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Kicking The Tires On The Ouya

The console isn't even out yet, but it's already been a wild ride for the Ouya. Since this Android based platform announced its Kickstarter campaign last July, more than 60,000 backers have contributed $8.6 million for an open platform that gives developers the autonomy to build what they want when they want. We recently sat down with CEO Julie Urhman, who showcased the console, controller, and slick user interface.

The Console

The diminutive chassis is less than the size of a softball, packing in a Nvidia Tegra 3, 1.7Ghz quad-core ARM A9 chip, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of internal flash memory. One modestly sized fan keeps all these pieces from overheating while operating at a quiet 20 decibels. The back of the unit features an HDMI port, USB and micro USB ports, an Ethernet port, and a power plug-in. The console also supports 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The unit comes with an HDMI cord as well, so you don't need anything extra to get the system up and running. Ouya is currently testing other Bluetooth devices to see if they are compatible with the console, and plans to publish a list once it's done with the fact-finding mission. It currently supports the use of up to four controllers at once.

The Controller

Xbox 360 owners should be right at home with the Ouya controller, which has staggered analog sticks, four face buttons, a D-pad, two shoulder buttons, and two triggers. It connects to the console via Bluetooth and runs on two AA batteries. To replace the batteries, you must remove the brushed aluminum face plates on each side of the controller. You need to be aggressive to pull them off, but they fit tightly back onto the controller. I like the placement of the analog sticks, but they aren't concave so your fingers may slip off them from time to time. The sloped triggers are pressure sensitive, which should make the controller a good fit for first-person shooters, and the middle of the controller is a one-touch touchpad. To get back to the menu at any time in a game, you can double-tap the Ouya button in the lower middle of the controller.

The Interface

My favorite feature of the Ouya is the minimalistic and intuitive user interface, which isn't cluttered with advertisements or an overwhelming amount of options. Instead, upon booting the system up you're greeted with four options: Play, Discover, Make, and Manage.

Selecting the Play channel brings you to the collection of the games you have downloaded. This menu looks almost like the Xbox 360's Metro design, with rectangular panels for each game, but the Ouya fits more options on the screen at once.

The Discover channel acts as the Ouya storefront. Here you can peruse several different menus of games. Similar to a recommended apps tab in the iOS storefront, the Featured section houses games vetted and curated by former thatgamecompany producer Kellee Santiago. The Go Retro section obviously leads you to throwback titles that recall gaming's golden age. The Genre section allows you to sort the games by several categories. The Sandbox houses the latest games appearing on Ouya. These titles need a high enough O ranking (an under-the-hood algorithm that collects usage data on games) or enough thumbs-up votes to become candidates for the other sections. The Hear Me section selects games with great soundtracks. Whatever section you are in, when you click on a game you are presented with a screen that showcases game information, screenshots, and eventually video trailers (a feature that has yet to be integrated). If you'd rather not browse, a universal search option lets you type the name of the specific game you are looking for.

The Make channel is the home base for developers to quickly access their latest builds, and the Manage option lets you dive into the system settings to enter your credit card information, set up your user name, etc. The console currently doesn't have many community functions – friends lists and achievements are notably missing – but Uhrman says these are both part of the long-term plan. Parental controls and the ability to set up multiple users on one console are also missing at this time. I'd also like to see Ouya create a dedicated channel for multimedia options like Netflix, XBMC, Flixster, etc.

The Games

The biggest question mark we still have about the Ouya is what game will be the system seller. Urhman tells us that the company has more than 50 games up and running in the Ouya storefront as of right now, but most of these titles are already available on other platforms. The games we saw on the console include Canabalt, Final Fantasy III, Organ Trail: Director's Cut, Fist of Awesome, Stalagflight, Wizorb,and The Ball. We know that Double Fine, Robotoki, and Kim Swift have Ouya-exclusive titles in the pipeline, and Ouya has shipped more than 1,200 developer consoles, but we don't know enough about the upcoming games to discern whether or not they have the potential to draw players to the platform.

Kickstarter backers will begin receiving their consoles in the next few days; the company began shipping them out today. The Ouya is scheduled to launch for $99 on June 4, appearing at retail storefronts like Best Buy and GameStop as well as online retailers like Amazon. As much as we appreciate the console's clean interface and developer friendly environment, if Ouya expects gamers to migrate to its platform, it needs to offer experiences we can't get anywhere else. 

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