Go shopping for classic videogames, online and offline.
It used to be so easy.
Anyone who’s been collecting retro games for some time now remembers the heyday of the early 1990s. For that glorious half a decade, buying retro games on the cheap [Hack #14] was like taking candy from a baby. With the advent of the Super Nintendo and Genesis hardware, the Atari 2600 and its contemporaries were two generations old. ’80s retro would not come into fashion for another decade. The Internet was but a gleam in the eye of Al Gore.
Nobody had any clue that people might one day pay big bucks for their old Colecovision. It was just an obsolete hunk of plastic taking up precious closet space, ready to be unloaded at the next neighborhood yard sale. But there was never any shortage of collectors ready to scoop them up. And it was hard to resist buying multiples of the same games and hardware—how could you resist buying yet another Atari 2600 when it was only ten bucks and came with thirty games?
But as more and more games and systems entered the possession of collectors (who were far less likely to sell them off on the cheap out of their own garages), as the ’80s started to become cool again, and as the advent of online auction sites started to raise the prices of retro games, Atari systems and such started to disappear from the flea market. But it’s still possible to get out there and buy some classic gaming goodness, and this hack will explain some general tips.
The miracle of the Internet is how it brings people together across vast distances. Nowhere is this more apparent than in e-commerce. Buyers have the ultimate choice between sellers, and sellers have multiple buyers banging down their virtual doors.
Throughout this book, you’ll see hack authors constantly referring back to eBay. And how could we not? The prototypical online auction site was founded in September 1995 and quickly became one of the most-visited sites on the Web. Millions of items are posted by independent sellers on the site every day, from the mundane to the unimaginably rare. You can find anything you want on eBay, and that is especially true for classic video games. Although many eBay listings are run in the traditional seven-day auction format in which the highest bid wins, many have a “Buy It Now” option that let you purchase the item immediately for a set price.
Early eBay sellers gained a reputation for "price gouging,” and it is true that the auction-style formats did in some cases tend to inflate the price that rare (and sometimes not so rare) games would fetch. But as more and more people joined eBay to sell their stuff, prices began to fall in line with real market values. You needn’t be afraid of eBay; indeed, in most cases it can be the best option for finding what you want in the condition you want. eBay and its subsidiary PayPal (an online credit card payment system that most sellers accept) have extensive buyer protection policies, so in fact you can be safer when bidding on an eBay listing than buying games from an independent online retailer.
There are plenty of books available that contain all sorts of general-interest eBay tips (e.g., eBay Hacks, published by O’Reilly). But here are some bits of information you may want to consider when buying video games.
- Know what you’re looking for
Browsing through eBay listings without knowing what games you want to buy isn’t very effective. If you’re looking for Colecovision games, searching for
colecovisionon eBay will lead to all sorts of different auctions, but they won’t be categorized or alphabetized. Best to first find some information on the system and know what games you want to buy, then search for specific game titles.
- Decide what condition you want your games to be in
If a seller lists a game but doesn’t mention whether it includes the original box and instruction manual, then it almost definitely doesn’t. This might not make any difference to you, especially considering that the inclusion of a box and manual may drive the price of a game up. But if you do want complete titles, make sure to search for them. One common abbreviation used is "CIB,” which stands for "Cartridge, Instructions, Box.”
- Pay attention to pictures
Pictures can show you the condition of the game you’re buying, but they also might just be scans of the game’s box art found on the Web. If there’s no digital camera shot showing the actual item being sold, then don’t presume to know anything about its condition. On the other hand, you may want to look for auctions without pictures, as they tend to end with lower prices. Of course, in this case it is always a good idea to write to the seller and get a more detailed description of the game’s condition.
In case you’d rather not deal with the nerve-wracking excitement of auctions, there are some web-based retailers selling retro games at a fixed price. Of note are Good Deal Games (http://www.gooddealgames.com), whose store features a wide selection of new and pre-owned retro games for most systems as well as some original homebrew titles, and Packrat Video Games (http://www.packratvg.com), which specializes in Atari products.
Digital Press’ Links section has a list of web retailers that site users can rate. Sites that currently have a five-star rating include http://www.atariace.com, http://www.worldofatari.com, and http://www.goatstore.com. Another well-known site, the Web home of a retail store in New Jersey, is http://www.videogameconnections.com.
