The OUYA released worldwide last week, and that fact alone is worth raising a glass to. Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, Julie Uhrman and company proved that you can create, manufacture and launch a console on the kindness of strangers; promising to disrupt the staid conventions with affordable hardware, free-to-try games and an open approach to ownership. Having backed the campaign myself, I'm genuinely proud to have been a part of this grand endeavour.
Now, however, we have to evaluate the OUYA as a viable console rather than a lovely idea.
Turning up is only half the battle. The Kickstarted cube now faces several tough challenges to cement its place in the living room, and to prove its worth as a £99 investment in gaming pleasure rather than a niche curio. Over what we hope will be an exhaustive review, we're going to look at the OUYA hardware, software and even dismantle the whole thing to come to a final verdict.
Please note that the 'Build Quality & Specifications' section has been transplanted from our OUYA pre-launch review because its still relevant (and I don't bill by wordcount).
Build Quality & Specifications
In terms of initial impressions, OUYA plays an absolute blinder. It's a devastatingly elegant machine; a simple yet complex minimalist shape that leads the eye with subtle rounded curves thanks to input from veteran designer Yves Behar. Sure, the OUYA is essentially a cube, but somehow manages to look utterly gorgeous when you're able to appreciate it first-hand.
Once emancipated from the box, the stunning good looks are accompanied by solid, rattle-free build quality and a pleasing sense of weight and heft (admittedly due to some metal plates screwed to the interior of the case as ballast, which I discovered when I disassembled the unit - more on that later).
OUYA's exterior is minimalist and sleek with an emphasis on at-a-glance simplicity. The top surface plays host to a single circular power button lit by a sole LED, while the curved base is slatted to allow for air circulation. Otherwise, barring an etched logo, the only break in the smooth silver sheen is a set of I/O ports on the rear of the device. HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3.0, USB mini and power. Simple. Cables fit snugly into their housing, though the USB and HDMI ports are extremely close together, which could cause problems with larger drives or cables. You'll likely need to invest in a USB hub down the line.
Inside the casing, OUYA packs a Tegra 3 processor (which includes a 1.7 GHz Quad-Core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU and 1GB of RAM), along with ostensibly 8GB of flash memory. Naturally it also contains a Wi-Fi adaptor and Bluetooth functionality. Hardware-wise, this puts the console in line with the ASUS Transformer Prime, and substantially more powerful than its main rival GameStick.
The SD card slot is difficult to find, in that it doesn't exist (despite the useless option to 'mount' SD cards lurking in the Android Jelly Bean back end). We're stuck with the onboard 8GB storage, of which 5-6 GB is usable, that will probably suffice for most Android games but may fill up quickly if you favour more graphically intensive titles. As an example, both Shadowgun and You Don't Know Jack take up 300+ MB apiece. Thankfully, the rear USB port should allow us to expand our storage or at least keep unused games/APKs, and a Micro USB slot allows us to connect it to PC.
My only major hardware concern is that the console can become hot to the touch after a couple of hours of play, which in turn switches on a surprisingly noisy fan that persists for several minutes afterwards. This foible aside, Yves Behar and the design team have much to be proud of, and a slick product that looks right at home in any AV cabinet.
That Controller - Revisited
I all but dropped the hammer on OUYA's controller in our pre-launch review, and though I've started to warm to the retail peripheral over the last few weeks, it's still not the finest weapon in a gamer's arsenal. Basic design is acceptable if incredibly ugly, with its long handles becoming comfortable to hold once you find your own personal hand position. Well-placed analogue sticks are solid and feel satisfying to use beyond a slightly larger dead zone than its competitors, while weighting is neutral and reasonable. This is largely down to the two removable silver panels hiding a AA battery on each side, which are firmly secured by powerful magnets in the retail edition. A slightly rough seam near the triggers may annoy, but only if you go out of your way to rub your trigger fingers against it.
So far, so functional. Unfortunately that's about the only praise I can heap on this unambitious peripheral.
The thunderously awful triggers and bumpers are still a bugbear. Seemingly made from chocolate box inlay plastic and developing an embarrassing squeak after extended play, they lend the peripheral a cheap and tacky feel that makes a mockery of the expensive £39.99 RRP. Bumpers are similarly flimsy and mounted at an oddly high position that can be uncomfortable to reach, and also prone to sticking. Bizarrely, the D-Pad features surprisingly sharp edges that can cause more than a fair share of irritation - did they even test it?
Though I was initially impressed by the built-in central touchpad, which automatically brings up an on-screen cursor when pressure is applied, I should probably point out that nothing uses it to any great extent. Even the basic GUI clearly isn't optimised for cursors (the marketplace doesn't even support it!), though applications will come with time. Android touchscreen ports, if nothing else... we'll talk about those later.
