A Trip to the Video Game Bargain Bin
Like most any other American gamer, I'm insanely jealous of Japanese gamers. Not only do they get all sorts of wacky games that will never come out stateside and all sorts of cool gaming collectibles, but they still have a vibrant arcade scene. Recently, though, I've discovered yet another reason to be jealous of Japanese gamers: They can get extremely good deals on good, used videogames.
The man behind my newfound jealousy is Wired game writer Chris Kohler, who recently created what he calls the "1,000 Yen Challenge" to demonstrate just how far he (and others) could stretch their money in Japan's many used-games shops. The results so far were astonishing to this American gamer. For the equivalent of about 10 U.S. dollars, these savvy Japanese shoppers were able to pick up a dozen games or more! Sure, some of the games were no-name, forgettable dreck, but the hauls so far have also included classics like "Soulcalibur," "Wave Race 64" and "Resident Evil: Code Veronica," as well as obscure games of interest like "Seaman" and "Vib-Ribbon." These games were going for prices as low as 20 yen. Twenty yen! That's less than a quarter! As long as you aren't particular about condition, and aim for systems that are old but not yet classic, it seems you can make a killing out there in the Japanese game market.
Too bad the American used-game market isn't so amenable to ultra-cheap deals. Or is it? To find out, I decided to take on my own slightly modified version of the 1,000 Yen Challenge in my own backyard. Here's how it went.
Before I set out, I set a few rules for my bargain-hunting expedition:
1. The budget: I set my final budget at the equivalent of 2,000 yen (about $20.96 on Oct. 26, 2009, according to Google). I doubled the 1,000 yen budget from Kohler's challenge mainly because I was afraid $10 wouldn't buy anything decent in the U.S. used-game market, which seems to be much less crowded and competitive than the Japanese market. For a little more wiggle room, I decided to ignore sales tax in my budget.
2. Maximize quantity/variety: I'd rather get 20 halfway decent games than one good $20 game. That said...
3. Quality still matters: While the small budget limits my ability to be choosy, that doesn't mean I'll just pick up any game simply because it's cheap. Special preference will be given to games that I know are good, or that come from well-regarded franchises or developers/publishers.
4. Condition doesn't matter: Games at these bargain prices aren't going to be tearing up eBay any time soon, so I don't really care if extras like instruction booklets or cases are included. I also don't care about the physical condition of the cartridge and/or disc, as long as it looks like it will actually work.
5. No sports games: It'd be way too easy to just buy 20 copies of EA's sports lineup from the early 2000s and be done with it. But that's no fun.
6. No games I already own: For obvious reasons.
With the rules established, and a handy Google map route printed out, I was off to my first location:
Just a few blocks up from my apartment building in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the Forbes Avenue GameStop is my usual stop for retail games. As soon as I walked in, I made a beeline for the Game Boy Advance case, which housed some of the oldest and, therefore, likely cheapest games in the store. I was a bit surprised to see a Game Boy Color game mixed in there, "Mary Kate and Ashley's Winner's Circle." The price sticker marked it at a ridiculous $10, but a "75 percent off all Game Boy Color games" sign lowered that to a more reasonable $2.50. That was definitely doable with my budget, but was I really desperate enough to settle for a Mary Kate and Ashley game so early in the proceedings? Definitely not.
As I scanned the rest of the case, the cheapest games seemed to be more licensed dreck like "Yu Yu Hakusho Tournament Tactics" and "Beyblade: Greyvolution" (what does that even mean?), which bottomed out at $2.99. The only game that broke through that floor was "Aero the Acro-Bat," a portable re-release of a largely forgotten 16-bit era Sunsoft platformer. The name registered vague memories of a positive write-up in an ancient issue of Nintendo Power, which was good enough for me. Hey, classic Nintendo Power wouldn't lead me astray, right? I was on my way!
