A noob’s guide to a playable, cost-effective retro game collection
If you haven’t already started collecting retro games, it can be a really intimidating hobby.
A brief search of YouTube, Instagram, Twitter (come say hi!), or just about anywhere you search for retro games, you’ll get smacked upside the eyeballs by massive retro collections that take up entire rooms. That’s cool. Really cool, actually. But it’s probably not something you can achieve overnight. And honestly, it’s not really practical for most people.
With that being said, collecting retro games is a seriously fun and rewarding hobby. And yes, some people have insane collections. But forget that for now. Every big collector started from zero, and likely took many years to fill their basement with beautiful retro games.
It is not advisable to just start throwing money at every game you come across. When I began my own journey, I asked my (broke) self how to start a Nintendo collection and reclaim all the games I loved from my childhood. Thrift stores, eBay, and local retrogame shops all played a part, but it’s important to know up-to-date costs and set reasonable expectations.
There’s a lot more to know about collecting retro games than I ever expected. Some of what I learned, I learned the hard way. But I’ve tried to make this article as useful as I could for someone who wants to enjoy a cool hobby and still pay the electric bill.
Ever since I first decided to start my Nintendo collection, I’ve been all about growing a playable, cost-effective retro collection. I’ve moved beyond Nintendo, too and the tips here will be useful for collecting any system(s). I’ve been writing and making videos on the topic for a couple of years. I love it!
In this article, I’ll outline some of my personal retro-collecting philosophies as well as some valuable opinions from the illustrious retro gaming Twitter community. (If you didn’t know, Twitter has a thriving retro community. Seriously, we’re cool!)
Let’s begin with some sage wisdom from my pal G to the Next Level.
Collect within your lifestyle means and keep your focus within that. Game collecting can be a blast as long as you aren’t going broke over it or buying everything you can over getting what you really want.— G to The Next Level (@GtoTheNextLevel) November 19, 2019
How to get started collecting retro games
While it is definitely fun to dream of browsing your own wall-to-wall retro collection, the average gamer can’t just run out and buy a big collection. And if you ask me, doing that would pretty much defeat the purpose.
Buying a collection is completely different from collecting as a hobby. A good retro collection grows and evolves over time. Think of it as a Bonsai tree that has to be nurtured and tended over years.
Remember, a lot of us in the retro gaming community have been collecting for decades. As in, before these games were “retro.” I’ve still got almost every game I bought as a kid.
For a lot of collectors, these old 8-bit and 16-bit games never stopped being fun. Super Mario Bros, Zelda and Metroid have been continuously playable for over 30 years. I have had a working NES in my home since I got my first one around 1988. And that’s how long it took me to actually beat Zelda II.
Collecting retro games is a unique hobby, with its own benefits that set it apart. Unlike many other collection hobbies, you can actually play and interact with the items in your collection. Try playing with your action figures when they’re still in the package. You can’t spend a coin collection, and you probably won’t lick your stamp collection.
Retro gaming is unique as a collector hobby because (unless the games are sealed), you can pop them in and play them and interact with them beyond what other collectors can do. (Of course, record, movie, book, and comics collectors also have this luxury. Nerds unite!)
Which is why I advise all new collectors to resist the urge to build a “shelf collection.”
Don’t try to be a shelf collector.
There are a few different schools of thought when it comes to collecting retro games.
Some collectors pick up games strictly for the purpose of filling shelves. They just want a bigger collection to tweet about. There are a few problems with this. For one thing, it’s expensive. But more importantly, the majority of retro games are not that great.
A shelf collection may look cool, but if you pick a random game to play, the odds are that it will not be fun. Besides, if you’re planning to amass a lot of games, you’ll end up with a lot of crappy ones anyway. So while your retro collection is young, why not start with good, playable titles?
Some collectors choose a specific niche, and focus on that. For example, every Castlevania game or every Zelda game. My pal G to the Next Level has focused fiercely on his Sonic the Hedgehog collection and loves showing off his prized possessions on YouTube and Twitter. He also has a complete set of Sega Genesis games. So yeah. That is definitely one approach to retro game collecting.
