The Video Game History Foundation, a nonprofit focused on video game preservation co-founded by former games journalist Frank Cifaldi, recently shared it had spent the last year or so working with Wata Games, a company that evaluates the quality and authenticity of games for collection and sale, to document every video game prototype that’s submitted for its services.
In his tweet revealing the news, Cifaldi, who dedicated much of his life to preserving video game history where companies themselves often fail, seemed excited to finally share some of the rare video game history he was able to document by cooperating with Wata. But the response he got was not entirely enthusiastic. Some people responded with surprise and anger that he would work with Wata, which has been accused of making video game history harder to share with the public and contributing to a speculative investment bubble.
“Dump the ROM to the public and let the collectors have the cart and PCB with the original code,” one person said. The “ROM,” or “read-only memory,” is where a video game’s code is stored on older games, and to “dump” it means copying it from the original physical media so it can be shared with others online. “You hoarding the code doesn’t mean shit to us.”
“I'm actually pretty shocked to hear that you're working with WATA,” another person said. “They're making big strides to completely destroy the retro gaming market and make retro games inaccessible to the general public, which goes against your entire ethos.”
Working with Wata has allowed Cifaldi to look at a wild gamut of games, including early review copies of Silent Hill 2 (likely to be roughly the same as what later shipped), or incomplete versions of Final Fantasy X marked at 80 percent done (likely to be at least slightly different than the retail version). Prototypes really vary.
As part of the process, Cifaldi creates a digital backup and produces a public report of his findings. He cannot share the digital backup—legal questions of copyright aside, the data is owned by the person submitting the game to Wata—but it technically exists. That way, while the buyers and sellers of these prototypes might not upload a copy for the public to enjoy, Cifaldi’s work ensures they are not lost forever. Now, there’s a record. And if something happens to the original material, or the owner loses a copy of their back, Cifaldi has a redundant copy.
Plucking random people on Twitter is rarely the path towards a cohesive argument, but it does underscore a legitimate tension between preservation and the increasingly lucrative world of private video game collecting, albeit one Cifaldi sees as the only path he can take.
“I'm really not interested in how people with wealth choose to hoard it, and I don't think collecting out-of-print antiques is some kind of noble pursuit,” said Cifaldi in an interview with Waypoint. “My job is preserving video game history, so I go wherever that's needed, and sometimes that means intervening in the private collector's world to make sure these items are being handled correctly.”
Rare video game sales have exploded over the last few years, a combination of aging millennials with disposable cash and nostalgia to mine, and an ongoing pandemic that’s kept many people at home and seeking new hobbies—like buying, selling, and collecting objects. Last August, a pristine and sealed copy of the original Super Mario Bros. sold for $2 million. A few years ago, the same game in roughly the same condition sold for $100,150. And only a few years before that, Super Mario Bros. sold for $30,000. It was remarkable at the time.
“The figures we're seeing now for sealed and graded copies of incredibly common games like Super Mario 64 (millions of copies sold!) really came out of nowhere for me,” said former games journalist Jeremy Parish, co-host of the podcast Retronauts and media curator at Limited Run Games, a publisher focused on physical media. “I mean, even impossibly rare releases of games for NeoGeo were only selling for five figures a few years ago, and that system is the perfect confluence of low print runs and deep-pocketed collectors.”
“Grading” is the process by which professionals evaluate the quality and authenticity of an object, and is not exclusive to video games or other nerdy hobbies. It’s standard practice.
The exploding high value of rare video games will make a few people rich, but it also raises important questions about who owns video game history. Selling a sealed copy of Super Mario 64 at auction for $1.5 million doesn’t make much of a difference to anyone other than the person who got rich selling it, but is more complicated with prototypes of existing or unreleased games—truly undocumented parts of history that switch hands between a few determined or deep pocketed collectors.
What happens when it starts becoming impossible to document that history?
One important element in the last few years has been the professionalization of grading. Is it sealed? How well is it sealed? Is the box damaged? How much is it damaged? Grading highly influences the amount a game can and is sold for. There are several video game grading companies, but the one that’s attracted the most attention—and was recently purchased for an undisclosed amount by a larger company involved in hobbyist grading—is Wata Games.
“I fall more on the side of WATA and their ilk being a grift designed to make a small group of people a lot of money in a short, unsustainable bubble,” said Parish.
Wata, which describes itself on the company’s website as “a young company, born from the community of video game collectors,” was founded by Deniz Kahn in 2017.
“I’ve been a collector my entire life,” said Kahn in an interview with Waypoint.
The bombastic headlines and ever-increasing sale numbers are fixated on older, well-known games, but as Wata gained notoriety and respect, collectors also started coming to it with versions of games that had never been shipped in a box, or were never finished.