As I scanned the store for more bargains, my eyes quickly fell on a new and completely wondrous sight for any bargain hunter: Two cardboard boxes full of games marked at either 99 cents or $1.99. My excitement at the find dwindled as I actually examined the selection, though. The 99-cent box was 100-percent filled with old sports games, including 40 copies of various PlayStation 2 "Madden" games from 2002 to 2005 (yes, I counted). The $1.99 box was a little more promising, with games like "Eternal Ring" and "Death by Degrees" that were definitely awful, but at least weren't based on kids' television shows or sports. There were about a dozen copies of "Gran Turismo 3" in the box, too, the first bona fide good game I saw at an ultra-bargain price during my hunt. If I didn't already own it, the hours of racing-sim fun would definitely be worth the $2. Instead, I settled for "XIII," a stylistic first-person shooter that I remember hearing some buzz about, but never felt compelled to search out. For $2, though, I found myself lacking excuses.
When I explained my bargain-hunting mission to the clerk behind the GameStop counter, he directed me to the PS2 "$9.99 and under bin" across the store. Most of the games in there were way out of my budget ($5? What do they think I am, a millionaire?), and the few that dipped down to the ultra-cheap $2.99 price point were either sports ("Madden NFL 06"), atrocious ("State of Emergency") or bafflingly obscure ("RC Revenge Pro"? That's a game?).
I was strongly considering picking up the decent "Wipeout Fusion" for $2.99 when I spied the competing Xbox bargain bin across the store and its siren of a sign: "Buy two, get two free." Ka-CHING! Suddenly those $2.99 games were effectively going for $1.50! What's more, there were some downright decent Xbox games available at that price point -- many more than there were in the PS2 bin. I suppose there are a lot fewer people still playing their Xboxes these days, but still, I was amazed that some of my well loved Xbox games, like "Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee" and "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon," were now available for less than $3.
After 10 minutes or so of sifting, I finally settled on four games that I remembered hearing halfway decent things about: "Gunmetal," "Dead to Rights," "X-Men Legends" and "Medal of Honor: Frontline." With the two-games-free deal, these four games came to $5.98 total. All told, the six games I got from GameStop came to $8.96, after the 10-percent discount that came with my existing Game Informer subscription. Sure, these were far from today's hottest hits, but at $1.67 per game, on average, they'd have to be actively awful to not be worth it.
My second stop was a Pittsburgh-area favorite for entertainment bargain-hunters. The Exchange is primarily devoted to used music, from vinyl to CDs, but also has a surprisingly large collection of DVDs and games, both new and used. The best part is, unlike GameStop, its gaming selection isn't limited to recent systems. Area residents can trade in NES, Genesis, SNES, N64, PlayStation and original Game Boy games to be gobbled up by bargain hunters like me.
Unfortunately, older did not necessarily mean ultra-cheap in this case. Most of the 8- to 32-bit generation games behind the glass case were going for at least $7 or $8, some as high as $20 ... enough to wipe out my entire budget! The cheapest games for any system were going for $2.50, and that price point was reserved for notably awful games like "Gyromite" for the NES, "Batman Forever" for the SNES and "BioFreaks" for the N64. Once you got to halfway recent systems like the PS2, the cheapest games were $6 ... not unreasonable, for sure, but unreasonably high for my purposes.
I was about to leave, despondent, when I spied a gold mine by the door.
It was a veritable cornucopia of bargains! Dozens of games from the NES to the PlayStation, each marked at $1 apiece. I dove in like a gold prospector who hadn't eaten in a week. Sure, a good 80 or 90 percent of the games were either old, unloved sports games or part of an ill-thought-out series of non-interactive Game Boy Advance video cartridges. But there were a few potential gems in there. Here are the ones I ended up picking up and why I chose them:
-- "Speedy Gonzales: Los Gatos Bandidos" (SNES): Yeah, it's a licensed game, which spells B-A-D, but it was literally the only 16-bit game in the case that wasn't a sports game. Plus it was made by Sunsoft, which I remembered making the surprisingly decent "Road Runner's Death Valley Rally," so I figured it at least had a chance of being good.
-- "Super Sprint" (NES): I must have rented the NES version of this Atari arcade classic 10 times when I was younger, squinting at the TV to make out exact turning angle of the tiny cars as they zipped around the obstacle-strewn track. For $1, this was a nostalgic no-brainer.
-- "Gotcha: The Sport" (NES) My friend Chris Kirby had this one when I was growing up, and I remember manning the light gun as he manned the controller. I don't remember exactly how that was supposed to work, but any two-player game that uses both a light gun and a controller at the same time seems interesting enough to revisit, right?
