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GameFam

January 05, 2006

SERVICE REVIEW: GameTap


Software Sells the.........um.......Software

A little while ago, my kids and I signed up for a month-long free trial of GameTap, the downloadable, broadband-only gaming service from Turner Broadcasting. FYI, the standard trial is 2 weeks, but there are codes for a full month floating around out there.

It’s a well-worn axiom in the gaming industry that the software sells the hardware, which probably explains the miserable failure of the Sega Saturn in the mid-90s, as well as why Microsoft signed development deals with highly-respected Japanese designers like Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshiki Okamoto and Tetsuya Mizuguchi to design games for the Xbox 360.

So how about GameTap's software? Well, GameTap certainly has a lot of games. They launched with more than 300 of them, and they are adding more on the fly.


One of the first things you notice, probably because it is so prevalent in GameTap’s advertising, is the wide selection of classic arcade titles.

You can play beloved favorites like Pac-Man (Mr. & Ms. - EDIT: actually, just his, not hers (no Ms. Pac-Man. sorry for the misinformation), Galaga and Dig Dug, but then, you can also just buy Namco Arcade Museum.

You can play Defender, Robotron 2084 and Burger Time, but then, you can also just buy Midway Arcade Treasures.

You can play Asteroids, Battlezone and Tempest, but then, you can also buy Atari Anthology.

You can play Zaxxon, but then, you can also....... no wait. Actually, I haven’t been able to find Sega’s amazing isometric pioneer anywhere but GameTap, so that was, in the words of a certain fabulously fleshy employee of Quahog’s Happy-Go-Lucky Toy Company, freakin’ sweet.

However, as much as I love Zaxxon, it would also be nice to see some of my other favorites like Star Wars, Tron, Track & Field, Time Pilot and Dragon’s Lair.

I really enjoyed sharing so many of my old school favorites with my kids. The only problem was that while I would have been content to continue playing for a while, they didn’t buy into the whole replay value thing. After once or twice at most, they wanted to move on to other games.

Speaking of moving on, there are many other systems represented in addition to arcade. Home consoles, portable game systems and computers (Windows & DOS) are all present and accounted for, but some of them sent pretty meager delegations to the big party.

For example, while there were a few Intellivision titles (eight, to be precise), where were the sports games that made Intellivision a serious challenger to Atari’s dominance of the market back in the day? Baseball, football, basketball, hockey; these were the games that left my thumb horribly (or should I say wonderfully?) disfigured from using the controller so much. And don’t try to tell me about Skiing. Want to know why George Plimpton never compared Intellivision Skiing to Atari Skiing? Because they both suck.


But at least Intellivision provides one hit game in Astrosmash, which is an overflowing horn of plenty when compared to Dreamcast, which only has three measly titles. The good news was that one of them, Toy Commander, looked like a good one for my kids. The bad news was that it was one of several that crashed my system. But back to those three games. Come on, GameTap. You can’t tease me with a tab for Dreamcast, then withhold goodies like Jet Grind Radio or Samba de Amigo. It just ain’t fair.

Clearly, there’s a reason that GameTap has twice as many games from notorious console flop the 32X as it does for the immensely-popular-until-the-PS2-showed-up Dreamcast. Deals have to be made. Royalties have to be paid. I understand that. But why should that be my problem as a potential subscriber?

And I haven’t even mentioned all of the classic Nintendo games from the last 25 years (OK, now I have). Later this year or early next, Nintendo will be joining the next-gen console wars with the launch of the Revolution, and one of the cornerstones of their strategy is that you will have the ability to download any Nintendo game ever made. So you can see why they wouldn’t want to hop aboard the GameTap bandwagon.

On the PC side, GameTap has a bunch of classic games, like Myst, Tomb Raider, DOS classic Zork, and the more recent Splinter Cell and Beyond Good & Evil. But it is also missing a whole lot of ‘em, such as LucasArts adventure classics Maniac Mansion, Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones & the Fate of Atlantis, Sam & Max Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango, and Dan Bunten/Dani Bunten Berry’s multiplayer trailblazer M.U.L.E.


