OUYA impressions: Hands-on with the early backer unit

Lagging behind the finish line

When the OUYA was first revealed on Kickstarter last July, my curiosity was instantly piqued. Being the kind of gamer who values sheer fun and general style and aesthetic over pure graphical processing power, the more I read about OUYA, the more infatuated I became with the idea of a cheap, open-ended console that would allow independent developers to unleash their crazy ideas upon the world.

This is perhaps why at approximately 3:00 in the morning of August 29 I decided, “What the hell?” and threw down the requisite cold hard cash to become a part of gaming history, even though the OUYA creators were well beyond their initial goal of just under a million bucks — already breaking that amount eight times over and then some.

Fast forward to early May, two months beyond the promised date for when early backers would receive their console, and the small, admittedly sleek device sits among all of my other much larger and more intimidating consoles, waiting for its day in the sun.

And if I’m to be perfectly honest, that little Android go-getter is probably going to be facing a long wait.

Right out of the box, the OUYA is a device that quite literally screams, “Give me a chance!”

The moment an early backer opens their little shoebox, they are greeted with a large red insert with lettering that tells you in bold white, “THANK YOU FOR BELIEVING.”

While it’s a nice gesture, believing and seeing are two completely different realities. As soon as you pull away this insert, you’re greeted with the sleek little console and the controller. The controller is positioned in such a way as to make it appear broken, the intent obviously to show you that the batteries go beneath the controller’s faceplates — but the vibe it immediately gives off is that you’ve just purchased a third-world country knockoff of other, more popular consoles.

The Console: So far, so good

The OUYA itself is a small, quiet little device. Etched on the side of the early backer units is a list of the largest contributors to the Kickstarted project, including Minecraft’s Notch. So that’s pretty neat.

The console has an HDMI port, a regular USB port, a micro USB port, an Ethernet port, an audio out jack and the adapter plug socket. It’s a relatively simple little piece of hardware, and turning it on is as straightforward as pressing the button that takes up most of the real estate on top of the device.

I actually like the design and simplicity of the console. It fits in well among my other beastly devices, and it doesn’t demand that its presence is known every time I boot it up. If I had one nitpick to make, it might be that my chosen Blue Rigger heavy-duty HDMI cable makes it pretty difficult to keep the tiny console standing normally the way it’s supposed to, but this is more of a personal complaint since the box it came in provided a perfectly good, albeit somewhat short HDMI cable. I just happen to prefer my own more durable, longer cables.

The OUYA Interface: Not quite sophisticated…

Unfortunately, the ‘cheap knock-off’ vibe of the OUYA never really goes away upon boot-up. While the console provides you with everything you need to get started for the first time, including the requisite adapter, HDMI cable, and even batteries for the controller — the initial boot-up after a required ten- to fifteen-minute update reveals an interface that is so simple and so laggy that it calls back the early days of the Xbox 360 dashboard.

You are given four main options: Play, Discover, Create, and Manage. These are pretty self-explanatory, and have also been covered before so I won’t bore with all of the details. Most importantly to gamers, within the Discover option you’re given various categorizations of downloadable games, such as Staff Picks, Genres, Favs, and finally the Sandbox which are basically games that are either recently uploaded or haven’t really gained the attention of other games.

In my experience, a lot of the games in the Sandbox section are probably not going to garner much notoriety except maybe for how terrible they are. But I’ll get to that later.

The upside of all of this is that downloading games and apps is a relatively painless process, and it unsurprisingly resembles the same sort of process of downloading games to a Droid phone and instantly launching them. The majority of games on offer are also pretty small affairs and don’t generally go beyond 100 MB except in cases where the Tegra 3 chip is using its graphical processing power to output some relatively impressive graphics — if you set your expectations within reasonable limits.

The Controller: Lag and then some

After first booting up my OUYA and launching into my first couple of games, I quickly learned a few of the controller’s fatal flaws. The first is the fact that it’s a Bluetooth wireless controller, and not an incredibly great one at that. There is noticeable lag in most games, and it can be really frustrating in downloads like Canabalt that require fast-paced manipulation of the buttons to get through the never-ending obstacles.

The lag isn’t even totally consistent, either — in some games it is a constant issue, though in others (e.g. Beast Boxing Turbo) it is barely noticeable except for when anything blocks the path between the controller in your hand and the device itself (such as, oh I don’t know, a coffee table, or this computer I’m writing this on…). Completely weird issues with control due to lag also pop up from time to time and threaten to completely ruin the experience. Lag issues seem to be improving day by day, though after extended play the interface and some of the games still seem to get bogged down by lag.

The second big issue with the controller is how the magnetic faceplates sit upon the main body of the thing. Because of the looseness of the faceplates, the face O, U, Y, and A buttons tend to stick under them, causing an immediate issue that disrupts way too much playtime. The faceplates themselves do a good job of staying in place, but the controller’s design fails because of the extra space in the faceplate button holes that allows the buttons to stick under them. Julie Uhrman has noted this issue and has promised the the company is working on further renovating the controller for launch to deal with it, but only time and the hands of more enthusiastic (read: younger) gamers will tell if the magnetic faceplate thing is even a good idea to begin with.

