This gold-hued Nintendo World Championships cartridge is one of the most valuable videogames in existence.
One Friday afternoon in 2010, Pat Contri got the Facebook message of every videogame collector’s dreams. A friend who worked at the local game store started texting him cryptic photographs of something a customer had just traded in.He stared at the blurry, gray-and-green pictures. What at first looked like a row of shelves, he eventually realized, was a close-up of several exposed DIP switches. Just then, like a Tetris block dropping neatly into place, it clicked. Contri slammed his finger on the “Call” button.
“You better not be fucking with me,” he said the second his friend Ian picked up. On the other end of the line, Ian sounded like he was hyperventilating.
“It just … walked into the store,” Ian said.
Contri owned hundreds of Nintendo games, almost the full set, but what had “walked into the store” was something he’d never laid eyes on before: A Nintendo World Championships cartridge. Only a handful were known to exist, and they commanded upward of $5,000 each from collectors.
Now one of the incredibly rare cartridges — known to hard-core Nintendo collectors as the Holy Grail — had randomly shown up a mile away from Contri. “It’s almost like I was destined to have it,” he said.
The Golden Nintendo Game
Like baseball cards and comic books, videogame collecting is fast becoming a popular and expensive hobby. Collectors share (and sometimes hoard) information in online forums, print up price lists, and meet up to buy and sell vintage games at shows like the Portland Retro Gaming Expo. No matter how obscure the old game hardware, there’s a subgroup of collectors devoted to cataloging everything released for it.
The hottest area of collecting today is the classic Nintendo Entertainment System. Released in 1985, the 8-bit NES dominated the videogame landscape to an extent that no single game machine has since.
“Kids nowadays that have an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation don’t realize how large a part of everyone’s childhood [Nintendo] was,” says collector Contri. “It was all anyone knew about.”
Nintendo sold 34 million Nintendo Entertainment Systems in the United States alone and more than 200 million games. Most of those titles are worth a couple of bucks today, far less than their original $30 or $40 retail prices. But as more and more people get into the hobby and start building out their collections, prices on harder-to-find games have been skyrocketing.
Mint-condition copies of early educational game Donkey Kong Jr. Math have sold for north of $500. Complete editions of The Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak demand even more than that. These are not fun games. They’re just difficult to find, especially with their original boxes and instruction manuals. Examples of these games still in their original shrink-wrap packaging routinely fetch thousands of dollars.
And then there’s the Holy Grail.
Every serious collector knows about it. Many dream of finding one, but few have ever seen one in person.
It’s covered in shining gold — well, gold paint, actually — but to a Nintendo collector, it’s more rare and valuable than any precious metal. The Nintendo World Championships cartridges contain the unique three-game, six-minute triathlon challenge the company used to find the best Nintendo players in America during the summer of 1990.
‘That cartridge is infamous.’
“That cartridge is infamous,” says Nintendo collector Jason Wilson. “Everybody is aware of the 1990 World Championships. It may not be the rarest item out there … it’s just the most well-known.”
There are two versions of the cartridge: There are gray-colored ones that were given to the 90 finalists in the Nintendo World Championships, hard-won prizes for a grueling gaming competition that consumed the lives and thumbs of thousands of Nintendo maniacs one long summer in 1990. Many remain undiscovered.
And then there are the 26 gold cartridges awarded in a Nintendo Power magazine contest. These became the most valuable Nintendo games in existence, valued at somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 — and rising. Of the 26 gold cartridges Nintendo made, only 13 have been found.
Wired.com tracked down some of the Nintendo World Championships participants and serious videogame collectors whose lives have touched by these coveted artifacts of a bygone 8-bit era. Here are their stories.
Robin Mihara, at 13, celebrates with a soda after his big win in the Nintendo World Championships in 1990
The Tetris Masters
“If it’s a Nintendo game, one of the world’s best [players] lives right here in Portland,” intones the Oregon news anchor. Cut to Robin Mihara, a cherubic 13-year-old fresh off a third-place finish at the Nintendo World Championships.
“Hand-eye coordination. Finger speed,” Mihara says to the reporter as he sets another personal best record on the NES version of Tetris, stacking up perfect, unbroken rows of blocks. He pulls out his Christmas present, a Power Glove motion controller, speeding along in Rad Racer with flicks of his gray-gloved wrist. Robin is the Nintendo savant every kid wanted to be in 1990.
