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OUYA First Impressions – Part 2: The Software

View Nelson Schneider's Profile

By Nelson Schneider - 07/14/13 at 07:05 PM CT

(Before continuing, please be sure to read the update addendum at the bottom of the first part of my OUYA first impressions.)

No game console is worth a damn without actual games to play on it. Many of the biggest failures in the Console Wars have learned this lesson the hard way. The OUYA strives to build its library of games both by catering to Indie developers in the hopes of landing some exclusives and by catering to OUYA owners by enabling them to try every game in the OUYA shop without paying a penny for the privilege. Indeed, the OUYA motto is, to paraphrase, “You shouldn’t have to pay for it unless you absolutely love it.” And with the years of Android game development standing behind them, the OUYA (theoretically) shows a lot of promise.

With the purchase of my OUYA, I was hoping to be able to play some of my favorite (read: ones I don’t absolutely despise) smartphone games on my TV: “Angry Birds,” “Fruit Ninja,” and “Jetpack Joyride,” along with my most anticipated Android game, “Final Fantasy Dimensions.” And I would only pay for them if I absolutely loved them…

…Yet I haven’t paid a single cent to the OUYA shop yet. Were these games not as good as I’d hoped?

No, they aren’t available AT ALL!

The OUYA shop is remarkably deficient in big-name Android games – the things that everyone knows by name, even if they’re just casual gamers or non-gamers. Instead, those touch-heavy games have been Bowdlerized out of the OUYA shop and replaced with a bunch of stuff nobody has ever heard of by developers whose skill level seems to be far closer to “homebrewer” than “Indie.”

After spending the better part of the week waiting for things to download from the excruciatingly slow OUYA shop, I ended up testing out 35 different games of varying genres, as well as most of the emulators (Atari ( delenda est) and Commodore 64 can DIAF). I also sideloaded “Angry Birds” onto my OUYA to see exactly why the curators at OUYA decided it wasn’t up to par for their console.

First, sideloading apps isn’t a particularly good idea. Sideloaded apps will assume a touchscreen is attached to the hardware they are running on, and the OUYA’s touchpad has, in hands-on testing, proven itself to be a woefully inadequate analog to a true touchscreen. I was able to fumble my way through 2 stages in “Angry Birds” before quitting in frustration. Touchscreen apps that require any degree of dexterity are unplayable on the OUYA.

Second, out of the 35 OUYA games I tested, one, “Highway Rally,” wouldn’t allow me past the title screen and continually crashed back to the Play menu. Out of the other games, all of them worked as intended (outside of a few moments of the OUYA being struck with controller panic), but it’s obvious that there is no real paradigm in place for developers to follow when it comes to mapping their game interface to the OUYA controller. Two games, “8bit Ninjas” and “Ravensword: Shadowlands,” apparently had developers who thought it would be a cool idea to fly in the face of 30 years of tradition and use the topmost face button as the jump button. While normal PC games generally allow the player to remap buttons to their heart’s content, OUYA games, by-and-large, don’t.

Here’s a blow-by-blow rundown of the OUYA games I tested, followed by a non-numerical rating: WIN indicates a game that I might consider buying. MEH indicates a game that is tolerable, but nothing special. FAIL indicates a game that should be purged from the OUYA shop before some other poor sap accidentally plays it.

“8Bit Ninjas”
A super-pixilated, old-school 2D platforming with the unique gimmick of being able to destroy the environments. Hampered by a weird control layout.
Rating: MEH

“The Bard’s Tale”
Less RPG than Adventure, this game is loaded with meta humor. But it tries too hard with the 3D polygonal graphics and ends up looking like a budget PS2 game.
Rating: MEH

A polygonal beat ‘em up with no plot and the lowest budget imaginable. Fight through cardboard (literally) environments killing badly-animated bunnies, bipedal rats, and doggies.
Rating: FAIL

“Chrono Blade”
A neverending beat ‘em up that tries to cash in on its title’s similarity to “Chrono Trigger.” Don’t be fooled, this is not the sequel we’ve been hoping for.
Rating: MEH

“Command Crisis: Callsign”
Imagine the NES game “1942,” only with a much slower vehicle, a more gradual learning curve, and a boat-load of wingmen.
Rating: MEH

