Video game collecting has really come into its own in the past few years and this year in particular has seen the prices of rare games increase substantially. "Grail" games - those games so rare they are considered to be a crown jewel in any collection - are now starting to hit five digit prices, and many of the most sought after titles (such as the infamous 1990 Nintendo World Championships) have been conspicuously absent in the frenzy. It's anyone's guess as to what the recent surge in value will do to affect the most top-end titles.

However, even amongst collectors, there is a type of game beyond the grails - games considered so rare, one may have only a single chance to purchase one in their lifetime, if that. These games are often a victim of their own extreme rarity - they frequently have precious little information available about them, and most collectors simply aren't interested in them because the odds of even seeing one go up for sale are extremely low. Almost all of the cartridges below are now firmly in the hands of collectors who are not expected to give them up any time soon, if ever.

Note that because information on these titles tends to be sketchy and hard to come by, researching this list was not easy. I've included as much information as I could find, but even then a lot of it is just speculation by those "in the know." I've left off prototypes (such as the unreleased Star Fox 2 and English Mother/Earthbound 0 cartridges) and homebrew/non-licensed titles due to their unique nature - this list only deals with those games that have seen an official release, albeit in jaw-droppingly small numbers.

With that, I give you a sampling of 10 of the rarest games in existence.

Number Produced Unknown, believed to be 10-20.

Video game contests were originally something of a major advertising opportunity, though they mostly died out in popularity by the mid-90s, having largely been supplanted by competitive online gaming. Back in the day, though, they were considered serious events and top notch prizes (including university scholarships, thousands of dollars in cash prizes, and even cars and all-expenses-paid trips to exotic locales) were put up for grabs. (Note: They also tended to be grail-makers and, as you'll see, this won't be the last time a competition cart shows up on this list).

One of the most famous contests of the Atari generation was the "Defend Atlantis" competition held by Imagic. The contest was simple enough - contestants had to photograph their highest score on the Imagic's game, "Atlantis", and send the results to the developers. The four highest scorers would be flown to Bermuda for a final showdown slated for November 14, 1982, with $10 000 offered as the grand prize.

Unfortunately for Imagic, things didn't go to plan. Several competitors maxed out the game's score counter, leaving the contest organizers with more than four finalists. In an attempt to hastily thin the herd, they quickly put together a new cartridge and mailed it out to those contestants who had a maxed score. The new cartridge, dubbed "Atlantis II", was mostly the same game as the original, except with a faster playing speed and a lower scoring calculator. Contestants were given a mere two days to record a new high score and send it in to Imagic.

What happened after that is unclear. Despite some heavy research by internet groups, no winner or announcement of results has ever been found, and there is some doubt as to whether the final event ever took place. However, whether or not Imagic ever did wind up ponying up ten grand for the winner, they did provide the gaming community with a new grail.

Atlantis II tends to be one of the harder ultra-grails to easily identify. Its only packaging difference from the original game is an "Atlantis II" label that appears to have been either scrawled on the cartridge in pen or marker, or, on some of the cartridges, applied with a label gun. Subtle differences in game text and mechanics can be spotted by those familiar with the title, but the game is almost indistinguishable from the regular Atlantis game.

It is anyone's guess how many of these cartridges have survived over the last three decades, as only a handful have surfaced since the game's grail status was recognized by the collecting community.

Number Produced 12

Kizuna Encounter is a fighting game produced by SNK for several Neo Geo consoles and released in 1996. A sequel to Savage Rain, the game saw widespread release for Neo Geo's arcade platform, the MVS, as well as in Japan on the AES home console. The game was not well followed in the West and mostly faded into obscurity.

However, Kizuna Encounter saw new life when collectors discovered a handful of PAL-region copies of the game. Less than 12 have been found to date, with no reason given for the game's competitive rarity. Rumour has it that a slated PAL release was cancelled at the last minute and the titles recalled, with only a handful being purchased before it was pulled, but no one has been able to confirm whether or not this is the truth. Neo-Geo never enjoyed the notoriety of, say, Sega or Nintendo, so information on this uber-grail has been hard to come by.

Number Produced Rumoured to be 12.

Air Raid was the sole production of an Atari developer known as Men-A-Vision and saw an extremely limited distribution. Known for its unique, pale-blue cartridge, which features a distinctive T-shaped plastic handle, Air Raid was once widely believed to be the rarest Atari 2600 game in existence, though in recent years several other games have surfaced to challenge it for that title.

Air Raid is one of the greatest mysteries of the Atari 2600. For a few years even its name was considered debatable, as the oddly-shaped cartridge did not have a title on it and its assumed name was taken from a magazine advertisement. Like Kizuna Encounter, there has also never been an explanation given for why so few copies of the game made it into gamers' hands.

