In the early 90s, Nintendo had taken center stage. The NES had emerged from Japan four years prior and stormed the western world. Mario and Link were gunning for Mickey Mouse’s spot at the top of the American canon, as millions of elementary-aged kids fell in love with a line of home consoles that absolutely obliterated what was possible on an Intellivision or an Atari 2600. The only question left was what the company had up its sleeves for their second act. Or, in other words, how could the company further consolidate its momentum?
The answer was one of the first ever official competitive gaming tournaments, enacted long before the esports industry was formalized into the global culture. In 1990, Nintendo toured 29 American cities in order to determine who, exactly, were the most talented gamers in the country. The challenge was simple: Within a strict time limit, players needed to collect 50 coins in the first Super Mario Bros. game, finish a race in Rad Racer, and score as many points as possible in Tetris.
Do that, and you’ll earn an invitation to the World Finals at Universal Studios, Hollywood. The brackets were divided up by age groups, (11 and under, 12 to 17, and 18 and older,) and the 90 finalists marked their achievements with a gift from Nintendo — a grey cartridge emblazoned with the World Championships logo, the same one they competed on during the tourney. Like the events at the tournament, each of the three games included on the cartridge were guarded by a strict time limit, which didn’t make it all that useful around the house. But it was still, undoubtedly, one of a kind.
Those that received the cartridges could’ve never predicted the historical significance they were inheriting. By their intrinsically limited nature, the World Championships cartridges happened to be the rarest artifact from the early Nintendo archive. So rare, in fact, that the cartridge has frequently been referred to as the “holy grail” among video game collectors. “They seem to double in value every year,” said Josh Hamblin, a video game collecting expert, when we interviewed him earlier this year about the significance of the World Championships games. “Its significance is more historical than anything. There was a movie loosely based around the World Championships, and NES collectors have been chasing after them forever.”
It might seem strange to the average investor that a random, non-market Nintendo cartridge, produced specifically for a fondly remembered, but still very niche amateur competition, could still rule the roost in the gaming collecting space. After all, Nintendo is responsible for some of the most beloved mascots of all time. Shouldn’t Mario, or Zelda, or hell, Donkey Kong be at the top of the pile? Broadly, that instinct is correct; an ultra-rare Super Mario Bros. cartridge recently sold for $660,000. But a lot of the value found in the World Championships comes down to basic supply and demand. We know that 90 of the grey cartridges were handed out to those tournament challengers, and we know that an additional 26 gold copies were sent to a lucky few Nintendo Power magazine readers, but that’s it. Nobody is sure of the exact number of cartridges made, and when you’re dealing with an extremely scarce property, that drives up prices in a hurry.
The other appeal is more metaphysical in nature. Nintendo remains the most popular collecting field in video games. No company – not Microsoft, or Sega, or Sony – can hold a candle to the cultural legacy that the Nintendo Entertainment System accrued. There is a Disney-ish element in the publisher’s DNA that simply can’t be replicated by other development houses. Halo and Final Fantasy will always be popular, but they’ll never be Mario. Additionally, Nintendo intersected with millennials in their first few years of conscious life, and now that generation is old enough to invest back into their memories.
The 1990 World Championships, in particular, was one of the few truly unified celebrations of video games. One year before the tournament, Nintendo licensed its lineup for a feature film called The Wizard. In it, a very young Fred Savage discovers an indelible talent for Super Mario Bros. and hitchhikes across the country to compete for the top prize at an event called “Video Armageddon,” (an obvious stand-in for the championships that would swipe the nation one year later.) That film was downright aspirational for an entire generation of gamers that were told by parents and teachers that all of the time they were spending in front of the Nintendo was wasted. Here, a grade-schooler was achieving national fame for being really good at games. Once the tournament rolled around, that dream could become a reality. Everyone felt the excitement, especially those who were in the bracket.
“This was certainly a period of my life where the childhood dreams just kept coming true,” said Thor Aackerlund, one of the winners of the Nintendo World Championships, in an interview with Nintendo Life in 2015, recalling the road trips and nervous tournament evenings that eventually netted him his own grey cartridge. Who wouldn’t want to live that reality?
It’s easy to take all this for granted now. Gaming is big business. Esports titles like League of Legends and Counter-Strike ink massive brand deals with titans like Verizon or Honda to keep their professional players well compensated. Some of the most famous people in the world – at least among the Gen Z contingency – are Twitch and YouTube personalities like PewDiePie and Ninja. Kids would rather watch their favorite streamer chop through a million blocks on Minecraft than tune into Monday Night Football, (and the rating czars have the numbers to prove it.) But that wasn’t the case, back in the early 90s. The beautiful, mainstream gaming culture that we’ve all collectively created was once limited to a room full of kids at Universal Studios, trying to grab as many Mario coins as possible. Perhaps that’s what the World Championships cartridge emblematizes above all – just how far we’ve come.