A Detailed Guide to Collecting Nintendo 64 Games in Japan
So, you’ve decided to take your totally-healthy Nintendo 64 collecting addiction international. If you’ve been collecting for a while, you’re likely feeling two things: First, fatigue at the absurd run up in prices for US games over the past few years. (The upside is that my collection continues to outperform the S&P 500.) And second, difficulty finding those last few games. With three-fourths of my collection complete, it’s rare that I walk into a shop and find anything I still need, at least at an acceptable price.
On both fronts, you’ll find collecting in Japan to be a breath of fresh air: The prices for Japanese Nintendo 64 games are still cheap — the console was a major flop in Japan, so there’s very little collecting culture surrounding it. (In the typical shop, you’ll find the sleepy little Nintendo 64 selection between massive, far busier Super Famicom and Playstation sections.) And of course, when you’re just starting out, you will find games you need nearly everywhere you go.
But why collect in Japan? What should you collect? And how should you collect? Over the 2022 holiday break, I spent nearly a month in Tokyo and traveling across Japan, learning these lessons for myself. With my collection of Japanese exclusives now mostly complete — with a few costly exceptions — I’d like to share a detailed accounting of everything that I learned. Hopefully, something in here will help to make your experience easier, more affordable, and more enjoyable.
1: Why Collect in Japan? Why not just collect these games in the US, or buy them online? A few thoughts:
- Availability: Unless you live in California or New York City, chances are pretty good there isn’t anywhere to buy Japanese Nintendo 64 games locally, and even in those areas, your options will typically be the slim pickings at a US Bookoff, or obscenely overpriced carts at a local retro video game store — if your town even still has one.
- Price: You’ll pay a huge premium buying anywhere outside of Japan — whether at a US brick-and-mortar store or eBay. After familiarizing myself with eBay prices, visiting Bookoff locations in Los Angeles, and having spent about a month in Japan, I can tell you that you will pay about 25 percent to three times more if you buy outside of Japan. You’ll also have to tolerate a lower quality product — don’t expect any complete-in-box deals or like-new cartridges outside of Japan.
- Exploration: Whenever I travel, I like to pop into the local retro video game stores, both to check out non-touristy areas and meet chatty locals. You won’t find many chatty locals in Japan, but your hunt will take you to some interesting places. Of course, it’ll take you into the geek meccas of Akihabara in Tokyo and Den-Den Town in Osaka, which are both worth seeing. But it’ll also have you taking trains to suburbs and wandering down out-of-the-way yokochou.
2. What Should I Collect in Japan? As with collecting in the US, it’s important to put up guardrails around what you collect. Domestically, I’m something of a minimalist collector, if that isn’t a contradiction: my goal is to collect a complete set of carts in good shape — no manuals or boxes. My initial idea had been to do the same in Japan, collecting just the carts for any Japanese exclusive game. But with games so cheap and abundant in Japan, you might want to reconsider your goals. A few considerations:
- Carts and complete-in-box: Here in the US, collecting anything more than carts has become the exclusive domain of the rich. Even Nascar 1999 — the cheapest game as of January 2023 — will run you $16 complete in box. But in Japan, complete-in-box sets are everywhere, and often only priced at a small premium over the cart. (Don’t bother looking for sealed copies — Japanese Nintendo 64 games were never sealed.) While you may only collect carts in the US, you might like to take a shot at collecting complete-in-box in Japan.
- Classics, Japan exclusives, and the complete collection: Many collectors prefer to just collect the classics. There are dozens of guides that will help you figure out what to buy. My initial goal was to collect all of the Japan-exclusive games. There are 85 of them and you can find a useful list here. But why not go for the entire set? By the time you’ve collected all of the Japanese exclusives, you’ll have half of the 196-game Japanese collection, and most of what will be left is quite cheap. (In the topsy-turvy world of Japanese collecting, games like Mario Party and Donkey Kong 64 are cheap.) I plan to go for a full collection on my next visit.
- Quality: When I go out hunting in the US, this is a major consideration — I’ll regularly find a game I need at the right price point, but in such poor shape that I have to walk away. Not so in Japan. The only issue you’ll find with any regularity is cigarette smoke discoloration. Scuffs or label tears are rare, and where present, the cart will generally be discounted and plastered with a warning label. Naturally, boxes will more often have scuffs and bends, but again, expect discounts and warning labels.
- Nintendo 64 DD: This is the elephant in the room when it comes to Japanese Nintendo 64 collecting. Before visiting Japan, I had fanciful notions of buying the console’s Japan-exclusive disc drive addition. But here’s the thing: both the console and games are rare and expensive even in Japan. In a month of collecting, I never saw a single DD console, and of the handful of games I spotted, all were in the hundreds of dollars — roughly in line with the going rate on Western eBay. If you plan to pursue a DD collection, be prepared to spend a lot of money.
- A note on peripherals: First, most run-of-the-mill peripherals — think controllers, rumble packs, expansion packs, and controller packs — are region-free and quite cheap. Be sure to stock up. Second, there are a number of cool Japan-exclusive peripherals, including a Disney Dance Dance Revolution pad, Tetris 64’s Bio Sensor, and a train simulator controller. These can generally be found for around $50 to $100.
3. Where Should I Collect in Japan? There are two ways of approaching this question: Where in the country?; and, at what stores? Let’s tackle the first question: If you’re like me, you’ll probably want to beeline to Akihabara — Tokyo’s famous collectors destination — as soon as your plane lands. But this was my first big collecting mistake. While Akihabara is a lot of fun, it’s swarming with tourists who are doing the same thing as you. As a result, prices will generally be far higher than anywhere else in the country. Prices within Tokyo will generally be lower outside of Akihabara, and prices anywhere else in the country will generally be lower than in Tokyo.