-- "Captain Skyhawk" (NES): I know nothing about this game, but it's called "Captain Skyhawk"! That name, and the awesome cartridge art, were enough to get a dollar from me.
-- "Duke Nukem" (Game Boy Color): Not the more famous "Duke Nukem 3D," mind you, but the original "Duke Nukem," which I remember playing on a CD shareware collection on my old Pentium computer years ago. I don't remember it being aggressively awful, which today means buy buy BUY!
-- "Tomb Raider III" (PlayStation): The prize find of my trip to The Exchange. What's a big name, still-marketable heroine like Lara Croft doing in the bargain bin, among dozens of old "Madden" and NHL games? I've never been the biggest "Tomb Raider" fan, but I know her games are generally well regarded, an I'm more than willing to risk a dollar to see what the fuss is about.
With these six-dollar games, I already had 12 games in my pile, and a full $5.75 left in my budget! Maybe the American super-bargain game market isn't as bad as I thought!
(One more interesting note from The Exchange's bargain bin: One of gaming's most beloved classics, "Super Mario Bros.," was also available for just $1. If I didn't already own several copies (don't ask), that one would have been a no-brainer. But you know what would have been even more of a no-brainer? Picking up the "Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt" combination cartridge that was also selling for a dollar. And even better than that? The "Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt/World Class Track Meet" cartridge that was selling for the exact same dollar.)
CASH FLOW PAWN SHOP
I went off the beaten path for my third stop on my gaming value tour, heading out to Pittsburgh's slightly shady Wilkinsburg area to hit up what Google assured me was the closest pawnshop to my apartment. I had never been out to this shop before, but looking for games at other pawnshops had prepared me. Or so I thought.
Despite seeing a couple of kids leave the shop while I was approaching, the door was locked when I arrived. I peered inside and saw activity, so I knocked. A guy came up to the door and stared at me through the barred windows for 10 seconds or so before I knocked again, a little more impatiently. Finally, after a third knock, he reluctantly opened the door. When I asked if they were open, I was told they were "about to close," so I should hurry up. Hey, I'm not the one inexplicably waiting to open the door, buddy!
The place looked like a tornado had just been through. Cheap electronics, ratty clothes, toys, kitchenware, rugs and various knickknacks were arranged haphazardly on makeshift tables, shelves and even on the floor. I'd have taken a picture of the carnage, but I was afraid it would provoke a negative reaction from the four employees milling about -- burly middle-aged men who were speaking in a rapid-fire foreign language I couldn't identify.
I spent a few seconds scanning for games in a spinning rack of DVD cases, only to be disappointed to find it was all movies. When I broke into a rapid-fire foreign-language conversation to ask if they had any videogames, one of the employees directed two of his cohorts to go get "the box we got from the from the flea market." They proceeded to unceremoniously dump the contents of the box all over the floor in front of me! There must have been 200 DVD cases strewn across the dusty, folded-up Persian rug. As the two employees watched intently, I knelt down and sorted through the cases, a good 75-percent of which were actually movies. The remainder were actually current-generation games of varying quality, most of which didn't have a price listed. When I pointed this out, I was told to pick out what I wanted and take it to the owner, who would give me a price. Never a good sign...
As I was picking through the pile, one of the employees, a guy about my age who had a surfer-dude accent and a blond mustache, took me over to the corner of a glass case and pulled out a few loose Genesis, Game Boy and Nintendo 64 cartridges. Most of them were unremarkable, though surfer dude tried his best to talk them up ("You ever play any of these wrestling games? They were awesome!") I recognized a few games from my existing collection in there, including "Perfect Dark," "Star Fox 64" and "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" and "3" for the Genesis, the last of which the surfer dude actually tried to tell me was rare (it took all my effort not to laugh out loud at that one).
After looking through a bit, I picked out the only two halfway decent N64 games in the pile that I didn't already own: Midway's "Greatest Arcade Hits Volume 1" (a collection of five arcade classics) and "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" (which I owned as an unfixable scratched disc for the original PlayStation). I also took up a few of the more promising current-gen games from the floor pile, just in case the owner didn't know their value. After doing a bit of arithmetic in his head, he asked for $65 for the whole batch of six games. Not a bad deal for the game I'd picked, I suppose, but well outside my self-imposed budget.
