The shock of playing the OUYA, one year later
Last year I received my OUYA console, as a kickstarter backer. I plugged it in, logged in with my backer’s account, proceeded to the first firmware update, tried the web browser for a minute, sideloaded my game Wagic, realized the controls didn’t work as expected, then turned the console off. A few weeks later, as my TV got full of a bunch of consoles, computers, and a variety of Android devices, I did a massive clean up: The PS3 and an Android TV Box stayed, the rest got back to their boxes. Including the OUYA.
I’ve always felt bad that I didn’t give the OUYA its chance. I’d love to port Wagic to it (the ONLY thing it needs is fixing the controls, and reducing the screen size to fit on my TV), but never found the time to do it. As far as other games are concerned, I’ve believed for a long time that in the rare occasions I have time to play, I’d rather play AAA titles.
Then came the PS4, and I kept telling to some friends “next time you come to my place, I’ll show the PS4 to you”. Some of my friends took my word for it: “you keep telling us ‘next time’ but haven’t invited us to your place in months. So when is it that we come to your place to play video games?”.
I gave it some thoughts. The PS4 is a great console but I barely have any games for it. And I’ve realized through the years that Sony’s AAA titles are usually not the best when you play with friends, especially when half of them are not that much into video games. I have terrible memories of coming to a gamer’s place to spend the afternoon playing Fifa, Street Fighter 4, etc… in all these AAA titles, the guy who owns the game basically beats your ass so hard that all the fun is gone. The learning curve of AAA titles makes it impossible to have fun when you discover the game for the first time, are playing against people who’ve owned the game for a while, and when you only have an afternoon to learn + have fun.
It all clicked into place on that one evening: “I know!”, I said, “the OUYA I bought so long ago, I’ve always wanted to give it a chance, and I heard it has some pretty cool games for local multiplayer, in particular for casual gamers. Plus, since I’ve never played it I won’t have any tactical advantage on you guys, let’s do this!”
It was all decided on that evening at a restaurant, and my friends eventually came over to my place, yesterday.
Yesterday morning I spent some time getting the console out of its box, updating the firmware, looking for games, etc… It didn’t go all super smooth: it took me almost an hour to update the firmware and configure the 4 controllers – 2 OUYA controllers and 2 PS3 controllers -. As crazy as it sounds, the PS3 controllers are the ones that worked first and eventually let me access the menu to configure the OUYA ones. To be fair, I had paired the OUYA controllers to another one of my Android devices in the past, and I think that was the issue here.
Eventually, the console was ready, and I had downloaded the trial versions of 3 games: Hidden in plain sight, Bombsquad, and No brake Valet. The game I really wanted to try was Towerfall, which had been “the” OUYA exclusive for some time that everybody was talking about, supposedly instant fun. But I couldn’t find a “trial” version of it, so instead I went with the 3 previously mentioned, that were recommended to me by google search results.
I gave a quick try at “Hidden in plain sight” and Bombsquad with my kid. The concept of “Hidden in plain Sight” (will discuss it below) appeared awesome to me, but impossible for my 3 year old to grasp any of it, so we switched to bombsquad. Bombsquad looked like some Bomberman on acid, and after playing for 20 minutes with my kid (who was mostly having fun throwing bombs at himself), I was convinced this would be the game that we’d play the entire afternoon.
I got myself a $50 OUYA code from Amazon (for those of you living outside of the US, I had no problem purchasing it using the technique I describe here. It’s actually possible OUYA code are not region-locked at all but my Amazon account is now set in a way that from Amazon’s point of view, my billing address is in the US, just to avoid any purchase issue), so that we’d have enough to buy several games if their trial version was convincing enough.
I immediately purchased Bombsquad. Its trial version is actually the full version limited to 1h of gameplay which we had almost used entirely playtesting with the kid, so at $4.99 the full version felt like both a requirement and a pretty good deal.
Finally, my friends reached my place. They had brought their girlfriends (how dare they! ), which would make the whole project much more challenging: none of us was really willing to play, we just wanted to chat with friends while enjoying snacks and drinks.
Eventually, somehow, someone brought the subject and asked when we would start playing. I turned the OUYA on, and suggested we tried the “ninja” game (hidden in plain sight).
