Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo may no longer be the only names that matter in gaming, but the "big three" is still very much alive in people's minds. Even as iOS and Android have gotten better games, and better hardware to run those games, capital-G Gaming remains something done with a controller and a console, and something we do on our big-screen TV.
Maybe that's why Ouya struck such a chord when it hit Kickstarter last July. Basically, the company described a $99 box that would take the many great Android games off of your 4-inch phone and put them onto your TV. Ouya shattered its Kickstarter goal (and a few records for the platform) en route to 63,000-plus backers and more than $8.5 million in funding for the Ouya, and now nine months later is getting ready to drop its namesake console on the market.
Ouya's always said all the right things. The console will be cheap, they promised, and upgraded often. It'll be totally hackable, so users and developers alike can do much more than even Ouya has in mind. It'll be small, simple, and filled with games people want to play. The pitch left me sitting on the pre-order page many times, ready to plunk down $99 for another console I'd wish I had time to use. It certainly won over our esteemed editor-in-chief, Joshua Topolsky, whose crisp Benjamin purchased the Ouya I've been playing games with all week. Ouya's promise is now a real thing, in the hands of its many backers now and on store shelves beginning June 4th. Has it earned a place next to your Xbox? Has it made your Xbox obsolete? Let's find out.
Ouya makes a big deal of the fact that Yves Behar designed its console, but I don't really know why. It's a nice-enough looking device, a black and silver cube three inches on every side, with slightly rounded corners at the bottom, but there's nothing at all remarkable or even particularly interesting about its design. I can't help but think of a Chinese food takeout container when I look at it. It is inconspicuous, at least, small enough that it'll slot next to your Xbox or Blu-ray player mostly unnoticed. And hey, if you don't like the look, Ouya's happy to give you the blueprints for the case so you can 3D print your own.
The Ouya's ports are grouped on the back, and include pretty much everything you'd expect: full-size HDMI and USB, Ethernet, Micro USB, and a power jack. Things can get a little crowded back there — plugging in an HDMI cable with everything else connected took some serious finagling — but it's all the ports I want and none I don't, and their location makes their many associated cables easy to hide. There's a single "U" power button in the center of the Ouya's glossy top, a logo on the front (inasmuch as there's a "front" to a virtually symmetrical cube), and nothing else. I can't imagine Yves Behar worked up much of a sweat here.
Inside the box is basically a cutting-edge Android smartphone. There's a 1.7GHz Tegra 3 processor inside, with all four cores running all the time since there's no battery life to worry about, so the processor should be even better than your phone's. The console also comes with 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage (a shockingly small amount when you consider games like Shadowgun and Grand Theft Auto run up to 1GB), Bluetooth 4.0, and Wi-Fi b/g/n. It's more than enough to match the required specs for any game currently available on Android, though it's not exactly a Razer Edge. It runs relatively quietly and relatively cool, more like a phone than your typical gaming machine.
Yves Behar didn't break a sweat here
Building a good controller is hard, and Ouya's at least heading the right way
I don't really care what a console looks like — I'd like it to be small and beautiful, but as I type this there's a large and hideous Xbox 360 prominently displayed on my TV stand next to its equally large, equally hideous power brick. My hardware requirements are "work properly," and everything else is gravy.
I do care about the controller, though, which is every bit as important to a console as the trackpad is to your laptop, or the steering wheel to your car — whether literally or figuratively, they drive the whole experience. It's also hard to build a good controller, so I'm inclined to give Ouya some credit — the console's Bluetooth controller isn't the best I've used, but it's not the worst either. Visually, it matches the console closely — it's mostly gray, with a black patch running up the middle and around the back. Its layout is only slightly tweaked from, say, an Xbox 360, with two analog sticks in easy reach for both your thumbs along with a d-pad, two bumpers, two triggers, and the diamond of buttons we've seen on every console for a thousand years. There's also a "U" button matching the one on the console, which takes you home when you tap it twice.
It has removable panels on either side, which hide the AA battery housing — when you open the box, the right panel is off and the whole thing looks broken, but that's just Ouya subtly letting you see the empty battery slot. (It actually needs two batteries, including one under the other panel — that took me longer to figure out.) The removable panels are a cool touch — maybe you can 3D-print those too — but they're not made very well. The right panel is slightly askew from the controller itself, so the analog stick catches in the lip at the top; it also takes some work to get the magnetic seals properly seated, which you have to do, because otherwise the four buttons get caught underneath. All the pieces don't fit together very tightly, either, which gives the whole controller a cheap, breakable feel.
