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ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — The cartridges sit in neat rows, perfectly spaced to fill every inch of three wooden shelving units. Each one represents hours, days, sometimes weeks of someone’s childhood; a wall of history stretching back to 1985, acquired and preserved through discipline and diligence.
All told, the shelves in a modest home in a quiet neighborhood in south St. Louis contain 739 Nintendo Entertainment System games, alphabetized and stacked floor to ceiling. It’s like art, and if not for Trevor Pawlak’s easy smile and enthusiasm, you wouldn’t dare think to touch them.
“It’s your pride and joy. A collection that’s very personal in a lot of ways,” he said. “There’s a lot of games on that shelf where you think, ‘Oh man, I can remember beating that or I beat that one this many times.’ I guess it’s like what anyone would collect. They just love it.”
Pawlak is 35, wearing a T-shirt with an original NES controller printed big across the front and pajama pants patterned with a picture of Mario in mid-jump. Standing before his impressive horde of cartridges, his expression alternates between contentment and reverence. He spent more than a decade filling those shelves – time spent scouring flea markets, perusing video game stores and studying eBay listings.
Ask the average person – even the average video game enthusiast – how many officially licensed games Nintendo released in North America and you’d likely get a lot of blank faces. Pawlak doesn’t even have to think. He responds with clinical certainty “677. Those were the only ones I was really interested in.”
For a moment a bittersweet look crosses his face. With just a click of a mouse, his entire collection could disappear.
When Pawlak moved out of his parents’ house in his early 20s, he decided he wanted to start collecting. “I had a good job, making good money. I gotta have a fun hobby, something to show off in the house,” he said.
His parents bought his older brother a Nintendo when he was a kid, and he watched the older boys play for hours, learning through their failures and triumphs. Eventually he started playing himself – the first game he owned outright was Super Mario Brothers – and he never stopped. In fact, his love of gaming eventually translated into a Guinness World Record; for high score in the original Kid Icarus. So when he thought of what he wanted to collect, NES games seemed like a perfect fit.
“I’ve always used the comparison where music junkies say vinyl sounds different than MP3s. They can just tell by the fidelity of it. Video games, at least the old ones that played on tube TVs, it’s the same kind of way”
At the time, his collection was just a handful of games and none of them particularly rare. He had Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda and, of course, Contra. If you went to any random home in America and opened the boxes in the basement, you’d probably find at least one of those games.
But what about Dirty Harry: The War On Drugs? What about Heavy Barrel? Zombie Nation? How do you learn about those games, much less acquire them?
Pawlak started small, grabbing games from friends and family. Every time someone moved, or dove into spring cleaning, it could yield a fresh batch of treasures. Then, thanks to eBay, the collection grew faster.
“Back then, sellers would sell games for a penny but the shipping was like five, six bucks. So what you could do is buy 50-60 of these games for like a penny and bulk ship it together,” he said.
So added to his collection were Barbie, Top Gun and the Robocop series. Soon they’re joined by Trog!, Monopoly and Kung-Fu Heroes. Before he knew it, the list of what he had was longer than what he didn’t.
“But then it tapers off, things get a little more expensive, a little slower. You got more days where you’re like ‘I’m going to wait a month or two before I buy the next one.’”
As with any collectible, the more time passes since their creation, the fewer of them remain. Soon, completing a set requires great financial investment.
“The first game I balked at buying was Contra Force. At the time it was worth $60. I don’t know what it’s worth now.” Quick research reveals that today, copies are listed for sale at $159 as a loose cartridge, $3,000 if it remains unopened in the box.
But the prices quickly jumped from $60 to triple digits as Pawlak got closer to his goal. Listings for Flintstones 2: Surprise At Dinosaur Peak are currently at $1,000 for the loose copy. Little Samson, among the rarest NES games, is $1,500. If you have the box it’s $3,000 and if you want it brand new, well, you can’t afford it.
But soon those games took their place on the shelf next to Hook, Joust and the Addams Family. Only a connoisseur would know which ones were valuable and which were bargain bin denizens.
“I never imagined I’d find Stadium Events anywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody personally that’s ever even seen a copy of it.”
At the very top of the price chart, there’s Nintendo World Championships, Nintendo Campus Challenge and the great white whale, Stadium Events.
Pawlak had a copy of World Championships once. Today, a loose copy of the version he had can fetch upwards of $15,000.
“Copy number 310. It was the crown jewel of the collection for a long time,” he said with a heavy sigh. “But then it came down to the wire where you need more money and less stuff, and that was unfortunately what happened with that.”
