Like any newcomer in the gaming world, the Ouya microconsole has a slew of lovestruck fans and an equal (if not greater) number of detractors. What’s the story behind the tiny game platform and is it worth your time and money? Read on as we review the quirky little Android-powered game machine.
Where Did The Ouya Come From?
Before we dive into talking about the Ouya’s capabilities and gaming experience, let’s first take a look at exactly where the little device came from (as it’s impossible to separate the device from the hype and KickStarter campaign that put it on the map). First, the most important thing: how exactly you’re supposed to pronounce the name. According to the company and to the splash screen that pops up when the console starts, it’s pronounced like “Booyah!” without the initial B sound.
In summer of 2012, the company behind the Ouya, Boxer8 (which would later be renamed to Ouya, inc.), announced a KickStarter campaign to gauge interest in an Android-based micro game console. The Ouya KickStarter campaign was wildly popular and attracted a new backer every 5 seconds or so for the first 24 hours. The project holds the record for the best performing first-day KickStarter campaign in the history of KickStarter and met its initial funding goal within a mere 8 hours. Clearly there was a lot of interest in the concept of a small, economical, and Android-powered game console.
By December of 2012, units were shipped to console developers, KickStarter backers received their units starting in early March 2013, and by the end of June 2013 retail units were available for purchase. The Ouya is in wide distribution now and you can pick one up for $99.
While it’s not typical to get back history in your average hardware review (Where did the PS4 came from? “It came from Sony, who has been making consoles for twenty years and wants to keep making money” is a pretty obvious and unstated origin story), it’s important to get a sense of public perception of the Ouya and the hype that surrounded it. A lot of initial reviews of the micro console were deeply colored by this and were more about the reviewer’s disappointment in how the Ouya wasn’t what they thought it was, and not a review of what the Ouya actually is. To say intitial reviews were brutal as a result of this disparity between the hype/perceived product and reality/actual product is an understatement to be sure. Read on as we dig into what exactly the Ouya is, what it can do, and why–if you’re in the market for what it offers–it’s actually a pretty darned good value.
What’s Inside The Ouya?
The Ouya is tiny, a cube-like shape (it’s very slightly taller than it is wide) scarcely 3 inches on a side. Packed into that tiny cube is the Nvidia Tegra 3 system-on-a-chip, which contains 1.7Ghz quadcore ARM Cortex A9 CPU and a Nvidia GeForce ULP GPU, as well as 1GB of RAM shared between the CPU and the GPU.
If you’re not used to crunching the numbers on mobile/micro computers and need a frame of reference, the Ouya is slightly more powerful than the popular and critically acclaimed 2012 version of Googles’ Nexus 7 Android tablet and, like the Nexus, runs Android Jellybean.
There is 8GB of permanent non-upgradable internal memory as well as a USB port which will readily accept external storage such as portable HDDs and flash drives. In addition to the standard USB port, the only other ports on the Ouya are a micro USB port (for tethering the device, if need be, to a computer in the same fashion you would connect a smartphone or tablet), an Ethernet port for hard-wired network access, an HDMI port, and the jack for the power supply.
The unit supports both hard-wired network access and Wi-Fi b/g/n. The Ouya has a cooling fan, but the majority of the heat is dissipated passively; unless you flip the unit over and look at the bottom, the cooling vents aren’t visible.
When viewed from the front, the only visible button, port, or toggle is the flush-to-the-top power button located in the center of the unit.
In addition to the actual microconsole, each Ouya also ships with one controller (additional controllers are $49 each). Now that we know what we’re getting for our hundred bucks, let’s dig in and take a closer look at elements of the Ouya experience, like the controller, setting it up, locating and playing games, etc.
How’s The Controller?
If the recent hullabaloo about the changes in the next generation Xbox and PlayStation controllers is any indicator of things, gamers take their controllers very seriously. How does the Ouya’s controller stack up against those of more established consoles? Although some justifiable criticism was lobbed at the first version of the controller (released with the developer and KickStarter versions of the console) as a result of sticky buttons and lag in response time, the retail release fixed the sticky button issue and a software update erased the response lag.
