I backed the OUYA on Kickstarter. Almost immediately, when I was made aware of the campaign, I watched the pitch video and then I made my pledge. I was backer number 284 of an eventual 63,416 who pledged almost $8.6million for the project to build an Android-based games console that worked on your TV. I believed in OUYA.
Last month, the OUYA launched at retail a day before mine arrived in the post from Hong Kong. I’ve been reasonably vocal about my frustrations with the process, post-funding, and there’s little need to go too far into it here. Sufficed to say, the company’s endless fixed grin and forced enthusiasm wasn’t enough to make up for the disregard they showed international backers (they initially intended to ship all US consoles first, regardless of how early a backer pledged) and the general lack of information about their shambles of a shipping and tracking system. I lost faith in OUYA.
But now it was with me, the hefty little cuboid console with its little vertical row of inputs up the back. I’d read a few reviews that basically trashed it, saying it was laggy, limited and under-stocked with quality games. All of those things seem true, although the firmware updates (I’ve had two since it arrived) have improved system interface issues immeasurably and the quality of the contents of the OUYA’s software catalogue is a largely subjective matter.
Whether these smaller games are your thing or not is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. There are some great gaming experiences on offer, if you know what you’re looking for, and the OUYA’s “Discover” section does a reasonable – if repetitive – job of surfacing some of the better games. The fact that each section of recommended games, be they the platform’s “featured” or a guest “playlist”, contains pretty much the same list of games is testament to how limited the selection is just now. But it’s early days and, if the platform’s “every game must have a free version” mantra doesn’t ruin the chances of developers profiting, there’s plenty of time for expansion in the software catalogue.
Everything on the OUYA Play section is playable with the controller but it’s also relatively easy to side-load much of the Android library, if you can get your hands on the .apk files that install them. The legality of this is often a grey area – some developers will just give you their install files while some apps can only be found by grubbing around in the internet’s less salubrious regions and circumventing the publisher’s approved distribution methods. Anything you side-load will likely have different degrees of controller support, most of it having been made for the touch-screen hardware that Android traditionally powers.
The controller, though, is awful. It feels like something designed by someone who has a vested interest in increasing the occurrence of hand cramp in gamers. Ergonomic, it isn’t.
It’s also shoddily made. The D-pad manages to achieve something I thought impossible: it’s worse than the Xbox 360 D-pad. For the style of games that currently dominate the Play section on OUYA – largely precise, focussed games in a pseudo-retro style – that’s unworkable. The triggers feel cheap and flimsy, with far too much sideways wobble as they descend and the face buttons are similarly spongey and regularly stick down, caught under the casing. The almost smooth, convex analogue sticks seem designed to offer the best possible chance of thumb-slippage and the trackpad in the centre of the controller is laggy and unresponsive. This is the worst videogame controller I’ve used in quite some time.
Happily, the vast majority of OUYA games are also compatible with one of the best controllers available: the PlayStation 3’s DualShock 3. Pairing this superior controller is simple, too, just plug it in once with the USB cable and it’ll pair to the OUYA and work until you pair it with something else. You lose the touchpad on the OUYA controller but there are limited use-cases for that at the moment anyway. Bluetooth keyboards and mice can also be paired, and presumably headsets would also work, in case anyone ports a chat app to it or a developer puts voice chat in their OUYA game. Unlikely? Maybe, but the potential of the OUYA is its most interesting aspect.
The OUYA is certainly not alone in the Android-powered games console market, although it’s the most well-known and probably the best funded. Competitors like GameStick and different approaches like Unu hint at the emergence of a veritable plethora of options in this largely unexplored mobile-to-TV market. It seems that numerous companies are seeing the potential in putting cheap (relatively) hardware, ostensibly for gaming, under your TV. The most exciting prospect is probably the fact that these systems are so easy to break into. OUYA might have a limited store just now but developing for Android is relatively easy and cheap. It’s also a hotbed for the retro emulation crowd – something that the OUYA supports quite openly.
Emulators are another legal grey area and it’s futile for us to go too deep on the discussion of the legality or morality behind emulating older systems on newer hardware. In very simple terms, emulators are generally perfectly legal but the software they enable is potentially still owned by someone else and running it on an emulator contravenes licensing laws. But it’s available, it’s simple and it works on OUYA. If you stick to emulating the games that you still own, on a tape or cartridge in your attic for example, you shouldn’t be straying far enough from legal or moral safe ground, either.
Solely as a games console, OUYA falls short at the moment and it’s incredibly unlikely that it will ever offer anything to tempt console gamers that generally stick to their modern military shooters, sports and racing games. If you like the kind of focussed experience that mobile gaming is abundant with, or smaller-scale indie games that don’t need the most powerful hardware to run on, there’s ample potential in OUYA. Likewise, if you’re keen on emulation (and happy with the ambiguous legality), OUYA is an ideal platform for you.
It may also have a place as a cheap little box that’s perfectly capable for media streaming. (XBMC works well enough, as does Plex), it plays most video formats thanks to the apps it can run and it can accept a USB storage device too, if you prefer a hard connection to a media server on a network. It streams standard full HD video with no issues, although the highest bit-rate videos are probably still best left to your Blu-ray discs and dedicated players. There’s no frills, no bright light (it’s very subdued) and a tiny footprint underneath your TV (or behind it, Bluetooth doesn’t care). OUYA is a great option for anyone who just wants to stream their media from a file server and there’s a great deal of further potential for catch-up TV apps and even internet TV streamers that might make it into an all-in-one entertainment streamer.
It’s certainly not for everyone but, having lived with it for a little while now, I’m sure it’s for someone.