The Ouya, a £99 games console powered by Android which raised over £8.5 million in Kickstarter pre-orders, was supposed to smash open the games industry and bring more indie classics to the living room. Sadly, it just doesn't live up to the hype.
Consoles have always been expensive, but smartphones and the resulting mobile gaming boom has proven that dirt-cheap gaming is big business. The Ouya brings that concept to the living room, with some impressive brands like Square Enix and Sega in its lineup. It's also the most accessible living room console for indie devs to make and distribute their own games, which is an obvious winner in our books.
The console: a small cube which sits inoffensively under the TV -- a very reasonable size, though with the meek processing power to match. The controller, which can make or break a console, fits into my large hands without a problem but the buttons feel squishy and lack that soft click you're used to on other consoles.
I wanted to like the Ouya. I really did. But Ouya took my goodwill and ran like Mo Farah into the sunset from the moment I turned it on.
The first challenge, though, is fitting the batteries in the controller. I won't tell you how I finally achieved this, because this puzzle proved to be more satisfying than playing the console. If you buy an Ouya, be prepared to set aside at least five minutes to scratch and prod at every panel on the controller. Clue: whatever you try, do the opposite.
The real issue with the controller is that the buttons are awful. To reaffirm my first impressions, the Ouya asks to fill out my account details on one of those awful on-screen keyboards before I can try anything else. After battling through several entry fields, I'm told "my internet connection isn't playing nice." My internet connection has played nicely for months without a single restart, and while I appreciate the technical effect of bringing a new device into the house, I can't help but spot the irony that my router already thinks the Ouya is too lame to endow with a connection.
Now there's a new dilemma. Do I go back to the router settings and risk losing my delicately composed signup form? There's no choice; I go back to the Wi-Fi settings, and the Ouya claims to be "out of range" of the router which is an epic five centimetres away.
I reconnect, then have to fill out the form again. No biggie, right? But there's another problem: as a Kickstarter backer, I signed up with this email months ago. Without a password reset button, I have to find the online reset page which refuses to work -- no reminder to my junk mail or anything. If this happened in a few weeks, after buying a dozen games, you'd be pretty mad to be locked out like this.
It's fine, though. I'm unflappable, and this simple little console won't defeat me. I sign up with a different email, again with the spongy buttons, and the on-screen keyboard, and the brooding hate. And I'm finally in!
Wait, now it wants my credit card! No! No! No!
The next day, after a good long break, I'm finally at the home screen. While it lacks the ambient animations and soft sound design of its older console cousins, it's fair to give Ouya some slack for running on what is essentially basic smartphone hardware.
The 'Discover' tab presents games in grids, much like Netflix, with featured games and playlists from games blogs to showcase what they're allegedly playing. There's supposed to be around 200 games on Ouya at present, but the front page is a mix of the same premium games across several playlists with a mix of obscure titles that I wouldn't take a second look at.
I load Puddle, a physics game with a pretty graphic on it cover. The game loads with a resolution that would cut a layer from the surface of your eye, then the audio jars and it crashes after seconds. My heart is racing for all the wrong reasons.
Next up, Final Fantasy III -- now there's a high-calibre game which should avoid any basic programming errors. Immediately the environment steps up several notches, but these graphics were always designed for a handheld device. You could build a house with pixels this big. FF III isn't too bad, but I'd sooner play it on an iPad than a 40-inch TV.
I try other indie titles, but the lag between controller and console make them unplayable. I don't just mean there's a noticeable lag, I mean there's seconds of delay, and that's if they register at all. Games seem to 'warm up' after a minute, but by any measure, this isn't good enough.
Finally, I load Shadowgun, a third-person shooter which was a big hit for its platform-pushing graphics on smartphones. Compared to every other game it looks pretty good on a big screen, and for a £99 console this feels like a solid benchmark for other games to aspire to. Sadly, the delay between controller and game remains unforgivably high.
I turn the Ouya off by holding the power button. This was the smoothest Ouya experience yet.
Free demos. You're free to try any game you want from the Ouya store, which is a godsend for the console because lag on certain games would be unforgivable if you only found out after payment.
Despite all the Ouya's failings, there's still promise in this operating system. Some people think that Ouya's long-term goal is to simply be a stock gaming platform for other TV manufacturers to build in to smart TVs. From that perspective, Ouya is a compelling idea; free demos for all, and global distribution for indie devs who want to land in living rooms without battling with mainstream console gatekeepers.
The Ouya launch has been a failure, compared to the goodwill and hype when it raised $8.5 million on Kickstarter last year. Ouya might well solve the lag issues with more time, and software updates have been frequent, but it'll take some serious changes and PR swagger to pull them back from this.
The controller takes an ungodly length of time to connect via Bluetooth -- at least a minute -- so any hopes that the Ouya will bring impulse gaming to the living room fall down at literally the first hurdle. You might as well pull out a smartphone in that time. Worse, if you take a break or make a cup of tea you'll have to connect the controller all over again. No deal breaker, but tiresome.
- When you first download a game, there's no sign of when it will land in your 'Play' tab, and there's no list of download to monitor their progress. You're left to guess what happens next.
- The system notices are full of quirky phrases that fall flat every time. "Ouyafication in progress!" says a loading screen. "Herding cats," says another. I noticed a distinct lack of LOLs during my test.
- It's too early to expect iPlayer-style TV apps, but this could be a real strength for Ouya as an affordable way to add streaming to an old TV. There's definitely potential for other types of app -- maybe the focus on gaming is too strong, considering how its biggest failings like lag wouldn't be an issue on other types of app?
- The indie dev community is launching an old console emulator, apparently. Again, this could be a big strength for Ouya. I'd certainly keep my Ouya if it behaved like a PSone.
These will be all over eBay for a pittance over the next two weeks, so if you're interested in trawling the web for old console emulators, it could be worth it. If you're a gamer, you own better gaming platforms already. Just look in your pocket.
OS: Custom Android
CPU: Nvidia Tegra 3
RAM: 1 GB
Storage: 8 GB
Ports: USB, HMDI, Ethernet