Thanks to Antstream for the seven day free bonus trial
Title: Antstream Arcade
Price: Varies on Region
Release Date: 2019
To give full disclosure on the nature of this review, I didn’t get approached by Antstream Staff to cover this for the site: I ended up stumbling upon this application by pure chance, as a matter of fact. While looking into the very rocky nature of the Atari VCS campaign (and that system’s impending release) as I compared it to the campaign of the Intellivision Amico, (a weird system that aims to be kid friendly by limiting all games on it to E10 and under, and focusing on mobile-budget scorechasers to sell a 250 dollar console, backed by an 800 page thread of cult-like shilling on a random forum) I caught a glimpse of an event where people demo’d the strange, Linux-in-a-box Atari VCS. And on the screen as someone was playing it with the controller, was a shot of Valis, a Telenet obscurity I became a huge fan of last year, but I had given up hope of a proper rerelease due to the messy nature of the franchise’s rights.
At the time I just assumed it was some oddball Project EGG (a Japanese Retrogaming subscription service) application, and moved on, but even as time went on and my complete lack of interest in both Amico and VCS continued, I still couldn’t get that sight of Valis’ key art out of my head. I had to know where it came from and if someone really rereleased such an obscure gem under my nose!
Little did I know I stumbled upon a treasure trove of games that sounded too good to be true. Reading up and learning that this app I saw was dubbed Antstream Arcade, and they had made a partnership with Atari to develop a VCS app with exclusive Atari Challenges included, thus why Valis and other games were at that press event. Looking into this more, I learned that the whole thing was kickstarted in the PAL region last year, launched in EU territories, and only just recently became available to those in North America like myself. And the lineup I could see glimpses of in reviews and gameplay videos (since they do not have a full game list anywhere at the time of writing, but you can peek at their catalog without a subscription by making an account and downloading the app) seemed exactly up my alley: Jaleco, Data East, Technos, and Telenet obscurities for me to enjoy along with a bunch of EU computer games made this seem like a scorechaser’s dream!
Thus, out of curiosity and reluctance to see if a streaming-focused retro game service could really be worth my time, I decided to give a seven day free trial a spin. This is a deal that all first-timers get, but I was given one without the need to input my payment info due to me joining their discord server and expressing my interest, leading to a friendly staff member to activate the trial for me. With that disclosure out of the way, I went into this service nearly blind, trying out dozens and dozens of arcade gems from new titles to obscure favorites I was excited to see on the service. Let’s see if Antstream is the next big thing for scorechasing fans, shall we?
Antstream Arcade is done via an app that can be downloaded on several devices. For the purposes of this review I threw it at my PC, Mac, and Amazon Fire TV Stick to see which device worked best and how it worked across multiple platforms. On all three devices, the UI is the same, consisting a clean, Tubi/Netflix-style interface that separates the games lineup into several categories, such as multiplayer games, games with Antstream challenges, adventure games, brawlers, action titles, etc. It was very easy to get from the main menu into a game on the front page, since you just had to visit the info screen and boot up the game to start the streaming process.
The other parts of the app are pretty well organized too: a lot of games have online leaderboards that can easily be accessed from the game info menu, along with the challenge mode if that’s applied on a title. You can also search games in the search bar, although if you wanna search by category or publisher you’ll have to type that in manually. There’s some fancy profile options and a (very limited) amount of retro-themed avatars to choose from, and you can even add people to your friends list by clicking a star next to their name. (though at first I assumed I was just following them, but it turns out it sends a friend request when you do this) Overall, the application is super easy to navigate and use.
I did have a very irritating bug on the Mac application though, where the UI sound effects would just randomly die whenever it felt like it, forcing me to reboot the application to get those to come back. The games themselves still produced sound however, but otherwise I had little issues with the UI and was able to adjust to it rather quickly.
