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Irwin gaming fanatic conquers quest for ultimate Nintendo collection

| Sunday, June 18, 2017, 10:07 p.m.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Nick Rodriguez and his son, Maximus Rodriguez, 3, browses some of his dad's games inside his home.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Nick Rodriguez holds a game inside his home in Irwin.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Nick Rodriguez's game room inside his home in Irwin.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Carey Williams, 36, owner of Warp Zone in South Greensburg, in his shop.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Carey Williams, 36, owner of Warp Zone in South Greensburg, in his shop.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Carey Williams, 36, owner of Warp Zone in South Greensburg, plays Contra on his Nintendo NES, in his shop. Williams holds a world record for NES Contra.

A good video game is an adventure.

Take Super Mario Bros. You travel through strange worlds, defeat villains, battle the boss at the end and rescue the princess.

For Nick Rodriguez, the game started about two years, when he decided to collect every game released for the original Nintendo Entertainment System.

"Between persistence, luck and help, it wasn't me on my own," Rodriguez said, standing in the walk-in closet off one of his kids' bedrooms at his house in Irwin that houses his collection.

There are 677 officially licensed games for the original Nintendo released in North America. Rodriguez, 33, has them all. Almost.

He doesn't have the North American version of Stadium Events, a holy grail among game collectors that sells for thousands, sometimes more than $10,000 on Ebay. About 200 were sold and far less remain. But he does have a European version, which sells for just under a $1,000.

A complete collection could be worth $10,000 to $20,000 or more. Rodriguez can't begin to add up what he spent on his collection. He sold collections of comics and action figures and other consoles to buy more games. He got hard-to-find games as gifts from people rooting for him to finish. Local game shops cut him deals, gave him payment plans and held games for him. One man mailed him $500 to buy a game.

"I had a lot of help in doing this," he said.

STRANGE WORLDS

Nearly any game in the original Nintendo collection can be found on Ebay. But where's the fun in that?

"It's actually frowned upon in the gaming community," Rodriguez said, admitting he had to turn to Ebay once or twice. "Everybody likes to have a story behind it, getting it local, and it's fun hunting it down."

Hunting down the games was a family activity for Rodriguez. Each weekend, Rodriguez, his wife, and their kids, Nicholes Jr., 6, Yandel, 4, and Maximus, 3, would pile into the car. On one day, they would visit all the game stores in a one- to two-hour radius of his house. The next day, they would pile back into the car and check out all the flea markets in the area.

The kids got toys. His wife collects newer games and action figures. Something for everyone.

Rodriguez said he bought about 90 percent of his collection from shops and collectors in Pennsylvania, many in Western Pennsylvania at shops like Warp Zone in Greensburg.

Carey Williams, 36, owner of Warp Zone in South Greensburg, in his shop.

Photo by Dan Speicher

"I've never seen someone with that determination. I've never seen a collector like Nick before," said Carey Williams, owner of Warp Zone. "He's accomplished in two years what people spend their lives doing."

Williams is a collector too, going after basically every game released for the original Nintendo. He's at about 600 out of 849 games.

"That was a hard thing for me to let go of," Williams said of the games he sold to Rodriguez. "I wanted to help him out."

DEFEAT VILLAINS

Rodriguez had a lot of work to do when he decided to go for all the games.

A lot.

Rodriguez collection at that moment was 77. He was 600 short.

But if you're going after retro video games, Western Pennsylvania is the place to be. The area is a hotbed for vintage gaming, Williams said.

The Pittsburgh Retro Gaming group on Facebook has nearly 2,500 members. Their last convention packed the trendy Ace Hotel in East Liberty. The Pennsylvania Coin Operated Gaming Hall of Fame and Museum is in Hopewell.

"I think yinzers are nostalgic people," Williams said. "They have a love for the better eras of life."

So Rodriguez started collecting.

Little Sampson is a tough game to get. Rodriguez had to make payments on it. Cowboy Kid, The Flintstones: Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, DuckTales 2 and Power Blade 2, he found them all.

"It's one that is so hard to find, it's ridiculous," Rodriguez said of Power Blade 2, a sequel to Power Blade released in 1992 where the main character is out to destroy a group that has built a cyborg that threatens the world. "Besides the one time I bought it I've never seen it in person anywhere in any state in any store. That is always one of the ones people need."

