The Ouya is an ambitious new video game console. But can an indie-fueled Android gaming device hold its own against the heavyweight competition of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U?
For all of their impressive qualities, the main factor that's begun to impinge on the success of modern video game consoles is their lack of mobility. While the PlayStation and Xbox remain consigned to the living room, an iPhone or Android device is a gaming device in its own right that users can carry around in their pocket.
It came as a pleasant surprise, then, when I realized upon unwrapping the retail version of the Ouya that someone had finally made a console tiny enough to carry around in a bag. Travelling pulls me away from my home consoles, but I was able to take the Ouya with me on a plane this past week with no real inconvenience save a curious stare from one security guard who happened to like video games.
In some strange way, this epitomized the real promise of the tiny Android-powered gaming device. The Ouya resides in a new space somewhere between the free-form chaos of mobile gaming and the tightly controlled experience of the major consoles. It's not just an Android phone you can plug into your television, but it's also not an equivalent or direct competitor to the new Xbox or PlayStation. What it is instead is something new entirely, something uncommonly exciting for an industry that so often seems stuck in its ways.
The Ouya console and controller were both designed by the acclaimed industrial designers Yves Béhar. While the controller doesn't have some current or next-gen features like vibration or motion-control inputs yet, it still feels sturdy and comfortable in your hands.
Novelty in its own right isn't necessarily a good thing, mind you. The Ouya is launching with some 170 games (a ticker on the website now says there are over 200), but don't let that impressive number fool you: Like its mobile counterpart Google Play, Android gaming often boasts more quantity than quality. Many of the games — such as a revamped version of the popular running game "Canabalt" — are superficial adaptations of previous Android titles that don't gain much from a bigger screen.
When Ouya games do work well, however, they are fantastic. Both "TowerFall" and "BombSquad" are addictive and adorable multiplayer games in the "Super Smash Bros." tradition. The trivia game "You Don't Know Jack" brings the series' trademark snarky humor to television sets with some 20 episode. And while "No Brakes Valet!" may look outdated with its chunky pixelated graphics, playing the game with friends was probably the best time I've ever had doing anything related to parking a car. Like the Nintendo Wii console, the best part of the Ouya so far is its party games.
Unlike its entrenched rivals, the Ouya's retail model is as flexible and creative as the device itself: You can try any game for free before actually purchasing it. This "try it before you buy it" approach offers users a much-needed dose of empathy from the content creators and publishers themselves about just how expensive a hobby gaming can be. But the thing about free-to-play and "casual" games, as many of their detractors will say, is that you get what you pay for. It's going to be a long time before Ouya owners get anything like "Halo" or "Call of Duty" on the console. Most of the brand-name titles currently on the device are now so old they're practically vintage — "Final Fantasy III," one of the most iconic launch titles, was first released in 1990 and is already available on almost every other conceivable gaming device.
But Ouya's creativity doesn't just stop at its own app store. Tech-savvy users can "side load" games (at their own risk) from creators who don't release titles in Ouya's own download store, giving many hackers and tinkerers the chance to start developing these kinds of apps alongside gaming emulators and the like. Rather than having to wade through the bureaucracy of regulation and corporate partnerships that so often define a service like Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA), developers could may look to this as an opportunity for real creative freedom.
The Ouya's menu screen is simple to the point where it can become awkward and confusing. "Play" lets you access all of the games you've downloaded, while "Discover" gives users a look at some of the other games that are available on the device, complete with curated lists from launch partners and game critics. There isn't an easy way to access the console's non-gaming features such as video apps, underscoring the lack of viable entertainment options on the device right now.
When the Ouya was first released to Kickstarter backers in March, it was soundly criticized for several performance issues such as a lag in the responsiveness of the controller. While these functionality issues have now been addressed, the Ouya still doesn't run as smoothly as current-generation consoles. This is simply a matter of sheer horsepower. The console runs on a version of Android's 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system and is powered in part by Nvidia's Tegra 3 chipset — hardware and software that's previously only been used for smartphones and tablets. Compared to the 3.2 gigahertz (GHz) found in today's aging PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles, the Ouya's 1.7 GHz central processing unit pales in comparison.
Unfortunately, the console also suffers from a glaring lack of video apps like Hulu and Netflix, which detracts from any of its possible uses beyond just video games.
But is it a console?
The association with "casual" gaming might turn off console gamers hoping to sink hours upon hours into a visually stunning and expansive game like "Skyrim" or "The Last of Us." But that's not really the point of the Ouya. Julie Uhrman, the creator of the Ouya and a long-time game industry executive, knew that gamers would already be getting other consoles with those kinds of games.
Thing is, both the PS4 and Xbox One will only do so at a much higher starting price than the Ouya offers. The Wii U is closest in price to the Ouya, but at $350 it still costs twice as much. The Ouya might seem like a compromise if you're in the market for an all-in-one gaming device, but for something that's cheaper than a new smartphone, it's hard to resist.
As with any brand new console, gamers should consider picking up an Ouya not for what it has to offer now, but what there is to come now that the framework has been built. The Ouya already offers a solid lineup of fun, albeit mostly casual, games. For just $99, it's a safe investment for any gamer looking for a break from the status quo.
And seeing the sheer amount of weirdness and creativity that's already sprung up for the new console, I can't help but think the Ouya will only improve in the months and years to come.
This post was updated at 6:53 p.m. ET
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published July 1 2013, 3:53 PM