The most valuable games aren’t always the best games. On the secondary market, rarity determines a game’s price, not quality. That doesn’t mean that all collectible games are bad, of course. It just means that, for collectors, whether or not a game is fun is a secondary concern.
That’s why a game that costs $5,000 might be better than one that tops $10,000, $20,000, or $30,000. While we only ranked games that can be played via emulators (given how expensive these titles are, we obviously can’t review games that aren’t available online), and we skipped games that are only valuable because of a packaging variant, there’s still ample proof that, as far as games are concerned, money isn’t everything. A fun game is a fun game, no matter how much it costs — and bad ones can’t be saved, no matter how rare they might be.
Stadium Events (NES, $41,977)
Case in point: The most expensive game on this list — and, potentially, the most valuable video game of all time — is absolutely and undeniably the worst. As the story goes, Human Entertainment developed Stadium Events for Bandai’s Family Fun Fitness mat, a Nintendo accessory that promoted fitness by requiring players to run and jump in order to control the action on-screen. Neither Stadium Events nor the Family Fun Fitness add-on lasted for very long. After a few months, Nintendo bought both the game and the peripheral and re-released them as World Class Track Meet and the Power Pad, respectively.
As a result, the original Stadium Events cart is extremely hard to find, and one collector shelled out nearly $42,000 to secure a sealed copy. It’ll probably stay in its packaging, too. As a game, Stadium Events isn’t very fun. If you’ve played World Class Track Meet (which, unlike Stadium Events, is easy to find), you know that all you really do in the game is run in place. Rapidly stomping on the floor (and jumping, sometimes) propels your racer to victory. That’s as deep as it gets.
On an emulator, Stadium Events is even worse. Without the add-on mat, a Stadium Events race boils down to mashing two buttons on your keyboard or gamepad in succession. It requires no strategy, and very little hand-eye coordination. If you can press a button, you can master Stadium Events. There’s just nothing to it.
Gauntlet (Atari 2600, $5,000)
If you’re looking for wizards, warriors, and dungeons, move along. This isn’t the Gauntlet that you know and love. Released in 1983, this mail-order exclusive stars an Indiana Jones-like adventurer known as Sir Robert Wittenbottom, who must survive a deadly trial — or a "gauntlet," hence the name — in order to prove his manhood and join the Council of Warriors. Exactly why Wittenbottom wants to join the Council (not to mention what the council is, exactly), never gets explained.
It doesn’t matter. On its debut, Gauntlet could only be purchased directly from its distributor, Answer Software. Very few people took the company up on its offer. That makes Gauntlet very hard to find today, but customers in the ’80s dodged a bullet (or hatchet) by sitting this one out. These days, critics would call Gauntlet an infinite runner. Sir Wittenbottom stays on the bottom of the screen, and players move him left and right to dodge obstacles like trees, logs, flying hatchets, and stray arrows. Hit an obstacle, and Robert spills a little bit of water. Drain all three of Robert’s cups, and it’s game over.
Robert earns points by jumping over or sliding under obstacles. He can also earn points by giving water — and a small sliver of his life bar — to the thirsty old men he runs across. It’s not worth it. Gauntlet‘s randomly generated levels are boring. Your actions are wildly unpredictable, and you’ll often crash into obstacles even though the jumping or sliding animation is playing. Given that dodging objects is the main way you score points, the inaccuracy makes Gauntlet frustrating and unfair. It’s not worth your time, and it’s definitely not worth the estimated $5,000 price tag.
Air Raid (Atari 2600, $33,433)
There’s no better proof of Space Invaders’ influence on the video game industry than the Atari 2600’s library. While the console has plenty of classic games to its name, a number of its titles borrow heavily from Taito’s iconic shooter. Air Raid is one of them. While Air Raid’s origins remain mysterious, collectors agree it’s one of the rarest Atari games ever made. At the moment, there’s only one complete copy out there, and it last sold for $33,433.
The man who sold the near-mint version of Air Raid, Harv Bennett, had a copy because he ran a drug store that hawked Atari games, and secured a sample back in the ’80s from a salesman. Bennett tried Air Raid, but decided it wouldn’t sell and offered to return the cartridge to the sales representative. The rep let Bennet keep it. Apparently, no one else wanted to buy copies of Air Raid, either.
Once you play it, you’ll see why. Like Space Invaders, Air Raid puts the player’s ship on the bottom of the screen and the enemies on the top. As you play, foes travel toward the ground at varying speeds, and you’ll need to shoot them out of the air before they pummel the buildings below with bullets Unlike Space Invaders, the attackers descend quickly, and only three appear on screen at a time.
It’s not bad, exactly, but it is spectacularly boring. It doesn’t help that the hit detection on the enemy ships is way, way off. It’s one thing to lose a game because you made a mistake. It’s another to fail because your bullet flew right through the enemy ship, rendering a direct hit utterly and maddingly meaningless.
