Blasts from the past: Collecting retro video games in the UAE
Nostalgia is a powerful force, one that carries us back to precious memories in romanticised Technicolor. It is also, according to a Journal of Consumer Research study, a powerful marketing tool.
“Feeling nostalgic weakens a person’s desire for money,” write Jannine Lasaleta, Constantine Sedikides and Kathleen Vohs. “In other words, someone might be more likely to buy something when they are feeling nostalgic.”
It is precisely this power that retail chain Virgin Megastores hopes to harness by launching its first foray in the region into collectable retro video games.
Toufic Eido, Virgin’s regional channel manager, says nostalgia is driving customer choices across all product lines – be it fashion, music, furniture, decor – or, more recently, gaming.
“We wanted to tap into everyone’s nostalgia and bring our childhood memories back to life,” he says. The company’s first stock of retro games and consoles arrived in April and the store has already sold three of the five most-expensive items.
They include: a Dh2,999 copy of Super Mario Bros Deluxe for the Game Boy Color, the condition of which is graded at Mint 95; a sealed copy of Pokémon Gold for Game Boy, graded at Mint 90, which cost Dh2,499; and Super Mario Land 2 for Game Boy, graded at Near Mint 80+, for Dh2,199.
The Video Game Authority – the video-games arm of a group that aims to provide consistent and accurate grading of the quality of collectables – grades games based on a large range of variables, including date of manufacture, rarity and the condition of the game and its packaging. The perfect grade is a Gem Mint, followed by Mint, Near Mint, Excellent, all the way down to Very Poor. Many collectors, however, prefer to grade their collections themselves, based on condition and functionality.
In an age of high-speed digital downloads, some fans feel something tangible has been lost in the pursuit of convenience. “Nothing beats the feeling of actually owning a physical copy of an old, nostalgic game,” says Eido.
Some of the fondest childhood memories of many residents born in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s are of sitting in front of the television playing video games – much to the chagrin of their parents.
Whether zipping around as Sonic the Hedgehog or finally completing the indomitable Contra, they were immersed in the on-screen action. Over-coming the pre-programmed odds not only set imaginations free, but also challenged players’ rhythm, reactions and puzzle-solving skills.
The games came in elaborate, colourful boxes, often with beautifully designed instruction booklets. They had their own feel and smell – there was a powerful physicality to them.
While the industry has moved on from humble origins, original copies of vintage games are becoming increasingly valuable, especially in Japan, the United States and Europe.
Rare examples, such as a gold-cartridge edition of the game Nintendo World Championship for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), can fetch up to US$100,000 (Dh367,300).
In the UAE, Virgin Megastores’ move into the sector will be a litmus test of its appeal to the general consumer – but there are already some dedicated fans.
Emirati collector Fahad Yousef’s collection has Virgin’s beat, both in size and value.
The 33-year-old, who began collecting seriously a decade ago, now owns 3,000 retro game items.
He recalls playing video games at Dubai’s oldest mall, Al Ghurair Centre, which opened in 1981.
“There was an arcade centre there called Sindbad’s Wonderland – that was the place I used to go in my childhood to play arcade games, such as Street Fighter, Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons,” he says.
Although he loved the arcade, his love of retro video games blossomed while playing on home consoles – beginning with his first, the Atari 2600.
However, he did not start to build his collection until about 10 years ago, when he bought a boxed American NES, Nintendo’s first console, which was originally released in Japan in 1983 and remained on sale for more than a decade.
This was followed by a twist of fate, when Yousef snapped up 50 games and 10 consoles from a Dubai warehouse that was clearing out its stock of “old-school games”. They included items from games publishers including Sega, Sony and SNK.
He added to his collection on his travels, scouring Tokyo’s Akihabara district for Japanese classics, and by buying from other collectors online. In 2011, he created the Dubai Retro Games Club Facebook page.
“It was not a commercial page,” he says. “It was just to socialise with people and let them know what I’m adding to my collection. At the same time, I opened my account on eBay and that was the start of my business.”
In 2014, Yousef set up an Instagram account, Dubai Retro Games (@dubairetrogames), as the commercial arm of his social-media enterprise.
Through social networking, he connected with more people, amassed followers and eventually progressed to showcasing his wares at events such as Games, the IGN Convention and this year’s Middle East Film & Comic Con (MEFCC).