My advice: To the extent possible, do most of your preliminary collecting as far away from Akihabara as possible. You’ll find the best deals outside of Tokyo — I noticed prices fell by 25 to 50 percent in Kyoto and Osaka, and I’ve heard that they fall even further in cities like Nagoya or Hiroshima. Yet this rule applies even within Tokyo — prices in Nakano Broadway, or any given neighborhood Bookoff, seemed to be comfortably lower. For this reason, do your early collecting elsewhere, and then pop into Akihabara to get those last few rare games on your list near the end of your trip. As a happy side effect, you’ll see more of the country.
One more thing I’ll say about prices: Here in the US, prices are nearly always set at the going-rate on eBay, plus some in-store premium. (On the one hand, this ensures that you’ll usually get a fair price. On the other hand, it makes collecting less fun.) This is not the case at all in Japan. As other guides have pointed out, there is very little price consistency in Japan. You can easily go to two stores right next to each other and find the same game — with no quality differences — priced at either ¥500 or ¥1,500.
My advice: If you see a game priced as less than ¥650, or $5 as of January 2023, just snag it — you likely won’t find it more than one or two dollars cheaper. But if you see a game that’s a lot more than that amount, make a note of the price on your phone and see how other stores stack up before buying.
Now let’s talk about stores. I’m going to put them into four general categories:
- Super Potato: If you’ve done any research on collecting, you’ve probably already heard of it. And in a way, it’s the real deal: this Akihabara institution is a living multi-floor museum of retro gaming. They have almost everything you need. But as any seasoned collector knows, a full inventory is usually a sign of uncompetitive pricing, and that’s no different here. Prices in Super Potato Akihabara are still lower than anything you’ll find abroad, but quite a bit higher than anything you’ll find within Japan.
- Suragaya: This is an all-purpose geek emporium found all over Japan. They variously sell anime, manga, figurines, and yes, retro video games. Many Suragaya locations specialize in one of these goods, and may not sell any retro video games — be sure to look through customer photos and reviews on Google Maps before making the trek. But when you do find a Suragaya that sells retro games, strap in: you will consistently find a solid inventory of competitively priced Nintendo 64 games.
- Bookoff: This is a chain of used bookstores that can be found all over Japan. (There is a spinoff called Hardoff. Contrary to what you might think, it doesn’t actually sell porn.) Most of the larger, more centrally-located stores also sell retro video games — again, be sure to look through customer photos and reviews on Google Maps. They generally have a small collection of Nintendo 64 games for sale, typically in slightly rougher condition, but at the absolute lowest price you will find anywhere in the world.
- Local game stores: This last category is a bit of a catchall — as in the US, independent retro video game stores seem to be dying off in Japan, but you will still occasionally find them. Naturally, there is a lot of variation, both in quality and pricing. I recommend tracking them down and visiting, if only to see new parts of the city and support the little guys still in business.
A note on navigating local stores: Like in the US, there will usually be a dedicated, neatly organized Nintendo 64 section. But unlike in the US, shelves will usually stretch from floor to ceiling, expensive games will often be in glass cases in a different part of the store, and Nintendo 64 peripherals will often be mixed in with peripherals of various consoles. Don’t just beeline to the Nintendo 64 shelf, scan it, and split — treat every local store you enter like a scavenger hunt and browse the whole place.
My advice: Do as much as your early collecting as possible at Bookoff and Suragaya. These are the best places to snag all those $1 to $5 Japanese-exclusive shovelware games — mahjong, pachinko, baseball, soccer, etc. If you see rare games at either, buy them — I found a copy of Sin and Punishment at a Suragaya for around ¥45,000, or $35 as of January 2023. As you travel around, drop into local game stores and move on deals where you find them. To round out your collection in your last few days in Japan, visit Super Potato.
4. How Should I Collect in Japan? If you’re like me, you probably don’t speak much Japanese, and definitely can’t read Japanese script. Worse yet, you may not have mobile data. How will you know what you already have?How will you even identify games? I had the benefit of a girlfriend who speaks Japanese and a limited international data plan, but reading Japanese is challenging even for her, presenting certain challenges. Here are a few hacks I found for working around the language barrier:
- Make a spreadsheet: Here in the US, I use the Retro Game Collector app to keep track of my collection. It’s a great app, but it doesn’t include Japanese games. To keep track of what you have and what you need, you should make a Google Drive spreadsheet. Feel free to make a copy of mine. If you don’t have Internet access on your phone, be sure to download it before you leave WiFi.
- Download cartridge photos: Game titles are rarely written in Latin script, and many Japan-exclusive games have visually vague labels. Unless you can read kanji, hiragana, and katakana, you will need to collect games based on what they look like. I recommend downloading pictures of every game that you need — yes, really — to a dedicated folder on your phone. Then, delete pictures as you acquire the game. Before I did this, I accidentally bought multiple duplicates, and passed up on a few good deals — after I did this, collecting was a breeze.
6. Final Level. When it comes to collecting, the final collection is almost beside the point. The joy of collecting isn’t in having a giant stack of games — it’s the act of collecting. So take that unplanned detour down a Tokyo alley. Relish in the hunt as you weave through the messy local shops. Start that conversation with a fellow collector or shopkeeper. If you just wanted a complete collection, you could have built that over eBay. You wanted something more — you wanted the joy of collecting. Don’t forget that.
With that: What did I miss? What did I leave out? What did I get wrong? If this guide was useful to you, pay me back with your insights or tricks for collecting in Japan.
M. Nolan Gray is the author of Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City—and How To Fix It, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Nintendo 64, but a little to do with Japan!