Thankfully the OUYA is natively compatible with a huge number of alternative peripherals via Bluetooth. DualShock 3s, OnLive controllers, Bluetooth keyboards and mice can be connected via a painless setup procedure, while wired Xbox 360 controllers are also supported via USB. Again, a USB hub is probably a wise investment.
In keeping with the OUYA's emphasis on simplicity, setup is a cinch. Once you've plugged in the requisite cabling, synced your controller and connected to a wireless network, your console will automatically download the latest firmware updates and patch itself up. This process can take a little time depending on the quality of your internet connection, but you won't have to wait long.
From there, getting involved is an easy matter of registering an OUYA account and credit card. However, it's worth noting that you have to register a payment card before continuing to the splash screen, though it can be changed later.
OS & Marketplace
The OUYA OS (as mentioned, a bastardised version of Android Jelly Bean sporting a custom front end) has received several major firmware updates since our last encounter, and much has been significantly improved. The friendly splash screen still gives you four easy options to choose from: the self-explanatory Play, Discover, Create and Manage tabs, but now features the option to remotely deactivate the controller or console.
As you'd expect, Play presents you with a simple list of your downloaded software, denoted by big vibrant box art panels. It's largely unchanged, though software will now install and unpack automatically than requiring you to manually install each one individually. Going forward, however, Boxer8 will need to allow us to create folders or categories to avoid the menu turning into a messy disorganized jumble.
Discover will be your first port of call. The OUYA marketplace has received a major refit in the run-up to launch, now completely filling the screen and offering a number of trending channels and playlists. Every game is free to download - either because they're completely free to play, trial & unlock or microtransaction-supported, so grabbing software is a simple matter of selecting a few titles and waiting for them to be automatically unpacked to the Play screen. A download queue was recently patched in, meaning that multiple downloads now won't mysteriously abort, though it's still not possible to view the damn thing.
Discovery could still be an issue. Without being promoted into a playlist, games will eventually just languish in the 'sandbox' or genre categories, potentially making some of the best indie software difficult to find. This is a problem on iOS and Google Play too, of course, but they benefit from a much more comprehensive media coverage and dedicated sites who cover the scene. Not to mention browser marketplaces that let players share links to deserving software. It should also be a requirement to list whether a game is fully free, freemium or trial/unlock in the marketplace, along with IAP pricing guides, since you won't know how much you'll actually need to spend until it's on your hard drive.
Make contains developer-only access to alpha builds and a hopeless web browser that's only intuitive to use if you've synced a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Finally, Manage grants access to account and system settings, which is far too boring to waste extra words on.
As previously reported, Achievements, online chat and Friend Lists still haven't been implemented, but a dearth of online multiplayer games means that we won't miss this functionality for the time being. They'll definitely require a major shake-up of the interface when they arrive, however.
Games & Apps
Games make or break a console, and OUYA promised to shake up traditional home console thinking with a exciting new business model. Once games are optimised for the hardware and deployed on the proprietary marketplace, they're all free to download and enjoy to some extent; whether requiring a one-off fee to unlock a trial version or little in-app purchases along the way. It's a fantastic concept that allows the diminutive console to offer a varied and inexpensive gaming ecosystem, with customers able to try before they buy and enjoy plenty of full games for absolutely nothing.
All well and good, but the reality is that OUYA's launch software lineup lacks punch. To put it mildly. As things stand, the flagship highlights are optimised ports of Final Fantasy III and Shadowgun, both of which retail at full whack and have been available on Google Play for many months. Elsewhere, some functional if underwhelming ports of The Bard's Tale and Ravensword: Shadowlands offer the most solid 3D gaming available on the platform, with most smaller titles failing to consistently deliver capable three dimensional visuals. Steer well clear of the abysmal Flashout 3D and ropey Vendetta Online, no matter what the box art and blurb tells you.
The list of true OUYA exclusives is embarrassingly brief, with main contenders being a ChronoBlade demo, TowerFall (more on that later) and Deep Dungeons Of Doom, which is cheekily also available on iOS. Otherwise, you're bombarded by a hundred-strong selection of ropey ports and first attempts from inexperienced developers. Pledges of support from major publishers have bore little fruit at launch, and it's easy to feel more than a little cheated at face value.
Dig deeper, however, and you'll discover plenty of worthwhile indie games, many of which are totally free.
