GameStick review: Another bad Android micro-console that means well
At a Glance
The Ouya was supposed to change everything. With a low price tag and a (potentially) massive library of inexpensive Android games piped directly to your television set, the little console that could was poised to rethink how we buy games, and give smaller developers a captive audience.
Except it didn’t. It would seem the world just isn’t ready for small games on the big screen—or maybe they just took issue with the ho-hum controller, lackluster user interface, and a general lack of compelling games.
Enter the GameStick. At first blush it feels like more of the same: a wildly successful Kickstarter venture, this microconsole by gaming company PlayJam pipes cheap Android games from the Internet to your television set for a mere $80—twenty bucks cheaper than an Ouya, and an order of magnitude less expensive than your average cellphone, tablet, or gaming console. It's a novel idea in a fascinating chassis, and someday—maybe GameStick 2.0—it'll be a curio worth your attention.
Today is not that day. Let's dig in and figure out why.
The heart of the GameStick is a dongle about the same size and weight as a disposable Bic lighter. It lives in a little pocket on the controller, sliding out and plugging into an HDMI port on your TV. The Stick draws power via USB, from a micro-USB port on its side—if you've used a Google Chromecast, this’ll all be familiar. Plug it in, turn it on, and the console's operating system shows up instantly. Press the great big Play arrow on the center of the controller to turn it on, and it'll pair over Bluetooth in seconds. The rest of the setup process is fast and rather clever: the very first step, for example, involves adjusting the user interface to fit your TV screen—a process I'm not sure I ever sussed out on my Ouya. Configure your WiFi, sign up for a GameStick account and you're done, with panels of games laid out before you.
Everything feels fast and fluid, and the interface—while admittedly a little spartan—is laid out with big, colorful images offering an inviting view of the GameStick's starting lineup. Select a game and you'll get a description, some screenshots, and the occasional trailer showing off what you'll be getting into. Videos took a bit of time to load and the screenshots couldn't be displayed full screen, but this remains a far cry over what the only real competing microconsole on the market had to offer at launch.
While you're flipping through the menus, watching trailers or downloading games across the sleek, slick interface, it doesn't really seem, well, feasible. How can something so small and "portable" be so smooth?
This is about the point where the good times come to an abrupt halt.
The bad and the ugly
The Ouya was a missed opportunity, promising an inexpensive gaming experience but delivering a cheap, unsatisfying one. But for all its faults, it was still cheap—games on that microconsole are required to have some semblance of a free offering, so the neophyte who picked an Ouya up on a lark could try games before buying them. This is crucial, because we can already purchase many of the games offered on these machines on devices we already own. The Ouya's free-trial initiative allowed us to see how much better (or worse) a favorite game could be on our TV over our tablet, and let us spend our cash accordingly. The GameStick is not so generous. Every title lists their price tag right up front, wavering between $2 and $5—"real game" prices in the mobile space.
There are two freebies to sample—Smash Cops and Shadowgun, both available on iOS and Android devices. The former is... well, it's terrible. Actually, my notes read "I feel like less of a person for playing this." But everyone's a critic, amirite?
Bundling Shadowgun in is a bit of a double-edged sword. Honestly, the game is also rubbish—but it does make for adequate eye candy when you want to show off a mobile device's technical prowess, and runs at a smooth-enough clip on the GameStick's 1.5 GHz dual core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU, which is coupled with a Mali 400 GPU. The GameStick is running Android Jelly Bean 4.2, though it's so heavily skinned you'll only catch a glimpse of the base OS on the odd loading screen or the rare occasion that something goes wrong. The system advertises 8GB of storage space, though you'll have access to far less than that once the OS is factored in. Fortunately, the games are small and microSD cards are pretty cheap—the microconsole can support up to 32GB of external storage.
Back to the games: Shadowgun looks about as nice as it always does on mobile devices and runs with little snags or stutters, but it also draws out all of the GameStick's flaws.
Let's not mince words—I hate everything about this controller. It looks and feels cheap, a stiff white plastic shell with awkward rigid edges that butt against my palms. The analog sticks are the worst sort, loose and imprecise. Finite adjustments to aim in a first-person shooter, or while simply trying to navigate menus can be an exercise in frustration, as crosshairs or selections dart about with the slightest push or pull on a stick. Directional pads are a little harder to get wrong, though they remain stiff and awkward.
The Bluetooth controller pairs readily with the console, though input latency seemed to kick up a tad when I was more than about 10 or so feet away from my TV. My apartment’s living room isn’t very big, so this was more onerous than expected. The controller's battery life is advertised at about 40 hours, but I've no clue how long it actually lasts: the LED light on the bottom of my review unit's controller blinks along merrily, offering no indication of how far along it is in the charging process. On the plus side, it can be charged with a standard micro-USB cable and you can buy an additional controller (sans the microconsole) for $40—four controllers can be paired to the GameStick at a time.
Yesterday’s hits at today’s prices
The Other Brothers. Riptide GP. Nimble Quest—the GameStick's starting lineup looks pretty good. But they're all familiar faces, and all games we might have purchased at one point or another on iOS or Android devices. As it stands, this walled garden living within Android's walled garden will continue to be a tough sell for anyone who already owns a Google-friendly smartphone or tablet, to say nothing of iOS owners who might want to take a gander at these funky micro-gaming machines.
That, of course, isn't the GameStick's fault—it's a fundamental flaw with this whole microconsole concept. I'd love a single, unified Android ecosystem, one that would allow me to sign in with the same account on a myriad of devices and have access to device-appropriate apps. Touchscreen apps would be restricted to touchscreen devices, while apps offering touch- and controller-support would be available everywhere.
That would of course be a nightmare for developers, who invest significant time and resources into tailoring an experience for a particular set of hardware. We can't expect a game designed for touchscreens to work fluidly with a controller, and if the developer makes it work, we shouldn't expect to reap the benefits of their labor for free. The end result is the situation microconsoles find themselves in now: paltry game support, as developers large and small see far greater logic in developing for the "big kids"—Android and iOS—and eschewing these curios altogether.
Like the Ouya, this console is a comedy of errors. GameStick's user interface is slick and user friendly, which is nice. The controller is terrible, and the Ouya's doesn't fare much better. But here's the thing: unlike the Ouya, we lack raw(ish) access to native Android to correct its mistakes. I rarely touch the Ouya's controller, because pairing a Nintendo Wiimote is trivial, and a PlayStation 3 controller doesn't require much effort. The folks behind the Ouya probably don't approve of this (and Nintendo sure as hell doesn't) but the Ouya's USB port and tacit support for emulators leaves the Super Nintendo's entire library at my fingertips. Or the PlayStation 1 library. Or the Nintendo 64 library. It's a device that's wide open (for tinkerers), and that more than makes up for its myraid of flaws.
The GameStick has no such advantage. Honestly, I can't think of a reason to recommend a GameStick over an Ouya, and I'd only recommend the latter to folks who're looking to scratch that tinkerer's itch. You can probably see where this is going.
The idea is sound. The micro-console proper is fascinating—having all of this power in a tiny dongle when I was a wee lad would've left me weepy with joy. But the execution and horrible controller are just not worth your money.