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GameStick review: the Android console battle is on

One cheap, Kickstarter-backed indie console takes on another

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GameStick Hero
GameStick Hero

A successful Kickstarter-funded device is now shipping to retail stores and backers all over the world. Its upstart manufacturers are taking the growing world of Android gaming to the TV, with a new form factor and a price that undercuts virtually everything else on the market. But can it live up to the hype?

While the hypercompact GameStick won’t be shipping until November 8th, I could have easily copied and pasted that paragraph from a review six months ago, when we were getting our first look at the Ouya. It’s nearly impossible not to compare the two: along with Nvidia’s Project Shield, they’re the reason 2013 was declared “the year of the microconsole."

The Ouya’s launch, however, set the year of the microconsole off to a rocky start. Early software problems and a lack of solid games deflated some extraordinarily high expectations, and that’s if you were able to get one at all — supply-chain problems meant that some backers were left waiting on their consoles while retail customers bought them off the shelf at Best Buy. Given these problems, the GameStick seems like a potential antidote: where Ouya was a constant work in progress, the GameStick is tightly packaged; where Ouya talked up its Yves Béhar-designed controller, GameStick creator PlayJam offers a simple piece of portable hardware.

But the GameStick still has to deal with some fundamental problems. There are millions of Android games, but only so many of them work well on the big screen. Even if it’s $20 cheaper than the Ouya at $79.99, the GameStick still has to prove its worth in a market dominated by traditional console makers on the one hand and phones and tablets on the other. In the meantime, Ouya has worked hard to improve its software and its catalog; even if the selection is still uneven, lo-fi deathmatch game Towerfall has given the console a killer app. The question for PlayJam, then, isn’t just whether or not big-screen Android gaming will catch on — it’s if the GameStick is the place to get it.


Controller and console, together at last

The GameStick consists of two parts: a controller and a tiny console dongle that slots inside it, ready to push out and plug into a TV. Together, they’re a no-nonsense white rectangle about an inch high. The controller’s hard plastic body is reminiscent of an early iPod, with a white and gray design that extends from its rubberized analog sticks to the transparent face buttons. Even if the console is portable, it’s still pretty big — much thinner than an Xbox 360 controller, but slightly wider and marginally shorter. Because of that flat design, you won’t find any triggers on the GameStick, but the controls are otherwise helpfully standard with two analog sticks, a pair of bumpers, and four buttons in the familiar A - B - X - Y configuration.

While an Xbox or PlayStation controller has contoured grips and some ridges or depressions for the sticks and buttons, the Gamestick’s controls all sit on its perfectly flat surface. When you first pick up the controller, this is jarring. Have you ever looked at a map using the Mercator projection and wondered why Greenland is as big as Africa? That’s what wrapping your hands around the narrow edges of the GameStick feels like. It doesn’t help that the controller’s size is inflated by the dongle’s housing. For people with bigger hands, this probably isn’t an issue, but I found my thumbs sometimes stretching to hit the analog sticks or center buttons. While the controller’s never exactly comfortable, though, it’s not awkward enough that you won’t get used to it quickly.

The "stick" part of the GameStick is covered in a soft, leathery rubber that feels like the original Nexus 7’s back. When it’s not in use, it clicks into a slot in the controller — from which inexplicably peer a pair of tiny, sinister eyes. Even though you have to carry a separate Micro USB adapter, it’s a great conceit, keeping the dongle from going missing and giving the GameStick a distinctive selling point that sets it apart from other microconsoles. The controller also charges via Micro USB, and its battery life is long enough that I could play for several hours over the course of a few days without needing to recharge.

The controller’s face buttons are rock-solid, but its triggers feel weak, and the rubberized analog sticks slipped around and never seemed to quite hold my thumbs. While trying to figure out how to hit the tiny reset button, David and I accidentally separated the two halves of the dongle, which stayed very slightly bent from that point onward. Making a small-batch console that costs $80 is no small feat, but breaking one shouldn’t be either.

Inside the GameStick is a modest ARM Cortex A9 processor, MALI 400 GPU, and 8GB of storage, expandable with a 32GB microSD card. It’s capable of running aging mobile-shooter Shadowgun, the most graphically advanced game I could play, but it’s also not exactly top of the line. Most of the people developing specifically for microconsoles have gone for low-res retro designs, so it’s possible you won’t bump up against the GameStick’s limits any time soon. But unlike the Ouya, there’s no recourse if you do — the tiny dongle doesn’t list "hackability" as one of its strong points.

The console fits into a small slot in the controller, from which inexplicably peer a pair of tiny, sinister eyes




Android Console Redux

The GameStick is as easy to set up as a TV dongle can be. Like the Chromecast, it plugs into both the television and its Micro USB charger, with an optional extender for hard-to-reach HDMI ports. It boots automatically, if slowly, and turning on the controller starts a painless pairing process.

In theory, you can use up to four controllers with the GameStick. For $39.99, you can buy an extra gamepad; while GameStick says it will connect to other Android devices, other wireless controllers won’t connect to the GameStick. To use anything wired, you’ll need to buy a separate $49.99 dock that adds wireless charging for the controller, three USB ports, and more storage. About a dozen of the launch-window games, including Canabalt and Super Grid Run, have a multiplayer option, but it’s hard to recommend getting an extra controller that costs half as much as the console so you can play them.

Img_4464The GameStick is pretty serious about being a gaming-only device"

Once the GameStick is up and running, its simple gray UI strips out any hint of Android for large, TV-friendly labels. Four tabs give you access to settings, your account information, a pair of media players, and the games catalog, an arrangement that’s generally very visually consistent and easy to navigate. As basic as the interface is, there are still some strange and annoying quirks. The analog sticks were oversensitive, often flipping past the option I wanted. The screen sometimes went confusingly black for several seconds while loading a game or installing an update, and an apparent bug occasionally made it impossible for me to buy games until I restarted. These weren’t fatal flaws, but they happened often enough that I was never sure whether the interface would respond to my instructions.

