Well, here we are. One of the biggest Kickstarter projects ever has finally hit retail. The Android powered, $99 console that could has shipped to backers and is available in your favorite stores. As a backer, I’ve have the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with the OUYA, with both games and hardware. You may have seen a few weeks ago that I posted an article saying that I would be waiting for the retail launch of the console before giving my full review. This was simply due to the fact that the OUYA was not complete at that time, lacking in both content and refinement. Well, a few updates later and some day one releases have made the OUYA a much better console than it was those weeks ago. One might say that OUYA is ready for primetime, and it would be, if the concept of the OUYA were as strong in action as it is on paper.
The hardware itself is actually one of the OUYA’s major strengths. The metal encasement gives the console a somewhat premium feel. The glossy plastic top, where you’ll find the power button, is a magnet for dust and fingerprints. The bottom of the device houses the fan which is very quiet and does its best to keep the console relatively cool. The metal trappings make this a difficult task at times, but it never hinders performance. The rear of the device if where you’ll find all of your connections, and believe me there are quite a few. You of course have your power connection, but you also have a full sized HDMI port, ethernet port (For those who do not want to take advantage of the built-in Wireless b/g/n), a micro USB port and a USB 2.0 port. Things get crowded back there, especially if you are using every port, but that is to be expected when cramming all those ports into a console that fits in the palm of your hand.
The USB port is especially useful when you take into account the OUYA’s limited 8GB of memory. It may sound like a lot to the casual Android gamer, but those looking for the high end, graphic intensive Android games may fill that up rather quickly. The port’s other dandy feature is that it allows for full support of a wired Xbox 360 controller. In fact, the OUYA supports both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 controller out of the box. Most games released thus far prioritize the Dualshock 3 controller, likely because it hooks up via built-in bluetooth as does the standard OUYA controller. The micro USB port is specifically for the hacker or rooter who wants to fiddle with the every inner working of the OUYA, something fully condoned, encouraged in fact, by OUYA.
OUYA’s included controller is surprisingly feature rich. Aside from providing the majority of the buttons you’d expect from a modern console controller, (no Start or Select/Back here) the controller also sports a touchpad at the top center of the controller. This pad is most useful in games which have not made the full conversion to controller support, allowing you to interact with the screen by sliding your finger and tapping.There isn’t much to complain about of the front of the controller. The home button feels a bit squishy at times and the joysticks feel just a tad too tight, but they do have a very satisfying click when pressed. The face buttons are satisfactory and the D-Pad is more akin to the Xbox 360’s rather than the Playstation 3.
The major areas of concern are the battery covers and triggers. Two metal plates attach magnetically to the front of the controller, one on each handle. Removing them is easy enough, putting them back on can be a hassle. The plates will sometimes get stuck when going back into place, forcing you to use a bit more force than you’d like to use on any controller to get them back on. Backers will by now be aware of the issue of buttons getting stuck under the plates when pressed too hard, this issue has been fixed for the retail release and all separately sold controllers. The triggers leave quite a bit to be desired though. The bumpers above feel ok, but the actual triggers feel much too squishy and sometimes unresponsive. Now this might sound like nitpicking, especially considering that this controller is bundled with the $99 console, but considering they are selling these separately for $50 a pop, half the price of the bundle, you’ll have to forgive my nitpicking. Pulling the trigger should be a satisfying endeavor, with the OUYA it just feels mediocre. Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t a bad controller as a whole, but it feels more like that extra controller that you make your least favorite friend use than an in package peripheral.
Inside the machine is a 1.7GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, a processor which was already losing relevance when the OUYA was just finishing it’s Kickstarter. Yes it was used to great effect in Google’s Nexus 7, but a game console is a very different beast from a 7 inch tablet. Nvidia’s SoC actually handles itself fairly well considering its age, its like 50 in tech years, only struggling when things get especially busy, then again most chips would. The Tegra 3 is more than enough to handle the types of games currently releasing for Android, and developers can push their games even further knowing all devices will be running the same processor. The Tegra 3 is also accompanied by 1GB of ram. Thanks to recent updates, the menus have gone from drudgingly slow to fairly snappy, though there can be a noticeable lag when scrolling the store from time to time.
