I’m something of a sucker for Kickstarter. Wasteland 2, Star Command, The Banner Saga, Broken Age and Massive Chalice are a few of the projects to which I’ve “pledged” and can’t wait to get my grubby little mitts on in the coming months. Most of these games require only a $10 to $20 commitment to get in on the fun. Last August though, I saw a headline that an upstart Android-based console was trying to make a go of it the Kickstarter route. I did an honest-to-goodness double take. A console? Tiny and square, cheap and built with mobile phone innards, the Ouya was interesting to say the least. Exciting even. And so, on the very last day, I kicked in my $99 and waited.
I received my shiny new little Ouya towards the end of May, about a month before its eventual retail release. Right out of the box it looks fantastic; it’s simple, elegant and really just sort of cute. The controller looks sleek and feels great in your hand. Setup is a breeze and you’re up and running in a matter of minutes. So far so good. Although there were a handful of decent little games available to Kickstarters even then, it turned out the rest of the experience was pretty rough at that stage. The dashboard and marketplace were clunky and poorly organized and it didn’t feel easy to find what you were looking for. My expectations went relatively undiminished though. After playing and fiddling around with it for about an hour or two I set it aside, content to check back at launch.
The Ouya officially released into the wild on June 25th. I booted it up as planned and was presented with a much welcomed update screen. As you wait for the orange progress bar to fill from left to right, the system provides various humorous explanations for the delay. “Rearranging deckchairs,” “Herding cats,” “Stretching analogies” and the delightfully frank “To be honest, just downloading a firmware update” are among my favorites. I was happy to see that the update had in fact markedly improved the experience. That’s a trend Ouya has continued, providing a steady stream of tweaks and nudges to the system that have for the most part succeeded admirably in addressing problem areas, be it an inch at a time.
The marketplace (or “Discover” option on the home screen) is where you find and download your games and at this early stage it leaves quite a bit to be desired in terms of content. For all the reported ease of porting over an Android title, the lineup lacks much in the way of killer apps. Ouya needs more games. Well, more good games really. With nearly 400 titles available just two months along, the pickings aren’t slim exactly, it’s just that 80% of the available titles range somewhere between admirable attempts fallen short at best and unmitigated shovelware at worst. Ouya guarantees the ability to try out every game before you buy though and it’s not all bad. Titles like Ice Rage, Shadowgun, Knightmare Tower and Nimble Quest are among the standouts while Towerfall has become perhaps the system’s flagship title thus far. Ice Rage hearkens back to Ice Hockey on the NES with boiled down simplicity and razor sharp gameplay. Knightmare Tower is sort of a play on the continuous-fall style mobile games, only you’re shooting upward and must maintain momentum by bouncing off of the heads of various pursuing baddies. Shadowgun, a third person shooter, turns out to be something of a success story of the oft misguided “let’s-cram-this-traditionally-controller-based-genre-game-onto-a-phone” school of design. Now actually playable on a controller, the game proves surprisingly sticky despite the somewhat limited feature set and sometimes grating guitar rock soundtrack. Nimble Quest somehow manages to combine RPG elements with the gameplay of Snake (yes, that Snake) to create something truly unique and engaging. Towerfall, Ouya’s lone critical darling, is an arena style multplayer battler replete with charming 8-bit style visuals and spot on controls to guide its archery based combat.
Of course the first thing you notice when you play a game on any system for the first time is the controller and on Ouya it’s a truly mixed bag. Like I said, it feels great. It rests comfortably in your hand and the mild “brushed metal” feel strikes just the right note, keeping it cool in your hand even after extended play sessions. The d-pad is serviceable enough to not be noticed really as is the touch pad, while the bumpers and pressure sensitive triggers have a nice shape and feel to them (the latter earning especially high marks) and the click function on the thumb sticks might just be the best in the business. It’s tough to say then, about a controller that rather surprisingly gets so much right, but ultimately it might be the achilles heel of the system. Noticeable latency crops up in games requiring greater input fidelity and sporadic bouts of serious input lag can occasionally bring a play session to its knees. The thumbsticks don’t offer the required precision and lack the concave thumb rests that have emerged as the gold standard. The face buttons don’t feel great and are all too often stuck and rendered useless behind the two removable face plates as a result of an especially befuddling choice to load the batteries through the front. All told, the Ouya controller might just drive away many of its founding players. The bar has simply been set too high this past generation and it’s likely to be raised quite a bit further in the coming months with the Xbox One and PS4 controllers looking to be game changers both figuratively and literally. It should be mentioned though, that both Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers are usable on Ouya. Partial to the Xbox controller as I am, this is a great solution at times. Issues arise when using the Ouya and Xbox controllers together though and, although there are apparently fixes for this, they don’t seem to be easily understood or accomplished by the layman.
