When Polygons Meet Pixels: Retro Games Enjoy Second Coming of Cool

Daniel Lefkowitz, a longtime customer at 8 Bit & Up, likes the Golden Eye and Conker’s Bad Fur Day Nintendo 64 games just fine. But he has a special love: Elmo.

“It just cheers me up after a hard day,” said Lefkowitz, 27. “I get to go home and turn on my N64 and there’s my little guy, laughing and jumping around. It just comforts me.”

Even in the age of high definition, blocky 1990s Nintendo 64 video games thrive in a shadow market at places like 8 Bit & Up in the East Village. Lefkowitz is among a growing group of buyers spending big bucks to revel in the games of the past.

“The retail of retro is really big right now,” said Tim Wolf, an employee at the St. Marks Place video game haven. “A lot of people are trading games right now. Everybody is going retro.”

On any given week, Wolf said, up to 50 customers will ask for the hottest games on the retro market: Nintendo 64 cartridges from circa 1996 to 1999. Games can run from $50 for a used “Conker’s Bad Fur Day” up to $500 for a mint-condition “007 Golden Eye.” The game system can sell for as much as $70, if it’s in good condition.

Experts say the retro trend has grown amid the development of graphics that seem to have a higher resolution than reality itself, beginning with the release of Play Station 2 in 2000 and the Xbox in 2001. So even with the Play Station 4 due to hit shelves later this year, some gamers are looking for a more old-school experience.

“The power of nostalgia does cross generations, in the same way that kids like classic rock that their grandparents listened to,” said Ed Chang, an adjunct professor at the University of Washington and organizer of a website looks at video games from an academic point of view.

Chang said some fans are trying to collect and digitize old video games to preserve them. Some schools have already started this process: The University of Michigan created an archive of new and old video games that students have access to, much like an online library.

“In my side of the world, there’s a lot of interest in preserving games,” said Chang said, noting that the American Art Smithsonian held a video game exhibition called, “The Art of Video Games” last year.

“There has been a lot of attention on this massive medium,” he added.

8 Bit & Up, which opened in 2010, doesn’t have much competition, other than another store in Manhattan and handful in the other boroughs. But Game Champ, a video game franchise, is starting to sell older games.

Most of 8 Bit & Up’s profits, at least for now, are generated by the retro market.

“We’re killing Xbox, PS3 and Wii because they’re all buying old games,” Wolf said.

“A lot of young kids are into these old games,” said Wolf, 26, noting that almost half the customers interested in old games weren’t even born when the items were released.

Michael Rodriguez is 18 and likes to hang out with his friends on Friday nights to participate in Super Smash Brothers tournaments. 8 Bit & Up often hosts these contests.

“I can’t play any of the new games,” Rodriguez said. “I believe that ingenuity in gameplay comes from a limitation” in technology.

Pete Kiplin, 20, is more drawn by the Sega Genesis, an old competitor of the Super Nintendo from the early 1990s. He came to 8 Bit & Up looking a console, some controllers and a few games.

“How many games are you lookin’ to buy?” Wolf asked Kiplin.

“Just like three or four for now,” he replied. “What do you think I should get?”

Wolf went through a list: There was Phantasy Star IV (It has a really cool story line and a cool RPG experience”) and there was Sonic the Hedgehog (“You have to have to have that one. It’s like the Super Mario of Genesis”) but you can’t forget about Mortal Kombat (“They don’t make fighting games like that anymore”).

All of these games belong to a company that has no modern manifestation. Unlike Super Nintendo, which went on to develop the Nintendo 64 and finally the Wii, Sega Genesis only lives in the 1990s, a platypus of the gaming world, too stubborn to evolve.

“Of course he wants to play the Genesis,” Wolf said, as he rummaged through plastic carton, in search of controllers for Kiplin. “They just don’t make challenging video games anymore. Today, the word ‘game is over’ doesn’t exist. Just have a bunch of checkpoints. I’ll be playing the Super Nintendo until I’m 90.”

Kiplin, who was looking forward to playing the old Sega Genesis system he just paid $40 for, said he was turned off by the new and sleek $250 Xbox360.

“I wanted something with more soul,” he said. “And then I started seeing how cool these [retro] games were. My friends were so fond of them and I wanted to feel that. I guess you could say I developed a nostalgia for something I didn’t have.”

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Eric Jankiewicz

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