The initial buy-in cost of video game consoles and gaming PCs can dissuade casual gamers from making the jump from a smartphone to a dedicated setup. At least, that’s the case right now. And while I don’t expect that we’ll see top-gen gaming devices drop in price, there is another gaming setup that’s maturing — cloud gaming.
As its name implies, cloud gaming services like Amazon Luna, allow you to stream a video game, just like you would a movie or TV show on Netflix, straight to your phone, tablet, TV, or computer and game for as long as your device’s battery lasts (or you run out of data).
I’ve been testing Amazon Luna, the online retailer’s cloud gaming platform for several weeks. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I love the idea of cloud gaming, and in some cases cloud gaming itself, but there’s work to be done before cloud gaming becomes commonplace.
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There Isn’t a Whole lot to the Initial Setup
Due to the fact that you don’t have to have any local hardware beyond a gaming controller to play Luna games, the setup process is nearly non-existent. If you already have your own Xbox or PlayStation controller, you can use that to play Luna games on a compatible device. Or you can purchase the Luna Controller for $69.99 and use it across all Luna-compatible devices with minimal effort.
After unboxing the Luna Controller, I scanned a QR code to download the Luna Controller app. The app is what’s used to update the controller’s firmware as well as connect it to Wi-Fi. The ability to connect the controller directly to a Wi-Fi network is an important part of the overall Luna experience thanks to Cloud Direct.
With the Luna Controller connected to your home’s Wi-Fi network, Cloud Direct will automatically switch between whatever device you’re gaming on, without the need to pair the controller to each one. For example, if you start a Luna gaming session on Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K Max, and later you decide you want to sneak in a quick gaming session while you work on your Mac or Windows PC, you don’t have to do a thing to switch between either device.
The Luna Controller looks and feels like a typical gaming controller. I’d compare its layout and feel to an Xbox controller, or maybe even a Nintendo Switch Pro controller. It’s powered by two AA batteries, and has a USB-C port you can use for wired gaming on a computer or to recharge rechargeable batteries (not included). There’s a dedicated Alexa button in the controller that makes it possible to interact with the digital assistant and give commands. There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack on the bottom of the controller, just like there is on an Xbox controller, where you can plug in headphones or a mic to talk to friends or opponents in-game.
I like the feel of the controller. It’s light, comfortable to hold, the joysticks are responsive, and the buttons are firm. It’s a solid game controller that I’d be happy to use, regardless if it’s with Luna or a dedicated gaming console.
There’s a Luna app available for Windows, Mac, and Chromebooks. On the iPhone and iPad, Luna streams games using Safari instead of an app you install from the App Store. You can also use Chrome or Microsoft Edge to stream games on your computer. Android owners will use Chrome to stream Luna games.
Outside of signing in to your Amazon (AMZN) - Get Amazon.com Inc. Report account, either in an app or through your browser, there isn’t really any setup to get up and going with Luna. It’s pretty cool.
Amazon’s Luna games will Make or Break the Platform
It seems obvious, but it’s true. If Amazon’s Luna gaming platform doesn’t score the big game titles, it’s not going to attract avid gamers who are more likely to pay a monthly subscription for access to those titles from anywhere.
Right now, Luna’s lineup is full of all types of games, depending on which channel you sign up for. In fact, there are a total of six channels currently listed on Luna’s website. The Prime Gaming channel is free for Amazon Prime members. It includes a rotation of games that you can play for free each month. Right now, Far Cry 4 and the Hot Wheels Edition of Beach Buggy Racing 2 are my personal favorites.
The basic Luna+ service is $9.99 per month with a large number of titles ranging from Sonic Mania Plus to Dirt 5 or Resident Evil 2. Then there’s the $5.99 per month Family channel that offers family and kid-friendly games. For $4.99 a month you can sign up for the Retro channel with classic arcade-like games. Rounding out the channels is Ubisoft+ for $17.99 a month for access to more recent titles such as Far Cry 6, Assassins Creed Valhalla or a number of Ghost Recon titles. And, finally, the Jackbox games channel will set you back $4.99 a month for a wide variety of fun and humorous games designed for all ages.
Depending on which games you want to play and which channel they’re available in, subscribing to Luna and all of its channels can get expensive. If you were to sign up for all Luna channels, you’d be paying $44 a month. Then again, if you only wanted access to the Jackbox or Retro channels, you’ll pay $5 a month. There isn’t a contract or any sort of long-term commitment to any of the channels either.
Gaming Is Smooth and Fun, as Long as you Have a Reliable Connection
Amazon recommends an internet connection of 10 Mbps or higher, and for the Luna Controller and whatever device you’re gaming on to be connected to a 5Ghz wireless network (or a wired connection, when possible). I tried a wide variety of games during my testing. I played Dirt 5, Far Cry 4, Sonic Mania Plus and Beach Buggy on a Fire TV Stick 4K Max, an iPad, iPhone, and a Mac. Games are limited to streaming in 1080p, with a bandwidth-saving option to stream in 720p.
My home internet connection is 1.2Gbps, well over the 10Mbps minimum. When gaming on the Fire TV Stick 4K Max, I often saw a message that Luna detected network issues. Whenever that message showed up, the game never stopped or paused, but the quality of the stream got noticeably worse. At times, Far Cry 4’s graphics were choppy and pixelated enough that I had to wait for a second or two for the message to go away and continue playing.
However, when playing on my iPhone, iPad and Mac, I rarely, if ever, saw that same network message. And overall, the quality of the stream was good. I do wish games were available to stream in 4K, though.
Sonic Mania Plus was a throwback to my childhood that I simply could not get enough of, and because 1080p wasn’t even a thing back when I played it, I think it looked great.
My favorite aspect of Luna, and by extension cloud gaming, is being able to switch between devices without losing any saved data or having to consciously remember to charge a stand-alone device — like a Nintendo Switch. Even if you pack up for a trip and forget the Luna Controller, you can still game on your phone using touch controls, something I still haven’t gotten the hang of. Using a controller just feels more natural to me.
Cloud Gaming. Is it the Future?
There’s a lot of excitement around the idea of cloud gaming. Forgoing the need to buy expensive hardware and accessories, and instead relying on a controller and a fast internet connection is the ultimate dream. However, after using Luna (and Xbox’s own cloud gaming service), it’s clear to me — and I’d imagine a lot of people — that cloud gaming as a whole doesn’t work for every game. Namely, first-person shooters (FPS) like Call of Duty or Fortnite.
For more casual gamers or those who don’t play FPS games, services like Luna make a lot of sense. There isn’t an initial investment in hardware, outside of a controller, and the subscription fees can be affordable depending on which channel you sign up for. If that sounds like something that interests you, you can try Luna for free for 7 days or jump in with your Prime membership.
But for most, I’d venture to guess that dedicated gaming hardware is a must-have until the game catalog grows and adds the latest and greatest titles, and connectivity issues become something you never have to think about.
Prices are accurate and items in stock at time of publishing.