Last summer, a tiny video game console prototype made big waves on Kickstarter when it raised $8.5 million, more than 900 percent of its crowd-sourcing goal. The Android-based OUYA promised an open platform, a low $99 price point and a free-to-try model that would provide a disruptive indie alternative to the Big Three video game companies.
The pre-release version shipped to backers in April and received a decidedly mixed reception, though OUYA promised that many of the problems would be fixed for its June 25 retail release. So does the little console live up to the hype, or is it a glorified Android phone that plugs into your TV? After spending a week with the OUYA, the answer to both is a resounding maybe.
The console: When I say the OUYA is tiny, I mean it’s tiny. It makes the GameCube look like the original Xbox! Or to put it in normal human person terms, it’s about the size of a Rubik’s Cube. It’s a sleek little system, with built-in WiFi, an ethernet port, Bluetooth and a USB 2.0 port. Setup is about as plug-and-play simple as it gets with the included HDMI cable.
Price: The PS4 will launch later this year at $400, and the Xbox One at a painful $500, each with a dozen or so games. The OUYA and one controller costs $99, and there are more than 200 games available already. Sure, that’s like comparing apples and some fruit nobody’s ever heard of, but the low price point is certainly attractive and within impulse-purchase range.
Free-to-try games: Every game available on OUYA contains a free-to-play demo mode so you can try the game before purchasing. And game prices are pretty cheap; many are available for free, and nothing so far costs even $20. So without even plunking down a penny (though you do have to register a credit card), you can start downloading and trying games immediately.
Emulators: A variety of emulators are available, though you’ll have to download ROMS elsewhere and load them via USB or Dropbox, and the legality of playing them is murky at best. That said, I was able to run Genesis, Super Nintendo, and Nintendo 64 games with ease, and most ran quite well. So the OUYA makes a fantastic – albeit questionably legal – all-in-one retro console.
The games: Sure, there are more than 200 games available already, but a lot of them are pretty terrible. I downloaded a number of games just to try, loaded them up, and played about 30 awful seconds before immediately deleting them. Shoddy mobile ports and cheap knockoffs of better games abound, and you have to sift through a lot of crap to find the few good games available, which can be difficult because of…
The UI: The user interface is pretty simplistic and not particularly elegant or intuitive. The Discover section, which is the storefront, is just rows of categories of games, many of which are repeated on the same screen. OUYA is attempting to curate content by categorizing what’s trending and making developer lists, and there’s a rudimentary search function, but prepare to do lots of random poking around to find games you’re interested in. And the system doesn’t yet support any sort of friends list, achievements, or online chat, though all are reportedly in the works.
The media capabilities: Thus far, OUYA has very limited media capabilities, supporting smaller services like Flixster, Plex, and TuneIn, but lacking heavy-hitters like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Instant Video. Considering smart phones can run those apps, their absence is conspicuous and disappointing.
The controller: The console itself is sleekly designed and attractive. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the controller. Pre-release versions had problems with the buttons getting stuck and noticeable input lag, none of which I experienced. But the controller simply feels cheap and vaguely uncomfortable. The analog sticks are too loose, and I found the D-pad actually painful after small amounts of time. The triggers and buttons feel a bit flimsy and are too clicky. The controller certainly isn’t unusable, but it doesn’t come close to a PS3 or Xbox 360 one. Fortunately, you can plug in a wired 360 controller or pair a PS3 wireless one, although not all games support them. For those that do, it’s definitely the way to play. And it’s great to be able to use controllers you already have for multiplayer games.
It’s way too soon to know what the OUYA will ultimately become. It’s certainly an interesting experiment, and it’s already chock-full of hundreds of games, even if their quality varies greatly. For fans of indie games, it’s a pretty inexpensive way to check out gaming’s more experimental side. And for those who don’t mind the morally ambiguous nature of emulation, it makes a pretty great retro console. There aren’t enough amazing OUYA-exclusive games to make it a must-buy right now, but there’s definitely potential, especially if they can improve the store and user interface and add in some of the promised features. If you like playing blockbuster games or streaming movies, it’s certainly not going to replace your Xbox or PlayStation. But it could earn a place right next to your big console. It definitely won’t take up much shelf space.