Auditing a Graded Video Game

Anyone who’s read my blog knows that I am not a fan of video game grading. Grading companies, in my experience, do marginal quality work, and at a superficial level that cannot be audited once an item has been sealed. The holy plastic WATA box is all too often used to convince sellers that their item somehow has more value than it actually does, and buyers the frustration of passing over finds because of greedy sellers who drank the kool-aid. Overall, video game grading has done more harm to the hobby than good.

I was lucky enough to find one seller who must have been frustrated that their VGA graded game hadn’t sold for the inflated prices they were led to believe they could get for it, and so I made a reasonable offer on it based on what an ungraded sealed copy would cost me. They accepted. I decided to use this as an experiment to crack open the enclosure and audit VGA’s work, and thought I’d share my findings so that the community would know what to expect a graded game actually looks like behind the plastic.

Legend of Zelda 2, graded as “Silver” by VGA with a score of 80. According to VGA’s grading scale, the highest grade within this level, an 85, could most often be described as being near ‘case fresh’, with the lowest grade within this level, a 75, being somewhat ‘shelf worn’ but still relatively nice.

I’ve been a long-time collector of Famicom Disk System (FDS) games. The Famicom, Nintendo’s Japanese predecessor to the Nintendo Entertainment System, is where many early NES games were first born before coming to the United States. Many of our most beloved games saw their initial debut on Famicom Disk, such as Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Excitebike, and what is known in the US as Super Mario Bros. 2, before Doki Doki Panic was rebranded with Mario characters. Many of these titles are rare to find on disk sealed and in great condition. While some dumb Americans are paying $800,000 for an early sealed copy of Zelda, the original Legend of Zelda was released on Famicom Disk System a whopping 18 months before coming to the US – with better sound, better artwork, slightly different graphics and gameplay, and without the gold spray paint gimmickry. They’re also a lot more affordable, since WATA hasn’t been overhyping their value. While everything in retro gaming has come up considerably, $1200 for an original sealed copy of Zelda – on a medium that predates the earliest of US copies – is still a steal.

It is both telling and conspicuous that WATA won’t grade these more rare, sealed Famicom Disk games (I asked); this is literally where it all started for many of the most popular titles, so you’d think a legitimate grading company would be interested in them – especially a company with the slogan “WE. GRADE. EVERYTHING.” The truth is, FDS is a lot more rare than the 40 million copies of some US games. WATA needs a steady stream of product to turn a profit on grading, and so their business model relies on only the illusion of rarity to boost fair market value. Actual rarity would bankrupt the company. Assessing items like FDS titles would devalue and cannibalize their much larger market in US games, which they’ve invested considerable money allegedly manipulating the market value of.

VGA, a rival of WATA, graded this copy of Zelda 2. It scored an 80, and is labeled “NM” for “near mint”. An 80 is in the middle of their “silver” scale. According to their website, this sits between an 85, describing an item that is “case fresh”, and a 75, described as “somewhat ‘shelf worn’ but still relatively nice.”

Casing Removal

Unfortunately, because it is encased in plastic, it’s impossible to examine the item for flaws. Things like scratches, pitting, and wear are well hidden beneath the casing. The condition of the flaps and edges cannot be examined due to the box being mounted around the edges. A UV light’s effectiveness is also greatly diminished because of the UV protective properties of the plastic, making it difficult to validate the sticker seal or identify any foreign substances on the case or media. So how can we audit VGA’s grading competence with all of these challenges?

The Zdziarski method for un-grading a game.