I asked him to itemize the various games. The current-gen games were priced out at $10 or $15 each, but the N64 games he said he'd let go for $5 each. I put up my incredulous act. "Five dollars? For these old games? You think someone else is going to buy them?" He came back with an even better offer: $5 for both of them. I pressed my advantage and made a counter-offer. "I'll give you three dollars." "Sold!" he said, perhaps a bit too quickly. Then again, I think he'd decided that the $3 I was offering was worth more than the $0 he'd likely get from these relics. That made 14 games already, with one stop left and a princely $2.75 left in the budget!
My final stop of the day was a store I knew could be a great place for gaming finds. How did I know? Because I once found a Genesis/32X combo at a Goodwill in Laurel, Md., complete with "Sonic & Knuckles," "Sonic 3" and "DOOM" for the 32X, all for a grand total of $5. In a moment of temporary insanity I passed up the deal (maybe I thought it'd be cheaper later?), and by the time I came to my senses and went back a few days later, it was gone. I've been kicking myself ever since.
Anyway, this Goodwill, like most I've found, didn't have a bustling videogame section. Most of these places simply toss any games they get in with the music and movies, which is where I looked first. Among cassette copies of Britney Spears singles and lots of sealed copies of "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry," I managed to find a solitary game: a mysterious all-Japanese package. A few screenshots on the back pointed to an Onimusha game of some sort, but I couldn't be sure. Despite my budget, I almost picked this one up just for the sheer weirdness value alone. In the end, though, I decided $5 was way too much for a mysterious game that probably wouldn't even work on my American system (and I wasn't about to haggle with Goodwill to get the price down).
From there, I headed over to the toys/knickknacks section of the store, hoping a few miscellaneous games or gaming accessories (or maybe a Genesis/32X combo? Please?) had been thrown in there. The only vaguely game-related thing I could scrounge up, though, was a PlayStation controller extension cord. The $2 they were asking was definitely within my budget, but since I have a USB-powered PlayStation 3 now, the cord was absolutely useless to me.
I went back and forth between the music bin and the knickknacks aisle a few times, looking a bit obsessively to see if I'd missed anything, when a small case sitting with the jewelry boxes caught my eye. I thought I recognized the logo at the top, and closer inspection revealed it was indeed a Nintendo DS logo. I popped open the double-hinged, hard-plastic case to find a spot for a DS Lite/DSi, as well as a compartment to hold up to six DS game cards. There was even an insert in the middle when you could write down codes and other important notes about the games. It was a little bulky and a little scuffed but till perfectly functional, and for $2, it fit perfectly in my remaining budget.
With my bargain hunting done, it was time to take stock. For a final price of $20.96 (plus $1.24 in tax) I'd managed to get 14 games spanning the NES to the Xbox era, plus a handsome DS carrying case to boot. According to GameRankings, the best-reviewed game among them was "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater," which received a 92.12-percent average on the N64. The worst game was "Aero the Acro-Bat," which received a 67.08-percent score for its Game Boy Advance re-release (the sole listed review of the original Genesis version was a much better 80-percent, though). Most of the other games I'd found had GameRankings averages somewhere in the 70- to 80-percent range -- not great, but not awful for a set of games that averaged less than $1.50 each in price.
Aside from the review scores, though, the question remains: Was raiding the ultra-bargain bins worth it? For me, I'd have to say it was. I haven't had a chance to really dive into any of these 14 games yet, but I can't imagine that the combined experience of all of them won't be worth $20. Even if the games themselves are nothing to write home about (and some of them no doubt will be), they still represent a wide cross-section of gaming history and, tangentially, my life so far. For me, the chance to dig through these forgotten bits of gaming history is easily worth the paltry amount I had to pay, regardless of anything else.
More than that, though, there's something rewarding about the hunt for an ultra-bargain. Just digging through the piles of crappy games, looking for those few gems amidst the piles of crap, was enjoyable in and of itself. I felt like I was somehow beating all those suckers who had passed over that copy of "Tomb Raider III" for just a buck, or the pawnshop owner who wanted $5 for an ancient N64 game. Sure, it's a minor victory, and one I had to spend money to earn, but there's a psychological high to it nonetheless.
Plus, now I have one less reason to be jealous of the Japanese. So there's that...