My overarching point is that GameTap promises you the whole world of gaming, and while they deliver a lot, they’re missing a couple continents.


Fun Delayed is Fun Denied

While the older games load very quickly, newer, larger titles take a looooooooooong time to load. So while it’s fun to browse through the GameTap interface looking for something fun for the kids to play, the satisfaction of finding a good one is tempered by the fact that you may have to wait a good while to play. Are your kids cool with delayed gratification? Didn’t think so.

While you’re waiting for the shorter games, GameTap entertains you and your kids with little game-related shorts, called "A Day in the Extra Life." For example, they like to focus on the hidden lives of the extra Pac Men and Dig Dugs in the bottom left corner. The extra Pac Men sing a lovely duet on “Time Is On My Side” by the Stones (which my son was walked around the house singing for a few weeks), and the extra Dig Dug guys recount the exploits of one of their colleagues (the third extra man who suddenly appears at the end) at the office party. My kids cracked up at both. FYI, there are several others that also focus on "video game characters making the most of their downtime. Well, at least occupying their downtime".


Raves & Faves

Before our GameTap trial, my son already enjoyed playing Sonic Heroes and Sonic Adventure DX, so it was no surprise that he was all over the many Sonic games offered by GameTap. From the groundbreaking inaugural speed platformer that vaulted the Genesis over the NES for a time, to the many GameGear titles, he sampled every blue hedgehog-related game on GameTap.


There were also many Lego games, and both of my kids enjoyed the only two we tried (download times, remember?), Lego Friends and Lego Island 2.

EDIT: I just remembered; Lego Loco is another game that crashed my system. :(

Lego Friends features four young friends who have to prepare for their big music show, and you have to help them with their dance routine and stage show. But the best part of the game is the music mixer, where you piece together the drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals, etc., to create a new song. Both of my kids enjoyed singing the song they created using the music mixer.

Lego Island looks like more of a traditional Lego game, with the trademark blocky gameplay. My son’s favorite part was that every time you ventured onto the railroad tracks, a Lego “superman” would swoop in to fly you to safety.

It behooves me to say that GameTap has parental controls, but we didn’t have the time to delve into them.

Glitches

Any hardcore PC gamer will tell you that they’d choose a keyboard/mouse combo over a controller any day, especially for first-person shooters and strategy games; something about fast, precise aiming and hotkeys. But for those of us who come down with carpal tunnel just from hearing the letters WASD, or for kids who have a tough time gaming that way (like mine), it’s nice to have the option of a USB controller, which GameTap so thoughtfully allows.

However, the controller just doesn’t work for some games. For Splinter Cell, my DualShock 2 controller isn’t recognized, and for Robotron 2084, a game that legally requires the player to use the right joystick/thumbstick to shoot, that functionality is sadly missing.


As I mentioned above, several games crash my system, and while it ain’t exactly bleeding edge Alienware, it does have 256MB nVIDIA GeForce 6800 graphics processor, which ain’t exactly chopped liver (er...at least it wasn’t last year).

In addition, the sound occasionally goes out when I’m playing or browsing through the games, and I have to reboot to bring the sound back.

Psst...Hey Buddy...Wanna Buy a ROM?

OK, show of hands, how many parents out there know what the hell I’m talking about? You, with the hands up, for shaaaaaame! (to be read in Grampa Simpson’s voice).

For those of you who don’t know what’s going on here, there are these things called emulators, see? And what they do is allow people to play just about any classic arcade or console game on their PCs. Pretty cool, ne c’est pas?

Well, cool and not so cool, because there’s a catch; emulators very much verboten. Well, actually, the emulators are perfectly legal. Only the game data-containing ROMs are illegal.

Now it’s not my place to preach to you ne’er do wells out there who are having your naughty good time. And I don’t consider myself holier than thou, thee, thy or thine. But it is my job to teach my kids about right and wrong, and I’m not a big fan of parental hypocrisy.

