Alternative Investments: Off the beaten path - Not all fun and games

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 1, 2018 - January 07, 2018.
Alternative Investments: Off the beaten path - Not all fun and games
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When my mother bought our first home computer in the mid-1990s, she also bought a few educational video games to help us improve our command of English.

Seeing how effective they were, she bought a game console along with some other games a few years later. This also allowed us to buy more non-educational games for ourselves.

However, this led to a major problem. Our family is huge and we siblings would always fight over whose turn it was to play. To solve this problem, my mother set a very strict rule. Each of us would only get an hour. After that, we had to surrender the remote control or keyboard to the next person in the rotation.

I was not even 10 years old when the rule was introduced and thought that it was atrocious. So I told myself that when I become an adult, I would use all of my hard-earned money to buy all the video games I want and spend all my time playing them. Nobody would be able to tell me to stop.

Sadly, now that I am an adult, I have the money, but not the time. This, however, has not stopped me (and my siblings) from buying video games and consoles. Just owning them and seeing them neatly stacked under the coffee table is really satisfying.

Recently, I started buying the games I used to play in primary school, more out of nostalgia than anything else. In November, I bought a cartridge of the cult-favourite EarthBound for less than RM50 in Japan. I have seen some of these going for more than RM200 on local e-commerce sites.

Since the game was released by Nintendo for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1995, mine was nowhere near mint condition. However, I was curious to know how much a mint-condition one would actually cost me.

I did some research online and was shocked. According to eBay, two EarthBound cartridges were sold for US$3,999.95 on the platform in 2017. Prior to that, in April 2016, a lesser-grade version of the cartridge was sold for US$2,000.

What do I mean by lesser-grade? For validation purposes, these cartridges are sent to a US-based company called Video Game Authority (VGA), which the grades them on a scale of 10 to 100. As VGA’s grading process involves thorough and in-depth evaluations of every item submitted, regardless of the type, age, condition or estimated value, it is widely acknowledged in the world of collectibles.

After grading, the owners are free to set whatever price they want. They can also benchmark the price by referring to the many online platforms that track the prices of pre-owned video games. One of them is PriceCharting, which had tracked more than 26,000 games as at Dec 18.

If I thought the prices for EarthBound were already exorbitant, I was in for another surprise. Last July, it was reported by gaming news platform Kotaku that a sealed copy of the Stadium Events game was sold for a record-breaking US$41,977.

Stadium Events is considered the rarest game released for the NES as it was only sold for a limited time. Shortly after Bandai released it in 1986, Nintendo bought the rights to it in 1988, thereafter pulling it off the shelves. As very few of the cartridges were sold, collectors estimate that less than five copies of the game are still in their original shrink wrap.

Despite this, I am not interested in investing in Stadium Events as it does not mean anything to me. I have never played it, nor had I heard of it prior to reading up about it. What I do want to own and invest in are the games that I have played such as the Super Mario and Pokémon series. These are household names in the video gaming world and will only get more popular in the future as Nintendo keeps releasing new titles to keep fans interested. I believe that the interest will never fade, at least not in the next decade or two.

These games, such as Super Mario Bros for NES and Pokémon Red for Nintendo Game Boy, can actually fetch good prices — anywhere from US$20 to US$665 apiece, depending on the condition. These games retailed for an average of US$50 when they were first launched (1985 for Super Mario Bros and 1996 for Pokémon Red).

The prices of these retro game cartridges are surging today as games are increasingly sold as digital copies as opposed to physical ones. Today, players are only required to download the games after making their purchases online. Thus, there is greater appreciation for the physical copies.

Moving forward, I am optimistic that I can make a handsome profit by holding on to my growing collection of retro video games. While it is not as handsome as the US$41,000 profit I could have made had I bought Stadium Event, I am happy as I enjoy playing these games and am able to appreciate their value better.