From Old School Gamer Magazine – November 2019
Following the success of the NES Classic in 2016, we’ve seen the SNES Classic, the forgettable PlayStation Classic and the well-received Genesis Mini. Although these gaming machines are referred to as dedicated consoles, they are not derived from the early ‘70s dedicated videogame consoles that had their few games built-into them. Instead their lineage goes back nearly twenty years to a group of miniature consoles known as Plug & Plays, which got their name because they literally just plugged into the television and they were ready to play.
The first Plug & Play device was from a company called Toymax, which released the Activision TV Games Video Game System in 2001. Looking like a generic controller, the console featured two D-pads and two shoulder buttons, and plugged into a television’s audio/video inputs via two attached RCA cables. Built-into the unit were nine ported Activision Atari 2600 games including River Raid, and one from Imagic, which had been purchased by Activision.
Toymax was purchased in 2002 by Jakks Pacific, a seven-year old toy company, which released a second Plug & Play console exclusively through Avon. This one was called Atari 10-in 1 TV Games. This unit looked very much like the iconic Atari 2600 joystick with reset, select and start buttons on its side and audio and video cables sticking out of its back. The built-in games included several of the most popular 2600 games including, Adventure, Asteroids, Missile Command and Yar’s Revenge. Oddly, three paddle games, including Pong and Breakout, were also included in the joystick.
In 2003 Jakks Pacific released the Atari joystick in stores. It also repackaged the Activision collection in a modern-looking joystick. Finally it also released a collection called Namco TV Game which featured five games including Pac-Man. During that year Technovision entered the Plug & Play market with its 25 Intellivision Video Game System. This system too resembled a generic controller and featured a D-pad, thumb-stick and five buttons. The infamous Intellivision controller that utilized overlays and featured a 12-button keyboard and a 16-position dial was not duplicated.
In 2004 several more companies entered the Plug & Play forum. Software publisher Majesco released two entries that both contained Konami-licensed games. Its Konami Collector’s Series: Arcade Advanced featured six Konami arcade games, including Frogger. Strangely, Majesco’s other Plug & Play unit was Frogger, and it only included the one game.
Other arcade games that were released in 2004 as Plug & Plays were Space Invaders and Tetris, courtesy of Radica, a company that had previously manufactured electronic casino games. Radica also released a pair of Plug & Play units called Arcade Legends. These looked like miniature Genesis 2 consoles and the only difference between them was one had a connecting blue Genesis controller and the other was attached to a red. Each featured six built-in Genesis games including Sonic the Hedgehog, which was on the blue set, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which was found on the red one. These would not be the last Plug & Plays to feature Sega Genesis games.
Jakks Pacific released a sequel to its popular Namco TV Game. Mistitled as the Ms. Pac-Man Collection, the unit featured Ms. Pac-Man and four other Namco games that had nothing to do with Ms. Pac-Man at all. The company also issued a follow-up to its Atari 2600 joystick unit. Atari Paddle Games was in the shape of an Atari paddle controller and included thirteen games that required that controller.
Ironically, Jakks Pacific encountered competition from the company that it had licensed the Atari games from. Atari released its first console since 1993’s Jaguar in the guise of a Plug & Play that looked like a miniature Atari 7800. Called the Atari Flashback, the unit featured fifteen Atari 2600 games and five Atari 7800 games. Three of the included 2600 games, Adventure, Breakout and Yars’ Revenge were already available on Jakks Pacific’s joystick unit. On the other hand, Sabatour, a 2600 game that had never been available to the masses, was also included.
Two historic changes occurred to Plug & Plays in 2005. First, Jakks Pacific reissued its Ms. Pac-Man Namco Collection in a new, wireless versions. The Plug & Play concept was still alive but it was no longer the console itself that was being plugged into the television. The other big change to the genre was that the consoles became programmable.
In the early days of videogames, videogame consoles were dedicated. This meant that they were sold with built-in games without the ability to add more. The release of Fairchild’s Video Entertainment System (more commonly known as the Channel F) in 1976 introduced the idea of ROM cartridges where additional games can be purchased separately and played through the cartridge. These consoles that were expandable were known as programmable consoles. Prior to 2005, all Plug & Plays were dedicated. But that year brought two new units that were, in a sense, programmable.
One was a third release of Jakks Pacific’s Ms. Pac-Man collection. Like the original that had been released a year earlier, this model was not wireless. But the difference between it and its year-old predecessor was that this one featured a slot in which optional gamekeys could be inserted and provide additional games. The concept was not successful and Jakks Pacific discontinued it in 2006.
The other programmable machine was Atari’s new Flashback 2. This was a successor of the original Flashback and like the original had been designed by Curt Vendel of Legacy Engineering under contract by Atari. The unit looked very much like a miniature Atari 2600 and was packaged with a pair of joysticks that closely resembled the originals, which could also be used in the system. The Flashback 2 utilized a custom chip that was similar to the TIA chip used in the Atari 2600, thus it could play the original games, instead of ports of the games as was the case with the prior Plug & Plays. The system featured forty Atari 2600 games including several homebrews. But it was also programmable, although this was a feature that had not been advertised by Atari. Vendel designed the unit so hobbyists could easily modify it so a cartridge port could be added that would accept the original Atari 2600 cartridges. The Flashback 2 did very well. Vendel claimed in 2007 that the unit sold 860,000 copies in the United States. The would remain the top-selling Plug & Play for nearly a decade until Nintendo released its NES Classic.
