Opening A Little Box With Big Dreams
The Ouya will go down in history as one of the largest Kickstarter projects in history. Raking in a total of almost $8.6 million, it goes to show that gamers were looking forward to the release of an open sourced game console running the Android OS, especially if it could be had for an amazing $99 price tag.
Just the fact it would run Android meant a lot of potential use to me personally, as with my recent defection from iOS, I noticed a lot of great games and apps that are being made for Android. But fine control of those games was not really there.
As nearly all Android based phones are moving away from physical controls, namely keyboards, we are stuck to either games that use gesture based controls or a virtual joystick and buttons. The latter I experienced problems with, as game controls need a sense of tactile feedback in order to use them successfully. Without that feedback, thumbs might drift from the control and it end up becoming more of a chore than a joy. Playing such games on a tablet works a bit better as it will hook into a keyboard dock and a USB controller, but it still can be quite cumbersome to sit down and play.
It was those reasons why I was looking forward to the Ouya. I wanted to be able to play all my Android games with a standard controller and get the full gaming experience on my big screen TV. For the most part it works out well.
Let’s start with a look at the console itself. The Ouya is tiny, very tiny. At only three inches by three inches, and three inches tall, it’s about the size of a baseball in a protective case. Running on the NVIDIA Tegra 3 SoC with a 1.7-GHz quad core ARM GPU and a GeForce ULP GPU running at 520 Mhz, it rivals the performance of many of the previous generation’s tablets. Storage comes initially with 8 GB built in drive, but can be expanded. On the back of the console is an HDMI port, (with included cable) AC power jack, and an Ethernet jack.
The Ouya is also capable of Wi-Fi up to 802.11n. However in my initial tests, my wi-fi had trouble maintaining a connection, despite my router being in the same room. As a result I depended mostly on Ethernet for my games. I will mention though that a recent system update resolved this issue.
Next up is the controller, which comes with the base unit as part of the package, but which I consider to be the weakest link of the Ouya. Obviously inspired by the Xbox 360 controller, the layout is almost identical, from the placement of the analog and digital thumbsticks, to the color scheme of the buttons, here labeled as U, A, O, Y in place of A, B, X, Y respectively. The only main changes are the placement of a menu button and a touchpad near the top. It is moderately responsive, but not the best form of navigation. I see what Ouya was thinking when they added the touchpad, but I felt it was much easier to use a mouse connected through the USB port. The construction of the controller feels a bit cheap, especially with the trigger and bumper buttons. They are responsive, but I feared they would break under pressure. My other huge gripe with the controller is the lack of a dedicated start button, especially when it came to emulators. While it can function as a start button with a light press, holding the button down takes you back to the main Ouya menu. While I was able to alter controls on some software so that pressing down on the right analog stick will function the same way, I still want a dedicated start button.
Thankfully the Ouya is expandable via USB, just like a gaming computer. By adding a simple hub, I was able to attach a USB arcade joystick and a PS2 controller to the USB adapter so that I could play my console games. The result was emulation heaven, and finally I felt that I could play the console classics the way I wanted all along.
Most of the interaction with the Ouya comes from the main menu. A very simplistic menu, the Ouya has four main options: Play, Discover, Make, and Manage. Play shows all the games that are obtained through the Discover Store. Discover’s interface will look familiar to those who are used to Netflix on the PlayStation 3, with several rows of titles fitting under unique headings, such as "New Releases" or "Exclusively on Ouya." You can also find games by searching through various genres. It’s a challenge to navigate and I hope it gets streamlined soon.
Make is where games can be developed via the Ouya’s development community. Here is also where the concept of "sideloading" comes into play. One of my biggest complaints about the Discover store is it will not allow games purchased via Google Play to work on the Ouya. However, via Make’s web browser, I was able to download alternate marketplaces, such as the Amazon App Store, and it worked out quite well, with one issue. The controls for these games are not optimized for Ouya, so it will take a lot of tweaking to get everything to work right. Those with little patience might want to look elsewhere, but for the hacker community, they will be a kid in a candy store.
Manage is the settings menu, ranging from simple management such as your account name, all the way up to advanced settings, which leads to the stock Android Settings menu.
As of this review, there are 360 games available on Ouya. For a console that was released a month ago at retail, or earlier for those lucky enough to get their Kickstarter units, there is a lot to try out. Even better, every game on Ouya requires a Free to Play option. Some games are available as freeware, some as demos, and others that follow the freemium model, where they support in-game purchases and power leveling. I took some time to look at some of the best games available, and this is the list I came up with, but there are quite a few on there, and depending on your tastes, your list could be vastly different.
