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Ouya Review: Android Game Console Delivers Fun, Frolics And Frustration (VIDEO)

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Making something simple looks easy. That's why Kickstarter projects win so many hearts. Ouya, the little Android console that could, won hearts to the tune of $10 million on that - possibly illusory - promise.

The problem is exactly that, however: easy simplicity is an illusion. Making simple things might be straightforward, but making them good is incredibly difficult. Not least because casual, mass-market users also tend to be the most easily frustrated - and hostile - when simple things break.

So although Ouya is now out for real, available for just £99 from GAME, the fact that it's so obviously half-finished means that when the dust and hype settles, it will probably have broken about as many hearts as it won.

And in my attempt to use it both to bring back my love of simple games - and get my girlfriend playing anything other than our yellowing Super Nintendo - it pretty much broke mine too.

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The Ouya sounds and looks like a simple, cheap little hit. It's a small box which plays fun games. All of the games can be played in demo form, for free, and you can mess around with the software and apps as much as you want to, with no penalty. It's about having fun, trying new ideas, seeing what works and seeing what breaks.

Physically the machine delivers. It's a beautiful object - three inches cubed, styled a bit like an up-ended 2000-era iMac with a nice mix of sharp lines, flattering curves and a single 'on' button. It could use a bit of colour, an SD card slot, and another USB port, but it's easy to love and looks nice next to your TV.

The controller is pleasant to look at too, feels good in the hands and is simple enough to use - despite its many technical flaws (to which we'll return). And the software - a heavily, heavily modified form of Android - could not be easier to navigate. Finding games is ridiculously easy within minutes of turning it on and registering an account - and the fact that all of them are free to try, and download, leads to an initially gluttonous spate of shopping, like somebody let you loose in the App Store after hours with a magic credit card.

The games available on the system - officially there are at least 200, though with the presence of emulators and the ease of side-loading games that could really number in the thousands - are a mixed bag, but cheap, cheerful and entertaining.

They range from the classic - Canabalt, Super Crate Box and League of Evil are all present - to the mystifying - there are at least two 'park the car' games listed on the store's front page, for no apparent reason whatsoever.

The best games on the system have a deliberately retro appeal, both in terms of their pixelated style and their mechanics. And that's really fantastic to see, because if there's one thing that console gaming lacks, it's focus and simplicity.

Nintendo know this - and exploit their unique take on its principles to their variable advantage. And the indie scene has risen to the challenge on the big two consoles, too. But to have a machine so explicitly focused on quick, involving and basic games is a delight. Some of those games do suffer in their transition from touch screen to gamepad - the scaled-down ice hockey game Ice Rage was a notable example. But in general most make the transition intact.

What the console lacks is big-budget, big-name, 3D blockbusters.

That's also fantastic, obviously.

The gaming world is resplendent - if not actually grossly over-saturated - with such things, on machines that are both fantastically overpowered, expensive and elusive (the next-gen boxes) and those which are now almost a decade old and surprisingly cheap (the Xbox 360 and PS3). The Ouya isn't trying to compete with AAA publishers, and it's far better for conceding that ground. There are 3D shooters on Ouya - ShadowGun, for instance. But they're all hindered by the timid nVidia Tegra 3 and 1GB of on-board RAM, and by comparison to their console brethren more optimised for the big screen.

All of which is to say the Ouya is a bunch of fun, at a good price, when it works.

Which is the problem, really. Because the fact is that in a few, very critical ways, the Ouya feels broken.

The most obvious offender is the controller. Our unit was fragile aesthetically - the two front plates kept falling off - and technically. The D-pad was clunky and kept sticking on 'right'. The analogue sticks were imprecise and frustratingly erratic, and the trigger buttons felt like they were about to snap into the controller at any minute.

And then there was the lag. Much has been written, denied, argued and debated about the existence, or not, of lag on the Ouya, But in my experience it was hard to ignore. There were many obvious pauses and gaps between pressing a button and an action happening on screen, and it pretty much wrecked most games.

When playing with my aforementioned partner, for instance, the result was almost total and immediate dismissal on her part. After a few enjoyable (though controller-hindered) rounds of an old-school racer, I tried her out on endless-runner Canabalt - the simplest possible game, with a single button for 'jump'. But combined with the Ouya's controller what should be a fun, quick game turned into a nightmare of frustration - both for her playing, and for me painfully watching and trying to get her to enjoy it, which I know she would, if all was equal.

Press. Wait. Jump. Dead. Repeat.

Five minutes later, she was done. The Ouya had failed in my attempt to bring gaming back to our living room, from its exile in the Gaming Closet upstairs.

Likewise, the console's lack of quality control when it comes to software means that many games on the system don't always work as expected - or don't really work at all. The store's 'Sandbox' is meant to be a place where games can be tried, tested and voted into the storefront by the community, but often it just ends up being a graveyard of the damned where sound errors, glitches, crashes and despair are the rule.

Indeed, across the system connection errors and bugs are a problem - though Ouya has promised regular updates. (One issue I found is that the combination of one-button purchases and the terrible controller meant that buying games was far too easy to do by accident. In the end I had to set up parental controls. Against myself.)

To its credit, the open nature of the Ouya means that there are solutions to some of these problems. On the controller front, for instance, while additional gamepads are offered at a shockingly high price it's also possible to use wired Xbox 360 pads and PS3 controllers over Bluetooth. I managed to get my Xbox controller working, and it made for a much better experience, though playing attached to the box with a wire is a bit too 'bad retro' for my taste. And as for the bad/buggy games, the solution is just to try another - they're all free, at first, after all.

But these aren't really fixes at all. They're hacks, obvious to the sort of people who would back Ouya on Kickstarter, but not to the casual/lapsed gamers Ouya really needs to get on board. As a strategy to manage buyer's remorse, it's fine. For a mainstream product it's a terrible indictment.

The Ouya clearly has promise - and despite its flaws, I personally liked it. When the game is right, and the controller works, it's an excellent little way to play simple games for a few minutes, particularly in groups. Hacking away at its flaws is even entertaining on its own, in a nerdy sort of way.

And to be frank, while I thought I wanted Ouya for the emulators, I far preferred the current, simple titles which blended the ethos of retro play with quicker, refined mechanics and better graphics.

But therein lies the issue.

Because the machine that sat next to mine and my girlfriend's TV before I moved it temporarily aside for the Ouya wasn't an Xbox or a PS3. It was our Super Nintendo. A machine designed for simplicity, where quick games are plugged in, turned on, played and discarded. And where - a quick blow for dust aside - everything always works.

Which, thinking about it, is probably why my girlfriend likes playing it with me. For her - as a 'non-gamer' (sigh, we both hate the phrase) who wants to play something silly once or twice a month - the most important thing for her isn't graphics, or choice, or even innovation. It's the combination of disposability, fun and consistency.

The Ouya gets two of those three right, at the moment. That's not bad for a hobby. But for a real product, sold for real money, that's a pretty major flaw.

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