“Cosmic Conquest”
Simplified Real-Time Strategy for the smartphone era! Simply drag your troops from your bases to the alien bases to deploy half of them while leaving the other half on defense. Strategically send troops after time-sensitive bonuses, all while rushing against the clock in order to earn all three stars.
Rating: MEH

“Critical Missions: SWAT”
Are you an N64 fanboy? Do you love “GoldenEye 64” and still think it’s the pinnacle of the FPS genre to this very day? Then you need to play this game to have some sense knocked into your thick skull. “Critical Missions: SWAT” has no story mode, but is merely a series of multi-player or player-vs-bot deathmatches (just like everyone played “GoldenEye 64!”), replete with N64-quality polygons and textures (actually, it looks slightly better than “GoldenEye 64”). I played the Zombie Survival mode and was pleased to see that the zombies don’t actually pose much of a threat, but the random, screaming terrorists do. Pretty much every match consisted of shooting slow-moving zombies in the head from afar while listening to the mosquito-like continuous wail of approaching terrorists gradually rising in volume as they drew nearer. Oh, and the title screen doesn’t support button inputs, mandating the use of the OUYA touchpad to select a mode.
Rating: FAIL

“Deep Dungeons of Doom”
It’s “QuickTime Event: The Game!” A warrior delves into deepening dungeons, with one enemy – and one room – per floor. The warrior must wait for his attack meter to cooldown before swinging his sword and must carefully observe the pixilated, retro-style enemies to raise his shield in time to block their attacks.
Rating: FAIL

If “Pac-Man” had a plot, stages that increase in complexity as the player makes progress, and more interesting power-ups, it would resemble this game.
Rating: WIN

“Final Fantasy 3”
Don’t get too excited, RPG fans. This isn’t the “Final Fantasy 3” we all loved on the SNES (actually “Final Fantasy 6”). This is the DS remake of the NES game that Squaresoft deemed “not-good-enough” for Americans back in the day, minus the second screen. The plot is still dumb, the characters still transparent, and the job system still hyper-grindy. Square Enix couldn’t even be bothered to up the resolution of the polygons or textures for the OUYA version, resulting in a game that looks as bad as it plays.
Rating: FAIL

The “Donkey Kong’s Crash Course” attraction in “Nintendo Land” is one of my favorites. This game is a clone of that attraction, only featuring an electric catfish riding in a custom vehicle and collecting goldfish in bags instead of bananas. It’s just as frustrating as “DK’s Crash Course,” but I still find it fun.
Rating: WIN

“Flashout 3D”
Take “Wipeout HD” off of PSN, downgrade the graphics to first-wave PS2 quality, then get rid of the accelerate button and instead map acceleration to forward on the analog stick.
Rating: FAIL

“Giana Sisters”
The original “Super Mario Bros.” clone comes to OUYA with enhanced graphics! Unfortunately, the graphics have a few issues which cause the Giana Sisters to flicker as they hop-and-bop their way through traditional side-scrolling stages. Includes all-new stages as well as a “retro mode” with the original stages. Of course, over the years, the Mario Bros. have evolved while the Giana Sisters have stagnated.
Rating: MEH

“Get on Top”
Nick insists this stylized wrestling game was made by perverted Russians. It’s a two-player only battle for the top position via catastrophic head trauma between two Men’s Room icons with their hands fused together. Each of the two players shares one half of the same controller, requiring only an analog stick for tugging and a trigger button for jumping. Chris and Nick were too chicken to play this disturbing game, so I played with myself (don’t judge!). I won.
Rating: FAIL

It’s “Tetris” in a sphere! Maybe? No, not really. This is some kind of puzzle game that involves matching blocks of the same shape in order to clear out a specific-sized hole in one side of a sphere. I got to be pretty good at it despite not really understanding how to play and only barely grasping what was happening on-screen. The entire ruleset makes no sense.
Rating: FAIL

It’s super-pixilated 8-bit “Contra!” Kind of.
Rating: MEH

“Happy Vikings”
Vikings are apparently really anal about stacking their booty after a raid. This match-three puzzle involves stacking sheep, treasure chests, kegs, and piles of dead fish in neat rows in order to clear each round.
Rating: MEH

“Highway Rally”
I wanted Nick to test out this realistic racing game, being the huge “Gran Turismo” whore that he is. Unfortunately, it kept crashing and we never even got to see the gameplay.
Rating: FAIL

