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Why Collect Vintage Hand-Held Games?
...a rant by Steven Read

Many people have asked me, "Out of all the types of classic video game platforms (game consoles, stand-up arcades, 8-bit home PC's, and mini-arcades), why do you like to collect these so much?  Don't these mini-arcade games have really bad graphics and gameplay?".  Here are some of my reasons:

What I like most about these games, is that there are so many different forms, shapes, and types - each with unique hardware to complement the software.  Stand-up arcades have this distinction as well.  With each game, not only does the enthusiast interact the graphics, sounds, gameplay, etc..., but in a sense with the hardware too.  Things like the cabinet shape and size, the artwork on the various areas (side, marquee, screen border, control panel, etc...), and the control panel configuration all have an integral part in the game's design and character.  Sure, when it comes down to it you just want to play the game, but in my view the hardware is nearly as important to the game's overall design aesthetics.

This software/hardware coupling is all but extinct with most of today's video games, and even with many classic games too.  In most cases, you buy a console (if you are lucky you get 1 game with the console), and then every game you buy thereafter physically looks exactly the same with the exception of 1 or 2 sticker labels.  There is a reason for this - it is cheaper!  It is costly in materials and man-hours to redesign and reconstruct the hardware, over and over again for each game.  In fact it seems almost stupid to do it that way.  Understand, that probably 75% of the mini and standup arcade games used hardware components that were pre-assembled in factories, so not that much of the hardware really is original from game to game.  But in general, the design of the chassis/cabinet and the control area, coupled with how the components were put together, all added up to a game with lots of individuality.

Many of you might be thinking, "I still really only care about playing the game.  The casing and controls don't matter that much to me.".  This is strictly a matter of personal taste, of course.  I just think that it is cool how at one time, video game companies were so competitive and desperate to suck in quarters and dollars, that the hardware was key in attracting gamers to play the software.  Those days will probably never come again.

If a collectible is hard to store, ship, or maintain, it affects the demand and therefore the value.  Above, I mentioned how stand-up arcade games were similar to mini arcade games in their individuality.  The problem with stand-ups (for me, at least) is their size.  I love classic stand-ups to death, but let's fact it - they are HUGE!  This makes them very hard to collect.  A big factor in the collectability of something is the convenience factor involved in amassing many pieces.  As I buy more and more of something, the amount of time, space, and money involved with managing it is crucial.  I don't really want it to become a pain in the butt to deal with.  Again, this is just my opinion.  I give many thanks and praise to the stand-up collectors out there - hats off!  Its a dirty job, but someone has to do it.  Last year at CGE2K, it was so nice to play the many stand-ups that people brought in for the show - they wouldn't have been there if it weren't for these collectors' hard work.

Also I like how these mini-arcades are self-contained.  You don't have to keep track of and assemble power bricks, serial cables, monitors, joysticks, paddles, RF-switches, tape/disk drives, etc... to play them.  You simply open the battery cover, put in the batteries, and away you go!  This makes them even more tempting to collect.  To be fair, I have alot of boxed and mint classic consoles too - 2600, 5200, colecovision, intellivision, NES, C64, etc..., and thus I have boxes and boxes of the aforementioned accessories.  Even though it takes a little time to set each console up, it is well worth the time and effort once the games begin :)

Or I should say, the lack thereof.  If a game can be emulated for free, it affects the value of the originals.  Almost every video game system or stand-up arcade machine, whether vintage or current, can be emulated on a home computer.  Not to mention that this can be done for free, usually.  Don't get me wrong - I think this is a great thing.  I play Stella and Mame at least once a week.  My point is, I think that when gamers can play game software for free, it heavily affects the supply/demand ratio of the collecting market.  "If I can play this game right here and now for free, why would I want to spend $xx.xx just to have the original cartridge which is the exact same code?"

Since mini-arcades have their software and hardware tightly coupled, this makes emulation nearly impossible!  This is because almost every game would have to have a separate hardware emulator written for it.  This means that investing in mini-arcades is less riskier than other platforms, because if someone wants to play the game, they must have it in their hands!  One exception to this rule so far, the Entex Adventurevision does have an emulator written for it (it is part of the MESS Emulator), and you can play all 4 roms/carts that were released.  Very very cool.

Something new that is being developed to circumvent the emulation problem with vintage handhelds is Simulation.  This is software that simulates the original game.  I have seen and played at least 20 different simulated mini-arcade games so far, and the languages used to create them include Java, VB, or Delphi.  Instead of trying to emulate the hardware, you simulate the software by taking pictures and recording sounds, then writing code to mimic the gameplay logic, which in some cases is elegantly simple.  See my links page to find out where to download some simulators.

