Review: Ouya brings indie games to your TV
The ongoing explosion in independently developed, low-budget video games has been a boon for players who travel. Whether I'm on the road with an iPad, an Android smartphone or a laptop, I know there's a huge library of games to play.
When I get home, though, I want to play on a bigger screen. That's where the Ouya comes in. It promises to deliver the best in inexpensive indie gaming on a high-resolution screen, through a small device that runs the Android operating system designed for phones and tablets.
Ouya costs just $100—a few hundred dollars less than what you'd pay for a major game console. Thousands of gamers and game developers got Ouyas over the past few months after contributing at least $95 to Ouya's creators through the group-fundraising site Kickstarter. The device went on sale more broadly on Tuesday.
Ouya runs Google's Android system and is built around Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor, used mostly in smartphones and other mobile devices. That should make it easy to port over the thousands of games already made for Android phones and tablets, but for now you're limited to software specifically designed for Ouya. Nearly 180 games are available so far through Ouya's online store, with many more expected.
Each game has a version you can download for free. If you like what you see, you can download a full version for a few bucks. By contrast, games for one of the big three consoles can cost as much as $60 each—usually with no free trial.
The device itself is a cube measuring 3 inches (8 centimeters) on each side, with slightly rounded corners on the bottom. The controller is a bit chunkier. It resembles what's available with Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation, with two exceptions: The Ouya controller has a touchpad in the middle (although none of the games I sampled took advantage of it), and its grips are longer, each accommodating an AA battery. One controller comes with the Ouya, and extra ones cost $50 each.
Setup is easy once you connect the Ouya to your high-definition television set using a supplied HDMI cable. When you turn on the console, it automatically searches for Wi-Fi connections. You can also connect to the Internet through an Ethernet cable, which you have to provide yourself. Once connected, you need to create an account and supply credit card information.
Then you're taken to a simple menu with four options: play, discover, make and manage. "Make" takes you to an area for potential game developers, while "manage" lets you tinker with system settings.
"Discover" takes you to Ouya's game store. You can find games by genre, such as role-playing, sim/strategy and "meditative." You can also check out showcases such as "couch gaming with friends."
Download speeds aren't bad; it took about 20 minutes for me to transfer a 725-megabyte file over Comcast high-speed Internet. Smaller games are, of course, much faster. The device has 8 gigabytes of internal storage, and you can add more by connecting an external hard drive to the Ouya with a USB cable.
Once you have your game, clicking "play" on the home page takes you to your personal library. Compared with the sometimes daunting menus on the Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, Ouya's displays are clean and elegant.
The offerings on the Ouya store vary wildly in quality and ambition. Android is an open platform, so anyone can write software for it. That means you have professionally executed games such as the beloved "You Don't Know Jack" competing head-to-head with the sloppy trivia game "Quizania." Some popular console games, including "The Bard's Tale" and "Final Fantasy III," have been adapted for the Ouya, but it isn't the place for blockbuster titles such as the latest "Call of Duty" and "Grand Theft Auto."
More prevalent are games that have been cult hits on PCs and smartphones, including "Canabalt," ''Saturday Morning RPG" and "Organ Trail." There are a few Ouya exclusives, including the 3-D puzzler "Polarity" and the multiplayer archery game "TowerFall."
Ouya offers high-resolution displays in 1080p, comparable to the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii U. Most of the Ouya's offerings are fairly low-def, though, and if you're looking for the wide-screen majesty of "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" or "BioShock Infinite," you won't find it here. If your video-game habit dates back to the 1970s, you'll notice a distinct retro feel to the Ouya's library. That's not a complaint; there's something refreshing about taking on a simple running-and-jumping game such as "Canabalt" after you've survived a grueling epic like Sony's PS3 hit "The Last of Us."
Indeed, some of the more satisfying indie releases of the last few years—say, "Fez," ''Hotline Miami" or "Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine"—have combined old-school graphics with game play that's more sophisticated than most big-budget console releases offer. Nothing currently on Ouya matches the quality of those games, but if the system can attract that level of talent, it will be a console to be reckoned with. If you're a hardcore gamer, it won't replace your Xbox or PlayStation, but for $100 it's a worthy supplement.
The $100 device plays games designed for it on high-definition screens. Although it runs the Android operating system used in smartphones and tablets, games need to be specifically adapted to work on Ouya. Nearly 180 games are available through Ouya's online store.
Initially available only to people who made donations through Kickstarter, Ouya is now sold through Ouya's website as well as Amazon.com, Target, Best Buy and GameStop.
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