Android consoles are everywhere right now, with the likes of the Ouya, Nvidia Shield, Archos Gamepad and Wikipad all serving up a bite-sized gaming experience built around Google’s open-source OS.
So what makes the GameStick stand out? Well for starters, it’s small. So small it’ll fit in the pocket of even your skinniest jeans. It’s also dirt-cheap and ships with a version of the popular XBMC media software. Alright, so it’s got our attention – but is it any good?
GameStick: Portablity is king
The GameStick is the most portable games console we’ve ever seen. It’s roughly the size of a pack of gum, and plugs directly into the HDMI port of your display. If you want to take it elsewhere, the console physically slots into the top of the bundled controller, which is a nice touch. The only downside is that to power the console you need to plug a microUSB cable into the bundled power adaptor or any other available USB port.
On the plus side, we found that connecting it to an Xbox 360 USB port worked just fine, even when the Xbox 360 was turned off. MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) support, which would have allowed the console to draw power from your TV’s HDMI port, was originally touted by the GameStick’s maker PlayJam, but sadly this feature didn’t make it into the final version.
GameStick: the flat controller
The controller is about the same size overall as the official Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 efforts, but it’s flatter and fits better into a jacket pocket or rucksack compartment. Sadly, the rectangular shape and less prominent handle means it’s not as ergonomic or comfortable as those on its full-fat console rivals. It’ll please NES fans though, and the sticks, d-pad and buttons are well made.
Unfortunately, the GameStick doesn’t appear to accept other controllers at this stage – we tried hooking up a wired Xbox 360 controller, but had no success. Still, you can at least connect up to four of the GameStick pads to one machine over Bluetooth, which is a bonus for the sociable among you.
The controllers aren’t cheap, mind: at US$40 ($50) each, they cost nearly half as much as the console bundle itself. The optional dock also seems expensive at US$50 ($65), although it does provide an Ethernet port, another microSD card slot, three USB ports and wireless charging for the controller. (We weren’t provided this peripheral for review, sadly.)
GameStick: store, games and pricing
GameStick’s store is well presented and offers more than 30 titles at launch covering genres such as platforming, driving and beat-em-up. Each game gets a brief description plus a selection of screenshots and a video, although the latter feature caused our review console to crash every time we tried it.
The most notable omission on the store is the lack of game demos, although GameStick claims this is down to developers to provide and add that they’ll offer trials when they’re made available. Given the variable quality of the games on offer at launch though, this is a big issue – especially when judged against Ouya’s store-wide ‘try before you buy’ policy.
We really like GameStick’s clear pricing policy and particularly appreciate that you’re not constantly bullied into buying more content once you’ve bought a title. There are some annoyances though – having to input your password every single time you want to buy something is particularly tiresome, and the process for installing apps is painfully slow: it took three minutes for Shadowgun to unpack, for example, during which the console was completely unusable.
GameStick: connectivity and accessories
Despite its bargain price, the GameStick comes with a bunch of accessories including a standard microUSB cable and UK plug adaptor for powering the console or charging the controller. There’s also a second microUSB cable with a female adaptor, which allows you to power the machine and charge a controller at the same time or connect external storage such as a thumb drive.
Still want more? You also get an HDMI extension cable – an important addition, given that the GameStick was a bit too fat to fit into the front HDMI input on our Onkyo AV receiver. The console also has a microSD card slot that will accept cards up to 32GB in size, which is great for adding media (see below).
The manual doesn’t really explain the setup process or the external storage features mentioned above, but both features are easy enough to figure out. We really liked the fact that PlayJam used microUSB throughout, which means it’s easy and cheap to replace any cables.
The onboard 802.11 a/b/n wireless support worked fine for us during testing, but GameStick doesn’t support automatic WPS setup, so inputting a long password is a pain. PlayJam tells us that the Apple Macbook Ethernet/USB adaptor will work with the console if you prefer a wired connection.
More after the break...