Other collectors have the goal of picking up all their favorite childhood games. That’s how I started. I had a list of favorites, and games that I always wanted to try but could never find as a kid. I made it my mission to collect or re-collect them all. There were only a few dozen games on that list, so I achieved that goal pretty quickly. After that, I took up a new collecting goal.
(Check out my picks for Top 5 NES Games Under 5 Bucks)
In my opinion, your retro collection should be a thoughtfully-curated library of entertainment. Once I completed my initial goal of collecting or re-collected my childhood favorites, I began working to build a balanced and playable collection.
Today, I don’t own many games that are extremely valuable. Or any, really. But any random game on my shelf can go into a console and deliver a quality gaming experience. And I didn’t waste any money! Here are some tips to help you grow your collection without going broke.
Retro Game Treasure and loot box services
There are a few different services that will actually send you a handful of games each month to sort of passively grow your retro collection. The only one I’ve tried and can vouch for is Retro Game Treasure.
It works like this: You fill out a survey to tell the site what games you already own, what systems you want to collect for, what genres you prefer, and a few other questions. Then Retro Game Treasure sends you a curated loot crate each month with 3-5 games (or accessories) that align with your interests.
Because they already know what you own, you’ll never get repeats.
Collecting this way definitely has some downsides, though. If you’re trying to grow your collection fast, a month can seem like a really long time. And you have to keep your list updated on their system or you may end up getting stuff you already have.
I tried Retro Game Treasure for 3 months and wrote a realllly long review about it. If you want to know more, you can check it out. I’ll go into a lots of detail to outline how the service works.
Thrift stores, antique stores and garage sales
When I was a tween, NES games were everywhere! My family have always loved a good antique crawl—myself included—and I usually could find tons of good stuff. Old comic books, records, action figures and hell yeah, tons of old video games seemed to crop up everywhere. And back then, they were dirt cheap.
Sadly, the days of finding an antique-store honey hole are pretty much behind us. Retro hunters may get lucky once in a while, but finding an untapped trove today is certainly the exception, rather than the rule.
However, if you want to grow your retro gaming collection, it certainly doesn’t hurt to check your local second-hand stores regularly. Eventually you will get lucky like this bastard:
Depending on the generation of games you’re looking for, garage sales can be a great resource.
If you’re looking for games from the 16-bit era or earlier, you will have a tough time. Pretty much anyone with classic cartridge games in their possession now, is probably a collector, too. They know what they’ve got. You’re very unlikely to find someone selling a milk crate of NES games for a nickel a piece, even at an estate sale.
This might sound discouraging but the goal here is to set realistic expectations. If you think you’ll find a magical trove of antique games to jump-start your retro gaming collection, you’re probably mistaken.
But the challenge of finding deals is a huge part of why retro game collecting is so satisfying. It doesn’t happen often, but when your perseverance pays off, it’s thrilling as hell.
A much surer way to pad your retro gaming collection is via eBay.
There are a lot of sellers on eBay that have no idea what their items are worth. Usually, that means sellers are asking triple what their games are worth. But once in a while, someone will sell a valuable title for a crazy low price. And of course, you could always get lucky on an auction and snipe a specific game for a killer price.
I’ve been using Auction Sniper to automate this process. It charges a small percentage if you win the auction. And it feels really dirty to use robots to win auctions. But what are you going to do, you know? If your competition refuses to use technology to win an auction, they must not want the item that bad.
Another good way to grow your retro gaming collection is by buying bulk game lots.
The major issue here is the huge number of sports games you are likely to end up with. And if you want a highly playable collection, you’ll probably have to sift through a significant amount of bulk games. Don’t worry though, I have a plan for those.
So many retro gaming collections are sold on eBay that you will definitely find one to match the price point you are looking for. Auction Sniper can really help save you some money here.
Expos and conventions
If you’re lucky enough to live where there are regular retro gaming conventions, they can be a really great place to get good deals and grow your retro collection.
And there are some techniques you can take with you to make sure you get the best possible deal for the games you want.
If you’ve been buying games in bulk (or if you find too many incredible thrift-store deals), you will likely end up with a pile of games you don’t really want.
These are often sports games or generic games that aren’t fun to play. You could keep them on a shelf to make your collection seem bigger. But that’s stupid when you can pack them up and bring them to a gaming expo.
Try this: Gather up all your crap games you don’t care about. Put them in a box. Now choose one or two games with actual value and add them to the top of the box.
