Amazon Fire TV as game console: the good, the bad, and the weird

Can a $99 streaming-video box be your next game console? That all depends on your expectations.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

I've been using a Fire TV as a game console for the last day and trying to figure out what makes it tick. Can it avoid the pitfalls of other alternative console would-bes? Is it even trying to be a game console?

I can say this: gaming on the Fire TV is very real, and bears some serious watching. But it has a lot of question marks, too. Overall, it's not a bad start at all. And, if the games keep coming along and getting better, this could be a seriously fun and relatively cheap way to play lots of games. For more on the Amazon Fire TV, read the unfolding first take and review.

The Good:

It really plays games.

Amazon may be calling gaming on the Fire TV a "bonus," but with a hundred or so games already and many more coming, it works. And sometimes, it works really well. I paired a Fire Game Controller with the Fire TV and played over a dozen titles. It works.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Yes, there are a lot of cheap games.

Asphalt 8, a very capable racing game, is free. So was Riptide GP 2. Sev Zero, Amazon's first-person shooter, is free. These aren't world-class games, but there's enough entertaining stuff out there to kill a bunch of hours.

Most games look crisp, even on 1080p TVs

Games like Badland are eye-popping and sharp, and even games like The Walking Dead, while clearly a big step down in graphics detail from the PC version, animates well and looks very watchable. Content looks upscaled, even when not in 1080p, to look like, to a casual observer, it's coming from an Xbox or PlayStation.

A lot of games translate better than you'd think

Considering that most of the Fire TV's games started as touch-based phone and tablet games, they make the leap to controller-only input pretty well. Riptide GP 2 is fun, as always. Arc Squadron: Redux, a Star Fox-style shooter, looks and plays great. Minecraft Pocket Edition, while simple, moves smoothly, too.

The controller's okay

Amazon's $40 Fire Game Controller looks generic, but actually feels good to hold and use. All the buttons are where you'd expect them to be, and the construction quality feels solid. And there's even a nice set of dedicated play/pause/skip buttons on the bottom for video playback.

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Sarah Tew/CNET
The Bad:

You really need to buy that $40 controller (or, some equivalent)

So, you can play some games using the included Fire TV remote. What you get, however, is a compromised mess: sure, simple games like Brick Break Blitz, a Breakout clone, can be controlled using simple left-right moves. Riptide GP2 will work with the remote too, oddly, but you're limited to really basic controls. The Fire Controller is the only way to play games the way you'd expect to, which pushes the effective cost of the system to $140. You might have a Bluetooth controller that pairs with the Fire TV. Check your gadgets first (the Moga Pro and Nyko Playpad Pro are both officially supported). But, odds are, you don't.

Really limited storage space

The Fire TV has 8GB of storage, but you can only use 5.5 out of the box. That fills up very fast. I downloaded about 12 games before I got a warning that I'd hit capacity. Some games have tiny file sizes, around 50MB. Others, not so much: Walking Dead is 1.1 GB, and Asphalt 8 required a 1GB download before I could dive in.

Some games don't port quite so well

Even though most games I tried were surprisingly decent, there were clunkers: Crazy Taxi, one of my favorite Sega games, looks awful on the Fire TV, and doesn't even map its buttons properly -- I had to use the shoulder button for gas, versus the trigger. Others felt a bit laggy, like Snailboy. And a few felt like the way iOS games feel when you pair a controller with them: more like games you'd rather touch than use buttons with.

They're pretty much tablet games

Don't expect anything more than what Android/iOS already offers: the Fire TV's initial offerings, while better than I'd expected, cover a lot of familiar bases. Terraria, Badland, Asphalt 8, Riptide GP 2, Dead Rising 2, The Walking Dead, even Minecraft Pocket Edition...you can already get all these in many other places.

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The message you get when you fill up the Fire TV's storage. Scott Stein/CNET
The Weird

Low storage = streaming quality dip?

The Fire TV warns that running of out of free space can affect the quality of TV streaming. I assume that refers to the "ASAP" feature on the Fire TV, which caches certain files in advance. Still, that's not the sort of warning you want to get on the first day with a new gadget.

USB...for what?

There's a USB port on the back of the Fire TV. But, according to Amazon's FAQ, it doesn't work with any accessories yet. A way to plug in any USB controller would be nice. I haven't tried other accessories yet, but I'm holding out hope.

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Scott Stein/CNET

Some games have additional in-app downloads.

Games downloaded simultaneously, about three at a time. If file sizes were reasonable, games downloaded fairly quickly. Other apps pulled a trick: Asphalt 8 Airborne began a second download process once I launched the app, forcing me to get another 1GB of data. It took so long that I went out to lunch.

To be determined

Multiplayer...possible, but would you do it?

Some games support local multiplayer. I haven't used this yet, but would you want to play two-player games? If they were good, like a tennis or Wii Sports-style experience, maybe. Once I've spent more time with multiplayer, I'll add my thoughts.

What happens to games once you delete them?

Good question. I'm still trying to see what happens to save files over a bunch of games once the apps are deleted. Hopefully, everything will be saved in the cloud...but it's not made clear.

Will Fire TV inspire other manufacturers to make a leap, too?

Amazon is the first big player to enter the TV-gaming space outside of console manufacturers and PC hardware companies. Will this inspire other companies to give it a try? Too soon to tell, but if these Android games all use similar control schemes, it would make sense.

Games played: Brick Break Blitz, Riptide GP2, Arc Squadron: Redux, Minecraft Pocket Edition, Sev Zero, Crazy Taxi, Asphalt 8: Airborne, The Walking Dead, Badland, Snailboy - An Epic Adventure, Dead Trigger 2, Reaper, PBA Bowling Challenge.

 

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