We’d be lying if we said the Ouya controller was as comfortable in our hands as the 360 controller or the PlayStation DualShock. That said, it’s a far better controller than most give it credit for. With the batteries installed, it has a nice weight, the matte aluminum face plates that hide the battery compartments on each side of the controller are pleasantly cool to the touch, and the buttons are crisp and responsive.
The analog directional sticks have a rather long travel, which gives you the sense that they’re not responding as quickly as they should, but it’s easy enough to get used to that. Our only real complaint about the controller (and one echoed by officemates and neighbors we had test the unit with us) was that the trigger and bumper buttons on the top of the controller feel really cheap/hollow and lack the firmness found in other controllers.
In addition to the traditional buttons, directional pad, analog sticks, and triggers/bumpers, the controller also has a touch pad (just like a laptop touch pad) in the center of the controller between the two aluminum face plates. Touch the pad and a little cursor appears on the screen. While there must be some application for this functionality, in all of our testing and tweaking of the unit, the only use we got out of the touch pad was simply testing the touch pad itself to see how it worked. Everything on the Ouya is so heavily oriented towards a controller-based experience the touch pad feels like a strange just-in-case-we-need-it inclusion on the controller.
If you’re not a fan of the stock controller and/or you want to use controllers you already have that are more comfortable in your hand like your 360 or PlayStation controllers, you can use those instead. Although it’s not officially documented or acknowledged (obviously they want you to buy their controllers), you can use a wide variety of third party controllers; check out which controllers have been confirmed working in this post, Controllers That Work With OUYA, over at the OuyaForum.
Note: Although we didn’t have any problems in our play testing using third party controllers, there are a few games reported to work poorly with third party controllers. Increasingly, game developers are updating their content to support third party controllers, however, so the pool of problematic games is constantly shrinking. Many developers have even taken to layering icon controllers over their game’s store entry and mentioning the controller support in the game’s description to indicate they are third-party controller friendly.
The easiest third party controllers to setup are definitely the wired Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers (with USB charging cables). To use them, you simply have to plug them right into the Ouya’s USB port. Obviously, if you want multiple controller support, you’ll need to use a USB hub to have enough ports to go around.
The second-easiest method (and the way to go if you want third party wireless controllers) is to buy an Xbox 360 USB controller receiver (authentic or eBay knock off, doesn’t seem to matter). When you plug in the receiver, it automatically allocates slots in the system for all four potential controllers it can support.
So while we didn’t find any glaring problem with the stock controller that would merit outright replacing it, we’d much rather pair our existing 360 controllers with the Ouya instead of dropping $150 to purchase 3 more stock Ouya controllers.
Initial Setup and Configuration
The initial setup of the Ouya is both extremely simple and annoying at the same time. One of the whole themes of the Ouya experience is the idea of reducing the friction between gamers and their consoles, but in this regard there are some pretty basic oversights in the setup process. The most obvious oversight is that the total setup instructs included in the box are limited to a single 4″x4″ sheet that amounts to “plug it in”. There are no instructions, for example, on how to insert the batteries into the controller. This seems like a minor issue in the grand scheme of things, but if a company’s stated goal is to create a frictionless gaming experience, then perhaps the user’s first interaction with the system shouldn’t be irritation at having to carefully poke, prod, and gently pry at their game controller to figure out where to put the batteries without breaking anything.
The battery compartments are located under the face plates, so to access them, you need to gentle pry each side up and away from the buttons/control sticks and then insert the batteries. Again, it’s not the end of the world, but we’ll admit to being annoyed by the whole proposition that we had to explore our new controller like it was some sort of archaeological dig just to get the batteries in.
Batteries in, it’s time to fire the system up for the first time. Plug everything into the unit: HDMI from the Ouya to the television and network cable (if using a physical network instead of Wi-Fi), then the power cable. Press the power button on top of the Ouya to start it up.
The first order of business is to pair the controller to the Ouya, and you do so by pressing and holding the small Ouya button located between the directional pad and right thumb stick. After pairing the controller, the Ouya checks for updates; if you’re using an Ethernet connection it will start automatically, and if you’re using Wi-Fi it will prompt you to setup the Wi-Fi.
