Review / First Impressions of GameStick

I literally have only had about an hour, so please consider this more first impressions than a full-fledged review, but I am reasonably impressed with the Gamestick. It’s true that the majority of the games available on the console aren’t new, and have been available on iOS or Android for 2 years already. But that doesn’t mean the developers haven’t put some care into them. Shadowgun is currently the best looking game to show off the console with, and it’s free to boot (I wonder if this is an introductory bonus?). For a 2011 game that was originally designed to be played on cell phones and tablets? It looks gorgeous on my living room television. I noticed some controller lag at a few points, but the game itself looked excellent and played without any noticeable slow downs or lengthy load times. I played a couple of other low resolution games which clearly took advantage of the twin-stick controller design and were easy to get the hang of.

When thinking of the graphics of the games and the console, it is important to not get caught up in comparing this new breed of device to the major video game consoles. Does it look like the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One? No. It’s also less than a quarter of the price. The main competition for devices like GameStick are the similar consoles on the market (primarily Ouya), and other similar tablets. As the tablet market evolves (a new iPad every year, and companies like Samsung pushing new tablets every few months), it may not be long before the GameStick’s ARM® CORTEX™ – A9 CPU & MALI™ – 400 GPU really show their age more than they already do. But still, try to remember the price-point. A new iPad will set you back just as much as an Xbox One, but nobody complains that its performance isn’t on par with the Xbox.

Back to the GameStick itself. I was a little disappointed to find out I would need to connect it to an external power supply to run it. Although it’s not the end of the world, it does kind of defeat the purpose of the GameStick unit fitting inside the controller. On that note, as well, it is easily a two handed process to remove the GameStick from the shell of the controller, as it is a snug fit and the rubberized texture makes it mildly difficult to slide out of its compartment. Credit to the designers for the easter-egg-eyes inside the compartment, looking back at you if you peer in.

The familiar ABXY arrangement is taken straight from the Xbox 360 controller, and the rest of the buttons were easy to use. The “click” of the D-Pad buttons is a bit annoying, and the L&R buttons are a bit rigid for my tastes, but at no time was anything “uncomfortable.” The controller itself feels a bit bulky, but it is not heavy, nor is it too large for my hands. As I mentioned, it isn’t uncomfortable, but at times you do feel strange with a big rectangle in your hands, as we’ve gotten used to more ergonomic designs of PlayStation, Xbox, and even the Ouya’s controllers.

The GameStick service seems to be alive and kicking. Although I had no problems activating my account and logging in, the service may be under a bit of pressure from everyone checking out their new devices. The firmware update seemed to take an abnormally long time just to download (despite my being on a 30Mbps connection) – applying it didn’t take too long at all, but I did find it strange that I had to repeat some of the setup-steps I had already done (reconnect to WiFi, adjust screen size, etc…). Game downloads could also have been a bit faster, but the real disappointment was installation time. I don’t know what in the world the console was doing, but extracting and installing the games that were downloaded took several minutes. A 100MB game took roughly a minute, and the 300+MB Shadowgun extrapolated the install time similarly. I sincerely hope this can be improved in future releases. Nothing puts a damper on things like lengthy install or load times (leading my own father to comment, “what is this, Donald Duck’s Playground?” – a Commodore 64 title from my childhood notorious for lengthy floppy-diskette load times). To be fair, once installed, the game launched quickly, and loaded levels, etc… without any inordinate load times.

I did have a strange issue with my WiFi being peculiarly weak. When all other devices in the same room had a strong or at least moderately strong signal, the GameStick was showing only about half-strength, and at one point appeared to lose connectivity.

After only about 15 minutes of play time (and a roughly 30 minute period of downloading & installing the day-one firmware update, and downloading / installing some games) the GameStick unit itself was quite warm to the touch. This is to be expected housing a device as powerful as many tablets in something physically smaller than my keychain! I am curious if it will stand up to “all-nighters” the way gaming consoles typically need to, time will tell.

All-in-all, I think my VERY first experience with the GameStick was actually a BETTER “first” experience than I had with the Ouya, but these micro-consoles will hopefully continue to improve with firmware updates and support from the developer community. At this point, the GameStick is a nice toy at a great pricepoint, but to any parents thinking of picking them up for the holidays, keep in mind that everything is purchased digitally. You can’t go to GameStop and buy used games, or to your local video store and rent a game for your kid, most of the games are going to carry a small price tag, but if you’re an adult interested in something new to tinker with and don’t mind tossing a few bucks towards indie game developers, this could be right up your alley.

Are consoles dead? Is it time to return to PC gaming?

As the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 approach, I suddenly feel less compelled than I have to join the fray. Recently, my time has been taken up by other things, but it’s not just a lack of time. I could be the most busy person you know, but if I really wanted to, I would make time for the next chapter in the Halo universe! But that’s not it. I already got in to why I’m not buying the Xbox One at Launch, but it continues to nag at me. Continue reading “Are consoles dead? Is it time to return to PC gaming?”

Nintendo needs to make a Cloud-Based Console

I would be down with the “N Cloud,” wouldn’t you? Okay, I know, I just made the term up – but the answer is obviously a resounding “yes.” Let me explain why I, and just about everyone I know, would jump at the opportunity to have Nintendo provide this service; when I say “just about everyone” – I’m even including Nintendo, themselves. Consider this an open letter to Nintendo: my proposal for the “N Cloud” service.

