In an era where the lines drawn between different forms of digital ownership are becoming increasingly blurred, Antstream Arcade for Xbox poses a question that is both potentially exciting and terrifying for fans of videogame classics: Is a game subscription service model made specifically for retro-gaming a viable option on consoles?
Antstream Arcade looks to fill a gap within the retro-gaming space that I feel has been woefully underserved on Microsoft’s gaming platform in recent years. It offers instant streaming access to a library of over 1300 games spanning 18 platforms and multiple console generations.
Antstream’s website boasts that their library contains “the best games from the 80s, 90s and 00s,” and while the truthfulness of that superlative descriptor is open to debate, the sheer depth of the catalogue is impossible to ignore. Case in point, several of the oldest games in the collection catalogue are among the first I ever played in the arcade or at home on a controller.
Upon first browsing, I easily found deep cuts in the collection that shocked me. For example, stumbling across Commodore 64 titles like Impossible Mission (1984) and Barbarian (1987) brought back memories of gaming at my friend’s house back when I didn’t yet own a console of my own. Those titles were also my first exposures to digitized speech and violent decapitations in video games (respectively)!
Meanwhile, 90s cult-classic Mega Drive/Genesis games in the collection, like Gaiares and Valis III, are excellent examples of titles that have become far too rare and/or pricy in their physical form for the average gaming consumer to easily obtain, making the convenient and completely legal option to stream them via Antstream Arcade an ideal “try before you seek out and buy” opportunity.
The breadth of Japanese titles in the Antstream Arcade library is atypically robust, showcasing many classic arcade and console titles from renowned developers like Taito, Data East, Technos, Psikyo, Irem, Koei Tecmo and Jaleco that sadly tend to get far less exposure on digital storefronts than the Konamis, Capcoms and Segas of the world.
In addition to the many arcade titles in the Antstream roster that the above studios are known for (Cadash, Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja, Double Dragon, Gunbird, R-Type, Ninja Gaiden, and Astyanax just to name a few), many of their console efforts on the NES, Super NES and Genesis/Mega Drive are present here as well.
Fans of SNK’s NEO GEO MVS (arcade cabinet) system, in particular, will likely find themselves floored with Antstream Arcade’s selection, which is surprisingly awash with enough distinctive NEO GEO titles from the Shooter, Beat- ‘em-up, Fighting Game, Action-platforming, and Arcade Sports genres that they deserve to be grouped into their own MVS category, rather than being lumped in with all the other arcade titles in the catalogue. The selection is nowhere near the number of NEO GEO titles that can be purchased individually from the Xbox Store (208 titles, to be exact), but it’s still well curated, nonetheless. Pre-NEO GEO SNK representation in the library is also strong.
The selection of Western-developed games in Antstream Arcade’s catalogue runs back just as far and deep as their Japanese counterparts, encompassing many titles from the Atari console era (from the 2600 up to and including the 5200 and even the Atari Lynx handheld) as well as the Amiga, the Commodore C64, the Amstrad, the ZX Spectrum, coin-op arcade cabinets and even DOS.
“The prospect of near-endless discovery of new retro favourites in Antstrem Arcade, accompanied by occasional revulsion towards a game that you really don’t like, is pure Blockbuster Video weekend rental nostalgia, minus the sting of losing money on a poor game choice.”
Consequently, gamers will find a laundry list of cherished household names like Asteroids, Joust, Robotron 2084, Super Sprint, Pit Fighter, Rampage, Gauntlet, Full Throttle, MDK, Earthworm Jim and Mortal Kombat mingling alongside infamously bad games like Clay Fighter and Sword of Sodan.
The prospect of near-endless discovery of new retro favourites in Antstream Arcade, accompanied by occasional revulsion towards a game that you really don’t like, is pure Blockbuster Video weekend rental nostalgia, minus the sting of losing money on a poor game choice. It’s glorious. New games are added to the service every month, and while the business realities of contracts between Antstream, platform holders and IP holders mean that some games will inevitably leave, thus far, only a handful of games have departed since the company’s inception in 2019, and all are reportedly in negotiations to return soon.
“What truly impresses me about Antstream Arcade beyond its selection, however, is the company’s efforts to evolve the service.”
What truly impresses me about Antstream Arcade beyond its selection, however, is the company’s efforts to evolve the service. This goes beyond the simple concept of a static game streaming library into something closer to a living, breathing ecosystem and community. Upon opening the Antstream Arcade for Xbox app for the first time, a linked Antstream account based off the current user’s Xbox profile is automatically created. Players are then encouraged to select an Avatar to easily identify themselves and are then cut loose to explore the games and the interface organically. Players can make, search for and find friends, invite them to “metagame” challenges, and follow their activities.