Earlier reviewers of the Ouya noted that the Wi-Fi was agonizingly flaky and both the official and third-party Ouya forums were awash with complaints about Wi-Fi problems. We were braced for Wi-Fi that wouldn’t work or required manual configuration, but were pleasantly surprised that the updates had actually fixed the problem: Wi-Fi setup is as simple as picking the available network and supplying the password.
After the unit updates and restarts (those of you with sharp eyes will notice that for a few brief moments during the rebooting and updating process, the Ouya GUI facade falls away and you see stock Android Jellybean GUI elements), you’ll be prompted to either create an account or sign into an existing one.
The process of creating an account is completely straight forward, but man do we wish they would let you do it via the Ouya website instead of spending 10 minutes pecking out letters using a game controller. You’ll need to pick a username, enter an email address, and enter and confirm a password. After confirming everything, the next prompt will be to enter a credit card or Ouya gift card as a form of payment.
Once you’ve completed all these steps (which are simple to complete, albeit by painfully pecking everything out via controller interface), you’ll be kicked into the main Ouya interface:
Now before you get exited and hit “Play”, we’d suggest making a pit stop under the “Manage” menu before anything else. If you look under Manage menu, you’ll find some basic entries like Account, Controllers, Network, Notifications, and System. While you won’t likely have to tinker much with any of these, there’s one setting worth toggling on immediately.
Navigate to Manage -> Account -> Parental Controls. Within the Parental Controls section, you can (and should) set a PIN restriction on purchases.
Even if you have no kids in the house that you’re worried could buy a bunch of random games, we strongly suggest turning the PIN on (at least for your initial experimentation with the console). The way games prompt you for payment varies widely from game to game, and it’s nice to have more than a button click between you and a purchase you may or may not want to make (more on this issue later in the review).
If you do have kids you’d like to shield from objectionable content, you can turn on the content filter in this same menu and select content filtering by the age-based ratings 9+, 12+, and 17+. Although we didn’t come across anything in our play testing we’d consider R-rated, 17+ type stuff, there are a few games that feature PG-13 fare like innuendo-laced jokes and lingering body shots.
How’s The Interface Experience?
Once upon a time, game systems didn’t have graphic interfaces to speak of: you simply popped the cartridge in, powered the system up, and any GUI to speak of was part of that individual game. The dashboard experience is a big part of modern gaming, however, and on that front the Ouya is a mixed bag.
After first configuring the system during initial boot (picking a username, pairing your controller by holding down the power button in the center of it, etc.), you’re greeted with the dashboard screen above.
The dashboard GUI is clean and easy to navigate. Although Android is running under the surface, and except for digging deep to do custom configuration or other more advanced manipulation of the Ouya, you really never have to stray from the Ouya GUI. You select Play to play games you’ve “discovered” via the Discover panel (seen in the screenshot above).
The first few tiers of the Discover screen are pretty straight forward: Featured, Trending Now, and individual Genres. After that it gets a little messy with categories like “Rose + Time Dev Sophie Houlden’s Playlist” and “Play Like Bawb” which, honestly, are pretty meaningless categories that seem to have entirely unrelated collections of games in them.
Other categories make more sense (but only if you know what’s going on with the Ouya development model) like the “Sandbox” and “Escape Artists: New from Sandbox” which, respectively, include brand new games from independent developers and games from independent developers that have been approved for release outside the “sandbox”.
There’s really no indication what any of the less-obviously-named categories are, and even after reading over the Ouya website and blog, they’re still pretty opaque. As a result, the categories beyond trending/genre/etc. feel like they’re trying too hard to be hip and mysterious when they could actually be well-described and useful.
From any of the categories, you can select an individual game and read more about it like so:
Each entry features the developer’s name, age-based content rating, download size, time of initial upload to the Ouya store or last update, and then a description of the game. Click the download button, as we’ve done in the screenshot above, and the game is downloaded to your console and inserted into the “Play” section of the dashboard. Finding games, even with the quirky sub-categories in the Discover section, isn’t difficult, and downloading them is simple.
