John Hancock shows off his staggering collection of games and shares how he acquired particular pieces.
(Originally published in the Patreon edition Episodic Content on 17 May 2015)
John Hancock has collected about 10,000 video games. His garage-turned-game-room bursts at the seams with cartridges, discs, boxes, cases, instruction booklets, bookcases, posters, cardboard boxes resembling treasure chests that hold odds and ends. All eras are represented, as are the complete libraries for over 24 game consoles. PONG machines, those earliest of consoles, dominate an entire bookcase. Nintendo and Sega cartridges take up entire walls. Opposite walls. John wouldn’t want Mario and Sonic trading fisticuffs when he isn’t looking.
But games are not truly what John collects. Cartridges, CDs, and DVDs — these are merely shells used to store his true treasures. He has cleaned out mom-and-pop shops, plumbed yard sales, scavenged the remains of video rental stores, and traveled far and wide to conventions, “nerd binder” in tow. From each destination, he returns with a game (usually more than one). More importantly to John, he returns with a story. Not the story of how a game came to be, but the story of how the game made its way to him.
In this interview, John opened up about his early experiences collecting games, why he drained his savings account only one year into his marriage, and how he hopes to preserve his collection of games and stories for future generations.
When did you become interested in playing games?
I’ve been playing games since I was a kid. I think my first experience with games was a TV scoreboard, Radio Shack PONG clone. I was pretty young, probably five or six. I was also exposed to many arcades in the area, so I’d say I was four or five when I was exposed. I used to sit on bar stools to play [arcade] games because I was so small.
That evolved from PONG and arcades to home consoles was an Atari 2600 down at my cousin’s house. I was bad at playing games. They’d always beat me in Combat. But that was one of my first experiences.
How did an interest in playing games lead you to devote so much time, energy, and money to collecting them?
That’s a little more complicated. Starting out, I would sell comic books. I got them from my barber. They were used; a lot of them had the covers ripped off. I would read them, and I tried giving them back, but he said, “Oh, no, go ahead and try to sell those. If you get enough money, you can buy more comic books.”
So I’d take these old comic books, and there were some that were really old and probably worth something. I’d make a little money, and I used the money to buy comic books and baseball cards. I got really into baseball cards and starting collecting those. I got tired of it, and moved on to action figures. By the early ’90s, I was done with action figures. I’d amassed a pretty decent collection.
Around that time, I started getting the games I had growing up. That restarted my game collection. I’d been collecting games since high school, but I’d sold my collection to get through college. So I restarted collecting games in the mid-90s, starting with loose [NES] cartridges, Odyssey 2, Atari , and Sega [Genesis].
It blossomed from there. I was going after stuff that nobody else was going for. I had a lot of friends who were into Atari, and they would trade me their extras. At Funcoland, which was awesome back in the day, I had my own hold drawer. I would give them my Keppler’s rarity guide books, and they would go through and try to find all the games they could from other stores. With my extra money, I’d get games from them. I used them to complete my NES set.
You own an extensive collection of PONG machines. Did your early experiences with PONG draw you to collect those units?
You know, I don’t know. I’ve always been drawn to forgotten games. I’m just an average guy, an average salary man with a very non-average hobby. When I first got into the hobby [of collecting video games], I was driven to collecting oddball [pieces]. One of my first systems was the Odyssey 2, and part of the reason is because nobody cared about it.
PONG systems have continued to be underrated. They were fun, and like many things, they were made in overabundance and went away suddenly. To me, the aesthetics of them is really appealing. The crazy 1970s and early ’80s box art — I just like collecting stuff like that. You can find lots of older [forgotten] stuff, and it’s affordable too. It is quite hard to find stuff that works 100 percent, but it’s just something I’ve done on a budget. It’s just a lot of fun for me to collect.
You told me over email that you recently adopted a little girl, which is awesome. How has your hobby changed from the time you started until now? I imagine Younger John had more money for games than Responsible, Older John.
Yeah, Older John is more responsible with his money. Younger John drove hundreds of miles [to find collectibles]. I drove hundreds of miles to complete my first set, but I don’t do that as much anymore. I have a friend with a game store in town. He sets aside quite a bit, and I do many trades with him. He’s there every day, so that takes the burden off of me to have to hunt on the side.
I would say things have gotten really valuable. When I started collecting, I was collecting just for fun. Everything was affordable. Now, it’s still fun, but I don’t collect doubles of things unless it’s, say, an older console [in case the original stops working] because everything has gotten so expensive. I’ve had to change what I pursue because of money.
That’s always going to happen. Back in the day, different things were expensive. Now, more and more people are collecting games, so you find less and less. Having such an extensive collection makes it difficult to find stuff in the wild. I don’t do a lot of eBay hunting. I tend to sit and wait on something, leaving it open to, “Well, if I find this today, then I’ll pursue that.”
A good example is, right now, Nintendo is hot. Everybody’s collecting Nintendo, so Nintendo items are through the roof. I tend to stay away from that. I still collect Nintendo, but it’s not a priority because it’s so expensive.
