Most Played: Antstream Arcade (Xbox)

This month has been busy for ol’ Games Asylum, bouncing from one new release to another. After plugging twelve hours into The Mystery Dungeon of Serpentcoil Island, I invested roughly the same amount of time into Penny’s Big Breakaway, followed by playing Cartel Tycoon and Highwater for a good eight hours each. This, understandably, hasn’t left much time to play anything else. Nothing modern, at least – I was still able to find time to dive into Antstream Arcade and see what it has to offer.

As the name suggests, and for the uninformed, Antstream Arcade is a ‘tiny but mighty’ streaming service for the Xbox that offers retro console, home computer, indie, and arcade games. It launched around ten months ago, available for £29.99 a year or £79.99 for a lifetime pass. Boot it up, and you’re presented with games split into categories along with a search function, and effort has gone into creating a community with a range of weekly and daily challenges to partake in. These are neat, as they load almost instantly, taking you straight into the challenge – mostly of the one credit, high score variety – without faffing around.

It supports save states, games load in a matter of seconds, and there’s a good mixture of formats. Around 1,300 games feature, spread across Arcade, C64, Spectrum, Amstrad, Amiga, NES, SNES, Mega Drive, Game Boy, and various Atari consoles. The PSone is represented here too, although with just six games currently. One of these is Glover, though, which is about to headline an upcoming Evercade Piko collection.  

Indeed, browsing the categories, I noticed a lot of overlap with the Evercade library, with many games coming from Piko Interactive, Atari, Gremlin, Team17, Renovation, Data East, Technos, and Irem. The Atari games are pretty much identical to those available on Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration – although the Lynx’s Dirty Larry is a welcome new addition. The Taito line-up is also similar to that found on last year’s Hyper Mega Tech Super Pocket, which I found pleasing as it’s a strong collection in terms of quality and I have a special fondness for Zoo Keeper.

Not having sampled Antstream until now, I was also blissfully unaware that it includes a bunch of Llamasoft games such as Llamatron. And there I was, patiently waiting for Digital Eclipse’s Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story – another retro-infused thing I’ve poured hours into this month.

Also pleasing is the number of games that have appeared on PS4 and Switch via the Arcade Archives series but have never made it to Xbox One. This includes best-selling games from that line, including Rastan, Bubble Bobble, Splatterhouse, GROWL, and Double Dragon. On PS4/Switch these games will set you back £6 individually, yet they’re all here.

One last surprise comes in the form of Star Wars games, obviously licensed from Disney. These include Atari’s movie tie-ins from the ‘80s, and the SNES/NES games released around the same time as the Special Editions. While familiar with the vector-based arcade games (one of these was included on a GameCube bonus disc) I had never played Atari’s Ewok-starring Return of the Jedi tie-in before. Turns out it’s less Luke Skywalker and more Jar Jar Binks.

Suffice to say, with 1,300 games present not all are classics. For me, that’s kind of the appeal here. Sure, it’s great to see the likes of New Zealand Story, Metal Slug, King of the Monsters, Elevator Action Returns, and Pac-Man but dig a little deeper and you’ll find games that aren’t so hot. Many of these have never been re-released before, presumably because they aren’t headliners, and may be seen as filler on something such as an Evercade cart. A lot of these can be found on the likes of the C64 and ZX Spectrum, including The Muncher – a side-scrolling take on Rampage, originally based on Chewits sweets – The Official Father Christmas Game from 1989 (which no doubt made its way into many stockings that year), the brazen adventure Doctor What, and Pedro, which entails stomping on bugs in a garden. I can remember that last one being ridiculed in CVG magazine decades ago, and now thanks to Antstream I can finally say I’ve played it. A dubious honour.

On a more positive note, I also discovered a hidden gem – Pinball Quest for the NES introduces role playing elements, and while it isn’t much to look at, it’s surprisingly innovative for the era.

It’s my understanding that Antstream has recently hit a rough patch after losing titles from Interplay and WB, such as headliners Mortal Kombat and Earthworm Jim, and they’re currently trying to secure new content. A recent conference confirmed more games from Piko, stronger ties with ‘retro indie’ developers, and the addition of Toaplan games such as Truxton and Snow Bros. Even in its current form, I still feel like it offers decent value for money – especially when you factor in the Cave shooters, which can be difficult to play nowadays legally.