So here is where OUYA’s biggest issue comes to light. It is a console designed to bring Android games to the big screen, a noble sentiment. On paper, especially to backers like myself and thousands of others last August, it seemed like a great idea. Everyone was talking about mobile games competing with the aging consoles graphically. Put a controller in their hands and watch console gamers flock to Android. Okay, so maybe that isn’t exactly what happened, but the idea was that Android could power a living room caliber console experience. Unfortunately, in action, Android just isn’t ready for the big leagues.
Imagine for a moment, if you will, that Nintendo were to release a $99 console that would play your DS games on your big screen TV. At first, everything sounds great. You love your DS games and would love to play them on the big TV. So you buy this new DS console that is a small box that sits next to your TV. The first time you play you spend just a few short minutes with a few games, simply captivated that this is finally happening. Then you go in for the second time. Now it hits you. Your DS games aren’t build for your 60 inch TV, in fact, they look quite a bit worse. “These looked much better on my DS,” you think to yourself, “but that’s ok, I can play them with a controller now, that makes it ok.” Then it hits you again, it’s still a DS game, but now with a controller. There really isn’t anything special to it at all. It’s just a DS hooked up to your TV, that has to be hooked up to your TV. That’s the OUYA.
When you get past the shiny new thing phase, you’re really just playing mobile games with a controller on your TV. Remember those graphically intensive games that supposedly looked as good as consoles? They look a lot worse when they go from a screen 4-10 inches in size to one 32-60+. Yes, it is fun at first to play some of these games on the TV, or the games that now support local multiplayer, but the thrill quickly wears off. There is also the problem that, even with controllers, a lot of the games simply don’t play well. Shadowgun, for example, feels ok on a touchscreen, but with a controller feels especially tight or loose depending on the setting. The games are built for the architecture of the OUYA, but that provides restrictions in itself. You won’t find the same caliber of A.I. in these games, or the same number of characters on screen. This “flaw” is not technically the OUYA’s fault, but it is much more apparent because of it.
Keep in mind though, OUYA has its own selection of exclusive titles that are actually quite a bit of fun. No Brakes Valet might very well be one of the most enjoyable games I have played all year, and it is only on OUYA. It is a simple as its name implies, park erratic cars that skid and swerve all over the place while trying to avoid ruining the work you have already done. It is an absolute blast to play, especially when you add another controller and play against a friend, trying both to park and prevent them from doing so. It is simple, entirely free, and a perfect example of the kind’s of games the OUYA should play host to. In fact, it is the games built exclusively for OUYA that make the $99 console just about worth it. Games like Towerfall, in which you quickly and mercilessly slaughter up to three other friends look and run great with their 8-bit side scroller vibe. The best part is that you can try ever game for free, and that is on top of the full free games that are available. It is just a question of whether or not a handful of games you’ll likely only play when you have friends over is worth parting with the Benjamin.
After finally using the launch build of the system and playing games both old and new, I looked back on the whole adventure to get here. I thought about the Kickstarter thrill, and then the product as I originally received it. If I had to do it all again, I would have waited for launch to buy the console, though there is no guarantee that I would have still made the plunge. The OUYA is great at what it does, but it does something that isn’t as groundbreaking as was originally thought. There is definitely a market for the OUYA, but that market may never even know that the OUYA exists. It is a mostly casual gaming console aimed at the core gamer, the gamer who may dabble with Angry Birds or Candy Crush, but ultimately returns to their console or PC for their gaming. There is always hope the the OUYA is the catalyst that pushes Android gaming to the next level, but until such a time the OUYA is about as niche as it can get.