I’ve been playing a lot of Mega Drive lately. Not on the original hardware, mind you. My console is tucked away in the closet, along with all of my games. I’m not playing the Genesis Mini, SEGA Genesis Classics Collection, or any variation thereof, either. Strange as it sounds, I’m having my 16-bit nostalgia streamed to me, one megabyte at a time.
And no, I haven’t reactivated the SEGA Channel somehow.
AntStream is a game streaming service focused on classic titles. Thanks to its sizable library, great functionality, and innovative online interactions, it’s a service worthy of any serious retro gamer’s time. Your enjoyment is at the mercy of your connection speed, but as long as you don’t mind having to access a remote library, AntStream offers unmatched levels of nostalgia and value with its expertly curated collection.
Old Memories, New Chances
From the Atari to the arcade, the Spectrum to the Commodore, and the Super Nintendo to the Mega Drive, the service boats over 1200 games (as of this review) and counting. Though all titles are officially licensed, you won’t find first-party fare here. Instead, AntStream opens the archives of Vic Tokai, Electronic Arts, Accolade and more, highlighting some of the console’s more mature title, as well as niche oddities.
While the focus of this review is on the Mega Drive library, it’s worth briefly noting the arcade collection as well. The SNK selection alone should be enough to tempt those curious about the service, and the inclusion of rarities like Taito’s Elevator Action Returns – which had a Saturn conversion in Japan but never made it to Western shores – is amazing. Though SEGA consoles were known for their arcade ports, playing the actual arcade versions of greats like Mortal Kombat and Smash T.V. is a real treat.
The Mega Drive was aimed at both kids and adults, and its library reflected this. Accolade’s Zero Tolerance, one of the console’s only first-person shooters, turned heads back in the day and remains a fascinating pseudo-horror action game. Electronic Arts’ The Immortal terrified me as a kid with its grotesque and highly detailed death animations, and felt akin to watching an animated movie on a video game console, sporting some of the best pixel art ever made. That’s not to say every Mega Drive game in the AntStream library is a classic, but having access to such a varied selection of titles showcases just how wide the console’s appeal was.
While first-party fare is most often cited when referring the console’s legacy, action RPGs like Data East’s Arcus Odyssey and Telenet’s Exile highlight that the Mega Drive’s role-playing library wasn’t solely comprised of Phantasy Star and Shining Force titles. I’ve played Outrun and Super Hang-On more times than I hazard to guess, but seeing another company’s take on sprite scaler racing with the likes of Top Gear 2 was wholly refreshing, and reminded me of just how innovative developers were for SEGA’s 16-bit console.
Having hundreds of games at your fingertips is one thing, but the ways in which you play these games is part of the service’s appeal. You can link your social media profiles, make a list of favorite titles for quick access, and add other player’s profiles to your friends list. Gems, the service’s currency, are awarded for log-ins and can be spent on challenges and tournaments. While arcade games are typically the focus for tournaments, many games have unique challenges, including score attack or survival modes while playing with a handicap of some type. This is a great feature, as it allows you to show off your skills and play the game in a different way than you normally would.
The streaming itself works quite well. Though I do often experience lag on the homepage when first logging on, things almost always run smoothly in-game. There is screen tearing and pixelated artefacts, as with any game streaming service, but by in large AntStream is the most reliable platform I’ve tried. The fact that I can play fighting games without input lag speaks volumes, though that’s not to say your experience will be the same.
I’ve used the service on both a Windows 10 PC with a wired connection and Xbox One controller as well as an Nvidia Shield tablet with a wireless connection, and both work great. Keyboard configurations are included if you don’t have a gamepad handy, and for most three-button Mega Drive games this setup works just fine. Local play is supported, though as of this review, online play is not. The aforementioned challenges and tournaments are great, but as they aren’t live competition/co-op, they only serve as a compliment and not a replacement to online play.
One of the coolest features AntStream offers is a quick swap between different versions of games. The Immortal and Speedball 2, for example, can be played on either the Mega Drive or Amiga with the quick press of a button in the boot menu. Back in the 80s and 90s, hardware architecture varied quite a bit between manufacturers. Games ported to different consoles often had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Seeing not only how the gameplay differs between different versions, but also how they look and sound, is a great resource for gaming historians to have.
Each game comes with an explanation/trivia page and three save slots. Save slots can be used at any time. Strangely, there is no quick-load feature, meaning you have to quit the streaming session entirely and boot your save from the main menu. The trivia and background information pages are great, being original works and not just scans of the old booklets (though those would have been nice too). If you are having trouble figuring out how to play a game, the instructions page will likely get your straightened out.
Something that excites me about the future of AntStream is the inclusion of homebrew productions. Reshoote R, a Amiga homebrew from 2019, recently made its debut on the service. With the Mega Drive independent scene alive and kicking, here’s hoping we see some community games make it onto the service as well.
What happens to consoles when they die? They live on in the cloud.
Game streaming is still trying to break through due to a multitude of factors, and the fact that AntStream is offering to stream games that may only be a couple of megabytes in size is a point that may turn some gamers off. However, when it comes to preservation, reliability, and bang for your buck, AntStream is undoubtedly leading the way.
There are a number of game streaming services out there, like PlayStation Now and Geforce Now, focused on newer or current releases. By comparison, AntStream has a completely unique library among its competition. AntStream’s Mega Drive selection has reminded me why I fell in love with the console some thirty years ago. I like Sonic as much as the next guy, but the gritty, violent, and hardcore end of the library is what I truly cherish about the Mega Drive. For those who miss the glory days of arcade competition, the playground arguments of which console played games better, or that feeling of awe when scanning the shelves of a game rental store, AntStream is a service you need to check out. While the lack of online play is disappointing, and loading save states is inconvenient, the challenges, tournaments, and social integrations go a long way in bathing these wonderful titles in a new light.