Problem solved. Don’t get too freaked out. While this looks like a shattered mess, the plastic actually broke free about as easily as peanut brittle, and great care was taken to ensure no pieces made any contact with or applied any pressure to the item. I started at each of the bottom corners, where I was able to fit a small screw driver in to make the first surgical incision into the case. From there, I used the wire cutters to snip around the edges of the case, carefully holding the top of the case over the item down so that no fractures originated from that area. Painter’s tape also comes in handy for taping off the areas where you want to minimize fracture. Finally, I lifted the top of the case in such a way to fracture it from the very bottom of the case. It came up safely and flawlessly. There is no graceful way to do this, unfortunately. A heat gun to loosen the glue would risk melting the item and damaging the disk. A hot knife has similar risks. Cutting it with an electric saw would risk harmful cracking into the item, or harmful vibrations, electrical interference, or static electricity that could have damaged the media. Going slow, and taking your time will protect the item, but you will utterly destroy the case.

Before we take a closer look at this game, let’s review VGA’s grading scale for our score range.

An “80” is designated as “near mint”.  So what does a game with a “NM” rating look like when it’s not hidden under all that plastic? Let’s take a look at this near mint game.

Liquid Damage

The first thing immediately noticeable was the stain along the front edge of the case, with a foreign brown substance. Possibly a soft drink, and hopefully not some form of biological discharge. This stain seems to run from the larger brown patch on the left side of the photo all the way up to to the top of the game title, where it tapers off across the front of the case. Because it was obscured by the mounts at the edges, it was not noticible until after removing the game from the plastic. Closer inspection reveals cracks in the case underneath the stain; it was probably dropped onto a surface (floor perhaps) where the stain transferred onto the case.

A brown stain running along the front edge of the game was immediately noticeable after removing the item from its enclosure.
A closeup of the affected region. Cracks can be seen in the same area of the stain, suggesting the item was likely dropped onto the surface where the transfer occurred.

Ah, everyone’s favorite game: soft-drink or poop. Could it be blood? Was someone brutally murdered with this copy of Zelda 2? That would be really convenient; WATA would totally rate games that have been used as murder weapons as uber rare and even more valuable than double black seal hang tag games.

Try and say those words together, “brown stain” … “near mint”. It just kind of rolls off the tongue. Mmmm. It actually didn’t roll off. I tried to remove it gently, and that stuff is stuck there for eternity.

Surface and Finish Damage

So they missed a stain on the case… a very noticeable, sticky brown stain – and cracks – but fortunately, this game was graded ‘near mint’, so I can put that in my eBay auction along with a L@@K or two. Stain aside, if VGA graded this item as “near mint”, then you’d expect the rest of the case must be in excellent condition. Let’s take a look.

A significant amount of scratches and scuffs on the back of the case.

It’s very obvious that the case is heavily scratched and scuffed up on both sides. In addition to many common straight-line scratches, there are a significant number of circular scratches on both the front and back, suggesting someone tried to clean or polish the case, causing further damage to it instead.

The surface of the item is very dulled compared to others I own, making this look more like a botched polishing job. I hope this wasn’t VGA’s cleaning service. (If it was, I’d sure like to know how they missed the poop stain). What if the swirl marks are directly tied to the brown stain? Maybe it was dropped in the toilet 30 years ago, and the swirl marks came from trying to clean it. As difficult as the remaining stain is to get out, this would explain the circular scratches and the dulled finish. Toilet drops are even more rare than a double black seal hangtag game with a typo and Mario missing his pants.

Kidding aside, evidence of liquid and subsequent cleaning or polishing should have given pause to VGA about the condition of the disk itself. It’s obvious something was used to scrub this case, and that calls the condition of the magnetic media inside into question.

Let’s take a look at the front.

Significant circular scratches across the front of the game are an indication that someone very ignorantly attempted to clean or polish the front of the case.

By this point, my facial expression matches that of Link’s, this case doesn’t look anywhere “near mint”, or even “slightly shelf worn”. It looks like it got chewed on by a two-year old, and then thrown under the refrigerator for 30 years.

Seal Damage

Unfortunately the seal itself also has considerable wear and scratches that are immediately noticeable to the naked eye. In addition to being worn, the time it spent in its plastic jail caused the sticker to become compressed, losing its original shape. That’s correct: being encased actually caused damage to the item.

The seal had considerable wear and scratches, in addition to many vertical scratches on the case underneath the seal.

