You may be excited by the prospect of firing up Horizon Forbidden West on your PS5 by this Christmas, but lockdown has had me yearning for the nostalgic comforts of games a little more retro.
I’m talking about a simpler time, where epic games came on floppy discs and your favorite multiplayer sessions required a pocketful of coins at your local arcade. Short of firing up an emulator and hunting for romsets, these games (especially the more obscure ones) can be hard to play on modern systems. Enter Antstream (opens in new tab), a game streaming service specifically tailored to delivering retro computer games and arcade classics to all manner of devices.
To call something ‘the Netflix of…’ is a bit trite at this point, but the sheer size of the Antstream catalogue makes that an apt description for once. With over 1,000 games to play, it’s the largest game streaming library we’re aware of at the moment, dwarfing Google Stadia, GeForce Now and PlayStation Now (though of course going nowhere near the flashy new titles they offer). Streaming early arcade classics right through gaming history, up to and including a handful of Mega Drive/ Genesis titles, Antstream is available on Android, Android TV devices like the Nvidia Shield, Amazon Fire TV devices, Mac OS, Linux and Windows, for a £9.99 / $9.99 monthly charge.
To stream or not to stream
Game streaming maybe isn’t the most obvious way to serve retro and arcade games – a sustained streaming session could use several hundred megabytes of data, and considering many of the games on offer were originally just kilobytes in size, you’d be on your way to downloading the whole available catalogue in a matter or hours were they served up as traditional downloads.
But game streaming has its advantages. For starters, once the app is installed, you’ve got instant access to the complete Antstream library, which now numbers more than 1,000 titles. Your highscores and saves are synced across devices, as are challenges in games set by your friends. And, as anyone who has attempted to play retro games through emulation will know, set-up and compatibility across emulators and romsets over multiple devices can be a real pain. Antstream takes all the hassle out of it.
Antstream’s library is one of the most diverse and esoteric of any subscription service out there. Of course, it doesn’t have the modern bells and whistles of something like Game Pass or PS Now, but that’s courting an entirely different audience. Antstream’s games can be just plain weird, and that’s what makes it special, from a game-history point of view as much as from a gameplay standpoint.
Take cult-classic Amiga game Wizball for instance. You’re a wizard, who’s been turned into a green bouncing gremlin ball thing with a face. You have to bounce around what seems to be the surface of the moon, collecting paint droplets that drop from the enemies you defeat, to fill a cauldron that will cast a spell to return you to your former self. It. Is. Weird. You won’t see something like that at next month’s Xbox Series X game reveal.
But from Bubble Bobble to Metal Slug X, there are stone cold classics nestled in between the deep cuts. As with Wizball, it’s one of the few services to shine a light on the Amiga system too – the discerning gamer’s alternative to 16-bit consoles in the 90s, bringing games like Magic Pockets and Alien Breed to an all new audience.
Issues to iron
Antstream doesn’t just serve up the original games either – in some cases, it builds upon them too. Having licensed all titles from their original owners, Antstream has been given the blessing to include new asynchronous multiplayer challenges to games. This could be anything from one-shotting the quick-moving UFOs in Space Invaders to making hyperspace jumps in Asteroids without dying. The service uses a free-to-earn currency with which to gamble and challenge friends – though aside from entering tournaments and laying down the gauntlet to your friends and foes, there’s not much else currently to do with the ‘gems’ you hoard.
There are a few things missing and bugs that need addressing before Anstream can be fully recommended. There’s a major hole in its mobile offering in the shape of iOS support, which has been proposed but is still currently missing, as are console apps (an Xbox One app has been intermittently available, but has suffered from legacy retro game interface issues preventing it from running full screen). Beyond challenges there’s no synchronous multiplayer support over the internet, and the overall calibre of the library may lean a little too far into ‘curio’ than ‘classic’ territory to justify the £9.99 / $9.99 a month subscription required to play. We’ve also on occasion ran into control bugs where certain titles fail to work with a gamepad, and side-scrolling arcade titles become unplayable as a second player enters the fray without a human to guide them being present.
But Antstream is unique in its proposition. It’s taking cult favourites and lost gems from the archive of gaming’s history and making them accessible to all, where previously they’ve been the preserve of retro collectors of emulator dabblers. It’s a great trip down memory lane in a year where the future of gaming draws ever closer.
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