The Ouya gaming console ships with oodles of potential, but thanks to its lack of refinement and weak game library, interested parties should give it time to work out its kinks.
If you’ve come here wondering whether you should buy the Ouya, let me answer that straight away: no, you shouldn’t. At least not yet.
Instead, let the hacker-types, tinkerers, and the extreme hard-core gamers be the guinea pigs for the Android-based console, because it currently needs all the testing it can get.
With any luck over the next six months, the Ouya's software library will grow to a much more compelling state, bugs will get fixed, the interface will have much-needed features added, and native nongaming content will be released. Harder to address will be the cheap controller and underpowered system architecture, however.
Of course, if one killer app is enough to justify a new console purchase, there are few launch titles in the annals of console debuts as complete and thoroughly engaging as TowerFall. It's the best reason to ignore everything I said up top. No, really. It’s that good.
The console's low price and free-to-try system for games puts another point in its corner and will appeal to gamers on a budget, but exercising patience and giving the system time to find its footing is the best course of action right now.
The Ouya has lots of potential as a cheap alternative to the mainstream wares being pumped out by Microsoft and Sony, but continued refinement will be necessary if it’s to become something viable.
Design and hardware
The Ouya is a gray and black box that weighs 0.68 pound and is small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. It features a combination of smooth embossed aluminum and glossy plastic, and its body is tapered slightly at the bottom. A circular power button sits on the top and glows with a dim white LED Ouya logo ( a "U") when powered on. The power button is surrounded by four unobstructed screws resting in each of the device’s four corners, allowing tinkerers to easily remove the top plate and access the system’s innards.
On its back is an Ethernet port, an HDMI port, a full USB port, and a Micro-USB connection. Internally there’s 8GB of storage (expandable through the aforementioned full USB port), 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and support for 5.1 sound. All games and apps must be either downloaded directly to the device or installed via external storage. There is no disc-based media.
The design is no-nonsense and practical, and it thankfully features vents on both its top and bottom. It’s not the sturdiest of devices, however, and the plastic parts that make up its outer shell contribute to an overall hollow, brittle impression. But it's not an eyesore and won't look out of place in an entertainment center. And even if it did, it's so small that most people wouldn't even notice it's there.
Around 30 seconds after pressing the Ouya's power button -- and about 2 seconds after hearing the "OOUYA!" greeting bellow -- the home screen appears with four options: Play, Discover, Make, and Manage. Each is presented with large, clear fonts on a blatantly orange background. There’s currently no option to change the background, but hopefully (for the sake of my eyes) one will be added soon.
Play is where you’ll find all the games you’ve downloaded, each represented by a graphical tile. Discover is the games store. Titles are categorized into regularly updated curated channels. Channels can range from developer favorites to games that Ouya decides to promote. There's also a search feature for finding more-obscure games (if you know the name), or more useful is the Genres section, which allows you to browse through every piece of software available on the Ouya through categories like Retro, Platformer, App, Play with Friends, etc. As a note, this list is found near the bottom of the page; it should be surfaced higher.
Make has two functions: it's where you access the Web and launch side-loaded apps, and if you're currently developing a game on Ouya -- Ouya acts as a development kit once the SDK is downloaded -- Make is where you'll find your latest game builds. Finally, Manage houses your Ouya’s system settings, mostly mirroring typical Android 4.1 options.
There’s a kind of sparse, bare-bones quality to the interface, and it doesn't feel quite professionally done. Like an experiment instead of an actual finished release, or a mock-up a buddy hacked together over the weekend, just to illustrate a design philosophy.
The orange progress bar for app downloads blends with the slightly more orange background, making it difficult to see. There's no list of your currently downloading apps, which would be useful after queuing up a bunch of downloads.
Also, while you can hold the analog stick in a direction and have it quickly scroll through a list in the Ouya’s interface, the very Android-like settings menu only supports the feature when using the D-pad. It’s that kind of small, but glaring inconsistency that makes the console feel not quite ready for the masses.
It’s also buggy, with the "Ouya launcher has stopped responding" error message appearing more times than I could care to keep track of. Sound errors were abundant and didn't always sync up when making menu selections. There are no profiles, achievements, or leaderboards and currently no online play. Ouya says these are coming by the end of the year, but it’s yet another reason to take the wait-and-see approach with the console.
The controller feels like a movie prop. Something you'd find on a set, thinking it's real only to be disappointed by its hollow feel once you've picked it up. That’s not to say it’s not functional. It works, but it just feels like an off-off-brand Xbox 360 pad. Thankfully, the lag I’d heard that plagued early Kickstarter units was nowhere to be found.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.