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The Maddening Search for the Holy Grail of Video Game Collectibles

by Michael Barnes (09/25/12).

One of the only two examples of Red Sea Crossing for the Atari 2600 recently sold for $13,000. Does it play like Frogger?

In an age where the potentially infinite reproduction of electronic media all but makes the concept of rarity obsolete in the video game collecting world, there are still instances where the games and consoles of yesteryear retain and increase in value over the years.

As I’ve written in this space in past columns, most video games simply aren’t collectible or particularly valuable because they’re either far too plentiful on the market or they’re available in digital or alternative formats. With that said, when an especially scarce or even one-of-a-kind video game closes at auction, it tends to make news—usually because it’s either something that no one thought actually existed or because of an eye-popping hammer price. Usually, it’s both.

Two such auctions have closed recently, and in both cases the items in question fit into both categories. A rare Final Fantasy 2 cartridge for the original Nintendo Entertainment System was listed on eBay for $50,000, while an obscure Atari 2600 title called Red Sea Crossing sold for more than $13,000. Before you start rummaging through the attic or hitting the thrift stores, be aware that there is only one known copy of the former and two of the latter—and in both cases, each were assumed to be literally be non-existent.

Red Sea Crossing was published in 1983 by a tiny company called Steve Stack, Inc., named after the game’s designer, Steve Shustack. According to the tagline on the label, the company made “Inspirational Video Game Concepts.” In case you’ve not put one and one together, the game is about Moses parting the Red Sea for the Israelites. It may very well be the first example of a religious video game. Fewer than 100 were manufactured. It was apparently packaged with a coloring book and an “explanatory” audio cassette narrated by Dale Evans—that’s Mrs. Roy Rogers to you.

Prior to the surfacing of the two cartridges, it was thought the game may not have even existed. But there were ads, like this one, that appeared in inspirational publications to promote the Red Sea Crossing game.

At least 98 copies of the game have vanished without a trace. Fourth-hand Internet rumor is that the creator of the game lost track of where the unsold stock wound up over the years. For decades, the game was believed to be a hoax, despite print ads from Christian publications advertising the game for $34.95. But the 2012 price is $13,000, and shortly after that auction closed, another copy turned up at a Philadelphia antiques shop. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a third copy turn up sometime soon.

It may not be officially a religion, but for many gamers raised on SquareSoft’s Final Fantasy series, it may as well be. Faith in this long-running series of Japanese role-playing games has prompted a seller to look for at least one collector willing to plunk down big bucks for the privilege of being literally the only person in the world with an English language copy of Final Fantasy II for the original Nintendo Entertainment System.

The label of the purported Final Fantasy II demo cartridge, complete with hand-written details.

The game was originally released in Japan in 1988 and was intended to be released in a translated version in the U.S. following the success of the first Final Fantasy in 1990. According to the seller, the copy he listed on eBay with the $50,000 “Buy It Now” price was a preproduction sample made to demo at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in 1991. At that time, however, Nintendo was focusing on its then-new Super Nintendo console and plans to bring the game here were scrapped. Bootleg fan translations have circulated for years and the game has been re-released on other platforms, including IOS. But no known physical NES cartridge containing the game exists.

The auction received more than 100 bids and was removed without comment or explanation a few weeks ago. And of course, this—along with the undocumented nature of the game—raises some questions. It’s entirely possible that the seller found a buyer outside of eBay or took it down to avoid paying fees. Quite frankly, I suspect that the more likely reason is that the auction is either an outright hoax and that the cartridge pictured may as well be Duck Hunt, or it’s nothing more than an NES cartridge with a bootleg English Final Fantasy II ROM loaded onto it—and it’s effectively a forgery.

Me too… I also hope the Dragon’s wings can tolerate the power of the Tornado in the NES English version of Final Fantasy 2.

But the plot thickens. The seller was Frank Cifaldi, a video games writer that runs a website called Lost Levels specifically about unreleased video games. The site features an article about the game with an interview with the game’s translator. He verifies that there was an actual working prototype. The question becomes was that prototype actually transferred to the cartridge that was pictured in the auction listing (which features hand-written labels on the ROM chips reading “FF2 NES for CES V12.5”). But there are other questions. Was Cifaldi duped into buying a forgery when he acquired it in 2003? Is this the real deal? Did the someone actually buy the game for $50,000? What is something like this actually worth?

It all ends in a big shrug. But whether it’s fake or not, it does demonstrate that, along with Red Sea Crossing, the kinds of qualities that make for “Holy Grail” collector’s items in the video games world. The most valuable items are those that either had extremely limited or even no release at all, and the more obscure—and legendary—the better.

Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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One Response to “The Maddening Search for the Holy Grail of Video Game Collectibles”

  1. Shawn Surmick says:

    I thank you for your excellent analysis. As a video game collector, dealer, and enthusiast myself; it is very appreciated to read an article written by someone who understands the video game market. Most of tbese items are not worth a lot of money; and very few are even worth more than their original retail price. I get very upset when I read articles from idividuals outside the hobby who think that buying a collection of Atari games or a common NES system is going to make them ‘rich.’ The recent ‘rash’ of reality television shows on collectibles has caused a lot of people to think that video games are some sort of rare and valuable collectible. Most of these buyers who compete with me for product end up losing money, and those who do enter the business don’t seem to understand that you can download all the popular classic video games on any of the newer consoles, for as little as $5. This is starting to hurt the vintage video game market, thus causing a lot of prices on common items to drop. Still, very few rares do exist. That being said, the chances of finding any are extreme.y slim. This is especially true if you happen to lack any knowledge as to how the market works; or know what is valuable. Anyway, good article!

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