Entertainment Video games

Indie gaming console Ouya a bit of a disappointment

By Steve Tilley, Special to Postmedia Network

Ouya. (Supplied)

Ouya. (Supplied)

Ouya? More like Oumaybe. At best.

After a Kickstarter campaign that nabbed tons of media buzz and more than $8.5 million in pre-order funding, the $99 Ouya video game console went on sale Tuesday in North America and the U.K., heralding an era of budget-friendly, indie-focused, Android-based living room gaming.

But it has not been an easy birth. To say the least.

The early version of the tiny chrome console that was sent to Kickstarter supporters reportedly had flaws that were only addressed in the retail iteration. As well, so many Kickstarter backers outside of the U.S. still hadn’t received their consoles as of this week that Ouya CEO Julie Uhrman issued an apology on the company’s Kickstarter page, on the eve of the console’s retail launch.

“I am pissed,” Uhrman wrote to Ouya’s Kickstarter backers, some of whom paid for their consoles in full nearly a year ago. “Some of you have not yet received your OUYA – and, to you, I apologize. I did not promise to ship to most of you before we hit store shelves. I promised to ship to all of you. I’ve been reading your comments, and we are working to solve this.”

Within 12 hours, the post had racked up more than 500 responses, most from international backers who still haven’t received their consoles. And most filled with venom.

(My own Kickstarter experience with Ouya did not go smoothly. My console was sent out two months after the initial batch, and the shipping service contracted by Ouya, DHL Express Worldwide, made so little effort to actually deliver the thing that it ended up being sent back to Ouya without my knowledge.)

It’s a rocky start for the newest player in a console market that’s about to heat up with this holiday season’s release of Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One. So is Ouya worth the crisp, maple-scented Borden (the Canuck version of the Benjamin) you’ll have to slap down for it?

As a gaming machine? No, it’s not. Not now, and probably not any time soon. As a tinkering device for hackers and hobbyists? Perhaps slightly more so, with some caveats.

Powered the Google Android 4.1 operating system found in dozens of mobile phones and tablets, the Ouya console itself is a baseball-sized cube that plugs into your TV via an HDMI connection. It also sports an Ethernet port (Wi-Fi is built in), and must be connected to the Internet in order to set up an account and download games.

The included Ouya gamepad looks and feels like a slightly cheap knockoff of an Xbox 360 controller, with dual thumbsticks, four primary action buttons, cheap-feeling triggers and shoulder buttons and a touch-sensitive trackpad to aid in navigating apps made for Android-based touchscreen devices

The console’s entire reason for existing is to give independent game developers an open, restriction-free platform on which to release their games without worrying about, say, Apple’s picky App Store or Microsoft’s somewhat draconian Xbox Live publishing process.

And that’s fantastic. I love the indie gaming scene, and there are many gems to be found on platforms such as Steam on the PC, the PlayStation Store on the PlayStation 3 and Vita and even the dog’s breakfast that is Xbox Live Indie Games.

I just can’t fathom why anyone would want to play Android games on their couch.

In fact, I really can’t figure out what kind of consumer Ouya is aimed at. Core gamers will likely have little interest in the simple, lo-fi games in Ouya’s library. And most gamers are already playing stuff like this on their mobile devices and PCs anyway. Ouya ends up being a worst of both worlds compromise – it lacks the portability native to the Android platform as well as the power of the current generation home consoles. Sure it’s only $100, but for another $100 you can get an Xbox 360 or refurbished PlayStation 3 and the vastly wider libraries of games and services they offer.

This is not to say there’s no fun to be had with Ouya. I had a good time mucking about with simple fare like the 1-on-1 hockey game Ice Rage, the surprisingly challenging physics sim The Little Crane That Could, the Ouya-exclusive side-scrolling brawler Chrono Blade and familiar RPG chestnuts making their Ouya debuts, including Final Fantasy III and The Bard’s Tale. At launch, the charmingly explosive Bomb Squad is the Ouya’s standout game, especially if you can play co-op with friends. (Although extra Ouya controllers are $50 a pop, and these do not feel like $50 controllers.)

But even here there are problems. One of Ouya’s standouts, a stylish, parkour-inspired endless runner called Vector, is rendered nearly unplayable by soft and unresponsive controls. There also a slight controller latency that’s especially noticeable in games that require precision timing, such as Pinball Arcade and the lo-res Wipeout clone Flashout 3D. For gaming, that’s almost a dealbreaker in itself.

For those who like to tinker under the hood, the Ouya holds a bit more promise. The device is intentionally designed to be open and accessible, and although Ouya’s initial lineup of apps is very thin and it doesn’t have built-in access to the Google Play store, it’s relatively easy to “sideload” compatible Android apps onto the device. I was able to get the robust XBMC media player up and running on Ouya, and it works surprisingly well. The Android Netflix app also works (though the interface, designed for touchscreens, can be a bit difficult to navigate with the Ouya controller) as do many games that don’t rely heavily on touchscreen input, or that offer built-in controller support. But these experiences will be lost to general users who don’t know how to mess around behind the scenes.

As Ouya continues to grow and mature, the games library will expand, the app roster will fill out and hobbyists will find dozens of cool uses for the thing. But there’s very little that Ouya does now that can’t be done with devices that you probably already have in your house, and the hardware itself leaves something to be desired.

There are worse things to spend a hundred bucks on than an earnest, indie-friendly experiment in living room gaming. But a year from now, I’ll be surprised if Ouya is anything more than a “whatever happened to that thing?” afterthought.

 

 

 

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