The Antstream has been one of retro gaming’s most interesting projects for a while now, as it’s attempting to position itself as the Netflix of retro games – streaming and all. Having now spent some significant hands-on time with the service, some of our fears over that concept have been dispelled, but not nearly enough of them to truly recommend the service at this point in time.
Antstream is easy to set up, though we found that the website’s claim that it is “available on all your devices” was a little misleading, as some popular ones aren’t yet supported – at the time of writing, iPhone, iPad, PS4 and Switch apps were yet to launch. However, it was easy to get started and log in on the devices we tested. Upon signing into the service, an easy-to-navigate home screen lists a little over 200 games, split across a variety of genres – this screen helpfully highlights useful information, too, such as which games have challenges. At the time of writing, just over three quarters of Antstream’s active library originated on home computer formats, with plenty of C64 and Spectrum games, rounded off by a smattering of Amiga. The bulk of the remaining titles are arcade games, with a very small selection of Mega Drive / Genesis games providing the only console representation.
In some respects, Antstream deserves to be commended for its technical achievements. We ran the Android app on a low-end Amazon Fire tablet from 2015 and experienced solid technical performance and control response. With the streaming nature of the service, that means that you’ll get equally good performance whether you’re playing Spectrum favourites or arcade hits. Input lag also proved to be way less of a problem than we were expecting. This is our chief concern with any game streaming service, and we don’t think most players will notice it.
Low hurdle to clear
However, being playable is a low hurdle to clear, and sadly it’s just about the only one that has been cleared. Video quality is the most noticeably subpar aspect of the product. We frequently experienced a variety of faults including momentary tearing and smeary images, as well as more persistent blocks of incorrect colour and garbled details, and these seemed to increase in severity the longer a session lasted. Because the frames have to be delivered to the player as quickly as possible, Antstream can’t opt for slow video encoding to increase quality – but bitrate is also a concern for those playing on mobile connections, so that can’t be too high, either. We clocked the Windows program consuming 1-2Mb/s of bandwidth, and on that basis we reckon it’d chew through over 650MB of data over an hour. It’s certainly not an efficient way to deliver games which are a tenth of that size (and very frequently considerably smaller).
Other major areas of the Antstream experience are lacklustre, too. Controls are predetermined for each game, and can’t be remapped – so if you don’t like the default layout, you’re stuffed. The touchscreen controls are particularly irritating as the virtual d-pad recentres every time you lift your thumb off the screen, so you’re required to slide your thumb about in a way that feels rather unnatural. There are no video options to speak of, so if you want scanlines, forget that. Worst of all, the service doesn’t offer any options to save or suspend your game at all, which isn’t really acceptable.
Searching for fun
Discoverability is also atrocious. Each game has its year of publication, original system and publisher listed, but you can’t browse games by these criteria. The search function is little help in this regard – a simple text search is available, but it only returns titles so putting ‘Mega Drive’ into the search box won’t return games for that format. We were provided with a list of games by an Antstream staff member, which is helpful as Antstream’s website doesn’t promote its full game listing – when we did eventually find it, it wasn’t up to date anyway. Of course, that doesn’t help the average user, who will be left to search random words and hope they hit something fun.
It’s a shame, because there are some genuinely nice things that Antstream does. When games have challenges, they allow you to quickly jump into a game and try to achieve certain goals – there are leaderboards and achievement medals available, and you can challenge friends with Antstream memberships to beat your scores (though you have to earn and spend crystals to do this, bizarrely). These are usually well constructed and offer a great way to sample games quickly – we’d love to see more of these in retro releases.
Antstream offers access to plenty of games at a pretty low price, but the service as it stands is a substandard way to play them, to the point that we’d prefer to seek them out elsewhere – especially since many of the arcade games are provided by companies that are making their back catalogues widely available, such as SNK and Data East. Being an ongoing service, Antstream won’t stay static and the company is saying that it intends to fix many of its issues. But right now, Antstream doesn’t feel like a product that is ready for the prime time – it feels like it’s still in open beta.