GameStick review: Stickin’ it to conventional consoles?

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It was only a matter of time before companies latched on to the idea to take highly popular mobile gaming from the small screen and plonk it in the living room. One of the first to start the trend was the Kickstarter-funded, Android-based Ouya.

Now another project born out of Kickstarter, known as GameStick, has emerged – dubbed by creator PlayJam as “the most portable TV games console ever created.” Like Ouya, it smashed its Kickstarter goal and is now hoping its £80 price tag will tempt gamers on a budget.

A cheap games console that doesn’t take up your living room space, with  30 launch titles and a budget price ─ it all sounds too good to be true. What I want to know is whether GameStick really does provide big gaming fun in a small package.

GameStick review: Design and build

Inside the stylish black packaging, amongst a few wires, is one white controller that is much wider and flatter than an Xbox or PS3 controller. The closest comparison would be a NES or SNES controller, if you can remember back that far. Extra controllers cost £35 each.

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It has two shoulder buttons, four buttons on the right in a cross formation, a D-pad on the left and two thumbsticks on the left and right. For anyone who has a current generation console, the layout will prove instantly familiar. Movement is generally performed with the left thumb stick while the right deals with where you are looking, although it varies from genre to genre.

The GameStick console is a white USB-sized device that I confusingly thought was the HDMI-extension lead. Turns out, you have to release it from within the GameStick controller. This felt a bit odd, but actually proved handy for transportation as you only need to lug around one device.

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As you would expect from a USB console, it is pretty non-descript, which is fine because potentially it will spend its life behind your TV in an HDMI slot. If your HDMI ports are visible, it may stand out against a black screen, but frankly it’s a non-issue.

With the GameStick in tow, the controller feels plasticky but dependable. Without it, it feels lighter and more flimsy. During testing, however, it seemed up to the job of long stints of gaming and nothing broke. I particularly liked the thumbsticks, which have enough built in resistance to make them inspire confidence in your aiming.

Four lights on the controller tell you how much battery you have left (four being full, one being low). Charging the controller is done via a USB connection that can be hooked up to a socket, like you can with a smartphone. All very simple.

GameStick review: Hardware and connectivity

As you would expect from a games console you can fit in your pocket, processing power is that of a mid-range smartphone. It has 1GB of DDR3 memory, 8GB of flash memory, built in Bluetooth 4.0 and runs on Android Jelly Bean ─ albeit a modified version.

That may seem a bit weak, but there’s enough oomph to run 3D intensive games such as Shadowgun, though with the odd noticeable frame-rate drop. Internal storage is 3.5GB and I had another 2.2GB of microSD card storage to play with on the test console, which can be upped to a 64GB microSD card if you so desire.

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Hooking up the GameStick console to your TV is as easy as plugging in an HDMI cable and selecting the correct input source (HDMI 1, HDMI2 etc). The aforementioned HDMI extension lead can, funnily enough, be used to extend the HDMI connection, making the GameStick console more easily accessible. This is handy if your HDMI port is out of reach and you want to get to it, although the extension lead itself is still relatively short.

It’s worth pointing out you will need to register using your smartphone or computer on the GameStick website the first time you fire up the console. While this isn’t a big chore, the process does add yet more time between plugging it in and getting some mobile gaming action on the go.

GameStick review: Processor, software and performance

In the box you get a number of wires to charge the battery, connect the GameStick to your TV or monitor via HDMI and keep the console powered up.

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Because the mini-USB cable standard is used for two of the cables, it can be easy to mix up the wire for charging the controller and the console. When setup incorrectly I found the controller never seemed to hold charge. This meant it always had to be plugged in, forcing you to sit relatively close to the screen. It’s definitely worth a quick read of the provided instructions.

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Even when plugged in correctly, the GameStick sometimes refused to pair up with the console ─ even after hitting the reset button on the back with the end of a pin. This meant sitting around while the controller did anything but the task at hand, leading to lots of waiting and very little action.

Furthermore, assuming you get the controller charged and paired up, you then have to wait while a game is installed as nothing comes pre-loaded. This involved waiting for Shadowgun’s 330-odd MB of files to download and then waiting some more while the game was installed. Suffice to say, I momentarily pined for the days of putting a disc in a tray.

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Once running, however, the GameStick interface is easy to use. It highlights games it feels you need to check out, as well as the whole library. There are about 30 games to choose from at this time, but that figure is expected to hit 85 as we hurtle towards Christmas. You can download the two included free games without adding a credit card, but payment details are needed for everything else.

