OUYA – Chasing Perfection To Catch Excellence

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.

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17 Comments

  1. I was an early backer too and, like you, was frustrated with how long it took but now I have it, I love it.
    I’m an Android fan-boy so enjoy its openness. I’ve already rooted it to run some more powerful apps (and lose the ads). The emulators are excellent and so are many of the games. Finding good ones does take a bit of time but since all have some element of free-play, there is no risk in just having a go.

    Last night I spent 3 hours playing Knightmare Tower without ever spending a penny. It’s a brilliant game.

    It could do with more ram, a few more graphically advanced games don’t run as well as they do on my Nexus 4 but in general it’s been great fun and I’m enjoying it at least as much I thought I would.

    • I mean literally spending a penny, by the way, I did stop for a piss at one point.

  2. Terry Cavanagh’s games are all on it, and they’re solid. Apart from Super Hexagon and VVVVVV, mind, but his earlier stuff. Lovely.

    Besides, you get out of Ouya what you put in. Yes, the controller’s shit, but it takes 5 seconds to sync a DS3 (or a DS4 ;)) and then you’re good. Keyboard, mouse, another 10 seconds.

    XBMC runs well now with hardware acceleration. The emulators seem nippy. The sideloading is simple, and it runs a fair chunk of Android stuff.

    Android still baffles me, and the non-Ouya UI stuff is disgustingly ugly, but it’s £100. I’m happy with mine, and I think it’ll continue to grow and fix itself in the coming weeks.

  3. I just don’t really get the point in it. It’s a £99 console that plays mobile games on a big TV. I’m perfectly happy gaming on my Android phone when I’m on the go, and it just can’t compete with a proper console or PC, no matter how cheap it is. It just seems to be neither here nor there (for me at least).

    • I don’t get it either. I’m quite happy playing mobile games on my Nexus and have never wanted to play them on a TV. In fact a lot of the time I play mobile games at home I’m watching something (F1 practice sessions etc.) on the TV at the same time.

  4. Mobile games should stay on mobiles in my opinion. I don’t see the point in playing them on a bigger screen when I can turn on my ps3 and play better games.

    • Snap.

    • These aren’t just mobile games. The Ouya store is full (over 200 games attow) of Ouya games. Not mobile games.

      And playing an emulator on your mobile is a nightmare.

    • There aren’t just mobile games. The fact it is android and can run titles built for mobile is more of a bonus than a core feature. It’s real appeal is the indie games built for it

  5. Good read, i’m thinking about picking one up.
    I’ve been using Plex with my PS3 for a while now and it does the job for my media streaming, so i don’t think the Ouya will offer any advantage over that, but i’m hoping that it will run an Amiga emulator so i can revisit all those games i bought with my milk-round earnings 25-30 years ago .. :-)

    • Sideloading UAE works fine. =)

      Full speed.

  6. Nice to see a more personal review and the stuff you cover is more in depth than Eurogamer’s in which to get a idea of what it was about was a trip into the comments sections which can only described as dredging the depths of fan boy hell
    An in all honesty I am still none the wiser this or finding some form of emulator to run on my pi

  7. This article perfectly sums up my experience with my Ouya.
    I will say however that emulators are perfectly at home on the little Android bugger.
    It’s just too much of a pain to play such games on a touch screen only device.

    • exactly. and most of the emulators run pretty much perfectly at 1080p, full screen, with a PS3 controller.

      to me, that’s just about perfect, and worth every penny of that £100.

      and that’s on top of XBMC.

  8. I’m interested in a hardware/software comparison with the game stick. The GS is around £10-20 cheaper, is easier to carry, and possibly has a better controller, but it all depends on if the hardware is up to scratch, or if it has the software too.

    I do hope this (and game stick) take off in a big way. The idea of a more indie friendly console, that families can buy into for a pittance is a great thing. I like my PS3/360, but sometimes the experience is too ‘involving’.

  9. I’ve been happily playing my JXD s602 android player on my HD TV using a cheap mini HD to HD cable since late last year. The bonus with that is that I can take the s602 out with me and play it on the go. The only downside is that the battery life is only about 4 hrs…….not bad for around 35 quid tho (A lot cheaper than the 99 quid price of the OUYA)

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