Now when you get to your expo, bring the box to vendors and let them know you want to get rid of the whole thing. If you have something reasonably valuable in there, they’ll accommodate you. On the other hand, if you try to put your old sports games on eBay, they’ll never sell. This retro-expo method is the best way I’ve found to get anything out of them.
I tried this at Retropalooza and it worked like a charm. I came home with a small handful of much better games than I left with. (Dragon Warrior II for the win!)
Don’t try to trick them. Vendors know they aren’t getting a box full of premium games. You just want to make sure they can plainly see that there’s at least some value to what you’re offering.
It’s important to keep in mind though, that conventions are not free. You’ve got to consider whether a $20 entry fee is worth the value you can get back at a place like this.
But even if you don’t get a big monetary return on your investment, it’s definitely worth visiting retro gaming conventions for the panels they usually have, seeing all the vendors, meeting your local people, and all that really great community stuff that you just can’t get from plastic rectangles.
Learn to repair
If you have some technical prowess, it can be a huge money-saver to buy faulty or broken games for a massive discount, then fix them. In fact, repairing vintage tech is quite a hobby in and of itself and can be quite rewarding. Especially when you find a deal.
If you aren’t handy with electronics, or don’t trust yourself with a soldering iron, there is still plenty you can do. When my NES wouldn’t work, I simply took it apart and cleaned out the contacts and straightened them out so they could connect properly with the games. Now it works like a charm.
I’ve heard several times that most cartridge games that are listed as broken often just need a really good cleaning. I haven’t tested that theory, but it may be worth trying.
Even if you don’t understand Japanese, a lot of old games are fun without having to read anything, and Japanese cartridges tend to be much cheaper than their North American counterparts. They also look cool and are every bit as fun to collect. You will need appropriate hardware to play them, though.
Watch out for fakes
While you’re collecting retro games, stay vigilant against the rampant counterfeiting out there.
If you’re shopping on eBay, you’ll find good sellers that actually open up game carts to photograph the board separately. There are a ton of good websites that can walk you through what to look for to ensure you’re getting a genuine product.
If you’re searching on eBay, make sure the games you are buying are pre-owned and not listed a brand new. If a 30-year-old game cartridge is “brand new,” that means it is a bootleg. It’s not real.
That said, there can be a benefit to purchasing bootleg games. This is controversial, but I think there’s nothing wrong with buying a bootleg version of a super-rare game like Little Samson that you would otherwise be very unlikely to buy. But know that what you are getting is a fake, it should not cost very much, and it doesn’t do much to enhance your collection. But at its core, your collection should be fun to play, and Little Samson is certainly a quality title, so proceed at your own discretion.
Do it for the right reason
Is there any good reason to start collecting retro games? Depends on who you ask.
The best advice I can offer, and what most of the retro gaming community on Twitter seems to agree on, is that you need to know why you’re collecting, and stick to your goals. Remember the reason why you’re collecting retro games to begin with.
My reason for collecting is simply that these old games are fun to play. But if you’re the type of person that feels immense pleasure by simply admiring a shelf full of (mostly crappy) games, then that can be a legitimate reason, too.
I would warn against collecting simply to be able to brag and show off. The pleasure you’ll get from that is shallow and short lived.
It can be easy to get bogged down, snatching up every game you come across. It’s very exciting to watch your shelf grow. but if you do this for very long, you’ll soon find yourself broke and with a lot of low-quality games. If you’re going to start collecting retro games, do it mindfully and with your own goals in mind.
Stay on target
It’s also easy to get caught up in the excitement of other collectors’ social feeds, YouTube channels and whatever else. But if you’re collecting for your own reasons, none of that matters.
Big-time YouTubers like Metal Jesus and the Angry Video Game Nerd can be entertaining to watch, but remember their opinions are their own and you have no obligation to agree with them. AVGN in particular has an obligation to hate games for the sake of entertainment. You don’t have to hate Castlevania II just because he does. Like what you like, and enjoy it shamelessly.
I can tell you that it’s immensely more satisfying to curate a smaller collection of quality titles that have meaning for you than it is to simply own a huge shelf of random games.
So with that in mind, get out there. Have fun and remember what it’s for.–GG