Thoughts on the OUYA

Well, it’s been a few months since I’ve posted anything here, but I have a good excuse: I’ve been focused on finishing my first semester of college, and I am happy to report that I am now officially done all my finals and I’ve got a 4.0 GPA (for the time being, anyway!).

Now that I have a bit of a break before the new semester starts in January, I want to take a chance to catch up with a couple posts I’ve been wanting to write. The foremost among these is an update on my new OUYA.

Living with OUYA

I’ve had this thing for about three months now, and in that time I’ve gotten a chance to play around with it quite a bit. Overall, I’d say I’m pretty impressed with what it can do.

Setting up the Console

The first thing you’ll notice when you get one of these things is that the packaging is really slick. The system’s presentation is very professional and clearly branded, with lots of black and that OUYA orange. The tagline “The Revolution will be televised” is plastered on just about everything.

After plugging everything in and starting up the OUYA, you will arrive at a set-up wizard to take you through the steps to get your console ready to use. This process was pretty simple, really just a matter of connecting to wifi, setting up an OUYA account, and making any necessary software updates. If memory serves, the whole thing doesn’t take much more than half an hour, and when it’s done the system will reboot and bring you to the main menu.

Getting Around

An example of the OUYA's main menu design, as of December 2014.

An example of the OUYA’s main menu design, as of Dec. 2014.

Finding your way around the OUYA software is simple enough. The primary functions of the OUYA are divided into four mostly-intuitive main menu selections:

  • Play: Run games or apps currently installed on the OUYA.
  • Discover: This links to the OUYA’s app store where you can find and download new games or apps.
  • Make: Functions here relate to game development (each console being a dev kit as well, of course). This is also the place to access side-loaded applications, as well as the console’s (feeble) built-in web browser. I haven’t poked around in here a whole lot.
  • Manage: Access system functions and settings.

All of the menus and sub-menus are laid out in a simple, graphically-oriented fashion. Select an application’s thumbnail to load its info page, from which you can read a summary of the app, view screenshots and videos, install it, and launch it.

The Controller

The standard OUYA controller.

The standard OUYA controller.

At this point, let me mention the OUYA’s oft-maligned controller.

It is a sleek, wireless dual-analog unit that looks quite different from most other controllers. It has long, rounded handles, four pronounced shoulder buttons, and an ingenious, camouflaged touchpad in the bare space in the center of the controller. This is a neat control surface that I have yet to see implemented in any meaningful way.

I have heard people complain that the OUYA’s controller is uncomfortable for longer gaming sessions, but personally I have yet to encounter this problem. On the contrary, I’ve actually found it quite comfortable.

I will say that the four lettered buttons and the d-pad were quite stiff at first, which made button presses feel awkward, but now that mine is broken in this is no longer an issue.

All in all, I like the controller.

It’s the Games, Stupid

Once you’ve got the system up and running, you’re going to want some games, which will lead you to the OUYA’s app store.

The layout of the app store is like the rest of the OUYA’s menus. For the most part it works just fine, although it can be a little unresponsive sometimes when scrolling through long lists. You can sort games by recently released, recently updated, genre – what have you. There is also a search function, although this seems rather limited.

The games themselves… well, that’s the real issue, isn’t it? Out of all the accusations hurled at the OUYA by its detractors, perhaps the most stinging is that it doesn’t have any good games. The allegation goes that because the OUYA’s philosophy is so focused on indie-developed and free-to-play titles, there is no content-vetting process and the vast majority of games in the app store are crap. Well, after living with this thing for a few months, I think I have to say that even though this accusation is harsh, it might have a kernel of truth to it. I’ve poked around in the OUYA’s app store quite a bit, and there is a lot of garbage in there.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some great games mixed in. In fact, after a few months of playing, I’ve managed to find quite a few:

  • The OUYA store features several totally free titles by indie game developer Locomalito; These are, without exception, all fantastic. They feature great gameplay, graphics, and sound, and are made with love in homage to the classic titles of the ’80s and ’90s. I personally found Gaurodan exceptionally fun, but you can’t go wrong with any of the available titles. Locomalito’s games are also available for download on PC, so even if you don’t own an OUYA I recommend you go check them out!
  • r0x (Extended Play) by RGCD is a unique and challenging vertical shooter that forces the player to focus on strategically avoiding obstacles more than shooting them. It’s a lot of fun and definitely worth checking out.
  • Fist of Awesome by I Fight Bears. Billed as a “time-travelling-lumberjack-em-up”, this is a sadly too-short game with retro-inspired graphics, fun gameplay, and a fantastic sense of humor.

Recently, the OUYA crossed the 1000-game threshold. This is quite an impressive milestone for the little Android-based box, and there’s no doubt in my mind that there are lots of gems in that 1000-game list. But the ratio of unpolished, unfinished, or just outright terrible games to good titles is definitely skewed sharply toward the former.

One thing the OUYA does have though, which in my mind is worth the price of admission on its own, is good emulators.

Emulation

The OUYA has several fantastic emulators in its app store, and this is one of its key strengths. Free emulators are available for the Atari 2600, NES, SNES, Genesis, PC Engine, Game Boy, and Game Boy Advance, and these all function perfectly with essentially no configuration needed; just download the app, load up some roms, and play away.

The available MAME emulator is a little more tricky, but not by much. I think this is more a side effect of MAME being tricky anyway. There is also decent PS1 emulator available called FPse; this costs something like $2.99 to purchase the full version, but it works well, has a nice interface, and from what I’ve played with it, it has good compatibility and speed.

The N64 situation is a little more sketchy. Mupen64Plus AE is the primary option for N64 emulation out of the OUYA app store. It works pretty well (once you get the finicky video settings right), but there is a lot of slowdown and compatibility is not the greatest. The compatibility situation seems to be getting better (each release supports more and more games), but there are still a lot of titles that won’t run correctly or at all. Of course, N64 emulation has always been finicky, so I was not tremendously surprised by this. I will say that playing Super Smash Brothers in high definition on a big-ass TV is a fun experience, if you can get past the slowdown and graphics issues.

(Of note, also, is that there are side-loaded N64 emulation options available; I have not really played with these, but I may report later after doing some experimentation.)

All in all, playing emulated games on the OUYA feels great, and it has been the main thing I’ve done with the system.

The Final Verdict

Ultimately, what do I think of the OUYA, and was it worth the $100 I paid to get it? To answer this question, I think it’s important to understand what the OUYA is, and what it is not.

Contrary to what OUYA’s marketers would have you believe, I do not think the OUYA is the future. I don’t think it is revolutionary. It is a fascinating experiment, for sure: an Android-based console small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and oriented toward indie game development. It is a very cool concept, but I do not see it starting a new wave of gaming. In fact, in 2014 it is starting to feel a little bygone already.

If you are looking to get in on the cutting edge of the next big thing, look somewhere else. Do not get an OUYA.

However, if you are looking for a stable, straightforward platform for emulating old consoles and running a select few Android applications on your HD TV, you have a winner. The OUYA is the most plug-and-playable dedicated solution for emulation on your TV that I’ve personally run across, and this functionality is what drew me to it in the first place. If this sounds like what you’re looking for, $100 is a great deal. I play this thing all the time, and I have no regrets about my purchase.

The final verdict: since I got my OUYA at the end of September, I’ve played it almost every day, and I love it. If you’re into retro gaming and want a way to easily emulate classic games on your HD TV, give it a shot.