Gear

OUYA Review

Hey guys, the OUYA is actually pretty good!

Reviews, previews, and hands-on videos for the OUYA have been popping up left and right on the internet since the budget console launched a couple weeks ago. The overall reaction from game critics has been cautiously optimistic at best and straight up condemning at worst. As a backer of the original Kickstarter campaign, I have been using my OUYA for about a month now, and if there’s one thing I need to say at the start of my own review it’s this: the OUYA is not as bad as you may have been led to believe.

Setup

I recently watched a video preview where a journalist stated that it took them over two hours to setup the OUYA. It took me ten to fifteen minutes. I can’t imagine what would have caused the process to take that long, as the OUYA is literally the simplest modern console I have ever used. There is an HDMI, an ethernet, a USB, and an AC adapter port on the back, and a single power button on top. That’s it. Physical setup was an absolute breeze, with the console quickly connecting to my wifi network and automatically downloading the latest software update on first launch. The process was fast, easy, and as I said, had me up and running about 10 minutes after starting the console for the first time. There were no issues syncing either of the two included controllers, either. I had to dig through a couple menus to setup an account with payment info, but that wasn’t a big deal at all. It’s pretty much expected that modern consoles will have day-one patches, and as long as you have a decent internet connection and a solid network, your first experience with the OUYA setup process should be a pleasant one.

Controllers

I may as well get the biggest negative aspect of the OUYA out of the way first: the controllers suck. The D-pad is a joke, and everything from the face buttons to the triggers feels really cheap. The thumbsticks have almost no grip and feel like a slightly less convex version of those on a Playstation controller. I have smallish hands, and using the controller often forced me to stretch my fingers, particularly when using the triggers. With an Xbox controller, my fingers go past the triggers, so I’m pressing the triggers with the middle of my pointer finger. With the OUYA controller, I have to press the triggers with the ends of my fingers. It feels different, and simply isn’t as comfortable. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the touchpad on the device, but to be honest, when needed, it served it’s purpose well enough. No it isn’t great, but it’s serviceable for using the built-in web browser. The biggest surprise to me is the battery locations. Yes, the OUYA controllers take two AA batteries in two separate locations: one in each side grip. You have to actually remove the front plate from the left and right hand grip in order to swap out the batteries, which is a bit annoying, but not a deal-breaker since you probably won’t be using the OUYA controllers all that much.

Sadly, the OUYA controllers suffer from unreliable response time and input issues depending on what game you play. Some games seem to have zero issues with input or latency, while others will find you constantly running in the wrong direction or activating abilities you didn’t intend to use. At one point I actually checked to make sure that Bluetooth technology doesn’t require line-of-site, because the issues I was experiencing seemed really similar to IR devices that stop working when something gets in the path of the invisible data waves. The problem with using a third party controllers is the fact that most games don’t have native support for them. It may work perfectly fine in the OUYA menus, only to almost completely stop functioning when I launched a game. Most of the games that do work with third party controllers don’t change in-game instructions or prompts, so you’ll still see the O, U, Y, A buttons rather than A, B, X, Y or circle, square, triangle, X. This isn’t a huge deal, but it’s a shame that more games don’t fully support non-OUYA controllers.

All that said, one of the best features of this console is it’s compatibility with almost any USB or bluetooth-enabled third party controller or peripheral. The OUYA’s single USB port supports USB hubs, meaning you can connect multiple Xbox or PS3 controllers via USB, or even wirelessly sync a PS3 controller (Xbox controllers aren’t supported without the wireless USB dongle used for syncing them with with PCs). On top of that, there are several games that actually support using your iOS or Android device as a controller. The other night I played Bomb Squad with five people, all using our iPhones as controllers via a free app we downloaded. It worked flawlessly. In fact, the iPhone controllers actually had better response time than the OUYA controllers. Finally, if the touch pad is really bugging you that much, you can connect a mouse and keyboard to your OUYA (via a USB hub) and use that with the bundled web browser or system menus.