“While the market was very nascent at Wata’s outset,” said Kahn, “prototype collecting and preservation were an even more niche subset of collecting. Although we were confident that we could provide a high degree of confidence and robust analyses through our prototype authentication services, we quickly realized the complexity of prototypes and due to the inherent lack of resources for education we made some errors along the way.”
The errors Kahn alludes to are instances where Wata graded a prototype, granting it the weight of authenticity, before realizing it was not what it seemed. In 2020, there was an eBay listing for a Wata-graded prototype of Spectre, a Battlezone-esque tank action game, on sale for $850. But SNES Central, a long running website devoted to documenting Nintendo’s console, quickly called out the listing as “not a real prototype,” before outlining the evidence.
“I'm really not interested in how people with wealth choose to hoard it, and I don't think collecting out-of-print antiques is some kind of noble pursuit. My job is preserving video game history, so I go wherever that's needed.”
Evan G, who runs SNES Central, had saved “every single SNES prototype” on eBay for a decade. The same seller also tried selling another prototype Evan was suspicious about.
“All of these facts really goes to show that Wata has not done their homework on these ‘prototypes,’” said Evan, “and should not have authenticated them. Generally speaking, when people are authenticating something, they should have in depth knowledge of what they are authenticating. This, and several other Wata graded prototypes that I have seen are clearly not prototypes.”
Soon after, Wata contacted Evan and acknowledged the mistake, and told Evan “they will be reaching out to experts such as myself to try to create a better system,” even as Evan acknowledged the entire notion of authenticating prototypes was itself a fraught endeavor.
The eBay page was also taken down, noting there was “an error with the listing.”
It’s at this point that Cifaldi and the Video Game History Foundation stepped into the picture.
“My career in video game prototype preservation started as an anonymous rando on the internet screaming at collectors about how they're hoarding history,” said Cifaldi. “I was a complete turd, but I was also in high school. After a while I came to realize that these hobbyists are by and large the source for these prototype games, they're the bloodhounds actually doing the work and finding these things. So if I wanted them online, maybe peeing in the pool wasn't a good strategy.”
In other words, whatever you think of people who buy, sell, and potentially hoard pieces of video game history, absent video game companies suddenly opening their archives (if they have archives at all), we’re utterly reliant on the people who want shelves full of these things.
“Has the existence of WATA made my job harder? Yeah, probably,” said Cifaldi. “The kinds of things I buy to preserve are more expensive than ever now that they've managed to get the super rich collectors from the comic and sports cards world interested in sealed Super Marios or whatever, and that has trickled down to the prototype material I try and save. Anyone following the collector forums over the last ten years saw this coming, the sharks have been circling for a long time now. No matter what caused it, old video games are expensive as hell now and I don't think that's going to stop, even though I'd very much like it to. But my feelings don't affect change, my actions do, and right now collectors are funneling their prototypes through WATA, so that's where I'm butting in and running triage.”
On Twitter recently, Cifaldi jokingly noted this decision was “all part of an elaborate ruse that finally paid off 17 years later when Wata paid me a few bucks.”
But Cifaldi also saw what happened with Wata misidentifying prototypes. He’d already been friendly with the folks over there; Kahn remembers meeting Cifaldi at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo in 2017, and Kahn was a frequent visitor of Lost Levels, Cifaldi’s “website about unreleased games,” as far back as 2008.
In 2003, Cifaldi dressed in a pirate outfit—an allusion to the fact that piracy hugely contributes to maintaining a timeline of gaming history—and paid for a booth at the Classic Gaming Expo to promote Lost Levels project.
“While Frank doesn’t identify as a video game collector per se, he is someone who many collectors and enthusiasts like myself have looked up to for years,” said Kahn. “He’s been very clear about his mission and his approach—I always have and continue to admire Frank and his broader vision greatly.”
A basic idea that emerged from the conversations the two had with one another was having Cifaldi examine what was coming through Wata, attempt to verify (or debunk) authenticity, and as noted, make a private digital backup and produce a written record of the findings.
“When I said that I wouldn't do this unless all of the information I provided was public record, he didn't fight it at all,” said Cifaldi. “You'd have to ask him but I think he recognized that it's ultimately good for everyone.”
“He’s the authority in this field,” said Kahn. “It would have been foolish to impose constraints or tell him how to craft his process, especially if it wasn’t compatible with how we were doing things (it wasn’t).”
