Roundup: Android gaming consoles and controllers

January 15, 2013
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Like many other Android fans, you love a good game. Whether it be a simple puzzle game or an all-out RPG, you love spending your free time playing Android games. With over 700,000 options on the Play Store, Android gaming is for real. The question is, which is the best way to play them?

We’ll round up a few of the bigger players and most popular Android gaming consoles and controllers.

The consoles

The newest craze in mobile gaming is not mobile at all. In fact, a few of your options involve you sitting down in front of your TV again! Whether it be a small screen or your living room TV, the time is approaching for you to be tethered once again. We’ve covered these three in depth previously, but they deserve comparison to the other options in this article.

OUYA

OUYA

The trendsetter, the innovator, the most anticipated console in a long time, if not ever. OUYA brings console gaming back in a very familiar way, and it’s just as we left it when we moved to mobile. It’s a very small set-top box with support for a wireless controller. It attaches to your TV via an HDMI cable, so the minimalism is felt throughout. The controller looks to be absolutely perfect for gaming, maybe the best ever. So much promise in such a little package.

Hold the phone, though. You’ll have to ask yourself if you actually want to mess with a set-top box and a separate interface. At $99, it’s a very attractive price, so you won’t lose out on a huge wad of cash if you decide to grab one. If you have a wall-mounted TV, you may not even have a place to put it… and that could be a problem for some. It will definitely be a monster console, so we’re excited for it.

Project Shield

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A complete shock at CES 2013, Project Shield is NVIDIA’s entry into console gaming. The interesting part about Project Shield is that the console is self contained. A controller with a 5-inch, 720p OLED screen attached in a clamshell package is the difference here. It has support for Steam, making it a very attractive option for PC gamers. If it can get support from developers, it may take off.

Unfortunately, we know very little about this one right now. We don’t know pricing, availability, or what games will be available. It is reliant on WiFi for Steam support, and you’ll have to be on the same WiFi network as your PC. That really limits the actual “mobile” aspect of this, and muddies the waters of “console”. A rumored price point of somewhere in the $300 range suggest it will be high-end, and very substantially built. It also suggests that people will opt for other options before entertaining this one. Handheld gaming devices are almost extinct, and Android may not be able to reverse that trend for NVIDIA.

GameStick

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The new kid on the block seems to be looking for a fight. GameStick is a lower price point than OUYA at $79, is trying to get a similar amount of support from developers, and eliminates the need for a set-top box. It operates on an HDMI dongle that fits into the controller when not in use, making it ultra portable and compact. It may be a big job, but the GameStick seems keen on taking it on.

The GameStick could be great, but the HDMI dongle is concerning. How much power can you pack into that little plug? OUYA embraces development, making it easily hacked and pretty powerful. Everyone is encouraged to develop for the OUYA, so you may just get the next viral hit. With GameStick, it seems as though they are concentrating on getting developer support to have games designed with them in mind. A smart move was designing a controller app for your Android device, so those games utilizing the accelerometer may be immediately available. The type and amount of support from developers and hackers may make this an interesting fight between the three.

In control

Perhaps you don’t want to invest in a console. Maybe you think a controller is all you need to round your gaming experience into form. That could be, but it may not work out as well as you think. Then again, maybe that old PlayStation or Xbox controller will work just fine, and you won’t have to spend any cash at all. Let’s go over a few options, shall we?

MOGA

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The MOGA line of controllers are more like an attachment for your device that a standalone controller. With a flip-up holster for your device, it secures you into landscape Android gaming heaven. A little smaller than we’re used to in a controller, MOGA holds its own. The design follows the console controller model carefully, so everything is familiar and easy to use.

With Bluetooth connection, MOGA is easily used on a variety of devices. While your tablet may not fit into the holster, the controller will still connect to it. A singular controller on a variety of devices make MOGA a very attractive device. The $50 price may be a little steep, but you get quite a bit with it in a leather case and free games. The interface is great, and easily lays out all of your Android games that have MOGA support built in.

