Ouya The infinite garage sale
One summer, when I was a kid, I wandered into a garage sale and came across an old Atari 2600 and a shoebox full of games. I don't remember how much they wanted for it, but it was low enough that a kid without a job could afford it, so it wasn't much. I took it home, immediately hooked it up to the television and started rifling through the games.

Most of the games were simple, executions of a single concept. Some of them were great, some were passable but forgettable, while others were nigh indecipherable. Naturally, there were some genuine turkeys in there too. It was hard to be disappointed though, since I could just pop in another cartridge and, after all, the entire box of goodies had cost me practically nothing.

That summer day pretty much encapsulates my experience with the Ouya thus far. Before we delve any deeper into the console's potential or its current slate of games, let's get one thing out of the way: The Ouya is not ready for primetime. The interface has obvious omissions and bugs. For one, there's no way to search your catalog of games, despite an icon claiming otherwise. Sometimes I get kicked back to the home screen for no reason. The experience is inconsistent across games – the home button functions differently in each, for example. You can't enlarge screenshots in the store. As far as I can tell, there's no way to manually adjust screen resolution or margins, and important game information is occasionally rendered off-screen on my television.

In fairness, the early Ouya Kickstarter backer console I've been tinkering with is part of a "public preview" of sorts. The Ouya doesn't officially launch until June 4, and Ouya (the company) has promised that software – and possibly hardware – will improve before the console hits retailers. Given the unique situation, this isn't really a review, but the fact remains that tens of thousands of Kickstarter backers have already received or will soon receive a console, and the experience isn't where it needs to be just yet.

Hardware

Apart from its diminutive size, there's nothing too remarkable about the Ouya itself. The little box sports a brushed metal finish, USB and Micro USB ports, HDMI, Ethernet, WiFi b/g/n and a single power button. The unit is heavier than it looks, though positioning it precisely could be difficult depending on the rigidity of your HDMI cable.

The controller has a similar finish and uses a layout akin to an Xbox 360 controller. It's comfortable to hold, with longer and wider handles than most console controllers. The face buttons – O, U, Y and A – have about as much give as an Xbox 360 controller. The analog sticks, meanwhile, have the convex tops traditionally favored by the DualShock. The controller also features two clicky shoulder buttons and two analog triggers. The triggers have a very square shape, tilting slightly out and away from the controller. The metal faceplates are held in place with magnets, and can be removed to expose slots for a single AA battery in each handle. The plates stay put during normal play, but be warned that they can fly off if you drop the controller (Ouya is considering adding more magnets to the final retail design).

The right analog stick on my unit feels especially stiff, though another Ouya-owning colleague of mine doesn't seem to have the same complaint, so it might be confined to this particular controller. Another possible issue I noticed is that most games had trouble detecting diagonal movements on the left stick. These areas simply seemed "dead." It's possible this is a software issue, though it seemed consistent across most games. Without a game that demands a great deal of movement precision, it's hard to tell where the problem lies. Another (ahem) pressing issue is that the face buttons can get stuck underneath the faceplate if pressed too hard. It's easy enough to avoid this, but I still do it occasionally during heated moments.

Interface

I've covered the Ouya interface in some detail before, and you can see a full overview in the video above. Suffice it to say that its grandest promise is to ensure that the best and most deserving games bubble up to the top of the Ouya store. The plan is to employ a combination of user metrics and human curation, the latter of which will be headed up by Kellee Santiago, formerly of thatgamecompany. Ouya will be able to create customized content categories on the fly – games with great sound design, retro graphics, etc. – and these are promised to change and update on a regular basis. Even in the short time I've had my console, the categories have already been shuffled once. The user half of the equation obviously isn't there yet, since so few actually have a console, so any overall judgment of Ouya's much-touted curation will have to wait for the retail launch.

As for the interface itself, it's a no-frills affair designed solely to help you find, install and play games. Game titles are all organized into a series of categories, which are subdivided into two horizontal rows of tiles, and a tap of the Y button brings up a virtual keyboard search in the store. The search option is also shown in your game collection, though currently it's not functional. Hopefully it will be implemented in time for launch, because scrolling through the two rows becomes unwieldy very quickly, especially once you've downloaded a lot of games.