As you can see throughout this review, GameTap has some definite shortcomings, but if you’re a parent who’s absolutely jonesin’ for some old school gaming and you want to stay on the straight and narrow, you don’t have many legal options.

Oh, sure, you could drive around, searching for restaurants and bars that have a few old arcade cabinets collecting dust in the corner. Or you could head back to your favorite high school hangout to see if your initials are still at the top of the Frogger leader board. Strictly your call.

Oh, Waiter!

Did you ever order something at a restaurant that looked absolutely fabulous? A vertically-plated haute cuisine masterpiece that you couldn’t wait to bite into. But when you took a bite, something wasn’t quite right, like maybe it was a little underdone?

It’s always a risk when you send a dish back. The temperamental chef and harried line cooks are already behind schedule and in no mood for fussy customers. And you never know when they may be tempted to express their displeasure by burying a biohazard in the béchamel.

Good thing for you, GameTap has no such inclination or ability to lash out at you if you send their product back for them to put under the broiler for a little while longer.

Or to put it in non-culinary terms, GameTap is good and has a great deal of potential, but it still feels like a beta version to me. So while it may be well worth the price at some point in the future, at $15 per month, that’s simply too much for not enough.

16 Comments:

  • Thanks for the review. It sounds like GameTap is about what my impression of them appeared to be...a good idea that just isn't there, yet.

    And frankly, between re-releases of collections from Namco, Midway, Intellivision, Atari and others as well as Nintendo's GBA releases...there are only a handful of classic arcade games that I can't get legally (not to mention the Sonic collections, Megaman collections [my son's favorite] and others).

    That, and the fact that a lot of games from companies like Retro64 (thanks for them again, by the way) really capture that old-school feel while giving players more recent features that make it enjoyable.

    By Blogger WizarDru, at 7:53 AM  

  • Assuming they will be adding many more games, then they're on their way to being a nice one-stop-shoppong gaming alternative for the whole family - a little something for everyone.

    But if they just tinker with it as currently constituted (e.g. adding a game here and there), instead of major additions, then GameTap will always be "underdone."

    By Blogger Dan, at 3:56 PM  

  • Do you remember all those classic games we played back in the 1980s/90s on the Amiga, C64 and old PCs ? Then checkout the following website, it has a pretty big archive of all the old Classics. You can play the games can be played on so called emulators, that turn your modern PC into an Amiga, a 386 or a C64 to play the games. http://www.download-full-games.com

    Happy Gaming, Jessica

    By Anonymous Jessica, at 12:17 PM  

  • Needs an OS X version. But it's otherwise a great time-waster.

    About the Sega Saturn, partly true: It *was* the lack of great games that killed the Saturn. But the console was notoriously hard to develop for. "It's a mess inside," was a common complaint of developers. Ultimately it was the Saturn itself that doomed the Saturn.

    By Anonymous san, at 8:14 PM  

  • ...and don't forget the looming presence of the PlayStation on the horizon.

    By Blogger Dan, at 8:20 PM  

  • The *elegant* PlayStation. I love Sega, but the Saturn was a botched rush-out job. I think Saturn had more to do with killing Dreamcast than anything Dreamcast. They lost their Genesis/MegaDrive momentum.

    By Anonymous san, at 10:32 AM  

  • I agree with you, San.

    In addition, between the Genesis and Saturn, the miserable failure of the 32X made many Sega fans lose faith in the company, which put put the Saturn behind the 8-ball before they even botched anything on their own.

    By Blogger Dan, at 4:09 PM  

  • Thanks for the review.

    Gametap always looks so intriguing, but then I remind myself of why I keep my consoles and TV seperated from my PC. In my mind, there's a major difference between sitting 12 inches away from my monitor while I'm trying to sneak past the guards in Deus Ex and sitting 8 feet away from a much larger screen as I'm running Mario around a colorful tropical island amusement park. For me, certain games just feel right when I'm on the couch, relaxed and sitting far away from the screen, while others are more engrossing as I'm hovered over my mouse and keyboard. Granted, there are always exceptions but playing Sonic the Hedgehog at my PC will just perhaps not feel right to me, ridiculous notion or not.

