How To Tell If Your NES Game Is a First Print: The Ultimate Guide

NES CartridgesWondering how to determine whether your NES game is a first print? Not to be discouraging but, uh, good luck with that.

There’s no “rule of thumb” when determining the first print status of NES games. The process and details are different for each game.

Furthermore, this valuable info may be hard to come by, guarded as trade secrets by shrewd investors. It may also be unknown and/or highly disputed.

More importantly, does it even matter if your NES game is a first print? And what is a first print anyway?

Ha! We’ve now gone full circle, back to “how to determine if your NES game is a first print.”

These points are just a light sampling of the chaos and confusion—the maddening rabbit hole of buying and selling first-print NES games. The good news is, we’ve done our research and compiled all the answers you need to shed some light on this mystery.

This definitive guide includes common questions and answers, specific examples, and how to cut through the BS that others may try to sell you. For everything you need to know about first-print NES games, read this guide.

What Is a “First Print?”

In video game terminology, a “first print” is a copy of a game that was released during the game’s first production run. Usually, this makes no difference to the content of the game. But there are often noticeable differences on the box and/or cartridge label.

Does It Matter?

Next, does it even matter if your NES game is a first print? Yes and no. It definitely matters to collectors who are looking specifically for a first print of a particular game.

These collectors usually want a copy in the best condition they can afford. They’ll pay top dollar (as in thousands of US Dollars) for a mint-condition CIB or sealed first print.

That said, it’s impossible to ascribe a dollar amount estimate to the status of “first print.” To start with, first prints aren’t always the rarest.

For some games, the population (number of copies) of a later printing is far lower than that of first print copies. Thus, due to their rarity, these later-produced copies are sometimes more valuable than their respective first prints.

Also, sales of rare retro games are often completely unpredictable. Case in point, a sealed copy of The Legend of Zelda, with a WATA grading of 9.6/A+ sold for $2,700 on eBay two months ago. The exact same copy of the game, in the same condition, sold 13 days later for $1,100 dollars less.

How Do You Know If an NES Game Is a First Print?

That’s the $144,000 question, as indicated by last year’s sale of the only known factory-sealed, first-print copy of Duck Hunt. Unfortunately, the answer is:

  • different for every game,
  • often unknown,
  • mostly guesswork,
  • the highly-guarded secret of professional investors, and/or
  • kind of a hustle.

Let’s explore these points one at a time, shall we?

Different for Every Game

Try to research “how to tell if your NES game is a first print.” Aside from this guide, the first thing you’ll find is that there’s no "rule of thumb" when it comes to determining the first prints of NES games (except for the “Black Box” series, which we’ll get to later).

Instead, each individual game has different (supposed) "tells" that "confirm" whether the game is a first print. However, the reason we put "confirm" in quotes is that these "tells" are unreliable and subject to dispute.

Uncertain Information

Even when most collectors agree on the tells regarding a particular game, new information may surface that debunks what we all thought was true. More importantly, in many instances, no two websites do agree on what counts as a first print.

For example, one site says that the "Left Bros" variant of Super Mario Bros. 3 is a first print. Another proves there were at least three publication runs of the "Left Bros" variant, only one of which is the true first print.

It’s also said that only the first print of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! had white bullet points on the label while later releases had orange bullet points. That would make the first print (the “White Bullet” variant) a 5-screw cartridge as it was released before Nintendo switched to the REV-A or 3-screw cartridge design. And yet, there are several “White Bullet” copies of Punch-Out!! on eBay with only 3 screws.

Are people just misinformed, relying on false or incomplete information? Or are a lot of these sellers just lying in order to sell bootlegs and other swindles?

Actually, yes and yes. There are many reasons for this, which we explain in detail below.

No “Rule of Thumb”

Let’s start with why there is no “rule of thumb” in this situation. It’s largely because there weren’t any “rules of thumb” that governed the production and packaging of these games in the first place.

It’s not like they thought to put “FIRST PRINT!” on the game boxes. Nor did they advertise every minor rebrand or packaging alteration in subsequent production runs.

These mundane details were in no way relevant to the original target demographic—that is, young boys aged 8-14. Plus, most NES games were made by third-party companies that followed their own packaging rules.

Insufficient Data

Still, there have to be records of these minor details that no one cared about at the time, right? Perhaps you’re hoping that some proactive NES collector in the 80s/90s kept a detailed account of every packaging alteration of every production run of all 716 officially licensed NES games, yes?

If you are, that’s extremely weird. Ignoring the fact that no human or 1980s computer even could handle such an enormous task, no one on earth would have tried. In fact, most adults at the time still thought that video games were a fad, thanks to the Video Game Crash of 1983.