“Ittle Dew”
This self-aware “Legend of Zelda” clone features a little girl hero who hits enemies (who are mostly other little girls in “Where the Wild Things Are” style costumes) with a stick, all while seeking timely advice from her FairyFox sidekick, who apparently has a Life Potion addiction. The gameplay is solid “Zelda,” mixed with just a touch of “Adventures of Lolo.” The hand-drawn animation is huge and lush. I almost bought the full version of this one.
Rating: WIN

“Knightmare Tower”
Remember when old 2D platformers tried to mix-up the gameplay by doing something COMPLETELY BONKERS like… VERTICAL SCROLLING??? This game reignites those fires of not-so-ingenuity by tacking vertical scrolling onto “Jetpack Joyride’s” basic gameplay.
Rating: MEH

“League of Evil”
A cyborg must make his way through spike-and-enemy-filled stages, grabbing briefcases of intel along the way. Ultimately, he must find and kill a rogue scientist to clear each stage. While the controls are solid, the gameplay is typical “get three stars” smartphone dreck. Also, the ghosts that appear for failed attempts at a stage are really annoying and ensure that subsequent attempts WILL fail if they aren’t disabled in the option menu.
Rating: MEH

“Lemming Rampage 2”
Remember the days when everyone was making 2D platformers to copy the success of “Super Mario Bros.?” If you’re not old enough, maybe you still can think back to… yesterday, and remember when everyone was making military FPSes to copy the success of “Call of Duty?” Either way, “Jetpack Joyride” seems to be the latest style-du-jour to copy with a cheap knock-off. At least the lemming has the gimmick of his jetpack running out of fuel (which makes the game 100% less fun than the game it’s ripping off).
Rating: FAIL

“Muffin Knight”
“Super Crate Box” (mentioned below) started a new “Mario Bros.” esque (not even “Super”) genre of smartphone action games in which the player must collect a certain number of ‘somethings,’ with each collected ‘something’ randomly changing the player character’s abilities. “Muffin Knight” one-ups “Super Crate Box” with RPG elements, better controls, and lush graphics… but is still frustrating and repetitive.
Rating: MEH

If you loved the Genesis game, “Sub-Terrania,” you will love this game. I HATE “Sub-Terrania.” And this game looks much, much worse to boot. It doesn’t help that this was one of the games where my OUYA controller decided to freak out and stop working correctly.
Rating: FAIL

This modern re-imagining of the classic arcade game, “Snake,” involves an ever-growing party of RPG heroes walking in a line and killing monsters for money and to rescue more potential allies. I’m not good at “Snake,” but those who like the concept should enjoy this game.
Rating: MEH

“Paper Wings”
The ultimate “Jetpack Joyride” knock-off, “Paper Wings” features a variety of cartoony birds riding paper airplanes in an endless flight to collect fruit. This game is significantly easier than “Jetpack Joyride,” meaning that flights can last a REALLY long time. I wouldn’t want to squint at a phone for that long.
Rating: WIN

“Ravensword: Shadowlands”
Some Indie developer wanted to re-create “The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion” for Android. The result is an empty, crude-looking polygonal world (somewhere between Dreamcast and PS2 quality) that suffers from major slowdown whenever anything actiony happens. Combined with a weird button layout, there is really nothing impressive here.
Rating: FAIL

Proving that it’s not the OUYA hardware that makes its polygonal games look like ass, but incompetent development, “Shadowgun” is a spectacular-looking “Gears of War” knock-off staring bald-burly-dude-man, John Slade, and his large-breasted (but unskinned) gynoid, SARA. I’m no fan of the genre that Zero Punctuation’s Yahtzee has dubbed “spunkgargleweewee” (cover-based third-person shooters), but this is a competent specimen.
Rating: WIN

“Sonic the Hedgehog 4”
This game is on every digital distribution platform known to man. It’s 2D “Sonic.” Love it or hate it.
Rating: MEH

“Super Crate Box”
Worse controls, worse graphics, and less complex gameplay than “Muffin Knight” prove that it’s possible to be outdone by a clone within a really short timespan.
Rating: FAIL

“The Lost Heroes”
I loved “The Lost Vikings” on the SNES. This game is a clone of that puzzle-platformer, only with much, much (much) lower production values and a forced sense of humor. I really want to like this game, and maybe it will get better with updates, but for now it’s pretty bland.
Rating: MEH