As for the games themselves? Well regrettably, they don’t come with any visual options. Like, at all. In other such compilation/rereleases that do this trend, it’s almost certainly a death sign, due to poor scaling, forced blur filters/widescreen, or some other terrible nonsense that ruins the look of a game and makes you wish for options. Luckily, the team at Antstream seemed to have been keen on avoiding these annoyances, as every game I tried looked as if it was scaled very good, with clean pixels and no godawful blur filters in sight. It was a miracle to see the Data East games from Johnny Turbo Arcade titles without a blur filter on, and this is all while the games are being streamed! There would be the occasional artifact depending on how the stream felt, but generally they looked so much nicer than those JTA ports, with some titles looking nearly as crisp as their Arcade Archives counterparts.
Really the only gripe I have to give with the presentation of the games themselves come from the fact you cannot hide your avatar no matter what: it’s always in the top-right corner, unmovable. In most games it’s fine as it’s outside their aspect ratio, but a couple of titles I tried, such as a few computer games, it would get a bit too close to the edge of the screen for my liking, so I do wish you could hide or shrink it.
I should also note that some ROM-dependent presentation bugs that are in shoddy emulators such as MAME seem to be in a few of the games here, such as SNK’s Fantasy and Ozma Wars. In a real arcade, Fantasy is supposed to have voice acting cry out to you as you try to rescue your girlfriend, but in this emulated version, all the voices are missing. Ozma Wars has a similar issues, where nearly all the sound effects are completely absent. These were fixed in the SNK 40th anniversary ports specifically because the devs knew they weren’t meant to run like that, and it’s kinda a shame those two titles have those issues.
Another game I noticed that had bad emulation was Desert War, which had no firing or enemy sound effects whatsoever, to the point i’m kinda appalled that one slipped by without someone realizing there was aspects wrong with it. Thankfully, besides the two outliers I mentioned, nothing else I tried came off to me as having glaring emulation issues, but the fact this still has some elements of poor MAME-quality emulation for very select titles does raise an eyebrow to me.
Antstream Arcade lets you jump into any game of your liking and control it either with a game controller, your system’s controller, your computer keyboard, or by touch. (android only) Right off the bat, I have to unfortunately not that you cannot remap any buttons at all. Thankfully, every game I tried on Antstream felt like a natural fit with my macbook’s keyboard, but using my Arcade Stick and 8bitdo M30 controllers made any games with more than two buttons a bit tricky to play, since I couldn’t remap them to mimic the Genesis controller layout (in the case of the Genesis titles I played), or a 3/6 button arcade layout. (in the case of Arcade titles, especially fighters) The default controls still are perfectly fine for typical PS4/Xbox style controllers, but for those who mostly use retro-themed controllers like myself, it can be a minor frustration not being able to remap.
Still, once you find a game you like and get in it, the controls are surprisingly responsive for a game that’s being streamed! There is definitely some input lag to be found though, and it’s another factor dependent on your internet connection. Most of the time, it felt typical for emulation/usual rereleases, but whenever it dipped in quality, it could get very irksome, especially in some of the pixel perfect shooters that the service provides.
Speaking of connection drops, that’s by far the biggest concern you’ll have with this service, and sadly, it can ruin the experience whenever it shows up. While writing this review, I was up in a vacation cabin with medium-speed upload and download speeds. Typically, being close to my router on my Macbook Pro led to stable connections more often than not, and I had little issues when using it to play Antstream. But on my PC, it was a different story; in a room just a few feet away from the router, on the same wifi network, I’d experience connection drops constantly., and these would render games unplayable due to extreme input lag, blurry frames, and even occasional disconnects. It made playing this on my TV with HDMI not viable, which was very unfortunate. I also tried the app on the Fire TV stick, which was literally right above my router, and it was even worse, barely functioning at all and having the same connection errors as I had on PC.
It’s pretty confusing to me why two devices I owned had more issues than my Macbook, but at the very least, when the streaming works, it works very damn well, and I got tons of hours of scorechasing out of this. Not to mention if you’re booted from a game or back out without saving, it’ll create a handy autosave for you to resume your game later, which is super helpful. So if your connection does play nice with this thing, then you’re in for a smooth and great time, although there have been moments where the servers across all platforms were not cooperating. I’d honestly prefer if the option to temporarily download the games was available, since that way you’d be able to fully enjoy a game with no risk of lag or errors once you started a session, but as it stands now, you’re at the mercy of the servers no matter how good your connection is. Considering the microscopic size of C64/Amiga titles, this should have been a no-brainer option, but unfortunately it’s strictly streaming, which leads to mileage may vary scenarios, and as much as I had fun with this, I can’t deny that’s a big concern that one day the servers will be knocked offline or DDOS’ed.