There’s a media section, but it holds only two apps: the GameStick’s own software and the XBMC-based Tofu player, both of which read files from either a microUSB card or the dock. Facebook and Twitter integration is coming after launch. These things will be there in times of greatest need, but otherwise you can pretty well ignore them. The GameStick is pretty serious about being a gaming-only device.

Over on the Games tab, you’ll see pages of popular or featured titles, a list of everything you have installed, and a single section containing every game on the console. There aren’t any other genre divisions or sorting options, which wasn’t a problem for the small pre-launch library I could access. As the store grows, though, it would be nice to be able to at least scratch an itch for platformers or racing games without going through the whole catalog.

We weren’t thrilled with Ouya’s freemium model, and apparently GameStick wasn’t either — except for Shadowgun and one other game, everything costs between $2 and $6, including some things that are free on the Google Play store. And once you decide to make a purchase, the UI will do everything in its power to stop you. Before buying anything, you’ll need to top up a digital wallet, then type your password with the controller every single time you make a purchase. If you hand the controller over to your kid, that means they won’t be able to go on a spending spree, but as an adult, using your analog stick on a virtual keyboard over and over is just annoying.



Gaming: what you see is what you get

There are currently about 85 titles set for launch on the GameStick, and I was allowed to play roughly a third of them. I saw a few exclusives, but the games are mostly a mix of ported arcade classics like Raiden and recent indie mobile titles, many of which have previously been adapted for Ouya or Project Shield. PlayJam hasn’t courted developers as publicly as Ouya, which spent months locking in exclusives and holding game jams. Nonetheless, it’s nabbed some of the the console’s best performers (including pixelated brawler Fist of Awesome, currently Ouya’s second-ranked game), and it’s likely to get more after release.

There were some definite winners — Fist of Awesome is fantastic, and Evac is a clever puzzle / arcade game that works far better with a controller than a touchscreen. In other cases, I ran up against perhaps the biggest problem for microconsoles: what I want in the subway usually isn’t what I want in the living room. No matter how great a mobile game is, I don’t necessarily want to sit down and dedicate an evening to playing it, especially if it’s explicitly designed to be consumed in bits and pieces.

It doesn’t help that some basic building blocks of mobile games don’t translate well to a console. Controls that are forgiving on a touchscreen feel laggy and awkward on a gamepad: aiming at enemies in Shadowgun was like steering a boat, and good luck navigating its diagonally placed settings-buttons with a stick or D-pad. A progress screen at the end of each puzzle in a platformer is fine for a five-minute mobile session, but navigating to the "next" button in level after level gets old fast. It’s totally possible to fix these issues, as evidenced by some of the other games, but they’re still very much present in the GameStick catalog.

Mind you, plenty of microconsole users don’t want to rely completely on an official catalog, but for GameStick users, it’s a requirement. The GameStick is very, very heavily locked down for an Android device: you can use the dock or a microSD card to play music and movies, but otherwise everything goes through the store with no way, official or unofficial, to install other programs or even access a web browser.

The Ouya’s relative openness, by contrast, has made it possible to load games from the Google Play store, and on the murkier side of the law there are over a dozen emulators on the marketplace. GameStick tells us it will release a separate version of the firmware for developers to upload and test games, but that it "removes most of the functionality of the retail version." Since we’re not sure quite what that means, it’s safe to assume running anything other than sanctioned GameStick games will take some serious work, at least until the community figures out a solid process for rooting it. For now, knowing you could be trying out Dead Trigger 2 instead of the two-year-old ShadowGun is a bitter pill — even if it’s not clear the newer game would even run on the GameStick’s hardware.

What I want in the subway usually isn’t what I want in the living room Gamesticksegment1Gamesticksegment2Gamesticksegment3

The GameStick fills a niche, but it's a very specific one

The GameStick fills a niche in the market: it’s a highly portable and reasonably functional big-screen Android console at a rock-bottom price point. Unfortunately, that’s a very specific niche. In portable gaming, it’s indirectly competing with the only moderately more expensive 2DS, as well as phones and tablets. For big-screen Android gaming, it’s competing with the Ouya, which offers a very similar but much larger catalog for only $20 more.

The GameStick seems partially geared towards kids — there’s an easy-to-find parental control and ratings system, and the controller itself is big and approachable. Its portability means it wouldn’t be hard to take on vacation (one suggested use case) or to a friend’s house, although playing probably won’t be much fun unless your friend has a GameStick controller too. The slide-in dongle is a thoughtful way to keep the young and potentially forgetful from leaving a core part of their system at home. But the GameStick certainly isn’t the only console for kids, and as cheap as it is, it’s not justifiable as a no-brainer impulse buy.

This doesn’t mean things won’t get better. The Ouya, after all, had a weak catalog and frustrating UI at launch, but it’s come a long way since then, and so could the GameStick. Its interface is far and away better than the early Ouya’s was, its unpretentious design is genuinely useful, and noticeable lag was rare. But right now, it’s not enough to be as good as the Ouya was at its disastrous launch. The GameStick is facing a more mature competitor at a similar price point, without the openness or upgradeability of its rival. It’s unlikely to board the roller coaster of hype and disappointment that the Ouya has ridden since launch, but without its competitor’s aggressive iteration, there are just fewer places for it to go. I never thought I’d say this about one of our lowest-scored products ever, but seriously: if you’re not 100 percent sold on the GameStick’s form factor, spend the extra $20 and get an Ouya.