That said, there are a host of valid complaints about the Ouya’s game discovery interface. One of the Ouya’s biggest marketing points is that all the games are free to play. If a developer wants their game in the Ouya store, some portion of the game must be free to play. This could mean the game is free to play with in-app purchases to upgrade equipment, it could mean the game has a free tutorial level to let you experience the game before purchasing it, or any other combination that allows the Ouya console owner to download the game and play it before paying.
In practice that sounds great, but in application it’s a bit frustrating. There is no standard way in the Ouya store for describing which arrangement the developer has decided upon. Some developers, largely in response to how hostile most Ouya owners have been to the current system, have updated their game descriptions to provide clear insight into what the player is getting (e.g. “First four levels are free” or “Game allows for unlimited play, but saving in-game creations requires the $1.99 Pro upgrade”, etc.).
The trend of developer disclosure hasn’t really taken off though; at the time of this review there were 30 titles in the “Trending Now” category in the Ouya store and only a single title lists any information about purchase price or what is locked/unlocked when you pay for the content. Within that same Trending Now category, the actual price for all these games, even though it’s not mentioned anywhere, ranges from absolutely free to $14.99.
Ouya’s stance on this is that their goal is to make gaming frictionless and fun: download any game, enjoy it, and if you enjoy it enough, you can pay for it if necessary to unlock all the features. While we understand where they’re coming from, if their goal is to get people to try more games and not skip over a game because it’s a dollar more than they initially feel like paying or such, we still can’t support this approach. Every other electronic game store on the planet from the Xbox Live Arcade to the Google Play store lists the price of the games you’re going to purchase. It’s downright annoying to not find out how much a game costs until you’ve played it for a half hour and suddenly a popup box indicates you’ll need to authorize a $14.99 charge if you want to continue playing.
Speaking of the pop-ups, that’s exactly why we advised you to enable the parental lock PIN earlier in the review. Because there’s no rhyme or reason to how Ouya games bill you, it’s easy to spend money you don’t want to spend. In more than a few games, a “Purchase this game/ammo/extra stuff/etc.” type pop-up box would pop up right in the middle of some button mashing action. With the PIN lock turned on, you get a chance to see what exactly it is the game wants you to buy and how much it costs. Without the PIN lock on, you (or your kids) could easily make a bunch of inadvertent purchases.
Such an arrangement might be good for the developers as players feel they’ve sunk time into the game and want to continue, but it doesn’t sit well with us: we should be able to see how much a game costs and decide if we want to take it for a trial knowing we’ll be paying $X amount if we decide to commit to the game. If Ouya changes nothing else about the console, they should change this.
In the mean time, there is a frequently updated list, again over at the OuyaForum, of all current game prices. It’s a bit silly that Ouya owners have to consult a third-party user-compiled list to check the game prices, but it gets the job done.
What About The Game Quality?
Once you get past discussing and picking apart the actual hardware build, the quality of the controller, and other peripheral discussions, the meat of any game console is what you can actually play on it.
The plethora of critical reviews on the Ouya system range from discussing how fun and quirky the titles on it are to lambasting the tiny console as a terrible competitor in the market that can’t hold a candle to any other modern game console.
Let’s start with the most obvious thing: the Ouya is not and will never be a competitor to the PS4 or Xbox One. Comparing the Ouya to beefy next-gen consoles is disingenuous and unfair. At its most basic, if anyone buys the Ouya because they think they’re sticking it to the man and saving money on a next-gen console without actually having to give money to Sony or Microsoft, they’re going to have a bad time. That’s simply not the build or the mission of the Ouya.
Despite fans of the Ouya system saying that its not just a tablet with extra ports and mobile games on it, that’s essentially exactly what it is. And you know what? That’s OK. There are so many fun mobile titles we’ve played on our Android phones and iPads that we would have loved to pull off the tiny little screen and make a couch-based game around the TV with real controllers. There’s nothing wrong with simple and fun games and, given the staggering number of Wii units that have been sold and only used with party games like Wii Sports and Mario Kart, there is a huge market for games intended to be played casually from your couch with your buddies.