On the bright side, the game lineup is easily the biggest reason to give this service a try, and was precisely why I even bothered to give it a spin to begin with. You have quite a few big companies represented for Arcade titles, along with a bunch of great games, known and obscure. Currently, Jaleco, Data East, and SNK are the biggest three providers of Arcade titles on the service, the former two offering a lot of the sort of stuff they’ve done to death on tons of plug and play systems, along with some seldom-seen classics!
SNK is easily the most surprising company on this service; while they offered some of the usual NeoGeo mainstays like Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, and Art of Fighting, they offered a bunch of pre-NeoGeo titles as well, even some that didn’t grace SNK 40th Anniversary Collcetion. It’s pretty great to play some of the more obscure titles from the company, such as Marvin’s Maze, Sky Adventure, Lasso, The Next Space, Vanguard II, among several others, including a couple of SNK 40th picks like the Ikari trilogy.
Data East’s catalog contains their arcade catalog from G-Mode, meaning most of the Johnny Turbo lineup, a few other games like Magical Drop I and III, Boogie Wings, Mad Alien, Lock and Chase, and others, but lacks Paon’s stuff like Chelnov, Windjammers and Karnov. City Connection brings on a bunch of arcade titles, with most of the Psikyo Arcade catalog they own, along with a huge chunk of Jaleco gems such as Rod Land, Psychic 5, Astyanax, Cybattler, Exerion, Formation Z, and many others, some of which have never even been rereleased!
Alongside those companies, a few others have joined the lineup lately in more limited fashions, such as Taito and Tecmo, and the company announced that Namco was joining the lineup in the future, so for Arcade fans, there’s a solid lineup worth binging, and with online leaderboards these score chasers are ever more fun to mess with.
Now when it comes to the remaining stuff, there’s only one home console available at the moment, and that’s the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Unfortunately, this is easily the weakest system on offer so far, with a bunch of the catalog consisting of weird bootlegs and unlicensed titles owned by Piko Interactive, a few computer ports, and a majority of Telenet’s catalog. While I praise the addition of the Valis games, and giving the Telenet catalog the rerelease they desperately needed for so long, (all of them being rereleased for the first time ever outside of Japan!) it does feel a bit weird that they’re literally the only major console games available to play on the service, when some of the companies already providing arcade content have also published games on the Genesis, and it would have been pretty cool to see those home ports and compare them with the console counterparts.
Computer games fare a lot better, and get the most representation here, in fact! C64, Spectrum, and Amiga games are abundant here, and as a US citizen with minimal C64 experience, it was a pretty fun history lesson checking out Amiga games for the first time ever, with fun titles such as the Dizzy series and a Pinball simulation that’s shockingly good for the time period. C64 has a bunch of the gems I’m more familiar with, such as the excellent Boulder Dash trilogy, the Last Ninja trilogy, International Karate, and Uridium, while the ZX Spectrum is the oddball of the three for me, with most games on that platform coming off as worse, uglier versions of C64 titles, though you can find the occasional diamond such as Horace goes Skiing if you know where to look.
A ton of these games are insanely easy to get licenses to, and thus there are hundreds of computer games to the point it’s tough to figure out in-app which ones are worth your time or which ones aren’t. You’ll have to sample them or look up each game online to find the consensus. And even with all the computer games, there are still a few classics missing, such as all of the Turrican series, Giana Sisters, and the rest of the Chris Huelsbeck/Factor 5 catalog. Also, none of the arcade ports that hit these computers are anywhere to be found, which is rather stunning considering that it would again, serve as a way to compare version differences with the Arcade games and the computer ports. I’d also like if there were some of the Japanese computers represented here, such as the PC88, 98, and X68000, as a bunch of those games are completely foreign to the West and would be a great entry point to introducing us to the original versions of classics such as Space Mouse, Ys, and Dragon Slayer.
