In 1991, Electronic Arts released a basketball game for the Mega Drive called Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs. Unremarkable, you might think. But, 26 years later, it's now on eBay and attracting bids above £8000.
Why? On the face of it, there's nothing particularly special about Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs. But when you dig into the detail, you discover there was something special about its release - or lack of, it turns out.
David Amor, co-founder of now defunct Brighton developer Relentless Software, put up the PAL version of Lakers versus Celtics on eBay, unaware it would soon set the retro video game collection community aflutter. With four days left of the auction, the listing has seen 40 bids, the latest of which is a whopping £8300.
Amor came across the game by accident, he tells Eurogamer. Amor worked at EA from 1994 to 2001 as a producer, and while there became friends with the then boss of EA Europe, Mark Lewis. EA in North America would send Lewis copies of every game the company released, but most would end up going straight into storage in his house in Heathrow.
When Amor's old EA boss came to sell his house, he popped over to help him move. "He said, 'I've got these games.' " Amor recalls. "I had to hack down these vines like an adventure game in order to get to the store of these games that were in tubs."
To save the trove from the skip, Amor crammed as many of the tubs into the back of his car as he could. He promised to help his old boss eBay them, and would give him a cut of the money.
Amor had hundreds of old EA games on his hands; old 3DO games, old Amiga games, old Apple-II games, most of which hadn't been opened. The eBay work began. Amor says some of the games would go for north of 100 quid, with the Sierra games fetching the highest prices. But there were a lot of games to work through and it was taking a lot of time and energy to sell them. So, Amor cut a deal with his son: help him with the auctions and he would use the money raised to buy a Nintendo Switch with Super Mario Odyssey. It didn't take long to exceed the amount required. "Significantly," Amor says.
Eventually, Amor got to the Mega Drive games. There were 120 of them. He put them all on eBay as a job lot, so he didn't have to go through the rigmarole of selling each game individually. But he listed the games included in the box, so if someone was after a specific game they could ask for it. Soon after, the "buy it now" offers arrived.
"I had quite a lot of people showing immediate interest, and people saying, 'look, I'll just take the lot off your hands for £900 now.' " Amor says. "I thought, oh, that's quite a lot. Another guy said, 'can I give you a call about this?' I said, 'yeah.' He said, 'I'm not really interested in the others, but I'm a big basketball fan and I noticed you had a couple there. I'm in Bournemouth, I might just drive over and help you out with those and give you some cash, yeah?' I was starting to get suspicious. Somebody else said, 'can you take a photo of a couple of the basketball games?' I figured, there seems to be a lot of interest in this one basketball game, which is when I Googled it and found out it's a super rare game."
Amor's quickfire Google research, which led him to a thread on RetroCollect.com, revealed he had what looked like one of just 13 copies of the PAL version of Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs ever to leave EA - and in mint condition.
This PAL version, it turns out, was never officially released (although it got close - close enough for it to be reviewed in UK video game magazines). Interestingly, the cart on its own is as common as any other EA Mega Drive release, because it's exactly the same as the common North American version. It is the PAL packaging that's extremely rare and coveted by collectors.
"I put it on separately, and pretty quickly the bids started going crazy," Amor says.
So, we know why Lakers versus Celtics and the NBA Playoffs is considered a rare game, but the real mystery is why EA failed to release it in Europe. Clearly, the game was prepped for launch here, but for some reason didn't make the leap onto shop shelves.
On a mission to unearth the truth about the game, Amor tapped up his old EA pals to try to find out more about the game.
"There are magazine articles of the time mentioning that EA had European licensing issues around Celtics vs Lakers, which is not a huge surprise," Amor says.
"Getting worldwide rights for teams and player likenesses was always hard. For example, the first NHL Hockey was simply EA Hockey in Europe. It seems the game was due to become EA Basketball to avoid the legal issues, but eventually enough time had passed that they held out for Bulls vs Lakers, which was the following year's basketball game. Persuading a development team in another continent to stop what they're doing to go back and modify a game that they'd finished wouldn't have been easy."
So, how come there are copies in the wild? The answer may lie in a document the marketing manager at the time of the game's release unearthed. This document, below, is a spreadsheet EA called Life To Date. It kept a running total of game sales, and according to this sheet, 192 Lakers vs Celtics games were sold.
But how, if it never saw release? We may never know the answer.
"Since the license wasn't approved, you can rule out rentals," Amor says. "Since there were plenty of US versions, you can rule out review copies. Since they're listed on the spreadsheet, you can rule out leaked copies. OEM copies were usually those bundled with a console, but no one can remember that happening.
"So yes, 192 copies of Lakers vs Celtics officially left EA and since then 13 are known to have surfaced. How and why they made it out when EA didn't have the rights I don't know. I quite like leaving that very last detail a mystery."
His curiosity satisfied, Amor is now faced with the prospect of selling an ultra rare Mega Drive game for thousands of pounds. But as all eBay sellers know, sometimes bids are too good to be true.
"I was twitchy about that," he admits. "There's one guy there who might not check out, but everybody else there - and it's maybe half a dozen people - they all have feedback in the thousands. And they're different people."
And if the auction ends successfully, Amor will have to think about how he'll make the trade.
"Other people have said to me, well, how are you going to hand it over? Do you want some kind of security? I was like, I've no idea! I've bought cars for cash in the past, but this is a bit different!"
Whatever happens, retro video game enthusiasts finally know more about an obscure basketball Mega Drive game. Oh, and David Amor's son is definitely getting a Nintendo Switch.