Last March, an auction for a lot of 24 NES games appeared on myebid.com. A man who lost his son in Iraq a few years earlier and was only just beginning to sort through his possessions placed the items. Before long, the bidding price jumped above $10,000, because the man had unwittingly stumbled onto a goldmine: a gold Nintendo World Championships 1990 cartridge. The auction topped out at $21,400, and it’s safe to say that the winning bidder wasn’t shelling out that kind of cash for copies of MTV’s Remote Control and The Hunt for Red October.

The Championships cartridge is rare piled upon rare. Only 116 were ever produced, and of that set only 26 were Zelda gold, manufactured for winners of a contest in Nintendo Power not long after the championships were held. The Championships carts are collection capstones; $21,000 seems a small price to pay for such an artifact.

The compulsion’s specifics vary from collector to collector, but like music, movies and literature, gaming has a definite hold on our hearts. As many who grew up gamer reach adulthood, it seems only natural that the first checks we sign are to recapture – and preserve – the good times from our youth. My own collection is mostly rooted in the deep-seated sentiment I attach to the games I own; I’ve got a copy of Chrono Trigger I intend to be buried with. This is typically where it starts, and while most collectors tend to stick with their own personal affections, the owners of the truly massive collections typically reason on a different level: pure acquisition.

For these collectors, if it’s not about filling in the holes in their U.S. Virtual Boy set or finding those elusive NES boxes and manuals, it’s about getting the most games at the lowest cost. These people are the reason your local pawnshop is a desert for rare games. The most telling mark of a collector’s oft-stomped grounds is usually the same selection at every non-specialty shop you visit: Barbie games and at least three copies of Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball. A decade ago these were the places where legendary finds were often discovered, but readily accessible information detailing the rarest titles and their aftermarket value (read: eBay) have warped them into places where gaming goes to die.

Auction sites like eBay and game-swap emporiums like Goozex have made collecting more affordable and accessible than ever. Meanwhile, online gaming communities have turned the hobby into a bizarre spectator sport, outfitted with rich database back-ends like Club IGN and GameSpot. Posting a gallery of a game room equipped with six arcade cabinets and a complete Neo Geo collection might just win you the brand of fame for which the internet is known: swift, intense and ultimately meaningless. But it’s fame nonetheless.

What’s strange about the collecting circuit is some collectors rarely even play the games they covet. “The backlog is the only major downside to collecting,” says Ryan Underwood, a programmer with over 1,100 games. “Between new games and the old stuff I hunt down, I don’t think I’ve played a single game, uninterrupted, since I was in grade school.” However, it’s just the opposite for others. Take Woody Ciskowski, who owns 220 Super Nintendo games, for example. “I never sell games and rarely rent them, just because I never know when I’ll want to play them again,” he says. “Sometimes I have cravings that only Rock ‘n Roll Racing can satisfy.”

Aside from the different motives to collect, collectors do share one thing in common: at least one heart-wrenching trade they wish they could take back. When I was 14, I sold my pristine copy of Shigesato Itoi‘s immortal EarthBound for $20, which I later spent on Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy. I often wonder which factor, the price or what I purchased with my cash, will send me to the deepest pits of hell when I die. My efforts to atone for this crime became the root of what has become the most expensive habit of my adult life.

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And now, almost every major release sports a collectors’ or limited edition of some sort; publishers seem to have caught onto the fact that a lot of us will pay for scarcity. Not content to simply release an aluminum tin variant of their upcoming blockbuster Halo 3, Bungie created three individual versions, all of which are expensive and certain to drive true completionists to Lovecraftian madness.

It’s a market we ourselves have created – a few $120 copies of Suikoden II here, some $90 copies of Rez there, and suddenly we’ve become the architects of our own financial crisis. That’s the burden of the collector. But if it comes down to a flawless first print of Valkyrie Profile or making rent for the month, well, the choice is obvious, isn’t it?

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