Buyer beware

What I found a bit surprising about MOGA was how many games on my device simply didn’t have support for it. I have roughly 50 games in my Play Store library, and only about 4 of them have support. Games such as Grand Theft Auto 3, which were originally console games and play better with a controller, don’t have support for MOGA. The MOGA home screen easily lays out the available games, but it’s pretty frustrating to not be able to play many of my library. Before you invest, make sure your favorite games have support.

The vice that attaches your phone to the controller holds it in tightly, but can block things like your power or volume buttons. If you want to take a screenshot, you may find that difficult. It also has a very stationary position, locking you into a certain angle with which to view the screen. The joysticks slide rather that pivot, and only support 8-way directional control making controlling some games a bit wonky. I found Asphalt 7, a favorite of mine, to be jerky and difficult to play with the MOGA.

Nyko Playpad series

Nyko PlayPad

The Nyko Playpad follows the MOGA model in connectivity and design, and unfortunately in function as well. The joystick only supports 8-way motion (just like the MOGA) making some games a bit troublesome to play. There is no holster for your device to clip onto the controller itself, but it does come with a nice stand for it.

Although there is a “Pro” series Nyko controller, it merely changes the shape of the device. Making it fit in the hand better does not forgive its poor play, and still limited support. If you’re into portability, the Pro will disappoint. Think of toting around a PlayStation controller and you’ll have a better idea of why this particular controller may not be what you need for mobile gaming.

SteelSeries Free

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The SteelSeries Free is a powerful little controller that really packs a punch. Although tiny, it does fit well in the hand and feels very natural to hold. At an easily dismissive 4”x2”, it accomplishes more than the other two controllers we’re comparing it to. Dual analog joysticks with full 360 degree rotation make FPS games much more enjoyable, and its extensive list of supported games is really impressive.

For those of you that enjoy PC gaming, you may know SteelSeries from their other devices such as mice and keyboards engineered for the serious gamer. The SteelSeries Free has been a few years coming, and may well have been worth the wait. The only drawback is the $80 price tag. Paying that much for a controller is a bit steep, even with all it accomplishes. Android gaming has yet to fully accept peripheral devices to assist with gaming, so even with nearly 200 games supported, it’s a far cry from being fully supported by Android.

The workaround

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Don’t want a new controller, eh? You may be in luck. There are many options available out there for getting all types of console remotes to work with your Android device, ranging from a Wii remote to the XBox. A wired XBox controller with an OTG cable is the best way to go, but it does draw power from the device you plug into. There is also no official list of supported games, so trial-and-error is your only recourse.

For the PlayStation DualShock or SixAxis controller, there is a bit of work to be done. Root access is required, and an app to pair the device is necessary. A bit fussy, but if you’re already rooted or otherwise comfortable doing so, it may be worth it. The Wii remote pairing simply requires an app, but I don’t know that a Wii remote is the most comfortable thing in the world to hold. There are tons of hacks and aftermarket devices, so if you have a favorite… it’s probably out there.

Conclusion

Consoles and TV dongles threaten to take away our mobile freedom, but they may be hitting on something big. With all the Android centric remotes out there, none have the full support of Android game developers. SteelSeries Free has the most support, but it has less than 0.5% of the available games out there. That signifies that mobile gaming is not really ready to support a return to the console days of remotes.

Where the new batch of Android consoles get it right is that they support the developers rather than expecting the developers to support them as controller manufacturers seem to. Consoles represent a new way for developers to monetize their efforts. They stand to gain a lot with a great game, so it’s definitely in their interest to support consoles. A controller is just more work for them, and unless they get a cut of device sales or another way to make it worth their while, it’s just more work for little to no return in investment.

Android gaming is entering a new realm. We are realizing Android as a legitimate gaming platform, not just an OS. Gaming is coming into its own on Android, and much of that has to do with how powerful devices have been the last few years. If something like an OUYA can only contribute to the genre, how can it be a bad thing? Gaming any way you like, at any time you like. This is definitely an exciting time for the gaming community across the board, so let’s enjoy it.

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