Retro game consoles and cameras become Chinese consumers’ new favorite
Users of Xiaohongshu, a Chinese lifestyle community app comparable to Instagram, have rejuvenated obsolete electronic devices such as Nintendo 3DS gaming consoles, flip phones, and CCD cameras with cute stickers and protective cases. Unjustifiable price increases have been observed for these electrical devices. For example, a used 3DS in good condition might cost more than 1,000 yuan, around the same price as a second-hand Nintendo Switch lite. Prior to the buzz, a second-hand PSP could be purchased for 80 yuan, but the price has since increased to between 200 and 300 yuan. Such a phenomenon has been commonly referred to as “nostalgia purchases” by Chinese netizens.
Xiaohongshu, a picture-based social networking platform with a reputation for its advertising effects, is where the majority of users discovered the trend. Users of Xiaohongshu recounted their experiences with retro products and romanticized all the characteristics that would normally be considered inconvenient as fun and nostalgic. For example, old CCD cameras without touch screens and having many dials and buttons are not a hassle for them, and the low quality and lack of saturation and sharpness of pictures “adds mystery to the photography”. Flip phones, which can only be used for texting and dialing, are considered “simplistic” and “remove all distractions attached to modern cell phones”.
Such posts often get thousands and even tens of thousands of likes on Xiaohongshu.
In addition, Xiaohongshu users would post tutorials and guidebooks to help others quickly grasp these outdated products. Such posts attracted many young users, who may have not been born when those products were first introduced. For some, these retro objects represent an indication of individuality. “With only a few hundred yuan, I get to own something that’s not mundane and is different from what my friends have,” says a Xiaohongshu user.
However, as the prices of these products continue to rise, an increasing number of older consumers are voicing out against the phenomenon. “It’s essentially a tax on intelligence” (a popular Chinese internet slang referring to making unjustifiable purchases due to a lack of knowledge or understanding).
“These products have been eliminated from the mainstream market for a reason. They have only been revitalized because sneaky merchants are playing a scheme on naive consumers and purposefully creating the illusion of nostalgia,” says a Xiaohongshu user and tech enthusiast.
A quick search on Xiaohongshu with the keyword “3DS” pulls up a rant post as the top 1 result. Xiaohongshu user Kevin calls the console “electronic garbage” and an “unworthy purchase at the current price.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when such products become a sensation. Several Xianyu vendors assert that since the pandemic began and people have had more time to spend indoors, the overall appeal of such electronic devices or toy-like items has skyrocketed. Game consoles have experienced the most irrational inflation of all vintage electronics.
However, contrary to what many new users like to believe, the hype may not necessarily be good news for sellers.
According to a Xianyu seller, prices for retro devices have risen sharply in recent months, not only because demand has surged owing to the craze, but also because supply has decreased due to rigorous COVID-related regulations in China and the constraints of international shipping policies. “It’s extremely difficult to get our hands on game consoles now. Merchants who “Tetris Promotion Ambassador” (hereafter referred to as TPA), a top Xianyu (an online thrift shop platform similar to Mercari) seller and a retro game console enthusiast, took the opportunity to jack up the prices, which is not a good thing for the community.
Some of TPA’s collection, photo provided by TPA.
The retro electronic device community has long existed and remained a niche one. TPA says that community members would collect old devices, modify, upgrade, and decorate them to reminisce about childhood memories. “Most members in our community grew up without money and wish to make up for their lost childhood by collecting old game consoles.”
TPA has a passion for modifying consoles, such as upgrading the screens and changing cases to fit modern standards. “It takes me two to three months to design, produce, and sell a case model,” says TPA. As someone who joined the community in 2020, TPA chose to use his Xianyu business to support his own modification costs, since the manufacturing costs would be lower if made in batch. Due to the hype, the seller’s shop achieved an average of 300,000 visits per day.
Photo provided by TPA.
The seller, who designs and customizes old game consoles as a side job, confesses that he is conflicted about the current hype, as it makes it harder for him to collect. “As a collector myself, it saddens me that I can no longer purchase devices I enjoy at a reasonable price. Our community has become even less active since scalpers corrupted the environment.”
For TPA, old game consoles are more suitable for long-time gamers like him. “The narrative depth, replayability, and overall experience of retro consoles surpass those of newer models.” “Similar to films, sequels are frequently inferior to the original.” The enthusiast believes that many users bought retro consoles due to a sense of novelty and might get tired of them soon. TPA predicts that retro console pricing will eventually revert to a reasonable level, sustaining the niche community.
RetroConsoles, another supplier of retro game consoles on Xianyu, has a different opinion. When queried about the present high costs, he responds, “It doesn’t matter” and “prices fluctuate in accordance with market conditions.” According to RetroConsoles, a number of his customers are “novices” with limited knowledge of these retro devices. These novices would resort to him for maintenance, as the warranty on these items had long since expired. “I would always respond with patience, since it’s rare to meet friends with common interests.”
A Nintendo 3DS was sold for 1190 yuan, while a Nintendo Switch lite was sold for 1200 yuan in RetroConsole’s Xianyu shop.
RetroConsoles does not believe the current hype is unreasonable. “As people age, they are more likely to reminisce about their youth and accumulate physical mementos of the good times.”
In the end, retro electronic devices might not be the best fit for people who think they are cheaper alternatives to modern ones, as CCD cameras can never replace DSLRs and flip phones can not substitute for touch-screen smart phones. Yet, they are still the treasures of a niche community, which is maintained by a group of enthusiasts who are waiting for the bubble to burst and the community to grow more organically.