Software

When I first booted up the OUYA I was mostly unimpressed with the limited game library and seemingly limited settings. That all ended when I discovered that the OUYA comes with a fully functioning web browser and advanced settings that allow you to natively download and install any utility that supports Android. From XBMC to emulators, the OUYA truly is open in the extent that you can fully manage and control what files are stored on your system and what is installed on it. This means that, in spite of the current game-focused limitations of the OUYA at launch (there is no Netflix app or similar types of media utilities at launch), there is already a variety of user-made or modded resources that can be used to enhance the console and make it more useful. I expect that, considering how many OUYAs have been/are being sold, we will see a strong home-brew community of developers rise up to support the hardware in the near future. This will greatly benefit people who own a OUYA the same way it benefited early adopters of the Sony PSP. The difference being the Sony did their best to lock down the PSP with each subsequent software update, while the OUYA developers fully support keeping the hardware and software open for user development. Cool.

Games

We all know that when it comes to new consoles, it’s all about the games. Microsoft tried emphasizing other aspects of the Xbox One and, well, look where that left them. This may shock you, but the OUYA absolutely delivers on the games front, with over 200 games available at launch. Before I go any further, I want to clarify that the OUYA is an Android device, so it runs games that generally are intended for Android devices. If you buy an OUYA expecting to see blockbuster AAA titles, you’re buying the wrong console. The best games I’ve played over the past few weeks are obviously intended to be played as you would games in an arcade: as quick, fun diversions from your regularly-scheduled brown-and-gray shooters on your main consoles.
The best part of the OUYA games library is the fact that you can play every single game for free. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay for a “full” version of a game, but about half the games are free-to-play, and offer daily tokens or the ability to earn more plays by collecting items in the game itself. It’s not unlike the Xbox Live Arcade, where you can download demos of games you’re interested in. With the OUYA, every single game lets you try before you buy, and I found that the demo periods were often quite a bit more generous than XBLA games. In fact, you actually can’t buy a game without downloading it and playing it first! I really like this model, as there should be no complaints users who bought a game without knowing what they were getting into.
Without further ado, here are my top five OUYA games. FYI: I am only listing games that I haven’t played before, as there are plenty of OUYA ports of mobile games that have already been released on iOS and Android devices or that I have played prior to receiving the console.

Ice Rage - This is the first game that really proved to me that the OUYA is the kind of console that is perfect while hanging out with a friend or two on a boring afternoon. This game is essentially air hockey, with each person controlling a goalie and a hockey player. The goalie moves in the direction you move the player, and the you can both smack your opponent and shoot at the goal. It’s fast-paced and a lot of fun.

Stalagfight - Looking for a new arcade game to get addicted to? Look no further. Stalagfight has you in what appears to be the belly of an erupting volcano. Your character can jump and stick to rocks that are falling from the sky. It’s up to you to rotate the rock that you’re standing on to get the best angle then jump to the next one. The difficulty ramps up the higher you jump. To better explain, here’s a gameplay video! There is a 1v1 multiplayer mode to see who can last the longest, but the single mode is the bread and butter of this game.

Little Crane - Ready to fulfill your life-long dreams of becoming a professional crane operator? No? Too bad, this game is awesome. It’s more of a physics simulator with light gaming elements, but I entertained while trying to complete the various crane-based challenges far more than I expected . The most fun came from handing a second controller to my wife. Each connected controller can control every aspect of the crane, so working as a team was quite a challenge (“Ok babe, I’ll drive while you control the crane arm!”). Suffice to say, I got punched in the arm more than a few times, but we had a great time and actually made it past the first few challenges without getting into an all-out fist fight on the couch. Barely.

Tower Fall - In continuing with the OUYA’s theme of quick competitions with friends, Tower Fall is a fantastically retrofitted, side-scrolling arena combat game that has you jumping and sliding your way around a variety of levels while shooting arrows at up to three other players. There are power ups, environmental kills, and many other surprises as you shoot your way to victory. This is an extremely balanced and polished game, and one of the best on the OUYA at the moment. It’s also possibly the most expensive, at $15. I like this, as I feel that most games undercut themselves too much in order to reach as many players as possible. I hope more highly-polished games come out on the OUYA at higher-than-average price points.

