There are less than three thousand people in the world who have a physical copy of Devespresso Games' Vambrace: Cold Soul sitting on their shelf. I am one of them. What wacky circumstances resulted in this, and how did I get to be so privileged? Well, it's a long story that involves the bizarre state of physical game collecting in the 2020s.

Collecting tangible games these days means paying more than everyone else and playing games late. It means owning a disc with only half a game on it, yet trying to convince yourself you have a "solid" copy. It means...feeling like a chump, basically. Though companies continue to support physical media, and the next generation of consoles will still take discs (if you own the slightly more expensive model), they aren't really doing that much to help prop up physical formats beyond the bare minimum.

The first time I opened a physical Switch case, it was almost mocking me. This was the smallest case Nintendo had used to date, and despite that, it consisted of a giant section of unused space with the game card tucked into a dinky little corner. The cards have become so small that Nintendo has to make them taste bad to prevent people from swallowing them. And the notch to hold any extra material was clearly added as an afterthought...directly above the card, it offers almost no space for anything substantial and means all the companies that DO want to print manuals have to make them super-tiny. Meanwhile, all that real estate on the other side has no notch, so it goes unused.

Is collecting still worth it? What determines the value of something? Despite what every seller on eBay will tell you, it's not rarity alone. Every hair on your armpit is unique and individual, but that doesn't make them valuable. Value equals rarity plus DEMAND. The more people want something, and the less there is of it, the more they'll be willing to pay to get it. With games, this usually happens to something that no one cares about during its release, but everyone wants much later. There's no real way to predict this with 100% accuracy, so collecting modern games for investment purposes is mostly a waste of money. You won't truly know what's worth anything until it's too late.

Games aren't alone in this. Comic books and trading cards were considered throwaway objects until the late 80s when some of them started becoming seriously valuable. In response, public opinion pivoted: An army of geeky prospectors invaded the comics shops, figuring the magic alchemy of the market would eventually turn their #1 holo-foil issues of Bloodsplat, Splatblood and Youngsplurt into GOLD. There were those who knew the truth. A Calvin and Hobbes strip mocked the speculator boom as it was happening. Hobbes pointed at Calvin's mylar-bagged issue of Captain Steroid and said "How's that going to be valuable in the future if everybody in America has five copies?" Calvin replied, "We're all counting on the other kids' mothers to throw them away." There are actually a LOT of calamities we could have avoided if we had listened to Hobbes.

If there IS one predictable thing about physical video games, it's the temporary rise in value that happens to them 15 to 20 years after their initial releases, driven by nostalgic twentysomethings who lost the collections they had as kids. The Gamecube is currently experiencing this value its day, the PS2 outsold it by a wide margin, yet THAT machine hasn't experienced the same bump because the PS2's base was mostly adults, and the Gamecube's was mostly kids.

The Switch has a large under-12 market as well, and I have no idea what the nostalgic market for that device is going to look like twenty years from now. Where are they going to find physical cards of their favorites when half the lineup is so rare? Or will they even bother? The strongest argument for physical games is that games that remain exclusively digital will simply disappear with no record of their existence. But that's something I'm beginning to question. I remember when the Wii Shop Channel went offline and there were thinkpieces about how all those digital games would now be lost forever. One week later, I found a YouTube video that told me how I could load a modded Wii with every single Wii Shop game ever made by simply downloading the lot through a torrent. Digital game preservation may not be as difficult an issue as we think, but that's assuming Internet piracy remains easy.

The last time there was a Portland Retro Gaming Expo, I brought all this up with famed collector Pat Contri at his booth. This was our conversation:

ME: "What do you think collecting is going to look like in twenty years with the move to digital, and all these physical copies being so rare? Will nostalgic gamers find recreating their Switch libraries too expensive?"

PAT: "Hmm."

ME: "Or will they even care? Will they be so used to downloading their games that they'll look for a bootleg digital solution instead? I guess that depends on enough people being Internet-savvy to realize that's an option, as well as being okay with piracy of older titles. What do you think about that?"

PAT: "Hmm."

ME: "I'll tell you one thing though...the value of these Limited Run releases could actually rise faster than we think. What if Nintendo makes the Switch 2 backwards compatible with the original Switch's game cards, but they DON'T allow your eShop purchases to transfer over? That is exactly the kind of thing I can see them doing."