Red Sea Crossing (Atari 2600, $10,400)
Red Sea Crossing is a hard game to classify. It’s not really an action game, since you don’t fight, shoot, or do anything other than walk and jump. But it’s not a platformer, either: Crucially, there aren’t any platforms. As you play, you guide Moses from the left side of the screen to the right while dodging obstacles like seaweed, crabs, snakes, and underwater archers.
See, Red Sea Crossing isn’t really about the gameplay. It’s about teaching players Bible stories. According to an ad in Christianity Today, the only place where anyone’s ever seen the game up for sale, Red Sea Crossing shipped with an audio cassette and a coloring book that told Moses’ tale. On its own, however, Red Sea Crossing doesn’t have much to do with the Biblical yarn — there aren’t any giant clams that stop Moses’ progress in the original story, for example.
As a game, Red Sea Crossing is fine but dull. Moses handles well, and a variety of enemy types keep things lively. The presentation impresses, especially for an Atari 2600 game. Fish swim both above and below your hero, and the Sun creeps across the sky as you move from screen to screen. But Red Sea Crossing is very, very basic, and once you clear a few screens, you’ve seen most of what the game has to offer. It’s better as a collectible: the only known copy sold in 2012 for $10,400, a tidy sum for a game that doesn’t include a box or a manual (or, sadly, that coloring book).
Lochjaw (Atari 2600, $6000)
You can sum up Lochjaw in three words: Pac-Man with sharks. In Lochjaw, you control a yellow swimmer, cruise around a maze picking up dots (sorry, "diamonds"), and avoid the enemy that’s chasing you. If you’ve ever played Pac-Man, Namco’s game-changing arcade title—or even one of its spin-offs—you already know the score in Lochjaw.
But Lochjaw isn’t nearly as good as Pac-Man, of course. The swimmer often gets stuck on walls when trying to make a turn, there’s nothing like Pac-Man’s Power Pellets that let you turn the tables on your foe, and the entire exercise lacks Pac-Man’s charm, polish, and personality. But, really, Lochjaw’s biggest problem is the shark. Instead of following you around the maze like Pac-Man’s ghosts, trapping you if you make a wrong move, Lochjaw’s big bad simply appears on one side of the screen and travels in a straight line to the other, munching on anything that gets in his way. It’s easy to avoid (although the more points you get, the faster the shark swims), and is accompanied by a loud, pounding noise that might be a crude riff on Jaws’ iconic theme–although the sound is so primitive that it’s hard to tell.
That shark is also why Lochjaw is so hard to find. Allegedly, developer Apollo faced a lawsuit over the game’s name and premise, which resembled Jaws a little too closely for lawyers’ tastes. As a result, the game’s 1981 production run was cut short. Lochjaw was re-released in 1982 as Shark Attack, along with some "minor changes," which seemingly put the case to bed. Even so, some fans found copies of Lochjaw in stores as late as 1986. Hopefully, they picked up a cartridge or two—the game’s been priced at as much as $6,000 on the collector’s market.
Gamma Attack (Atari 2600, Unknown)
Gamma Attack might be the rarest video game ever released. How rare is it, exactly? One man, Anthony "Phantom" DeNardo, owns the only known copy. As such, its value is hard to pin down. In 2008, DeNardo listed the game on eBay for $500,000 but didn’t find any takers. He’s confirmed that interested collectors offered north of $10,000 for the game, but he hasn’t disclosed any exact figures. Racketboy, one of the leading authorities on collectible video games, estimates that Gamma Attack would sell today for somewhere between $20,000 and $50,000.
In any case, Gamma Attack remains the only game ever produced by peripheral manufacturer Gammation. That’s too bad because the company clearly had a knack for game design. In a market flooded with Space Invader clones, Gamma Attack slyly turns the tables and makes the player the alien invader, and the enemies the humans trying to fight them off. As you guide a flying saucer over the desert, you’ll zap oncoming tanks and dodge bullets in order to boost your score.
Gamma Attack takes a unique approach to measuring health, too. As you take damage, your saucer loses altitude, reducing the space you have to dodge incoming bullets. Eventually, you’ll end up grounded, your spaceship destroyed, your weapons gone, and your alien body exposed for one last, final shot — and all you can do is weave and dodge for as long as possible. It’s not amazing, but Gamma Attack presents a fun twist on a well-established formula and deserved a wider audience. Too bad it’ll never get one.
Nintendo PowerFest ’94 (SNES, $12,000)
Nintendo PowerFest ’94 isn’t actually its own game. It’s a combination of three different titles and was produced for the aptly named Nintendo PowerFest competition (held in, you guessed it, 1994). After the competition ended, all 32 of the cartridges were to be destroyed.
Two survived. One appeared on eBay a few years ago with a $50,000 starting bid, but didn’t sell. Another made its way from Montreal into the hands of a collector who paid $12,000 — in cash — for the pleasure of beating the first stage in Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, completing five laps in Super Mario Kart, and belting out as many home runs as possible in Ken Griffey Jr.’s Major League Baseball from his own living room.
