The pandemic launched a new era in the world of collectibles. The lockdowns, quarantines and widespread cabin fever they caused generated renewed excitement for valuable keepsakes like classic cars and baseball cards.
But Mustangs and Mantles had always been in demand and potentially valuable.
COVID-19, however, signaled the rise of a new category of high-end collectibles: video games, the most sought-after examples of which saw their value increase 20-fold in just one year.
Most of those examples — and the price records they shattered — involved a pair of beloved Italian plumbers who trace their lineage to the mid-1980s when the first modern gaming consoles arrived in the post-Atari era.
Today, the right copy of the right cartridge could make you rich. Now a million-dollar market, video games are hot commodities thanks to the soaring profit potential of this still-emerging class of collectibles — and plenty of Gen. X nostalgia.
‘Super Mario Bros.’
- $2 million
In August 2021, the New York Times reported that an anonymous collector had plunked down a record $2 million for a copy of Nintendo’s flagship video game made for its original 1985 console. The cartridge was sealed in its original packaging, a rarity for video games. Unlike most games that sell at auction, this sale was facilitated by the site Rally, which buys collectibles, sells shares of them to investors and then pays those investors their cut when the pieces sell.
Rally paid $140,000 to acquire the cartridge just one year before the sale.
‘Super Mario 64’
- $1.56 million
The summer of 2021 was a breakout season for the nascent video game collectibles market. The $2 million August “Super Mario Bros.” sale broke a record set just one month earlier by another beloved title in Mario and Luigi’s franchise. In early July, “Super Mario 64” — released in 1996 for the Nintendo 64 console — sold for a then-record $1.56 million. According to CNN, it was the first video game ever to command seven figures. One of the best-selling games of its era, “Super Mario 64” was the first edition to feature 3D game play.
‘The Legend of Zelda’
Just two days before “Super Mario 64” became the first game to fetch more than $1 million, another iconic Nintendo game broke yet another record. One of the most famous adventure games of all time, “The Legend of Zelda” commanded $870,000 at auction. This time, too, it was a rare unopened copy.
The fact that it was part of a limited early production run made the cartridge even rarer and more valuable. Nintendo first released the game in 1986, launching Zelda, Link, Ganon and the fantasy world of Hyrule into the annals of popular culture.
‘Super Mario Bros.’
In April 2021, a different sealed copy of “Super Mario Bros.” set the record that “The Legend of Zelda” would break just three months later in July. Heritage Auctions, which facilitated the sale, called the example “the finest known copy of the oldest sealed hangtab” and “the finest copy known to have been professionally graded for auction.”
It was also one of the first versions to be packaged in plastic shrink wrap instead of a sticker seal.
But the anonymous seller who cashed in didn’t keep it in mint condition on purpose. Like countless other copies of the NES mainstay, the cartridge was purchased as a Christmas gift in 1986 — but unlike the rest, it was forgotten in a desk drawer for 35 years before being rediscovered.
‘Super Mario Bros.’
By this time, you might notice a pattern emerging. In July 2020, the post-pandemic video game boom began when a sealed copy of — you guessed it — “Super Mario Bros.” earned a world record-setting bid of $114,000 at Heritage Auctions.
According to Heritage, a frenzy of excitement surrounded the bidding because the cartridge “was part of one of the short production runs of the game packaged in boxes with a cardboard hangtab underneath the plastic, an indication that it was part of one of the first variants produced after Nintendo started using shrink-wrap to seal the games rather than stickers.”
The era of six-figure video game collectibles had begun — but it wouldn’t last long. The same game would be worth 20 times more just one year later.
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