Last week, a game cartridge of The Legend of Zelda sold for $870,000, the highest price ever paid for a video game at auction. But The Legend of Zelda only held that record for a few days before it was figuratively butt-stomped into second place. Over the weekend, a sealed copy of Super Mario 64 sold for $1.56 million at Heritage Auctions.
This moment has been approaching for a while, as video games and other nostalgic media have been increasing in popularity and mainstream appeal (and, importantly, price) over the past couple years. But video game preservation and history experts were surprised to see Super Mario 64 breach that record, despite the pristine quality of the copy. Super Mario 64 is not a particularly rare game; Nintendo sold millions of copies since it was first released in 1996.
But the majority of those copies of Super Mario 64 don’t have a 9.8 Wata rating — a score from the video game grading company that means the quality is near perfect, in both production and preservation. Seller Heritage Auctions called the sealed copy of Super Mario 64 the “highest graded copy” of the game it’s ever sold.
#HERITAGELIVE #WORLDRECORD!! Super Mario 64 - Wata 9.8 A++ Sealed, N64 Nintendo 1996 USA just sold for $1,560,000 at #HeritageAuctions, smashing previous mark of $870K, set Friday at Heritage for The Legend of Zelda! https://t.co/SUgiijkkzL#SuperMario #Nintendo #N64 #WATA pic.twitter.com/rHpTuZl95l— Heritage Auctions (@HeritageAuction) July 11, 2021
Wata is a grading service specializing in retro video games. People submit their video games for review and certification. A rating is important for these big-ticket games as a way for buyers to feel confident they’re getting something of value.
Wata’s scale goes up to 10, and 9.8 is a very high score. Video games graded 10 are extremely rare, Wata CEO Ryan Sabga told Polygon — only a “small handful” of games have been given the grade. (Sabga declined to say exactly how many.) For a game to get a 10, it has to have been kept in “immaculate” condition but also manufactured perfectly, “making a 9.8A++ the highest reasonably achievable grade for a sealed game,” he said.
Sabga said Wata has received “case-packs” of Nintendo 64 games — straight from the factory and intended for retail — that have never been in circulation or opened. “Even in these undistributed ‘case-fresh’ copies, most often the results end up with two or fewer 9.8s, and oftentimes none,” Sabga said.
Video game preservationist Chris Kohler told Polygon that finding a copy like this is rare, even for one of the most popular Nintendo 64 games. “There’s a bit of a gold rush going on right now, where people are trying to buy up the nicest copies of things that they can, and for whatever reason, money was no object,” Kohler said.
A copy of Super Mario 64, graded 9.4 A+, sold at Heritage Auctions in January for $38,400. Plenty of others, with lower grades from Wata, sold this past year too — ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars on sites like Heritage Auctions and elsewhere. But this weekend’s price jump to well over $1 million shocked some video game history and preservation experts. Kohler told Polygon he wouldn’t have guessed that this would be the game to breach $1 million. Others, like Video Game History Foundation founder Frank Cifaldi, expressed initial skepticism based on the sudden value jump.
“The price jump on this stuff is so sudden, and on such specific items, that I do not believe it happened naturally,” Cifaldi tweeted Sunday. “It all feels really suspect imo.”
Video Game History Foundation co-director and video game retailer Kelsey Lewin expressed a similar opinion. “Two genuinely suspect things about this: Despite a lack of population reports, there are many known sealed Super Mario 64 first prints,” Lewin tweeted. “Auctions on other speculative items actually went relatively *low* this week, with one matte sticker Mario selling for only $3,600.”
Like Pokémon, which is also having a boom in the value of its trading cards, Nintendo games like Super Mario 64 represent a time period for which people have become nostalgic.
“These are things that, in the next 10, 20, 30 years are going to go up in value,” Kohler said. “This is not some bubble that pops tomorrow.”
Though prices are outlandish, they aren’t necessarily anomalies. Comic books and trading cards have recently had similar booms, and the value of video games has been rapidly increasing over the past year.
In 2020, a sealed copy of Super Mario Bros., graded 9.4 by Wata, sold for $114,00, a record at that time. A year later, a rare copy of Super Mario Bros., graded 9.6 by Wata, sold for $660,00 — more than five times the 2020 price.
The price jump on this stuff is so sudden, and on such specific items, that I do not believe it happened naturally. It all feels really suspect imo. https://t.co/0MAhaWYF1H— Frank Cifaldi (Unlicensed).nes (@frankcifaldi) July 11, 2021
“We have been seeing a steady rise in prices for games we authenticate and grade for some time,” Sabga said. “This is not new or sudden for us.”
Value is, of course, tied directly to the price someone will pay for something — and, clearly, someone really wanted this near-pristine copy of Super Mario 64. Multiple bidders participated in the auction to drive the price up astronomically high.
This sort of rapid increase isn’t necessarily good or bad for video game preservationists, Kohler said. Super Mario 64 has been preserved; there are plenty of copies of it, and on top of that, someone leaked the source code.
“I don’t think that this selling for what it sold for is going to have as big an impact on actual preservation,” Kohler said. It would be a problem to see these sorts of prices for unreleased games and prototypes — stuff that’s trapped on a single ROM cartridge, he said.
Cifaldi added in a tweet Monday, in response to concerns that high prices on retro games might impact their preservation, that the Video Game History Foundation focuses mostly on “information and context,” placing little value on “archiving a pristine copy of a popular game.” He noted that Wata, for its part, has been beneficial to the preservationist scene, too: Cifaldi said that the Video Game History Foundation is contracted with Wata to archive prototype game data passed through the grading system. He said “every prototype” submitted to Wata since September has been archived by the foundation.