If it’s true that whoever dies with the most toys wins, then Brett Martin is in the pole position. The Guinness Book Of World Records recently made it official, certifying his collection of video game memorabilia as the world’s largest. The Coloradan stay-at-home dad has amassed 10,000 pieces worth an estimated $110,000, including everything from the kind of posters you used to find in gaming magazines to oddities like Mario-licensed power tools. His website, Video Game Memorabilia Museum, started as a way for him to catalog his collection but has grown to a hub for the collecting community, with forums where users share their latest acquisitions and resources for identifying counterfeit toys. The Gameological Society spoke to Martin to get some insight into the world of video game collectibles, how you get your collection certified as the world’s largest, and what his wife thinks of his hobby.
The Gameological Society: How did you get started collecting video game memorabilia?
Brett Martin: I got some Mario figures from my parents back when I was nine. I had them in my toy box, and when eBay came out I wanted to know if there were any more in the set. I went to eBay and found a whole bunch more in the set and collected those. While I was hunting for those, I found out there were all kinds of figures out there. I was curious to find out where they all came from and discovered an international world of Mario through looking at eBay all over the world. There are special European ones and a bunch of Japanese ones, of course. It just kind of escalated from there.
Gameological: This has got to be an expensive hobby.
Martin: It is expensive, but I keep it on a budget. I never pay more than $500 for one item. I still have and keep that goal today. There’s stuff out there that’s well over $500 that I want, but I don’t really want to spend that kind of money on. Over the 10 years, I don’t feel like I’ve spent all that much monthly, [but] when I look back at it, it’s like, “Wow, I spent a lot of money.”
Gameological: $500 an item is a pretty hefty limit, and that raises the question of what things out there are more expensive than that. Is there an upper-limit for this kind of stuff? What’s the most expensive thing you’ve seen out there?
Martin: In the video game memorabilia realm, things don’t tend to get much above two grand. But there are a lot of video games that tend to fetch a lot more than that. For memorabilia, there are some really big things that people paid for, like a rare statue—that can go for a lot more than that. Some people have stuff on eBay for well over that, and they never really sell. Someone did give me an offer on one of my items for $3,500, and that was a prototype figure that was never released. It can get higher than that, but more often than not it doesn’t go above $1,000. Extremely rare stuff will hit more.
Gameological: What are some of the most common items that people collect? What do they get their feet wet with?
Martin: Sometimes its posters, like magazine giveaways, promotional items, and stuff from freebie giveaways. There’s a ton of those in the video game realm, still. It was huge in the ’90s but that dwindled in about 2000, and in 2010, they reintroduced the swag. People would go to events and try to hoard swag and whatnot.
For buying off of eBay, it’s the cheaper figures. Even the McDonald’s fast food toys from the ’90s, people will collect those. There’s currently some Mario figures in stores that people can collect. That’s really exciting. It happened about three years ago. They started licensing figures for North American stores. They took a lot of the old Japanese figures that had been released previously in 2006 and licensed them for distribution in North America. Wacky stuff. [It’s] exciting for me to see because kids are going to the stores and buying things that I bought long ago.
Gameological: On the flip side, what are some of the more unusual items, either in your collection or that you’ve seen that you yourself don’t have?
Martin: I love the really weird stuff, and I tend to have quite a bit of it so I can show it off, like, “This is a Mario-licensed griddle or pancake maker,” or something like that. There’s a Mario tricycle that I had seen that I don’t have because the import cost would be insane. It’s in Japan only, and I have the little topper that goes on it, but I don’t have the tricycle. There’s a Nintendo cigar they were giving out. There’s more adult stuff, which is funny because Nintendo prides itself as a family company. There’s liquor glasses, poker sets, and things you wouldn’t really expect from them. I collected that stuff.
They keep releasing stuff, and I always want stuff.
There’s also a badminton set from Super Mario World—really random sports things. There are Mario Tennis tennis balls and Mario golf sets and things like this. Actually, they have a lot of Mario Golf stuff from before Mario had a golf game. They had a bunch of Super Mario World-licensed golf supplies for people who’d go golfing in Japan. I’ve seen a lot of stationary sets. I’ll take a walk around to see what else—there’s always stuff I miss when I think about it.
Here’s a Mario cookie jar. There’s a ceramic Mario china tea set.
Gameological: Like a fine china set?
Martin: Yeah. It’s not really elaborate or detailed, but it has Mario painted on it and Mario paintings of the pixelated characters. It’s a nice, inexpensive piece that was sold in Japan. Oh, here’s a really great one. Here’s an actual tool set—not fake ones for kids to play with but little tools that are Mario-licensed from Germany. There’s a power drill and a saw. All kinds of crazy stuff.
Gameological: Are they quality tools?
Martin: I wouldn’t think so, but they’re usable. But they’re old, so maybe. They’re kid-sized it seems. They may not be full-sized, but you can really cut yourself on these.