Thanks to its lax development standards that allowed for nearly any third party to create a game for it, the Atari 2600 is known for having an unusually high number of "grail" games. This tends to depress prices, as Atari collectors have their interest split between numerous different offerings. It is therefore a feather in Air Raid's cap that it routinely fetches four digit prices when placed up for auction.

In one of the most noteworthy events in gaming collecting's history, a boxed copy of the game surfaced in 2010. Tanner Sandlin of Austin, Texas, having read about the game online, remembered purchasing it and did some rummaging through his belongings. After finding the game, he placed it on eBay, making it the only known boxed copy of the game in existence (the picture above is of his copy - note the retail sticker in the upper right corner). The game eventually sold for $31 600, the second highest amount ever paid for a video game (first place, for those curious, was $41 300 paid for a sealed copy of Stadium Events for the NES, though there is some doubt as to whether that transaction was ever completed...).

Number Produced Unknown. Ten copies believed to be in existence today.

Tetris is the single highest selling video game ever made (not counting free and freemium titles) with 200 million copies having been sold across a variety of consoles. The game, developed by Soviet scientist Alexey Pajitnov in 1984, features an endless stream of tetrominoes (four-blocked shapes) tumbling into a "well"; if a horizontal line is filled fully, it disappears. The object of the game is to prevent the stack of blocks from rising to the top of the screen.

Given Tetris's insane popularity, the idea of it being an ultra-rare game seems somewhat ludicrous. Yet the Sega Mega Drive version is precisely that - a mere ten copies are known to exist. The shortage comes from the fact that a Japanese version of the game for the Mega Drive (Genesis in North America) was under development when some legal wrangling by Nintendo gave them exclusive distribution rights over console versions of the game. That kyboshed the Mega Drive project and only a handful were released before the game's termination.

Further adding to the mystery of the game, numerous bootlegs have appeared throughout the years. With little way to tell the fakes from the real-deal, the gaming community generally relies on the presence of boxes and instruction manuals, which tend to be much harder to counterfeit. A few of these games have been placed up for auction in the last few years. The most recent one had a $1 000 000 asking price; unsurprisingly, it was not sold.

Number Produced: 8

Rockman (Mega Man in the West) is arguably Capcom's most famous series. Originally started in 1987, the "Blue Bomber" quickly soared in popularity and fame to become one of gaming's top icons.

The core series (which was closely mimicked by its first sequel-series, Mega Man X) follows a formula which has gone almost completely unchanged since the original title. The game's eponymous hero must complete 8 stages (6 in the original) in any order, defeating the "robot master" boss and acquiring their special weapon before heading for a showdown with the evil Dr. Wily.

With the successful release of the third game in the series, Mega Man was soaring in popularity. The developers added fuel to the fire by holding a contest allowing gamers to design the bosses for Rockman 4. The contest was a smashing success, and Capcom received over 70 000 submissions, which were eventually whittled down to the requisite number. Interestingly enough, according Capcom artist Hayato Kaji, one of the game's early levels was completely scrapped because the developers wanted to redesign it for Skull Man, one of their favourite contributions from the contest.

In the end, eight submissions were chosen to become Mega Man 4's robot masters, with the game artists making only minor tweaks to a few of the designs. The gamers whose submissions were chosen each received a single gold-edition of Rockman 4. These cartridges have become highly sought-after collectors' pieces, and on the rare occasions they go to auction, they have commanded sky-high prices. Most, however, remain with their original owners and apparently fewer than half have ever hit the open market.

Number Produced 5

The mention of a Dreamcast game on this list is something of an oddity - uber-grails, including every other entry on this list, are almost completely restricted to the first four generations of gaming. Indeed, even normal "grails" (a somewhat nebulous title, but generally applied to highly sought after games which had a production run of less than 10 000 units) more or less died out following the Playstation/N64/Saturn years. For a sixth generation game to be flagged as one of the rarest in the world is an unusual occurrence indeed.

The game was a scrolling shoot-em-up title made by legendary designer Treasure, who I swear make grails just for giggles (they have two other grail-schmups - Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga - to their name). It was released in 1999, first on a limited run for the N64, then for the Dreamcast a few months later.

At some point, Treasure held a contest challenging gamers to submit their highest score on the game. Five winners were selected, and each was sent a special version of the game, now known as the Bangai-O prize edition. Not unlike Atlantis II, a game with which it shares several similarities, the prize edition of Bangai-O is quite difficult to identify. The game itself is identical to the much-more-common retail copy of the game, and the only identifying feature is a sticker on the game's jewel case identifying it as a prize copy. Two autographed cards from the developers were also sent to winners, which can sometimes be used as additional verification (assuming said winners kept the cards...)

Number Produced 100. Only 2 copies confirmed to exist.