This console would be “always online” and designed to play the classics. It shouldn’t need to “stream” the games’ visuals, in the same way that the OnLive service does. But the games, and thus, your save states, could reside in the cloud, and be downloaded as needed. The service should offer the entire back catalog of Nintendo games. And I mean entire. Some games will take a while to come, because they haven’t been officially made available as online content before. But if it’s easy enough for a pirate on the Internet to get a ROM of the game, Nintendo has little to no excuse to not be making money from the title.

Nintendo could offer a select few games for free with a monthly membership – games that you’ll always have access to for just a base fee. Then they could rotate additional “free games of the month” throughout the year. You could unlock permanent access to a game for a one time fee of about $10. Nintendo not only has a huge catalog of first party games people know, love, and remember, but they should be able to easily get their lawyers to find a loophole allowing them to release nearly every single Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Nintendo 64 game that ever existed. Remember, when it came to gaming’s earliest days, publishers didn’t just make games for the console, but the games were actually Licensed by Nintendo of America to appear on the console. They should be able to have the rights to a huge number of games.

The benefit to having your save in the cloud is obvious: how many times have you gotten the 101% in Donkey Kong Country, or all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 or unlocked all of the tracks in Mario Kart 64? Don’t lie. If you’re reading this article? More than twice. For each of those things. So why not have your progress always available, along with certain newer benefits that emulator-gamers have gotten used to, like Save States (save your game at any instant), or the ability to adjust the game’s speed.

The hardware would be inexpensive (it could be done on the Wii U, if they really wanted to). As a stand alone console, a follow-up to the Wii U, it might be wise to have a low-cost, high-profit margin option available to consumers, to rebuild the brand. Gamers have clammored for a service like this for years, and have taken to doing it illegally. Why it is still taking this long for Nintendo (and many other companies) to trickle out their “classics” line ups just a few at a time is beyond me. Where there’s a black-market, there’s a market waiting to be tapped.

Video Game Training

I was thinking, the other day, about how a parent tries to get kids in to video games. What started me on this was actually quite the opposite: I had seen a photograph of a woman’s hand holding a Playstation controller – but in that awkward way that someone who has never played a video game before holds controllers… one thumb on the buttons, the left hand doing nothing at all, no where near the D-Pad or Analog stick. And that got me thinking: how did I learn to play games?

There are kids who are about to get their driver’s license who obviously didn’t grow up with the Atari and the Nintendo. Their brains fascinate me – they must me more advanced than I will ever be. I graduated from one face button, to four, to shoulder buttons and triggers, to Analog Sticks. And if I were going to take someone who had NEVER played a game before, I would teach them the same way I had learned.

I would be fascinated to watch someone jump right in to gaming and have the Xbox 360 be their first console, but I have no kids of my own, and I’ve grown up gaming, so I have no idea how to wrap my head around that. How could you pick up a controller that has a total of 9 digital buttons, two analog sticks, two analog triggers, and a directional pad with somewhere between 4 and 24 directional sensors and know what to do? The complexities of video games should be gradually introduced. This being my firm belief, I have developed a training regimen to get someone comfortable with a game controller.

It begins where many people began: the Atari 2600. I would begin with Pac-Man. It’s a sad excuse for an arcade-port, it’s true, but the game involves no button presses, you merely need to master the joystick. We then move on to using the button by going to Defender. For extra credit, try Asteroids to reinforce on the player the concept of “screen warping” which they should have experienced in Pac-Man.

Our user then graduates to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Now we have a slightly more complex controller – to get used to the multiple buttons, I would use a simple game that easily demonstrates the difference, such as Excite Bike, before moving on to to something else. I would save Super Mario Bros. until the user is familiar with the controller. Thinking about it as a pack-in game fascinates me, because it does have fairly advanced controls. The user needs to be able to handle simultaneous button presses, such as holding the “B” button to run, while moving in the direction they want and pressing “A” to jump, in order to cross large pits. It is critical to future game play to learn the complexities of multiple simultaneous button presses.

The super Nintendo may have introduced more buttons, but the gameplay mechanics didn’t change until the Nintendo 64 was released and introduced the analog stick to the main stream. You could use a Saturn, here, but… why would you? Super Mario 64 is a great tutorial on the Analog stick and I would stick with this before sending someone off to the Sonic Adventure games on the Dreamcast – the control always seemed a little less rigid in Super Mario 64.

Now it’s time to move up to the Xbox, Xbox 360, PS2, or PS3. I’d jump right to the 360, but it is my console of choice. I missed out on the PS2 era, never owning one and opting for PC gaming at the time. So although I’m sure there are excellent games to get the user familiar with multiple analog sticks, I would go right up to the Xbox 360. And the game that really helped me get comfortable with dual-analog sticks was the twin stick shooter Geometry Wars Evolved. Once you have that down, work in to the player’s most likely favorite genre… racing games, FPS, 3rd person action, RPG – or some hybrid titles like Skyrim or Bioshock.

Successful grooming of a new gamer can take time and patience. Players jumping right in to more modern consoles and controllers can skip everything I’ve mentioned here, but I would advise finding games that will slowly familiarize the new player with a controller. They’re not likely to dive head first into Gears of War with much luck, but you could use a Sonic the Hedgehog game from the arcade (or a clone like Fancy Pants Adventures), and on to games which introduce more complex game mechanics, such as Braid.

There are lots of ways to get someone in to gaming who hasn’t been onboard before – but if the controller is the most overwhelming obstacle, at least there are some options to ramp up to the more modern controllers!