A knock-off Nintendo.

As a child, being dirt poor had its benefits. Annual holidays were often trips to Welsh caravan parks, which were loaded with arcades populated by Daytona USA, The House of the Dead and the omnipresent Dance Dance Revolution machines. There was one Wales trip I remember especially for a marvelous gift I received while I was there. It was almost weightless, hollow, bright orange and shaped like a Nintendo 64 controller.

My Little Abomination

Plug n’ Play devices were very curious indeed and plugged straight into your TV via two AV cables (one for video, the other for mono audio). Younger readers might not be too familiar with they only really gained any kind of prominence in the early 2000s (the kind that I know at least). There were generally two kinds of Plug n’ Play device: the ones that were officially licensed, and the ones that weren’t. Mine being the latter. While they were probably (read: definitely) not entirely legal, they were easily found in pound shops nationwide and would occasionally show up in Woolworths (anyone remember Woolworths?).

My Plug n’ Play device was, as aforementioned, crudely shaped like an N64 controller and sported a retina-searing orange hue. Why they opted for one of the worst designed controllers in the history of gaming is beyond me, especially during a time when the N64 had already had its day, and the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube unleashed themselves to unprepared children the world over. It was a great time to be a kid, no doubt, but it seemed the unknown manufacturer of my Plug n’ Play controller had other values in mind.

plug and play retro gaming

Plug n’ play games are still around today. And still mostly terrible.

The device was loaded with around 60 NES games. 60! Granted, it was pretty much a glorified emulator. But this is coming from a time where if you asked me what an emulator was, I’d likely guess it was the name of a Hot Wheels car or a Terminator spin-off. Hey, I was 9 years old, cut me some slack.

But as the title of this article strongly hints, this cheap little knock-off was at least partly responsible for kickstarting my appreciation for retro gaming. Before that, I was familiar with the SNES thanks to my cousin, and my dad owned a Mega Drive when I was a kid. But this was back when those consoles weren’t retro, and actually quite recent. Thanks to that I was able to appreciate the best games of that era when they were fresh, but it wasn’t until that freakish Plug n’ Play abomination that I realised there was so much more that I’d been missing out on.

You’re a Wizard, Harry

Apparently one of those games I’d been missing out on was strange Harry Potter games loosely based on key events in The Philosopher’s Stone. Yes, a NES adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s classic novel about a child with a scar. Now unless Rowling herself went back in time and sold the rights to Harry Potter in the late 80s, I think this game was someone’s idea of a joke.

Harry’s Legend made me legitimately question reality as a child. “How could a Harry Potter game exist about a decade before the books became relevant?” Back then I didn’t have the answers, but the game itself was even more perplexing. When I say Harry’s Legend was loosely based on the source material, I meant about as loose as the arse of a Game of Thrones character.

I can only imagine Harry’s Legend follows an alternate timeline where the boy wizard, after months of being kept in a cupboard under the stairs by the neglecting Dursleys, finally snaps and murders the lot of them. Not with magic, either. Harry relies on the ol’ bare knuckle to dispatch his enemies, among which include cliched bedsheet ghosts, elderly women and Voldemort himself, who shows up at the end of each stage. Now personally, if The Deathly Hallows Part 2 ended with Harry punching and kicking “he who must not be named” into submission, I think I would have enjoyed it more.

The Best of the Rest

Now that you’ve been subjected to a mini retro reflection of a strange homebrew game that somehow found its way onto a dodgy Plug n’ Play, I’ll briefly go over the games I always found myself going back to:

  • Circus Charlie: A deviously difficult, almost on-rails side-scroller where you jump through flaming hoops, walk a tightrope and ride a lion, all in the name of that sweet, sweet high score.
  • Excitebike: Everyone knows this one, but as a kid I loved messing around with the course creator.
  • Arctic Adventure: Play as an adorable penguin, dodging seals and icebergs in one of the most graphically impressive games on the NES. Headed up by Hideo Kojima, no less!
  • Popeye: This was literally Donkey Kong (also on the device) but with Popeye characters. Nothing too special, but I obsessed over beating this one.
  • Super Mario Bros.: Again, we’ve all played this by now, but it’s the game that cemented my love of the portly plumber.

I would love nothing more than to be able to find this cheapo controller again. It was cheap, hollow and wouldn’t always work, but there was a time in my poor childhood life when it was where I did most of my gaming. Until I got a Dreamcast and tossed the bugger aside, of course.