GameTap: Retro Games on Demand

by Brian Jepson

I've been editing Chris Kohler's Retro Gaming Hacks, and I'm really bitten by the bug. My GBA collection is overflowing with retrogaming titles, and my Mac and Linux computers are sharing desk space with my Atari 130XE. And now I've found another way to play these old-school games.

GameTap is Turner Broadcasting's subscription-based gaming on demand service. The list of games is pretty impressive, but what really jumps out at me is the platforms represented: Dreamcast, Sega Master System, Intellivision, Genesis, Atari 2600, Arcade games, and more. It looks like they'll have a decent selection of modern games, but retro games currently dominate the list.

Although it's not officially launched, they are letting users trickle in. I signed up for early access at gametap.com (on the lower left of the page where they ask for your email address and birthdate) and got access within a day. Currently, the only platform supported is Windows, and the client is a 70MB download. Their sign-up process says "Apple Macintosh computers are not currently supported (but we're working on it)".

At first, I thought "iTunes for Retro Games", but it's really more like a Napster to Go, since you don't get to keep the games you've downloaded. And from there, it's all downhill with the music store metaphor, since you can't download the games to a handheld device... but wouldn't that be a killer feature for Turner Entertainment to add to GameTap?

Overall, I'm in love with GameTap. There are games in there (such as Zaxxon) that I haven't seen in any other retro gaming collection. The user experience is great: the interface is intuitive, enticing, and encourages exploration. Video shorts are woven nicely into the experience, and appear shortly after a game begins loading. Yeah, I think it's excessive that it takes 10 seconds for Adventure to initalize, but I imagine they want to give the video shorts a shot at getting your attention. And it worked: more than once, I kept watching the short even after my game had finished loading. And plus, as a Colecovision fanboy, I am already comfortable with the idea of a 10+ second delay that's in there for no good reason at all.
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When you load a game, you get a screenshot, summary of the game, and links to more information, including box art, game history, and more. The controls are usually some combination of arrow keys, and X, C, and V for action buttons.
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I have two gripes. First, even though GameTap keeps games in a local cache, there's no offline mode that I could find. They could take a cue from Steam and come up with a way to provide an offline mode. Second, as much as I like the user interface, it's got one huge drawback: it's full-screen, all the time. I'd much prefer something in the system tray so I can jump into a game quickly and out again when I'm done. When I need a two-minute shmup fix, I don't want to spend three minutes logging in and loading the whole game system. That said, GameTap is the best-behaved full-screen program I've used in a long time. I can Alt-Tab back to Windows and leave it running in the background with no glitches.

Turner has launched a very reasonable ($15/month) legal emulation service. The selection of games is wide enough that I may hang onto it after the trial (1 free month, first 3 months at $10 a month). And while I was waiting for Space Invaders to download, it started up a strange video of a guy in an Atari shirt reading poetry in an arcade. It really doesn't get any better than that :-)


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