The Amazon Fire brand has been a huge one for Amazon as their tablet line morphed into a streaming box with gaming as a central component. Now they’re taking that streaming media/gaming concept and put it on a stick with the aptly-named Fire TV Stick. Game Stick did that first, but that platform was less than pleasant with unintuitive software, an uncomfortable controller and one of the leanest app store selections to date. The Game Stick established that gaming hardware could be put in something the size of a thumb drive, but it clearly wasn’t the right company to maximize the potential of the concept.
The Fire TV comes in a small box that is easy to open — you just need to slide the internal box out of the external sleeve and pop open the flaps. Arrows show you which end is the top, and they are not meant to be torn off as I learned the hard way. Inside, you’ll find a basic manual, the device itself, a remote, a pair of batteries, an HDMI extender (that’s actually shorter than the GameStick-provided one) and a USB power cable. There’s no HDMI cable included, but for $40, that’s not a huge surprise — especially when Amazon can suggest one alongside your purchase of the device. Setup is as simple as plugging the device or its extender into an HDMI port, plugging in the power and letting it load up.
Once that’s done, you’ll be greeted by the Fire TV Stick screen, log into your Amazon account and home network and be good to go after a quick software update. The menu navigation is a bit clunky as thumbnails can take a while to load and compared to other digital gaming storefronts, this one organizes things poorly. You can see things arranged by genre, but you can’t see a complete list of things that you own like you can on the Amazon Appstore — just what’s compatible with this device. The small remote works fine, but isn’t user-friendly if you have large hands. Luckily, any Bluetooth controller should sync up without much of an issue, which is an easier way to get around and far more comfortable. Our OUYA pad synced without a single problem, but attempts to get both the Dual Shock 3 and Dual Shock 4 working proved fruitless. The game selection was surprisingly robust given how powerful the device is compared to the more fully-featured Fire TV. The Fire TV Stick aims to be the more budget-oriented version of that device, and it lacks some of the horsepower.
While the Fire TV hypes up playing things like the Asphalt and Modern Combat series, however, lower-spec games like Sonic the Hedgehog 4, the definitive Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and 2, Castle of Illusion and some 3D fare like Beach Buggy Blitz and Table Top Racing can be enjoyed. The Amazon Appstore has a lot of gaming-related content, but if it hasn’t been optimized for Amazon’s controller, then it won’t show up as being playable with this device. Out of my 200+ Amazon apps, over 50 showed up as compatible with this device instantly and worked just fine. The OUYA pad’s trackpad also emulates touch movements, which really shocked me since the actual Amazon controller doesn’t have one, so I didn’t expect it to do anything, but it worked perfectly for games that are technically function, but are easier to navigate with touch like Table Top Racing. One big upside to the games being smaller instead of gigantic mobile games is the storage – you have about 6 GB of on-board space and you can’t expand it. You get that same amount for the full Fire TV and can’t expand it there, but it’s a far bigger issue for a device meant for 1 GB+ games than one with a lot of 100 MB and under games.
As an OUYA owner with a sideloaded Amazon Appstore, one of the biggest appeals to me with this device was playing things that didn’t work with the OUYA controller on the OUYA itself. Final Freeway 2R was such a game. It’s a blatant Outrun clone, but something that I picked up for $1 because I love Outrun and it’s a really hard formula to screw up. It controls really well and does bring back memories of Sega’s classic while also being far more forgiving with time limits. Castle of Illusion isn’t something I’ve tried on the OUYA, but it plays reasonably well on the Fire TV Stick, but it seems like a fairly low-end version of the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. The textures look a lot worse and there’s a bit of input lag that makes even the earliest stages harder than they should be. The included remote actually works as a controller wasn’t just uncomfortable in concept, but lag was still there. Input lag also hurt the Mega Man-esque Dark Incursion, which ran fine sideloaded on my OUYA, but had issues on the Fire TV Stick. Conversely, Table Top Racing didn’t run smoothly sideloaded on the OUYA, but it ran flawlessly on the Fire TV Stick and looked about on par with the Vita version.
The Fire TV Stick comes off as basically what the Game Stick should’ve been, but it has some flaws of its own. The remote is small and isn’t comfortable as either a remote or game-controlling device. The hardware has some power behind it, but it seems best-used for 2D games as 3D stuff looks really iffy on it. Compared to the OUYA, that can at least run Riptide GP 2 really well, while that isn’t even a playable game here despite being older and on the Amazon Appstore. The same holds true for the Grand Theft Auto games. As a gateway into streaming sticks, this one is still a solid choice for gamers given its low price tag. It launched at $20 for pre-orders, has sold for $25 at Best Buy, and regularly retails for $40.
At such a low price, anyone with an extensive catalog of Amazon Appstore games will get their money’s worth. It could even become the default travel system since it takes up little space and lets a slew of side-scrolling Sonic the Hedgehog games be played on any HDMI-compatible device. From a strictly gaming perspective, anyone with a Fire TV probably won’t need one unless they just want something for a kid to have that isn’t likely to get damaged and will cost little if it does. Someone looking to try out a streaming stick will get a lot out of this if they’ve got a wide array of games already tied to their Amazon Appstore account as quite a few work. It’s not an essential purchase for those without a lot of Amazon-related content, but it’s worth checking out and having some fun with for those who do — there’s potential with this device being a gateway to folks trying out games they otherwise wouldn’t. That is one of the most positive aspects of the OUYA, but there are going to be far more eyeballs viewing those games on an Amazon-branded device than an OUYA, which could be a real game-changer in terms of sales.