Mihara saw the Nintendo World Championships as his chance to test his skills against the best of the best. He didn’t know anybody in Portland as good as himself, and he’d all but stopped buying NES games altogether: He beat them so quickly it made more sense to rent them for a weekend instead.The Nintendo World Championships were just one part of PowerFest, a consumer show that let gamers immerse themselves in three full days of Nintendo bliss. Besides competing in the tournament, kids could be the first to try yet-to-be-released games like Final Fantasy and River City Ransom. Or they might meet and seek advice from the Nintendo Game Counselors, the team of mulleted experts that normally dished out gaming tips on the company’s lucrative 900-number phone service.
The festival toured 30 cities across the U.S. throughout 1990. Each regional event would crown one champion in each of three age groups. Each of these 90 winners would receive a few small prizes but most importantly an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood later that year to compete in the championships at Universal Studios. The prizes, besides world fame, included a $10,000 savings bond and a brand-new car, a Geo Metro.
When he arrived at the convention center, the scene blew Mihara away. “It was a huge expo center, bigger than a basketball stadium or something,” recalls Mihara, now a 34-year-old graduate student and married with children. “The regionals were massive, 15 huge trailer trucks…. There was a skateboard ramp, there were monitors and monitors of free play.”
For the millions of kids who loved Nintendo but would never be as good as Mihara, it was like they’d built a mecca right in Portland.
Mihara knew the games in the championship were Super Mario Bros., Rad Racer and Tetris, and he practiced them before the event. What he couldn’t have known was just how different the competition game would be.
The Nintendo World Championships used a pastiche of small snippets of the three games, and a strict, total time limit of 6 minutes, 21 seconds. First, the player had to collect 50 coins in Super Mario Bros.Next, he would tackle a specially designed course in Rad Racer. The player then used the balance of the allotted time to rack up as high a score as possible in Tetris.
The goal, strategically, was to blow through the first two levels to make it to the Tetris phase as quickly as possible.
“I heard of one guy setting up three Nintendos [at home] to try to practice all three games in a row,” Mihara says, “but you couldn’t really re-create it.” To make matters even more difficult, it cost $3 at the PowerFest every time you wanted to try your luck at the game. The top scorers at the event were the ones who traveled to multiple Nintendo World Championships and got in the most practice, trying out different tactics to max out their scores, he says.
He built his perfect, unbroken wall of bricks. All he needed was the four-bar.
Mihara easily did well enough in his first attempt to make it to the semifinal rounds, where he had one chance to score high enough to get into the finals. Along the way, he discovered that, no, he was not the best player in the world: Other kids in his age bracket played Tetris at superhuman speeds he couldn’t even comprehend. But he figured he could hang, maybe even squeak out a victory if the blocks went his way.
He was playing perfectly. He built his perfect, unbroken wall of bricks. All he needed was the four-bar — the vertical stack of blocks every Tetris player covets, the only one that lets you clear four lines at once. Mihara waited and waited, but the long piece never came. He built his perfect wall high, high, all the way up to the top of the screen, and got a Game Over. His eyes welled up with tears.
There was still a glimmer of hope. One of those kids with the crazy Tetris skills mentioned he was planning on following the PowerFest to its stop in Oakland, California, a few months later in October. That summer, when he wasn’t practicing Tetris, he was mowing lawns, saving every penny he could get his hands on. He and his mom caught the bus to Oakland, and with months of intense Tetris under his belt, Mihara dominated, routinely setting scores of almost 2 million points, blowing the competition away. He was going to Hollywood.
But first, he decided on an intelligence-gathering mission. Though he was already set for the finals, he took his meager $250 winnings from the Oakland regionals and invested it right back into his quest, flying to Tampa, Florida, to scope the competition at the last PowerFest regional before the big game.
There he made an unsettling discovery: 2 million points was chump change. The best players were closing in on a top score of 4 million. To do this, they were playing Super Mario Bros. in a way that nobody had thought of before. They would collect a cache of coins, then deliberately kill off Mario, then collect them again. Mihara studied them as they played, then returned home and furiously practiced the new Mario run.
When he arrived at Universal Studios on Dec. 7 for the grand finals, it was clear that those who had practiced the Mario-murdering routine held an advantage. Going to Tampa for reconnaissance had paid off.
But Mihara was no match for the unbelievable Tetris speed of another young competitor, Texan seventh-grader Thor Aackerlund. Mihara did his best in the finals, but ended up coming up heartbreakingly short. He’d scored 2.5 million, while Thor racked up 2.9 million to emerge as world champion. Thor claimed the savings bond, the Geo Metro convertible and other top prizes.