Paying for a game requires you to enter certain details each time you buy a game, which may seem annoying until you realise the damage that could be done to your wallet if the system wasn’t in place. We’ve all heard the in-app purchase nightmare stories.

Buying a game is easy, largely thanks to the very simple, shop-like user interface. Sadly, demos are missing so you have to take a gamble on whatever game you decide to buy. This is unlike Ouya, which has a trial system in place that can save you from wasting money on rubbish.

Besides gaming, GameStick can also be used to play a video via the built in Media Player. All you have to do is load a film onto the SD card and away you go. The common file types I tested seemed to work fine but I am of course unable to vouch for all.

Another downloadable free app called Tofu Media Center allows you to stream content from a NAS device at full 1080p. Basically it’s an adapted version of the XBMC Xbox Media Center. This aspect makes the GameStick more in line with the Xbox 360 and PS3 to a certain extent.

GameStick review: Gaming prowess

When it comes to gaming, things start to go a bit pear-shaped. First off, GameStick crashed twice while trying to install Shadowgun. This meant starting the download again from scratch, as opposed to picking up where the installation left off and proved immensely frustrating.

It helped little that, after all the effort, I found Shadowgun was overly sensitive to aim even when the in-game sensitivity level was adjusted. Shooting at the upper body of an opponent to get a quicker kill proved very difficult. In fact, just landing a hit meant two or three attempts at lining up the crosshairs on a foe, making the game almost unplayable.

2D games proved less painful to play, but momentary lag between pressing a button and the action happening on screen did little to inspire confidence in the hardware. Still, I did have the odd moment of fun, with the novelty of mobile gaming on a big screen playing its part.

Making things worse is the game pricing. When you realise the games themselves cost more than they do on the Google Play store – Vector, for instance, is 63p on Google Play and £1.99 on GameStick – suddenly the £80 asking price starts to become less tempting. While some effort is required on the part of a game developer to make a game work on the Android console, is a three-fold price hike justified? I’m not so sure.

Another issue I found was jittery performance that made navigating around the user-interface very slow. It turns out the issue was caused by the controller battery being low, even though I had been charging it overnight and had it on charge throughout the entire review.

It pains me to say the media streaming and playback aspect of the GameStick was the most reliable component. Sadly, this meant I rarely felt like putting in the effort to fire up a game.

GameStick review: Console vs mobile

If I had a pound for every time I heard mobile gaming will kill console gaming, I would have about £22. Certainly not enough to retire to a beautiful island in the sea, but enough to make me wonder whether there is any truth to it.

In my opinion mobile gaming is great because I can play it on the train, bus or in the car (if a passenger) to pass the time. But when faced between a spot of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 or Trials Evolution on a big screen at home, I tend to favour a more immersive experience with better visuals and improved control methods.

The truth is, unless hopelessly addicted to something like Game Dev Story, I feel little need to play mobile games when at home, especially when the games tended to play better on a smartphone than the GameStick. For the odd addicting game that comes along, I’d question whether a mobile games console was really necessary.

Of course, it’s different strokes for different folks and so I can certainly respect there will be a sizable audience of gamers out there who crave a stop-gap between proper consoles and Angry Birds on your phone, particularly when mobile games are usually much cheaper to buy.

GameStick review: Conclusion

Every new system is bound to have a few teething problems and the GameStick is no exception, so I can forgive a few foibles. But when it takes a few hours just to get to play a game and the controls seem incredibly annoying to use, alarm bells start to ring. If gaming becomes a chore, what is the point?

Let’s not forget for £80 you could get yourself a second hand games console that will already have a vast catalogue of games to enjoy. Or a Nintendo 2DS if you can find another £20-odd. Or perhaps you could stump up a few quid more and get a much more useful smartphone that has TV connectivity built? Either way, more fun is guaranteed.

Avid mobile gamers will undoubtedly defend the sheer potential of GameStick, especially when the games cost much less than Xbox and PlayStation titles and the console can be lugged about anywhere with little hassle. It is, after all, a perfectly valid point. But the very limited game collection that lacks blockbusters is hard to overlook; the sporadic moments of fun being few and far between.

With a wider variety of games and a large dose of refinement I could see the USB-sized console proving a worthwhile purchase. But as things stand, you are better off buying a ‘proper’ second-hand games console if you want some budget gaming fun and can live without the media streaming. I really wanted the little console to succeed but until PlayJam starts to iron out some of the numerous creases I can’t really recommend it.

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