For those following the ongoing GameTap saga on Armchair Arcade, for instance here, I recently signed up and finally gave it a whirl. What follows are some stream of consciousness first impressions...
I got a chance last night into early this morning to play around with GameTap on my MAME arcade machine in between paying bills, backing up my main PC and working out (don't ask). If you remember, the arcade cabinet contains a fairly high end 1GB PC with a 128MB ArcadeVGA card (ATI-based) and 27" Wells Gardner arcade PC monitor. I have a regular mouse and keyboard inside the cabinet, but use the main control panel as my primary means of doing most things, save for typing. It has a plethora of buttons, three joysticks, a trackball and a spinner.
First things first, to install GameTap, you need to have your display set to 800x600. My default display - since this is primarily a MAME box and an ArcadeVGA/Wells Gardner combination - is 640x480. I used my quick resolution switching tool on my taskbar to switch over to 800x600, which is the only other resolution my setup acceptably supports, though "unofficially". With the resolution issue out of the way, I successfully installed it, entered my login information (I already signed up and paid on my main PC), etc. Simple enough and after doing its first time slow initialization to set all of the presumed emulation and interface components and update the main software/program list, I was on my way to actual usage. As a matter of course, I switched my resolution back to 640x480. When I ran GameTap and the main interface came up, I was back into 800x600. It seems the interface only supports 800x600 or 1024x768, though I did notice other options that didn't apply to my situation. Regardless, it started up and looked fine.
My arcade cabinet is hooked up to the Internet via a hidden external configuration free 802.11b wireless receiver/transmitter, connected via network cable to the computer's built-in network card. My wireless cloud is wireless-g, actually, but I only had a spare b device to use with this machine, hence the slower wireless standard in place. In any case, I have a reasonably fast high speed Internet through Comcast that peaks at around 6MBPS or so and it's in the office in the adjacent room with the requisite router.
One thing you'll notice right away is that videos play right away at start-up. These are promotional videos for games or music videos or what have you on the service. They're relatively smooth and are easily bypassed by going to one of the many graphical menu options. I had no problem moving about with either a joystick or the trackball/pointer.
The first game I went to was under the arcade section, "BurgerTime". I went to this specifically because it's one of my go-to games under my optimally configured MAME32 on the same machine. If I wanted to know how this service was going to work, I'd have to compare it to the best. As with all games on the system, you're presented with options to install the game, read the instructions, configure the controls, etc. Obviously the first thing you need to do is install it. Since this was a small file, it downloaded within a few seconds. Nice. After that, I configured the controls. You can assign all in-game functions to any press of the keyboard and/or a joystick. Since I have a control panel that's based around keyboard presses, it was trivial for me to be able to assign my control panel's buttons the way that I wanted. Dissapointedly, while everything to this point seems arcade cabinet friendly, I saw no one way to assign the ESC key to a button, which allows you to exit from a game in progress. I got around this at first by simply lifting my control panel and pressing the ESC key on the keyboard, but later attached a slim USB number keypad with Enter and ESC keys to the side of my cabinet. That worked well and will no doubt come in handy for other stubborn applications/programs.
While I was dissapointed that there was no way to set a universal control setup, this was somewhat mitigated by the fact that once the controls are custom configured by you in one game, you're then presented with a list of all other games in the same class that could also use the same control scheme. It's then trivial to apply the settings you just configured to all the other applicable games on the service with a checkbox. Nice touch.
I then was ready to play "BurgerTime". I hit Play, the service quickly verified my credentials (you MUST be online at most times with GameTap to make this work) and I was greeted with a startup very much like you'd see on MAME. This is obviously BurgerTime emulated in some capacity, perhaps even with a custom version of MAME. This is one of those games that there is little to custom configure in regards to screen and refresh rate, so it actually played very similarly to what I have custom set under MAME32. Unfortunately, as I saw a few minutes later with Zoo Keeper, it keeps the setup very generic, meaning you can't tweak settings like you can under true MAME. This is particularly bad in a setup like mine, where for many games, you can very closely match true arcade settings visually. Nevertheless, it's very hassle-free and does work reasonably well, though perhaps not as smoothly as if I did it through MAME32.
With those two games, high scores are tracked on the service and you can compete with other players online (as in play multiplayer online). I didn't try the latter and it only seems like a few dozen games fully support this, but it's interesting that GameTap has a semi-knockoff of the Xbox Live Gamertag and gamer points, and allows for competitive online play. I'll have to explore this further. Even with me having preferred versions of games and a setup under MAME32, the competitive aspects may make me want to play these versions on occasion, just like with Xbox Live Arcade. There's just something about competing with other people sometimes that's obviously very intriguing.
