What to Get:
A buying guide for the discriminating collector

I have to admit that I'm not sure it's the best idea to be writing this. Like other hobbies, classic gaming has begun to see its share of speculators looking to make some money off of it. Whenever a cart like Tengen Tetris is sold on a newsgroup or EBay auction, a bunch of other people flock to sell their Tetren afterwards. This peaked sometime last year when someone successfully sold their Tetris for over $150. Nowadays it's possible to buy it off the net for $50.

So admittedly money isn't exactly a pressing issue here, but I think it's important to preserve the reason why I'm here anyway - because I love playing games, and I hope you feel excited enough about the NES to start playing it again.

Right now is the time to start collecting NES. The games have finally gotten to a point where it's cheap to buy them in bulk; the average price is down to $5 per game in most places, and Funcoland's final NES blowout prices are releasing more carts into the wild. As time goes on, more and more collectors will get interested in the system, and prices on most games will go down and down, probably reaching a low point of $1 or so by 2000. However, it's important to start collecting now because, to be honest, there really isn't any completely impossible to get NES game at the moment. Even the rarest of the rare like the Panesian semi-porn titles and pirate cartridges aren't as hard to find as, say, Atari 2600 games like Chase the Chuckwagon and Room of Doom.

I was about to say "rare" in that last sentence. "Rare" is a word that's bandied about pretty often in game collectors' meetings and "rarity lists". The trouble is, the word really can't apply to NES games yet since the system is still fairly common in the public's eye. The NES Rarity List used to go by a Common - Uncommon - Rare - Extremely Rare format, but now uses a A, B, C, D, F format to deter the use of the word "rare".

But even then, the listings in this and any rarity list should be taken with a grain of sale. Mike Etler, creator of the rarity list, gives Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters as "B+" - "Much rarer" than the generic "B" rating of rare. Galaxy 5000 from Activision ranks a A-, indicating that it "will require a lot of looking".

In this case, ratings like this are all relative. Although I think Etler's list is a great work and is useful to NES collectors everywhere, I believe that he occasionally errs on the side of rarity on some games. In particular, it seems like nearly every game released mid 1991 or later receives at least a B rating from him, and "Rare" is really not the best name for these games. If you find a video store or used games store, chances are they will have primarily the later releases (I got both TMNT Tournament Fighters and Galaxy 5000 complete from a closeout at a Blockbuster Video). The moral of the story is to not treat the list like the Bible; try to temper it with observations of the NES haunts at your hometown.

What if you collect for several game systems? I know many people who collected Atari 2600, Intellivision, and Colecovision all their lives, and are just beginning to see NES stuff at the thrifts and are wondering what they should "get". What they "should" be getting depends on what you value more: gameplay, or rarity. Although there are some very good, very hard to find games (most Codemasters titles come to mind) the majority of "rare" games are rare for a reason - they suck. Common games are common because they were popular, of course.

In terms of licensed games, then, there's really not much that's impossible to get. Some of the rarer licensed releases are Star Trek: The Next Generation, Sword Master, the Miracle hardware, the Namco releases of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, Stack-Up (especially complete), Cowboy Kid, and maybe The Jungle Book from Virgin. Some of the earlier "cult" titles like Stinger and Solomon's Key are a little harder to find than normal, but still far from impossible. Mike Etler swears that Kickle Cubicle is another hard one, but I think he's on drugs. (heheh)

When we turn to unlicensed games, things naturally get more interesting. Unlike licensed games, many of these carts were not made in massive quantities, and will probably come to be the most exciting finds from a purely collecting standpoint. Let's go over each unlicensed 3rd-party company and what to look out for:


  • Cart shape: Black with an angled end label. Tengen was a licensee with Nintendo for a very short time (basically, just long enough to find out how the NES' lockout worked so they could break it). Three licensed Tengen games were released and exist in both black and grey carts: Pac-Man, Gauntlet and RBI Baseball. The grey carts are slightly harder to find than the black versions, but not by much.
  • Definitely look out for: Tetris (of course). PacMania is probably actually a little rarer than Tetris, and is kind of fun to boot. Road Runner, Klax and Ms. Pac-Man are the next-hardest to find games.
  • Don't bother with:The RBI Baseball series. Rolling Thunder or Shinobi. After Burner.
  • The verdict: One or two fun games (Fantasy Zone is excellent), and there will always - always - be a demand for Tetris.