Ultraviolet Analysis

Under ultraviolet light, many of the issues become more visible. The disk was free from dust or other particulates. The underprinting on the seal (the hidden VOID text) is consistent with an authentic seal. There were no traces of adhesive around the seal that would have suggested it was re-glued. There was no material caught under the seal or at the edges, which would have been an indication the seal had lifted. The edges of the folds looked clean and were without cracking or stress lines, indicating the item had not been opened. There were no visible scuff marks along the sides of the case indicating the items had been removed. In spite of the case’s condition, the item itself did not show any signs of being tampered with. These are all some of the things I look for when evaluating an FDS game.

A 365nm light reveals the underprinting (invisible VOID text) underneath the seal (faint in this photo, but present). No traces of adhesive were found around the seal, nor was any debris found stuck under the seal, which would have indicated a seal that had dried up and was re-glued. The wear of the seal is more apparent under UV light.

The ultraviolet highlighted the nasty stain on the case. Since it is visible with the naked eye, there’s no need to post even more gross pictures of it, but if you want to see what poop cola looks like under UV, here you go:

365nm ultraviolet light is excellent at causing many foreign substances to fluoresce, including biological fluids.
The disk was clean from any particulates; the small specks seen in this photo are on the case. A disk that has been handled is likely to fluoresce a noticeable amount of dead skin, dust, or oils.
I typically examine the folds of the top flaps under higher magnification to ensure there are no cracks or stress lines, indicating the item may have been opened. Such cracks can also be apparent under ultraviolet light. No evidence of cracking was found here. Faint vertical scratches are sometimes present if a manual or disk has been removed. No such scratches are present here.
While the corner of the price tag was damaged, further contributing to its overall condition, this was obvious with the naked eye. The ultraviolet helps to ensure that the sticker was not transplanted, and that no liquids or other foreign substances were spilled on the price tag or the UPC sticker. The UPC sticker (not shown) will always show a splotchy pattern underneath, consistent with the adhesive that was used. Ultraviolet can show evidence of stickers that were lifted and then re-glued to different boxes, or otherwise tampered with.

I’ve covered more on authenticating FDS games at the bottom of this post.

Conclusion

Unless “NM” stands for “not mint”, the assessment given to this item by VGA is not only inaccurate, it’s downright incompetent. Perhaps it should be called “far mint”. Using their grading scale, I would rate this in the bronze class, at a 65 or 70. Were it not for the cracks caused by the drop, the more severe scratches, scuffs, finish damage, and the poor condition of the seal, it’s possible that, with a little proper cleaning of the foreign brown substance, this item could have made a slightly higher score, however many details about this item seem to have been overlooked. These sound like small increments, but in the world of collectibles, translates to significant changes in fair market value, which VGA charges a percentage of when grading an item.

Grading was conceived so that prospective buyers could feel confident in the item they’re purchasing, yet under no circumstances does this item deserve an 80; it does a disservice to the entire hobby to make unsubstantiated grades like this one. This is a clear cut case of over-grading. I am picking on VGA here because this item happens to be graded by them, however over-grading (and inconsistency in the grading process) is a widespread problem. In my opinion, VGA accurately authenticated that the item was still sealed inside the box, although I’m not sure if they used any scientific method to get to the conclusion, or if it was pure dumb luck. Given how poor of an assessment they made on the condition of the item, I’m inclined to believe they wouldn’t know a tampered product if they saw one.

There is no substitute for examining an item with your own two eyes. The narrative that grading companies want to tell about your game – hidden behind plastic to cover over their flaws – is not one that you would likely swallow had you seen the game free from its plastic box. Grading only adds value if you swallow the blue pill and accept the carefully protected reality they’ve set in front of you. Shatter the glass, and you’ll see that reality may not be as great as that little number would lead you to believe. At the end of the day, I could have purchased a better quality, ungraded copy of this game for less money. VGA’s grading of this game did nothing but hide serious flaws, inflate the price, and enable the original seller to lie about the condition of the item.