This process has been ongoing since late 2020, but again, was only recently disclosed by Cifaldi, because it was only recently that people who’d paid for the service of authentication through Wata had started receiving their items back in the mail, allowing them to be sold with Wata’s grading approval. The difference now, however, is that those items are being sold alongside an ongoing series of public reports about the objects, too.
The first batch of reports contains information on 125 different submissions, like this one:
Madden 96 for the Sony PlayStation is an unreleased game. Object is an Electronic Arts-branded CD-R, identical in appearance to several discs of this era from the Video Game History Foundation archives which we can substantiate are authentic. The game’s title (Madden 96 PSX) and a date (11/23/95) are present. This game shows its compilation date as an in-game screen, meaning we can easily see where it fits in its development timeline. The latest version currently available online was compiled on November 2nd, 1995. The data on this disc was compiled November 23rd, 1995, meaning it is the latest version we know to exist. This also means the data here is, currently, unique.
“Given the authentic disc used and the unique data,” reads the report, “we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of this item.”
The rise of companies like Wata— they’re not alone—the argument goes, contributed to the ever-rising price of old games, prototypes or not. Working in collaboration with Wata, especially with someone of Cifaldi’s respect in the preservation community, grants Wata itself another layer of legitimacy—or illegitimacy.
“I don't begrudge Frank for making use of the WATA process to back up and catalogue archaeological rarities,” said Parish. “The people who collect prototypes and unreleased games have a reputation for being extremely churlish with access to these one-of-a-kind items, and I think it's great that he's managed to insinuate himself into the system in order to document material that very likely would never otherwise see the light of day. I don't really know that there's a better way to make that happen, so taking advantage of a questionable system in order to do good deeds still counts as a good deed, in my book. It's not like WATA scandals are doing real harm, after all... it's still just video games.”
Cifaldi’s argument is that, as someone who’s been tracking down video game history for literal decades, your only options are flawed ones, and this is simply the latest obstacle.
“I've been wrestling unreleased and unfinished games from the private collecting world and popping them online for over twenty years now,” he said, “and WATA is just the current face of the same high-end collector mentality that I've been dealing with that entire time.”
Wata doesn’t see itself as the bad guy, but merely the chosen messenger. If it wasn’t Wata, it would be someone else. The rise of video game prices would have happened anyway.
“The rapid rise in price of video games is similar to what we’ve seen in other collectible categories including sports memorabilia, trading cards, comic books and most recently, NFTs,” said Kahn. “[...] One of the results of higher prices is that it incentivizes folks to unearth more of these treasures from their attics and potentially save them from dumpsters where they could have ended up.”
Hypotheticals are exactly that: a theory. The reality we live in is the one where some of the biggest collectors are coming to Wata in search of their stamp of approval, and it’s now written into Wata contracts that their goods are documented and backed up by Cifaldi, too.
This process is a personal one on both sides, too.
“A few of them [collectors] were turds too, but most of them are decent people,” said Cifaldi. “They're all driven by the same love of video game history that drives me, even if they express that love differently than I do. Private collectors are part of the preservation ecosystem for literally any artform, if you don't believe that go ask any museum curator and they'll set you straight. My fostering those relationships, my going to retro video game shows since literally the first one and having facetime and real human interactions with collectors, is what has gotten many unreleased games online, either directly from my actions or because my work inspired them.”
All told, in Cifaldi’s career, he said he’s helped get roughly 300 prototypes online in various forms.
“One of the results of higher prices is that it incentivizes folks to unearth more of these treasures from their attics and potentially save them from dumpsters where they could have ended up.”
It’s likely many of the prototypes that pass through Cifaldi’s hands and hard drives will never be seen by the public, and there are open questions about whether all of that information should be centralized in a single place. But it’s a complex situation without easy answers, because the video game industry itself has ignored the problem. They made this mess.
Just look at how people flipped for the massive trove of leaks—which may or may not have been hacked—that came out of Nintendo in 2020, which provided a glimpse at so much of Nintendo history the company has shown no interest in sharing, like alternate designs for Yoshi, emails between Nintendo and Star Fox developer Argonaut Software, and more.
But it’s also the case that when you hear the word “prototype,” your mind starts buzzing about an unreleased gem that’s never seen the light of day when, as Cifaldi points out, most of his time with video game prototypes is much more banal and boring. Most prototypes are nearly the same or exactly the same as the games that eventually shipped. Maybe the biggest difference is a few bugs that were fixed before the game was done.
And yet, even those differences, though, are history. Every detail matters.
“I'm at a point now where when something important comes up for sale, the collectors call me instead of buying it, because they know sometimes a game is bigger than them,” said Cifaldi. “That's something that only happens with positivity, empathy, trust, and some damn patience. Sometimes to preserve history you have to play the long game.”