The retro game price bubble: will it ever burst?

In the world of old games, there’s always been conversation surrounding the retro game “bubble” – the continued hiking up of prices for games on the second-hand market to levels not far from, or even beyond what they originally cost in the shops. If you’re not a seller, a lot of this talk speculates on when this bubble’s going to burst, and a hope that it’s going to be soon – people are always looking for signs. This, oddly enough, is a form of nostalgia in a hobby that’s already driven by nostalgia – we want to go back to the good old days, when you could buy old Mega Drive or NES games or whatever for scarcely more than a few pounds on eBay, or at the boot sale.

But those of us waiting for that day – and many have been waiting for years – are not advised to hold their breath. Buying old games is only becoming more of a seller’s market, and it’s not as if people who are flogging unwanted items are suddenly going to stop being at the very least savvy enough to look on auction sites and see what the lots are going for these days, even if that price is not a reflection of a game’s actual value. And so you end up with copies of, for example, Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt on the NES being listed for well over £10 despite it being the most common NES game on the entire planet, and not worth a whole lot at all. Either people are indeed buying the game for this price, or the market is being artificially massaged so that items appear more valuable than they actually are.

The recent state of the world has only exacerbated the problem – Covid-19 means that people are staying indoors, and in a lot of cases those people like to surround themselves with things they’re familiar with. The price of retrogaming has only increased in the past year, and not just for 8- and 16-bit platforms. Not a whole lot has changed about platforms like the Sega Saturn – it’s long been the case now that you might want to consider remortgaging your house if you wish to embark on a full Saturn collection – but even highly popular, incredibly common, and relatively recent platforms like the PlayStation 2 are starting to drift into the bubble. This is a platform where the majority of games, not to mention the platform itself, are incredibly common and thus dirt-cheap – but now the price of entry is getting more expensive. Will we eventually reach a point where, say, a Grand Theft Auto game is subject to the same price hiking as a Mario game? Even though there’s no end of ways to legitimately play said game?

There is a certain sadness to this state of affairs. In one sense, the world of retrogaming is more open than ever – there are so many ways to play just about any old game you want to, and so many platforms to do it on, machines like Raspberry Pi, MiSTer, or Analogue’s more bespoke consoles that cater to just about every part of the market. But retrogaming is often about more than just the game – in a world that’s more and more digital, it’s becoming one of the most visible reminders of the physical experience, not just the one that games used to be, but that used to be the primary way we consumed media. While rarer titles will always have a high price point, the thought of even the most common games becoming prohibitively expensive for most people represents a general loss of a big part of the retrogaming experience. But in a world that’s ever-changing, it may be time to stop thinking of this seller’s market as a temporary bubble – sadly, it may well just be the way things are.

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