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Near mint: A conversation with game collectors

For the hoard!

Pride of place in Jason's game room is a stacked shelf of big-box PC games. In the days before Steam homogenised the purchasing process, packaging was an appealing element in buying new PC games, which often released with foldout maps, hefty manuals and lavish boxes. Jason has always been a fan, and they are among his favourite games to collect.

It's no wonder really; as an employee of Sierra On-Line in the 1990s, the world's biggest PC software publisher at that time, he dabbled in everything from tech support to accounting to customer service, and even appeared in a small role in the company's 1997 horror game Shivers 2, portraying a guitarist in a grunge band called Trip Cyclone. "I played Dave," Jason explains. "The band gets kidnapped and we leave music videos as clues for the gamer to proceed." It is clear that Jason holds a great deal of fondness for this time in his career - Sierra is also where he met his wife, Rebecca.

Nowadays, he is better known as full-time YouTuber Metal Jesus, a nickname his former workmates gave to him on account of his long hair and penchant for a good guitar lick. Videos on his channel, MetalJesusRocks, go out to 400,000 subscribers, and usually focus on retro games and collecting. His introduction to gaming came from home computers, and he admits he didn't do much console gaming until the release of the PS2.

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Jason, the Metal Jesus himself.

With over 7000 games and around 50 systems ("I counted 45 a few years ago but that has probably grown to 55 since then"), his collection is as heavy and holy as his nickname suggests. The rarest piece in his collection is a US prototype of the Nintendo 64 disc add-on, Nintendo 64DD, which he believes may be the only one to exist (it only received an official release in Japan).

Metal Jesus is a well-known figure in the Pacific Northwest game collecting community, and an anecdotal joke among fans is that his spotlight on lesser-known titles can actually help to increase their aftermarket price.

He has a particular knack for scoping out lucky finds. During a recent game hunting excursion, Metal Jesus met a woman who had found a particularly unusual use for her old games:

"She told me she had been burning NES, SNES and Genesis boxes and manuals for fuel in her fireplace - I was stunned," he says. "She had boxed copies of Dragon Warrior 3 & 4, Ocarina of Time, Super Metroid, and tons more. I spent every extra dollar I had on me to save as many games as I could and then told her to please take the remainder to a local retro gaming store that would buy them from her."

Jason says that his love for collecting games stems not so much from a need to hoard or a compulsion for 'complete sets' (i.e. complete collections for a particular system), but a sense of catching up and recapturing his youth.  

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Jason's rarest find, a 64DD US prototype.

"There is a long, rich history to explore and I really enjoy digging in and finding out the nuances of it," he explains.

One of Jason's close friends and frequent collaborators is Californian collector John Hancock. Hancock, who also runs his own YouTube channel, The Immortal John Hancock, met Jason in 2008 at the Portland Retro Game Expo, a non-profit event Hancock helped to create. A family man with a friendly demeanour, he also helped to found charity Cowlitz Gamers for Kids, which has raised over $65,000 for non-profits in his local region of Longview, Washington.

Hancock has been collecting games for over 25 years; he owns over 11,000 games and 26 complete US collections. His eventual aim, he says, is to turn his collection into a museum. Some of his most impassioned online content focuses on a strong love of Sega, and his enthusiasm for some of the company's more obscure gems is palpable.

"Sega was not afraid to take chances - they seemed to cater to the Atari fanbase that was disenfranchised with Nintendo," he explains. "Growing up, they always seemed to make the games that I wanted to play."

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The Immortal John Hancock.

In particular, Hancock has pushed the somewhat maligned Mega-CD as an underappreciated system, citing exclusive Dark Wizard as one of his all-time favourites; another prized possession is a sealed copy of Hideo Kojima's cult classic Snatcher, considered one of the system's (and Kojima's) greatest games, albeit one sadly inaccessible to most modern gamers due to its commanding aftermarket price tag.

Hancock's rarest Sega game of all is a Mega Drive release, Outback Joey; bundled exclusively with the almost unheard of Heartbeat Personal Trainer, a variant Mega Drive console that came with fitness equipment, the game has achieved near-mythical status among collectors, and can command four-figure sums at auction. Hancock owns the game itself, but without the Heartbeat Personal Trainer, it serves as an expensive and unplayable relic.

Though his collection is enormous, he explains that his friends see it as much like any other hobby, comparing it to a "tool or gun collection". Game collecting invokes deep nostalgia in him, and his love of gaming is clear. He cites the Atari 2600, Sega Master System (a fairly niche console in the US), and Commodore computers as among his favourite systems to collect for, saying that "the unique artwork, packaging and historical aspect" are some of his favourite things about collecting. "I love going back and playing an old console to see just how far technology has come."

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A sample of Hancock's Atari collection from his 'Room of Doom'.

The most expensive game he has purchased is Magical Chase on the TurboGrafx 16, and while he doesn't say how much he spent on it, explaining that it was a long term trade sale, a quick search on eBay reveals that it can command up to $5,000 for a US boxed copy. In one of his videos, Hancock explains that this purchase in particular involved a certain degree of commitment, and that he would not have bought the game without the support of his wife, Sarah, who supports his passion wholeheartedly.

Nearly 5000 miles east of Jason and Hancock lives Janne Kaitila. He works as the COO of Helsinki-based magazine publisher H-Town, whose flagship publication is Pelaaja, a multi-format gaming magazine popular in Finland. In his spare time, he runs the YouTube channel finngamer, where he discusses his game collection, with a particular focus on unboxing videos. His videos, narrated in a lilting Finnish accent, have a calm air about them, and Kaitila seldom appears on camera. It comes across as a distinctly personal endeavour overall.