Red Sea Crossing is an interesting game for the Atari 2600 that was, for many years, believed to be a myth or a cancelled game. A faith game released through Christian book stores, as opposed to traditional retail outlets (a distinction it shares with fellow Atari 2600 Grail "The Music Machine"), Red Sea Crossing was only known to collectors through a few scraps of information and advertisements in old magazines. There were a few purported sightings over the years, but no one was able to back up their claims with evidence, photographic or otherwise.

Some investigative work by game collectors has revealed that approximately 100 copies of the game were produced, after which they seemingly vanished into thin air. The game's one-man development team was contacted, but was unable to recall what happened to the missing cartridges (although the possibility was floated that they are simply sitting in storage somewhere).

The mystery was finally put to rest in August of this year when a copy finally surfaced in the hands of an Atari gamer. A second copy has since appeared in a Philadelphia games store. At time of writing, the owners of both copies are planning to auction them off with one of those cartridges already on the market. With only two confirmed copies in existence, it is anyone's guess as to what the final price will be.

Number Produced Several hundred. Only 2-3 confirmed to still exist.

Blockbuster Championships was Acclaim's take on Nintendo's popular "World Championships" series and was an attempt to woo gamers over to Sega's camp. However, despite their efforts, the Blockbuster Championships cartridge has never received the notoriety of its Nintendo kin. Part of this can be chalked up to the games that were chosen for the contest - where Nintendo opted to use mostly well known titles in their competition cartridges, such as Mario Bros., Tetris, and F-Zero, Acclaim used a substantially less well-known combo of NBA Jam Tournament Edition and Judge Dredd.

Anecdotal evidence (and the fact that the cart itself has a "II" in its title) suggests that there was more than one version of the championship cart, and some gamers who attended the tournament describe a cart for the Genesis that included Sonic 3, as well as an SNES version. However, to date, only the Sega "II" version has been found. Blockbuster store owners were ordered to destroy the cartridges at the end of the tournament, and only a few were spared from the trash bin.

To date, only two copies of this cartridge have been found (although a few sites I visited made mention of a third), making it one of the rarest games in existence. And, to add a bit of shameless boasting, one of those copies is currently in my posession :)

Number Produced Unknown. Only one copy known to exist.

Like its Atari kin Air Raid and Red Sea Crossing, Gamma Attack was a rare production by a one-man development team that saw only limited release. The only game ever released by Gammation, Gamma Attack is a shooting game that puts the player in control of a UFO gunning down enemy tanks. It has since been remade for the PC, but the Atari version of the game remains one of the rarest of the console's offerings.

To date, only a single Gamma Attack cartridge has been confirmed to exist. It currently sits in the hands of a private collector who, purportedly, has been offered over $10 000 for it. As with several other games on this list, information on the title is notoriously hard to come by and no one seems to know when or where it was retailed.

Number Produced Approximately 33 of each cartridge. One copy of each of the Campus Challenge cartridges, and two copies of the Powerfest 94 cartridge still exist.

After some deliberation, I decided to include these three ultra-grails as a single entry, as they all are variants of the same story.

Any game collector worth his salt knows about the 1990 Nintendo World Championships and the associated cartridge. Considered the single-most sought after game in existence, the 26 gold and 90 grey editions of the cartridge were distributed to the winners of a Nintendo Power contest and the finalists of the 1990 championships respectively, and they continue to fetch top dollar at auction.

Considerably less attention is paid to the 1990 NWC's successors. In 1991 and 1992, Nintendo hosted the "Campus Challenge", a tournament that travelled to university campuses across the United States in an attempt to market video games to older gamers. Nintendo apparently took a break in 1993 before returning in 1994 with the Powerfest '94 competition.

Similar to the 1990 championships, each of these competitions had its own unique cartridge, which was a hybrid of three popular games for the NES (in '91) or SNES (in '92 and '94). Contestants had to play through specific scenarios set in each game for ~6 minutes with the objective being to get the highest score possible. However, unlike in 1990, the cartridges used for the contests were never formally released. Instead, at the conclusion of each of the competitions, the cartridges were scrapped for parts, with only a few escaping the purge.

Today, only a single copy of the '91 and '92 carts exist. The 1994 cartridge fared a little better, with two copies having been unearthed (though, oddly enough, the scoring mechanisms for the two copies are slightly different, making each cartridge unique). All four carts are now owned by collectors and, though they have occasionally been placed on auction sites (usually with six-figure asking prices), none have changed hands for a number of years.

I may have missed a game or two in compiling this list but, to the best of my knowledge, these are the ten rarest games that ever saw an official release. If you were to somehow gather up every known copy of every game on this list, you would have fewer than 100 games total and they would probably comfortably fit into a single milk carton. To own even one of them is to own a hallowed piece of gaming history and if you happen to be one of the ~75 people who fit into that category... well, kudos to you good sir or madam, for you have a prize that most people can only dream of.

List by darkknight109 (09/04/2012)

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