For every Prada, there’s a Gap. For every Four Seasons, there’s a Holiday Inn Express. For every Lamborghini, there’s a Corolla.
Why shouldn’t the same logic apply to video game consoles?
The aging Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles cost $200 and $270. Their successors, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, will cost $400 and $500 when they arrive this holiday season. But do all game fans truly need the raw, hulking power of a mainframe computer sitting beside their TV screens?
Maybe that’s why a scrappy team of game designers decided to create the Gap of game consoles: the Ouya ($100). It began life as a project on Kickstarter, the site where inventors ask the public to help finance their pet projects in exchange for little more than a sense of participation; eager gamers kicked in over $8.5 million.
They were rewarded by delays, bugs, delays and frustration. But now, at last, the Ouya (pronounced OOH-yah) is a real product for sale in real stores, at least where it’s not sold out.
What you get for your $100 is a plastic black cube, about three inches on a side, and a standard cordless Xbox-style controller. The size is a virtue; you can shove your cube into a coat pocket and head over to a friend’s house or a hotel room. Don’t try that with an Xbox.
The cube runs a version of Android, Google’s phone software. That’s no coincidence; its guts are about what you’d find in a phone or tablet.
It connects to your television with a single HDMI cable. The controller’s top panels pop off magnetically, so that you can insert an AA battery into each leg.
When you turn everything on, instructions on the TV guide you through “pairing” the controller with the cube. Then you’re asked to help it onto your home Wi-Fi network. Finally, you’re treated to a long update process, as the Ouya downloads the latest software.
Someone put a lot of work and humor into the “please wait” status messages that appear beneath the progress bar during the update. They float by, offering notifications like these:
“Shifting bits … Reducing complexity … Opening flaps … Calculating odds … Refactoring Bezier curves … Herding cats … Rearranging deck chairs … To be honest, just downloading a firmware update.” It’s funny.
Finally, you arrive at the main menu. There, a Discover button reveals the Ouya’s main attraction: hundreds of games, instantly ready to download and play. (Unlike the Xbox and PlayStation, this console does not accept discs.)
Every game is free to try. Some are free forever. Some are free to play for an hour, then require payment (usually $5 to $20). Some let you play only the beginning levels until you pay.
Here’s the thing with Ouya games: You won’t mistake them for Xbox or PlayStation games. Many are terrible. Some are adapted from phone games. Some have jagged, bitmapped graphics like video games from 20 years ago. Some look like Wii games; some, like Vector (a parkour simulation, the acrobatic urban running sport), have a great stylized look. But the games rarely approach the movielike realism of the best Big-Name Console games. There’s nothing like Halo or Call of Duty on this thing.
However, the 200 available games have charms of their own. They’re indie. They’re alternative. Some are goofy and hilarious. I watched a trio of elementary-schoolers laugh themselves silly for over an hour playing a game called No Brakes Valet. It’s a free, not even finished game in which you try to park skidding, nearly brakeless cars in a parking lot. There’s a lot of crashing and helpless giggling.
Their parents split their own sides, thanks to You Don’t Know Jack, the brilliantly snarky trivia game from the mid-’90s. (After the sample round, the full game costs $10.)
Knockoffs and remakes abound. Final Fantasy III is here. Polarity is like a low-rent Portal. Ouya says that 500 more games are in the works.
But here’s a big deal; this box is open-source and hackable. Already, a not-so-secret society of tinkerers has written emulators — that is, software impersonation modules — that can turn the Ouya into a Nintendo DS, PlayStation 1, Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Color, Genesis and other old consoles. If you can find games for them online (the fuzzy legal ramifications don’t seem to stop anyone), you can load them onto the Ouya on a flash drive or from a computer and play them. Try that, Sonyheads!
You can connect up to four controllers to play other people at parties, which is fun. But you can’t play against people online, and there’s no leader board to keep track of your scores and achievements.
There seems to be only one way to peruse the catalog: scroll through screens full of game icons. There are no descriptions, no prices, no ratings, no master alphabetical list. It’s a problem.
Unfortunately, the lack of polish evidenced in the motley game catalog also extends to the console itself. In its early, public testing days, the Ouya was notorious for bugginess. The sound would stop, the screen would go black, the console would lose its pairing with the controller.
The retail version (the one sold in stores) is much better, but still buggy. It still requires reminding of its controller pairing at each start-up, for example.
It would also be nice if the Ouya had apps for services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and HBO Go, like most set-top boxes these days. (There are a couple of lesser ones, like Flixster and TuneIn.)
Ouya, the company, says the rough edges are all part of the charm. A representative explains that Ouya’s “innovative approach to hardware is more like the typical approach to software development, meaning continually iterative — always changing — always getting better — never ‘finished.’ ” Whereas most companies keep their products secret until they’re fully ready, “we are getting all the benefits of developing in public (exposure, feedback, a real connection with our community, support) and all the drawbacks (misguided customer expectations, anger, etcetera).”
If you’re a cynical person, that might sound like a nonapologetic way of acknowledging that this machine is not quite fully baked.
Even if, as the company maintains, the quality and features will continue to grow, no software download can improve the hardware quality. The controller feels cheap. During the excruciating process of typing in your network password, e-mail address, Ouya password and so on, you’re supposed to arrow-key your way across an on-screen alphabet grid — but the right-arrow key sometimes takes you down a row, to your increasing frustration. Fortunately, you can plug in an Xbox controller to use instead.
Ouya’s best feature is that it lives in Quirksville. The box, the people who make games for it and the people who buy it will find themselves delightfully unencumbered by the red tape, bureaucracy and corporate conservativeness that weigh down bigger-name consoles. All kinds of fascinating, funny, oddball games emerge as a result — and all are free for you to try.
But the Ouya’s worst feature is also that it lives in Quirksville. The game quality varies wildly, and there’s no corporate screening at all. The company crowdsources new games — puts them into a category called Sandbox, where Ouya fans can try them and promote the best games into the “real” catalog. But there’s still a lot of chaff around the wheat.
So yes, the company will spend the coming months running around stomping bugs, and game creators need time to dream up more offbeat winners. But already, Ouya is different, and entertaining, and portable, and open-source. And eminently entertaining and playable.
Even at this, its never “finished” stage, it’s worth $100, especially if you don’t already own one of the more expensive consoles. Yes, ladies and gentlemen: the Corolla of game consoles has just pulled up.