The analog sticks are the hardest part to get right, and Ouya nailed it — they're not too stiff or too loose, and flow perfectly with your finger. The triggers are a little mushy, though, making me feel both like I had to mash them to get them to work and like they'd break every time I did so. The buttons made me angriest, though. Instead of labeling them A, B, X, and Y, like every other manufacturer ever, Ouya went with O, U, Y, and A. The A button is where B should be, and O is where A typically is — so every time the Ouya said "press A to go back" I pressed O and went forward. Every. Single. Time.
A, B, X, and Y are not to be trifled with
I often had a moment to rue my mistake before anything happened, too, because there's a fair amount of lag between the controller and the console. It wasn't always present, and seemed to have to rhyme or reason to it, but about half the time the game felt perfectly synced and the other half it felt a full beat behind what my thumb was doing.
Like the PlayStation 4, the Ouya's controller has a trackpad in the center. This is actually really useful on the device – it never really comes into play during a game (Update: the trackpad is used during Saturday Morning RPG, and I'm told others are coming), but it's handy for navigating menus and switching between text boxes. It's really just a Band-aid, though, vainly trying to cover up the mess that is the Ouya interface.
Android on my TV
For once, skinning's necessary — but not like this
Over the course of my time with the Ouya, I've wondered constantly why the product is launching now. My guess is there's been some heat from backers wondering where their $99 went, but even if that's the case Ouya might want to slow things down a bit. This console isn't finished — it's not even close.
The device runs Android 4.1, with a TV-friendly, Ouya skin on top that I quite like. It's orange, gray, and blue, and is typography-based, simple, and vaguely reminiscent of the tiled Metro interface on the Xbox 360. It's also basically just a home screen. Every advanced settings menu is ripped clean from stock Android, and almost every pop-up menu or dialog box is pure Google as well. For one thing, it looks hideous, because, well, stock Android isn't designed to be on a TV. (That's kind of the whole point of Ouya.) It's also just jarring, constantly giving you the idea that you've broken something or gone somewhere you're not allowed. I'm all for the idea of reskinning Android, and I even like the way Ouya's thinking about doing it for your television, but the company really needs to actually finish the job.
There are four menus on the home screen — Play, Discover, Make, and Manage — though you'll only really use two. Play is your game library, two rows of icons filling the bottom third of your screen — it's a nice-looking menu, but leaves a lot of unused space on your TV and requires a lot of sidescrolling if you have more than a dozen or so games. (Since they're all free to play, I acquired a lot of games pretty quickly. I downloaded one just because "Organ Trail" sounded kind of like "Oregon Trail," and that made me laugh. I've still never played it.) There's no way to sort the menu: it's just oldest to newest from left to right. That means, of course, that you have to scroll through all your old games to get to your newest one, which makes exactly zero sense.
Discover is where you go to find more games, through another series of submenus. "Featured" is where the best games live, chosen by Ouya based not on how many times they're downloaded, but how much they're played — I like this metric, though its success is hard to measure at the moment. You can also sort by genres, or dig into the "Sandbox" — this is where games go before they hit a minimum threshold of popularity and jump into the sortable menus. Sandbox games should be treated with caution — some are great, but most are buggy alphas and betas. All the sorting is kind of overkill for now, since there are only 100 or so games for the console, and you could look through them all in about ten minutes.
Make is for developers to track builds and apps they're working on, and it's also for some reason where the Ouya's browser resides. Manage is for settings, pairing new controllers, and the like — there aren't very many settings, even for things like video resolution, so you won't use either menu very often unless you're a developer, in which case, well, you'll probably use them more.
Needing a halo... or Halo
Why would I play on Ouya? What is there to play?
Currently in the Featured section are Stalagflight, Saturday Morning RPG, and Wizorb, among a few others. That these are the "featured" games on Ouya, the best and most popular on the console, is telling. The library of Ouya games currently consists mostly of relatively unknown indie games, many with a distinctly retro 8-bit feel that don't look good in 1080p. Don't get me wrong, some of the games are a lot of fun: I enjoyed pummeling of Piglas in Beast Boxing Turbo, and even though I can't figure out what in the world I'm supposed to do in The Ball, I still love aimlessly wandering through the game.
But every gaming console or platform needs a halo game, whether it's something like Angry Birds or, well, Halo. Ouya's best "exclusive" at the moment is Final Fantasy III, a game that came out in 1990 and is also available on a variety of other platforms. That doesn't count. This platform desperately needs a game like Grand Theft Auto, or Shadowgun, or Assassin's Creed, or Bioshock... or something. Thing is, you could plug your Android phone or tablet into an HDMI cable and play a bunch of those games on your TV, often with a controller. Shadowgun, Grand Theft Auto, Asphalt 7, and a surprisingly large number of other high-quality games are available in the Play Store. But Ouya's going its own way with the Ouya Store, and it pales tremendously in comparison.
The company's teased a handful of partnerships, from XBMC to OnLive (which would be a huge get), but there's no telling when all that is coming. For now, the only really compelling thing to play is old Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 games via the emulators that come in the Ouya Store, but hunting for ROMs and sideloading games isn't a particularly easy process either.
