By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
With the exciting announcement of the “NES Classic,” a miniature replica NES with 30 built-in games, it seems like a good time to count down the best dedicated consoles/plug and play consoles ever released.
#5 – Retro Arcade Space Invaders (Jakks Pacific)
It’s easy to skim right over the many, many “TV Games” that Jakks has made, most of them branded off of kids shows like Thomas the Tank Engine and Dora the Explorer, but the company has a few decent retro game plug ‘n plays available. Most of them are small, specialized collections of specific companies or franchises, some of which are part of more complete collections elsewhere–for instance, everything worth having off of their Activision and Atari plug ‘n plays are also part of bigger, better consoles. But there are a couple that are worth checking out, the first of which is their Space Invaders game. SI is a classic for good reason, and is still a lot of fun to play today, especially in the arcade which this system capably replicates with its joystick and miniature base. But this plug ‘n play also contains nine other Taito arcade titles: Bubble Bobble, Qix, Puzznic, The Legend of Kage, Apline Ski, Birdie King, Tube-It, Chack’n Pop, and The Fairlyland Story. Not all of those games are timeless classics or anything, but there’s a lot of good stuff there (Bubble Bobble says hello), and Taito’s 80s arcade games haven’t been ported to death like most other publishers of the era so at least the games are different than the same 10 golden era arcade games we’ve been beaten over the head with for the last 30 years.
#4 – Colecovision Flashback (AtGames)
There have been a couple of smaller Colecovision plug ‘n plays over the years, but much like its Atari cousin, the Colecovision Flashback is the next best thing to owning the original console and its cartridges. Non-purists may say its actually better, as it is made to work with modern TVs (though the paddles aren’t wireless like the newer iterations of Atari Flashback, unfortunately). The 60 game list includes its fair share of expected clunkers and games that you’ll only play one time for five minutes, and some of the system’s bigger classics are missing (though in the case of Donkey Kong, that was to be expected). But there is still plenty of good stuff there from the Colecovision’s expansive library, with the standouts including Miner 2049er, Choplifter, Zaxxon, Moonsweeper, Jumpman Junior, Space Fury, Montezuma’s Revenge, Omega Race, Jungle Hunt, and Frenzy. And like the best collections of retro games, there are a few obscure little games with delightfully silly titles worth checking out like Telly Turtle, Flipper Slipper, Gust Buster, and Slurpy. It’s also worth noting that there is a Dollar General-exclusive version of Colecovision Flashback that has Antarctic Adventure, which isn’t on the standard edition–make sure you look for the version that says it includes 61 games rather than 60 if that’s important to you (but be prepared to pay $10-$15 more for that version online).
#3 – Retro Arcade Pac-Man (Jakks Pacific)
Like with Jakks’ Space Invaders plug ‘n play, the Retro Arcade Pac-Man (RA-PM) is a specialized collection of a games from a particular company, made to mimic the arcade experience with a replica joystick and shrunken arcade board. This one goes the extra mile to looking like an arcade machine, with faux wood paneling and coin slot around the sides. But as with any good plug ‘n play, the included games are just as important as the physical presentation, and RA-PM certainly delivers on that front. Previous digs at over-ported arcade classics aside, Pac-Man is one of the most timeless video games ever created and is as playable today as it was in 1980, especially the arcade original. RA-PM is obviously more than just Pac-Man, though, also bringing along all-time greats like Galaga, Dig Dug, Mappy, Xevious, New Rally X, and more. Sadly, Namco’s continued petty grudge against the American-developed Ms. Pac-Man far too often keeps that game off of Pac-Man and Namco compilations, and this one is no different (which is too bad since Ms. Pac-Man is arguably the better game). Including relatively obscure Pac-Man offshots Pac and Pal and Pac-Man Plus do help to make up for this, and anyway, harping on the omission of Ms. Pac-Man is basically just nitpicking. This is a fantastic plug ‘n play with a solid set of arcade classics, playable on a joystick as they were intended. It should be noted that Jakks has produced several other Pac-Man and Namco plug ‘n plays, most of which are varying degrees of good, but this one is by far the best (and also, unfortunately, the hardest to come by).
