I want to tell you something about gaming below the radar. I want to speak about an entire subculture that is so awe-inspiring it causes you to re-evaluate the concept of gaming.
Normal retail methods can make you feel limited by the videogame items displayed. Anyone can buy a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga, Metal Slug AES, Ginga Fukei Densetsu or even the entire Fujitsu Marty collection. Throw enough money at eBay, and a myriad of apparently rare gaming items are yours. But these things are not unusual. It takes intense passion and hard work to get hold of truly obscure goods. There is a secret underground community of high-profile collectors who deal strictly in these most limited of oddities.
Oftentimes, such groups run the risk of the law, yet still dedicate their lives to the acquisition and recording of things. In trying to uncover this secret realm, I was graciously granted access to some of the more high profilemembers, including the head of one such community. A renowned American gentleman who wishes to be known only as ASSEMbler, he tells us a little of himself and also the nature of such undocumented people, "Truth be told, I own large amounts of items, code, and tools that have never been released, are sometimes of legendary status, or are of singular extant. I also own the names and intellectual assets of several defunct studios. I own the masters and even the rights to some unreleased games. However they were not free, they were not easy goals to attain or items to acquire. It's not easy to track people down and coax them to sell items, to create a company to buy things, to take out loans and risk your financial future to acquire things. I've been sued, threatened and watched for what I do. Why do you think no one has ever seen a picture of me? And now, being part of the industry, working for a games company, it makes it even more complex. I judge [a collector's status] by the amount of non retailitems owned. If you have dev units, prototypes of consoles and games, or unreleased hardware. Those take effort to get, everything else is just throwing money at eBay."
Unsurprisingly, all of those I spoke to wished to remain anonymous throughout this article.
Why go to such great lengths? Because it's forbidden fruit. Items that gamers shouldn't have, they inevitably want. It's cloak and dagger, certainly far more exciting than stepping into Wal-Mart, and in a way, replicating the role of Indiana Jones discovering that Holy Grail.
The entire videogame community is like a microcosm of society, with those at the top and the bottom, and also those hidden from view who control events. Let's take a look at the big game these prestigious hunters track.
Desired hardware takes many guises, with unreleased prototypes, development and debug equipment, weird hack-jobs, and even commercially-released-but-poorly- marketed-failures all being focused on.
At the lowest end of the commercial spectrum, console bootlegs from places as far flung as central China and Brazil will pique people's interest. Many are Famicom clones, but go further afield and you'll find all manner of obscurities. How many varieties are there? As many as there are industrialized towns north of the Baltic. Yet people are determined to collect and document them all. For the cream of the commercial crop, your everyday 64DD, Bandai Pippin, and Marty systems will be vying for collectors' money. Released mainly in Japan with a limited audience and small selection of games, these are prized products for displaying.
For something with a little more flavor, check out Nintendo's top secret line of development equipment. Ever heard about the dark pink cartridge based Gamecubes that exist, the fabled NPDP systems? Some even come emblazoned with Nintendo Dolphin logos. For tastes a little more vanilla, seek the green boxed NR Reader machines. Great for playing prototype games six months before they hit the streets. You can be sure Nintendo doesn't want you knowing this. Their court actions prove the point. But like moths to the flame, I can't help butbe fascinated by what I'm not supposed to see, especially when I know the four figure prices. But not all dev equipment is valuable. Dev Jaguars can be bought for little more than retail models, it's the 4Mb Alpine II programming cards that push the value over $1,000 a piece.