Last but not least, the Antstream challenges. These are by far the most fun I’ve had on the service so far, since even if you’ve played a game to death before, you can try out a supported game’s challenges to test your skills, compete against the community, or even as a way to get your feet wet with a title. These are NES Remix-like challenges, tasking the player with doing a certain task as fast or as safely as possible, whether it comes from killing a certain amount of enemies, clearing a boss rush, refraining from firing/attacking for a length of time, or speedrunning a boss or stage. These are insanely fun, and easily the aspect of Antstream that took most of my time. Like with the online leaderboards for high-scores, you also have leaderboards for select challenges, meaning that for some, you can also compete to be on top of the leaderboard if getting a gold medal isn’t enough for you. In fact, they even pick select challenges for tournaments, which tasks the entire community to compete against one another to be the very best. I managed to get involved in a Magical Drop tournament, and I got a snug second place for my efforts, and that was easily a fun weekend, I must admit.
There are some games where I really wish they had challenges, while there are other games where some of the challenges seem a bit too out there or don’t even work properly at all. (Volified and Sol Divide were the only ones to just flat-out not work for me during my week) Still, just adding this feature and updating it as often as they have been is a good step to making Antstream more than just a bunch of arcade roms to mess around with. However, due to the fact that there’s online leaderboards and challenges, none of the Arcade titles allows for DIP Switch edits, which is unfortunate, but more reasonable than their absence in Johnny Turbo’s Arcade.
In conclusion, Antstream Arcade was a very pleasant surprise, and I greatly enjoyed my week trial with this service. Despite some server problems and the Fire TV app being utterly worthless, the overall experience was very enjoyable and led to me discovering tons of fun obscurities that I would have likely never played otherwise, and for a scorechaser like me, the concept and most of the execution was a dream come true.
You may not get any Capcom, Konami, or Nintendo games through this service, but the lineup on offer as of this review is pretty damn impressive, and it’s clear the team behind this are as huge of fans of these retro games as much as I am, which I’m very thankful to see after the many, many other emulation compilations that use these dirt cheap IPs for shoddy products, to the point I wouldn’t be surprised if those tarnished the names of Data East and Jaleco in a way.
But Antstream is giving me what I wish the Retro-Bit Generations did four years ago; a great collection of obscure games with lots of fun bonus features to enjoy, and proving that just because you see Data East and Jaleco games everywhere, it doesn’t mean they’re bad games: they just need to have good ports and care put into their rereleases, and I’m proud to say Antstream took the time to give these catalogs the care they deserve. I would definitely like if they gave some of the other “dirt cheap” arcade catalogs the proper treatment they deserve, such as Culture Brain, Midway, and Irem, and add more obscure platforms such as the PC88/98, MSX, X68000, and PC Engine.
For $10 a month, this isn’t a bad value at all if you’re a scorechasing addict, though those hoping for a way to play lengthier games such as RPGs might have to sit out on this one for the time being. (unless you really want to play Exile over and over again) Still, if they keep nailing what they have as of now, this could very well be the western equal of PROJECT EGG, and I would be jumping for joy if this promising service evolves into a library just as robust as EGG. However, I do think the server problems and inconsistent connections across my devices are things the service should work on fixing over time, and so I thus advise you go for a free trial first and see if your internet even supports this service to begin with, and if it does, then embrace the scorechasing mayhem! You can also download the app and test the connection without signing up for a subscription, but you can’t actually test it in a game, which you kinda need to do regardless of what the in-app results tell you.
I give Antstream Arcade a solid recommendation, especially if you’re a huge fan of scorechasers like I am. If you’re into arcade scorechasers or EU computer titles, then this may be the perfect subscription service for your needs! But it will vary on your connection speed or device, so you may have to risk a trial to even see if your device is compatible or not, and I do hope the remaining issues with connections are ironed out sooner or later.