The retro video game market is ripe with hidden gems that did not benefit from media coverage in the past, and this obscure Atari title proves it.
The Atari 2600 launched with nine games, with its first “killer app” being the home conversion of Taito’s popular arcade game Space Invaders. The idea that anyone could play their favorite arcade games at home drew the consumers in, but a lack of quality titles past Atari’s prime contributed to the system’s fall from grace. To this day, many collectors believe Atari to be one of the most challenging consoles to collect for. While more prominent titles are harder to come by due to a rise in popularity of retro gaming and price inflation, one of the rarest and most expensive Atari games is a no-name game that never saw a commercial release.
After studying books on programming for the 6502 chip, Robert Anthony Tokar decided to create a game out of his love for Atari. He worked on the game for several months, and in 1984, Birthday Mania was developed for the Atari 2600. Since Tokar had no means to put his creation on store shelves next to other commercial releases, he opted for a different approach. The game was advertised in the local newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger.
According to the LostMediaWiki, buyers could get a copy of Birthday Mania by mailing Tokar a check with their relevant information. He would then add the recipient’s name to the title screen and ship the personalized cartridge. Birthday Mania sold a mere 10 to 15 copies during its original run. The fact that the game had no viable commercial release could have contributed to such low sales, but the video game crash of 1983 may have played a role. After all, the game was developed and advertised amid a two-year decline in the North American video game market.
The following decades did not shed much light on Birthday Mania’s rarity until one of the copies emerged at an auction in 2009. The highest offer was $6,5000, but it was declined. A few years later, AtariAge user Atari_Warlord reached out to Tokar about the possibility of Birthday Mania reproductions. Tokar agreed to give away the copyright so long as the profits would be used for charitable purposes, but the game remained undumped for the next seven years. Finally, in 2019, both Tokar’s personalized and an unpersonalized ROM were dumped onto the Internet.
Like most Atari 2600 games, Birthday Mania is a simple enough game. After booting the cartridge, the player is greeted with a personalized title screen and the “Happy Birthday” song playing in the background. The game then switches to the next screen, where the actual gameplay occurs. The objective is to blow out the candles before they hit the ground by shooting gusts of air out of their hat. Successfully dousing a falling candle will grant the player 1 point, whereas failing to do so will result in 1 lost breath (styled AiR). The game starts players off with 50 AiR and restores 10 AiR for every 100 points scored. Although the speed and the number of falling candles gradually increase as the player’s score goes up, breaks between waves are available. When the player runs out of breath, the game is over.
There is nothing that sets Birthday Mania apart from other games of its era by today’s standards. However, because it is a hidden gem with few sales that flew under the radar for many years, the game is worth upwards of $15,000 nowadays. While some may argue that Birthday Mania is rarer than the NES Nintendo World Championships 1990 cartridge, it is undoubtedly one of the rarest Atari games that any retro video game collector would be honored to have in their collection.