Unearthing the gold standard of video-game collectibles

The Nintendo World Championships gold cartridge remains 'pinnacle of game collecting'

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When two video-game cartridges from the Nintendo World Championships were brought into the "Pawn Stars" shop, the popular reality show had never seen anything like them.

“These are the most coveted video games on the planet," the hopeful seller, Pat Contri, explained.

Knowing what he held, Contri was looking to sell the pair of games for $35,000. While no deal was ultimately reached, the "Pawn Stars" expert, Johnny Jimenez Jr. of Toy Shack, appraised the gray NWC cartridge as being worth between $5,000 and $8,000.

However, it was the gold NWC cartridge that was the real gem. Its estimated value was between $20,000 and $22,000, with Jimenez Jr. noting, “They rarely, rarely, rarely ever come up to market."

And while those amounts might seem like a high price to pay for any video game even today, that episode of "Pawn Stars" originally aired back in February 2013.

More than 11 years ago.

A 'holy grail' emerges

Video-game collecting is nothing new. Kids and adults alike have enjoyed both collecting and playing video games for nearly a half-century.

With this organic interest and history within the hobby, naturally, “grails” have emerged, and prices have exploded for some of the most sought-after pieces.

Much like vintage sports cards, where kids would toss a Mickey Mantle card into the spokes of their bike tire, video games were never meant to survive in “mint condition." Their whole purpose was to be played and used after all.

This naturally has made it incredibly difficult to find factory-sealed examples of games such as the original "Super Mario Bros," which famously had a $2 million sale in September 2021 for a graded WATA 9.8 A early production copy.

The world's most expensive video game ever sold (Credit: Rally)
The world's most expensive video game ever sold (Credit: Rally)

“In my opinion, [video-game collecting] hasn’t reached the masses," Rob Petrozzo, one of the founders of the collectible investment platform Rally, said after brokering the "Mario Bros" sale in 2021. "You’ll start to see a lot more people paying attention and doing research."

And certainly, people are paying attention in 2024.

But within the collecting hobby, one game always has stood out as the "holy grail." It was never sold to the public, it was never factory-sealed, and it never even came in a box.

This game, made specifically for an event back in 1990, is known as Nintendo World Championships.

'Kids cheering, crying, choking on stage'

Nintendo World Championships (NWC) was a nationwide video-game competition held across 29 U.S. cities in 1990.

There were 90 finalists chosen from local competitions and flown out to the world finals at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. The uniquely modded NWC cartridges containing "Super Mario Bros," "Rad Racer" and "Tetris" were used in both the regionals and finals to eventually crown the NWC winner.

“When the NWC arrived in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, I had barely played 'Tetris' and never played 'Rad Racer,' but I had to go," third-place finisher Robin Mihara said. "NES was a true addiction to me, and I was naturally pretty gifted at it.

"Six months later, I was a top player and chasing the tour looking for my regional title. ... The NWC was really a dream come true. Kids cheering, crying, choking on stage. ... Parents winning titles after catching the bug. I still have friendships 35 years later that I cherish.”

When the competition ended, three people were crowned champions of their respective age groups: Jeff Hansen for the under-11 age group, Thor Aackerlund for 12-17 and Robert Whiteman for 18-plus. The three winners decided to informally face off to crown a true champion, with Aackerlund taking the ultimate title.

All 90 finalists received one of the unique, individually numbered NWC gray cartridges as a memento of the tournament and their time competing. These serialized cartridges actually have numbers going as high as No. 350, but through years of dedicated research, longtime collector Joseph Leo has only been able to confirm that 92 NWC gray cartridges still exist today.

This Nintendo World Championships 1990 grey cart sold at Heritage for $180,000 in 2021 (Credit: Heritage)
This Nintendo World Championships 1990 grey cart sold at Heritage for $180,000 in 2021 (Credit: Heritage)

“During the early days of my collecting career, I always wanted a copy of my own, and I wanted to purchase an average copy at a fair or even discounted price," Leo said. "But given the limited nature of copies that physically existed, I had no idea what to expect out of an 'average' copy. I started gathering photos online, starting with Google search. ... Then I started combing through forums like NintendoAge and Digital Press.

"In hopes of better tracking their existence, I put out a public bounty for new photos [of NWC cartridges]: $20 for anyone who can find me a photo I don’t already have, and $200 for a photo of [an NWC cartridge] I have never seen. I still never managed to purchase my own copy yet, but I’m still mulling over the idea of buying it one day if the opportunity presents itself”

Natural attrition has ensured that even if 350 might have originally been produced, 350 copies will never surface. That, and 26 of them were purposely destroyed.

An NWC gray cartridge most recently auctioned for $84,000 and has historically sold as high as $180,000 back in July 2021.

Even more rare and elusive than the NWC gray cartridge, though, is the NWC gold cartridge.

Gold only in color, not in production material, this variant of the NWC cartridge was given away exclusively via a Nintendo Power contest. The gold shells were custom-fitted with existing NWC gameplay boards, and an NWC label was applied. The giveaway for the gold NWC cartridge was limited to only 26.

Due to Nintendo not producing new ROM boards for these cartridges, 26 gray cartridges were in turn sacrificed to create the gold versions, thus reducing the population of grays that exist today.

Much like the NWC gray cartridges, the gold cartridges are extremely condition sensitive due to never being distributed with a box or sleeve like a traditional game.

In 2024, only 13 of these cartridges have ever been confirmed to still exist in collectors' hands.

'The T206 Honus Wagner of game collecting'

Back in 2013, Pat Contri was asking $35,000 for his pair of both the gray and gold NWC cartridges.

In 2024, the gold cartridge alone has now traded hands privately for $350,000, according to documents obtained and reviewed by cllct. The sale, which was confirmed by the seller Buzzy Adriatico, owner of “We Buy Games” video-game stores in Ohio, makes it the highest price ever paid for one of these grail cartridges.

“When I originally bought the NWC Gold, almost everybody told me how dumb I was," Adriatico said. "At the time, it was the highest anyone paid for a single video game. Fast forward six years, and the only reason I sold the cart was to use the $350k as a 20-percent down payment on a $1,800,000 building.

"Call me crazy, but I still wonder which will be the better long-term investment.”

The buyer, who wishes to remain anonymous, is ecstatic with his new purchase.

“NWC gold has always been the pinnacle of game collecting for me," the buyer said. "From its historical significance to its extreme rarity and unwillingness of collectors to let one go, I felt like it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s the T206 Honus Wagner of game collecting and a true holy grail.”

When asked about the steep $350,000 price tag, he simply said: “The 350k price tag is what it took to get it done. For items that are truly desirable and rare, you pay what the seller wants.”

While other hobbies will see grail pieces such as Action Comics 1 or the 1952 Mickey Mantle come to auction with some degree of regularity, a gold NWC cartridge has not been found at auction since 2015, when it sold for $26,667 on eBay.

Despite the massive growth in interest (and prices) in video-game collecting over the past few years, not a single one of the 13 NWC gold owners decided to test the market at auction.

For now, all anyone can do is speculate on whether this new $350,000 price tag is an outlandish amount to pay for a single video game, or if this is only the beginning of a new era for NWC gold cartridges moving forward.

One thing is certain: The history and mystique surrounding the actual Nintendo World Championship event and the accompanying cartridges are sure to remain extremely relevant within the video-game world.

"GetTheGregGames" has specialized in collecting sealed and graded video games for over 12 years. He shares information about the collectible video game market via his YouTube channel, GetTheGregGames.