Gamestop. AMC. Dogecoin. NFTs. And now, some investors hope, Pokémon and Mario.
For investors willing to make risky bets, the next big “Gamestonk” could be a vintage copy of Pokémon Yellow. Companies like Rally and Otis (founded in 2016 and 2018, respectively) allow their customers to buy shares of these niche assets, which have been fetching astronomically high prices at auction: A copy of Super Mario Bros. sold for $114,000 in July 2020, and in November, a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 was auctioned off at $156,000, making it the most expensive game ever sold. A combination of rarity and old-fashioned financial speculation continues to drive prices higher, which in turn attracts more and more interest from investors. The current record is about to be smashed by another rare copy of Super Mario Bros. up for auction now, which is set to sell at over $310,000.
Apps like Otis and Rally give customers the ability to get in on the hot market for collectibles without dumping their life savings into a single game. Otis has branded itself “the stock market for culture,” raising over $14 million in venture capital, while its competitor Rally recently raised $17 million. The Otis app features high-quality pictures of impeccably maintained vintage games encased in crystalline plastic, and offers average people the chance to buy a piece of an item that could, with any luck, fetch six figures at auction.
Of course, buying a share of a valuable game is fundamentally different from buying a stock, bond, or commodity. No one’s childhood was defined by 5,000 random bushels of soybeans, or a tiny percentage of a gigantic corporation. That’s a crucial part of the sales pitch at Otis. It emphasizes the intimate connection people have with beloved Nintendo franchises like Zelda and Pokémon, making the case that these cultural touchstones will only gain value with time. A blurb about Zelda on the Otis app explains that it “is one of Nintendo’s most prominent and successful franchises. Its success is in part attributed to the series’ consistent release cycle that’s covered every generation of Nintendo devices, thereby cementing its relevance.” Otis says that the success of 2017’s Breath of the Wild will “likely bring in demand for this franchise’s memorabilia.”
I want a little piece of the action, so I buy five shares of a pristine sealed copy of Zelda II on Otis, at $10 a share. For good measure, I snap up five shares of a sealed copy of 1987’s Contra for the NES when it debuts on the app. Why not? They’re not making any more of them, and it’s in perfect condition. Otis estimates its market value at $32,800, an optimistic target based, in part, on recent auction results.
The professionals who make their living from selling vintage games in dusty, cluttered shops in the East Village of Manhattan tend to be skeptical of those big figures. On a sunny, cold day in early March, only a few blocks from the glossy and immaculate Otis showroom, I meet Joe Tartaglia, the owner of 8 Bit and Up, a small store that specializes in vintage games. Out front, faded posters of Mario and Luigi and Ash Ketchum from Pokémon cover the windows. Inside, the stale air and dim lighting gives it the feel of a literal shrine: neatly arranged stacks of old cartridges, bulky TVs, weird-looking peripherals for games systems I don’t even vaguely recognize. The carefully maintained neglect hearkens back to an earlier era for both games and New York City. Tartaglia, who’s been in the games business since 2008, did some quick online research when I asked whether buying into Contra at $32,800 would be a good investment. Similar graded games were selling for prices more like $1,000 just a year ago, he told me. “You’re talking about one year, the price going up by a factor of 15 or more. It doesn’t make any sense to me.” He suggested the high recent sales prices could be new investors driving up the value. “I wouldn’t want to buy into that damn thing,” he said.