Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Buying retro games today usually involves hitting eBay, trawling Facebook Marketplace or visiting one of the tiny handful of dedicated vintage gaming stores around the world – but, if you're in one of the regions where the company operates, CeX (also known as 'Complete Entertainment eXchange', or, to give it its original name, 'Computer eXchange') has become one of the most visible retro gaming retailers on the high street.

CeX is perhaps an older company than many people realise; it was founded close to London's Tottenham Court Road in 1992, and initially focused on PC components and import gaming. Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker produced its early, anarchic print advertisements, and, for a short period of time, CeX was the perfect place to buy Japanese PlayStation, Saturn, N64 and Dreamcast software. The chain would later abandon import gaming and focus solely on domestic gaming, tech and DVDs sales, and in 2005, it began issuing licences for store franchising. There are now 388 CeX stores, with more than 230 of those being outside of the United Kingdom.

CeX has always had an interest in retro gaming, and actually opened one of the UK's first dedicated retro gaming stores in Whitfield Street, London, in the late '90s (it was lucky enough to be visited by the one and only Hideo Kojima, fact fans). It now gives valuable shelf space to vintage games in all of its stores, and, given the sheer number of shops in the UK, is unquestionably the most obvious destination for gamers looking to explore the past of the interactive entertainment industry.

This image, featured in an EDGE Retro special from 2003, shows CeX at the height of its powers. Packed with both retro and import games, it was a gamer's paradise — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

But, as a certain uncle once uttered to a certain friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility – and, for many people, CeX is shirking that responsibility. You only have to trawl your favourite social media account for a few minutes before you spot mocking posts pointing out how overpriced CeX is when it comes to retro games; elsewhere, you'll find horror stories of people buying games from the CeX website only to find that the product arrives in terrible condition, missing instructions and with a badly photocopied cover.

As with anything in life, it's wise not to look at these posts and assume this is the norm without first trying it out yourself – so we decided to chart our own experiences of buying retro games from CeX in order to shine a light on what (as we've already discussed) is one of the world's leading sellers of classic games.

Buying From CeX - The Basics

First up, we'll cover the basics.

CeX is a store that doesn't sell 'new' products as such; instead, it relies on customers trading in products (games, DVDs, phones, laptops, cameras – you name it, CeX will probably take it) either for cash or credit (you always get offered less of the former than the latter).

While you can visit one of its 380 stores to browse its wares, it's possible to order items online, and this offers a much wider selection of items, as you're effectively browsing the entire stock of every store at once. When you make a purchase, the item is then mailed to you (postage costs are actually quite reasonable) from the store where it's located – the big problem here is that, without physically inspecting the item, you have no idea what condition it will be in once it arrives.

'Aha!' you say. 'But surely a reputable retailer like CeX has an effective way of grading its retro games to avoid any disappointment?' Well, yes, it does – but whether or not it's 'effective' is very much up for debate.

While CeX has a grading system for tech products like smartphones and laptops – running from Grade A ('mint', effectively like new) to Grade B ('Good') and finally Grade C ('working') – retro games are graded somewhat differently. 'Mint' retro games are obviously tough to come by these days, but with CeX, this is the grade you'll want to aim for if you're looking for a hassle-free purchasing experience; it's the only absolute assurance that what you'll get will be in good (and complete) condition.

Next is 'boxed' – which is the most contentious of CeX's ratings for its retro stock. For many people, a 'boxed' game also means 'complete' – but not here. A boxed CeX retro game should be taken in a very literal sense; yes, the game will be in a box, but there's no guarantee that it will have instructions or even the original cover inlay – the company famously supplies photocopies of covers for certain games.

As you can see, this DS game – purchased by Nintendo Life's Felix Sanchez from CeX's Manchester branch – comes with a photocopied replacement cover. It's also lacking instructions – but hey, it was only £3 — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

'Boxed' also doesn't give any indication of the overall condition of the game in question – it might well come with the original box, but you may find that, when it arrives, it looks like it's been mauled by a ravenous wombat, sat on by an elephant, and finally drooled on by a mongoose with halitosis. And that's if you're lucky.

The final grade is for loose, unboxed games, and this almost always applies to cartridge-based software. This, like 'Mint', is at least an honest assessment of the product you're buying; you might be playing a lottery when it comes to the condition of the cartridge label, but at least you're not expecting it to come in a box, or with instructions.

CeX is good enough to offer a 24-month warranty on all of the items it sells – so if anything goes wrong, you can at least get your money back. You can also return any email orders within 14 days of purchase for whatever reason, as per standard UK 'distance selling' rules.

£9.99?! Bargain! Oh, wait... — Image: Retro Grubb

Rolling The Dice On Retro

We've lost count of the number of times we've spied a desirable game on CeX's site and been tempted to make the purchase. For this 'study', we decided to give in and take the plunge – not just in the name of science, but because the company legitimately has interesting stock pretty much all year round.

