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.

Today’s Gets

Well, first there was this:

Then, in a momentary lapse of judgement, I picked one of these up from a local game store:

Ouya Game Console

I’m excited about this for three reasons: firstly, as a platform to play indie games; secondly, as a retro gaming emulation box; and thirdly, as a game development and distribution platform. I’m thinking I’m soon going to be spending some time with this, also:

Cover of Killer Game Programming in Java by Andrew Davison

Killer Game Programming in Java by Andrew Davison

I leave for Oklahoma City on a business trip tomorrow. I’ve been there once before, and it is a gorgeous place. If I can find time, I will try to post something interesting about the city while I’m there.

Thoughts on Retropalooza 2014

Yesterday, several weeks of planning and scheming finally paid off: I made it to Retropalooza.

What is Retropalooza?

Now in its second year, Retropalooza is a retro gaming convention held annually at the Arlington Convention Center in Arlington, Texas. Aside from dozens of vendors selling retro video games, vintage toys, comic books, original artwork, and every manner of video game-related paraphernalia imaginable, this year’s show also featured a cosplay competition, various gaming tournaments, and panels held by several prominent YouTubers.

Living just over a hundred miles from Dallas, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to attend this convention.

My Day at Retropalooza

A can of Monster Energy Drink

Pictured: The Official “Go Juice” of the Box on Wheels.

It all started yesterday at around 6:30 am. After rolling out of bed and spending a few minutes struggling to wake up, my wife and I ate breakfast, loaded up in our Toyota Scion (which we affectionately call “The Box on Wheels”) and hit the highway for Dallas. After a two-hour drive, during which many Monsters were consumed, we arrived at the Arlington Convention Center and made our way inside.

There wasn’t much in the way of a line, so we both walked right up to registration, collected our passes, and headed in.

First Impressions

The whole convention was held in one large room lined with tables chock-full of retro gaming goodies. Everywhere we wandered there were piles of loose game carts and controllers, stacks of discs in paper sleeves, and shelves of cased games from every era of gaming. Entire aisles contained tables filled with nothing but comic books, vintage Star Wars figures, nerdy t-shirts, prints of original fan artworks, and sprites recreated in Perler beads. This was my first time at such a convention, and it was a lot to take in all at once, but before long I was browsing the wares just like everyone else, flipping through rows of carts looking for interesting finds.

Meet Joe. Meet Dave.

One of the coolest parts of the day for me came early on. One of my absolute favorite YouTube channels is Game Sack. For those of you who have been living under a rock, Game Sack is a YouTube series featuring Joe Redifer and Dave White that covers a different retro gaming topic each episode. Game Sack’s production quality is excellent (Joe is a professional video editor in his day-to-day, and apparently a stickler for video quality, which makes the channel stand out), the jokes are funny as hell, and most importantly, it is clear that both hosts care sincerely about video games and really know their stuff.

Okay, so I’m a bit of a fanboy.

Anyway, Joe and Dave were present at the convention, and had their own table from which they were selling merchandise, including branded cups, pens, and t-shirts. After a few laps around the convention hall, I worked up the courage to go up and meet them.

It turns out they are really cool in person, too. Both shook my hand and chatted with me for a bit before posing for a picture, and they were very friendly despite my awkwardness. I bought a cup and a pen, thanked them for their time, and scurried away gushing like a teenage girl, my wife trailing behind wondering what had just transpired.

Picture taken with Joe and Dave of Game Sack

Pictured: Dave and Joe of Game Sack pose with a socially-awkward fan (me).

Other Cool People

After leaving the Game Sack table, we started making our way around the convention hall more thoroughly, and in the process we ran into several interesting people.

Brett Weiss

Cover of the first book in the 'Classic Home Video Games' series by Brett Weiss.

Cover of the first book in the ‘Classic Home Video Games’ series by Brett Weiss.

