The Atari 2600 and 5200 were revolutionary home gaming consoles; over their years on the market -- the 2600 remained in production from 1977 to 1991 -- dozens of companies produced hundreds of games for these systems. Some of these rare games command high prices from collectors, while most sit within a relatively affordable price range. Several factors determine the value of an old Atari game.
The first and most important question about any Atari game is the condition of the cartridge itself. A non-working game, especially a common one, is worth next to nothing. However, non-working cartridges can sometimes be restored to working order simply by removing small amounts of oxidation from the cartridge's metal contacts. Be careful, though; overzealous cleaning can actually damage the contacts further. The appearance of the cartridge matters to some collectors, but most retrogames enthusiasts are focused on gameplay; a battered cartridge is still valuable as long as it works.
The rarer the game, the higher the value. This is particularly true for the Atari 2600, where many games were never even released through normal distribution channels. For instance, "Chase the Chuck Wagon" was a giveaway for dog food customers; very few people sent away for copies, and those that survive are now prized by collectors. The rarest Atari 2600 game is "Air Raid," of which only 13 copies are known to exist. An intact copy sold in 2010 for over $30,000. Don't get too excited, though -- most 2600 games are worth less than $100, often significantly less.
If you're trying to sell your old Atari games, low prices won't thrill you, but if you're trying to assemble a library, you're in luck. Some of the most common -- and therefore most affordable -- games for these consoles are also some of the best. Classics like "Pitfall!," "Frogger," "Yars' Revenge" and "The Empire Strikes Back" can be had for a fraction of the price of a modern game. Some other classics, such as "Adventure!," come with a slightly higher price tag. Some games were ubiquitous in their day but are still prized by collectors -- the "E.T." game was so unsuccessful that unsold copies were dumped in a huge landfill in the New Mexico desert. When the local government excavated the landfill, authentic dumped cartridges became hot collector's items, going for over $1,000 in some cases.
A game's value is much higher if it comes with its original box and accessories. These typically include a small manual, but can include other items as well. For instance, Activision's "Space Shuttle" came with a set of overlays for players to place over the screen. Without these, the various indicators and warning lights on the game's display were meaningless. A complete game with its box, manual and any other inclusions can command three times or more the price of a cartridge alone.
- The Video Game Critic: Console Reviews -- Atari 2600 (1977-1991)
- Retro Games Collector: Got a Video Games Cartridge That Doesn't Work?
- Atari Age: Chase the Chuck Wagon
- CNN: Man Sells Old Video Game for $31,600 after Reading CNN.com
- Atari 2600: Atari 2600 Price Guide
- Atari Age: Space Shuttle
- Polygon: E.T. Cartridges from Atari Landfill Go for More Than $1,500 on eBay
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