Some people write personal history in a diary. I wrote mine in games.
You are looking at an innocuous Genesis cartridge. It is tattered, victim to a black security sticker, and the fraying remnants of a yellowed price sticker dating back to 1996 or so. It’s worth a quarter, maybe less.
To me, it is priceless.
In 1996, I bought NHL ’93 for half a dollar, a pricing concept that enthralled me. A world opened up on that day, one I was never able to take part in before growing up a Nintendo kid. That NHL Hockey ’93 cartridge marked my beginning as a collector, even if I didn’t know it then.
That one cart spawned 4,076 cousins as of today, ranging from Atari 2600 to modern day offerings of Wii U. Each one became an adventure.
I can tell a lot of stories, and were they able to speak, so could the games. My collection represents current work, writing about games in various capacities. It speaks of prior work, sitting in cramped retail confines or behind the counter of a video store. It takes me back to places, sometimes out of state garage sales or sleazy flea markets I only find funny after the fact. I have wild stories of incredible finds, and others of bad decisions or loss. I have met weird people, nice people, funny people, and off-kilter people.
I claim ownership to a lot of video games, certainly more than most normal people would consider sane, so maybe being a judge of the off-kilter is out of place. There are those who have more than me, but it never becomes about the numbers. I included it for perspective of what 17-years of tracking down classics (and not-so-classics) creates. Those people who have better collections or higher cartridge counts do not have my history. They charted their course and have their own escapades to reflect on. I find those tales mesmerizing.
The advent of the Internet has spawned eBay. You can sit and browse retro video games for hours, clicking buy-it-now and grabbing games you dreamed of, from NHL ’93 to the $20,000 European Kizuna Encounter. You will never hear someone engaged in a story about clicking a mouse to buy Earthbound. There remain games I actively search for, personal holy grails that have eluded me, some valuable and some not. I can find them on eBay, but why would I? There is no fun, no personal search, no story of quirky success, no places to see and no people to meet. The satisfaction is diluted without drama and sheer luck.
Do I have a goal, or point where I feel I’m done? I cannot imagine so. I started all of this on a fluke, to grab a piece of history I was curious about as a child, seeing things new to me for a bargain price. Those things were readily available at a small trade-in shop, standing within a rundown shopping plaza, bringing to life images I stared at for hours in video game magazines, only imagining how they played. Now I could find out.
I keep buying games as a hobby, something to take up free time on weekends during spring and summer. Time off in winter simply means time to appreciate designs of old, although those open hours are precious during the onslaught of the holidays. Satisfaction comes with clicking down a cartridge, having it lock into place, and reliving a different era; emulation be damned. There is a sense of preservation, knowing that specific game -no matter its value- can live on in an industry that so rarely seems to value its past.
As we move forward, collecting will likely turn to the eBay model: People click a button in a secluded room and buy video games. A generation may never know or even understand what it means to physically hold an entertainment product, just the emptiness of its eventual false worth as a digital file in cyberspace.
I can only hope that they will be able to carve their own journeys in digital code.