Ouya: A charming but flawed $100 video game console

July 12, 2013: 12:36 PM ET
The $99 Android game console
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

Today, video game systems are dominated by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. They make big, expensive, state-of-the-art gaming consoles that attract the world's top developers and the most intricate games.

But the fastest-growing video game segment has no use for all those bells and whistles. Smartphone and tablet games are cruder and simpler but are often as fun and innovative, and immensely popular with the average consumer who would never dream of shelling out $500 for a video game console.

What if those casual gamers could play games in the same vein as those smartphone titles, but designed around the living room experience, on a console that costs less than $100? Ouya, a Kickstarter-backed video game project, is betting that people would bite.

The $99 Ouya video game console is a fascinating concept that at times delights with inexpensive, high-quality games. Though it is both crude and temperamental, the little box still manages to win you over with its charm.

Ouya is packed with the same guts as a smartphone or media streamer. It's small and silent.

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But then you turn on the console, and chaos ensues. There is no easy way to search for games or even organize the ones you have. There is no central online framework for multiplayer gaming. And for every amazing game, such as the Ouya-exclusive "Towerfall," there's a truly awful version of some Android game.

To cut through the noise, Ouya attempts to spotlight the worthwhile games. Its staff curates a top picks list, and the console displays a list of most-played titles. It's a concept that mostly works.

At its best, Ouya is home to wonderfully fun multiplayer games with stripped-down-but-stylish graphics, and short-but-sweet single player adventures. There are already a half dozen games that are worth paying for, and for a device that video game developers have only had access to for a few months, that's not bad.

The big plan for Ouya is to work with top independent game developers to produce exclusive titles for the console. And big name publishers like SquareEnix and Sega have begun porting over some of their biggest franchises in the form of Sonic and Final Fantasy. It's not enough to for Ouya to fall back on just yet, but it's a solid start.

Most games will fall between $5 and $20 and every game features a free playable demo of some sort.

But even the handful of titles worth paying for aren't always a joy to play. Some of the more ambitious games, especially the 3-D titles running at the highest of high-definition resolutions, tend to fall victim to lag.

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The controller, which Ouya has engineered from scratch, is functional and gets the job done. But that's about the best that can be said about it. Although many Ouya games simply don't require the same level of ergonomics, tactile feedback, and responsiveness that a big-budget console game would require, the controller still feels a bit cheap.

The four trigger buttons on top of the controller are too close together, and there is a sporadic lag between button presses and the action on screen. The performance of the touch pad in the middle of the controller is so inconsistent that most users probably are better off just ignoring it.

Luckily, Ouya allows users to connect any USB or Bluetooth game controller, including Xbox or PlayStation controllers -- if a particular game provides the support for third-party controllers. It's part of Ouya's open-source strategy: If the console is theoretically capable of doing something, developers will be allowed to do it. If a developer can write the code for it, Ouya will support any piece of gaming technology under the sun. Ouya has no real rules or limitations.

What will make or break the Ouya, however is the software. It wants to be a destination for game developers to experiment, and a galvanizing product for the emerging indie game space. Whether or not consumers really want that remains up in the air.

The company says it's committed to constantly improving and evolving the Ouya platform to better serve gamers and developers, and this has already been evident in the early updates it has released so far. It's not unreasonable to expect many of the Ouya's issues to be solved via future updates.

For those who are intrigued by the Ouya, it's cheap and promising enough that it's worth buying and tinkering around with. For everyone else, it's probably better to wait.

But keep an eye on the Ouya, because it's hardly a failure.


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