The latter, he says, was a roaring success: “Everybody was talking about it.”
This encouraged him to take the next logical, yet pioneering, step: setting up not one, but two physical stores. The first is set to open on Sharjah’s University City Road in a month, while the second is due to open in about two months near his home in Oud Al Mateena, Dubai.
He called the Sharjah store Al Sahim Al Fadi, which translates as Silver Arrow. The name was inspired by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, a game released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991.
The main character, Link, is tasked with saving Princess Zelda, and the kingdom of Hyrule, from the evil Ganon. Link’s arsenal includes silver arrows, which are used to defeat his nemesis.
“It is the best game I have ever played,” says Yousef.
The Dubai shop will be called Super Bowser – a combination of Super Mario and Bowser, the Italian plumber’s evil dinosaur adversary.
Yousef’s most prized possession, the only item not for sale, is a mint-condition PlayStation model called the Net Yaroze, which originally sold for $750, but now fetches between $5,000 and $8,000.
“It is like the very first PlayStation, but a black version,” he says. The normal retail version of the console was grey.
“What’s special about this one, is that it lets you programme and develop games.”
While eBay buyers tend to appreciate the value of old games more than the average UAE consumer, Yousef has seen a spike of interest, especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
To his surprise, even the “PlayStation generation” has heeded the retro call.
“I’ve started to get requests from young people – like they are 12 or 15 years old, in high school,” he says.
“They told me they want to see the start of some famous games, such as Pokemon and Mario.”
Yousef’s local competitors include Retrogamer.ae, an online store founded by 28-year-old oil and gas worker Rami Qaddoumi.
“I’ve been collecting and playing retro games since I was 12 years old,” says Qaddoumi, a Dubai-based American, who is of Jordanian descent.
“When I moved to the UAE about four years ago, my collection was sitting back home, pretty much collecting dust.”
He did not have space to house the 600-piece collection he had amassed over eight years.
Within a week of putting it up for sale on dubizzle, he had sold everything for about Dh12,000.
“I kind of regretted it immediately,” he says.
However, he did spot a huge gap in the UAE’s emerging retro-gaming market.
“I know a lot of people in the industry from around the world – from the US, Japan, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, and I decided to give it a shot,” he says.
He began importing retro games, via his network of collectors, and selling them – first on dubizzle, then Instagram.
But like Yousef, Qaddoumi only saw the true potential of the market when he took part in this year’s Comic Con.
“We had 10-year-olds who were extremely interested and who were actually collecting,” he says.
Following this revelation, he decided to “go official”, registering his business and launching a website.
Since then, the company has enjoyed rapid growth, now serving more than 200 customers a month.
In the process, Qaddoumi has been slowly rebuilding his personal collection. “Even though I have more than 3,000 pieces up on the website, I do have my own collection that’s growing again on the side,” he says.
He has about 200 pieces – focusing only on “the really rare items you can’t just go on eBay and find”.
“One rare piece I have is the Sakhr model AX 660 – this is an MSX computer that also plays Sega Genesis – or Mega Drive – games,” he says.
The Sakhr was the name given to the MSX when a regional version was launched by a Kuwaiti company, Al Alamiah, with an Arabic operating system.
He also owns an Atari NAJM, the only Atari computer localised for the Middle East, which has “won a special place” in his heart.
While every gamer from his generation seems to recall a childhood ambition to own every vintage console, he says it “is becoming an expensive hobby”.
He estimates his collection to be worth between Dh50,000 and Dh60,000.
The rarest game he ever owned was Magical Chase, which he bought among a collection of Turbografx 16 games for Dh800, and sold with 30 other games on eBay for $7,000.
“I regret selling that game every single day,” he says. “Something like that, you do not sell. Every day you should wake up, go to your collection and admire it.”
His company focuses on American games and consoles. Because they are in English and harder to source locally, they tend to hold, if not grow, their value.
Virgin, meanwhile, is not the only large retailer to spot the market potential for vintage games. Retrogamer recently struck a deal with Meraas’s Hub Zero – a cutting-edge entertainment complex boasting rides, games and more – to distribute games through its outlet, Cache Point.
All in all, it is an exciting time for retro gaming and collectors – if the growing market is anything to go by, old-school gaming is back with a vengeance.
Updated: July 30, 2016 04:00 AM