GameStick: media playback
GameStick’s media playback options are its strongest feature at the moment, thanks to two excellent pieces of software that cater to both novices and power users. First up is GameStick Media Player: a simple piece of software that comes pre-installed on the console. Think of it as GameStick’s equivalent of the popular VLC media player – it’ll take pretty much any media you have stored on a microSD card or thumb drive and play them back on your TV.
Then there’s Tofu Media Center, which is a free 47MB download that’s basically an adapted version of the popular and powerful XBMC Xbox Media Center software. Tofu is really feature-packed, and will allow you to do things like play media from a NAS drive. It will also organise your library and populate it with detailed information, thumbail images and trailers, and even supports apps for consuming content from the web, such as Grooveshark music and YouTube videos.
These apps makes GameStick a really impressive media center at launch. Tofu played 1080p content back smoothly and was relatively snappy to navigate, though we’d recommend a wired connection if possible to avoid some of the buffering we encountered. It’s worth mentioning that Raspberry Pi computers offer an even cheaper route to an XBMC media centre, but it’s simpler to get up and running with a GameStick.
GameStick: open-source disappointment
When we reviewed Ouya, we said it was a flawed console with a poor selection of games – but one that had potential thanks to its open-source approach. In the months since, Ouya has attracted an active community of fans who dedicate their time to getting unsupported games and apps running on the console.
GameStick, in comparison, is a more closed system – the only games and apps you can use are those in the official store. This is a disappointment, as it means you can’t easily sideload your own Android apps on to the device. According to PlayJam, access to the system’s developer software is available once registered to its online program, so it is technically possible to use the console as a development kit.
The company also told us that “anyone with any programming experience whatsoever will be able to hack GameStick to do with as they please”, and compared the process to “rooting” an Android device.
We can understand why GameStick hasn’t embraced the open-source mentality – it reduces piracy, prevents users from breaking anything, and results in a more console-like experience overall. However, it does make GameStick a much more restrictive platform overall, and we doubt GameStick will enjoy anywhere near the same level of fan support as Ouya. It’s also worth noting that emulators aren’t supported by GameStick: it may be a legally grey area, but Ouya’s support for consoles such as the SNES and N64 was one of its biggest selling points.
GameStick’s launch games are a real mixed bag – there are some proper stinkers (Orborun), and some fun diversions (Vector), but nothing that could be called a killer app. Pricing ranges from £0.99 ($1.98) to £3.99 ($8), which is far higher than their Android equivalents on Google Play; Vector is $1.21 there, for example.
Fist Of Awesome
Fist Of Awesome is not a killer app for GameStick, but this two-hour-long brawler is just about worth the asking price. The retro 8-bit graphics and sense of humour are welcome, but it's the ability to uppercut a never-ending procession of giant bears that's the main draw. The game is also available on iOS and Android, but as it's a side-scrolling beat-em-up, it plays best on GameStick's physical pad (although it is also available on Ouya).
Shadowgun is included for free when you buy a GameStick, so there's no excuse for not checking it out. It's a Gears Of War clone in every way, from the soldiers and aliens to the cover-based combat. Unfortately, it's pretty weak on GameStick – there's loads of slowdown, touchscreen-based prompts haven't been removed from the interface, and the default controller sensitivity makes it very frustrating to play.
This combination of endless runner Canabalt and parkour game Mirror’s Edge is both fun and challenging. The idea is to guide your runner through obstacles by pressing the joystick in the right direction at exactly the right time to perform gymnastic parkour moves. It’s simple enough, but the gorgeous animation and stark visuals make it really satisfying to nail a perfect jump or slide while outrunning your foes.
GameStick is an incredibly portable games console that comes with some great accessories and offers strong media playback features. However, the launch lineup of games falls way short of what’s available on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, while game prices are way higher than they are on the Google Play Store.
And unlike Ouya, it’s a completely closed system, meaning you can’t make or play your own games, software or emulators. GameStick is another interesting entry in the Android console space, but without a more open approach, it’ll have a hard time catching up with Ouya.
GameStick is tiny, light and offers great media playback, but it’s hampered by a shoddy selection of games and a closed operating system