TOWERFALL – Without a doubt the standout game for the Ouya, think of it as an archery battle mixed with Super Smash Bros. It’s got four player party combat modes and is compatible with both PS3 and 360 controllers, meaning you can jump in on the action.
BOMBSQUAD ‘ Another fun eight player party game reminiscent of Bomberman without blowing up blocks. Modes such as Capture the Flag and Keep Away add to the fun, and like Towerfall, takes advantage of both PS3 and 360 controllers.
YOU DON’T KNOW JACK – Yes the trivia classic made it to Ouya with all its crass humor intact. A special free app allows players to use their Android smartphones (with iOS coming soon) as a controller. The free game includes one full episode, with the rest available for purchase.
VECTOR – A gesture based obstacle course game, the parkour movements are absolutely stunning to watch. Controls are simple to play and difficult to master, but in game purchases of new parkour moves make it much easier.
DROPCHORD – Double Fine’s Kickstarter project is now a reality, in the form of a twin stick score attack music game. Players control a ribbon that must collect notes while avoiding scratches.
CHRONOBLADE – Think of this game as a side scrolling Diablo. Chronoblade is a side scrolling survival battle game where you and a partner must hack and slash against numerous waves of monsters.
PINBALL ARCADE – I play this game on my tablet, but with the Ouya I now have functioning flipper and nudge controls, that cannot be emulated on a touchscreen. PA already has a vast library of the greatest tables ever designed by Bally, Williams, Gottlieb, and Stern, with new ones being released on a monthly basis. The most recent update includes Flight 2000, a Stern based table from 1980, and Goin’ Nuts, an unreleased multiball table developed by Gottlieb.
EMULATORS – Yes I’m back to talking about the Ouya’s amazing emulation capabilities. Nearly all the best known consoles are available as free emulators. I strongly recommend the EMU apps by Robert Broglia, which ranges from the 2600, to the Commodore 64, NES, Super NES, PC Engine (TurboGrafx 16,) MSX, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Mega Drive/Genesis, and Neo Geo. In addition I do recommend FPse for Ouya, a fully functioning PlayStation 1 emulator that runs at full speed (though it does cost extra to get the full experience.) Nintendo 64 emulation is also available with Mupen64, but it needs a lot of work as most games are unplayable at the moment.
FINAL IMPRESSIONS: You all know me. I’m a gamer at heart. I’m also someone who loves to tinker around with new equipment. My reviews come from the heart and I do let you know when a console is worth your time and money. I’ve been through the downfalls of the PlayStation Vita last year and the Nintendo Wii U this year (yes I’m admitting my disappointment so far.) Thankfully paying $249 and $329 for both consoles respectively is a far cry from Ouya’s low price of $99. With that being said, the Ouya truly has the better bang for your buck. It’s still quite early to make a final decision on whether or not the Ouya will succeed, but the potential for the future is quite strong. The initial game library does have its gems, such as Towerfall, but I would love to have been able to implement my Google Play account to play my tablet library on the big screen. Also, I hope they work on the controller and add a true Start button. And for those who want to get their hands dirty and hack the Ouya to its full potential, they are going to have a nice little piece of hardware to tinker with.
But the last thing I want to mention to everyone is: do not compare the Ouya to the Xbox One or the PlayStation 4. Don’t even compare it to the Wii U. It’s a console format of its own, a microconsole designed for those who want to make their own games, as well as an amazing emulation experience that I have searched for a long time. Ouya has followed through from the Kickstarter announcement, and by saying on the back of the box, "The little box inside this box has big dreams," they are promising a lot in the future. I will strongly back them up.
Pros: Very affordable at $99. Ouya’s open source architecture, combined with Jelly Bean 4.1.2, makes it open for modders and hackers. An emulators/retrogamers paradise. Sideloading of alternate marketplaces such as Amazon Appstore a possibility. Large number of games at launch, with many more on the way. ALL Discover store games have a Free To Play option. Ability to use Dual Shock 3 and wired Xbox 360 controllers, as well as USB peripherals, making functionality as a mini Android PC a possibility.
Cons: The Discover store is a challenge to navigate. The stock Ouya controller feels cheap, and not having a dedicated start button hurts. It is not meant to compete with the Xbox One nor PlayStation 4, yet people will constantly compare it to such. Does not link to Google Play accounts.