Dabe Alan

A cube with rough edges: PAR reviews the OUYA console, controller, and service

A cube with rough edges: PAR reviews the OUYA console, controller, and service

Setting up the OUYA is an easy process. You plug in the power cable, plug in the HDMI cable, turn it on, and there you go. You then connect to a wireless network, set up an account, with or without a credit card attached, and pair the included wireless controller, and you’re ready to start downloading games. The whole process is quick, easy, and intuitive.

Even the home screen is simple and easy to follow. “Play” is where you go to play games. “Discover” is all the games you can download and try, “Make” is there if you want to develop for the system, and “Manage” handles all the system’s options. The user interface is designed to be clean and easy to understand, and they’ve succeeded in that goal.

The rest of it? Well, the system was released today. They have some work to do.

The controller

The controller fits well in the hand, although it’s not as immediately comfortable as a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 controller. The directional pad is slightly squishy, the trigger buttons still don’t have the smooth motion of the console controllers you’re used to, and you have to remove a faceplate on both sides of the controller to replace the batteries.

It’s not a terrible controller, but it’s certainly not a very good one. The good news is that the OUYA lives up to the promises of being “open,” and it’s an easy thing to connect any other wired controller you’d like, or even use things like the Xbox 360 wireless controller dongle to use your wireless controller. Sony's Adam Boyes tweeted a picture of the Dual Shock 4 playing Towerfall, which is pretty badass.

Some games support third-party controllers better than others, however, so this may not be the best solution to controlling games in all instances.

Also, the touchpad is okay, but I can’t imagine using it for actual gaming. It’s way too imprecise and jumpy. It’s kind of neat that you can use it on menus and the like, but it’s not going to be a serious way to control games any time soon.

The OUYA suffered from terrible controller lag in the earlier versions of the hardware, and that has largely been removed in the retail hardware running the latest firmware, but you’ll still feel some lag from time to time, although again that’s very dependent on the game. Some games (Towerfall, Super Crate Box) feel perfect with a controller. Others give you a jerky, frustrating experience.

The menu of games under “Discover” is laid out well, with multiple featured sections, and a way to sort games by genre. Since you can try everything you see, it feels like a buffet: Dig in, sample, take a bit of everything that looks good. This is the real power of the OUYA, my kids and I spent a good thirty minutes just pointing at games we wanted to try and downloading them.

The latest firmware removes the “download, and then install” sequence, so one click allows you to add the game to your “Play” folder, and you can queue up multiple downloads. The game icons also show when a game has been updated, so keeping everything up to date is a snap. The UI is nothing but games, and you can try everything you see. No ads, apps are kept in their own section, it’s just games. Very refreshing.

The problem is that the menus are still slightly jerky, and there’s no reason for this problem to persist. Things load and move much quicker and smoother than they used to, but moving from game to game and menu to menu still feels rough and unfinished. This is something the team needs to fix quickly, a janky feel to the menu can make even a well-designed UI feel low-rent.

The games

OUYA invited me to select a few games and add them to a custom playlist on the console's “Discover” screen. So if you have a system, go online and check out a few things I think are worth playing.

The system excels at local multiplayer, which is great if you have a few extra USB controllers of any kind to hook up and play. If you get some friends together in the same room and want to play some multiplayer, the OUYA has you covered; there is even a “couch gaming” section to guide you towards local multiplayer games.

That said, you’re going to find a whole lot of garbage. Some games barely work, or run at an insultingly low frame rate. Others have barely been ported and feature control overlays that seem like they belong on a phone. You’re going to find good stuff if you stick to the system’s strong curated showcase lists, but there is a very real danger of the good games getting drowned out by the trash.

The trick is curation, and if you’re a gamer, be sure to give a thumbs up to the games you like. It would be great if OUYA added more ways to track how many people were downloading, playing, and rating games, and then push the viral hits to the top. Right now the curation is strong, but passing that baton on to the players as well would be fantastic.

The official store is also filled with emulators, although you’re on your own for ROMs. Emulation is a legal gray area, if not a moral gray area, depending on the system being emulated, the ROMs being used, and the methods for getting those ROMS.

I will say that this will be a selling point for many people, and the OUYA will definitely fulfill many of your needs for emulation, if that’s what you’re into. It also proves that companies like Nintendo need to get more aggressive with releasing their back catalog, or this sort of gray market for content will continue to flourish. There is also a big potential market here for non-gaming applications: the Twitch app is already available and works well, although there’s no search function. There’s no reason companies can’t release general purpose applications. Hook up a USB mouse and keyboard, and you have a solid, $100 Android-based computer.

Of course, the system only has one USB port. You’re going to need a hub if you want to hook all this stuff up. There also seems to be a problem with the resolution on some games. Even after fiddling with the options there are some games that are cut off at the edges. I can mitigate this somewhat using the options on my TV, but it seems odd that the system can't force effective resolutions on content.

There seems to be a complete lack of social features as well. I'd love to see what my friends are playing, or even browse their games. There are no achievements, no voice chat, no muliplayer of any kind unless it's supported by the game. Hopefully some of this stuff will come in time, but on the other hand the lack of achievements and ongoing notifications of what people are doing is almost a breath of fresh air. When I sit down with my OUYA I just play games, and it's nice not to be bothered by the rest of the bullshit.

The downside is that there is so much content, and so much of it is free, that I have yet to feel compelled to pay for much of anything. Not only that, but there is no unified way to buy things, every game has a different monetization strategy, and sometimes it can be hard to drill down through the menus to find out where to pay for the content.

It would be great if the game's description had a clear indication of what was free, what you'd have to pay for, and then allow you to do it outside of the game itself. Imagine having to launch a demo in Steam before you could buy the game, and then figure out where to go to pay. It sounds like a pain in the ass, because it is. If people aren't paying for games then it doesn't matter if the system sells tons of units. Developers need to eat and pay bills, you know.

Summing it up

I like the OUYA far more than I expected to, especially for the $100 price. It has stacks of games, and a fair amount of them are pretty damned good. You can play a ton of content for free. The controller isn't great, but who cares? Throw it out and pair a PlayStation 3 controller to it and you're set.

Does the OUYA store not have the app you want? You can sideload games and apps if you're into it. The selection of content is already strong, but the more you know about Android, the more fun things you can make it do. Many players will buy one, load it full of emulators and ROMs, and be perfectly content.

The downsides are the jittery menus, the lack of a unified system for actually buying content, the odd problems with resolution and, again, that pack-in controller. I'm looking forward to seeing how often demo downloads turn into paid purchases, but I have a feeling the news could be bad.

Still, there is something amazing about seeing all these goofy, interesting, fun games up on the TV. OUYA took an idea, turned it into a Kickstarter, and then made the word flesh in an incredibly short amount of time, and the unit I'm enjoying now makes the early firmware and hardware seem quaint in comparison. The company is implementing new features and improvements at a good pace, which means things are only going to get better as time goes on.

Also, don't worry about your Internet connection going out. Mine dropped while I was writing this review, and OUYA basically told me that I couldn't get any new games, but I was fine playing everything I had downloaded. This should go without saying, but these days? Still worth pointing out.

The question is whether there is a market for a console that plays these smaller, more funky indie games, and whether that market is interested in paying for content. For now, I'm glad the OUYA was released, and it's been a ton of fun so far. My kids and I take turns with the controller, finding games to try, and ditching the ones we don't like. When I turn the system on, there are usually new games to pick through and sample. The system's tiny size and easy set up make it simple to take anywhere you want to game.

The OUYA is rough in some ways, and there are lazy-ass games on there, but it's definitely an adventure. I'm a fan.