But there was something Mihara wanted almost as much as victory.
Before the PowerFest tour finished, Nintendo had launched its contest for the gold Nintendo World Championships cartridges in Nintendo Power magazine. But the company had not announced any plans to give cartridges to winners or finalists in the competition. Mihara says two of the parents of the top players, having driven their children around for months going to regional events, tried to convince a Nintendo representative to hand out the games to their kids, too.
“The word Thor used was, they ‘cornered’ [Nintendo's] Howard Philips and they brought up that they thought the kids should get them, because they kids had worked hard for these things and they were more deserving than some [magazine] contest winner,” he says. “Howard saw the truth in it.”
Later that day, Philips announced to the crowd of kids and families that every one of them would get one of the Nintendo World Championships cartridges to take home. The crowd let out a mighty roar.
“It was pretty crazy,” Mihara says. “A lot of these families, this had been their whole life that year. We were paying $3 a pop to play the game. I was dreaming of having one someday…. I just remember a roar of happiness louder than anything I’d ever heard. Parents hugging who didn’t know each other.”
A month later, Mihara got his Nintendo World Championships cartridge in the mail. He didn’t stop playing it until he’d broken 4 million points.
Years later, with professional gaming on the rise, Mihara revels in being one of the original e-sport athletes. “When I was 13, people older than me would roll their eyes when they heard I was a videogame champion,” he says. “It’s finally getting respect 20 years later.”
Jason Wilson’s Magnificent Seven
Jason Wilson, an editor at videogame magazine Tips & Tricks, collected Nintendo games way before it was cool. Nobody collected Nintendo games in 1998. Nintendo had discontinued the NES three years earlier, and was publishing new games for the system as late as 1994.
A coalition of classic gaming collectors wrote up rarity lists and price guides, distributing them through Usenet newsgroups, but they looked down on Nintendo. Atari was all they cared about. Newcomer Nintendo didn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the sainted Atari 2600.
But Wilson cared, and he foresaw a day when plenty of other people would, too. So he went to great lengths to build up his collection, buying out retailers, making friends with game developers he met on the job. He learned all about the rare and collectible Nintendo games and bought them up. Eventually, he started thinking about the Nintendo World Championships cartridges Nintendo had given away seven years prior.
Wilson figured that because Nintendo Power always printed, in some tiny corner on a back page, the names and home towns of every reader who’d won one of its giveaways, there must be a list in a back issue of everyone who owned a gold cartridge. Some of those people probably still lived in the same geographic areas.
The Tetris block fell into place. Click. Could it really be that easy?
No, it wasn’t easy — but it worked. Wilson started looking up the names on the list, and began finding the winners. At that point, buying the crazy old Nintendo games they’d won in a random contest when they were kids was the easy part. One sold his cartridge to Wilson for $50.
When it was all over, Wilson had not one, not two, but seven Holy Grails.
He later sold six of them to other collectors, but he remains extremely protective of his investments. Information is power in the cutthroat world of game collecting, and Wilson won’t tell other collectors which of the names on the list he was able to get the games from. He also keeps meticulous track of how much each of his original seven cartridges has sold for each time it has changed hands. The copy of Nintendo World Championships that made headlines when it sold for a record $17,500 was one of his seven, and Wilson can effortlessly reel off its history.
“He bought it from a guy in New York, who bought it from a guy who was in St. Louis, who bought it from a guy in Florida, and I sold it to the guy in Florida,” he says. “It went from me selling it to a guy for $6,500, and him needing money really bad and selling it for $2,700, and the $2,700 guy sold it for 15 grand, and 15 grand guy sold it for 17.5.”
The price keeps going up. One of Wilson’s seven games sold earlier this year to a collector for an undisclosed amount, which Wilson says to the best of his knowledge is a new record high. But we won’t know for sure just how much the Holy Grail is worth until someone puts another one up on eBay.
wo of the gray Nintendo World Championships cartridges that were given to finalists in the 1990 competition
It Just Walked Into the Store
Jason Wilson went out and found his grails, but sometimes the grail comes to you.
Pat Contri was a voracious player of Nintendo games as a kid, but sold off all his games as a teen. It happens to all of us: Sometimes our mom throws them out, sometimes they burn up in a house fire, sometimes we think we’ve outgrown them and sell them off for beer money. Either way, we always lose our favorite toys, and at some point we think about buying some of them back.