Not Worth Noting

On the other hand, maybe each of the 100+ NES game development companies, most of which are now defunct, kept their own detailed records of irrelevant packaging changes, hm? Um, no, they didn’t because, again, people don’t keep records of irrelevant details that no one cares about.

The Tragic Death and Utter Failure of Pre-Digital Record Keeping

And even if they did (inexplicably waste all that time and effort), the records were probably printed on paper in an antique data storage device known as a “filing cabinet.” Most likely, once these game companies were bought out or ceased to exist, these hypothetical paper files were either shredded or lost in that government warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Alternatively, some NES developers continued long after the NES, like Konami. Still, it’s implausible that they’d waste their efforts a second time converting irrelevant paper records into irrelevant digital records.

Long story short, in the unlikely scenario that someone in the 1980s with future knowledge recorded the secret details we’d need to determine the first print status of NES games, it’s even more unlikely that said records still exist. Point being: any such records are now gone forever.

Does Anyone Know?

So, then, how does anyone know the truth about determining the first print status of NES games? It’s possible no one does.

But if anyone does know, it’s because they gained this expertise through years of extensive, hands-on research in the niche. And anyone willing to go to such lengths is most likely someone who earns their living through this knowledge, AKA, a retro game investor. Of course, in this instance, “earns their living” means “has the brass to charge someone $144,000 for a copy of Duck Hunt.”

A Secret Worth Keeping

So, then, why all the confusion? Why doesn’t everyone know what these investors know? Can’t they list this information on their websites to make it easy for the rest of us?

The answer to all these questions is that investors aren’t stupid. Remember that thing we said about the years of painstaking research? And the part where this knowledge is worth $144,000?

Putting in all that work just to give away that knowledge for free is like purposely going broke in the most difficult way possible. Obviously, investors want to keep this information to themselves to solidify their position as authorities with all the answers.

This way, the buyer has to take the investors at their word that a game is an authentic first print. Thus, the investors have all the bargaining power when buying and selling games.

A Catch 22

But wait, how does that work? If an investor is the only one with the knowledge to authenticate a game, then the buyer has no way to authenticate if they’re telling the truth.

These investors could just tell you a game is a first print even if it isn’t and you’d have to take their word for it. So, how do you know they’re not lying?

You don’t. That’s exactly the point of the investors keeping their insider knowledge to themselves.

But then, doesn’t the con backfire at this point? If the buyer can’t tell whether a game is a valuable first print, why would they still pay such a high asking price? How could they brag about their prestigious purchase if they can’t even prove its value to their friends and colleagues?

And if the investor doesn’t share their secret knowledge, how can they prove to the buyer that the game isn’t worthless? That’s where the hustle comes in.

Lies and Misinformation

As it stands, then, it may be that nobody knows for sure how to tell first print status. And those who do know keep their knowledge to themselves.

So how is it that NES games are still constantly being advertised and sold as “first prints” for hundreds of thousands of dollars? Strangely, it’s because it doesn’t really matter what’s true. It only matters that enough collectors agree to to the same terms, even if those terms are completely made up.

The real truth is, the info that confirms whether a game is first print or not is basically made up—educated guesses by serious investors. But, if enough buyers and sellers agree to call something true, it’s as true as it needs to be to sell a first print NES game.

How to Hustle

Take, for example, the supposed first print of Super Mario Bros. 3, the “Left Bros.” variant. Earlier, we mentioned a game collector who proved there was more than one publication run for this variant. Ironically, even he confirmed that this revelation is irrelevant.

Why? It’s because no one who’s buying or selling the variant knows about, talks about, or cares about this detail.

Yes, it’s true that not every “Left Bros.” variant is a first print. But no one in the marketplace cares, so it doesn’t matter.

The marketplace agrees that “Left Bros.” equals first print, period. Therefore, this “marketplace truth” trumps the actual truth and the first print status of Super Mario Bros. 3 is determined by this somewhat arbitrary detail.

How To Tell If Your NES Game Is a First Print: Actual Game Examples

Now here’s the good news. Although nobody can or will tell you how to accurately identify a first print, we are going to tell you something that’s infinitely more important.

Namely, here are the (currently up-to-date) official rules of how to determine the first print status of several specific NES games. To clarify, these are the “tells” that most buyers and sellers consider legit—the generally accepted details that indicate a first print.

Super Mario Bros. 3: The Left Bros Variant

Super Mario Bros 3 - Bros on the Left

The coveted “Left Bros” variant of Super Mario Bros. 3 is so named because the word “Bros” is positioned all the way to the left on the box and cartridge label. This version is regarded as a first print, whereas later releases place the word “Bros” in the middle next to the number 3.

