One can only feed into building this cache and adding to a upswing in prices as demand increases.


Conclusion

Although many collectors have commented to me their desires for a market crash of prices to scoop up cheaper arcade games into their collections, I don’t see a huge likelihood of this ever happening. High grade original machines will continue to rise in value and become more difficult to locate. Although the occasional bargain or discovery of a rare game will still be had, these events will become rarer as time goes on. I feel like I should end this article with the cavate that I often place with the collecting hobby in general, no matter what you happen to collect. Collect what you love and do it for the love of the hobby. Collecting anything for an attempt to invest is often a risky endeavor and tends to quickly erode one’s love for any passion rather quickly. I may never get my much-desired original Computer Space, but I will also never allow market speculation or value paranoia to destroy my love for the hobby of collecting arcade games. I remember many years ago reading a post by a collector that stated something to this extent; “I would rather talk to a collector with just 2 or 3 games who really loved them, than to someone with a large collection who was only concerned with their value or condition”. Wise advice for sure, happy hunting.


Cassandra Chiles

www.vintagearcadegal.com


[1] Neal, B. (2019). A New Study Reveals Why You Get Nostalgic — And It's Not Because You're Feeling Warm & Fuzzy. Bustle. Bustle.com. [2] Lyons, K. (August 7, 2021). Unopened Copy of Super Mario Bros. Sells for a Record $2 Million. The Verge. Theverge.com. Vox Media. https://www.theverge.com/2021/8/7/22614450/unopened-copy-super-mario-bros-sells-2-million-record

[3] Mottola, Greg, Sidney Kimmel, Anne Carey, Ted Hope, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Margarita Levieva, and Ryan Reynolds. (2009) Adventureland. Burbank, Calif: Miramax Films. [4] Fry, R. (July 23, 2018). Gen X Rebounds as the Only Generation to Recover the Wealth Lost After the Housing Crash. Pew Research Center.

https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/23/gen-x-rebounds-as-the-only-generation-to-recover-the-wealth-lost-after-the-housing-crash/ [5] Lewis, A. (May2, 2012). ‘Avengers’ Movie Hype Drives Record Prices for Vintage Comics. The Hollywood Reporter. PMC Media.

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