SEATTLE—In the decades since 1991’s Nintendo World Championship tournament, its unique prize for participants—a competition-class cartridge with timed versions of classic games , , and —has become a sought-after collector’s item. It’s among the few “holy grail” games for high-end NES collectors, with an apparent grand total of less than 200 in the world.
It represents a golden era when Nintendo could host a tournament that captivated a nation (and followed the two-hour commercial of a film that was ).
Hence, the discovery of Nintendo World Championship cartridge is a newsworthy event for a certain class of retro-gaming enthusiast. But this week’s discovery of a new copy, brokered by Seattle retro-gaming shop Pink Gorilla Games, might be the weirdest one yet.
“You wouldn’t believe this,” Pink Gorilla co-owner Cody Spencer told Ars Technica in his shop’s storage room on Wednesday, after a whirlwind 24 hours concluded with the game’s sale to a collector. “It’s like anybody’s dream come true, when they hear about rare and valuable video games.”
“Bored out of my mind”… but not for long
The seller, a man in his mid-30s, wasn’t recognized as a regular customer when he walked into the chain’s south-Seattle location on Tuesday with “a Safeway bag full of the most boring NES games you can imagine.” Spencer held up his phone to show me the rest of this seller’s haul, including common NES fare like , , and . (We’ve embedded this image, above.) A selection like this, without boxes or instruction manuals, isn’t what whets retro shops’ appetites.
“I’m going through these, bored out of my mind, and a little sick from the night before,” Spencer said. “At the bottom… that’s it. It’s the last one I pull out of the bag!”
The Nintendo World Championship label was clean and clear enough to make Spencer immediately assume it had been slapped onto a “reproduction” cartridge containing the game’s leaked ROM, which you can buy from hobbyists and other retro-gaming shops for roughly $75. (Pink Gorilla doesn’t stock repro carts.) After physically picking the cartridge up, however, Spencer changed his tune.
“Wait a minute. This is really heavy. What’s going on?”
In a recent YouTube video (embedded below), Pink Gorilla co-owner Kelsey Lewin explained how she had confirmed the authenticity of a previously discovered NWC cartridge. Professional sellers like her are about as good as you’re going to get, since Nintendo didn’t include certificates of authenticity with these prizes. Spencer had that wisdom in mind when he carefully unscrewed and examined this new find: “[I looked at] how old the chips are, how much they’ve been used… I do a lot of soldering, and you can tell when the solder joints have been worn out with time. This [cart] wasn’t made last year.”
Armed with this knowledge, Spencer approached the seller and asked, “Are you pranking me?” The seller replied that he honestly had no idea about the Nintendo World Championship about this cart’s specific origins. He explained that he was simply “a collector when nobody was collecting this stuff.” Attempts to connect his name to anyone involved with the original NWC came up short, and Spencer “couldn’t get any history out of him.” (Since the cartridge is gray, not golden, that means it’s likely sourced from the competition, not a Nintendo Power-affiliated raffle.)
Spencer and Lewin were immediately suspicious: “How can you know where you got this?” But they came to the conclusion that the seller may very well have picked the cartridge up at a random garage sale. (Perhaps a Seattle-area resident tossed it before the eBay era, Spencer concedes; he says “it’s not out of this world” in Seattle to stumble upon Goodwill rarities from nearby tech companies like Nintendo and Microsoft.)
“A sense of disbelief—you can’t even register excitement”
After doing his due diligence to confirm the seller’s identity, Spencer made an offer on par with other recent gray-cartridge sales: a $13,000 check on the spot. (This amount was decided upon after the pair reviewed other recent NWC cartridge sales… but not the fake bids.)
“I was surprised by his lack of surprise,” Spencer said about the offer. “He was certainly taken aback, but he wasn’t jumping up and down. But I get it—I got the same feeling when I found it. It’s a sense of disbelief. You can’t even register excitement.”
I admitted my own surprise: that the seller bit on PG’s offer, considering his brown paper sack was suddenly worth thousands of dollars via newfound information. Spencer nodded his head in agreement. “Right?” he said. “That’s what I thought. If I walked in and didn’t know what I had, then all of a sudden, it’s worth that much, I’d probably say, ‘OK, I’m gonna take this and research it.’ I think what led him to being comfortable with it was how up front I was about everything.”
Spencer paused for a beat. “Literally, we could’ve gotten that [cartridge] for, like, 20 bucks. Or a dollar! He had no idea at all.”
Shortly after the sale’s conclusion, Spencer asked a staffer to cover his shift so he could “go and hide the cartridge.” Meanwhile, Lewin announced the news via social media. It didn’t take long for emails, DMs, and phone calls to pour in. That deluge included one interested buyer from Florida who began “non-stop calling,” but the store elected to sell to a different collector. That party had been in Pink Gorilla only a day earlier to buy a slew of PC Engine games while visiting Seattle for a business trip. The NWC cart’s buyer is only in Seattle until Thursday of this week. (Talk about a lucky coincidence; Spencer said he preferred selling to “a more local guy” to make things “easier.”)
The quick sale—within 24 hours of stumbling upon the cartridge—came for the same reason that Spencer was eager to “hide” the game after acquiring it: out of fear for the game’s preservation. “It feels uncomfortable to hold onto something so small—that could be water damaged, fire damaged, or stolen—that’s worth so much,” Spencer said.
Pink Gorilla’s owners say they’re content to have sold the game for a profit (the buyer asked PG to not disclose the final price) and to be a part of retro-collecting history. Though the shop occasionally serves as a handler and go-between for rare-game sales, including two other NWC carts and two copies of , it mostly dabbles in affordable games and swag. And with the game shuffled so quickly from a seller to a buyer, Pink Gorilla’s hands are washed clean of the scrutiny typically applied to retro carts’ legitimacy and rarity. Retro gaming collectors will surely want to figure out how the heck this NWC cart went undiscovered for so long—and whether this offers hope for copies hiding in the wild. But at least those fans won’t be blowing up Pink Gorilla’s phones anytime soon.
“I was surprised by how many people were willing to throw that much money at a game,” Spencer said about the deluge of calls and interest. “I haven’t met that many super-wealthy collectors who can drop that much. That’s big.”