Super Mario 64 is not one of rarest or oldest video games by any stretch, but that didn’t stop it from reportedly selling for $1.5 million at auction over the weekend. It was the latest stunning display of just how vintage game collecting has blown up amidst a new speculation-fueled bubble.
A factory-sealed copy of 1996's Super Mario 64 with a condition grading of 9.8 A++ (practically undamaged) went for $1,560,000 at the Heritage Auctions house on July 11, setting a new record for the highest-selling single video game ever at auction. To put it in perspective, that was almost double the previous record, set just a few days prior by The Legend of Zelda. It’s also just under half of what the a copy of Action Comics #1, Superman’s first-ever appearance back in 1938, went for earlier this year.
All of these are obscenely high prices that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The bubble around them seems due at least in part to the new groundswell in collector interest not just for video games but for all sorts of other collectibles, ranging from comic books and dolls to Pokémon and baseball cards. But the vintage game collecting market has grown particularly unpredictable of late, and the meteoric rise of Super Mario 64 is the perfect example of why some are beginning to regard new record-shattering sales with skepticism.
The short answer is, no one’s quite sure. “Well, I figured the first million dollar game was imminent, but I didn’t think it was gonna be today...or this,” editorial director at Digital Eclipse, gaming’s version of The Criterion Collection, and former Kotaku features editor, Chris Kohler, tweeted over the weekend.
The somewhat longer answer is that video game rarity has different forms. Mario 64 sold close to 12 million copies back in the day, but the packaging was notoriously damage-prone. A pristine copy like the one sold at auction is therefore arguably in a league of its own.
“There are discussions of how many first-print sealed Mario 64’s may exist, but no matter what the number is, there are certainly only a tiny fraction in 9.8A++,” Deniz Kahn, the CEO of Wata Games, which rated this particular copy of Mario 64, told Kotaku in an email. “We often receive factory ‘case-packs’ of N64 games where all six copies included have not been circulated. Even in these undistributed ‘case-fresh’ copies, most often the results end up with two or fewer 9.8s, and oftentimes none.”
Kahn said that while Wata games has awarded perfect 10s, those are reserved for games that are “not only in immaculate condition but that are also manufactured perfectly.” As a result, he says 9.8A++ is probably the highest possible condition anyone’s ever likely to find with Mario 64.
That said, even with the 9.8A++ rating, no one was expecting Mario 64 to fetch a small fortune. A 9.4 A+ graded sealed copy of the game sold for only $38,400 on Heritage Auctions this past January, and a 9.2 A graded copy sold for just $7,500 there last year. Other copies of the game in similar condition sold just below $10,000 on Ebay earlier this year as well. $1.5 million, even including any seller and buyer fees, is still completely out of left field. A 9.4 A++ graded copy of the game sold at the same time only went for $28,800. Can a marginal grading difference really be worth seven figures?
“It barely hit five figures outside of Heritage,” preservationist and director of the Video Game History Foundation, Frank Cifaldi, told Kotaku in a direct message. “I 100% agree it being a 9.8 puts it at a completely different level but a sudden jump from $30k to $1.5M feels wrong”
The head of Wata Games, whose own business interests are obviously tied up in the health and growth of the collectible market, isn’t so sure. “In other spaces such as Comics, Coins, or sports cards, the difference between the second highest grade and the highest grade can be a 2x+ multiple in value and sometimes much more,” Kahn said. “Attaining the finest known example from a condition standpoint drives a certain type of collector’s behavior, specifically the collector who wants the absolute best.”
But even he can’t really explain it. “All that being said, this price is still shocking but shows the level of emotion involved in how prices are realized in an auction scenario,” he said. “This was a case of several collectors, at least two, who fit the profile of wanting the absolute best of an iconic relic of pop culture that exists. This is the economics of a collectible market at play, and we get to see some incredible things happen.”
The fact that $1.5 millon doesn’t quite add up has led to some more nefarious speculation, ranging from money laundering to collectors trying to inflate the market with targeted bids. Another simpler explanation is that a few different collectors just really wanted this particular copy of Mario 64 and were willing to empty their pocket books for it. If and until whoever had the winning bid breaks their silence, however, it will be hard to know. The buyer and seller information isn’t available on Heritage’s website, and the auction house did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Update - 3:54 p.m. ET, 7/12/21: When asked about who the bidders were, what safeguards are in place to prevent fraud, and how much money it makes of these record-breaking sales, a spokesperson for Heritage Auctions responded via email:
Heritage will claim 20 percent of the total purchase price of the sale of the game. The hammer price was $1,300,000. The buyer’s premium on this lot was 20 percent, bringing the actual price the buyer will pay to $1,560,000.
The winning bidder was vetted before they were eligible to cast a bid of this magnitude. Auction houses routinely vet clients prior to sales and we verified this bidder was qualified.
I can assure you this winning bid was made by a collector who is not related to the auction house in any way. It was cast by an individual, independent citizen. Although the winning bidder does not wish to be identified at this time, this may change in the coming days or weeks.