Gameological: I imagine a lot of these things are of Japanese origin. Have you ever made a pilgrimage to Japan to buy anything?
Martin: There’s a proxy bidding service that allows you to bid on Yahoo Japan auctions because eBay didn’t really take off there. I have a couple of proxy services that I bid with, and they bulk ship it from Japan. I’d love to [go], but getting over there is expensive and it would be so much more expensive when I’m there. I’d have to bring a couple extra suitcases and fill them up. I’ve never been. I have been to E3 now for two years, and I’ve gotten the giveaways there as best I could. It’s always really tough to get things from E3. And there’s a lot of people who pay for their trip to E3 by getting the items and then selling them on eBay.
Gameological: It seems like a significant portion of your collection is Nintendo memorabilia. Is that where your heart is?
Martin: Mostly in Nintendo because that’s where most of the nostalgia stems from. That’s where a lot of this is coming from. It’s the characters that I love. Every game I play brings a little nostalgia, but there’s always something new in Nintendo games that interests me. That’s why I think they cater to all parties in the video game industry, which is hard to do. There are a lot more mature titles, and I’ve played some of those too, but I’m not a big fan of the first-person shooters. As it goes, I’m more of a Nintendo fan, then Sony second, and Microsoft in a distant third.
Gameological: You said you try not to spend more than $500 on any item, and you mentioned a $3,500 unique figurine you have. Is that your most expensive and unusual piece?
Martin: I have one that’s [worth] about 10 grand. I wouldn’t let it go for anything less than $8,000. To the right person, it could go for $10,000. That’s a prototype figure that I have.
Gameological: Guinness certified your collection of video game memorabilia as the world’s largest. Did they approach you, or did you contact them to say “I think I have the biggest collection. Can I get it certified?” How did that happen?
Martin: It was always in the back of my mind, but it’s so large and tedious to try and get through. They had approached me in 2009. I’m actually in the 2009 video game edition of Guinness World Records. They wanted me to get it all together and get photographs and give them the number. They used that number in the book, but I had to get it certified. To get it certified is really difficult because, for collections, you have to count it, and then two other people outside your family and friends have to verify it. There were a bunch of road blocks.
Last year, they were looking for a big collection, and they wanted specifically Donkey Kong, or Kirby, or Mario. I thought, “I think I have all of those.” I knew a bunch of other collectors, but I thought I had the biggest of this collection and that collection. They said, “Can you give us an Excel spreadsheet of everything in your collection?” This was in May, and they wanted it in by August. I thought I couldn’t do it with two kids. We just left it there, and someone in upper management saw the emails and said, “Why don’t we come out to and do this as a big promo to help sell the book this year?” They came out and photographed everything and interviewed me. They wanted to use me to sell the book that year. I guess it worked pretty good.
Gameological: You mentioned that you’ve got kids and a wife. What does your wife think of your collection?
Martin: She tolerates it—to a point. She wants it to get smaller, but it gets larger. They keep releasing stuff, and I always want stuff. It’s hard to just go cold turkey for the whole thing. I’m kind of settled down on the crazy buying. There’s a small room for where a lot of the big stuff is. But if something comes that I’m blown away by, I can’t pass it up.
Gameological: When did you start the website?
Martin: That was 2005. It was essentially a gallery for some of the things I owned. Really early on, I was adding things, and people were emailing me because I had a contact form. People were like, “Hey, you’ve got to start a forum on this so we can talk about the things that you have.” Then, I had a lot of people coming on and asking questions. I thought, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” It kind of rolled into this community. As I bought or found something, I’d post on the forum, and people would talk about it. They’d discuss prices, and they became an online family or a collective who collects similar things.
Now we have a blog and a database and all these things that update everybody on what’s available, what’s coming up soon, where to pre-order stuff, and how to get stuff from Japan. There’s a bunch of videos on there. It’s really grown since 2005. Now I’m working on something much bigger than that for collectors. It’s a collecting social networking site that we’re working on.
Gameological: This social networking venture, is this something you’re hoping to make money off of, or is it for the community?
Martin: I’m hoping to take the best parts of my site and turn it into something much much more. What I’d really want as a collector, and what I’ve learned other collectors really like to see, is everyone wants to know a few basic things about collecting. If you collect something, “How much is it worth?” is the biggest question on the table. Are things appreciating? Should I sell this now? What are trends looking like? Video games have definitely entered this level of categorizing and tracking, but there’s no good place for it.
Gameological: You’ve got some stuff on your site about fakes. Is that a problem going around?
Martin: It’s disgusting out there. eBay and Amazon are just bastions of counterfeit and artificial merchandise. I consider that a real shame.
There’s three types of fakes in my opinion. The unofficial kind, where there isn’t something official that it’s based on. So there’s a character from the Mario universe that hasn’t had a figure yet, and there’s a figure you can buy on eBay. That’s unofficial. [Second], a counterfeit item is something that has an official release, but then, they took that sculpt or the molder and replicated it, and are releasing it on eBay for sale. [Finally], adapted merchandise. They take a lone counterfeit in white and make it into something else. They’ll take a Yoshi plush, duplicate the pattern, and release a counterfeit plush, and take that same pattern and apply it to a coin purse.