Brett Weiss is a freelance journalist and author known for his highly-detailed Classic Home Video Games book series, among others. I met him at his booth and chatted with him for a while. He was quite gracious, and offered to sign any book of his that I might buy. On his table were copies of Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman, a loving retrospective by Rob Strangman about growing up with video games in the ’70s, ’80s, and beyond. The newest edition of the book also features chapters written by other authors, including Brett; I tend to enjoy this kind of book, so I grabbed a copy, which he inscribed to me along with a small drawing of Pac-Man.

I am three chapters into the book, and so far it is great – I recommend you check it out if you get a chance.

Devin Kraft of Cheshire Cat Art / PolyKnight Games

Fox McCloud and Falco Lombardi, as drawn by Devin Kraft of Cheshire Cat Art.

One of the prints I purchased – Fox McCloud and Falco Lombardi, as drawn by Devin Kraft of Cheshire Cat Art. Gotta love that old-school propaganda poster look!

At another booth I met Devin Kraft of Cheshire Cat Art. Devin was selling various prints of his artwork, which is simply incredible. I couldn’t resist buying a couple, and he even signed them for me!

Working the booth with Devin were two friends of his, programmer Tyler Tomaseski and game artist Nick Adams from the indie game studio PolyKnight Games. I am something of a wannabe indie game developer myself, so the three of us hit off a conversation, and Tyler gave me some good pointers on what I should learn if I want to pursue game design further. Very cool guys!

PolyKnight has some interesting projects on their site’s Games page, including a free title called Scarecrow Fire Hoedown which is the product of a 48-hour game jam. Click here to read more about it and give it a download.

Round Two with Game Sack: The Panel

After a couple hours wandering around and spending more money than I probably should have, I took my prizes back to the Box on Wheels while my wife rested her feet. When I returned to the convention center, it was 1:00 – time for the Game Sack panel!

The panel was held in a long room across from the convention hall. It featured a stage at the far end, and dozens of rows of chairs. We grabbed ourselves a spot toward the front of the room and watched over the next few minutes as the seats around us filled up. All in all, there was quite a turnout.

After a few moments of prepping camera equipment, the panel started with a short welcome from Joe and Dave, and then it jumped right into questions. There were lots of fun questions like “Where did you get the name ‘Game Sack’?” (apparently a closely considered option before ‘Game Sack’ was ‘Game Squirt’ – snicker snicker), as well as more serious questions about favorite consoles, favorite games, and what kind of video capture equipment is best for capturing retro gaming footage. There were also lots of questions about upcoming episodes, as well as a question about whether or not Game Sack will ever get a DVD/Blu-ray release (spoiler alert: according to Joe this is already in the works!). The panel ran long by about twenty minutes because the next panelist was running late, but it still flew by very quickly.

After it was over, we shuffled out along with the rest of the crowd, passing a long line waiting for the next panel to begin. We ended up in the lobby where we discussed what to do next. I had spent all of my money, and both of us were hungry and tired, so we decided to call it a day as far as Retropalooza was concerned and go find some grub.

Final Thoughts

I had a great time at Retropalooza this year. In the end I walked away with lots of cool stuff including a couple new Genesis games, a signed book, some signed art prints, and a few other things. I got to meet Game Sack and sit in on their first-ever panel. And, I got to get out and meet other retro gamers, and just spend a day doing something fun.

This may have been my first Retropalooza, but I doubt it will be my last: sign me up for next year!

Introduction

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve kept a regular blog, but I think it’s about that time again.

I am Xentrix.

Here are some things to know about me:

  • My interests include:
    • Computers (web design, programming, graphic design, and all that jazz)
    • Science and science fiction
    • Movies
    • Video games (especially retro video games)
    • Reading and writing (fiction and non-fiction)
    • Bumming around the internet
  • I have:
    • A broad, slightly dark sense of humor.
    • A brilliant, lovely wife who shares said broad, slightly dark sense of humor.
    • A miniature dachshund who is a seven-pound terror. He has no sense of humor.
  • I love:
    • Coffee.
    • “Space music”, as my friends have taken to calling it; anything ambient, downtempo, electronic, etc.
    • Phoning it in on all tasks large and small. For instance, let’s see how long this blog lasts!

Watch this space for random observations, links to interesting articles, and things of that nature.