Video games of the 80s and 90s are in demand

September 5, 2013

"Oh God, it smells like the '80s! It's got that '80s plastic smell!" said Bill Smith as he unfurled a Power Pad, a plastic floor mat controller for the original Nintendo game system. Players step on red and blue buttons to play dance and sports games.

Smith works at Super 1UP Games on King Street East, a local hub for a subculture of gamers who play video games from the 1980s and 1990s.

Gamers seek out these retro games for their simple graphics but exciting gameplay.

The store is one of two 1UP Games locations in Hamilton that sell entertainment from a bygone electronic era.

Gamers can buy machines and games for Atari 2600, Coleco Vision, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis and Game Cube.

The graphic and sound capabilities of new systems such as PlayStation or Xbox are far more advanced than the retro systems. But while the oldies are simplistic they're fun.

"People remember playing Super Mario and just having a blast," said Super 1UP Games owner Marc Nascimento.

The web is helping to expand the vintage gaming trend: "A lot of people are talking about the old games and reviewing them online. The Let's Play series on YouTube shows people playing the games. Different people review them like Jay the Classic Gamer, Angry Nintendo Nerd and Joe the Angry Guy."

Production of vintage systems was discontinued years ago, of course. The last of the so-called second generation systems like Coleco Vision and Atari 2600 were released in 1984 and 1992 respectively, but gamers still dust them off and sell them to 1UP Games.

"The thing is finding one that actually works properly. They're such old systems and some people store them in such horrible conditions," said Nascimento.

Rare, eight-bit machines, he said, sell for between $60 and $80.

All the systems and games 1UP sells are trade-ins and business is brisk: "Right now, I can't keep anything in stock in terms of Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64 and GameCube. As soon as they come in they go out quick," Nascimento said.

In the late 1980s, the peak of Nintendo's popularity, machines sold for $200, Nascimento said. Today, his shop sells Nintendo consoles (with one controller and the hookup cords) for $50 each.

Nintendo cartridge prices range from $1.99 per game to a wallet-busting $800 for the rarest ones.

The most popular titles are classic serials like Super Mario Bros., Zelda and Pokemon.

If Super 1UP is a bookstore for gamer culture, The Personal Computer Museum in Brantford is an archival library.

Syd Bolton runs the museum, located in a building in his back yard, in his free time. By day, he is an IT manager at a pharmaceutical company.

Around 25,000 computing artifacts are stored at the museum including computers, video games, software and magazines. Only about 5,000 items are displayed at a time. Bolton personally owns almost 15,000 classic games.

Many vintage games are blocky and primitive by today's standards. But they — and their popularity — last because they simply were well-built: "Cartridges can be 25 years old but all they might need is to be cleaned. Cartridges don't have any moving parts. All you have to do is clean them with the eraser end of a pencil or Q-tips," Bolton said.

There is also a social dynamic involved in classic games that Bolton experiences at the all-ages game nights he has been hosting at his house since 2001.

"Many multiplayer games today are online. But the social element of being able to play with the person beside you really makes a difference," he said.

"Sometimes when young people play these games they say 'Wow! The graphics suck!' But they're shocked at how much fun they have."

While Bolton preserves classic games, William Moeller brings the classics into the present. Moeller is president of Hamilton-based Classic Game Publishers, which develops new games for Intellivision, an eight-bit system popular in the 1980s.

Before production ceased in 1990 "they made three million units of them," Moeller said. "I figured there must be some way to find those units. Social media helps me find them but 10 years ago I couldn't."

Moeller started the company in February, 2012. His four different game titles have sold almost a thousand copies worldwide, at $70 US apiece.

Those sales numbers may seem low, but Moeller is catering to a niche market limited to "diminishing numbers of consoles. As long as you have 500 customers, you have a viable business. Even if it's less than 500 you have a hobby business," he said.

Time will tell if Moeller's business model will survive. But he has re-booted interest in retro games and customers are responding to that: "I've met people who say 'I want to buy your games so I'm looking for a system.'"

For now, the number of machines for vintage systems is low, but demand for the games stays high.

Nostalgia for Saturdays spent controlling digital Marios and Sonics attracts gamers in their 20s and 30s, which Nascimento said comprise many of his customers.

For everyone else, the exciting gameplay of traditional consoles makes gamers seek out the latest — and oldest — games. "Back when the graphics were not very sophisticated it was all about the gameplay," Moeller said. "If it wasn't fun it wouldn't sell."

 

bmcbride@thespec.com

905-526-3199 | @Blairatthespec

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