That’s the point where I need to describe what that game is about. I’m amazed at how genius this game is, and I’m sure it’s taken ideas from other games, but as far as I’m concerned, this is my first time in 25 years as a gamer playing a game with that concept.
The basic idea of Hidden in plain sight is that you don’t know who your character is on the screen. You also don’t know who your enemies are. you have to figure them out, and kill them.
Have you ever played “where’s wally?”. In Hidden in plain sight, your character is one ninja lost in a sea of CPU-controlled ninjas with exactly the same texture. In the first few seconds, you have to walk left, right, up, down,… anything that will let you understand which of the characters on the screen is yours. Once you’ve got that, you have to figure out your opponents. Any move that doesn’t look like is performed by the AI could give you away. Also, when you try to kill an opponent, the noise and animation can give your position away, giving your opponents a significant advantage in killing you.
That’s the basic mode, the game offers several variants that are all as entertaining to play. Death Race, knights VS Ninjas, Catch the Thief were all insanely fun and we’ve played all of them a similar amount of time. My personal preference probably goes to the Catch the thief and Death Race modes.
Hidden in plain sight is very difficult to describe but it’s instant fun, to an almost hysterical level when playing with 4 players. It’s also fun to watch for the audience. The magic of that game is that despite being a video game, it doesn’t require any gamer’s skills. The fun is not in your mastery of the controller, but in how quickly you’ll be able to figure out where your opponents are. As I type this, 24h later, I am still amazed at the amount of fun this game provided for our group of 10 people.
At $2.99, Hidden in plain sight was an instant buy, even though I’m sure the trial version would have been more than enough to entertain us for hours. For $2.99, I can easily say we had an amount of fun for on average 7 people (4 players + 3 watchers) for about 5 hours throughout the day. Total cost of Hidden in plain sight: 8 cents per hour per person, for hours of hysterical hilarity. I’ve rarely spent my money so well on entertainment, and I couldn’t recommend that game enough if you have friends coming over (that game is also available on the Xbox360, I believe)
After playing Hidden in plain sight for quite a while, we gave Bombsquad a try. Bombsquad is a mix between Super Smash Bros and Bomberman. The tiny characters have to fight each other by throwing bombs at each others, punching each other, or throwing opponents over the edge of the gaming area. Several game modes keep the gmaing experience pretty original, with a special mention for the “epic slow-mo” mode which lets you fight in hilarious slow motion (duh).
Bombsquad was lots of fun, but clearly required more gaming skills than Hidden in plain sight. After about half an hour of the same 4 people playing, it was difficult for new players to join the game and not get completely owned (remember, we’re all grown ups, most of us with lots of gaming experience, but what you would call casual gamers today – also, we don’t see the screen as good as when we were in our twenties ). As a result, we decided to switch games, in order to re-init the levels.
We gave a try to No Brake Valet. In this game, each player has to park cars as best as they can, given that the cars go super fast, have crappy brakes, and are pretty much impossible to control. The result is usually a massive disaster of crashed cars all over the place. Again, a stupid concept that’s very difficult to describe but so enjoyable when everyone’s in the same room.
The game was free, I didn’t even check if it had a paid version. We played with it for about 1h, which I think is crazy given how simple the concept is and how crappy the game looks (at this level this is beyond “retro”). Give it a try, this is again a great local multiplayer game.
We switched to Towerfall, several of us had heard about it, and it was the game we all really wanted to try initially. It didn’t have a trial version, but I took a leap of faith and bought the full game for $14.99. Towerfall is also a “free for all” smash bros type of game, set in an heroic fantasy retro universe: 4 players on a single screen, have to kill each other by firing arrows at each other. Apologies for my old references, but somehow I want to compare it to a “real time Worms”. The game goes pretty fast and leads to many orgasmic kills. The retro look and feel let the developers go a bit crazy with the kills, and it’s not rare to impale your opponents on the facing wall with your arrows.
After that, we switched back and forth between Hidden in plain sight and Towerfall. Towards the end of the day, we gave a try to “Amazing Frog” which has great reviews. But its multiplayer game was confusing to us, and we didn’t feel any fun playing it. It’s a work in progress according to the developers, and I think this game is probably great mostly for its single player mode, but as a “local multiplayer game” it failed to impress, and we switched back to Towerfall.