First, we ordered a stack of Neo Geo Pocket titles from the CeX site. SNK's Game Boy rival tried (and failed) to make a dent in Nintendo's market share over two decades ago, and while it perhaps wasn't the commercial success that was hoped, it has some amazing titles – and, in the UK, at least, they come in lovely clamshell-style boxes which mimic the packaging of the Neo Geo AES, the handheld's big brother.

Having traded in a bunch of unwanted games and tech, we amassed a considerable haul of cash and purchased the following:

The 'mint' games were precisely that; they were in fantastic condition, hence us having to pay a slight premium compared to the 'boxed' copies. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that all of the 'boxed' games we purchased in this crop were in similar condition; the only difference might be a slightly curled cover on the manual or a few scuffs on the box. Otherwise, they were in excellent condition and easily as good as copies which were selling on eBay for the same (or higher) prices.

This is the second copy of Metal Slug: 2nd Mission we received from CeX, and was listed as 'mint' grade. We're quite happy with this one — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

However, at the same time, we also ordered a copy of Metal Slug: 2nd Mission in 'Boxed' condition, and, despite costing a cool £150 / $190, it arrived with a photocopied cover, no instructions and no inner plastic cartridge holder (all NGPC games came with Game Boy-style transparent cases for the carts). Thankfully, we were able to return it, and, a few weeks later, a 'mint' copy was added to the CeX website, costing £210 / $266. Keen to maintain our scientific approach to this study (and not because we really, really wanted the game, you understand), we duly ordered and thankfully got precisely what was described. Phew!

Retro's Crown Jewels

Our experience with the NGPC games left us slightly shaky, but emboldened enough to carry on. After all, the majority of the 'boxed' titles we got arrived in better condition than we'd expected – so we decided to carry on, but this time focusing on two games we'd been targeting for purchase for literally decades.

The first was Terranigma, the classic SNES RPG produced by Enix, which was only localised for PAL territories (Europe and Australia, basically). The game's quality – combined with its low print run and lack of a North American release – make this one of the more expensive titles in the console's 16-bit library, and we spotted that CeX had a 'boxed' copy for the not-too-inconsiderable price of £280 / $354.

When the game arrived, it was complete with instructions – but that's where the good news ended. Not only was the box crushed (and hastily repaired with tape), the manual was decidedly dog-eared and covered in scribblings left by a previous owner. It was also the white-box Australian version (the UK version, which we were more accustomed to, came in a black box). So, while it wasn't quite a complete failure – at least it was complete – the condition was pretty shocking. However, the chances of finding another copy felt slim, so we decided against returning it to CeX for a refund. We've since installed it on the Polymega, stuck it inside a protective plastic case and popped it on the shelf.

Next up was another game that never got a release in North America – Treasure's blissfully demanding run-and-gun Genesis / Mega Drive shooter Alien Soldier, a title that regularly changes hands online for triple-digit sums of cash. It's rare for it to even appear on CeX's website, so we felt compelled to take the plunge – and, £270 / $342 later, it arrived with no instructions, a battered case and a cartridge label held down with tape.

Another disappointment, but as was the case with Terranigma, it was one we decided to live with, as the game itself is as rare as hen's teeth. (To make it feel 'complete', we've since purchased a reproduction manual from Etsy. Not ideal, but it does the job.)

The CeX Lottery Verdict

So, what did we learn from this little experiment, beyond the obvious fact that CeX really needs to expand its grading system? We were pleasantly surprised by the condition of some of the 'boxed' NGPC titles we ordered, even if it was slightly concerning to receive a copy of a £150 game with a photocopied cover.

Retro gamers are often interested in collecting games not just to play, but to treasure and display – and no one can take much pride in having a tatty copy of a beloved title, no matter how valuable it might be on the secondary market. CeX is obviously spinning a lot of plates, and retro isn't its sole focus – but, nonetheless, it has a duty to make sure its stock is accurately described and reasonably priced.

A squashed Terranigma for almost £300 we can just about stomach – after all, the game is worth a fortune in any form, as long as it's complete. However, selling a copy of Metal Slug: 2nd Mission for £150 when it doesn't even have the original cover or instructions doesn't sit well with us.

Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Nonetheless, we don't want this piece to feel like a dunk on CeX; we actually have a tremendous amount of affection for the chain – it was our primary haunt for all of our import titles in the late '90s – and we've always found its staff to be helpful, polite and knowledgeable. And, even beyond this little experiment, we've purchased many retro games from the chain over the years and been largely happy with the results. It's also worth noting that the company also sells a lot of retro hardware as well, and having a 24-month warranty offers incredible peace of mind, especially when the alternative is often buying stuff untested from sites like eBay.

What the company really needs to do is add at least one more 'grading' level for its retro stock. Even just adding a 'boxed - incomplete' grading or having a way of denoting which titles have reproduction covers would be a massive help, and would make the purchasing process much less painful.

Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by a classic title or system you've picked up from CeX? Perhaps you have a tale of woe related to an expensive item? Let us know your own experience of shopping for retro at CeX by posting a comment below