Stadium Events: The Rarest Retail GameContri didn’t outgrow gaming — he just thought he was happy playing shooters on his PC. But around 1998, with high-speed internet the new thing at college, he started reading up on all the rare and obscure Nintendo games he’d never known about and that other collectors were starting to lust after. In-store demonstration units. Religious games from a software maker called Wisdom Tree. At the same time, a piece of PC softwarewith the unfortunate if memorable name NESticle was released. It could perfectly emulate Nintendo software.
Nintendo World Championships cartridges were never released to the public, which makes them exceedingly difficult for collectors to get hold of. But one game that was sold in stores is just as hard to find.Stadium Events, produced by publisher Bandai in 1987, is an athletic game that uses the Power Pad floor mat accessory. In fact, you’ve probably played it: Nintendo licensed the game directly from Bandai, rechristened it World Class Track Meet and packed it in with millions of NES consoles. But the version called Stadium Events was quickly pulled from the market. A sealed copy sold for $22,800 in January 2011.
“That got the bug into me,” he says. “First I went to FuncoLand and bought an NES, then … started hitting the flea markets again.”
He also started using a new website called eBay. For $35, he won a rare variant of the game Gyromite on the online auction site. The game now sells for 10 times that much. By 2010, he had amassed almost every single NES game ever released. Then he got the fateful Facebook texts from Ian.
After their brief phone conversation, Contri dashed out the door. Minutes later, he was in the store holding a gray Nintendo World Championships cartridge in his hands. The two gamers were, in Contri’s words, squealing like little girls.
He’d never seen one before, but he’d read enough to know this was real. It was sequentially numbered, like all the gray cartridges. This one was number 205. It was heavy, thanks to the custom circuit board inside.
“I made it known then that I would be interested in the game,” Contri says. Ian had told his boss, who was now the legal owner of the cartridge, about the game and let him know that he had a buyer.
Ian’s boss spent two weeks researching the game, getting counteroffers, doing his homework. It was a “nerve-wracking” fortnight for Contri. He vowed never to speak to Ian again if he didn’t end up with the cartridge. In the end, he bought it from the store owner for an undisclosed sum.
Contri wasted no time bragging about his big score, writing multiple blog and web forum posts about the fateful day. That’s when a kind of Law of Accumulating Returns set in: One of the original 26 Nintendo Power contest winners — one that Jason Wilson had failed to track down in 1998 — read one of Contri’s articles, and wrote in for advice on how to sell his own golden cartridge.
“Turns out his mom still had his box of games,” Contri says. “I gave him advice, e-mailed back and forth for two weeks…. Finally, I said, ‘Why don’t I just make an offer myself?’”
Settling on a price, Contri soon found himself flying out to buy the game. Returning home to San Diego with his prize, Contri broke the news to the Nintendo-Age collector forums.
“Now there’s 13 of ‘em,” he wrote.
One grail fewer. One fewer golden ticket hidden in the Wonka bars. Collecting gray cartridges was starting to look more appealing.
Heather Martin, pictured in 2011 with her Nintendo World Championships trophy, nameplate and gray cartridge
The Big Crash
Heather Martin was 11 years old, and she felt like she’d just blown the biggest chance of her life. She’d come all the way to California on an all-expenses-paid trip to participated in the Nintendo World Championships, and now she’d have to trudge back to her little town in Texas with nothing to show for it.
That morning, a bundle of nerves in the Universal Studios hotel, she’d argued with her mother, who kept fussing with the girl’s clothes and trying to do her hair. Heather didn’t want any of that. She’d come to play videogames.
Now she’d crashed and burned, blowing her chance at $10,000 in prize money. As the dead-tired gamer got on the bus, a Nintendo World Championships staffer approached and handed something to Heather’s mom: one of the specially made Nintendo game cartridges used for the Hollywood finals that capped a yearlong, 30-city tour.
“You’ll want to hang on to this,” said the Nintendo rep to Heather’s mom, handing over the gray cartridge with its plain white label. “It’ll be a collector’s item someday.”
Not likely, she thought. But she hung onto it all the same.
Martin started gaming at an extremely young age. At 2 or 3 years old, she played arcade machines for free at a Texas bowling alley her grandparents owned. She liked Mario Bros. and pinball, but she excelled at Tetris. At the Oklahoma City regionals, Martin’s score was good enough to clinch the trip to California.