A final issue with the controller is the touch sensitivity of the front pad. The pad works as a barely functioning fingerpad, with an onscreen cursor only sort of following your finger movements. You can certainly get through menu prompts with this pad by double tapping on them, but just getting the cursor to hover above the menu prompt is a huge fight to get it to do what you want.

The one positive thing I can say about the controller is that the company definitely got down the basic form and correct heft of the thing. It feels good to hold, and because of the aluminum faceplates, it has a heaviness that is just about right on target with other console controllers. Besides the actual functionality issues, the controller avoids most  pitfalls that would continue the ‘cheap knock-off’ theme.

So that’s good, I guess? Moving on.

The Games and Apps: triumph or tribulation of the indies

For having 104 games available at launch, it’s rather disconcerting that about 10 of those games currently on display are at a level that actually seems feasible for enjoyable play. A great deal of the games that you’ll find on the OUYA (primarily in the Sandbox section) feel similar to so many Xbox Live Indie throwaways. They’re games made by beginning developers that are barely playable and not very fun. In a way, I suppose this should be expected as par for the course — one can only hope that if the OUYA does succeed financially, more good indie developers will be attracted to the thing and thus much better choices will be available.

This isn’t to say that there are no good games available. The problem that comes with these valid choices falls in the free-to-play model that the OUYA has adopted. In some cases, you’ll get a chance to play a few minutes of the game before it begins demanding money from you, whether through in-app purchases or in simply asking you repeatedly to buy the full game even before the demo is over.

In many ways, playing OUYA games reminds me of when I was a kid and I’d buy a floppy disc of 101 shareware games from Fry’s Electronics, and most of them would be total shit but then you’d find Commander Keen, and it’d be fun until the demo session expired and you’d either have to figure out how to get money out of your parents to pay for the game, or you’d learn from a friend how to crack the game and get the full version by other means. In other words, the pay model used feels like taking a few giant steps backward.

Speaking of illicit means of downloading games, the OUYA offers a few emulators for systems such as the NES, the SNES, the Nintendo DS, and the N64. Admittedly, I did check out the SNES and N64 emulators, though only for SCIENCE and only with roms of the games I own already on the Wii and Wii U’s Virtual Consoles. The N64 emulator outputs gorgeous HD visuals though as expected it functions erratically and has severe sound issues, while the SNES emulator works pretty well save for the controller lag rearing its ugly head yet again. Regardless, there have certainly been better options in the past on the old Wii’s homebrew channel for those really into the whole emulation scene.

Among all of the mediocre to terrible choices for gaming, a few diamonds do shine through. Oddly, the games that I find myself returning to still are the games that keep it very simple yet have great gameplay mechanics and no noticeable controller issues.

A few of these games that I’d personally cast the spotlight on are Vector, an already free flash runner on PC that feels very much like a two-dimensional Mirror’s Edge, and my personal absolute favorite, No Brakes Valet, a hilarious experience with incredibly simple DOS-like graphics that tasks you with parking a ton of cars in a lot by trying to both control them and slow them down as they go careening in from the left of the screen.

No Brakes Valet is especially notable because it exemplifies what I believe the OUYA should be all about — games that can be played with friends on your TV that focus on having fun and aren’t too concerned about impressing you with graphical prowess.

Similarly, there is another experimental ‘game’ that I can imagine being great fun with a group of drunk friends (and one that caused my partner to repeatedly declare that it was ‘possibly the stupidest game he had ever played’) called The Amazing Frog? — an experience in which you try to guide a frog around his world of bouncy castles, fans, and explosive cars/barrels with often hilarious results. Your frog can either run forward or jump, and pretty much everything it does is incredibly clumsy. The point of the ‘game’ is to try to get the poor guy to go flying as far as possible. It’s weird and purposeless in the same way as Noby Noby Boy, but also can be pretty hilarious.

Currently, there are only a couple notable apps on the system, but I’m happy to report that they work rather well. Twitch.tv has an incredibly quick boot-up and streams pretty nicely, though the interface leaves a bit to be desired. Tune In Radio shines as a really great app to find both radio stations and podcasts, and it works as expected. The apps on the OUYA get me excited for what will be released after launch, as this little system may become my go-to for Netflix and other streaming services.

Conclusion: Maybe we should believe harder…

If the OUYA can truly improve its sloppy, inconsistent, and ultimately laggy controller and work on professionalizing its interface a little bit, there may be hope for the cheap little console yet. The open-ended developer friendly nature of the device is enticing, not so much for me developing anything personally as I threw my programming coat up on the rack at the age of 13 with the advent of C++ over QBASIC, but for anyone else with an interest in developing and releasing games without dealing with evil publisher overlords.

The possibility of developers releasing awesome, simple experiences on the machine in the future excites me to no end, and I hope that the OUYA does succeed if for no other reason than to allow talented devs another outlet to rise from obscurity.

About the lag, though — it’s simply got to go or the thing’s going to most certainly crash and burn when released to a wider, less tolerating audience.

Casey B.