    By Anonymous chuck, at 1:09 PM  

  • I've watched Gametap for a while now and I'm finally impressed enough with Gametap's value to have recently become a year long subscriber for the following reasons:

    1. Value: Gametap boasts as of now 710 games, and many of the newer additions are first rate, like Far Cry, Baldur's Gate 2, Serious Sam 1 and 2, Heroes of Might and Magic 1-4, Civilization III, and more.

    2. Multiplayer is up and running for many arcade, atari, and neo-geo titles, and their putting a real effort into adding more all the time (latest is Street Fighter Alpha 3, among others).

    3.Getting to play old school classics without having to jump through emulation hoops to get them to run properly is a Godsend. Games like King's Quest 1-5, Ultima 1-5, Might and Magic 1-5, Zork 1-3...the list goes on.

    4. MOST importantly, Gametap is only $6.95 a month if you pay for a year's subscription, and is only $9.95 on a month to month basis. (And right now, till October 22nd, for less than $60 (a third of the cost of an average yearly MMO subsription, or about the price of *one* new game, you can have all 710 games. (that number is rising rapidly, by 5-15 games per week)

    Anyway that's my 2 cents, my name's Tahndur on Gametap and if you decide to give it a try, look me up sometime. :)

    By Blogger Justyn_Thyme, at 5:06 AM  

  • HORRIBLE service. Way over priced. I am so angry at gametap! I called to cancel waited 1 hour just to talk to someone and they hung up on me. The games get boring quick.. the only games you can play against other people are very old games like pacman and asteroids, ect.. which most of these games you can find to play for FREE. words from a another die hard gamer: DO NOT GET GAMETAP , you will have nothing but problems. They are crooks who purposly try to get you to sign up, and make it almost impossible to cancel, with NO option to cancel online. You HAVE to call.. most of those people saying that it is cool probuly work for gametap.

    gametap grade: F---

    By Blogger Hip Hop, at 11:46 AM  

  • HIP HOP is right. Not having an online way to cancel your account is criminal, and making you wait on hold for an hour for "customer service" is outrageous (yes, ME TOO).

    Considering the Atari section, GameTap really missed the boat. The Atari 2600 was pathetic. Where are all the fantastic Atari 800 games, including the THOUSANDS of freeware Atari 800 games that Atari programmers developed and shared for free? (YES, for FREE. Sega/Nintendo killed an awesome community of game developers that thrived on the Atari 800.) Some of the graphics in THOSE titles were fairly well done. (I still HAVE my Atari 800 AND disks and disks of those games, and some are still more fun than the 32-bit games you buy today.)

    I definitely concur with HIP HOP's comment: "They are crooks who purposely (sic) try to get you to sign up [for free, then] make it almost impossible to cancel, with NO option to cancel online. You HAVE to call."

    Make sure you sign up with a credit card you're about to cancel, so you can cancel with ease by simply terminating your credit card.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:34 PM  

  • I ordered Gametap and I must say it has been quite a headache. I was six levels into Second Sght and the game would no longer load the next level. The emulators have serious lag time on my desktop but run well on my laptop. It has been a bittersweet journey but alas I am cancelling after my trial month. It is truly a story of "what could have been".

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:52 PM  

  • I have used GameTap for months. Been overall happy with it. Except for what I read in the fine print the day before I signed up for it. And every person I have told about this has used this excuse not to subscribe to GameTap.

    In the fine print GameTap reserves the right to look at the contents of the hard drive(s) of any computer attached to it.

    They can look at whatever you have stored on your computer. It creeps me out, but I'm still a member. Scary, isn't it?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:02 PM  

  • Stay far far away from Gametap these days.

    The service has gone way WAY downhill with the advent of the 'brower launcher' that doesn't even work. CS is non-existant, the forums are filled with angry people who havent been helped in over a month, and the service is just abysmal.

    Stay away from Gametap!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:37 PM  

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