Thrill Of The Retro Gaming Chase: Not Everything Is Awesome

Super-Nintendo-CartridgesIn this modern connected world of social media there's the general consensus that we know everything about each other's lives. Every moment is said to be photographed for Instagram, every witty thought shared over twitter and every social event becomes a Facebook status. The critics of Social media often say they "don't want to read what people have had for breakfast" or "see photos of cats". Those against the global digital need to share believe that too much of our lives is uploaded, but the reality is only half is. We only ever digitally document moments of happiness and success. Our failures or saddest moments don't get shared nearly as often. Not only is this logical, it's healthy. We don't want to remember the worst moments of life and we especially don't want others to remind us of them. But, by shielding the world from the times when things go wrong it presents a slightly warped version of reality. We pretend "everything is awesome" but sometimes this really isn't the case.

I watch a lot of a lot of fellow retro collectors on YouTube. I am a fan of 'unboxings', 'let's plays' but most of all I love a good 'pick up video'. I enjoy seeing what others have bought. I'm fascinated by why they have gone for specific titles and what bargains they have discovered. I'm nosey like that. In the summer months I've noticed pick ups videos tend to appear on Sundays. perhaps this is because it's a day when most people have time to film, but I suspect this is also because summer Sunday mornings mean car boot sales in the UK. Retro collectors, it seems, love to film themselves talking about their morning spent buying old games out of other people's car boots. Rare games are proudly thrust towards camera, while their new owners proudly declare how cheap they got them for.

My experience of car boot sales is very different. I get there, spend an hour walking around a muddy school field, looking at pasting tables covered in clutter and I come home with no games. I used to think this was because I didn't get up early enough or go to enough boot fares, but perhaps it's because other collectors only share their success stories. No one ever does a video where they sit ashen faced in front of a camera saying they got up at 5am, went to three car boot sales and found nothing but out-dated versions of FIFA on the PlayStation 2. No one wants to record this because it's embarrassing and in reality no one would watch it anyway. The problem is though, when these YouTubers only talk success, I start to think that that boot fares are always a gold mine for old games and I am missing out by not going. When all you see is good experiences you slowly start to forget that bad times are possible.

Chasing The Dream

Not too long ago I mentioned a bounty of Mega Drive games that I bought on a local Facebook page. In many ways it's a digital car boot sale; people take pictures of what they sell and other people in the same town buy them. You make your decision to buy based on pictures and any other information the seller wants to give you. You have to act fast though, as it works on a first come first served basis - so generally speaking I tend to miss out on games as other local collectors get there first.

On this occasion though I was successful and snagged a Mega Drive console with 48 boxed games, and 4 control pads for just £60.

I was so excited when I told my followers on Twitter and enjoyed the congratulations they showered on me. Usually nothing more would be said. My Twitter followers would be left envious of my haul and I wouldn't want to say anything that may suggest things were less than rosy. The problem was it didn't end up being as fantastic as I initially hoped and in an attempt to present a more accurate version of the realities retro collectors face I shall tell the rest of the story.

It was time to collect the bundle. The broken, rusted, and dirty children's toys left to rot in the front garden should perhaps have been a sign to turn back. If this were a real (rather than Facebook based) car boot sale you would have seen this seller's table and walked on by; put off by the heap of broken plates and tatty old clothes. The seller opened the door and thrust two boxes on me, one filled with games the other had a tangled mess of wires and controllers. She was a pleasant and well-intending woman, but certainly wasn't someone selling a prized collection just to make ends meet. "It works" she said avoiding eye contact "but you have to wiggle the wires about a bit and blow in the games sometimes". Excited by the sheer size of the box and the promise of what it contained I didn't pay much attention to this and was all to happy to pass the money over. I loaded the big heavy boxed into my car giddy with joy. I had sneak peek into the box and saw cases with 'Streets or Rage' and 'Sonic' on the side, there was no way, I thought, I hadn't snagged a bargain.

It was only when I got home that I realised quite what I had let myself in for. I had never seen such dirty ill-treated games in my life, a horrifying sight for someone who normally only buys "boxed complete" games in near mint condition. The smell was over powering; l'eau de wet dog and cigarettes. I gagged as I looked at the games, the vast majority I wanted to play but I was just scared to touch them in case what ever was all over the cartridges went on my hands . It would be no exaggeration to say that these game boxes could have been a bio-hazard. Pink paint was spattered across then as if someone had decided to reprint a room but couldn't be bothered to tidy the room first. Though the majority had manuals, pages were stuck together and box art was crinkled, where at some point the whole collection had got damp.

