But, as we learned from Ouya Kickstarter units in March, different isn't enough. We've come to expect a certain level of quality from video game consoles, both in terms of hardware and software. The user interface wasn't very efficient. Buttons got stuck inside the controller. The selection of games, while large, didn't have any huge standouts.
Ouya has had several months (and a few additional weeks) to work out its kinks, and now the Kickstarter phenomenon is finally available to anyone with $99. I've spent the last week and a half toying around with one, and the good news is that, for the most part, the console delivers on its promise. Hardware
Internally, the Ouya has Bluetooth and WiFi b/g/n connectivity. The WiFi antenna doesn't seem to have the best reach on it, with the console consistently telling me my network is out of range, even though my Xbox 360 is able to stream Netflix from the same distance. In fairness, my PS3 often has WiFi trouble in the same room, and my gaming setup and router are essentially on opposite ends of my house. Moving my router to a more central location improved things dramatically. As with any wireless appliance, your mileage may vary.
The controller mimics the Xbox layout to a tee. Four face buttons, two asymmetrical analog sticks, two shoulder buttons, two triggers, a D-pad and multifunctional home button. It's comfortable to use, though the rounded triggers take some getting used to. The controller also features a small touch pad in the center. It's used in some games, though mostly it's handy for navigating sideloaded Android apps (more on that later). Two magnetic faceplates cover the handles of the controller, each housing a single AA battery.
Just like the Kickstarter units, these faceplates will fly off if you drop the controller onto a hard surface, even from sitting height. Unlike the Kickstarter units, buttons no longer get stuck thanks to larger holes in the faceplates.
I also paired a Bluetooth keyboard, though the sideloaded app I used it for misinterpreted key presses. One of the emulators I tried even let me pair a Wii Remote (more on emulators later too!). I'm sure Ouya would rather customers buy more official controllers, but I wish the console came with documentation about pairing third-party peripherals. It's a useful feature – when it works – that less tech-savvy users could miss out on.
Finally, I've encountered a small but significant problem with input latency on a specific television. When running on my older 720p television set (a Samsung from 2007), there is a small but perceptible lag between button presses and the resulting on-screen action. In certain instances, like the trivia game You Don't Know Jack, it's completely acceptable. In others, like Canabalt HD and Super Crate Box, it can ruin the whole experience. What would normally be the perfect jump in Canabalt becomes an annoying death. And if you've ever played Super Crate Box, you know how crucial precise controls are. I tried the PSN version of Canabalt on the same TV just to be sure, and it ran perfectly.
I've tried the Ouya on two other TVs as well, both of them 1080p sets, and encountered no latency problems at all. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to test another 720p set to see if the resolution is somehow to blame (neither of the 1080p sets I tried can be forced to output 720p over HDMI). I did everything I could think of to improve performance, enabling Game Mode and even updating the TVs firmware, but nothing eliminated the issue. I've also gotten a few reports of input lag from colleagues and Twitter followers. Again though, the controls worked smoothly on two of the three TVs I tried – and I unwittingly lost several hours to a perfectly fluid Super Crate Box – but you may want to double-check your retailer's return policy before taking an Ouya home.
There are also several genre categories, though it's not always obvious where to find the games you're looking for. Emulators, for example, are located in the "Retro" section and not the "App" section. I can understand the reasoning behind that, but it might also be confusing to someone like me, who reasons that emulators are applications for playing retro games, and not retro games themselves. If you know the title of a game, you can also search by keyword (note that this only works by title, not developer or genre, etc.).
The "Play" section, where all your downloaded games are kept, is more or less the same as it was earlier this year, with two horizontal rows of game tiles representing your entire collection. As in the store, you can manually search by keyword. Functionally, it's not too different from scrolling through games on Xbox 360 or PS3, but the Ouya currently lacks the sorting features seen on those platforms. Suffice it to say that picking through your collection will take longer the more games you download. Speaking of downloads, games that require updates will be accordingly marked and will automatically update the next time you fire them up.
Finally, the "Manage" section includes all of the Ouya's configuration settings. From here you can add payment options, pair more controllers, set up WiFi, update your console and dig into advanced, Android OS-level options. You can also enable parental controls, though all this does is require a PIN password before any purchases can be made. The free version of any game can still be downloaded by anyone, regardless of its content.
The interface works well overall, though some sorting options would be very welcome. According to Ouya's website, there are over 200 games available as of this writing. As much as I love the idea of the company's curated approach to game discovery, I can see the interface getting unwieldy as more and more games are released. Genre categories are a good start, but the ability to sort things alphabetically or by release date would go a long way.
While the interface is generally snappy, I have experienced a few hiccups. Upon booting up You Don't Know Jack, I'm occasionally kicked to the Ouya dashboard for no apparent reason. This isn't a problem once the game starts successfully, and thankfully I haven't encountered the same issue in other games. Occasionally, the UI sound effects are a little crackly, though this doesn't affect performance.
Furthermore, some of the games I've purchased revert to trial versions if the internet is disconnected. Specifically, both You Don't Know Jack and Polarity register as trial versions when the Ouya is offline, even though I've purchased both games. Meanwhile, my purchased version of TowerFall works fine whether I'm online or off.
Apart from a few outliers – I'm looking at you Final Fantasy 3 – most of the games I've tried have been bite-sized experiences. These tend to leverage refined gameplay mechanics over graphical flash. I'm particularly fond of the local multiplayer games like TowerFall, BombSquad, No Brakes Valet, Foddy's Get On Top, Hidden in Plain Sight and You Don't Know Jack. These all make great party games, especially if you already have spare PS3 controllers.