The current problem with the Ouya’s game selection isn’t, as many contend, that the games are too simple or stupid or just like mobile games. The problem is that currently the Ouya doesn’t have anything even resembling a killer app or must have game. There’s no Halo, Super Smash Bros., even a Wii Sports other gotta-play-it! type game driving Ouya sales. If the question most gamers have is “Well what can I play on it?” then “Ports from other systems and quirky sandbox games!” isn’t really a great answer.
And, in fairness to the Ouya, this isn’t because the Ouya can’t handle games with cinematic content and good graphics. While the guts of the little console are no match for a premium gaming PC, they’re on par with high end Android tablets which can run all sorts of great games that populate the Google Play store. Games like Shadowgun, seen below, look great and play smoothly. The problem is that for every provides-the-modern-graphics-gamers-expect title like that, there are dozens of oddball 1980s-graphics and ported-from-Flash type games.
In fact, the gotta-play-it! games on the Ouya are actually emulated hits from other systems. Ouya’s “killer app” isn’t a current release game, it’s the ability, for the first time, to easily play emulated games on Android without jumping through all sorts of hoops to get the Android device to output to your television, pair with third-party controllers, etc.
So far we sound rather critical of the little box, but we’re really just striving to give you an honest picture: the Ouya is not a competitor to next-gen consoles, the Ouya store is filled with games that are, for the most part, simplistic and aren’t going to blow you away with advanced visuals (but, that in fairness, can be pretty fun), and currently there isn’t really a killer title that is drawing people to the Ouya.
Now, that said, we’ve had a lot of fun playing with the Ouya. Since we had no expectation it was going to run circles around the Xbox One (or even the Xbox 360), we didn’t sit down expecting to play Skyrim or Halo 3 or anything even remotely close to those games in terms of production values, graphical quality, or depth. Unlike many of the KickStarter backers and early adopters, we simply didn’t expect the Ouya to be anything but what it appeared to be: a beefy Android tablet rebuilt as a tiny game console. We’ve enjoyed playing the lightweight games that are available (although we haven’t enjoyed the “who knows what we’ll end up paying” setup of the Ouya store), and we’ve definitely enjoyed playing emulated classics.
Sweet, Sweet, Emulation
Playing emulated games can be a huge pain in the ass. Sure, even a business-class computer with a bargain processor can emulate just about any game system prior to 2000, but actually getting everything set up so that you can play your emulated games sitting on your couch as if it were 1985 and that NES console was fresh out of the box is a bit trickier.
This is where the Ouya really shines. It’s an Android device with powerful guts, already configured controllers, and HDMI output. The only thing that stands between the sea of Android-based emulators and the Ouya is developer interest (and dozens of emulators have already been ported over or can be sideloaded if they aren’t in the Ouya store yet).
With absolutely minimal effort, we were able to turn the Ouya into a retro game machine. We actually spent more time looking for a USB drive and ROM files to load onto it than we spent downloading and setting up the emulators on the Ouya.
Although we encourage you to play around with all the emulators to find the features you want, here were our favorite emulators from the Ouya store:
Nintendo 64 – Mupen64+: Although there are emulators for more advanced consoles than the N64, the N64 is about the most advanced console we could reasonable expect the Ouya to emulate without any deal-breaking issues. The Mupen64 emulator was the first one we fired up, actually, because we had no doubt the Ouya could more than handle emulating the NES, but we really wanted to see if it would choke on N64 titles. It handled it like a champ, the only issue we had at all was that, for reasons unclear to us, Mupen64 has a default setting of 250% game speed; once we adjusted it down to 100% game speed, the N64 games played flawlessly.
PS 1/PSX – FPse: It’ll run you $2.99 (otherwise an annoying “Buy Now” button constantly blinks in the upper corner and the sound cuts out after the first 30 seconds), but if you’re looking to play PlayStation 1 games on your Ouya its definitely worth the three bucks.
NES – EMUya: Although there is more than one NES emulator in the store, we really loved EMUya for the clean layout and quality emulation. The screenshot above showcases how EMUya automatically scans the local and removable media to find your games. Further, if you’re a hardcore 8-bit enthusiast, EMUya actually has a built in store for indie developers to showcase new NES games.