Multiplayer is another issue and is missing at a system level, as are a friends list and any form of achievements. All three are promised to arrive in future updates, but for now their absence adds to the sometimes thrown together feel of the ecosystem. Some games such as Gameloft’s mobile-friendly MMO Order & Chaos and cross-platform battler Forsaken Planet have implemented their own multiplayer infrastructure (and isolated user profiles) while inherently multiplayer experiences like the aforementioned Towerfall and Ice Rage feature only local match play.
Honestly, I’ve really enjoyed my Ouya thus far and still find myself sort of on the edge of my seat to see where they can take it. There’s something exciting about what they’re trying to do and I greet each step – however pedestrian it may be in the larger scheme – with a sort of awe that they, the upstart Andorid console, are in fact doing it. With the behemoth next gen systems right around the corner and rumors of both Amazon and Google launching their own Android consoles, the Ouya finds itself stuck between overpowering hype and the looming specter of massively better funded giants swooping in to beat them at their own game. The Ouya isn’t without its own advantages though. It is after all available now and first to market in the Android console space, having built some legitimate name recognition along the way. The console itself is fully moddable and hackable (on purpose as it turns out). For those so inclined, doing so won’t even void the warranty. Ouya’s marketplace has also been opened wide to the emulator market and while, as always, emulators swim in sometimes murky legal waters, a lot of Ouya’s early adopters did so to take an 8 or 16 bit walk down memory lane on their big screens. (I’ve personally tried out a Secret of Mana 2 ROM, as I was never able to play it in the U.S.) Ouya has also had a couple of bigger name releases on the system just recently, like the well received XBLA and PSN shmup Sine Mora and Double Fine’s Dropchord. Upcoming titles include Double Fine’s The Cave and the fellow Kickstarted project Broken Age along with The Walking Dead and the Ouya exclusive Soul Fjord from Kim Swift (Portal) and Airtight Games.
So, the state of the Ouya; a fledgling independent Android console many are already declaring dead on arrival. Where does it go from here? Some are of the opinion that the Ouya needs more XBLA and PSN style games. I can’t agree really. I don’t think many people went out and dropped $100 on this tiny underpowered box to play $15 or $20 games they can already play elsewhere. I think the strength of the system lies in the $1-$5 mobile ports that folks have always wanted to or would otherwise enjoy on their big screen with a controller in their hand. Maybe I’m wrong though. We’ll see where it goes. Whatever their course, Ouya is undeniably suffering from consumer uncertainty in part because of those DOA declarations. A lot of gamers will be understandably hesitant to spend money on a system they’re not confident will be viable a year or two from now. Ouya needs to make some bold moves. Their recent show of good faith in gifting $13.37 (It spells “leet” which is slang for “elite” in some online gaming circles) to any Kickstarter backer who wished to claim it as an apology for any of the early issues that might have plagued them, was a great move to get people playing and also the right thing to do. An even bolder move would be to send a free updated version of the controller to the backers and offer it to anyone else at a steep discount for a limited time. I don’t know if they can afford to do that, but it also seems possible they can’t afford not to.
I like my Ouya. I’m thoroughly enjoying games like Ice Rage, Shadowgun and Nimble Quest and I’m looking forward to exclusives like Soul Fjord. As much as I’d like to see it thrive though (and as much as I’d like to have some people to play with once they get multiplayer sorted), if you’re on the fence I can’t in good conscience recommend purchasing the system in its current state. It’s just not there yet. There’s good fun to be had sure, but unless the underdog spirit inspires you or you’re in it for the emulators, as it stands the Ouya has heaps of promise, but not enough in practice just quite yet.
What I like:
Bite sized games on my big screen and titles once shoe-horned onto touch controls now back on a controller. You can listen to our podcast through the TuneIn app!
What I’d fix:
There’s a lot to address. Updates to add multiplayer, friends lists and achievements. The controller needs serious attention. One easy fix: add up front pricing information to each game’s marketplace download page.
Make sure the front right face plate is on especially snug and consider just taking it off if it’s giving you repeated trouble. Also make sure those fabric tabs are underneath the batteries if you want to get them back out again.