Ouya's $99 game console isn't worth it yetJuly 12, 2013: 12:08 PM ET
The Kickstarter darling has a long way to go before it upends gaming.
FORTUNE -- Given my disappointment over the Wii U and the traditional gaming industry's trend toward iterative games with bigger budgets, I wanted to love the Ouya because it stood for everything the company and competitors like Sony (SNE), Microsoft (MSFT), and Nintendo did not. But after some time with the indie console, I realize it too has a long way to go.
To quickly recap, the Ouya is a $99 piece of gaming hardware from industry vet Julie Uhrman and designed by Yves Behar. It remains one of Kickstarter's biggest success stories, raising just shy of $8.6 million. Because it runs on Google's (GOOG) open-source Android operating system, almost anyone with a burning desire to code can make games for it. Which is why over 12,000 developers, including Final Fantasy creator Square Enix, pledged support and readied 200 games for the Ouya's launch late last month.
Several reviews of early Ouya units lauded the concept but panned the controller and interface. (One popular videogame site plainly called it "dog sh-t." When Fortune spoke with Uhrman this May, she admitted those units were not ready for review and that she's taken their feedback into account. It looks as though the startup has, tightening up the software and those trigger buttons on the side of the controller.
Yet there's still more work to be done. In person, I liked Ouya's aluminum-clad good looks, but the controller could use further tweaking. It looks premium but handles like a cheap third-party Nyko controller. The two analog joysticks feel too loose; the direction pad is so stiff it becomes uncomfortable after a few presses. It's basically passable, but that's about it. Players can connect third-party controllers to the device in lieu of the Ouya-provided device.
The software interface keeps things dead-simple with four categories on the main menu: Play (games), Discover (online store), Make (software development), and Manage (console settings). Behind the scenes, Ouya's team toiled up until launch to correct software bugs. And for the most part, getting around and buying and loading games is a simple experience, although I ran into some annoying quirks along the way. The Ouya software update failed on its first try -- it worked fine on the second -- and every so often, I got a random error while starting a game. If there's one saving grace, it's that everything briskly loads. Certainly navigation was far quicker than the Wii U, which still takes up to 30 seconds to load some nine months after its stateside release. In that respect, Uhrman made a good choice with Android.
There are 200-plus games already available, but few of the ones I've actually played proved compelling. The first-person shooter Shadowgun offered some decent eye candy that approximated PlayStation 2-level graphics, but with far cleaner and sharper textures on characters and their surroundings. Not too shabby given Ouya houses a quad-core Nvidia (NVDA) mobile chip used by some smartphones and tablets. I also enjoyed the combat-driven game ChronoBlade, which blends in some light role-playing elements like the ability to level-up your character's skills, but the action slowed and stuttered when there was a lot happening onscreen. Yet another title, Final Fantasy III, is fun to play too -- at least, if old-school Japanese role-playing games are your thing -- but it's basically the same game that's already available for the Nintendo (NTDOY) DS, plus or minus a few minor tweaks.
If you were going to spend $99 on an Ouya -- which for some is cheap enough to qualify as an impulse-purchase -- bear all that in mind. The controller is just passable, and the early software selection currently suffers from quantity over quality. As more games flood Ouya's online store, the software situation could change. And Uhrman has said we should expect a new and improved piece of hardware as soon as next year. But for now, Ouya version one remains a daring experiment that's too rough around the edges to endorse for anyone but indie developers and the earliest of early adopters.