I’m not a big eBay seller. I use eBay to sell my late-90s to early-2000s, and I used that money to find stuff locally to add to my collection.
Which Nintendo systems and games do you find are the most expensive or hardest to find?
What’s super-hot right now is N64 and Super NES. I’m about 35 games away from completing my Super Nintendo [collection], but some of the games cost hundreds of dollars. I could spend all my game money and get one game, or I could pursue [clusters of less-expensive games]. I usually wait for conventions. If I generate money at a convention, I’ll have money to buy other games.
Super Nintendo and N64 [games] are not rare, but when you find the sought-after stuff, it’s always expensive. I have a lot of the rare games, but I’m still 35 games away. One of the games I’m missing is Wild Guns. I have the box and manual, but I don’t have the game. A loose game [without box and instructions] runs around $150. That’s a lot of money.
You rarely find Neo Geo stuff, and when you do, it’s really expensive. I’ve been lucky and have found a couple of systems, and at conventions, I found some good stuff too.
Is it easier to collect forgotten systems and games because no one cares about them?
No, you can’t go off of age. You have to go off of popularity. Odyssey 2 is a good example. For most Odyssey 2 stuff, people wanted to collect an older system that nobody cares about. It’s known as the Videopac overseas.
I would say there are many great systems out there that don’t break the bank. Like, the Atari 2600: if you don’t go for the rare stuff, you can find games for a dollar apiece, usually. Intellivision is the same way. I prefer the 2600 over the Intellivision just because there are more games, and there’s a robust homebrew library. Odyssey 2’s another console that has a lot of people still pumping out homebrew games for it. I just got some last year and the system is well over 30 years old.
How many games do you have in your collection today?
I’ve done loose counts, and it’s tough because I do count computer games. I don’t have a lot, but I do have 500 to 700 games for Commodore Amiga, Atari, TI-99, tons of floppies. It’s about 10,000 [games total], but I haven’t done a count recently.
I can honestly say that my mass-collecting has slowed down. I’m working on box upgrades and condition upgrades. If I have a loose cart, I try to upgrade it. I’m down to less than 100 boxes needed for a [complete] NES set.
You have over 24 complete sets. Do you have any interesting stories behind how you acquired some of those?
Yeah, there’s a funny story behind how I got my complete, loose Game Gear set. I used to lurk on Cheap Ass Gamer a long time ago, maybe six or seven years ago. Game Crazy was clearing out their Game Gear games for a song. Back in the day, I had a friend [on Cheap Ass Gamer] who would tell me, “Hey, this deal is going on.” He was really nice, and he told me about this Game Crazy in Oregon City.
I went to a local Game Crazy, and they told me, “It looks like they [the store in Oregon City] have 250 Game Gear games.” I said, “Oh, wow. This might be a great opportunity to score a lot of games for cheap.” I go down there, and it’s about an hour away. I walk in and say, “I’m here to see what Game Gear games you have.” They look at me dumbfounded: “What is that?”
The youngest employee, couldn’t have been a day older than 18, said, “Oh, I know what those are. The old manager said these games were stored back here.” He goes into this cabinet, pulls out two garbage sacks, and pours them onto the counter. So I make this enormous pile. I have my nerd binder [to track what games I need], and the guy said, “Are you going to get all of those? Did you bring a lot of money?” I said, “Start ringing them up.”
He started ringing them up, and they all rang up as $1. I knew that whatever I didn’t get, someone else would snag. I said, “I’m probably going to get everything,” but I made sure to only get one of everything. There were a good 150 games right there, one shot, that I was able to add. I got some extras [of games I already owned] that I knew I could trade for other games. That’s how I completed my Game Gear set.
Sounds like you lucked out. Have you acquired any other console and its library in one fell swoop?
Yes, the InterActiVision. That was at a convention. It was just one of those things. The InterActiVision was just this stupid, VHS-driven game system that no one cared about. The guy said, “You can take it all for 100 bucks.”
As your hobby ramped up, was your goal to complete sets, or were you more interested in following your passions? For example, you’re a big Sega fan. Did you want to complete a Sega collection because you were a fan, or because you wanted a complete set?
You know, it’s funny: I didn’t start out wanting to complete anything because I didn’t think it was possible. I was just having fun. I started off as a Sega [Genesis] collector, and part of the reason I pursued Sega was because it was a third of the price [compared to NES and Super NES]. Everybody wanted Nintendo, and Sega, for some reason, was kind of like Intellivision: it was the black sheep. It’s gaining more popularity because Super Nintendo is so expensive.
In the era of declining mom-and-pop video stores, I hit every video store up and down the west coast in Northern California and Oregon. They would clearance-out their Sega games, and I’d buy them all up. Even when I moved up to Washington nine years ago, I only had half a Sega Genesis collection. I thought, Man, it’s going to be a struggle to get everything. I just focused on it. It was just the right time. I was getting games for five bucks apiece.