#2 – C64 Direct-to-TV (The Toy: Lobster Company et al)
The C64 DTV is both one of the older and probably the least mass-produced of the noteworthy plug ‘n plays, but it is still one of the best. In terms of the original console it is based on, its closest competitors in the plug ‘n play space are the Mega Drive/Genesis and the NES. But the NES Classic isn’t out yet, and the Genesis Classic Game Console plug ‘n plays are merely “decent for the price,” so the C64 DTV is the winner by default in terms of best console to have a dedicated plug ‘n play version. The only thing that keeps it from #1, well…the blurb accompanying the #1 pick will cover that, as will some of the caveats towards the end of this paragraph. For now, we’ll just focus on what makes the C64 DTV so good. The built-in game roster is between about 30 and 35 games depending on version and region, but contains classics–many of which were overlooked in the parts of the world where the NES was king so they’ll be new to a lot of people–like Impossible Mission and its sequel, Summer and Winter Games, International Karate, Jumpman Jr., Eliminator, Cybernoid, and Paradroid. To be fair, it’s also missing quite a lot of the C64’s most noteworthy games. However–and maybe this is a controversial reason for including it in this list–the C64 DTV was built in such a way that it’s hack-able, and by modifying it to connect to a PlayStation 2 keyboard and a disc drive, it essentially becomes a fully-functioning Commodore 64. There are entire websites and online communities devoted to hacking the C64 DTV. If you want to view the C64 DTV completely on its own merits, independent of its ability to be modified, just mentally drop it down to #4 on this list as that’s probably where it deserves to be taken as-is. Otherwise, the C64 DTV’s spot at #2 is well-earned for how much fun can be had tinkering with this thing.
#1 – Atari Flashback 6 (AtGames)
Purists have their own favorite installment of the Atari Flashback line for a variety of reasons. But for purposes of this list, Flashback 6 more than adequately represents the entire product line and certainly earns its top ranking on this list. Each successor in the Atari Flashback line has not only added more games (for the most part), but made tweaks to the hardware as well, eventually making the very wise move to wireless joysticks (yet still brilliantly having controller ports for original Atari joysticks, paddles, etc). Still, the star of the show here is the game line up, which has ballooned to a staggering 100 games for the Flashback 6. The main disappointment in the lineup is that a few pretty essential games were dropped from the lineup after the first Flashback, including Pitfall!, River Raid, Wizard, and Caverns of Mars. Beyond those omissions, you’d be hard-pressed to think of too many Atari 2600 and 7800 games you’d want to play that you won’t find on the Flashback 6 (and you don’t get any of the Flash game-quality filler that pads out a full half of the Genesis plug n’ play’s supposed 80-game lineup). There are even a number of newer homebrew games and playable prototypes of old games that were never officially released before, making the Flashback 6 a destination for “new” Atari 2600 games as well as the old classics. Best of all, the famously stiff Atari 2600 joysticks are actually more fluid and comfortable on the Flashback 6 than they originally were, making these games play better than they ever have–not to mention look better, as they are crisp and beautiful when played on modern televisions (and won’t get fuzzy when your mom is vacuuming). Sure, you can play all of these games on an actual Atari 2600 if it makes you feel more like a true retro gamer, and that’s valid, but it’s hard to argue with the convenience and the improvements that the Flashback 6 brings to the table. A Flashback 6 deserves a spot on every old-school gamers entertainment center, or at least on their bedroom dresser–it makes for the perfect “second-room” console for when you want video games in a non-main room of your house but don’t want to deal with/don’t have room for the associated mess of a regular console.
Oh, and yes, I only considered “legal” plug ‘n plays for this list. Those bootleg plug ‘n plays that look like Nintendo 64 controllers and are loaded with NES ROMs that you buy at the same mall kiosks that sell bedazzled iPhone cases were not eligible.