Games journalist/historian/archivist Frank Cifaldi has been waging a war against technological obsolescence with his nonprofit, The Video Game History Foundation. Cifaldi’s work as a preservationist prioritizes the gaming history most at risk of disappearing: obscure games, delicate magazines, misplaced source codes. On his foundation’s blog, Cifaldi chronicles the ephemera rescued from the clutches of entropy: the lost NES version of SimCity; the first videogame TV commercials; and the original reviews for the worst videogame ever, Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
One buzzy discovery Cifaldi broke on Twitter last week highlighted a gaming artifact “so rare it might not even exist”: the TV Guide Quizmaster plug & play console.
Okay strap in, folks, we’re doing a super deep dive into uber-obscure video game research. Let’s talk about something so rare it might not even exist, the TV Guide Quizmaster plug & play console. pic.twitter.com/83msCbvNLK— Frank Cifaldi the Last (@frankcifaldi) August 1, 2019
Plug & plays were a briefly popular noughties console type. All they consisted of was a plastic controller and a wire that connected to the TV. The controller itself contained the game, and with a few batteries, voila, a game could be up and running in a matter of minutes. It was painless, and it was cheap.
As Cifaldi documents, many of these plug & plays used cloned NES hardware sourced from Chinese manufacturers. That means, technically, many of these games are NES ports, and some of them are even original NES games: a surprising and understudied afterlife for the classic console.
Cifaldi’s investigation into this arcane corner of NES history uncovered new curiosities. For example, he discovered a new NES peripheral to join the Zapper and Power Glove in infamy: a clunky-looking fishing rod.
I thought I was done but JUST THIS WEEK we discovered a brand new one: Thanks to Haze and ClawGrip tipping me off, I bought this “King Fishing Live” unit on eBay. All we really had to go on was the pictures on the box, which maaaaybe show a game running on the NES? pic.twitter.com/hP95ECs3U3— Frank Cifaldi the Last (@frankcifaldi) August 1, 2019
In his quest to find every last plug & play console, though, he finally met his white whale: a mysterious listing for the “TV Guide Quiz Master” on a toy manufacturer’s WayBack Machine snapshot. The only trace of its existence is a sans-context digital mockup on a “weird spam site.”
After Cifaldi’s thread went viral on Twitter, a listing for the console was found on the forgotten digital storefront SaleStores. The webpage gives a price for the console ($21.97) and a description: “Plug [the console] into your TV and choose from 3,000 fascinating, fun-for-allages questions about movies and television, Game categories include: classic TV, today’s TV, soaps, movies, sports, and kids’ entertainment, Play by yourself or compete against friends.”
Efforts to dig up a physical copy of the console itself, however, have been fruitless. It’s not even clear if the console was ever sold or produced, as the only images of it remaining are mock-ups and not the object itself. The unnoticed disappearance of the TV Guide Quizmaster isn’t an unusual story in games history—the medium has always been plagued by archiving issues due to lackluster support from libraries, museums and the games industry itself. Thanks to the archeology of professional preservationists like Cifaldi, gaming fans can access a little more of their own history.