Amazon has cast its hat into the set-top box ring with the $99 Fire TV, touting its gaming features as one of its most important selling points. While it's true that the Fire TV is a functional game box, that's about all it can boast. Between its shoddy selection of games, poor optimization and soporific "killer app," the Fire TV has a long way to go if Amazon wants people to invest in it, and its overpriced $40 controller.
What makes the Fire TV interesting is that it doesn't have a direct competitor in the gaming market. It's most similar to the Ouya, a $100 Android gaming box that can also stream video. The Ouya floundered and never caught on in the mainstream market. As it turns out, people generally prefer to play Android games on mobile devices, and purchase full-fledged consoles for hardcore titles.
The Fire TV also competes with the Roku 3 ($99), another streaming video box that plays games. However, the Roku 3 provides only a few dozen simplistic casual games, and cannot tap into the larger Android market of titles. Amazon App Store and Kindle Fire games are generally easy to port to Fire TV, and games you already own for those platforms will carry over for free (if the developer releases a Fire TV version).
Casual games on Fire TV
While the Fire TV can support hardcore titles, its primary purpose appears to be getting casual games up on the big screen. Of the 100-plus games currently available for Fire TV, the vast majority are simple time-killers. Retro platformers, endless runners, board games, sports titles and trivia challenges are a dime a dozen here, and none of them requires an Amazon Fire controller.
The games are also generally very cheap. The most expensive title we found, "Alphadia Genesis," costs $9.99, and is actually a role-playing game aimed at the core gamer crowd. Casual titles range from free to about $7, with the greater part clocking in somewhere between $1 and $4.
Filling your Fire TV with diverting games to play between movies is both easy and cheap.
Fire Controller has many buttons, few features
While you can play casual games with the included Fire TV remote and with companion mobile apps, Amazon sells an optional $40 controller for higher-level games. The Amazon Fire controller is palatable, but also unimaginative and overdesigned. The device sports 21 buttons. For comparison, the Xbox One and PS4 controllers both have 18. It does not bode well that controllers for more complicated systems accomplish more with fewer buttons and more comfortable designs.
The Fire TV controller is surprisingly bulky, and rather heavy. The buttons are a bit sticky, and the analog sticks don't have much heft. For a design that copies an Xbox controller almost wholesale, it's surprising that the Fire controller misses the fundamentals that make Microsoft's controller so pleasing to use.
The best thing about the peripheral is that it's completely up to the task of controlling both casual and hardcore titles. You could also pair other Bluetooth controllers with the Fire TV, which might be a better — and cheaper — option (a decent Android controller usually costs about $20). Most games also work just fine with the Fire TV remote, which makes the controller a bit superfluous.
Good old games
Fire TV offers a handful of truly excellent games. "The Walking Dead," "Minecraft," "Deus Ex: The Fall" and "The Cave" all received critical acclaim and adoration from fans — when they first debuted, that is. The best hardcore titles on Fire TV are somewhere between a few months and a few years old with only one exclusive title to keep things fresh.
The selection of casual titles is somewhat newer and much better, but it also raises an important question: How many people are dying to play casual titles on a big screen? PCs and mobile devices already overflow with versions of "Bejeweled" and "Angry Birds." These titles are generally meant to kill a few minutes here and there rather than provide a substantial enough challenge for long play sessions.
The anemic Fire TV game selection underscores the ugly truth about the device: Amazon does not have a clear target audience in mind for the box's gaming features. A $99 box plus a $40 controller is too expensive for casual gamers. A system that plays only subpar ports of old titles ("The Walking Dead" looks terrible on Fire TV compared to its PC, console and mobile brethren) is not useful for hardcore gamers.
Perhaps there's some theoretical middle ground of gamers: streaming video fans who would enjoy hardcore games, if only they had a platform to play them. If that's the case, the controller is too intimidating and expensive for them, and the first game from Amazon Studios is not likely to hook them.
"Sev Zero" is in-game slang for a technological disaster of such dire proportions that it could wreck an entire planet's defense grid. It's also the name of the first Fire TV exclusive game, and a fairly apt one at that. While "Sev Zero" is not an irredeemable game, it also does absolutely nothing to convince gamers that the Fire TV is a useful or necessary development for mid-tier gaming.
The game is shallow, repetitive and completely forgettable. The problem is not so much that "Sev Zero" is a totally disposable game; the problem is that it was supposed to put the Fire TV's best foot forward as a dedicated gaming device. This exclusive title will not convince any core gamer to buy a Fire TV, and it's too difficult and obtuse for a neophyte.
While it's true that a Roku 3's game selection pales in comparison, if you're going to drop $140 on a Fire TV and controller, you might want to go the extra mile and pick up a PS3 or Xbox 360 for $200. These boxes also have video streaming apps, but they are gaming-first devices.
It's only a game
Much like the Fire TV overall, the device's gaming capabilities have potential, but that's about all they have at present. The controller is expensive and unwieldy. The game selection is small and dated (at least for the moment). Plus, the exclusive title is too hard for newcomers and too boring for diehards.
If you've purchased games from the Amazon App Store, even Kindle Fire-exclusive titles, their ports to Fire TV will carry over to your account in most cases, and you can use the remote control to play them. Try that first, then see if you really want to dish out an extra $40 to do the same thing with more buttons.