PAT: "Hmm."

At that point my credit card purchase of Pat Contri's Super NES Guidebook went through, so I had to leave.

When I started collecting games, I was working on a thin budget, and I focused strictly on the titles I was most interested in playing myself. I wasn't just thinking of the present, but the future. There were titles from the past that I wanted which were now too expensive, and I figured I had best focus on the ones I want NOW while they remained at market value. The prices these days of games like Skies Of Arcadia Legends has proven me right.

I've continued this selective practice to this day, even though it's making less and less sense. Better to get the games you want now, when they're new and affordable, rather than later, when they're hard to find and expensive. This philosophy mixed with the small shelf life of Limited Run games means I now own more physical games for Switch than I've owned for any other console. I haven't played over half of them, and to be honest, I'm beginning to wonder if it's worth it. You can fit all your digital games into one Switch and take it anywhere you go, but even at their small size I can't cart around EVERY physical Switch card I own. Digital games are always on my menu, but if I want to play one of the physicals I have to remove the Switch from the cradle, pop out the old game and insert the new one, every single time. Physical games are really starting to feel like a burden.

There are actually games that I've skipped when they were new and hot, because the physicals weren't out or even announced, and I didn't want to buy them twice. I won't have experienced Untitled Goose Game until later this fall because I was waiting for a physical copy, and I still haven't played Baba Is You for the same reason. Just getting them is a have to be on exactly the right website, at exactly the right time, and there is now more than one limited-print game merchant to keep track of. I was wondering aloud one day when Limited Run was ever going to offer a physical for the indie hit GRIS. Then I discovered another site called iAm8Bit had already offered GRIS as a Switch physical, but didn't really announce it, and made barely any copies. By the time I was aware of its existence, the Switch GRIS was the most expensive physical card you could buy secondhand. I was not happy.

iAm8Bit would later bring back GRIS with a different cover, and an open preorder time of one month, to appease angry customers.

The problem is, every time I think I'm going to finally surrender to the digital future, some horrible, anti-comsumer thing happens that makes me second-guess that decision. Most recently, it happened with Nintendo's Super Mario 3D All-Stars release. This is a collection of Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy, three demanded ports in one, finally hitting the Switch after months of rumors. Yet they will only be selling the collection for six months, for reasons that will never make sense to anyone but the secret-keepers of Nintendo of Japan's dark dungeons. I don't just mean the physical will be a limited release...I mean they'll pull the digital one as well. After that point, you won't be able to buy the games AT ALL on Switch, and if it weren't for the physical version, not even eBay would be an option.

So maybe chasing physical games still has some merit. But these days I not only have to keep an eye on Limited Run Games, but iAm8Bit, Special Reserve Games, Super Rare Games, Physicality Games, and many others to avoid another GRIS incident. These companies spring up like weeds, and last year, another one appeared in the UK calling itself Gamefairy. I found out about these guys when they sent out their press release for their second physical game ever, a deluxe edition of Vambrace: Cold Soul. Only 3000 copies would ever be made; only 2,500 would ever be sold directly.

Vambrace wasn't even out yet at the time, on any system. All I knew about it was its plot: there are rare objects of great power called Vambraces, the Bowie-eyed heroine of the game has one and the big villain has another. He's taken over an entire kingdom and turned it into an ice prison, and she is one of the few who can stand up to him, but she'll need a posse of human-animal characters first. I was interested enough to secure a preorder, BUT the only physical Gamefairy was offering was the Deluxe Collector's Edition with a bunch of extra items in it.

It's really annoying when limited-print sellers do this. Most of the time, I just want the game. I don't need an artbook and soundtrack for every darn thing. To make matters weirder, the majority of these Deluxe Editions are offered before the game even comes out. How should I know if I'll be crazy enough about a game to pay extra for a coffee mug with the hero's picture on it, if I haven't even played the game yet? A lot of the demand for these big boxes only surfaces post-release, but only the affuent can truly take advantage of that fact...and if you're already rich you don't need to be pulling schemes like this on the less fortunate, you bourgeois pig. I passed on Vambrace that day.