Gameological: It’s like a hybrid of the other two types.
Martin: Exactly. I’ve been trying to combat this since I found out about it. I have arguments with people, like, “Look, I’ve been collecting for 15 years. I know when this started.” A couple years after my website came out, we discussed this a lot—where they were coming from. They looked like crap. All of a sudden, those people got better equipment. Most of them come from China.
There’s websites you can go to and find all these things. MarioMall.com is a good place to find out what fakes are coming out soon. They take the license they don’t have and create the merchandise. The thing that makes me the saddest is counterfeit merchandise because that lowers the value of the official merchandise. When there’s a boatload out there, and it appears to be easy to obtain, it’s like, I can’t tell between the figure on my shelf that I know is official and the counterfeit product someone bought on eBay yesterday. Mine is almost 10 years old, and theirs is a week old. I’ll have arguments with people who say they know it’s official. I’m like, “Well that doesn’t mean it’s official.”
I’d love to expand on that whole portion because collectors really hate counterfeit merchandise. I’ve seen some collections that appear as big as mine, but I take one look at it and I know it’s counterfeit. It bothers me that someone might come along and say, “Hey, I’ve got a bigger collection than this guy,” and I say, “Well, that’s why it says mine’s the largest official collection.” Someone can go buy 50 different Mario figures for five bucks because it’s so cheap. They don’t care. They just wanted to get that five bucks in their pocket.
Gameological: The fake stuff is always going to be cheaper.
Martin: A mom going online looking for Mario figures—she doesn’t know. Some of the plushes, you won’t know if they have illegal goods inside of them, or might be manufactured in a way that’s not be safe or legal here. I tried for a little while, and no one cares. It’s tough. It’s bad out there.
Gameological: What advice would you give someone just starting to collect?
Martin: That’s a good question. I think the thing that I always say first is to make a budget and stick to it. It’s going to be difficult. There’s so many things out there that even if you picked your pony—you can pick a character you really like—there’s probably going to be boatloads of stuff out there to purchase, and you can’t get it all at once. I know there are a lot of kids who come on my YouTube channel or my forums, and they say, “Oh my gosh you’re rich, you buy all these things.” I’m like, “I didn’t buy all this on eBay yesterday.”
Another big tip is good things come to those who wait. Over 13 years of collecting, I’ve seen things that I really wanted and passed them up because of my goal to not spend more than $500. Later on, I’d see it at $50 at some random auction or another low-advertised thing. You never know where you’ll find this stuff. There are events where I’ve paid too much for things, but most of the time I can find a better price for something, especially on eBay. There’s always something better out there if you wait. Waiting is hard, and that’s something that I can contradict myself really easily on. If something’s released, there’s maybe a 2-week window to get that item, and then, all of a sudden, it’s out of print. You never know which ones are mass manufactured or have this run, and that’s it. It’s very rare in the video game memorabilia world for something to be re-released. Most of the time they’ll pick that sculpt and add it to a different set. Limited runs are what the video game memorabilia world is about.
It’s disgusting out there. eBay and Amazon are just bastions of counterfeit merchandise.
It’s hard to not be buying all the stuff that’s coming out. There’s so much stuff out there that it’s hard to break in. All the stuff I haven’t moved on is now considered rare, potentially, because it’s not available anymore. You can find that stuff on eBay occasionally. Some of the rarest things I have, I’ve only seen twice before. I don’t know why that baffles some people. They’re like, “Why don’t you get it on eBay?” Well, people have to put stuff on eBay for it to become available. It’s not like a store that has everything in stock. It’s a hard concept to sell sometimes.
Gameological: There’s probably 10,000 that exist, and there are 10,000 people who have them who don’t want to sell them. You’re never going to see it.
Martin: Exactly. It’s a hard concept to sell sometimes. They started asking me if it’s counterfeit, and I said, “Hey! Don’t go there.” It’s one of those things where people don’t always believe you. Those are the two big tips I give people: Stick to a budget and be patient if you can be. Grab stuff early on release dates instead of later because it’ll just go up in value. That’s what I learned about video game memorabilia. I’ve had very few items depreciate. Or when I bought them high, they’ve went lower. I have a few instances of that happening where if I wait a year and see another one in auction, lo and behold, it’s gone up a hundred bucks. It’s a fluctuating market, but it’s an upward trend.
Video games aren’t going anywhere. It’s one of those things, now that there as a new generation comes in looking for nostalgia, things tend to go higher on eBay. There’s something about this stuff that everyone knows what it is now. It took video games a lot of years to mature, [but] now the parents know, “Oh yeah, my kids played Mario,” or, “I play Mario with my kids.” Something like that. There’s a lot for competing collectors out there.
Photos by Brett Martin.