Nick Rodriguez's game room.

Photo by Nate Smallwood

Most of the games aren't good and that's in part why they are hard to find. Not many were sold. Not many were made.

Rodriguez drives a tow truck for a living and whatever money he had left after paying bills, fixing his house and taking care of his family, he poured into video games.

He has the Miracle Piano Teaching System, which really isn't a game at all but a virtual piano tutor. He has the keyboard that plugs into the console as well. He had to buy two keyboards to get a complete set, power cord and all.

He has Stack Up, one of the few games Nintendo made for R.O.B., the Robotic Operating Buddy, a robot companion for Nintendo released in 1985. It didn't work too well. Rodriguez has one. It needs batteries.

He has Punch Out!!, both of them. One features Mike Tyson and was sold as Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! But after Mike Tyson lost to James "Buster" Douglas, Nintendo decided not to renew its license with the fighter and re-released the game as Punch Out!! with Mr. Dream as the final opponent.

Rodriguez's search took him to pawn shops and holes-in-the-wall he'd never heard of.

"I got discouraged a few times along the way," Rodriguez said. "It was maybe those last 80 games. I hit a wall. But then I broke through and started banging them out."

Kid Klown in Night Mayor World was the last game Rodriguez needed. Another collector had it. Rodriguez traded him a handful of Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 games for it.

THE BOSS AT THE END

One game eluded Rodriguez as he closed in on his goal: Bonk's Adventure, the story of a caveboy battling dinosaurs to rescue Princess Za from King Drool. Rodriguez couldn't find it anywhere.

He remembered playing Bonk's as a kid. He had the game.

"He was a little bald guy that would turn red and get angry," he said. "It's like a $500 to $600 game. … I don't know what we did with it."

For nearly two years, he looked and couldn't find another copy.

Then he got a tip.

A collector in Ohio was selling his stock. The collector was one game away — Color a Dinosaur, a game in which players color dinosaurs — from a complete set but decided to cash out and pay off his house.

Rodriguez was short on cash but wanted to go to the collector's house. He sold a few items and scraped together about $400. He needed more. He wanted Bonk's. A member of the Pittsburgh Retro Gaming Group heard about it and offered to help. He offered to overnight Rodriguez $500 so he could buy the game.

"I was like "What?" And he's like, "Yeah, I want to see you finish. I can't do what you did, and you enjoy it with your kids. I want to buy you Bonk's."

The money came, and Rodriguez came home from Ohio that day with Bonk's and four or five other hard to find titles.

RESCUE A PRINCESS

Maximus Rodriguez, 3, browses some of his dad's games inside his home.

Photo by Nate Smallwood

Why? Why spend countless weekends visiting the same shops and flea markets? Why spend thousands of dollars on games that aren't very fun to play in first place? Why do this?

"My first love," Rodriguez said. "That was my first love. Nintendo was my first love."

Rodriguez remembers the morning as a kid his mom told him they were going to the store to buy a Nintendo. It came with Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. Rodriguez didn't like Duck Hunt. The laughing dog aggravated him. But he liked Mario. And when Super Mario Bros. 3 came out:

"That's when I fell in love," he said. "It was just a fun game. It's so simple. So fun. Mario looks so happy."

About three years ago, Rodriguez and his family started playing Nintendo games. His kids grew up around Nintendo. Rodriguez once hung plush coin blocks from Super Mario Bros. on strings low enough so they could jump up and hit them with their heads, making that recognizable ring. Rodriguez has stashes of plastic gold coins to give to his kids when they're good.

But playing the old titles with his family stirred something in him.

"It just brought back memories," Rodriguez said. "Just as a family, enjoying it as a family, after a couple of months of doing that, the bug kicked in; the memories kicked in and that when I said, 'I'm going to try it. I'm going to go for it.'"

Rodriguez has a homemade piece of artwork in his collection. In it, Mario, Luigi, Yoshi and Toad are gathered around an original Nintendo.

"Above all video games are meant to be fun," it reads.

They are, Rodriguez said. They still are.

And perhaps to prove it, Rodriguez is already working on a complete collection of Nintendo 64 games. There's 296 of them, and Rodriguez is just a handful away.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He is terrible at video games. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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