“Tower Master”
Get to the top of a trap-filled tower to rescue the fat princess! Die a whole bunch of times! Get sent back to the start! Quit in frustrated boredom!
Rating: FAIL

This is a multi-player only battle arena where characters strive to kill each other with arrows. The gimmick of needing to collect more arrows from walls or corpses is neat, and the level designs make for quick, pixilated-violence-filled games with friends. But it does require an extra controller (and thus forces players to confront the issues I had with the OUYA and third-party controllers) or three, and has no single-player option for fights against bots.
Rating: MEH

“Wind-up Knight”
“Temple Run” isn’t available in the OUYA shop… but THIS game is! It’s a side-scrolling (instead of third-person) endless running game. I found it unexciting.
Rating: MEH

This game is in the “RPG” category in the OUYA shop. But it’s a frakking “Breakout” clone that just so happens to feature a wizard as the main character who can visit towns between games. Note to the OUYA shop curators: Just because a game has wizards or swords in it does NOT mean it’s an RPG!
Rating: MEH

So, out of the segment of the OUYA library I sampled, the final tally is:

WIN: 5
MEH: 17
FAIL: 13

The biggest take-away lesson about the OUYA shop is, in addition to being filled with mostly crap, that OUYA games that are 2D have a significantly better chance at being good than those that are 3D. I initially thought that this situation was due to the hardware not being up to the task of rendering great-looking polygons. But the truth of the matter is that Indie game developers, as much as I love them, aren’t up to the task of modeling great-looking polygons. 2D graphics have aged much better than 3D graphics, so when Indie’s try to cheap-out and make a game look a couple of generations older than it is, it’s important to remember to MAKE IT 2D!

Finally, the elephant in the room with the OUYA is emulation. I am an unabashed fan of emulation, and have been singing the praises of a hacked Wii with the Homebrew Channel installed for years now. But with the Wii out of production, what will stand up to take its place as the premier emulation box? A Steambox would work great, as Windows is the home of the most, best emulators, and a PC can easily throw enough horsepower at emulation to make games for more recent hardware (like the DS and PlayStation 2) playable. Of course, a Steambox also costs 10 times as much as an OUYA!

In testing the OUYA’s emulators, I found it to be about on-par with a hacked Wii. Some of the tried-and-true emulators have nicer filters available in the OUYA version (like a CRT filter that makes old games look great AND old simultaneously). Most of the emulators support button remapping and save states, as they should. However, getting ROMs onto an OUYA is a pain in the ass, made even worse by the fact that I don’t own a male-to-male USB cable to hook the OUYA up to my PC. Instead, I downloaded ROMs from the backup archive I keep on my network attached storage drive. It’s tedious to do one at a time, and the OUYA kept telling me that the downloads “failed” and made me retry repeatedly, so I only tested a couple of games for each emulator.

This is a NES emulator… that isn’t very good. The sound emulation is crap and the available video filters don’t look very nice. However, the gimmick EmuYA brings to the table is a built-in store that allows OUYA owners to download custom-made NES games. These aren’t commercial ROMs distributed by pirates privateers, but homebrewed games made by those who are obsessed with ancient hardware. I didn’t bother downloading any of them, though. All of these custom games are included in the EmuYA download. I tried each of them for a few minutes and found little to get excited about... but they're all FREE!
Rating: MEH

This Game Boy Advance emulator is slightly better than Virtual Boy Advance for the Wii. It runs faster, handles frameskipping better, and the OUYA is powerful enough to allow the application of nicer screen filters.
Rating: WIN

Just like the GBA emulator, only for some reason the audio volume is REALLY LOUD with no way to adjust it.
Rating: WIN

This Genesis emulator (“MD” stands for “Mega Drive,” the European name of the Genesis) pales in comparison to Genesis+ for the Wii. Gen+ features support for lots of Sega hardware (SG-1000, Master System, Genesis, Sega CD), while MD.emu just does vanilla Genesis. Like the other .emu emulators, the filters are really nice, but that’s really the only thing it has going for it.
Rating: MEH