I had a lot of loose games. During my final days in California, a friend scored me about 300 game manuals, and the artwork on the spine of game boxes. So I piecemealed a lot of my Sega Genesis stuff.
So you were on the Sega side of playground arguments?
That’s tough. I was one of the first kids on the block with a Sega Genesis. It was the first system I [purchased] with my own money. I was 12 or 13, and I showed my dad the Sears wish book. I opened it to the Sega, and said, “Dad, this looks awesome.” He looked at me and said, “You know how you’re gonna get that?” He pointed to the front yard and said: “Start mowing.”
I busted my hump, washed and waxed cars. I think I saved $249 and got my own Sega Genesis. It was a Model 1. I eventually got a Sega CD and a 32X. Late in high school, I jumped into Super Nintendo. But predominantly, I was a Sega Genesis fan. My friends were really into Mortal Kombat and RPGs, and so we played a lot of Sega. Super Nintendo was, for me, all about The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario World, and Super Metroid. I played those games over and over again.
I had a Nintendo [NES] before a Genesis. I played my Super Nintendo almost as much as my Genesis, but I probably played my Nintendo more than both [the SNES and Genesis]. But I really did pursue Sega just because it was more readily available. Nintendo was just so much more expensive. It still proved to be fun to collect. I got a couple of lucky breaks, like finding ma-and-pa stores with large amounts of Nintendo games. That let me knock out a bunch in one shot; I didn’t have to piecemeal as much.
You’ve got me reminiscing. Xbox One and PS4 are pretty much interchangeable, aside from the odd exclusive. I miss the days when consoles released in the same hardware generation felt different. There were reasons to own a Genesis and a SNES.
There’s something to be said about that era. We saw such radical changes. I remember saying, “Oh my gosh, the graphics can’t get better. This is it.” The good thing is, almost any console can pull off so many different things, whether it’s sprite-based or 3D. But we’ve kind of lost that evolution. With the PS4 and Xbox One, a lot of people commented that their games don’t look that much better [compared to games released late in the lifecycle of PS3/Xbox 360]. It’s the law of diminishing returns. You can only push the envelope so much.
At the end of the day, it really comes down to gameplay. Is a game fun to play? Some games are all graphics, and those games get forgotten. But if a game is challenging, or if it has a good story, that’s one of the games that people remember.
Do you pursue modern systems as well?
I do. I got my son a Wii U, and I do collect 3DS. I don’t collect it like I collect the old stuff just because it’s still expensive. I have a pretty robust PSP collection, and when I say robust, I mean a couple hundred games. I have PS, I have about 100 Wii games and 360 games. I have about 70 titles for PS3.
I pursue newer games, but it’s different. I pursue stuff I’m going to play on those systems. If I ever do have a museum — which I think is the end goal I want to pursue; a place to pursue gaming from different eras — my collection is primarily from 1972 through 2010. My most modern complete set is Sega Dreamcast. I have very fond memories of being a manager at GameStop for the launch of that system.
Sega went out with a great system. It’s unfortunate that [Dreamcast] was their last system, especially considering where Sega is now. But at least they went out on a great system.
I always felt one of Sega’s problems was they would introduce a really cool technology, but then they abandoned it quickly to chase the next new thing.
Yeah, they would put all their eggs in one basket. Obviously, Sonic was the most successful game they made. But they made so many Sonics, and not all of them were great. Some of the 3D Sonics were good, but there’s so much more to Sega that they never pursued. They’re so Japanese sometimes, and that kind of got lost in translation.
What research do you do before buying games? Do you set out with a mission, or do you just like to try your luck?
It’s definitely more try-your-luck, but I do keep up my nerd binder. To this day, I know there are databases and checklists out there, but there’s not really a database or checklist for me unless I create it myself. I have two binders of lists of stuff I’m looking for. Currently, I just finished a Playstation Greatest Hits Set. I am now looking to pursue Xbox platinum hits.
It’s been a lot of fun. The cool thing about collecting greatest hits that is you’re getting the cream of the crop of a system’s collection. I wouldn’t say it’s affordable, but it’s more affordable.
So I do have checklists, but more than once, I’ve gone to a game con[ference], saw something, and said, “I’m going to get that.”
In reading up on you for this interview, I noticed you like to collect game-related items as well as consoles and games. Which type of game-related items do you like to pursue? For example, do you have complete runs of any magazines?
I probably have more accessories that most people, but I’m just out of space. I like posters and find those at game conventions. I have a bunch of those on my ceiling, gotten from conventions I’ve been to or hosted. I have weird stuff, stuff my son made, just stuff that means something to me. I have an early Halo standee.
So, the accessories are cool. The problem is they’re easily destroyed unless you get them framed. Which is great, but expensive. I wish I had wall space, but I’d rather have a wall of spined-out games than a bunch of accessories.
Next month, John dishes on his plans for opening a game museum, how he scored some of the most valuable games in his vast collection, and what he thinks of digital games.