I then, for the heck of it, wanted to try a modern PC game. I went for something wacky, in this case, "Serious Sam 2" (they have the complete Gold Edition on GameTap). I have "Serious Sam 1" on the original Xbox and was curious how the sequel played out. Since I was familiar with this first person shooter previously, I thought I would give this a whirl. Unfortunately, because this is a BIG retail game relatively speaking, the download did not go quite as fast as the other two games, not by a long shot. In fact, I got tired of waiting and put it into "download in background mode". Another nice touch. With that, I set the new "Sam and Max" game to do the same. Wanting to try something else while waiting, I went to the Sega 32X section and hit "Kolibri", the hummingbird shooting game that I always wanted to try and one of the few games I had yet to acquire for my 32X. While the other two were downloading, this one took about a minute (maybe less, I wasn't keeping track) and I was able to play after I again configured the controller and matched it to similar games.
"Kolibri" started right up and I was into the game. Unfortunately, the resolution issue creeped up in a different way this time, with the low res (relatively speaking) 32X upscaled to at least 640x480, showcasing more jaggies and blurriness than you'd get on the real system on a regular TV. This is an emulation issue on PC's, not necessarily a fault of the service. Nevertheless, the game seemed to work well, despite the fact that I couldn't figure out what the hell I was doing in it.
Eventually, "Serious Sam 2" finished downloading. Obviously my control panel, while coming close to being a nice setup with a joystick that mimicks directional arrows and a trackball that obviously works as a mouse, doesn't make an ideal FPS setup because your hands aren't free to press a button to shoot/change weapons/do anything else. Nevertheless, I plowed ahead. This time the game defaulted to my 640x480 resolution, which was nice and it was obviously quite smooth. In fact it worked surprisingly well in spite of the control setup. Interestingly, this is one of the games where you not only get the in-menu instructions prior to running the actual game, but also get a PDF manual option (which kicks you out to your default Web browser). Control setup is in-game as some of the games seem to be on the service. This probably only applies to non-emulation software. In fact, in many ways, this is simply a friendly installer and launcher when playing PC games. They're unaltered otherwise and even the instructions still contain installation procedures that GameTap hides from you.
Leaving this game, I went to one I was looking forward to and is presently the number one game on the service, the new "Sam and Max" (first episode). It has a very simplified interface (one button, single clicks). Unfortunately, for whatever reason, once I got into the actual game, there was significant polygonal tearing on the scenery when you first start the game in the office. You can take most of the heartache out of gaming on the PC, but again, without a standardized platform to target, even with DirectX/3D, issues STILL crop up. Unfortunately with no way at present to patch my video card and/or the game, it remains unplayable on my arcade machine if only for the visual distraction. The game looks approachable and interesting enough, so I'll give this a whirl on my main PC, maybe even later tonight, and hopefully there won't be any visual glitching.
[Unspecified number of hours here where in an unrelated issue I messed up my video card driver trying to optimize my display (as well as stretch, pincussion, brightness, etc. - don't ask, but essentially I wanted a better display outside of MAME32 while still keeping everything arcade nice on that side) and had to go to a Windows restore point prior to installing GameTap. I got my arcade cab back to the way it was supposed to be and then reinstalled GameTap and redownloaded "Sam and Max", "BurgerTime" and "Zoo Keeper". I didn't bother with the others. Same issue with "Sam and Max", so I uninstalled that - a simple click.]
So, with me back into GameTap, I tried "Vectorman" on the Genesis. Again, despite the upscaling and the resultant oversized pixels and smoothing, it played well.
I wanted to continue my workout at this point, so I was hoping to stream some music from GameTap, but they seem to only offer videos. Lots and lots of videos and several TV shows (mostly cartoons it looks like). With none of that being appropriate, I backed out to Windows Media Player and did my usual with that.
In any case, I have a lot more system emulations to try out, I have to see what works best on my arcade cab, and probably end up playing the rest on my main PC. Besides not allowing concurrent logins, I don't see any issue with having GameTap and the same account on multiple PC's. I'm the only real game player in my house anyway.
I'll be happy to answer any questions and I'll certainly post more impressions as they happen, particularly when I try it out on my main PC, which has the disadvantage of a digital LCD monitor, which obviously doesn't like displaying things outside of its optimal resolution. That's no issue with the PC games they provide like "Rainbow Six 3" and "Civilization III", but I imagine it will be something of an issue with the emulations like it was on the arcade machine. Again, this is not a fault of GameTap per se, just the nature of emulation for the most part.
8-Bit (NES right now -Bill)
Videos/Television programming (-Bill)