With Ouya's hacker ethos tends to come a distaste for paying for things, so Ouya has mandated that every game in its store be free to download. That sounds like a great, let's-all-hold-hands way to make gaming great on the platform, but it leads to something far more frustrating. Every game is free to download, but then dumps on your head a load of nags, pop-ups, and pleas for upgrades or in-app purchases — some games are $4.99, some are $15.99, others just constantly implore you to donate $.99 so the developer can have a beer. Worst of all, it makes buying things impossibly easy — you enter a credit card when first setting up your Ouya, and there are often no confirmation boxes or checks against you spending thousands of dollars. Oh, you hit Upgrade because it's right next to Play and the controller's laggy? Perfect. Thanks for your money.
Reconfiguring payment systems is one part of what's required for a developer to move their app from Android to Ouya. The other is (hopefully) simpler: apps have to work with the controller. This, as best I can tell, is the one compelling argument for Ouya's not including the Play Store or even the Amazon Appstore on the console — a number of existing games simply won't work with the controller, and even those that do don't work well. Configuring a game for a controller is easy, though, so for Ouya's sake and ours I hope developers put in the time.
Welcome to the silver lining. The light at the end of the tunnel, if you will, or whatever the name is for that moment when the parachute actually opens. The Ouya may not currently do much, but it's capable of an awful lot — and I've seen some of it in action. I managed to get Netflix, Plex, Shadowgun, Mario Kart 64, and Angry Birds Space all running on the Ouya, and even though the interfaces looked like they were meant for 4-inch screens rather than 60, at least they worked. (Well, mostly: I could only play Shadowgun on Hard, for some reason, and with no touchscreen the pigs in Angry Birds stayed all too alive.)
The Ouya is as hackable as promised. You can open up the console with an Allen wrench and four screws, and no corner of the OS is outside your reach. It's a remarkable developer plaything, a device with lots of potential and few true limitations.
But all the things you can do are things no normal user will ever figure out how to do. Here's how I sideloaded apps, a process I only figured out by accident after three days of fruitless Googling and searching through every inch of the Ouya's software: first, download an APK of a file manager. (At this point I've already confused my parents, most of my friends, and frankly myself.) Upload that APK to a website, ideally one with an easy-to-type URL. Go to the Ouya's browser, go to that URL, and download the file. Go back to home, then hit Manage, Advanced Settings, scroll down the Android menu to Storage, then click Downloads, then scroll to the APK you just downloaded. Click on it and install it. Once you have a file manager, it's just a matter of finding APKs for all the apps you want (often illegal, and usually pretty difficult), adding them to a USB stick or hard drive, plugging it into the Ouya, then going to Make, then Software, opening up your file manager of choice, then navigating through a million menus to get to your APKs. Once everything's installed, of course, it also lives in an entirely different place than the games you get straight from Ouya. Oh, and a lot of them don't work at all on the Ouya. Oh, and the ones that do often aren't compatible with controllers, or require a lot of tweaking to work properly.
Just because you technically can sideload apps onto the Ouya doesn't mean it's an open platform. The company opened a door, then hid that door on the other side of the world and burned the maps. Particularly enterprising developers may not have a problem with this process, but many of the 60,000 people who already bought an Ouya certainly will. They'll just want to turn it on and play some games. Boy, will they be let down.
This might be cool, someday, but for now it's far from it
For $99, everyone who backed Ouya's Kickstarter has signed up to beta-test a game console, whether they meant to or not. Alpha-test, even: this is a product with some good ideas and a potentially promising future, but it's a million miles away from something worth spending your money on. Even if the concept is right, the Ouya misses the mark. The controller needs work, the interface is a mess, and have I mentioned there's really nothing to do with the thing? I'm not even sure the concept is right, either: there are plenty of fun Android games, but currently few that work well with a controller and even fewer that look good on your television.
Let's say everything goes exactly right for Ouya. Every good game in the Play Store becomes available to Ouya, Netflix and Amazon decide to play nice with the device, and the ROM and hacker community explode and make every app and many more available to the nascent platform. Then and only then, Ouya can be viable — if it can combine a decent set-top box with a decent gaming platform, it may have a case to make for your $99. But those are a lot of cards that have to fall a particular way, and without them the Ouya is a lot more like a Raspberry Pi than an Xbox 360.
To its credit, the company says loudly and often that this is only the beginning of a long road for Ouya, and that there will be many changes before its retail launch June 4th — and I'll be watching its progress with interest. But the device is currently being sold as a product, not a prototype, and that's just wrong. Ouya isn't a viable gaming platform, or a good console, or even a nice TV interface. I don't know what it is, but until Ouya figures it out, it's not worth $99.