If you really want to save money, or prefer to trade your extra games straight up for new ones, you might consider visiting some Internet message boards that are devoted to giving private citizens the opportunity to sell their games privately. Sellers have the freedom of not having to pay eBay their cut of the profits, which they will (in theory) pass on to buyers in the form of lower prices.
The disadvantages are obvious: an unscrupulous seller might just run off with your cash or your end of the trade deal, and even if the seller is on the up and up, you are entirely at their mercy if you want to return the items (or if anything gets lost or damaged in the mail). If you’re feeling brave and are familiar with newsgroups, rec.games.video.marketplace is a good place to start (try browsing it through Google at http://groups-beta.google.com/group/rec.games.video.marketplace).
Some more reputable buy/sell forums, like the ones at Digital Press (http://www.digitpress.com; click the “Forums” link) and Atari Age (http://atariage.com/forums/), will keep forum-goers apprised of good and bad trades that have taken place, as well as keep an eye on the posts. But even the best web sites still cannot take any responsibility if any mishaps occur from trades in their forums.
GameStop stores no longer buy and sell games for systems older than the PSone, but some EB Games (aka Electronics Boutique) outlets do. Still, their selection is limited and they do not buy or sell any games for retro systems other than the NES, SNES, and Genesis.
A better idea is to try searching the Web or your local Yellow Pages for independently-run game retailers. Since they are not under the thumb of wide-ranging corporate decisions, they are free to buy and sell any game or system they feel like. Well-known independent game stores that stock retro games include Multimedia 1.0 in New York City (http://www.videogamedeals.com/page_info.php/pages_id/2/pages_name/About%20Us) and GameDude in North Hollywood (http://www.gamedude.com/).
If you can take a trip out to one of the many conventions devoted to classic video games that are held annually across the country, you’ll get the best of both worlds: dealers with wide selections of wares who set up large booths on the expo floor, and “swap meets” filled with people just like you who bring boxes and backpacks full of unwanted games and hardware to sell and trade.
The most popular West Coast convention is Classic Gaming Expo (http://www.cgexpo.com), which for many years took place in downtown Las Vegas but now happens every August in the San Francisco Bay Area. On the East Coast, Philly Classic (http://www.phillyclassic.com) has filled the Valley Forge Convention Center each spring (although the 2005 show is scheduled for the fall).
Other regional shows have included the Oklahoma Video Game Exhibition (http://www.okge.com), CinciClassic (http://www.cinciclassic.com/), Austin Gaming Exposition (http://www.austingamingexpo.com/), MAGFest in Virginia (http://www.magfest.org/), Midwest Gaming Classic in Milwaukee (http://www.midwestgamingclassic.com/), and Northwest Classic Games Enthusiasts Expo in Seattle (http://www.nwcge.org/).
Think thrift stores are just a place to dump your unwanted junk? Think again. Sure, Goodwill and Salvation Army stores might not be in the cleanest or most attractive retail locations, but some people’s “unwanted junk” might be in the form of retro games. The upside to thrift stores is the same as the downside—the employees pricing the items that come in usually don’t have a clue what retro games are worth.
This can be good if they get in good quality stuff and price it very low—a box full of loose Sega Master System games for a quarter apiece, for example. But it can be awful if they get the idea that anything related to video games is high-tech and expensive—a shelf full of Atari 2600 commons for $6.99 each is not an unfamiliar sight. And you can’t bargain them down any more than you could get a Wal-Mart cashier to knock a few bucks off your TV set.
Wait, wasn’t I just saying that flea markets and the like have dried up as a source of retro games? In large part, yes, but not entirely. If you’ve got the energy to get up early in the morning on a Saturday, driving around looking for garage sales (or just heading out to the local flea market) can reward you with some great finds. Check your local newspaper that morning or the day before to see about flea markets or yard sales in your area.
One point of advice is that you can and should bargain with your neighbors. Anyone who’s held a garage sale before expects it. So go ahead and aim low. They’ll meet you in the middle. Another important point of advice is, if you don’t see any video games and you’re at someone’s residence, ask! Many people just don’t imagine that their old video games might actually sell out on their front lawns.
Who knows… you might still get lucky.