Beyond the store and game collection, we have the Make and Manage menus. Make gives developers a place to upload and test current builds. Eventually, developers will be able to publicly share builds with Ouya players and gather feedback. Manage lets you configure system settings such as the chosen WiFi network and account information. Right now, this menu lacks key features like the ability to sign into a different account or change payment information. As it stands, you're asked to enter a credit card before downloading any games, and once that's done, that payment method is locked to current account. In order to change Ouya user accounts or create a new one, you have to re-run the initial Ouya setup sequence.

These aren't minor issues. Users expect multiple accounts on consoles these days. Credit cards expire. Clearly, these things will have to be addressed before the Ouya officially launches. Incidentally, the Ouya currently lacks features like achievements, friends lists and chat, though they should be implemented later this year. Personally, I can live without these things given the Ouya's niche market, but I'm sure others may find them more important.

Update: Ouya has released a firmware update that allows users to edit their credit card information. The option is located under account settings.

Games

Paradoxically, games currently stand as Ouya's greatest strength and its biggest question mark. Since Ouya is an Android-powered console, many have feared that its games would be nothing more than ports of aging mobile games. To a certain extent, that fear is not unfounded. Canabalt HD, Vector, Saturday Morning RPG and Gunslugs – some of Ouya's better games – all came from mobile platforms. These are all still fun games, regardless of their origins, but I think it's fair to say that Ouya adopters are probably expecting more than mobile ports.

There aren't too many games that showcase the hardware's full potential, but there are a handful that have caught my eye. One is Syder Arcade, a side-scrolling PC shoot-em-up that was recently ported to Android and, now, Ouya. The other is Beast Boxing Turbo, an arcade boxing game in the tradition of Punch-Out!! Granted, Syder Arcade is in fact another Android port, and Beast Boxing Turbo is a port of the upgraded PC version of a 2010 iOS game, but both games do a good job of showing off the Ouya hardware. Both compare very favorably with their PC counterparts.

Not that every game needs to be a graphical powerhouse. Enter Fist of Awesome, a game that exemplifies the indie spirit Ouya was founded on. Kickstarted itself, Fist of Awesome is a retro beat-em-up delivered in a pixelated style with great music. It tells the story of a lumberjack – named Tim Burr – and his magical, talking fist with a penchant for fighting bears. It's probably not the next Journey, but it is an original, entertaining game available on Ouya.

Conclusion

It's difficult not to weigh the Ouya's current shortcomings against all of its grand, much-publicized promise, but all of that grandiosity has to be reconciled with an important fact: The Ouya costs $99. Even if competent mobile ports are the best games the Ouya ever gets, that's an incredibly low barrier of entry for consumers and developers alike. How many good games does it take to be considered a good return on a $99 investment? One? Five? 10?

Big promises have been made by and for Ouya, including ports of Double Fine's The Cave and Broken Age and Polytron's Fez. Brand new games are expected from Kim Swift's Airtight Games (Quantum Conundrum) and Minority Media (Papo & Yo). Ouya itself gave out several development kits to interested developers, which has already resulted in Ouya versions of Syder Arcade and Fist of Awesome. The giveaway also opened the door for indie darlings like Starbound. The potential for Ouya to be a cheap, open destination for independent games and developers is palpable.

Of course, nobody wants to buy potential. They want a sure thing, a killer app, and the reality is that Ouya's Kickstarter backers will have trouble finding it right now. The Ouya has real, tangible problems. The software lacks some important, necessary features. The controller needs some revision. These are issues that need to be addressed before launch.

Assuming those problems are fixed, I'm willing to bet there will be at least a handful of worthwhile games on the Ouya within its lifetime and, at $99, that's not too dangerous a bet to make. In the meantime, being able to sift through an entire library of games for free is a reasonable consolation – just like my garage sale Atari – but it's not enough to carry the little console. Hopefully, by the time the Ouya lands on shelves, there will be some real gems hiding in the shoebox.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.