There are worthwhile single-player games too, like Knightmare Tower, Canabalt HD, The Bard's Tale, Polarity and Super Crate Box. Meanwhile, being able to play Super Crate Box on a big screen TV is just magical. Yes, you could play it on a TV with Steam's Big Picture Mode, but as my PC is on a different floor than my gaming setup, the Ouya is much more convenient.
Most of Ouya's current library isn't trying to compete with the expensively-developed AAA experiences you'd find on the PC or other consoles, but there's plenty of fun to be had, especially with friends. As for the future, many high-profile games are in the works, including Double Fine's Broken Age, Airtight's Soul Fjord, Minority Media's Silent Enemy and even re-released classics like Sonic CD. Furthermore, while it may not replace your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, the Ouya makes a handy replacement for your older consoles, which brings us to the next section.
I haven't tested every emulator, but I've managed to get NES, SNES, Genesis, Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 games to run swimmingly. You'll have to deal with a few system level menus, but these are about as user-friendly as emulators get. Just put some games onto a USB drive – or transfer them directly to the Ouya via a PC or Mac – then load them up from the proper directory.
Neither Joystiq nor I condone pirating games, no matter how old they are, but it's unrealistic to think that emulator capabilities aren't going to be a major attraction for many Ouya owners. Again, my testing wasn't extensive, but I was able to get beloved classics and homebrew games up and running in minutes. Emulation wasn't perfect (is it ever?), but every game I tried was easily playable.
If you're uncomfortable with the legal gray areas of emulation, you can even play many games directly from a cartridge by attaching a Retrode to the Ouya. I haven't tested this myself, but at least one person has gotten N64 games to work without the need for any special settings.
Plex is a media server application that streams music and video from a computer on your local network. It features many different "channels" for video services like Funny or Die, The Daily Show, YouTube and Netflix. This is as close as you'll get to a native Ouya Netflix app, but the experience is less than optimal in my tests. Streaming an episode of Breaking Bad with quality set to the lowest 1080p setting (8Mbps) resulted in frequently stuttering playback. An episode of Sherlock in 720p had similar problems. Again, my Xbox 360 streams HD Netflix in the same location with no issues.
Other channels like YouTube and The Daily Show came through clearly at 8Mbps 1080p (though The Daily Show channel itself is 720p). A trailer for The Avengers played crisply, as did a recent interview from The Daily Show. I also streamed videos and music from iTunes, though some of the videos incorrectly displayed in a 4:3 ratio. Digital copies of movies in iTunes are unfortunately a no-go thanks to DRM.
TuneIn is a basic app for streaming music and local radio stations. It worked fine, though the interface is clearly a holdover from a version designed for handheld Android devices, making it difficult to operate with a controller.
Though the XBMC media player has long been touted for Ouya, a native app has yet to be released. It's possible to sideload the standard Android version of XBMC, but getting everything working is a lengthy process that's far from user-friendly. If you don't like filling out forms with thumbsticks and face buttons, imagine how you'll feel when you have to use the Ouya controller's ungainly touch pad. After I finally got it running, I managed to pull up a recent episode of The Killing, though the quality wasn't fantastic and playback stuttered. I probably could have adjusted some settings, but the prospect of navigating more menus with the touch pad wasn't a welcome one.
More advanced users may suffer through it all to take advantage of XBMC's near ubiquitous compatibility and wide range of add-ons, but those looking for a simpler video solution would be better off waiting for a native app.
Overall, I'm pleased with the Ouya. Its library of games isn't out to dethrone Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, but the simple, fine-tuned pleasures of games like TowerFall serve as a welcome complement to the cash-infused giants on other platforms. On top of that, I can easily toss the Ouya and a handful of controllers into a backpack and take it to a friend's house, which isn't something I can say about my Xbox, PS3 or PC (not yet, anyway).
Even so, I do wish the Ouya had better multimedia options. As it stands, there are no native apps for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, HBO GO or any of the services that many users have come to expect from ... well, any internet device that connects to a TV. If it had features to rival media streamers like the Roku, the Ouya would be one of the easiest home entertainment recommendations I could make.
The strange input latency issue on one of my televisions is troubling as well, but it's hard to know if it's a widespread problem or something specific to my setup. I don't know if it can be fixed with new console firmware or if it's just an unusual compatibility issue (an Ouya rep tells me she hasn't heard of lag issues that only occur on certain televisions). Regardless, the fact that the Ouya would have any television-specific issues at all is a reasonable cause for concern. The same can be said for the inconsistent performance of the UI, including the fact that some purchased games register as trial versions when played offline. In fairness, the Ouya team has already done well improving performance over the last few months, so hopefully these issues can be ironed out as well. Again, the console worked without a hitch for me in most cases, but save your receipt.
These complaints aside, the Ouya has a lot going for it at $99. It's not a replacement for its beefier console cousins, but there are plenty of fun games available, though anyone looking for large-scale, engrossing single-player games may want to wait for more of the big-name releases to arrive. Even so, thanks to the Ouya's portability and selection of simple, intuitive multiplayer games, I can easily see it becoming my go-to party console. Of course, if you don't have extra PS3 controllers lying around, you'll have to shell out $50 for each additional Ouya controller, which may detract a bit from the console's budget-priced allure. Still, with over 200 games free to try – and a very strong suite of emulators – there's considerable value packed into the Ouya's tiny frame.