In essence, the metagame elements of Antstream Arcade are primarily focused around interactive, competition-based Challenges, such as live Global Leaderboards, Weekly and Monthly Tournaments, and the far more frequent, limited-time “Giant Slayer” matches. Players can either start a Giant Slayer match by completing a feat as “The Giant” and challenging other players to beat it or participate in an existing challenge as one of “The Slayers” trying to take the Giant’s feat down with a higher-scoring one of their own. Think of the one-upmanship of Horse, and you’ve got the idea.
Gems, the in-app currency of Antstream Arcade, are awarded to players for winning challenges and tournaments, earning Medals (which are effectively Antstream’s Arcade’s own baked-in but always evolving system of achievements) and logging into Antstream daily. It costs a small number of Gems to enter challenges and tournaments, so players will need to be at least somewhat serious when they put their money down, but there is no cost associated with playing games outside of Tournaments, Challenges, or Giant Slayer matches.
Challenges aren’t just limited to scores, by the way; they can also be feats that must be completed in a limited amount of time, a limited number of lives or even a specific location or situation within a game. Accordingly, Antstream Arcade will set up and/or jump the game forward to that exact scenario so players can take on the challenge immediately in the form of a bite-sized mini-game, rather than forcing them to work their way there first.
Further perpetuating the meta-integration, bespoke Antstream score and progress trackers will unobtrusively appear over the game’s menus to help players keep track of their “meta-goals” in-game whenever appropriate.
All this effort made by Antstream in both the foreground and behind the scenes comes together to breathe new life into practically every game in the catalogue, giving players new reasons and new ways to revisit these games even if they’ve played them hundreds upon hundreds of times before. It can’t possibly make up for the lack of online multiplayer, but at the very least, Antstream Arcade offers players an alternative, asynchronous method of competing with their friends when they aren’t able to play couch co-op.
Speaking of playing, for this review, I spent over a week sampling a number of games in the catalogue as well as one full evening playing couch co-op with my younger brother at his apartment, and I came away quite impressed with the performance overall.
In both locations, we had excellent internet, and while we could still detect a faint hint of lag in the response time of some twitch-heavy shooters, at no time did we experience a delay that we felt was detrimental to the experience. There was noticeable dithering for a split second here or there when scenes quickly changed in some titles, but outside of that, the visuals were 4K60 all day long and nearly indistinguishable from local play.
One small aspect of Antstream Arcade that has left me rather disappointed, however, is that the button mapping in each game is locked to a default layout, with no options within the interface to reconfigure them. Fighting and Beat- ‘em-up fans like me can be pretty picky about button layouts, and since many of the games in the Antstream catalogue are just emulations of the original arcade versions and don’t allow access to the dipswitches, there’s no way to change the button mapping if you aren’t happy with Antstream Arcade’s vanilla option.
Some console games in the collection can provide a temporary solution via their original built-in config menus, but having to mentally translate one’s desired layout to conform to those native setups for every single session can be a real headache. And heaven help you if you (correctly) believe that X is for Attack and B is for jump…we’re an endangered species, apparently. That is unless you have a gamepad or fight stick with programmable buttons, and let’s face it, if you’re a retro gamer, you probably should. Otherwise it’s Antstream’s way or the highway.
Finally, one can’t properly critique Antstream Arcade without addressing what is arguably its two Achilles heels; the first being that you don’t own the games and the second being that a connection to the internet is required at all times in order to play them.
Both are valid criticisms, but when considering that Antstream Arcade offers both a $29.99 USD annual subscription and a $79.99 USD Lifetime Pass Edition, the cost of each game in the collection breaks down to mere pennies regardless of whether customers sign up for just a year or go all out and put a ring on it. Even if half the catalogue was garbage (far from it), the good games would cost only 20 cents each!
I think having access to so many great, classic titles in an ever-growing and expanding library at such a low cost makes many of the concerns one normally has about game subscription services go away immediately. Antstream Arcade for Xbox isn’t meant to replace physical or digital game ownership, and it’s definitely not priced anywhere near what the games in its collection are actually worth to own, so to expect full and unmitigated ownership is unreasonable, in my view.
Antstream Arcade is a supplement to already existing options on the Xbox platform and serves as a perfect complement to Xbox Game Pass if you have a casual interest in retro games.