Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
I’m a bit of a geek for gadgets. Specifically anything computer or game console related. I love them. Sometimes the fun for me isn’t even in playing games on them regularly once I have them set up. It’s just in getting them running. One example of this is the number of Raspberry Pi systems I have set up. I have one with a WD Pi Day hard drive (314 GB) attached to it that I have hooked up to one of my television sets. I rarely use it, but if I wanted to do some Ubuntu Linux work that wasn’t especially resource intensive, the Raspberry Pi 3 could handle some of those basic tasks.
Another of the Pi 3s is set up to run emulators for popular old-school consoles through the RetroPie interface. Still another is hooked up to a credit card sized touchscreen and has a stripped down version of Android, among other operating systems, loaded onto the micro SD card.
No matter what I’ve got loaded on them as far as operating systems, all have some kind of capacity for gaming. Sometimes, as I noted, the fun or the challenge for me is just in getting the system to work; getting controllers calibrated and game ROMs to run inside emulators. It can be a bit of a headache, but once you have it working there is a real sense of accomplishment. The fact that it is running on a computer that you could put in your pocket and carry with you is pretty neat too.
But the Raspberry Pi wasn’t my first foray into the world of tiny, customizable consoles. The one that really got me hooked was the OUYA. You can be forgiven if you don’t remember, or never heard of, the OUYA. It was one of the first micro-consoles. The small cube-shaped console, roughly the size of a baseball or a Rubik’s cube, was an Android based system that was funded via Kickstarter and first started shipping back in 2013. I was one of those Kickstarter backers and I still have my little silver cube with the names of other backers engraved on the side. Somewhere out there another OUYA owner has one with my name among those engraved on it too, which is kind of neat.
But, like many startups, the OUYA didn’t last. There were folks who backed it who were disillusioned with what it ended up being. There were those, of course, who never backed it and never played with one who wanted to slam the mini-console too.
But for those who wanted to build their own games to run in an Android environment, but with traditional controller support instead of touch screen controls, the OUYA offered the opportunity to build, test, upload and sell your own game on your own terms. The only stipulation was that every game needed to allow users to try it for free. Creators could charge for the full game, but some part of the experience had to be free so buyers knew what they were getting. Otherwise, the platform was wide open to creative development by anyone.
Of course, this led to a LOT of mediocre games in addition to some real gems, and some really creative, non-traditional takes on gaming. A lot of the games that were released on OUYA could more realistically be described as art projects as much as game. While that was thrilling to some, it also meant you often had to dig through a lot of stuff you might not be interested in before you found something worthwhile. Couple this with some odd curating by the company behind the console and a lot of games that should have done well just never had a chance.
For me, though, the real fun with OUYA was in sideloading Android games meant for play on a phone or tablet device and playing them on the big screen with a controller. The console being Android based, and open source, this wasn’t as difficult as it might seem. It was really just a matter of saving Android APK files to a USB device and then installing them – either locally or to the USB stick – and creating a shortcut to the game.
It was a fantastic way to experience older games that were being re-released for Android like the Bard’s Tale games or the original Grand Theft Auto and Tomb Raider titles.
Of course, being an open-source system, there were also a number of emulators that allowed you to play ROMs from systems like Atari, Sega, and NES or SNES without needing to wait for an official Android port of the game. I ended up doing a lot of emulator games and the main use my OUYA got wasn’t with OUYA official games, but replaying ROMS ripped from original PlayStation discs I still owned but couldn’t play because I no longer had a working PS1, as well as backups of Zelda and Super Mario Bros. titles.
It was a lot of fun until the company behind it, struggling to find their legs in the market and failing to turn a profit, sold the OUYA to another company that ended up shutting down the servers after a short while.
Now my OUYA sits in the cabinet, unused and unusable, since I didn’t have it hooked up in time to download the final update before the servers shut down; games I paid real money for no longer playable. There is a powerful lesson in there for digital only game systems and the need for online access to validate ownership of a system. At least there is for anyone willing to take the time and listen. (Though with even physical copies of modern games shipping with online access required, buying a physical copy isn’t a guarantee of future playability, but I digress.)
Of course, I’ve been reading up on the OUYA recently, and ways around the digital lock-out. There are even folks out there, other fans of the little cube that could have been, who have set up alternative servers you can connect to, and I’ve been thinking of dusting mine off again and seeing if I can make it work. Just to see if I can.
After all, that’s more than half the fun.
Jeremy D Wells can be reached at email@example.com