SNES – SuperGNES: Self-billed as the premier SNES emulator, it’s, well, the premier SNES emulator. If you’ve played around with SNES emulator on any other platforms, you’ve most likely played around with some port of SuperGNES. It makes the jump to the Ouya cleanly; You’ll be playing Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with zero friction.
Cross-Platform – Nostalgia: Nostalgia isn’t an actual emulator, it’s an emulator organizer. It costs a buck which, if you’re into emulation, is the best buck you’ll spend on the Ouya. The whole purpose of Nostalgia is to organize your ROMS, download metadata (like summaries, cover art, and reviews) and make it easy to browse your ROMS and launch them with the appropriate system.
This is only a partial list and only our absolute favorite emulators. If you want to see just how many systems are available on the Ouya, the developers have announced they’ll be on the Ouya, or that can be side-loaded onto the Ouya, check out this frequently updated list maintained by Thomas Reisser over at Day of the Ouya.
With the sheer number of emulators and support apps, its pretty hard to argue that emulation isn’t Ouya’s killer app.
What Else Can I Do With It?
Other than playing lightweight mobile-type games and emulating older games, what’s left? Media playback. A tiny but powerful Android device hooked to your main television/media center begs for media playback. Among the available media playback apps are: Plex, VLC, Flixster, TwitchTV, and TuneIn radio.
The real (and free!) gem, however, is XBMC. In mid-August 2013, a release of XBMC tweaked for the Ouya appeared in the Ouya marketplace. Previously, you could get XBMC running on the Ouya, but it was a messy, headache-inducing process. Now you can just one-click install it and point it at a network source or an attached HDD and start watching HD movies and content. We’re huge XBMC fans and we stress tested the crap out of the Ouya-optimized XBMC build. The controller-based navigation is fantastic and the HD video playback is flawless. We threw every type of HD video source we had on hand at it and it played everything without so much as a single frame stutter.
We’ve installed XBMC on everything from laptops to iPads to Rasberry Pi units and everything in between, and installing it on the Ouya was, hands down, the easiest installation we’ve ever performed.
The Good, The Bad, and The Verdict
We’ve been playing with the Ouya daily for a couple weeks now, we’ve taken a crack at most of the games available for the system ranging from high-quality-for-Android productions to was-this-made-with-MS-Paint? monstrosities. We’ve used the apps, we’ve tested XBMC, and overall we have to say it has been a positive experience. Friends have had fun messing around with it, most of the mobile-to-HDTV transfers have been a big hit with the kids we’ve sat down in front of it, and the video playback features are fantastic.
Let’s unpack that experience into neat lists for your easy assessment.
- At $99 it’s a steal for what you can do with it.
- It’s easy to add extra third-party controllers.
- It’s quiet.
- The controller, while not perfect, has nice hand feel and is a solid first-effort by Ouya.
- It’s a fantastic platform for emulating retro games.
- XBMC works flawlessly on it; no setup required other than adding media sources.
- You can sideload apps without rooting or other headaches.
- It doesn’t have a true killer app.
- The best games on the system are currently retro games loaded via emulator, which isn’t much of a sustainable business model.
- If more established development houses don’t start porting their games or developing directly for the Ouya, we’ll all be stuck with quirky/odd Ouya-only games; this is a model that will likely prove unacceptable to most consumers.
- If you don’t have extra controllers from other game consoles, an extra $150 to purchase three more Ouya controllers is a deterrent.
- The hidden pricing system in the Ouya store puts a lot of people off and runs counter to every other game app store out there.
- You’re walled off from the Google Play store (it can be installed on the Ouya, but it’s a huge and complicated pain to do so) and your existing Google Play purchases and apps can’t be imported to the Ouya store.
The Verdict: If you’re in this for a cutting edge game console, you’re going to have a real bad time. If you’re in this for a lightweight game console that brings the experience of playing Android/mobile games to your living room, provides a stable platform for game emulation, and serves as a more-than-powerful enough media center to run XBMC with flawless HD video playback, the Ouya is a absolute steal at $99.
Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on Google+ if you'd like.
- Published 09/16/13