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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Demand for Vintage video rises

Demand for Vintage video rises
PlayStation, Xbox and Wii are hot commodities these days, but collectors are snapping up the arcade games from the 1970s and 1980s.
By John Reinan, Star Tribune
Marc Jensen is a geek's geek.
At 35, he has a master's degree in computer science and a job as director of technology for Space150, a Minneapolis digital-marketing firm. Jensen spends his days developing interactive computer programs for some of the world's largest businesses.
Then he goes home and plays the same video games he loved as a 7-year-old.
"I'm trying to slow down, because I only have so much space in my house," said Jensen, whose Golden Valley home displays eight full-size arcade machines, about 40 hand-held video games and more than a dozen computer-based home video game systems, all from the 1970s and '80s.
As the first generation that grew up on video games comes of age -- and into earning power -- vintage video games have become hot collectibles. A "Pac-Man" game in its original arcade cabinet that sold for $300 five years ago now commands as much as $1,500, and prices are continuing to rise.
The same is true for computer-based home systems, or "consoles," as they're known in the gaming world. Prices for vintage Atari and Nintendo consoles have doubled in the past three years, and some rare game cartridges, once available for a buck or two at garage sales, sell for more than $100.
These are the great-granddaddies of the video game world, products that fueled the growth of a $10 billion business. Compared with modern games, they're crude, slow and clunky. But they're also the entertainment equivalent of comfort food: easy, fun and full of warm childhood memories.
"Sometimes it's weird to look back and think, 'Am I that old, that what I played with as a kid is collectible?' But it is," said Joe Esposito, a 36-year-old Minneapolis social worker and video game collector.
Esposito has 10 consoles in his collection, including Intellivision, Colecovision and three generations of early Atari. He also has about 850 games, but it's getting harder to fill the gaps.
"It's very difficult to come across it in the wild, as they say in the collector realm," Esposito said. "There was a time when you could walk into any garage sale or thrift store and find boxes and boxes of this stuff. Now ... forget it."
The appeal of vintage games, Esposito and others said, is partly based on nostalgia. People like the games they played as kids.
But it's also a reaction to the complexity of modern video games, with their 3D graphics, high-definition video and steep learning curves. With modern games, a player can easily spend 40 or 50 hours playing and never reach an endpoint.
"I don't have time for the complicated games anymore," Esposito said. "If I'm going to play a video game, I just want to pop it in and invest 15 minutes. If I've got to read a 64-page instruction manual and manipulate a 15-button controller, I've got better things to do."
Jensen is an avid historian of video games and teaches a class on video game history at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. His goal, he said, is to write the definitive academic book on video games.
"You can take any modern game and trace it back to the old games," he said. "Any game you see nowadays is generally an outgrowth of games created in the late '70s to mid-'80s."
That was the golden age of arcade games, when "Pac-Man" and "Space Invaders" sucked countless quarters from the pockets of American youths. Jensen loves the clean lines and crisp graphics of the classic arcade games, which faded in popularity as computer-based home systems took over.
"A lot of the old games have a depth to them that's not obvious," Jensen said. "We have "Joust" at work -- I've been playing it for four years, and I'm still figuring out new things about it."
Weddings with 'Ms. Pac-Man'
Todd Erickson, owner of Summit Amusements in St. Paul, sees another side of the vintage video game boom. The arcade games have become popular attractions at weddings, parties and corporate events, said Erickson, who has sold and rented pinball machines and video games for more than 30 years.
"I can bring a "Ms. Pac-Man" to a wedding, and everybody plays it," Erickson said. "Kids and adults, they all love it." There's also a trend toward home game rooms, he said, and people with game rooms need something to put in them.
In his cluttered showroom on University Avenue, Erickson maintains a sort of video game Hall of Fame. There's "Centipede,"Galaga" and "Lunar Lander."Space Invaders,"Asteroids" and "Missile Command." Few companies bother to make arcade video games anymore, Erickson said.
"They figured out that they can make more money selling millions of cartridges for the home unit than they can selling 5,000 [arcade] machines," he said.
Gamemakers are starting to ride the vintage wave. Versions of classic games are being produced for use on modern consoles made by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. That could further expand the appeal of video games, said Steven Brown, owner of Cedar Cliff Collectibles in Eagan.
"Today's games are produced for a very narrow segment of the gaming community: people who can spend 80 hours a week on it," said Brown, whose store sells vintage video games along with collectible toys, comic books and sports memorabilia.
Brown's shop sells about 30 Super Nintendo systems a month and has trouble keeping the 15-year-old consoles in stock. There's such a demand for game accessories, such as joysticks, that he's arranged to have them specially manufactured.
Customers tend to be between 25 and 45 years old, Brown said, and equally divided between men and women.
"There's so much more money to be made in vintage video games than in [regular] video games," Brown said. "I raised my prices significantly this year, without any guilt. And we still sell them."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402 • jreinan@startribune.com



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