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!: White Bullets

Mike Tyson - White Bullet Points

As mentioned, the first print of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is said to have white bullet points on the box and label while later printings have orange bullet points. Interestingly, this seems to be factually inaccurate.

You see, the game was first released on October 18, 1987. This was before Nintendo switched to the 3-screw REV-A cartridge design, which accounts for the game’s rare “5-screw” variant.

Case in point, Mega Man was released two months later as one of the last 5-screw NES cartridges produced. Thus, a first print of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! would definitely have 5 screws.

However, every legit 5-screw copy of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! has the bullets printed in orange, not white. So, although the “White Bullets” version seems to be the rarest variant, the true first print would have to be the 5-screw variant with orange bullets. Regardless, the buyers and sellers of the world have unanimously chosen the “White Bullets” variant as the first print (which, of course, matters more than the actual truth).

Castlevania: Overlap Label

Original Castlevania

The first print of Castlevania is known as the “overlap label” variant. It features 5 screws and an error on the cartridge label that causes "Konami" to appear twice on the label's front.

Take note: there are other 5-screw Castlevania cartridges with a round SOQ (Seal of Quality) that lack the label error. (The round SOQ is the earliest, later replaced with the oval SOQ sometime after the switch to 3-screw cartridges.)

Since the boxes of these two variants are identical, there’s no way to know if a sealed copy has the “overlap label” tell. Furthermore, both of these variants are commonly sold as “first prints” as many sellers don’t distinguish between the two.

The Legend of Zelda: TM Variant

The Legend of Zelda Trade Mark Variations

The first print of The Legend of Zelda features a “TM” trademark symbol on the box under the Seal of Quality. Later printings show the “R” registered symbol.

Mega Man: Dr Wright Version

Mega Man 1

The first print of Mega Man misidentifies the villain, Dr. Wily, erroneously calling him “Dr. Wright.” This typo is found in the game’s description on the back of the box. Sellers call this the “Dr. Wright” version.

Dragon Warrior: 1HP Box

Dragon Warrior

A gameplay screenshot on the back of the first-print Dragon Warrior box says, “Thy Hit decreased by 1.” A similar screenshot in later printings says, “Thy Hit decreased by 2.” Thus, the first print is known as the “1HP box.”

Rad Racer: Daytime Screenshots

Rad Racer

On a first-print copy of Rad Racer, all screenshots on the back of the box are of a daytime level. Later printings feature both nighttime and daytime screenshots.

Gun.Smoke: Bar Artwork

Gun Smoke

The box art from the first print of Gun.Smoke is a surprisingly bland illustration of a lone cowboy in front of a bar. That’s probably why later printings feature a more dramatic scene with horses, gunfights, and a closeup of a thoughtful cowboy with a grave look on his face.

The Black Box Series

There’s a lot of content about the Black Box Series elsewhere on the internet. So, to spare you a boring retread and to reduce confusion, we give you the most simplified description possible.

What Are Black Box NES Games?

The first 17 US-released NES games came in uniformly-styled black boxes. Instead of artwork, these boxes featured samples of the games’ 8-bit graphics on the front. After these releases, 13 more Black Box games were released, totaling 30 in all.

How to Identify First-Print Black Box Games

Gyromite First Print NES Game

First, look for a round sticker at the top of the game box. This indicates an early printing. Next, check whether the sticker is shiny (“Gloss Sticker”) or dull (“Matte Sticker”).

The very earliest printings of Black Box games were sealed with the matte sticker, which was later replaced with the gloss sticker. As such, the first printings of the first 17 games are sealed with a matte sticker.

Nintendo continued to use gloss sticker seals for 10 of the 13 latter-released Black Box titles. After that, Nintendo sealed their game boxes with shrink wrap.

Then, they added the generic code, “NES-GP” (1 Code) to all the game boxes, eventually switching to game-specific codes (2 Code: “NES-P” followed by a two-letter abbreviation of the title). Shortly after this, Nintendo added the TM symbol after the word “System” on the box.

Finally, we get to the last 3 NES Black Box releases: Pro Wrestling, Slalom, and Volleyball. Based on their release date (March 1987) the first printings of these games should include the 2 Code but lack the TM symbol.

Identify First-Print NES Games With This Guide

Don’t forget about this definitive guide on how to identify first-print NES games. Keep this page bookmarked for reference.

Based on the info above, do you have a first-print NES game to sell? Sell it here for a competitive price. For accurate price quotes and other information about selling rare variants, reach out to us through our contact form.

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Friday, 19 July 2024