EVAC and Knightmare Tower are both worth an immediate download, offering gorgeous visuals and a relentlessly compelling gameplay experience from tiny studios. Syder Arcade does the business if you're willing to pony up a premium price for excellent side-scrolling shooting, while Super Crate Box, Saturday Morning RPG and Zombies & Trains! wait in the wings. There's also a wealth of intriguing (often totally free) experimental games to check out, not limited to the magnificent Hidden In Plain Sight and a slew of Flash titles from VVVVVV creator Terry Cavanagh including the engrossing yet utterly depressing Oiche Mhaith. Most of these games are already available on PC, browser, smartphone, Xbox Live Indie, Vita and other platforms, but hey, it's nice to have them. As someone who's extolled the virtues of Xbox Live Indie scene over the last few years, it's fascinating to see a similar system supporting an entire console. Adventurous indie gamers will be in seventh heaven, but this still won't be enough for many prospective adopters.
TowerFall deserves special mention. This gorgeous sprite-based multiplayer brawler takes its cues from artillery games like Worms and Super Smash Bros, delivering a riotously rambunctious competitive experience. It's just the vanguard of a veritable army of enjoyable local multiplayer titles such as Sci-Fighters, Hidden In Plain Sight, You Don't Know Jack, Rush Bros. (a bit expensive for what it is in our opinion) and Fast Fast Laser Laser amongst others... which suddenly opens up a hitherto unknown niche for the console. OUYA's tiny form factor and Bluetooth controller support make it a fantastic portable local multiplayer machine; small enough to effortlessly take to a mate's house and immediately compatible with whatever peripherals they happen to have lying around. I hope that this side of things will continue to be supported, and that some larger publishers see the wisdom in releasing some of their classic fighting games on the system.
Several emulators are available, supporting ROM files run off a USB stick. I haven't tried any of them due to the legal grey area surrounding emulation (as far as I know it's only legal if you've flashed the ROMs yourself from a game you own or the title is classified as abandonware), but have been informed that they work very well indeed. Which is exactly what I'd say if I did in fact try them and just want to secure my legal position. Though of course I didn't. Maybe. Regardless, those who want to emulate classic games on their telly will be well away here, and it may in fact sell them the console outright.
As mentioned, several big-name studios and publishers have lined up to support the OUYA, but the fruits of their labours are still seemingly far from release. Kim Swift's Soul Fjord looks particularly impressive, as does Double Fine's Broken Age and Legends Of Aethereus. Even OnLive pledged to make an appearance, which would massively bulk up what the OUYA can offer. At launch, mind, they're nowhere to be found, leaving OUYA somewhat toothless at the time of writing.
No matter how you slice it, no matter how you spin it, OUYA needs better games and desirable exclusive yesterday.
Non-gaming applications are thin on the ground beyond TuneIn (a cool free radio app) and TwitchTV, a shame since many prospective OUYA owners were looking forward to installing the likes of XBMC and Netflix. There's a way around that, however...
Opening Up: Unscrewing & Side-Loading
Pointless wrist clips at the ready, boys and girls, because the OUYA is designed to be an open console. So long as you've got a small hex allen key, getting inside is a simple matter of removing four small screws on the top of the device, at which point you can slide out the motherboard, I/O ports and all as a single unit. The fan can be detached by removing its four Phillips screws, but is otherwise the only modular component as far as I can see. Well, unless you count the unscrewable ballast plates, that is.
Realising this, I promptly reassembled the console and put my allen key back in the toolbox. See, while some tremendously clever people will doubtlessly be able to do some tremendously clever things with this open console, it has no practical application for the overwhelming majority of consumers. Without upgradeable components to worry about or any hint of a hidden SD card slot (shame), we'll have to rely on some brave hardware hackers to put their soldering irons to good use - or more likely root the OS with interesting results.
However, the term 'open console' doesn't just apply to hardware. Since the OUYA runs on Android and features a web browser, you can 'side-load' existing Android installation files (APKs) using Dropbox or even Gmail attachments. It's a faff (FAQs are out there), but it's possible to set up functional versions of XBMC and Netflix after 20-60 minutes of fussing and fiddling. Much of the OUYA's appeal will come from the fun of simply seeing what works and what you can force it to do.
Games, on the other hand, are not guaranteed to run properly, display correctly or support controller inputs. It's also worth noting that the Google Play app simply won't work - of course, this was the first thing I tried.
It's Not An "Android Console"
OUYA runs on Android, but one of the most damaging misconceptions about the device is that it's effectively an "Android console." Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only do games have to be specifically optimised for the hardware and released via its proprietary marketplace (beyond those side-loaded APKs), but it's a unique platform with its own inputs and display.