    Color Dreams/Wisdom Tree/Bunch Games

  • Cart Shape: Square, either robin's egg blue (Color Dreams, Bunch) or black (Wisdom Tree) cartridge. All the carts say "Manufactured by Color Dreams Inc." No end label, so be sure to actually look at each one. As an aside, Panesian carts are shaped roughly the same as a Wisdom Tree cart (how ironic), so pay attention!
  • Definitely look out for: All of the Bunch releases are pretty hard to find. There are no fun Color Dreams games (trust me on this), but some of the truly stinky ones like Menace Beach and Operation: Secret Storm are fun to play just because they're so horrible. Wisdom Tree are in general better coded and also a lot of fun because of their kooky religious slant. Bible Adventures exists in both blue and black cartridges.
  • Don't bother with: Any of the carts, at all, if you're interested in actually playing them. :)
  • The verdict: Fun only for the completist collector. And the masochist.


  • Cart Shape:Golden and glittery. Hard to miss. Later carts are a more metallic, silvery color. As a result of their golden finish, scratches and such are much more easily noticed on these carts, making it hard to find them in.. oh dear.. dare i say the evil word?.. oh well.. "mint" condition. Aladdin cartridges are about half the size of normal NES carts, trapezoidal in shape, and black.
  • Definitely look out for:Aladdin releases, as it turns out, are nowhere near as rare as I first thought they were. I don't think they all deserve A+ ratings on the rarity list, as a fair amount of them are finding their way on EBay and the hands of collectors. Still, it's worth scarfing as many of them up as you can before they do deserve their A+ rating. All Camerica games are excellently coded and a lot of fun to play. The harder ones to find include Stunt Kids, Quattro Arcade, Bee 52 and Big Nose Freaks Out. It remains to be confirmed whether Dizzy the Adventurer was ever released as a non-Aladdin cart.
  • Don't bother with: The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy and Quattro Sports. I've found a god damn ton of these. :)
  • The verdict: I've already got my complete Camerica collection; they're all must-haves for NES dudes imo.

    American Video Entertainment

  • Cart Shape: Black, with one of the corners squared off. Small end label.
  • Definitely look out for: AVE made a fair amount of crap to be sure, but they also released several surprisingly good games (Krazy Kreatures, Dudes with Attitude, Tiles of Fate. Wally Bear and the No Gang is worth finding due to its silly anti-drug theme. The rarest AVE titles are their card games Solitaire and Blackjack, but pretty much all AVE games are good finds. I find that AVE games' rarities are highly regional. In particular, when I went searching in New York I found tons of AVE and AGCI games. Meanwhile, I've found none here in the midwest. The ultimate AVE prize is Maxi-15, a limited-release 15-in-1 collection of most of AVE's games rolled into one cart.
  • Don't bother with: Venice Beach Volleyball. Just stay away. The game is evil. Impossible Mission II is stinky too.
  • The verdict: I like the company. Some don't; I think the place had spunk. Maxi 15, if you can find it, is a jewel of any NES collection.
    Other companies

    American Game Carts Inc (AGCI): Released 3 games: ShockWave, Chiller and Death Race. A division of ShareData. All three games aren't very hard to find, and all three games blow. Carts are light gray and smooth. I wouldn't bother.

    Active Enterprises: Action 52 is a blast to play through.. once. Then you realize how utterly horrible the games are and you put it on your shelf. Still worth it. Active Enterprises had the biggest dreams of any NES company, and I guess I have to respect them for that. Be sure to pick up Cheetahmen II now, because I can guarantee it will become impossible to find once the current supply runs out. I think Etler still has a few.

    SEI: Released Impossible Mission II in a very strange, heavy, grey cart that looks almost like a pirate. Worth going out of your way for just for the quirkiness..

    Caltron/Myriad: Both companies released the same 6-in-1 cart with different boxes and labels. The games are just ok, but both carts are good finds, with the Caltron one being slightly harder to get.

    Panesian: What can I say? They released 3 Hacker International porno games for the NES. If you find them, grab them immediately; they will be the top money NES items in times to come.

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