FatNicK Reviews Stuff: Antstream Retrogaming Streaming Service

Whether its the sheer mortal terror of a thousand red bodies angrily devouring flesh and bone or the more mundane worry of having endless ravenous insectoids trample your picnic; the thought of streaming ants has – historically – not been a pleasant one. That’s all set to change, however, with the release of Ant Stream: a new service focussed on retro gaming.

My first encounter with Ant Stream came at last year’s Play London expo, where I sheepishly took one of their flyers from them because my daughter had managed to sneak a good number of sweets from a bowl on their stand (I was, of course, constantly distracted by one of he many pinball tables and arcade cabinets.) Given the ease and prevalance of emulation, my first instinct was that the concept of a Retrogaming Streaming service seemed to be a solution that was in search of a problem.

However, when the Kickstarter was formally announced a couple of months back, I thought it worth a punt: not only were it’s community features intriguing, but I thought it was also potentially a good way of demonstrating to the world that their is still value to be found in relatively obscure arcade boards and Spectrum games.

How do things stand today? Following the success of its Kickstarter, the service officially entered early access last week – well, for Kickstarter backers anyway. Though (as the ever-helpful community team stress on a regular basis) the service is still in Beta, it has already has hundreds of games currently available at the touch of a button.

In terms of how the service works, it’s important to note that Antstream is a streaming service through and through. You may control the game using your controller at home, but what you’re watching on your screen is a video feed sent directly from Ant Stream’s servers. This consequently means you won’t be able to play it on the tube or in the air without a stable WiFi connection and you’ll also need a reasonably strong internet speed to avoid input lag or video distortion.

How does this work in practice? Actually surprising well. Though the connection has been a little bit and miss for me in the Android app, the PC and Xbox One applications have been almost completely solid. That isn’t too say I haven’t had any kind of connection blip or issue, but for about 95% of my time on Ant Stream the experience has essentially been indistinguishable from running the game locally – which is pretty impressive when you consider the precision of the input demands of required by a two dimensional shooter.

Ant Stream Main Window
The main screen is bright, colourful and gives you lots of lovely box art to look at

In terms of the user interface, “Netflix for games” isn’t just a lazy marketing tag line: it’s a good description of how the system is currently set up. Much like the famous video streaming service, the main window is comprised of decending loops of games linked to different themes. This setup has already divided the audience and I guess it will continue to do so. Though the player is free to search for a particular title, there will always be some who want to view their gamed alphabetically by system. Personally, as long as it’s well curated, I think the current system could be a major benefit. Speaking as a flash cart user myself, one of the drawbacks of having access to an entire console library at once is working out just want to play at any given time, so i personally see this as a good way of preventing me from just defaulting to the Megadrive port of Hard Drivin’ over and over again.

Having selected a title to try, the player is taken to the game’s hub. This contains fundamental information like screenshots and a basic description, but it also provides a gateway into Ant Stream‘s current competitive elements: high score boards and custom challenges. As a nice extra touch there’s even a shortcut to quickly toggle between gaming systems for titles that are present on multiple formats. This should prove useful for any C64 fans who want to remind themselves of jusy how superior any given Spectrum version was.

An Ant Stream Game hub
The game hub gives you all of the essential info you need

Add in unlockable gems (used to purchase access to the challenges. According to Ant Stream these will always be earned and never purchased) and an XP-based level system earned from playing games and completing challenges, and you have what could potentially be a very compelling package.

Of course, a service like this will live or die based on two things: What kind of games it has on it and how well they run. For the moment at least they seem to have the second aspect nailed down pretty well, but the first might post a bit of a problem.

That isn’t to say that Ant Streams library is made up of bad games – i’ll be forever grateful for them introducing me to Data East’s bonkers shooter Boogie Wings – but the current selection is currently very UK/EU centric, not least because of the amount of Spectrum, C64 and Amiga titles that make up the list. That’s not too say that the international crowd aren’t catered to – the Ant Stream team have curated quite a nice selection of reasonably famous 2nd tier arcade titles from Jaleco and Data East – but I suspect there may be some ingrates who want a selection with a more international appeal.

A screen shot of Boogie Wings being played through Ant Stream
If you’ve never played boogie wings, you really need to give it a go

Still, overall I’d say i’m pretty impressed with Ant Stream. Though my initial reaction was that the service sounded like a solution in search of a problem, hands-on experience has shown me that Ant Stream solves enough small, specialised problems to find itself a potential audience.

For one thing, Ant Stream has simplicity on its side. Though loading Spectrum and Megadrive games through an emulator is a relatively easy task, Amiga emulators and MAME can be a lot trickier to get going. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to go through the hassle of tracking down the weird Korean Bootleg rom that’s required to get your favourite game working on a particular version of MAME, Ant Stream is a good option for you.

Likewise, Ant Stream is legal. I’m certainly not going to judge you If you want to download a ROM file instead of remortgaging your house to meet the a ridiculous inflated price demanded by a dealer for an original cartridge, but the fact remains that doing so isn’t strictly legal. I suspect Ant Stream will be of great interest to those who strictly want to do everything by the book.

Magic Land dizzy being played through Ant Stream
You can’t argue with Dizzy!

Finally, Antstream’s biggest weakness could potentially turn out to be one of it’s greatest strengths. Though many people will be turned off by the fact they have to access the games via Ant Stream‘s remote servers, the external nature of the hardware makes it much more difficult to hack the ROM files being played and the emulators running them. From a competitive standpoint, this should help to ensure Ant Stream’s scoreboards and challenges are fair and free of cheaters. Ant Stream’s social features are already among its most eye-catching and if they can develop these further while maintaining a cheat-free environment they will surely be on to a winner.

As it stands today Ant Stream is a pretty impressive package then. It’s currently not the finished article and there are some irritating bugs that need to be ironed out (it’s a shame, for example, that it curently doesn’t work with the Xbox twitch app), but what’s currently present is functional to use and good fun to play. With the team promising both an ever-expanding line up of titles and extra features in the work for the core product, Ant Stream is definitely one to keep an eye on.

 

See Ant Stream in Action

Recorded on a Windows 10 PC running Ant Stream AND uploading the footage to twitch via domestic fibre. Not bad, eh?

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