This wasn't the start of the Mega Drive collection I wanted, this was a restoration project... a salvage mission! I sorted through the games sorting them into piles based on their condition. There was little in the good pile, lots of broken boxes in the bad, and a whole heap of filth in the ugly stack.

Back To Reality

For the last few weeks I have not been playing theses games, instead I have been cleaning them. I was lucky in the fact that Sega used plastic boxes, unlike Nintendo who favoured cardboard. This meant that every single plastic case could have a long soak in a bath filled with bleach and floor cleaner. This was the only way the awful smell could be shifted, as a damp cloth did nothing. Of course paper and water do not make cosy bed fellows, so washing the inlays and instruction books wouldn't have worked. Instead a pro-tip found online suggested the best way to remove smoke smells from paper is to mask it with the minty freshness of peppermint teabags. Evidently the tea leaves absorb the cigarette smell while the paper ends up smelling of mint. It has worked to a certain degree although the over powering aroma of stale mint tea is really the lesser if two evils.

The Mega Drive console on the other hand is now on its way to a rubbish dump, an unceremonious end for greatly mistreated machine. Upon arriving home with it, only one control port worked and the signal from the aerial lead was intermittent and grainy. The console's case was caked in filth too, leading me to make the well intended but foolish choice of taking the electronics out and putting the shell in the dishwasher. Rebuilding the console was perhaps beyond my limited expertise, as while the Mega Drive powered on, no picture appeared on the TV. Even if it hadn't been broken by a amateur electrician, I doubt anyone would have wanted to go near the Sega machine. Even a hour long spell in a console-car-wash failed to shift either the smell or the caked on mess that I hope was mud - but in retrospect it could have been something more stomach churning. Similarly, only two of the four controllers met a quality control check. I do not want to touch exposed wiring, and cracked PCBs are something a bit of tape just won't fix.

So after weeks of risking my life by touching disgusting things, what did my £60 really buy me? 48 boxed games in need of some love. Four controllers, soon halved in numbers, and no Mega Drive to connect up with. In all honesty I bought the bundle for the games, as after playing 16 bit titles on the Retron5 I really wouldn't consider going back to a legacy machine, but it would have been a nice bonus . Although complete at best I would say the bulk of the games are in "okay" condition, a dozen perhaps "good" (if you ignore the lingering smokey minty dog aroma).

Suddenly my bargain of the year seems less of a success story. Could I sell them on eBay for a profit? Almost certainly as in that grimy box was ten games that at least sell for £8-£10. Would I have bought them if I had seen the state of them? No.

I'm someone who takes pride in a nice box and a cared for game. I don't expect (or really want) mint condition but to get these games up to a standard I'm happy to have on my shelf has been more effort than I really wanted . Free time is precious and I would rather spend it playing games than scrubbing them with mint teabags. You get what you pay for I suppose, I just didn't realise what I was buying for the bargain price.

So while the stories of boot fare bonanzas and charity shop lucky finds are talked about by many, I fear the unspoken failures are just as common. Retro collecting is enjoyable, sometimes lucrative and often surprising. Maybe it's time we shared the nasty surprises as frequently as we do the lovely ones. But then again, we do love a good success story too, so keep them coming!

Last Updated ( 01 February 2015 )  

Julian Hill

Julian is the author of the popular blog Boxed Pixels, and is currently on a mission to document his thoughts as he buys boxed complete SNES Games.

Described by PlayStation Access as a "gamer, Dad and all round hero" he has been playing games since they had four colours on screen and blips for music.

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(Link to this comment) PhoenixAsh 2015-02-01 19:52
Good article! You are indeed correct regarding car boots too, as every other one I go to I usually end up walking away empty handed - wishing I'd just slept in.
(Link to this comment) big mean bunny 2015-02-02 01:24
Am with you on this, I go to a few boot sales in Sheffield, the first one I went to I got lucky and found Summer Games and Sensible Soccer for £1 for the snes, since then never seen another game of that era other than at a place in Chesterfield where a lad wanted more for the games than you'd pay in a retro store or ebay.

