Treasures... It's game on for archaeologists
Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column
DID you ever imagine you'd hear the term 'gaming archaeologist' in your lifetime?
It's now almost a year since the by now legendary excavation in Alamogordo, New Mexico when Atari's 'burial ground' - a dump from the 1980s - was excavated by a rash of international VGAs.
Around 700 cartridges of the massively unsuccessful but now massively collectible Atari 2600 (controller, right) E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) were dug from under 30ft of rubbish, along with copies of better known titles like Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Yars' Revenge. All of these had been dumped when Atari sent nine trucks of waste to the landfill site back in 1983. The story received massive coverage and the discarded games fetched US$37,000.
Old games and their consoles of the sort commonly gathering dust in Irish attics are now highly collectible. Unlike other areas of collecting, retro games and consoles aren't particularly old. In general, a console is considered retro once it's no longer in production and games are only available second hand. They also tend to be much less expensive than they were when they first came out. For most collectors, who first enjoyed the games when they were young, retro gaming is a window back in time.
"Once you have the controller in your hand, the memories come flooding back," says Nicholas DiMaio. "My first games console was a Nintendo that I was given around 1988. One day I was home sick from school and I wasn't doing so well.
"My mum took me to the video game rental store and we rented a game called Bubble Bobble. It took six or seven hours but we completed the entire game together. I don't think that she was interested in games, she was just doing it to be nice, but it's still my favourite game of all time."
Now DiMaio is the owner of The R.A.G.E. (store.therage.ie), a shop on Dublin's Fade Street which buys and sells video game collections. "It's kind of mind blowing to see all those games in one place together. People tend to forget about these things and one of the pleasures of working here is seeing their reaction when they walk in the door."
Expect to pay between €70 and €100 for a vintage console, often bundled with a number of games, and around €20 for a Game Boy. Games range between €10 and €30. "Our clients tend to be internet-savvy so we have to work hard to keep our prices competitive," says DiMaio. You can also buy vintage games and consoles on sites like retrogamebase.co.uk and there's a handy guide to the retro gaming lifestyle on racketboy.com.
And of course, if you just want rid of the dust gatherers in the eaves, DiMaio will also buy them from you.
"Buying games and consoles is a major part of our business. Nintendo games and consoles are probably what we sell most of, but we're interested in everything that's earlier than 2000 and we pay about 60pc of what we sell them for.
"If you see a game in the shop for €10, we'll have paid someone €6 for it. We'd expect to pay between €40 and €60 for a working console with three games, but we recently paid €1,600 for someone's entire collection."
Both games and consoles are worth more with their boxes than without, and their value increases by five or 10 times if they are sealed in the original plastic. In general, this is the only instance in which the games and consoles have actually increased in value. But, although a few specialist collectors are interested in games and consoles in pristine condition, retro gaming is more about the people who want to play than about collecting rare items.
"We're seeing kids who have been brought up on contemporary games getting interested in playing the old ones, and confused parents who spent good money on a brand new multiplayer station when all their 10-year-old wants to do is to play Tetris on a Game Boy," says Di Maio.
That cultural icon, the Nintendo Game Boy, was released in 1989, a grey plastic brick with four channels and a blurry dot matrix screen. It was followed in 1998 by the Game Boy Colour and the Game Boy Advance in 2001. It's most popular titles included the addictive puzzle game Tetris, possibly the first game to create its own pathology. Tetris syndrome is a recognised medical condition when you close your eyes and see tetrominos (Tetris blocks) around you, or you find yourself trying to fit meatworld shapes, like boxes on supermarket shelves, into Tetris-like patterns.
"The early years of the retro video game revival was very Nintendo-heavy," says Di Maio. "The most popular console in our shop is either the Super Nintendo (SNES) or the Nintendo 64 (N64) and the most popular games are Zelda, Pokemon, Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye and any of the Mario-related games. Recently people are starting to get into the Sega Mega Drive and looking at games like Sonic The Hedgehog."
These games aren't rare, but they have remained popular since they were released.