The last time I owned a videogame console, Hypercolor shirts were in, everyone pegged their jeans, and I had a perm. In other words, it was a long time ago. (It was the Nintendo Entertainment System, by the way.)
I’m ready to get a new system now, and choosing one is proving to be a difficult decision. Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii U are the most well-known and popular ones. But I don’t want to spend a lot of money, and I already have a Roku set-top box and DVD player, so I don’t necessarily need the entertainment aspects of those systems. What to get?
Enter Green Throttle. Started by one of the co-creators of the Guitar Hero videogame with two former Palm employees, Green Throttle is an app and game-controller solution that aims to turn your existing Android tablet or smartphone into a game console.
The only thing you have to buy is the Atlas game controller, which costs $40 and connects via Bluetooth. If your mobile device can be plugged into a TV for playing video, the company also sells bundles that include special cables for connecting to your HDTV. Meanwhile, the company’s free Arena application acts as the game center, where you can download titles and play games.
Green Throttle is more about enhancing the game-playing experience of mobile devices, rather than being a direct competitor to Xbox or PlayStation. And it succeeds in that goal. The controller allows for more precision and capabilities than a touchscreen. It’s also nice to be able to play games on a bigger screen. But there’s a big drawback, and that’s its lack of compatible games. There are currently fewer than a dozen games that work with Green Throttle, so it’s simply not worth buying right now — though it has potential.
Green Throttle works with any device running on Google’s Android operating system, version 4.0 or higher. I tested it on the Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HD, and setup was relatively painless.
After turning on the Atlas controller and downloading the Arena from the Google Play Store, I went to the app’s settings menu to connect the controller. The pairing process took some time, though. Normally, when I connect a Bluetooth headset or keyboard to a smartphone or tablet for the first time, the whole process only takes a couple of minutes.
With Green Throttle, it took at least a few minutes for both tablets to find the Atlas controller. Enough time had elapsed that I thought something might be wrong, but eventually I got a prompt to connect to the controller, and I was up and running shortly after that. Fortunately, once paired, reconnections were almost instantaneous.
The controller is similar to the ones used with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It’s powered by two AA batteries (included in the package), and there are two joysticks, a directional pad, X, Y, A, B buttons, and two trigger and two shoulder buttons on the top edge of the controller. The power, start and back buttons are located in the middle. All the controls were within easy reach, and provided good feedback — not too stiff or mushy-feeling.
The user interface of the Green Throttle Arena game hub is pretty straightforward. There are four tabbed sections you can peruse: Home, My Games, Recommended and Settings. The latter is self-explanatory. Home features the latest Green Throttle news, recent games and featured games. My Games is where you’ll find all your downloaded titles, while Recommended surfaces editors’ picks.
A couple of things were missing: One is a search feature for looking up specific titles; the other is the ability to look for games by type, such as action, puzzle, sports and so on. Green Throttle says it will add both functions in the future.
For now, this isn’t a huge issue, since there aren’t that many games. Games must be built to work with the Atlas controllers, so you can’t use them to play titles you’ve already downloaded from the Google Play store.
Currently, there are only eight available titles from the Arena game store, with six c. Green Throttle said it is adding one or two new games to the store every week, and more than 500 companies are using its software to build titles for the system, including a few well-known console game developers.
I tried all eight titles. Most are casual or retro-style arcade games. Given the limitations of a mobile device’s hardware (computing and graphics power, memory, etc.), you won’t find any really complex or graphics-intensive titles, compared to dedicated game consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation, or even the Razer Edge gaming tablet. So, if you’re looking for big-name titles like Assassin’s Creed III or BioShock Infinite, this isn’t the system for you.
Instead, you get games like Coral Combat, a Space Invaders-type game that takes place underwater, or FishTails, a racing game where you have to collect as many coins as possible while dodging obstacles. There are also multiplayer games like Crystal Swarm, where you can team up to kill alien bugs. I played the game with a friend, using the Kindle Fire HD hooked up to my Samsung TV.
They’re all worth a try (most games are free, but APO Snow costs $1.99, and Gunslugs costs $1.49), but given their simple nature, I wasn’t drawn to play them on a regular basis, with the exception of the snowboarding game APO Snow, and Blocks Party.
Performance was smooth. Also, having a controller with physical buttons made it easy to navigate through the games and accomplish moves.
Final score: Green Throttle takes the mobile gaming experience to the next level in an affordable way, but it’s not worth it until it beefs up its game selection.
Update: Shortly after this review was originally published, Green Throttle announced six new games for the Arena app, including The Bard’s Tale and Duke Nukem 3D.