Several months later, I checked back in to the Gamefairy site to see if they had anything else. Just Vambrace, and to my shock, not only were plenty of preorders still open, they were actually at a discount. Not a good sign for Gamefairy or the team behind Vambrace, but good for me. I remembered how barely anyone caught GRIS and then everyone wanted it after it was gone. Depending on how Vambrace turned out, this could be another GRIS in the making. I ordered a copy. I didn't know if I would like it, but at least at that moment, I had the option of owning it.

There is no better illustration for how looney-tunes the whole collector's market has gotten than what happened in the spring of 2019. Yet another limited print company appeared, and only existed for a subatomic period of time before blinking out of existence. They immediately caught the attention of Limited Run, because they were calling themselves "Limited Rare" and their logo was a barely altered version of the Limited Run logo. Their one and only product was a PS4 physical for "Poop Slinger," a game crude in every defintion of the word, where you flung piles of dung at badly rendered cars. It gets sketchier: this game was being offered on April 1, and no other day.

What would you have done? Most gamers saw the stunt for the obvious scam it was and ignored Limited Rare. And after Limited Run pressed down on them with lawyers -- which took a matter of days, if that -- the operation disappeared.

Then something crazy happened. All 84 people who had dared to give Limited Rare their credit card info actually got a copy of Poop Slinger in the mail.

Pictured hands belong to Metal Jesus Rocks

From what I have heard, there is a limit to how low you can set a print order for a market console game. I'm not certain what that limit is, but the general assumption is 1,000 at the very least. Limited Rare had to have more copies of Poop Slinger than they ever sent out, and maybe they figured they would sell the rest of them though their website over the next few months. That site was now shut down, and no other copies of Poop Slinger beyond the purchased 84 have ever appeared anywhere. The rest might have been confiscated as part of paying off their debt, who knows.

It's also possible the entire thing was an elaborate prank designed to make the collecting community look as stupid as possible, and if so, then BRA---VO. It's exactly how I would have done it: pick the cheapest, most embarrasing game possible, print barely any of it, and then watch people fight over it, for my own amusement. Poop Slinger is now the single most valuable Playstation 4 game in the world. Auctions, when they're rare enough to happen, fetch thousands. The game itself can be had digitally on Sony's store for pocket change.

Is today's limited-print market being driven by foolish, naive speculators who plan on poly-bagging their Mint #1 holo-foil copies of poop-themed material? And isn't that kind of what I was doing with Vambrace: Cold Soul?

Speaking of Vambrace. I made my order in January. It wasn't until March that Gamefairy closed the preorder window, and this was much later than they had originally intended to, but...y'know. It also took a much longer time for the game to be sent out than they had planned, partially due to "The Rona" and everything else that was going on. By the time a package from Gamefairy showed up in my mailbox, it was July and I had forgotten I ever bought this game. The world had forgotten about Vambrace too. Any pre-release buzz had dissipated months ago.

Here are the contents of the super-rare Collector's Edition Limited Print Run of Vambrace: Cold Soul. The box contained everything you see here, including the soundtrack, the artbook, a Certificate of Authenticity and a keychain no one will ever use. And is that a coaster? Why, I believe it is.

With the exception of the game, it's all going back in the box, to await one of two circumstances: a $600,000 sale on eBay when Vambrace suddenly becomes the most desired game in the world, or a dump-off at Goodwill by my descendants in the year 2075. I did take a look at the artbook though, out of curiosity. And that's when I started feeling guilty about acting so cynical toward this purchase.

The artbook is great. It's crammed with lavish illustrations and heavy explanations on what makes the society of people with fox ears different from the society of people with antlers. Clearly, a lot of thought went into building the world of Vambrace: Cold Soul. A lot of hard work went into crafting a living, breathing, detailed world. And for what? All the copies in a measly 3,000 print run to gather dust? I was one of the few who would ever even see this book. That's pretty sad.

I still don't know if I'm ever going to sit down and play this game (we'll see what time has to say about that), but it's gotten a lot more likely. The book does a great job selling its appeal. Vambrace: Cold Soul is available digitally for PC on Steam and GOG, and for Switch through the eShop. Also....

....the game is back up on Gamefairy, same stock. They still haven't sold all 3000, and perhaps they never will.