It was tough but at 10:30pm, I had to force my friends out of my house. My kid had gone to bed at 8pm and the original deal was that I would kick them out of the house *before* he’d go to sleep. My wife saw I was having so much fun that she was kind enough to handle the kid’s bedtime, but at 10:30, given our hysterical screams at each Towerfall kill, I realized we would probably wake him up and it was time to call it a day.
That was one of the best gaming afternoons in my life, on par with the LAN Doom/Duke3D/Starcraft games I used to play with friends in high school (still one of my best memories of gaming so far).
We did try the PS4 for a few minutes. People were impressed by the quality of the graphics and of the console in general (especially after hours of “retro” graphics on the OUYA), but we came back to the OUYA eventually.
The games we played
Here’s a quick summary of the games I tried on the OUYA with friends, in order of preference:
- Hidden in plain sight. $2.99, 2 to 4 players. Supports PS3 controllers. The free version has enough to let you spend several hours of gameplay with friends. I guarantee you will want to buy the game to unlock the other modes. Non gamers can play given how simple the concept is. Enjoyable for the audience too.
- Towerfall. $14.99, 1 to 4 players. Supports PS3 controllers. No free version AFAIK. Skills required, non gamers might get frustrated.
- Bombsquad. $4.99, 2 to 4 players. Supports PS3 controllers. Free version is the full game for 1h, enough to see if you want to purchase it or not.
- No Brake Valet. Free (is there a paid version?), 2 to 4 players. Controls are so crazy I don’t think “hardcore” gamers have any advantage over non gamers. Which makes it fun
- Amazing Frog. 1 to 4 players. The multiplayer mode looked like James bond on the N64. Not sure what the concept was, didn’t have much fun.
I can’t praise the OUYA enough for having a system where every single game on the platform can be played for free one way or another (trial version, time-limited full version, etc…). This let me try some of the games in the morning, be convinced they would be fun, and buy them in preparation for the afternoon. This also let me discard games that weren’t that fun for a local multiplayer afternoon, avoiding spending my money on stuff we wouldn’t have played. I was extremely dubious about that concept initially, because I felt it made the platform look “cheap” in a bad way: the “bad quality free mobile games” image that kind of hurt the OUYA’s popularity in the early days. Towerfall seemed to be the only exception, not having a trial version (at least I couldn’t find it). That game is fairly expensive for the platform ($14.99) but I did not regret buying it. Its reputation is very well deserved.
An other thing that the OUYA deserves lots of credit for is its compatibility with other controllers. I own a PS3 with 3 controllers. I own a PS4 with 2 controllers. Those easily increase the total cost of your gaming gear. It is awesome that I could have 4 friends over, and happened to have 2 OUYA controllers and 2 ps3 controllers so we could all play at no additional cost for me. On that note, the OUYA controller are really not as good as the PS3 controllers. I know that after the kickstarter campaign, OUYA have fixed some of the hardware issues on the controllers. But I have the ones I received as a backer, and I can confirm I got issues with stuck buttons (eventually had to remove the faceplate from one of the controllers to not impact the player who would get that controller). The fact that the controllers use regular AA batteries has its benefits: when playing for a long amount of time, one only has to replace the batteries to keep playing. With the PS3 controllers, we would have had to let them charge for a while before being able to use them again. The issue did not actually happen though: both the OUYA and PS3 controllers lasted for the 7 hours of our gaming session.
This afternoon of gaming has also completely changed my view on the OUYA. I can see how the OUYA ecosystem is the perfect “party gaming” environment. The hardware is not really what matters, it only needs to be “good enough”. The purchasing, discovery, and gaming experience that the OUYA offers, on the other hand, was a pretty nice surprise to me. I haven’t had that much fun playing video games in a very long time. As a matter of fact, if I try to remember the last time I had that much fun playing video games with friends, I’d have to go maybe 10 years back when I discovered Dance Dance Revolution (actually stepmania) for the first time. Some of my friends told me the experience reminded them a lot of gaming on Nintendo platforms, in particular the Wii. I cannot compare as I do not own any Nintendo device. What I can say is that shopping on the OUYA platform felt like a refreshing experience of Indie games, and I was happy to not see Mario or Zelda’s face on pretty much every game.