The Madness Of Nintendo Collectors: Will Sell PS3, Wood To Fund Habits

'I guess at one point I just thought it would be cool to own them all,' one victim says.

Nick Morgan bought a PS3 the day it came out. He paid for it with a single 18-year-old Nintendo game cartridge. He then sold that PS3 on eBay for several thousand dollars.

For what? He wants to spend the money on more old Nintendo cartridges.

Nick Morgan loves the Nintendo Entertainment System, the dominant video-game machine of the early 1990s. He’s 19 now, which puts him on the young side of a generation whose appetite for games was triggered by the sight of a two-toned gray box and the boing of Super Mario’s hop. And if others have since moved on — to Sega then PlayStation and maybe back to Nintendo with a Wii — well, Nick Morgan just can’t leave his old love behind.

He’s spent “easily” several thousand dollars over the last two years building a collection of more than 600 NES games. He once bought 312 in a single $700 catch. That rare game he recently used to buy the PS3, “Stadium Events,” cost him $750 all by itself. He sold it for $875. He’ll buy it again, because he wants all the NES games ever made. And the instruction manuals. And the boxes. “For the most part everybody thinks I’m crazy,” he said. “And that’s all I’ll hear from them about it.”

If Nick Morgan were unique, someone might make a movie about him, or a song or a scientific study. But he’s really just one of a tribe spread around the world for whom gaming was greatest when games were made in plastic rectangles and the word “Xbox” was nothing more than a typographical error. Some people want to write the great American novel or run a four-minute mile. These guys want to own every NES game ever made. (Click here to see the biggest NES fans and their collections. )

Here are some of the things they’ll do to get them.

Jason Smith, 25, of Knoxville, Tennessee, went on a selling spree. He sold his T-shirts, movies, CDs. There are stories of people who sell scrap to the junkyard to fund the most wretched of addictions. Jason Smith put a piece of wood struck by lightning on eBay to feed his habit. “I didn’t get too much for the wood, I think like 20 bucks or something,” he said. “It is amazing that you can sell anything on eBay.”

Smith has upward of 700 games in his NES collection and recently became a toast of the gaming blogosphere after posting pictures of the 8-foot wooden NES that he considered using as a bed before deciding it should become an entertainment system to support his 10 or so gaming systems. (Just wait until those blogs get hold of his plans to build an NES controller coffee table, and a chair in the shape of R.O.B. the NES robot.)

Nick Morgan began seriously trying to amass an NES library in the summer of 2005. “I would constantly buy and resell video games on eBay in order to make money,” he said. “I guess at one point I just thought it would be cool to own them all. And thus my quest began.” Jason Smith, who started in 2002, did the online-selling thing too. Like Morgan, he hits up flea markets and foots some of his bill with unglamorous labor: Morgan studies game design at Camden County College in New Jersey and works 25 hours a week as a telemarketer; Smith works for a company that sorts mail for the U.S. Postal Service.

But online, they are stars. Nick Morgan is more of an up-and-comer, but Smith, as his alter ego National Game Depot, might as well be a world-famous big-game hunter. Then again, that’s what he is: a game hunter. His personal site, nationalgamedepot.zoomshare.com, chronicles his greatest gets (and, naturally, plays the original “Zelda” theme song as it loads up). On sites like NESWorld.com and Nintendoage.com Morgan and Smith swap tales and strategies with the dozens more of their kind. Sometimes it gets competitive, of course. “We do get in bidding wars sometimes, that is unavoidable,” Smith said. “But many of us use this rule: If the game isn’t very rare and you see a fellow collector bidding on it, wait for the next auction. If it is a high-end rare, bidding against friends is commonplace.”

What exactly is a “high-end rare”? The highest-end, rarest NES game of them all is a cartridge even Smith doesn’t have. It’s a game cart made in limited supply for the 1990 Nintendo World Championships. Supposedly 100 gray ones exist; 26 more were painted in gold. And that’s it. “A gold one just sold [last] week on eBay for over $7,000,” Smith said. “I don’t have that kind of cash laying around. I have told myself that I will probably never own one of those.”

Morgan’s written that holy grail off as well. “It’s not worth going into debt over,” he said. He’s more focused on finding boxes and manuals. He’s finished his cartridge-collecting already, actually, content with owning every game released through normal non-World-Championship channels. He thinks Smith’s collection puts his to shame, since Smith has a fuller set and more oddities.

Smith? He’s crossed into a sort of hallucinatory stage of collecting in which he dreams up NES cartridges that might exist and then tries to purchase them into existence. For example, his Web site lists his desire for a “Super Mario Bros.” cart with label printed upside down. “The game is not 100 percent confirmed to even exist, to be honest,” he said. But he hopes. “A few had to slip by Nintendo’s quality-control people!” Let he who is without delusion cast the first stone: Explorers who reached the New World centuries ago weren’t content with claiming the fertile land they stood on and went looking for cities of gold that just had to exist.

If one amasses the world’s greatest stamp collection, one doesn’t then mail a bunch of letters. Coins aren’t collected to be dropped into gumball machines. But if you’ve got all these games …

Two summers ago, Luke Armstrong, a Dublin, California, software engineer who is now 26, won a six-stage video-game tournament called the Omegathon. The event was overseen by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, the cartoonist duo whose “Penny Arcade” strip about games had generated enough excess cash for them to host a fan-friendly gaming festival called the Penny Arcade Expo — and, as Armstrong’s prize, a $10,000 lot from eBay of supposedly every NES game ever made.

Six large boxes with more than 750 games were sent to his house. Armstrong made a checklist. “Over that process I found that there were tons more games than I ever thought for the NES, and that half of them were cheesy, movie-licensed — or some such — pieces of crap.” He tried a few out, but more than a year later has only played 40 or 50. “I don’t even play all the new games that I buy, so there is no way I’m gonna be playing all those old games,” he said. They’re taking up space, and now he’s ready to sell the lot. And no, he does not have a Nintendo World Championship cart.

Smith said he has given every game in his motherlode 15 or 20 minutes of play time. Morgan has played all of his too. “I’ve beaten a good 100 or so,” he said. “I wish I had more time to waste playing them, but I’m always busy.”

Morgan is indeed busy. He’s busy in school. He’s busy collecting. And he’s busy finding a new buyer for his PS3. The winning bidder who claimed his system on launch day promised $4,800 but never paid up. “Currently I’m negotiating with somebody to sell it for a much lower price. If that doesn’t work out then I’ll eBay it. I am definitely going to get rid of it before Christmas.”

After all, who needs a PS3 when you’ve got an NES?