It's not enough to just optimise and release an Android title designed for touchscreens, since even the most impressive and ambitious games often feel flimsy and pared-back when played on an HDTV with a traditional controller. As an example, Shadowgun may feel utterly fantastic on a tablet, but it suddenly becomes a primitive shadow of its former self when we've got a controller in our hands. It's all about context: it's hard not to compare OUYA games to PS3 and Xbox 360 titles on a big telly, even though the hardware is worlds apart.
Going forward, as mentioned, the OUYA needs to attract totally unique software with inputs and visuals designed specifically for the platform. Ports will be welcome, but will not be enough.
Reality Check: Problems & Pitfalls
I've remained stalwartly upbeat about the OUYA's potential over the last few months, but the starry-eyed idealism has to stop. Now. A year on from those heady Kickstarter days, and the console scene has shifted on a tectonic scale.
In many ways, you could argue that the OUYA is a solution to a problem that doesn't actually exist, or at best a stopgap. Every developer out there believes that we're headed towards native streaming between mobile devices and smart TVs, with many current phones and tablets already offering wired and wireless solutions. You can't browse HUKD without tripping over offers for readily-available Android Wi-Fi HDMI dongles. Once this functionality comes as standard, the case for buying a middle man between your games and telly becomes completely moot.
It's also difficult to imagine a worse time for the OUYA to launch. In sharp contrast to the boredom and malaise surrounding current-gen consoles a year ago, when we were ready for a brand new device to shake things up, we now have the PS4 and Xbox One to look forward to - the former of which offers self-publishing and a raft of indie titles. Steam Big Picture mode lets us connect a modest laptop (let alone a monstrous gaming rig) to our televisions and enjoy a console experience. Most cutting-edge smartphones utterly crush the OUYA in hardware terms, not to mention medium-spec tablets, while they've also got access to an enormous existing games library that the cubic console can only dream of. Considering that the next generation of Tegra processors is also breathing down our necks, it's hard to shake the feeling that the adorable cube could be obsolete before you remove the packaging.
Even Boxer8 acknowledges this, promising annualised hardware upgrades that improve onboard storage and keep abreast of faster processors. Many potential consumers will naturally ask why they should bother investing in the first generation device, and to be honest, I'm hard-pressed to think of a reason beyond blind faith in its development community and homebrew potential.
Faith that I fervently hope will be rewarded in time, but simply won't be enough to justify laying out one hundred notes for most gamers. I know this sounds uncharacteristically downbeat and pessimistic, but mollycoddling this console will hurt it in the long run. Tough love, dear reader, is the way to go.
- Attractive affordable console with solid build quality
- Ecosystem already supports various genres and pricing models
- All software is free to try - whether trial & unlock, freemium or totally gratis
- Touchpad works well, but needs to be better supported by the GUI
- Simple setup, everything included (even AAs)
- Natively compatible with Bluetooth controllers and many USB peripherals
- Relatively easy to side-load Android applications
- Free development tools unlock potential for flourishing bedroom, homebrew and garage development scene
- Perfect for diehard indie and local multiplayer fans
- Nasty overpriced controller
- Anaemic games selection beyond niche indie titles and competitive couch multiplayer
- Lacks exclusive clout
- Many promised apps not available at launch, may require side-loading
- Proprietary marketplace limits game selection, discovery an issue
- OS, interface, browser and poxy virtual keyboard still need work
- Achievements, online chat and friend lists not implemented at launch
- Arguably already obsolete in hardware terms
- Niche appeal
The Verdict: The OUYA has arrived, but turning up was just the first step in what will be a long and challenging journey. Lacking compelling exclusive launch software and facing the very real threat of out-of-box obsolescence, Boxer8's Kickstarted cube has released at a truly horrible time, and does little to warrant a purchase for the vast majority of consumers. Yet.
It's not all doom and gloom by any means. OUYA seems set to be a perfect fit for adventurous indie gaming fans and clearly has a niche as a brilliant (and portable!) local multiplayer fun factory. Streaming media will turn it into a tiny centralised hub for your music and films, while OnLive could well unlock a host of possibilities. Better yet, the open nature of the OS and free development tools will doubtlessly lead to several homebrew applications we haven't even considered, with free dev tools allowing amateur coders to chance their arm.
All of which, unfortunately, you'll just have to take on a leap of faith.
Looking ahead, OUYA has its work cut out to prove its worth as a living room console as opposed to a fun toy for homebrew aficionados, a shady emulator or briefly entertaining curio destined to gather dust after the honeymoon period. It needs to carve out its niche and bully its way into our lounges with strong software and innovative applications. OUYA may be cute, affordable and a fantastic concept, but right now it's just a £99.99 punt - not an investment.
I truly, genuinely, absolutely hope that I can eat those words in a few months time. We'll naturally keep you up to date with the latest.