Bomb Squad - This is hands-down my favorite OUYA game thus far. On the surface, Bomb Squad feels like a modern rendition of the classic Bomberman game for Nintendo 64. It is not a copy or clone of Bomberman, but it takes many of those concepts and inserts them into a highly polished package that has already made for hours of fun with me and many of my friends. The best part? Bomb Squad supports up to eight local players simultaneously bombing, punching, and throwing each other around a large number of arenas an game modes. Using the previously mentioned iOS controller app on our iPhones, me and my friends were able to instantly link to the game, create our profiles, and start blasting each other to oblivion without touching an OUYA controller. It’s the most fun I’ve had with a multiplayer game in a long time, and there are oodles of customization options to create playlists with the game-types and arenas your friends like the most. It’s well worth the $5 price of admission, but the demo generously gives you an hour of game time, which only ticks down when you’re in the game.

In light of these great games, a review of the OUYA would not be complete without mentioning that the OUYA supports a variety of emulators for consoles from NES to N64, and even the original Playstation. While the emulators themselves are available by searching in the app library, ROMs (and other game files) can only be attained via the OUYA’s built-in web browser. The process of downloading and using the ROMs is still fairly easy if you know the right websites to search. Each emulator I tried came bundled with a bunch of different features, including save states, visual filters, and other graphical options that should be expected considering their PC counterparts. There are claims that the OUYA can’t play N64 or Playstation games, but those claims obviously come from people who don’t understand that different games play differently based on what settings you input into the emulator you are using.

Final Thoughts

The games and utilities available to the OUYA have proved to me that this is more than just a $99 classic games emulator. While only one of the games I mentioned (Tower Fall) is exclusive to the OUYA, I don’t doubt that more will come in the future. There are many gamers who can’t stand the thought of playing a game without a physical controller . In my opinion, these people are missing out on a huge amount of unique and creative games that were, up until now, only available on mobile devices. Putting a controller in their hands means that the OUYA is allowing these games to by played by a completely new kind of gamer, one that is closer to the “hardcore” crowd. I think that’s pretty cool.

Sure, the controllers are crap, but the OUYA console is easily worth the $100 price tag on its own. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a cheaper, controller-free bundle comes out in the near future, as the OUYA’s support for popular USB and bluetooth controllers (including mobile-devices-as-controllers) is awesome, even if not all games yet support it. The OUYA developers have taken the “if you build it, they will come” approach to their console. At launch, the OUYA is a solid hardware skeleton with software muscles that will only get stronger as time passes on. Over 63,000 people backed the OUYA kickstarter, and the cute little consoles have been selling out everywhere since the launch a week ago. It’s safe to say that, despite the somewhat negative backlash from many media outlets and backers crying due to shipping woes, the OUYA is already a success in it’s own right.

Do I think you should buy an OUYA? Well, the question I have for you is, do you like creative, pickup-and-play multiplayer games? Do you like tinkering with software and hardware to maximize it’s potential? Do you like playing old school games without having to blow on cartridges until they work? Are you getting bored of the constant barrage of dust-colored AAA shooters and licensed titles? If you answered yes to any of these, you will most likely have a good time with the OUYA. On top of that, in a world of pricey gaming PCs and consoles, you can’t really beat $99 for a piece of hardware that will continue to be updated with new features in the future.

To put things into some final perspective, just keep in mind that the OUYA is an Android device. Android phones and iPhones are two totally different products with different goals. An iPhone is not intimidating for technical noobs, and is full of easy-to-find features out of the box. With Android phones, if you aren’t already a bit technically savvy, you’re probably not going to use them to their fullest potential, as some of their best features involve aftermarket software. If you are the kind of person who loves downloading and trying new apps, tinkering with the file system and settings, and trying to find ways to maximize your product, the OUYA is for you. That’s not to say that someone who isn’t technically savvy can’t enjoy the OUYA, because they can. They just won’t be using the device for anything more than the built-in games and apps, which is a shame. I’ve enjoyed the OUYA so far, and have no regrets for backing the project. It feels great to own a truly open game console for the first time.

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  • Alex

    Hi Matt,

    really enjoyed your review. One of the few positives around, unfortunately. I own an OUYA, too, and I like it as much as you do. Since I couldn’t get more info about it, can you please tell me the name of the so called “iOS controller app”? Thanks a million, bye, Alex

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