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Features

OUYA
WAS IT WORTH THE WAIT?

Ouya

THE OUYA SCREAMED INTO THE PUBLIC CONSCIOUSNESS BACK IN JULY 2012, when the then-hypothetical device's Kickstarter campaign became an $8.6m success story in a ridiculously brief 29 days – the second most popular project in the site's history. Promising a digital-first console with a touch-enabled controller for a meagre $99, its aim was to bring the best of mobile gaming to the home TV screen, rounded off with promises of free games. Fast forward a year and, to founder Julie Uhrman and her team's credit, the Ouya is a reality, rather than sputtering out, incomplete, as naysayers predicted.

Housed inside a tiny, almost cute cubelet with rounded corners and a sleek, brushed metal look, the Ouya's innards aren't considerably different to any contemporary smartphone. As a result, it's come under fire for a perceived lack of power, comments which lead Uhrman to reveal earlier this year that there will be annual hardware refreshes. Matters of waste and buyer fatigue aside, the current model comes with a 1.7 GHz Quad-Core ARM Cortex-A9 processor with 1 GiB DDR3 SDRAM and 8GB internal storage, and runs on a custom build of Google's Android 4.1 operating system. It's capable of full 1080p output, though games need to support this resolution.

There's something rather endearing about the Ouya though. It's a breeze to set up – just a matter of clicking the included power cord and HDMI cable into the back, and entering your WiFi settings (and credit card details) after it's booted up. Once connected, navigating the minimalist interface is simple, though preview panes of games can be slow to load. A USB port hides at the back, allowing for storage expansion and media input.

THE CONTROLLER IS FINE, but 'fine' is somewhat underwhelming when it was touted as a major selling point. It's perfectly functional, sitting comfortably in your hands and with all the familiar interface points of current gamepads, plus that central touchpad. However, the shoulder triggers feel spongy and the d-pad offers no tactile resistance, making it tricky to get a sense of actually having pressed it. It doesn't feel up to the task of a hardcore 2D beat-'em-up, for sure. A nice touch is marking the four face buttons as O, U, Y, and A, however. It's powered by two AA batteries, one in each handgrip, and the resulting weight distribution feeling well balanced.

As for those 'free games', users will find this mostly translates into every title offering a demo of the full version. The catalogue isn't terribly inspiring at present but it is growing – recognisable standouts include Final Fantasy III, based on the 2006 Nintendo DS release of the classic RPG; the beautiful side-scrolling shooter Sine Mora; a selection of new and old Sonic the Hedgehog games; and The Bard's Tale. TellTale Games' brilliant The Walking Dead adventure is due to make an appearance in 2014, as season two of the episodic horror game commences. The star exclusive title to date is TowerFall, an arena combat game for up to four players, each trying to snipe each other with arrows. It's fast and responsive, with charming pixel art and clever power-ups fostering a brilliant sense of competitiveness.

Ouya - Final Fantasy III
Final Fantasy III
Ouya - Saturday Morning RPG
Saturday Morning RPG
Ouya - Fist Of Awesome
Fist Of Awesome

Being an Android-powered console, it's already seeing a flood of games quickly ported over from phones and tablets, many of which are barely changed from their roots beyond the addition of controller support. There's also a trend towards retro aesthetics for Ouya-original games so far, and although that's appealing to a certain niche, there needs to be more variety in both content and style before mainstream gamers will pay much attention.

DOWNLOADING GAMES IS PLEASINGLY SWIFT - though most are small in file size, again a result of Android origins – but buying any of them presents another problem. Everything is priced in US Dollars, with no option to pay in local currency. Although most titles are reasonably priced (at $15.99, Final Fantasy III sits at the higher end – most cost less), the fees your bank may add for international purchases delivers an unwelcome sting. Top up cards are available at UK retail though, in £10/$15 and £17/$25 values.

Ouya
For the low price of entry and the reams of cool things you can do with the console (admittedly, not all of which you're strictly meant to) it's worth that investment for the curious.
At the moment, it will be modders and tinkerers who'll get the most out of Ouya. There's already a bustling community rising up around this aspect of the console, reflected by an ever-expanding App category in the console's digital storefront. The likes of XBMC and VLC allow you to run music or movies from USB or streamed from your home server to the living room screen, and the increasingly popular Twitch.tv lets you stream gaming sessions to online viewers. There are even a handful of office file management programs on there. With the Android architecture, it makes sense that the console can run anything a comparable phone or tablet can, and the controller's touchpad doubling as a mouse cursor opens up the software possibilities even further (certainly more than it's being used in games at the moment). Aspiring developers may be tempted too, as each console can be used as a dev unit once the development kit (available at devs.ouya.tv) is installed. Current builds of any works in progress can be tested and tweaked through the 'make' option on the homescreen, the prominent positioning of which speaks volumes about the open and creative aspirations of the device – even if those aspirations have yet to be realised.

However, it's the presence of several emulators in the same store, allowing users to play retro games from a USB stick, may end up being both blessing and curse for Ouya. The likes of EMUya runs NES, Game Boy, SNES and even Atari 2600 games, while other dedicated programs support N64, PSOne and Commodore 64 games. The appeal is obvious, boosting the potential number of titles playable on Ouya into the hundreds, if not thousands. Controls become a consideration here – anything originally designed for a gamepad interface can be played with few issues, but the presence of a Nintendo DS emulator is a bit baffling. The bigger problem is that emulation is legally murky. Even accounting for this grey area, where emulators are legal but the pirated games to run on them aren't, the unrestrained availability of emulation software certainly won't do anything for Ouya's future relationship with mainstream publishers, shrinking its potential for legitimate game releases.

Currently, Ouya sits in the 'quirky gadget' category. With the likes of PS Vita TV and Valve's long-rumoured Steambox on the horizon, both promising easy ways to link digital games to your TV, it may not progress far beyond that category, and that's before Xbox One and PS4 launch with an even greater focus on digital distribution. However, for the low price of entry and the reams of cool things you can do with the console (admittedly, not all of which you're strictly meant to) it's worth that investment for the curious. If Uhrman's plans for annual upgrades bring considerable improvements, Ouya may even eventually live up to its $8.6m dollar promise.

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