The Oklahoma City finals had unfolded on a “little stage, kind of in a warehouse,” she recalls. But Universal Studios was the big time. There were kid celebrities like a young Elijah Wood, whose most notable film role to that point was as one of the kids who says, “You have to use your hands?!” to Marty McFly in Back to the Future, Part II after he fired off a few shots in the Nintendo game Wild Gunman.
Heather Martin, at 11, waits to compete in the NWC finals in 1990. Photo courtesy Heather Martin
“All the stars there, that was exciting in itself,” Martin says. “All the lights, a huge production. I was very nervous…. When we were playing, they had that speaker guy who sounded like we were at an auction, he was just talking so fast…. There were cameras in our face, they were moving down the aisle…. I think that’s why I screwed up.”
Crash. With lights and cameras assaulting her 11-year-old senses, Martin skidded off the road in Rad Racer, crashing her car and costing her precious seconds. She didn’t have a chance after that.
After the Universal Studios event, some players ran back home and played their gray Nintendo World Championships game over and over. Martin never wanted to see the damned thing again.
“I don’t believe I even played that game when I got home,” she says. She put it away with her other Nintendo games. As the years went by, she stopped bringing up the Nintendo World Championships. “I guess I didn’t want to be the girl that was the geeky gamer, or something,” she says.
Eventually, her dad gave away the NES, but her mom, remembering the prescient words of the Nintendo staffer that handed it to her, saved the prize cartridge. This was out of character for her, Martin says: “She’s just not one of those hoarders.”
Almost two decades later, Martin, now Heather Ireland, got a call from her ex-husband. Do you still have that game, he asked, because one just sold for something like $20,000 on eBay.
Well, mine’s not gold, it’s gray, said Ireland, now a vice president at a home-loan company in Texas. She found her game and looked it up online, and saw that hers would fetch about $2,000 at that time. Not worth it, she thought. She put it back in the box with all the other stuff her mom had saved: her trophy from regionals, the nameplate that went above her monitor at Universal. But she kept tabs on the prices of gray cartridges, and saw them spiraling up.
“I talked to people who collected other things,” she said. “I had a lot of people say, ‘Well, you know, it might be like baseball cards, worth something one day and the next there’s no interest in it.’”
So she put it on eBay with a price of $10,000 or best offer. She got an overwhelming response.
“I kind of sat back for a minute and said, ‘I don’t know if I should sell it now,’” she says. “Because it kind of scared me.”
Forums like Nintendo-Age leapt on Ireland’s eBay listing immediately, trying to see if she was for real or a scammer running a fake auction, hoping to take someone’s money and run. Faking a picture of a gray Nintendo World Championships cartridge would be easy. To prove herself, Ireland registered an account at the gamer geek forum and posted a picture. In the picture was herself, the cartridge, her trophy and her nameplate.
It didn’t take very long before she sold the cartridge for $8,000. Ireland says she’ll use the money to take her family to Disney World next year.
Back in Portland, Mihara is working on a documentary about competitive Tetris players, co-starring his one-time nemesis Thor Aackerlund. Mihara never lost his urge to be the world’s best at the Russian game.
“My claim to fame is that I’m the greatest Tetris player in the world with two kids and a mean wife,” he says.
He eventually sold his Nintendo World Championships cartridge for $6,600, to a teenage pizza-delivery guy who saved up for six months.
Unlike Ireland, he spent much of that money on Nintendo games. He’s set out to put together a collection that, to the best of his knowledge, no one else has: Sealed copies of the “black box” games, the first 30 or so games that Nintendo published for NES, known for their signature package designs. As the very first games for the system, they possess an appeal akin to the first issues of popular comics, or rookie cards of popular baseball players.
‘There’s something about the appeal of sealed games. It’s almost like a sickness.’
“There’s something about the appeal of sealed games,” Mihara says. “Don’t ask — it’s almost like a sickness. If you’re ever, like, attracted to somebody you’re not supposed to be, and you can just feel how wrong it is, it’s kind of like that.”
While $20,000 for a videogame might not sound like much compared to the most valuable comics, consider that the owner of the best-condition copy of Action Comics No. 1, which contains the first appearance of Superman, paid what was then considered to be the absurd amount of $25,000 for the comic book in 1984. These days, it’s worth more than a million dollars.
Who knows? If videogame collecting continues to grow in popularity, the golden Nintendo World Championships cartridges might be selling at Sotheby’s for seven figures in 20 years.
Meanwhile, 13 of them remain in the wild, waiting to be found.
thanks to bmarlo for this signature