But before that could happen, other companies began licensing old games and releasing them in Plug & Play units. Technosource, the company that had released the Intellivision Plug & Plays, went back to the early eighties and found another company that retrogamers were interested in. In 2005 the company released two Coleco-branded units but there was one major problem with them. Both featured generic games that had never been issued by Coleco.
Radica also returned in 2005 with two new Plug & Plays featuring Sega Genesis games. Outrun 2019 was housed in a steering wheel body that was used as the controller. Menacer was a lightgun that contained six Genesis games and was patterned after the original Menacer light-rifle that Sega had released in 1992. The six games built into the Radica device were the same six games that had been included on the cartridge that accompanied Sega’s rifle.
The year 2006 brought more built-in Sega games to the market. This time a Chinese company called AtGames joined the party with a controller-like unit called the Poga, which featured thirty Sega Master System and Game Gear titles.
AtGames returned with a vengeance in 2008 with heaps of new Plug & Plays all featuring Sega 16-bit games. The Arcade Classic included twenty built-in Genesis games and a wireless controller that somewhat resembled a Genesis controller. The unit also featured a cartridge slot that accepted original Genesis and Mega Drive cartridges. A switch on the back of the unit toggled between PAL and NTSC.
The Arcade Motion was a blue Plug & Play console in the shape of Sonic the Hedgehog’s head. It used motion controllers that were similar to Nintendo’s Wii. It contained fifteen Genesis games, eight of which overlapped the games included on the Arcade Classic. However, in addition to the Sega games, the unit also included seven generic interactive sports games and eighteen generic “arcade” games.
The Arcade Motion Classic fell somewhere between the Arcade Motion and the Arcade Classic. The console itself was the same as the Arcade Classic, although it was white instead of black. But it came with the motion controllers like the Arcade Motion. The game lineup was exactly the same as the Arcade Motion right down to all of the included generic games. This unit also came with extras pieces that plugged into the controller including a tennis racket, baseball bat, golf club, and ping pong paddles. These extras did nothing to enhance the game but were meant to make the player feel as if he was actually playing the included sports games.
AtGame’s fourth Plug & Play of the year was called the Arcade Master. This one featured a joystick with a large red grib and six buttons. The artwork on the console suggested that it was for fighting games, but the 26 built-in Genesis games proved otherwise. With a few exceptions the lineup was the same as that on the Arcade Classic. However while the Arcade Classic allowed the addition of new games via original Genesis cartridges, the Arcade Master accepted additional games through an SD Card.
In 2011 AtGames released the Arcade Blast. This was in the form of a Genesis controller and looked very similar to Radica’s Arcade Legends, with the exception that it plugged directly into a television without using an intermediary console. The Arcade Blast offered nothing new in the way of games. All twelve of its built-in games had been available before in different AtGames collections.
But while it looked like AtGames was trying to fill the marketplace with licensed Genesis Plug & Plays, in 2011 it released another console that would eventually become synonymous with the company itself. This was the Atari Flashback 3. On the outside, this looked almost exactly like the Flashback 2 that had been distributed directly by Atari, with the exceptions including the controller ports moved to the front and the absence of a color/bw switch. But on the inside the sixty built-in 2600 games were ported and the unit could not be hacked to add a cartridge port. Atari 2600 diehards noticed that the sound was set to a lower pitch than normal.
Between 2012 and 2018, AtGames would release an additional six editions of the Flashback, steadily increasing the number of built-in games in each package. Other changes eventually included wireless controllers, HDMI output and the ability to add additional games via SD cards.
In 2014 AtGames released ColecoVision and Intellivision Flashback units. Both came with miniature versions of the controllers that came with the original consoles. The Intellivision model even used overlays. AtGames also continued to release Genesis Classic Game Consoles but keeping up with the different editions wasn’t as easy as it was with the Flashback and its incrementing numerals after its name. The only apparent differences were in the number of games and the box that the unit came in. This continued until 2017 when AtGames released the Sega Genesis Flashback. Unlike the previous AtGames Sega consoles, this new one resembled a miniature Genesis. The 85 built-in games were displayed in high definition but only 45 of them were original Genesis games. Also included were seven SMS and five Game Gear titles. The remaining 28 games were generic.
The Sega Genesis Flashback would be the last Sega Plug & Play that AtGames would release. In 2018 it released its Legends Flashback, which looked like the older Arcade Classics, only it was now filled with fifty games from Bandai, Capcom, Acclaim and several other software companies. AtGames also released six handheld units. Most of them resembled the Genesis controller with built-in games but they had titles such as the Legends Flashback Blast! and the Bandai Namco Flashback Blast! There were also three volumes of Atari Flashback Blast!, although the console for Volume 3 resembled an Atari 2600 paddle controller instead of the Genesis one. Finally, there was an Activision Flashback Blast!, which brought the story of Plug & Plays full circle.