Xbox Just Got A Huge Library Of Classic Retro Games

Xbox Just Got A Huge Library Of Classic Retro Games

For a few years now, unbeknownst to many of us, a subscription service called Antstream Arcade has offered users legal streaming of hundreds of classic games, from arcade hits to gems for home platforms like Amiga, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum, among others. Growing over time, its total offerings now number over 1400, and while many of the games are fairly obscure, there are plenty of heavy hitters in here as well. These include the original arcade versions of Mortal Kombat, Double Dragon, Joust, Pac-Man, BurgerTime, Super Sprint, Rampage, Gauntlet, and many others. Now the service has come to Xbox, giving many more people the ability to play its vast library. As a service, Antstream still leaves a lot to be desired. However, I admit that I’m just thrilled it exists, shortcomings and all.

First, let’s talk about the games themselves. No, I didn’t try out all 1400 titles, but I think it offers a very respectable selection. Will you think every last game on the service is good? Doubtless not, but I don’t want a service like this to limit its offerings to just being a “greatest hits” of gaming’s past. Even the games you and I dislike deserve to be available to play, and are certainly enjoyable and interesting to someone.

Read More: An Alarming 83 Percent Of Retro Games Are Being Lost To Time

I do think it helps, though, if you can go in with an open-minded curiosity, and the ability to appreciate that games we might find stiff or janky today can still have something worthwhile to offer. The Amiga barbarian game Sword of Sodan is available here, for instance, and I wouldn’t call it easy to pick up and play, but there’s an energy to its big sprites and bloody combat that are pretty cool, if you’re open to them.

Are you a bad enough dude to put a stop to rampant ninja-related crimes?
Screenshot: Data East / Antstream Arcade / Kotaku

Only you know if you’ll be receptive to the grungy, rough-and-tumble energy of the 1986 Technos arcade beat ‘em up Renegade, the cuteness of Bubble Bobble, or the beautiful difficulty of legendary shmup R-Type, but if you care about classic games at all, you should find a number of things here that interest you. You may even find games you never played before that immediately stand out as overlooked treasures. For instance, Data East’s Indiana Jones-esque 1990 arcade game The Cliffhanger: Edward Randy, new to the service, blew me away with its balls-to-the-wall stage design and pacing, and if I’d seen it in arcades back in the day, I would have loved it. (You can browse the full list of currently available titles here on Antstream’s website.)

To its credit, Antstream tries to do things to make the games on its service more appealing than they would be on their own. For instance, many have bite-size challenges you can tackle to earn in-app medals—score as many points as you can in one life, for instance, or defeat as many enemies as possible within a time limit. I appreciate the opportunity to leap into some of these games for a quick attempt at a specific goal and then see how I rank against other players, but for me, the real draw here is the games themselves.

A menu screen shows rows of games arranged by categories like Beat'em-Up Games and Fighting Games.

Screenshot: Antstream Arcade

There are some frustrating limitations with the service, though. For one, you can’t remap the controls in any of the games. Each has a pre-assigned gamepad layout and that’s what you have to use. I generally think these layouts are fine and sensible, but still, the inability to tweak them is irksome. (Some games on here require keyboard inputs as well, and typically in these cases you can push R3 to pull up a virtual keyboard and quickly hit whatever key you need to at that moment. Arguably not the most elegant solution, but, then, I’m not sure what else Antstream could have done for some of these games.)

Discoverability could also be much better, but any streaming service with so many things on offer will have the challenge of figuring out just how to present all those titles to users. As you scroll down through the main page, you’ll see games categorized in rows by genre—Arcade Adventure Games, Racing Games, Fighting Games and so on—not unlike how you’ll see movies and TV shows grouped by genre as you navigate through Netflix.

This is fine as a front page, but what you see here is only a fraction of what Antstream has to offer. What if, instead, you want to browse through Amiga games specifically, or Commodore 64 games? I tried typing “Commodore 64” into Antstream’s search box, and I got a ton of C64 games back, but they were presented to me in a jumbled, unalphabetized mess with no way to then whittle them down by genre. The platform could definitely use more filters and ways to categorize what you’re looking for.

A blonde man punches three assailants in a Japanese city in an image from the SNK arcade game Burning Fight.

Can I interest you in some Burning Fight?
Screenshot: SNK / Antstream Arcade / Kotaku

Then there’s the matter of save games. Most games I tried out on Antstream indicate that you can create up to four save states for them. However, in my time with the service, I could never get it to work. I’d “save” my game while playing, getting a message assuring me that the save was successful, but when I returned to the menu for that game, all four save slots appeared empty. Perhaps this is just a growing pain for Antstream—it only launched on Xbox a few days ago, after all—but obviously for the moment it’s not ideal.

And on a few occasions, I also experienced fleeting instances of bitrate artifacting. So many of the games here are twitchy arcade games, so being able to respond quickly is essential, and thankfully, I never did have any issues with response time. However, perhaps because Antstream is doing its damnedest to get these images to you ASAP, they occasionally suffer a bit in transmission. (You can’t download the games to your own Xbox for better performance. Antstream isn’t licensed to let you do that, any more than Netflix is licensed to let you download Titanic.) I’m no expert on streaming technology, but perhaps if Antstream continues to grow, it can also improve its infrastructure so that this is no longer an issue. It didn’t impact my enjoyment of the games much, but at the same time, I want to see these games presented at their very best.

So, yes, I have a number of concerns and caveats. And yet, I really want this service to succeed and to continue growing. I want Rastan and Pit Fighter and Robotron and Super Cars and all these other games to have a home where people can easily and legally access and play them today. My hope is that Antstream’s appearance on Xbox brings in some new retro enthusiasts as subscribers, and with that influx, the service is able to continue growing and improving, and maybe become the service these games deserve.

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