Mupen64Plus AE
There is only ONE N64 game I ever want to emulate: “Paper Mario.” This version of Mupen64, just like the Wii version, is garbage. It can’t handle “Paper Mario,” or “GoldenEye 64.” It can barely handle “MarioKart 64.” Even if there was a good reason to want to emulate one of the worst consoles ever, this isn’t the software to do it.
Rating: FAIL

This is a port of the same DeSmume emulator I use on my Steambox. It’s competent, but is lacking options in screen arrangement. It also has major slowdown and stuttering issues because the OUYA isn’t powerful enough to handle emulating a DS. It’s better than the Wii DS emulator (which doesn’t work at all), but that’s not saying much.
Rating: FAIL

This is a rock-solid NES emulator. Great filters, great sound. Compares favorably to the Wii NES emulator.
Rating: WIN

Does anyone really care about the TurboGrafx 16? There are a couple of interesting games for it (both begin with “Neu” and end with “Topia”), and the Wii has a bit of fragmentation in emulating this console, with three different emulators, two of which work with certain games, and one that works with everything. I didn’t monkey around with trying to get PCE.emu to play a TurboCD game (which does work beautifully in WiiMednafen, and cumbersomely in WiiEngine), since that’s a crap-shoot in the best of situations. But for playing standard TG16 games, this emulator is just as good as the Wii, if not better.
Rating: WIN

SNES9x EX Plus
For some reason, there are two different SNES emulators in the OUYA shop. SNES9x is the gold standard in ease of use and compatibility on every platform with a SNES emulator. It’s just as good as the Wii version… and neither can handle HQ2X smoothing very well, thanks to lack of hardware oomph.
Rating: WIN

Super GNES
I don’t like this emulator. The d-pad doesn’t work right, there’s no button mapping functionality… it doesn’t even have a gimmick like EmuYA. Why does it exist?!
Rating: FAIL

With a powerful gaming PC, most people should be able to just run any emulator in Windows. However, the bad thing about PC emulators is that they are all designed with the keyboard and mouse in mind. Sure, they all allow the player to map controller buttons when actually playing a game, but the emulator interfaces themselves require dicking around with a mouse and maybe even hitting CTRL+Enter on the keyboard to go fullscreen. The OUYA’s emulators all take the controller as the primary interface device, making it easy to navigate their options and menus without having to touch the icky touchpad. Of course, all Wii emulators have user-friendly interfaces as well. And let’s not forget that the Wii actually has emulators for hardware that the OUYA doesn’t, like the Virtual Boy and DOSbox.

So, in the end, what is an OUYA good for? As a game console, it feels less like a home for great Indie games than a home for homebrewed games that wouldn’t make the cut anywhere but on the Xbox Live Marketplace Indie Games section. I’ve even had more fun with the limited selection of homebrewed games I have installed on my Wii (“Super Mario War,” “Mahjongg Wii,” “Meritous,” “WiiTris”) than I did with most of the OUYA games I sampled. As an emulation box, it serves little purpose, as anyone technically savvy enough to get ROMs onto an OUYA in order to play them should have no problems buying a second-hand Wii and installing the Homebrew Channel (which supports running pretty much everything from an external SD card). And anyone seeking to emulate games for consoles not supported by the Wii will find that the support on the OUYA is just as spotty.

Anyone seeking to play lots of great, cheap Indie games would be better off installing Steam on their existing PC and maybe joining Anyone seeking emulator heaven should stick with the Wii. In the end it seems that, out of the two things the OUYA expressly wants to do, it does neither well. Of course, the OUYA has only been available to the public for a week. It took years for the Wii Homebrew Channel to become the polished experience it is today. Either way, buying an OUYA now seems to be jumping the gun, with expectations exceeding the delivered result. I’ll hang onto my OUYA… maybe once it has USB support added in an update and a few more must-have Android games have controller support added (Square Enix, I’m looking at you and “Final Fantasy Dimensions”), it will develop into something worthwhile.

Update (7-28-2013):
It seems that the OUYA actually CAN read directly from an external USB drive. It was actually not a fault with the console that had me confused here, but my absolute lack of experience with Android. Upon installing a designed-specifically-for-OUYA file manager called "FilePwn," I was actually able to explore the Android file system and figure out how to access whatever USB drive might be plugged-in. I don't really understand why it's necessary to install third-party software to do something as simple as navigate a device's file system, and I have complained about this before. But at least the OUYA does actually provide solid competition for The Homebrew Channel in the emulator box arena.

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