Talking tech since 2003

The Ouya offers a very unique take on the console gaming experience, and it has a lot of promise. But after spending two days with it, playing various titles from the system’s marketplace as well as side-loading my own apps for testing, I can’t really recommend it to anyone but those who are tech-savvy enough to hack it into something useful.

When you first launch the Ouya, you might be initially led to believe that the experience is very user friendly. The main menu only has four options, after all: Play, Discover, Make and Manage. The Play section stores all of the games and apps downloaded from Discover, which is the Ouya’s marketplace. The Make section gives you access to a Web browser and any side-loaded apps, and Manage lets you tinker with system settings.

But the Ouya runs Android, after all, and as much as it tries to hide it, Android comes creeping up in certain places and is less user friendly on the Ouya than it is on a smartphone or tablet. If you open the Manage section, for example, you’ll immediately recognize the settings options you’d find on a Jelly Bean device. You can easily add and remove games you download from Discover, but if you side-load an Android app onto the device, you have to go into that Manage section and uninstall it just as you would on your phone. Not just here, but in a lot of other places, you’re using the gamepad to navigate and select options that were built with touch in mind. Again, it just isn’t very user friendly and it’s something the Ouya needs to fix.

Shadowgun for Ouya. It’s a game that would impress you on a phone or tablet but, when you’re sitting on the couch, leaves you wanting more.

Now, games. There aren’t a lot of good ones right now. And good is a very relative term. I’m judging the titles on the Ouya more lightly than I would judge games on the Xbox 360 or PS3. And I like the occasional indie title as much as the next guy, but I feel that the best indie games are of the outside-the-box variety, not clones of popular console titles. I played TowerFall. I played Shadowgun. The only title that I got a high level of enjoyment out of was hilarious trivia game You Don’t Know Jack and that one doesn’t really qualify as indie at all.

I also downloaded some emulators and installed some apps, too. If you’re into retro gaming and you have a collection of legal, public domain (ahem) ROMs, you can play titles from the NES, SNES, N64, Sega Genesis, PlayStation and more. There are a few emulators in the Discover section that are built to work with the Ouya controller right away, which means you won’t have to do any button mapping yourself. The thing is, Nintendo’s Wii Virtual Console can play a lot of classic titles, too, as well as a number of higher-quality titles. And it costs the same amount as a Ouya — $99. You may not be able to download classic games for free, but they’ll at least work more reliably.

I might have played some Majora's Mask on the Ouya.
I might have played some Majora’s Mask on the Ouya.

A Plex app was added to the Ouya Discover section yesterday, and that has upped the system’s usefulness considerably. I had been considering picking up a Roku 3 to use with a Plex server, but now that the app has shown up on the Ouya, I don’t have to. The Ouya could be quite the capable streaming media box if you made use of Plex and also side-loaded the Netflix and Hulu Plus apps. Unfortunately, those last two apps aren’t optimized for the Ouya yet, so the experience suffers as a result.

I’ll be honest — a lot of what plagues the Ouya is on the software side of things. The system itself is very well built, and while the controller could be a lot better, it isn’t the worst part of the experience. The Ouya needs to become a lot more user friendly and it needs better titles. It needs the same killer apps that drive the sales of consoles like the Xbox 360 and PS3. It needs runaway indie favorites like Minecraft in order to compete and it doesn’t have them right now.

TowerFall for Ouya is one of the better games for the system.
TowerFall for Ouya is one of the better games for the system.

Though my views here might seem overly negative, I actually do feel that the Ouya has a lot of promise. The system is trying to do something different in the world of video games, and while we may not be all that impressed with the Ouya’s progress so far, it’s still very early in the game. If the system sells well — and it may be — that could attract more developers to port their mobile titles over to the Ouya, or to develop for the Ouya specifically. And the more developers the Ouya pulls in, the better the chances for a breakout title that could really put it on the map.

But for now, the system seems like a good fit for geeks and geeks alone. Use it as a smart TV box, use it as an emulation machine or simply use it as it was intended — for indie games. But don’t expect the high-quality experience you’d find on an Xbox 360 or a PS3. If you’re really interested in the Ouya, I suggest you wait it out and see how the system fares after a few months. But if you want a cheap way to play premium titles and stream Netflix movies, pick up a Wii instead.

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