He sold it for an undisclosed amount, a tough decision but a justifiable one. After all, at least he had it once.
Stadium Events is a different story. Even saying the name gives Pawlak a brief jolt of energy, his posture visibly straightening at its mention. Released in limited quantities (no one is exactly sure how many copies exist, but some collectors believe it’s as low as 200) and in only a small region of the U.S., Stadium Events is the rarest and most-coveted NES game in the world.
It was originally made by Bandai, and when Nintendo released the Power Pad, the company bought and rebranded the game to World Class Track Meet. Since then, original copies of Stadium Events have been closely-guarded.
“I never imagined I’d find Stadium Events anywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody personally that’s ever even seen a copy of it,” Pawlak said.
ESPN covered a story in which a woman in North Carolina found a copy at a thrift store for $8. She knew what it was and the clerk did not, and she eventually sold the game for $25,000. There’s another one the internet loves to tell, about a woman who bought a copy from the bargain bin of a New York thrift store for her son.
Pawlak knew better than to hope for such luck, especially now.
“I never have hope that I’ll find that one because the way that it’s covered now, pretty much everyone would know what they have,” he said.
Even with that hole, Pawlak’s collection is breathtaking. When he speaks about the games, their history and his passion for the art of creating them, it’s easy to forget why we’re here.
All those cartridges, so meticulously cataloged and lovingly cared for could be gone any day now. He’s selling them. All 739 games (he has several duplicates), all at once, for one money, as auctioneers say.
“I’ve always used the comparison where music junkies say vinyl sounds different than MP3s. They can just tell by the fidelity of it. Video games, at least the old ones that played on tube TVs, it’s the same kind of way,” Pawlak said. “On tube TVs, it’s the phosphorus that kind of bleeds out and it has that kind of authentic look to it … there’s just always that feeling to it. Crowded around a big tube TV in your friend’s basement just playing games like that. There was that sense of legitimacy to it.”
Video games, especially console games, were the connective tissue of friendships. They were shared puzzles, wondrous escapes and battlegrounds upon which supremacy was decided. To play them together, everyone had to be in the same room, share the same pizza and dodge controllers thrown in frustration.
“I’ve been going on and off about selling for years. Every time I look in there. I mean, it’s just stuff, it’s just plastic. But it’s hard to even say that, that it’s just stuff,” he said.
They represent an insular world, disconnected from reality but nearly infinitely expansive and immersive.
“My best friends growing up, we talked about video games, played video games, we’d go to Blockbuster. Even the video game rental stores before Blockbuster. We’d go rent a video game, spend a weekend trying to beat it,” Pawlak said. “No idea what we’re doing, no internet to try to figure out what to do next, it really tested your patience and your thinking back then. There was no ‘I’m stuck, let’s just Google it.’ No, you don’t do that. You gotta play the game, kid.”
As life moved forward and the industry advanced, those experiences became less and less frequent. Now, online multiplayer games connect players to hundreds of thousands of their peers, but they’re in their living room alone.
Perhaps that’s why it took Pawlak so long to come to grips with selling his collection. It’s a thread, stretching back through time to the halcyon days of gaming at its most pure. The tube TVs are long gone, friends move away or can no longer gather in the basement, but each time he passes that room with the shelves, the memories are fresh.
“Even when I was putting the eBay listing together, I would get halfway through the description and go, ‘Let’s wait a second.’ I’d step away, step outside and say ‘Let’s think about this.’ I’d save the draft and come back the next day,” he said. “When I started unboxing the boxed games and unboxing the consoles and looking inside, actually taking it out and looking at it again, it was like ‘Oh my God, this is so cool. What am I doing?’”
But he eventually finished the listing: $25,000 for his 739 games. At that price he could part with it, and be sure whoever it passed to would care about it as much as he did.
It’s been listed for nine days, and he’s still unsure about how he feels.
“Every once in awhile I sort of look at my phone and go, ‘I sort of hope no one bought this yet.’ It’s hard to part with something you’ve really loved for a long time,” he said.
But nostalgia doesn’t spend. Eventually the needs of life trump the wants of love. Everyone could use more money and less stuff, even if that stuff is something as unique as a complete (or as near as possible) NES catalog.
“It’s never been useful in terms other than it’s just a bunch of plastic and a collection I love having.” For a moment he’s far away, the connection to the basement and the blurry, glowing images on the old tube TV severed.
“If it all sells and I feel really bad about it, I can just start over again,” he said, almost as a reminder. “That’s one slightly redeeming factor. I can get it all back. Worse comes to worse I can just start over and ride the ride again.”