Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K Max is better as a retro gaming device than a streamer

Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K Max is better as a retro gaming device than a streamer

Here’s an open secret: Every cheap streaming stick kind of sucks. Yes, it’s great that people can access so many shows and movies with devices that cost less than $50. It’s great that the best of them no longer force you to suffer through constant lag and performance hiccups, too. But over time, the Faustian bargain we make with these things becomes increasingly obvious. We save cash upfront, then we repay our debt through a shoddy user experience.

I’ve been thinking about this since buying Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K Max a couple of months ago. It’s a good example of that handshake: It’s been on sale for $40 for most of the past few months, and at that price, its hardware is a tremendous bargain. It’s fast, it works with the major HDR formats and Dolby Atmos and it supports all the requisite apps.

But Amazon’s Fire OS is shamelessly bloated. Big honking ads dominate the UI, most of which put Amazon services like Freevee or MGM+ or Prime Video — still the Blockbuster bargain bin of streaming services — front and center. Some ads straight up promote products you can shop on Amazon. Friend, you have not seen the dystopian future until the top third of your 55-inch TV suggests you buy a KitchenAid espresso machine. Once I’m actually streaming something, the Fire TV Stick 4K Max is great. But I have to resist all the ads it peddles to me, to mentally block parts of the device I bought with my own money, to get the most out of it.

So why did I still buy one? Mainly because I’m not using it the way Amazon intends. Instead, I’m using it to emulate old video games, which is forever the easiest path to my heart. It’s possible to run retro games on just about anything today, of course — a PC, an iPhone, a million different handhelds, a fridge and more. You can do this kind of thing with other Android streamers such as the Google Chromecast or Amazon’s cheaper Fire TV Stick 4K as well. The Delta emulator was newly allowed on iOS, and you can also get at it with an Apple TV too, albeit over AirPlay instead of a native connection. I settled on the 4K Max simply because it seems to have more of a performance safety net than most other low-cost streamers. And it’s much cheaper than a higher-end box like the Apple TV or NVIDIA Shield.

Regardless, having a dedicated device for TVs is convenient in a way those non-streaming sticks aren’t. I’m not lugging a giant gaming PC from my desk to my living room, and I’m not paying extra for a mini PC when I can spend so much less on a dongle that emulates well enough. Official consoles like the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 5 have plenty of retro games in their libraries, but far from everything. And while I’m a collector who has spent way too much on consoles and games from decades past, the process of getting that original hardware to run decently on a modern TV is famously laborious. Sometimes I just want to play a half-hour of NHL ‘94, Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball or Chrono Trigger without having to pull out the SNES (or Genesis), upscaler and heap of cables from my closet. (Related: I’d also like a bigger apartment, but c’est la vie in NYC.) Emulating on the Fire TV Stick isn’t as faithful as the real thing in terms of image quality, but it’s certainly playable and generally less of a hassle to just turn on and use.

After you get it set up, that is. Turning a Fire TV Stick into a retro game center isn’t especially complicated but requires a little prep. There are plenty of tutorials out there that’ll walk you through the full process, but here’s how I got it to work. First, I needed a few accessories: a Bluetooth controller, some sort of USB thumb drive (any older USB 2.0 model will do) and an OTG adapter with a microUSB connector that can power the Fire TV while connecting that external storage. I’ve been using this old SNES-style 8BitDo controller, just to get a more period-appropriate feel, though a PS4 or PS5 gamepad would also work. The USB drive holds the ROM and BIOS files for the games and systems I want to emulate. This is where I remind you that Engadget does not condone piracy, and while emulators are perfectly legal, sharing ROMs on the internet is not, so tread lightly. But backing up files of old games I’ve already bought, for personal use only, is at least fuzzier.

After formatting my thumb drive and loading it up with my games, it was simply matter of downloading the popular frontend RetroArch from Amazon’s app store, downloading the “cores” for each console I wanted to emulate within RetroArch, pointing the app toward the right folders on the USB drive and configuring my gamepad’s controls. I’ve done this on dozens of devices over the past couple years as I’ve sunk deeper into the retro-gaming rabbit hole, so the whole process took me well under an hour. Demystifying RetroArch would take me another 1,000 words, so I’ll direct you to this superb video tutorial from Retro Game Corps. It’s long, but this stuff always requires a little pain upfront, and I think it’s worth it. Turning a device like this into something completely different feels like I’m getting away with something. It’s exciting, even if it means I end up sounding like this guy.

As for what’s actually playable on this thing, I’ve found the 4K Max to work best emulating consoles up to the original PlayStation. Games from the PS1, NES, SNES, Game Boy, GBA, Genesis and old arcade machines have been consistently smooth. It’s technically possible to run stuff from the N64, Dreamcast, PSP or Nintendo DS, but those are more hit-or-miss, so I wouldn’t bank on them unless you’re the kind of sadist who enjoys futzing with resolution scaling and cycling between emulators. Still, this leaves me with hundreds of games to enjoy. Some are essential (Donkey Kong), some have been lost to time (U.N. Squadron), some make me want to self-defenestrate (Ecco the Dolphin) and none are live-service dross designed to disrespect my time.

I understand that this is a weird, niche pursuit. Emulators are daunting at first, and many old games feel like relics for a reason. Yet, in a small way, turning this ad-riddled, data-sucking streamer into a mini retro console has felt like reclaiming ownership of the gadget I paid for. The ads are still there, and my home screen will continue to badger me to watch Anne Hathaway’s latest rom-com on Prime Video. (My wife and I caved; it was fine.) But with a little trickery, I’ve bent it to show more of what I want to see — and gained an easier way to engage in some nostalgic fun in the process.

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