Buying and Collecting Cartridge Games

So you’ve bought an original cartridge-based system like the NES, Genesis, or SNES. Maybe you have a new clone console from a company like Hyperkin or Retro-Bit. Either way, you now need need game cartridges in order to actually play something, and that’s when you enter the exciting (but challenging) world of used cartridge collecting.

Recently we’ve seen the good old vinyl record return and, astoundingly, you can now buy new vinyls and vinyl record players at many music stores. Unfortunately, companies like Sega and Nintendo are not yet issuing reproductions of their original cartridges. That leaves you at the mercy of online sellers and local vintage game shops.

In this short guide I am going to try and arm you with the basic knowledge you need to find cartridges and make sure that you are not being shafted.

Your Best Weapon

The most important thing any collector or hobbyist should have is a clear idea of the value of the item they are looking at. No matter where you find your carts, make sure that you have access to an up-to-date table of values. Many collector websites maintain a value guide, and in this day and age of smartphones you can simply bookmark one and check it before making an offer.

Remember that how much a cartridge is worth depends on its rarity and condition; whether it comes with original booklets, boxes cases, or accessories.

If you want to be a collector, these things surely matter, but if you are simply someone looking to play these games from the original cartridge, cosmetic damage really doesn’t matter as long as the cart works.

Going On A Quest

So now that we know to check our prices before spending any money, we have to talk about where to find these cartridges.

There are many answers to this question and a lot depends on your country of residence or even which part of that country you live in. There are basically two sources of retro game cartridges – online and offline.

Off the Hook, Off the Line

If we look at offline options there are several places that come to mind.

Thrift shops and pawn shops are great places to pick up good deals. They often will let you return stuff that doesn’t work and they really rip off the people they buy from. If the proprietor of the shop doesn’t really know anything about the value of the games, the chances are that older games will just be priced at a flat rate and a low one at that.

The downside is that whether these places have stock is really a matter of chance. People are becoming wise to the value of games and the popularity of retro gaming, so they may inflate prices. Remember to check an online table of current prices for specific cartridges in various conditions.

There are also specialized vintage video game shops popping up in some places. They have always been popular in places like Japan, but now they are showing up in other parts of the world too.

I think these specialist shops are one of the best options in all ways but one – price. This is not somewhere you’ll get the best deals, but it is somewhere you can be sure that what you are buying is working and authentic. That’s not to say that these shops are too expensive – older cartridge games that are not particularly rare will still go fairly cheaply – but the really rare items will cost an arm and a leg. If you just want to play these you’re probably better off just finding emulated digital releases.

You can also join a local club or group and trade with other fans and hobbyists. This is a great way to find really good stuff and to get advice from people who have been in the hobby for a long time. Retro gaming is definitely a very social activity if you want it to be.

When shopping offline, be sure to ask the seller to show you the game in action so that you can be sure that the cartridge still works.

On Top and On-Line

Online shopping for retro game cartridges is a little more risky if you aren’t buying from a retailer that gives you protection. At least places like Amazon will refund you if a third-party reseller messes up. Ebay also has some measure of protection.

If you are buying from someone directly whom you can’t meet in person and test the cart yourself, then really you are gambling. If it is a cheap purchase you have to ask yourself if you could deal with losing the cash.

The Bootleg Dance

The big bugbear is the issue of bootleg cartridges. I don’t have the space here to talk about how to determine if each platform’s cartridges are real or not, but make sure you become familiar with the authenticity measures each company goes to in order to show a real cart from a counterfeit one.

In general, you want to check that it looks exactly like it should compared to legit carts you already own. The box (if any), booklets, and stickers on the cart itself must be the right quality. The art on the sticker must match what you find on a Google search, if you can find photos of the genuine item.

Cartridges that have multiple games on them, or game titles that you can’t find in the official websites of developers or on Wikipedia, are very suspect as well. There are many modded and hacked carts out there. Of course, some people collect these as well, but you should know the difference.

No Harm, No Foul

Even with legit carts, pay attention to things like corrosion on the contacts, cracks, or other damage on the casing and fading from sunlight exposure. These may not always affect the functionality of the cart, but you shouldn’t pay top dollar for them. Many cartridge systems also let you open the cartridge – this was usually so that you could replace the battery that kept saved games alive. If the system you are looking at allows for this, check the circuit board inside for damage, or ask for pictures if it is an Ebay seller.

The last thing that I want to tell you is to never let time pressure from a seller or an auction clock dictate your decision. That is, unless you are 100% sure that what you think you are buying is really what you will be getting.