Designer Shigeru Miyamoto first dreamt up the character Mario, a mustachioed Italian plumber loosely based on Nintendo’s real-life landlord, in 1981. Clad in bright red overalls and equipped with cheery catchphrases—not to mention startling agility—Mario has since become one of the most iconic video game characters of all time.
As demonstrated last weekend, Nintendo’s beloved mascot also commands high prices. Per a statement, an unopened copy of the 1996 game “Super Mario 64” smashed records on Sunday, becoming the most expensive video game ever sold at auction. An anonymous buyer scored the game for $1.56 million (including a 20 percent buyer’s premium) after 16 bids, reports the New York Times’ Neil Vigdor.
According to Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, the sale marks the first time in history that a video game has sold for more than $1 million. Previously, the record was held by a 1987 copy of “The Legend of Zelda,” which sold for $870,000 earlier this month.
Nintendo released “Super Mario 64” as one of the first games for its Nintendo 64 console in 1996. At the time, the game sold for about $60, per the Times. Nintendo has since sold about 12 million copies of “Super Mario 64,” writes Sanj Atwal for Guinness World Records.
“Super Mario 64” marked a watershed moment for gaming, as Mario’s on-screen world received an immersive upgrade. Previous entries in the franchise featured two-dimensional, side-scrolling displays; “Super Mario 64” was the first Mario game to feature three-dimensional environments, writes Jonathan Edwards for the Washington Post. (In the game, players guide Mario through a quest to rescue the ruler of Mushroom Kingdom, Princess Peach, from his archenemy, Bowser, the king of a tribe of turtles.)
The newly auctioned cartridge stands out for its near-impeccable condition. Protected by a plastic case and still in its factory-sealed, shrink-wrapped packaging, the item received a 9.8, or A++, rating on the Wata Scale—in other words, reports Ethan Gach for Kotaku, the work is “practically undamaged.”
To earn a rating this high, the box and the seal “have to be in perfect condition,” Heritage video games specialist Valarie McLeckie tells Nina Kravinsky of NPR.
“It has to look as pristine as the day it came off the assembly line,” she adds. “And this [cartridge] essentially has no notable imperfections.”
Still, writes Aaron Mak for Slate, the sale baffled some experts. Video game historian Chris Kohler, for instance, noted his surprise on Twitter: “I figured the first million dollar game was imminent, but I didn’t think it was gonna be today ... or this.”
As Kohler tells the Post, he assumed that a more famous game—perhaps the original “Super Mario Bros.” game released in 1985—would be the first to break auction records. (That game marked the first time Mario appeared onscreen with his taller, green-clad brother, Luigi, per the Times.)
Millennials’ nostalgia for the video games of their youth might be driving the sharp upturn in prices, Kohler says. The “Mario” sale arrived on the heels of another record-breaking bid: Last Friday, Heritage sold a 9.0-rated 1987 cartridge of “The Legend of Zelda” for $870,000—then the most money ever paid for a video game. The record lasted just two days.
“To break the world record for the most ever paid for a video game at auction, not once, but twice in our first video games auction exceeded my wildest expectations,” says McLeckie in the statement.
Speaking with the Times, the specialist adds, “I was blindsided, to be quite honest with you. … Never in my wildest dreams did I expect the price that was realized would become a reality.”