Friday, October 11, 2013

Ouya - A good first try

Haha, typo is staying ;)


Ahh, Ouya. The little machine that could; the pet dream project which took off thanks to KickStarter. With a weird name, a tiny form factor and a focus on indie games, this little "micro-console that could" is an interesting piece of tech that I would say fits in as a niche product.

It's gotten a lot of praise for it's take on openness, adopting the Android OS, making all games free to try and opening their platform for indies to flourish. But...it's also gotten it's share of hate for its rough edges and from those who assumed it was going to be a contender for other home consoles from the likes of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

Hardware

We'll start off taking a look at the hardware itself. The console is TINY! We're talking just under 3" cubed tiny. I guess that's not surprising, as it's basically the same kind of innards that you'd find in a Android based cell phone, but still, it's a bit jarring to fit the whole thing in one hand easily. It sits nicely by itself near your TV and only has one button that sits on top and acts as the power switch. The back has your HDMI, power and USB ports and over all the unit sports a pleasingly simple look, with a nice brushed metal case on all sides.

The controller is something akin to a 3rd party xbox360 controller and works, but is also kind of clunky. The entire back of the controller is a smooth matte plastic (which feels nice) and the front metal covers on either side (pictured above and below) snap off to give access to the 2 AA battery slots. This is a bit of an alien concept as a placement for batteries, but it's also kind of cool. The plates are held in snug with magnets.

It features 4 face buttons, 2 analogue sticks, a D-Pad and Menu Button on the face, with 4 top buttons (two of which act like triggers) and a middle touch pad (which is rarely utilized). The analogue sticks feel nice and firm and click down well. The D-Pad is okay (I've used both better and worse); The facebuttons (which Spell out Ouya) are decent enough, having a nice stiff click to them.

Users have reported issues with the face buttons sticking under the faceplate. I experimented with this to see if I could replicate. I could indeed, however, one has to be pressing really hard while also pushing that button to the side for this to happen and it's easily fixed by reversing.

The top buttons are leave a lot to be desired. The first 2 buttons click but feel cheap in doing so and the triggers feel terrible. The triggers sport a weak spring system that feels more at home in a cheaply made third party controller. Over all the ergonomic design is a bit rough. While it's not terrible, it definitely needs work and just makes your appreciate the amount of work that goes into first party controllers from the likes of Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo. Its big and your fingers never rest on the top buttons comfortably enough not to feel awkward.

Software

On the software side of things, I've gotten a pretty extensive look at the unit as I got my hands on it a bit early (thanks to supporting their kickstarter project) and from the first time I turned it on... I was unimpressed. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and chopped the awkwardness up to being in a beta stage... but here we are going on 6 months later... and it hasn't improved much. You basically have a small menu consisting of some text lined up on the left side of the screen, clicking any of those takes you to a sub screen, but you're mostly just going to use the 'Play' tab. Which opens up into a fanned out list of games you can download and purchase.

Wholly unimpressed with their GUI.

The settings page is where you'll configure stuff and that's mostly it. One thing I've noticed (you'll notice it too when you're updating the system or playing around with the settings) is that the menus are, at times, stock android screens. I get that they're using Android at their core and are merely running their own 'Ouya' skin over it... but it screams lazy to me.

The rest of the GUI feels slapped together, is sluggish and over all just uninspired.

Finding games isn't too hard. They lump titles together in categories and visualize each with a small box which, if interested, takes you to the store screen for said title. Everything is, again, uninspired... but at least it works. You can jump in and start downloading games without too much hassle.

The games themselves, I don't want to get into too much, as whether or not you enjoy them is your own personal preference. I've tried out a few, but don't feel overly compelled to spend money on them. You're basically getting games that you see on other mobile platforms (Android, iOS), but one thing to note, is that you're choosing from the Ouya store and there is NO connection what so ever to the GooglePlay Store (which, silly me, I assumed would exist)... so forget moving your already purchased games (from your Android device) over to the console.... unless you're into tweaking the system. There are instructions online on how to 'side load' apps and games (read, run without official Ouya support) if you're so interested.


Ahh, SNES, How I love you so. Emulation on the Ouya is, thankfully, decent.

Myself, I've always planned on using my Ouya as an emulator. Thankfully there's some solid emulators on the system for the likes of NES, SNES, Gameboy, Genesis, MAME and even N64, PS1 and NDS. The later (N64 and DS especially) don't run all that well on the hardware but earlier systems are smooth like butter. Ouya even has their own Emulator app that allows you to purchase roms of games, proceeds of which go back to the original developers - which is a wonderful idea... but is plagued with a very poor selection which leaves the idea in the dust. Some emulators are better than others (Super GNES is by far the most visually impressive and best designed), but over all, emulation on the system is very decent.

Over All

The Ouya is an odd machine. Its design is clunky and obviously showing the young company teething as they enter the market. It is not going to replace any other home console of current standing, but it's cute, it's cheap ($99) and is great for emulators. It has games that at least everyone is going to sit down and find something to enjoy as long as you understand it's basically the world of mobile gaming hooked up to your TV. With that said, I like the novelty of it all and enjoy it for the purpose I have for it. It's not for everyone, as much as they'd (the Ouya team) like it to be and its got competition coming along, with rumors of Google preparing something similar, Valve slipping into the console market with SteamOS and their Steamboxes and Sony announcing the Vita TV, which at $99 has a large group of much more prolific games already lined up in a system that seems to do everything the Ouya does and more.

I can only hope that they're successful enough to make future iterations of the machine, improving and becoming their own robust product. As it is now, it kind of feels like the beta version of something better that's got a niche appeal.