Early Hands-On Impressions: OUYA Console

With great anticipation, the OUYA console hit my doorstep today — right after I checked its status on the USPS site ironically enough. As expected, you get a console and controller, but I was a bit surprised to see Duracell batteries in there. The HDMI cable is a nice inclusion, but should’ve really been longer since it’s so short. Thankfully, I’ve got a slew of AmazonBasics HDMI cables lying around, so I won’t have to use that one unless all of those go bad…and even then it may be best to just get a different one because this cable is too short to be of much use.

The menus are easily laid out, but it does suck that you can’t expand the screenshots to full screen. Apps not auto-installing feels archaic, and results in you either going to the main menu and doing a massive install session for a bunch of things, or going through and installing things from the storefront right after they’re downloaded. It’s an inconvenience and something they can hopefully remedy in the future. Loading times are also a bit of a pain for menus and especially game icons. You’ll go through the menu, see a name, but have to wait a bit before its thumbnail loads. There are a lot of games available on the store already, including a few that aren’t just OUYA-exclusive, but also not available to be played on a console right now. The organization of the store is a bit wonky as the section names are a bit strange, and aren’t organized by letter.

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The sandbox area lets you play over 60 games that are presently in development to various degrees – it’s neat to actually see a game’s development progress in real-time more or less and offers up something you won’t get even with the “beta” stuff Sony puts out. The biggest “name” game here so far is Panic Flight, which works really well. Finding games on the storefront can be a chore, but searching works really well and the auto-complete function lets you see things letter by letter to some degree. This function will likely be the first time players notice how strange it is to not have a Start button. You eventually get used it it, but it takes some time.

The basic controller works really well, but as noted in the unboxing video, the D-pad feels stiff, and it doesn’t get any better with use. I tried out a variety of games, including Daddio II since it’s a platformer, and it was really hurt to be precise with it. This issue was far more noticeable in Battle Kid’s demo, which came with the NES emulator EMUYA. Emulators are a noteworthy deal as they aren’t exactly something you’ll find on any other console storefront, and so far, there’s that one for NES games, two for the SNES, an N64 one, and even one for the DS.

The layout of EMUYA is fantastic – it’s really easy to use, and you can’t go wrong with hearing some chiptune music in the background to really set the mood. I haven’t loaded up any games yet, and the limited storage space is on reason way. The system includes about 5 GB of on-board storage space, but can be expanded via USB thumb drives at some point later. There’s an HDMI port on the back as well as a micro USB slot to move files from your computer to the system, and a full-sized USB slot that beyond allowing external drives in the future and best of all – controller support.

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Since they use Bluetooth, the PS3 pads work fine wirelessly and pair with it seamlessly. I wasn’t able to pair a wireless 360 pad, but was able to get a wired one to work. I haven’t tried a play and charge kit/wireless pad yet since I can’t find my kit, and just use rechargeable batteries now, but given that I wasn’t able to get that setup to work on PC, I would just presume it’s that way now and you’ll need an actual wired 360 pad. That may sound bad, but the wires for them are pretty long, and allow you to have Genesis and Saturn-style controls thanks to the SFIV pad (and others) shaped like it. There are some caveats to using a non-OUYA pad though. While you won’t need to spend $50 for a second pad in some cases, not ever game supports a non-OUYA controller, and each developer needs to build support into their games for it. While testing EMUYA and Daddio II, I found that those do support other pads.  Sadly, the WipeOut-esque FlashOut doesn’t support other controllers – it works fine with the regular pad, but would’ve felt a bit more natural with a Dual Shock 3.

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Speaking of that, I might as well get into the small handful of games I tried out. FlashOut is a fairly shameless WipeOut clone, but a fairly good one. The OUYA storefront requires that every game give you at least a portion of it free, and for this, that winds up being one track in the single race mode. The racing action is fast and smooth, and to my surprise, the graphics are quite good. They’re not quite on par with the PS3, but seem to fit in nicely somewhere between the PS2 and PS3 – kind of an Xbox 1.5 level. I love how much color there is on-screen and they tend to pop right off of it. The controls are sharp as well and replicate WipeOut’s gameplay better than most clones out there from generations gone by.

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Next up is Dub Wars. As the name implies, there’s a lot of dubstep to be heard, and as you can see, it’s a shooter. It’s in the twin stick section, and does indeed use both, but in kind of a unique way. While the left stick moves you and the right aims, neither shoots and no buttons do either. Instead, whatever weapon you have auto-fires to the beat of the music. This means that you’ve got to play more defensively than usual for a twin stick shooter and really need to change your mentality ASAP in order to survive. Even as someone who isn’t a huge dubstep fan, I enjoyed the soundtrack and loved the concept of a shooting game that kind of shoots for you, but still requires a lot of skill since you’ve got to move and aim perfectly while managing to survive without being in control of when you’re shooting. It’s a big thing in a shooter and something you don’t think about until it’s taken away from you. This is definitely a highlight of the system and something I’ll buy in the future once I’ve tried out more games. It’s worth noting that prices for games on the OUYA marketplace don’t actually have prices listed for them, which means that you have to download the game and then buy it from the game itself before a purchase.

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Here’s Super Daddio II – a game I honestly wouldn’t have devoted a write-up to if I hadn’t mentioned it before. It’s a very generic, lifeless platformer that is functionally okay. There’s some nice color variance in the background, but everything else just looks sterile. There are stones, there’s dirt, there’s grass, and watching that grow is at least as exciting as playing this slow platformer. As a phone game for a dollar, I can see the appeal since it works, but there’s nothing exciting about it and it just feels like an inferior product even compared to the indie offerings in EMUYA. Battle Kid and Battle Kid 2’s demo versions kick this game’s ass in every major way.

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Finally, we’ll cover Vector. I’m astonished this game isn’t available on at least the PS Minis section or Xbox Live Indie Games area since free-runners work really well on consoles. They also make for appealing and addictive games you can spend a lot of time on for a buck or two. Here, you’ve got a striking color scheme that is right out of the opening credits sequence to Catch Me if You Can. Beyond being a great film starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s also as close as anime fans have gotten to a live-action Lupin III movie, and having it being based on real events makes things even better. That isn’t exactly what’s going on here – although if you wanted to, you could imagine that the character you’re playing as is Lupin and the guy chasing you is Zenigata in keeping with the Lupin comparison. The controls work really well and the art style pops on an HDTV. This is definitely worth spending a couple of bucks on.

Since the folks behind OUYA have been adamant about these pre-launch units not being meant for review, we’ll stick with this just being a hands-on piece and not a formal review. Given that the hardware won’t be available to the public until June 25, when they’ll no doubt have as many games and apps rolled out as possible, that seems fair. Why offer a review of something that won’t be the same as what you can purchase? It would be like reviewing a game when it’s 75% done, and not a completely accurate representation of what you can expect to buy in a store. However, even after a day of play, I feel confident saying that the system is worth $100.

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For that fairly small amount of money, you get a system capable of playing some impressive-looking games that will no doubt be aided by unique art styles to help mask some hardware shortcomings. I don’t think that will be as much of an issue here as it was for the Wii though, and having a console geared towards the indie gaming scene is great. The touchpad tech on the controller offers up a little preview of what to expect for the PS4, as does the Twitch app and the ability to play a portion of games for free, although to be fair, that’s been standard on XBLA for nearly eight years now. There’s a lot to like about the system, and hopefully some in-store demo kiosks will be rolled out to let people curious about the system see what it’s about. New hardware from established companies can be a hard enough sell as Nintendo has found out both in the past and present, and it’s an even greater challenge when that hardware comes from an upstart company.