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Hancock's copy of 'Outback Joey', one of the rarest Mega Drive games ever made.

"I have everything in one room, so it doesn't really dominate my house or be that present in my 'normal' life," he explains. "Everybody knows I love games and I don't think I've ever received bad comments from my friends or relatives. Some are more interested than others, of course."

Kaitila currently owns over 2500 games and nearly 70 consoles, and admits that he has "crossed the threshold" of having time to play every game that he owns. "Still," he says, "it is very nice to be able to pick up a game on a whim from your shelf and play it right then and there on the original platform."

He was introduced to a love of games as a young child through Nintendo. His first game system was Mario's Cement Factory, a tabletop Game & Watch, which he received from his father in the early 1980s at the age of three and still owns to this day. He currently possesses every released N64 game and is making progress on a complete Wii U collection, both of which are made easier, he says, by their "relatively small libraries". He also owns all ten released games for the 64DD, a small but not inexpensive number. His love for the company is so strong that during a trip to Japan earlier this year, he made a pilgrimage to their Kyoto headquarters, brand new Switch in tow.

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Janne Kaitila, the finngamer.

He also enjoys collecting for the Neo Geo AES, something of a 'holy grail' system among collectors, but admits he has no intention to go for a complete collection due to the expense involved. Neo Geo games have always been expensive, but much like the SNES and the Sega Saturn, prices have gone through the roof in recent years. His most valuable game comes from this collection, a rare, 'unfixed' copy of Samurai Shodown 5 Special, which he paid $359 for a decade ago and says is is now worth ten times as much. "I don't even dream about owning every game for it since there are several four-figure games and a couple of five-figure games, but the AES is just so fascinating," he explains.

Kaitila considers game collecting a distinct hobby to gaming, and enjoys the tactility of physical media. "Some people think I just hoard stuff, but even when I'm not playing anything, I love to look at the games and read an interesting manual or check out some covers," he explains. "It's kinda like looking through old photos, you just get that warm feeling inside when you reminisce."

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Kaitila's Wii U collection.

Meanwhile, over in Japan, longtime Osakan collector Kanako Urai shows off pictures via email of her Famicom Power Glove, a proud piece in her collection. She is better known as the WWE wrestler Asuka; currently the WWE NXT Women's Champion, she has actually appeared as herself in video games such as WWE 16 and WWE 17.

Asuka has talked proudly on Twitter of her game collection, which currently stands at over 5000 titles, and has also done some freelance work as a games journalist. Her collection spreads across a large number of consoles as well as some arcade systems, and she has expressed interest in collecting pinball machines in future. Like many Japanese kids of her era, her love started with the Famicom, bought for her and her older brother by her grandfather.

In particular, she developed a fondness for a certain Italian plumber, citing her first encounters with Mario as the meeting that sparked the love in her heart for gaming. She would often choose to come home to play with her Mario games rather than play in the playground.

"Have you experienced love at first sight?" she asks. "A moustached guy with a red hat and overalls running around? When I saw him kicking turtles and mushrooms, that lit fire in the heart of young, pure Asuka. I woke up early (even though waking up early was not my thing) to see that moustached guy."

Asuka says that she finds it hard to pick a favourite system; while she admits that each console has its pros and cons, her love for gaming is indiscriminate.

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WWE NXT Women's Champion (and hardcore game collector), Asuka.

"For example, Xbox and Xbox 360 are great systems," she explains, "but I cannot agree with their digital D-pad. That said, do you think my love for Xbox would be broken because of it? As a cowboy does rodeo, I can do rodeo with my thumb full of love on D-pad, and things are fine. Also, the noises that come out of the Dreamcast's drive are often very disturbing. Again, would that break my love? I have things called earplugs and can pretend like I hear nothing with love. So there is no hardware war for me."

Like Metal Jesus, Kaitila and Hancock, Asuka currently has so many games that she doesn't have time to get through them all, but still refers to her games as her 'loved ones'. She occasionally has to put some of her games in storage, but believes they will always be there waiting for her as long as she owns them. She says that reaction to her collection is generally positive.

"Probably 70 percent of people think positively such as 'Great!', or 'I love it!', while 30 percent think negatively such as 'I don't understand', or 'I don't like it'," she explains. "From my past experiences, everything falls to 70 percent and 30 percent. I know the percentage of sea versus land on earth is 70 percent and 30 percent, so that number might be the magic of earth."

Though all four of these collectors have their own styles, a common thread among all featured here is a desire to recapture, or even seek closure, on fond childhood memories. Many of Metal Jesus' childhood Commodore 64 games were pirate copies, which he blames on a lack of access having grown up in a small town with no game stores and no internet; he says he now finds a real thrill in seeking out legitimate copies for the system that he couldn't get back then. Hancock, who has the largest collection of the four, collects for just about everything, but his love of classic Sega is of particular note, and his collection stands as a shrine to the publisher's golden era, with Hancock admitting that the "Sega of today needs to focus more attention on their diverse library of games other than Sonic". Kaitila's love of Nintendo stands out in a different way; since the company survives today as a console manufacturer, he can focus on a more modern collection, somewhat ironic given Nintendo's recent plays to nostalgia, while Asuka too has developed a lifelong passion for gaming due the influence of the Big N, birthing an infectious enthusiasm in the process.

It's more than mere compulsion that brings these individuals to become collectors. They're a dedicated bunch who, in their own ways, are helping keep the medium's history alive.

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