Individually, those are all fine games, and for die-hard Nintendo addicts it’s interesting to play them in a new way. PowerFest ’94 only gives you six minutes to rack up a high score, and your goals are a little different than they normally are. Usually, you don’t pay much attention to points in The Lost Levels., but PowerFest ’94 uses your score in the final tally. Super Mario Kart section counts both your finishing position and the number of coins you’ve collected along the way, making item collection key. It’s different, and it’s fun.
Unfortunately, the final Ken Griffey Jr. section kills all the game’s momentum dead. Once you figure out the formula, hitting dingers is no problem. During an actual competition, that might be okay. From the comfort of your own home? It’s even more boring than the actual Home Run Derby — and that’s saying something.
Magical Chase (Turbo Grafx 16, $6,000)
If there’s a weirder game out there than Magical Chase, we haven’t played it. This game is odd. Mechanically, there’s nothing unusual about it. It’s a side-scrolling shoot ’em up like Gradius and R-Type. Pepper enemies with bullets, dodge obstacles, purchase upgrades that make you faster and your attacks stronger, and fight off a couple of bosses per level en route to victory.
Thematically, it’s a different story. Instead of a spaceship, Magical Chase’s main hero is a witch. Instead of fighting aliens, she shoots down all kinds of fantastic and bizarre creatures. The very first enemy that you encounter is a chicken head that runs around on human legs. Star-shaped monsters on surfboards and fat, panting blue ghosts chase you from level to level. A floating acorn chucks exploding peanuts at Magical Chase’s hero. On death, a killer teddy bear explodes into a bunch of tinier killer teddy bears. It’s nuts.
Half of the fun of Magical Chase comes from waiting to see what oddity the game is going to throw at you next, although under the well-rendered pixel art graphics rests a competent and breezy shooter. It’s fun, if slight, and it’s too bad that Magical Chase never found more of an audience. Thanks to its American release date–which came at the tail end of the TurboGrafx 16’s lifespan–and its limited availability (the only way to get Magical Chase was to mail order it), copies have always been hard to find. These days, it’s often considered the TurboGrafx 16’s "rarest game," and copies sell for around $6,000.
Nintendo World Championships (NES, $21,400)
Like PowerFest ’94, the Nintendo World Championships cartridge is the byproduct of a national video game competition. Unlike the PowerFest ’94 tournament, the inaugural Nintendo World Championships is still well-remembered by Nintendo fans today. Hot on the heels of The Wizard, a feature film that featured a Nintendo tournament as its climax, Nintendo took video game competitions from the silver screen to real life with the Nintendo World Championships, a contest that spanned 29 cities and wrapped up at Universal Studios in sunny southern California.
Regional Nintendo World Championships winners received one of the competition carts as a prize, while 26 gold-colored variants were handed out to Nintendo Power subscribers as part of a contest. So far, the biggest confirmed sale of a Nintendo World Championships cart comes in at $21,400. (Auctions have ended as high as $100,000, but those bidders haven’t followed through.)
Structurally, Nintendo World Championships follows the same formula as PowerFest ’94. Players get five minutes to collect 50 coins in Super Mario Bros. and complete a lap in Rad Racer, and then spend the remaining time collecting points in Tetris. So why is Nintendo World Championships more fun than PowerFest? It’s how the games are laid out. Rad Racer, with its largely straight track and limited obstacles, isn’t much more interesting than Ken Griffey Jr’.s Home Run Derby, but it doesn’t last nearly as long. Do things right, and you’ll spend more time with Super Mario Bros. and Tetris — two games that are great in any context.
Atlantis II (Atari 2600, $6000)
Atlantis II isn’t actually all that different from Atlantis the first. It moves faster — a lot faster — and rewards fewer points for successful kills. That’s it. And that makes sense: Atlantis II only shipped to players who maxed out their scores in the original game. It never got an official retail release. The cartridge even has the same label as the first Atlantis. The only way to tell if you’ve got one of the rare copies is by booting up the game and checking the title screen. (An extra sticker helped identify the sequel back in the day, but it peeled off easily and often got lost.)
That’s probably for the best, however, because Atlantis has everything you want in an older arcade-style shooter. You protect the city of Atlantis from airborne attackers for as long as you can using three guns — one on the left side of the screen, one in the center, and one on the right — that you switch between by tilting the Atari’s joystick. Pressing the joystick’s button fires a bullet from the active gun.
Meanwhile, the attacking aircraft descend toward the city each time they pass, ultimately unleashing a deadly laser that destroys part of the city when their altitude drops enough. You should get rid of them before that happens. It’s simple but fun and looks great, even on the 2600’s old hardware. Atlantis II‘s increased difficulty isn’t worth the $6,000 asking price when you can pick up Atlantis for a couple bucks, but if this is the version of the game you’ve got, you’ll have a great time with it. Just please insure the cartridge first.