If a collectible can be reproduced or pirated easily, it affects the value of the originals.  This has happened with star wars figures, tin toy robots, die casts, and many other collectible toys.  As mentioned earlier, it was rather costly to make many of these classic handheld games, especially the Vacuum Fluorescent Display games, whose display was fairly expensive to make.  That is one of the reasons these games were $50-$70 each when first released.  Each game had to have a molded and colored plastic chassis, components assembled, screens designed, styrofoam inserts customized, stickers attached, software written, and the list goes on.

Currently, LCD and CLCD handheld games are released every week (by radica, tiger, and MGA mostly), but the standard market price target is only $15-$25.  If they try to charge any more than that, no one will buy them, since you can get a new playstation 2 or N64 game for just a few dollars more.  As a result, they are restricted to the less costly LCD displays for profit margin reasons.  So, as a result I think the VFD games are less investment risk than LCD.

Legal reproductions and illegal pirate copying is big problem in the collecting market.  For example if nintendo decides to start reproducing the game and watches (ala the mini-classic line), you can guess that the value of the originals might fall.  In the past, I have heard rumors that hasbro (who currently owns the atari label) would start to re-release atari 2600 consoles and cartridges.  This ended up being nothing more than a rumor, but you never know what might happen in the future.  Also, many rare atari carts out there are illegally pirated copies.  It is rather easy to do - just burn the rom onto a chip, put the chip in a combat or pac-man case, and then reproduce the stickers.  This type of thing happens all the time - I once heard that 40%-60% of all sports cards and signatures on ebay are fake.  Also, people have started to figure out how to make star wars blister cards, and then they put loose figures inside and seal it up.  Would you want to pay $1000 for a 1977 vinyl-caped star wars jawa rip-off?  Ouch!

In one sense, I almost wouldn't care if people figured out how to pirate classic handheld VFD games.  I challenge thee!  It would not be an easy task.  If you figure out how to do it cheaply, then let me know so I can buy some from you :)

Closing Remarks
So there are some of the reasons why I have really focused on collecting these little buggers.  Besides from all the above analytical reasons, I have to admit that the main reason is plain and simple - I just love them.  The main rule with collecting is exactly that - collect only what you love, don't just do it for profit.  They have a place in history for me, as when I was a boy I used to long for these games.

Back in 1980, $50-$70 was alot of money for an 8 year old kid, so sometimes the closest I got to them was staring at them in the JC-Penneys catalogs or looking at them from behind toy store glass cases.  When they first came out, I had a friend here and there who would get one for x-mas, and so I would beg them to let me play.  Every now and then, I was able to buy one with my own money.  I remember saving up and buying the Donkey Kong Nintendo Game and Watch for $40 at a mid-sized dept. store called Woolworth in Pompano Beach, Florida.  I even remember asking for the lady to open up the glass case that held the watches.  She sneered at me and said, "Are you sure you have the money to look at this game?"  Then, my mother tried to talk me out of it!  But I held firm and laid down the cash and it was mine!  I played the hell out of that game, until the jump button was worn away.

A couple of years later, I discovered the one and only 'Thunderbird Drive-In Swap Shop' in South Florida - in the early 1980's it was one of the largest indoor/outdoor flea markets in the country.  So I would go there with my mother and grandmother where I was able to find used games used for just a couple bucks!  That, to me, was a revelation.  Sometimes they were scratched up or were missing the battery cover, but that was OK with me.  Also, there were many dealers of new electronics there, people with inventories from Japan, China, and Hong-Kong.  Therefore I was able to find at good prices, non-American released games.  These were mostly LCD, and I have really fond memories of getting new games like octopus and vulture by masudaya, diamond hunt and deep diver by vtech, and a few tronica games.

If I had to wager a guess, I would say that by around 1986-1987, I had collected about 50 different handheld games, most of them bought at the swap-shop flea market.  This is around the time when I went to high-school, and shortly thereafter I lost interest and sold most of them at a garage sale, and the rest were thrown away!  Every last one of them, gone.  In 1997, my brother bought me Coleco Donkey Kong for a birthday present from a use-net auction, and shortly thereafter I discovered ebay, and that's all she wrote!  Like an ant living in a destroyed hill, without haste I began to rebuild my collection from scratch.

One last note...I am not trying to disrespect other types of video game collectors here, nor am I trying to prove why one type is better for collecting than another.  I am simply trying to shed light on why people like me enjoy them so much.  Many of the classic video game collectors out there don't understand why the prices of these things are rising as they are.  I have read much cynicism about them at on quite a few occasions, which is understandable.  I am sure that some presume the high prices are due to 'ebay' fever alone - sometimes the prices on ebay do indeed get a little out of hand, but then sometimes they are very reasonable.  For me, every penny I have spent on my mini-arcades was worth it.  These games may not have amazing graphics or gameplay, but they sure do have alot of character.

Happy collecting.