Ouya Game Console review: Huge disruptive potential not yet realized

The Ouya controller closely resembles an Xbox 360 pad, until you actually hold it in your hands. Josh Miller/CNET

However, on my unit the left analog stick squeaked something awful, and on one occasion the “O” button got stuck under the right panel. The touch pad seems to have been calibrated with zero precision in mind, and attempting to use it to surf the Web is an exercise in crippling frustration. On more than one occasion when playing a game, the directional movement was reversed for a few seconds, making right left and up down, temporarily.

The shoulder bumpers are wide and taper in toward the controller, while the triggers are slightly rounded, which is weird for triggers. Also, the triggers annoyingly creak and squeak when pressed, don’t deliver quite enough resistance, and overall, feel toylike.

I really don't like these excuses for trigger buttons. Josh Miller/CNET

The controllers aren't terrible, but the gaping difference in quality between it and the Xbox 360 controller is immediately apparent, especially when using them back to back. Thankfully, you can plug in a wired 360 controller or pair a DualShock 3 to the console via Bluetooth. Either will thoroughly enhance your gaming experience.

The game(s)
There are currently more than 700 games confirmed for Ouya. That’s an impressive number, but for the most part Ouya games are not your typical console-fare, and if you’re expecting polished, high-quality AAA productions, you may want to slow your roll a bit.

Little Crane is one of the more interesting Ouya games. Josh Miller/CNET

That’s not to say that smaller-production indie games can’t be good. In fact, some of the best games of the past few years have been of that ilk, but it’s important that the uninitiated among you know what to expect here.

Despite its 2013 release, Ouya does not reach even Xbox 360 levels of graphical sophistication. This is a $99 system and its most graphically impressive games look about midlevel Android tablet quality. Also, these are not the types of games that look great on a 40-plus-inch HDTV, especially some of the intentionally pixelated games.

Finally, a game with Dubstep in it! Josh Miller/CNET

Besides the console’s low price tag, Ouya’s software offerings should also appeal to gamers on a budget. A demo version of any game can be downloaded at no charge. You’ll then have an hour to get your kicks, before the demo version expires; however, some games allow you to continue playing them indefinitely without pay, and still others ask only for an optional donation as recompense.

Ouya launch games follow a particular pattern: simple, quick, and possibly inventive games with a lack of graphical sophistication, but a fair amount of charm. Deep Dungeons of Doom and Dub Wars fit that description. They're supplemented by more-polished ports like Final Fantasy III, The Bard's Tale, and Organ Trail. However, there's plenty of trash-ware to be found as well.

It's difficult to sell TowerFall with a single screenshot. Josh Miller/CNET
And then there’s TowerFall. TowerFall might as well be a $99 game since it’s currently the single reason to buy an Ouya. It’s a competitive local multiplayer game in the vein of Super Smash Bros., with a small sprinkling of Joust thrown in, and it’s completely awesome.

Brian Tong believes Lynn La to have obviously cheated in order to gain her TowerFall victory. Josh Miller/CNET
The controls are simple enough to be easily picked up by the casual gamer, yet the more you play, the more the game reveals some seriously cool levels of depth. There is a single-player mode, but the real fun comes when playing right next to an actual person.

He wastes no time crushing Lynn's hopes and dreams in his bare hands, when given the chance. This is TowerFall. Josh Miller/CNET
TowerFall is easily the Ouya’s killer-app, its Halo, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Soulcalibur all wrapped into one tight and unforgettable package. The full game costs $15.99 and is worth every cent.

Nongaming
The Ouya currently ships with an extremely limited selection of nongaming apps. Console mainstays like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are nowhere to be found. You can download Android APKs of these apps and install them, but they’re not optimized to work with the Ouya controller and in my case ended up being really frustrating experiences that aren’t worth the time I invested to install them.

Side-loaded versions of Netflix and XBMC will work, but don't exactly deliver great, user-friendly experiences. Josh Miller/CNET

I can only hope that good streaming apps start appearing on the console, as $99 makes for a pretty appealing price for a media streamer with a huge library of indie games.

Performance
The Ouya's specs resemble that of a decently powerful Android tablet, like the Asus Transformer Infinity TF700. For its brains, the Ouya uses a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU, with each core running at 1.6GHz.

This is about as good as Ouya polygonal game graphics get. Josh Miller/CNET

The Tegra 3 doesn’t seem powerful enough to run free-roaming polygonal games at an acceptable framerate and is much more adept at handling 2D games, especially, intentionally pixelly, 16-bit throwback games. Some polygonal games like Ravensword -- a Skyrim knockoff -- seem to have been shoehorned onto the system and run at a terribly low frame rate as a result. However, both The Bard's Tale and Final Fantasy III -- which each uses a balanced mixture of 2D and 3D assets and mostly overhead 2D-style gameplay -- look more than acceptable.

The console can get pretty warm after several hours of uninterrupted play (thank you, TowerFall), but it never felt too hot as to be dangerous. I also didn't notice any additional instability in the interface or games after long sessions.

Conclusion
The Ouya thus far fails to live up to its potential as a viable alternative gaming console. Despite a couple of gems, the game library is weak, there’s a severe lack of compelling nongaming content, the interface is buggy, its processor is underpowered for polygonal games, and the controller feels closer to a fake movie prop than something you’d want to hold in your hands for hours on end.

The console’s low price and free-to-try feature will appeal to gamers on a budget, and hacker types and budding game developers will no doubt appreciate its open architecture and potential moddability; however, in its current form I can’t recommend it as something you should spend your money on. I’ll check in on it again in a few months.

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