Game consoles have traditionally been large boxes filled with cutting-edge hardware sold by huge technology companies. Even Nintendo, the smallest player still in the console market and the only one left that focuses solely on games, makes billions of dollars in revenue every year.
While piles of cash helps keep gaming alive, the small number of companies that act as game-keepers in the console space can stifle innovation. Last year, with the help of Kickstarter, several Android game consoles were announced as a revolutionary alternative. No longer would platforms be closed and heavily guarded – instead, developers could upload their games with minimal fuss! Or, at least, that was the pitch. But are these new Android consoles any good?
What You Can Buy Today
In theory almost any Android device with video-out can be hooked up to a controller to play games, but only a few products have labeled themselves as full-blown consoles. In this article I’ll focus on the four most popular and well supported options; Gamestick, OUYA, M.O.J.O and Shield.
The more affordable end of the market is represented by Gamestick and OUYA, which sell for $79.99 and $99.99, respectively. Both are small, both use a custom storefront instead of Google Play, and both use older ARM processors to keep the price down.
On the other end of the spectrum is M.O.J.O and Shield, which sell for $249.99. These systems use the relatively new Nvidia Tegra 4 processor. The M.O.J.O. sells itself as an all-in-one media hub, while the Shield is a handheld and has the ability to stream a limited library of PC games.
Low Cost Android Gaming – Just Skip It
Gamestick and Ouya are Kickstarter darlings. Both received positive press in their early days thanks to indie excitement and Ouya’s starry-eyed optimism about its ability to change the game industry. These consoles were idealized as safe havens for indie game developers, a place where everyone would have a chance and truly revolutionary titles could see massive success.
In truth, that vision hasn’t panned out. All the talk about catering to developers lost sight of the fact that a bad console won’t attract players, and developers can’t sell games on a console few people play. And unfortunately, both the Gamestick and Ouya are bad consoles.
What’s the issue? Everything. Neither offers a comfortable controller. Neither has enough power to render 3D games in the detail gamers demand. Neither has a particularly good storefront or interface. And neither has a significant library of great games to play.
If you’re looking for a console and don’t have much to spend, Nintendo’s Wii Mini with Mario Kart now sells for $99.99 in North America and Europe. Better controls, better games and a better digital store make it a superior choice.
Premium Android Gaming – A Better Choice, Sometimes
The M.O.J.O. and Shield are different animals. Both cost as much as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, but both are capable of graphical fidelity that (nearly) matches those last-gen consoles. These systems also come with larger, more complex and arguably more comfortable controllers, as well as special features that set them apart from the crowd.
The M.O.J.O, which is built by popular gaming peripheral maker Mad Catz, is an all-in-one Android media center. In addition to games, the console can handle any media app an Android phone or tablet would normally play, because Mad Catz hasn’t put a lot of effort into creating a customized version of the OS. An essentially default version of Android 4.2.2 is used instead, and apps are obtained through the normal Google Play storefront.
Shield, built by Nvidia, is actually a handheld console designed to compete with the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita. Relative to those competitors it is astoundingly capable, boasting Android 4.3, a powerful processor, a 5-inch display, an HDMI port for connecting to a larger screen, impressive speakers and up to 64 gigabytes of storage via Micro SD cards. And the Shield has another party trick; PC game streaming. Certain games, when played on a PC equipped with an Nvidia video card, can be streamed over a home network to the Shield. That’s useful if you’d like to play Batman: Arkham City in bed.
But should you buy either of these devices instead of an Xbox or PlayStation? Probably not. Most Android devices have a touchscreen, so most games are optimized for touch. Many aren’t designed for a controller at all. This severely limits the titles you can expect to enjoy. A last-gen console will provide a better library of games for the same price and can also serve as a capable media center.
The Big Problem With Android Game Consoles
Though some of the Android consoles are interesting (the Shield certainly peaks my curiosity), none of them are worth buying for various reasons. These stem from a single issue commonly faced by Android; fragmentation.
A console is worth buying when it has a decent library of great games to play. And there are some pretty good Android games. However, most Android devices are phones and tablets, not consoles with a dedicated controller, so games are built with the former in mind. As a result, titles usually don’t take advantage of physical controls and rely on rudimentary graphics any device built in the last few years can handle. The Shield, for example, is theoretically very powerful, but you’ll rarely see games make the most of its hardware.
Some options, like the Ouya, seek to solve this problem by using a customized version of the OS with a proprietary storefront. This means all games sold for the console will work with its hardware, but it also means a barrier exists between Ouya and other devices, limiting selection. Most developers will focus on the much larger Android market, then think of doing an Ouya port afterwards.
Great games will be hard to come by as long as fragmentation exists, and without great games there isn’t a reason to buy a console. To make matters worse, last-gen consoles are inexpensive and have larger libraries. The Wii can be had for $99, while the Xbox 360 and PS3 are $199 and $249, respectively. And while a new console game is $60, older titles are usually sold for $5 to $20 and can be found for even less used, further narrowing the price advantage Android alternatives like to brag about.
If you want a console that you can experiment with, or can serve as a curiosity, an Android console makes sense. If you just want to have fun playing games, however, you should stick with Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony.
Image Credit: Tracy Olsen/Flickr