I did start picking up a few ps2 games when I got one of gumtree, however stopped after I got some ps2 games for a couple of different people and found that they were all too scratched to play.

I think the days of bargains are coming to an end personally, a few people have sent me messages lately with photos of consoles that friends have found in lofts etc.

I would rather pay more for my games and spend Sundays in bed.
(Link to this comment) Speedle 2015-02-02 14:06
Carboots are very hit and miss. Sometimes I come how with a mountain of winnings sometimes nothing at all. Only last night a friend game me a snes bundle found in his shed 2 snes consoles and 7 awesome games all VERY dirty. I spent last night stripping the all down cleaning and repairing the pcb's and now they all work and look nice and clean again. Just goes to show this stuff was built to last :)

The few facebook pickups I've had have all been very positive so far but no doubt I'll have to watch out for stuff like this!
(Link to this comment) Fortysixter_UK 2015-02-02 18:07
An entertaining read and a quality article.

I too had been considering Car Boot sale visits again since they started again in my area....but then the evening before I suddenly realised I didn't want to get up early, fuss about looking for parking spaces and tramp about a muddy field on a cold day.

I'll pay extra on Amazon and Ebay and get up later in the day instead !
(Link to this comment) Dreamcaster-X 2015-02-03 01:30
I only go to local retro game shops if I happen to be passing by and that too is hit or miss but I do try to visit retro shops when I travel out of state and there are some damn good stores that keep the good games in stock but for every 1 of those you have 5 who are selling 20 copies of Wheel of Fortune for the SNES.

After I got back into retro collecting I decided to just stick with the systems that I truly couldn't part with and then only buy the games that I know I will play repeatedly and If I'm really wanting something bad then I just click on over to ebay and find it in the condition I'm willing to pay for.
(Link to this comment) Firthy2002 2015-02-04 11:14
I don't bother with car boots, mostly because I don't drive so would be limited to what I could reasonably carry home with me, and secondly because I've read too many stories of people forgoing a Sunday lie-in to come away empty handed, which as you say, generally don't end up in YouTube videos.
(Link to this comment) espontaneo 2015-02-06 19:25
Getting a grubby old console clean is just a matter of getting some good degreaser (I actually find the stuff for removing thermal paste is best) and a tooth brush/cloth/credit card to get the caked in stuff out of the seams. This gets the smell off too. Polish it up with car dash board wipes. A dodgy joystick port can easily be replaced - probably just needed the rust scrubbing off the pins or resoldering. The RF ports/units often corrode on old machines (though why you'd use the RF I don't know), again this can be fixed/ignored. I don't really understand how you could irreparably have broken it by removing the case either.

But you know the saying - if a deal is too good to be true....
(Link to this comment) ewjim 2015-02-06 20:53
Really enjoyed that story! Thanks for sharing.
(Link to this comment) underwaterlevel 2015-02-08 19:06
Brilliant story! I loved the first bit about social media sites. So true!
(Link to this comment) redd88 2015-02-28 12:04
Thanks for sharing this. It really does paint a more realistic picture of acquiring games from yesteryear:

Awhile ago, I wanted to finally try out the link cable feature found in games like Bushido Blade for the PSone, but I didn't want to go to trouble of having to pay the price of another brand new console, just to try out this one feature found in one game. So I bought one used off ebay for 60.00.

What I received was junk. It didn't even come with an AC power cable and it has a big permanent mark stain on the lid, that won't come out, (but it at least worked). The seller then tried to make up for this by throwing in a couple of games, that he clearly wanted to throw out, but gave to me instead, but that were pretty much unplayable.

Since then, I've just decided I'd pay more for the games I decide to collect. It just goes along way in preserving the longevity of not just the system, but the games as well.
(Link to this comment) Sconna 2015-06-14 21:52
Car boots were fantastic places for retro gems up until the last 18 months. Too many people after the same bargain. Still the odd bargain out there, just set your alarm for 4.30. Lol
(Link to this comment) Phantomdiablo 2016-03-20 08:04
Great article that I can relate to, with a similar purchase of a gamecube and games from eBay. While I don't crave perfection and understand the age of these products, to let them fall into such filth and neglect and then sell them is something I couldn't do. I agree when you make a purchase your first action should be to play or display what you have bought, not clean it!

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