Gaming History 101

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Dissecting the Ouya or Rant and a Top 5!

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So everyone’s been buzzing about that new Ouya console that managed to raise its $1 million Kickstarter goal in only 8 hours!  At first glance this console looks way too good to be true especially with backed support from none other than former Xbox creator himself, Ed Fries (he also made Halo 2600 for you neo-retro fans).  Ouya promises to offer a full catalog of Android-based software, online capabilities (wired and wireless), a controller, recently announced OnLive support, free games, and at only $100.  All that’s missing is an “act now and you’ll save $5 off the price!”  Oh, but wait, that’s exactly what they did for the first 1,000 Kickstarter donators.  They even came back and said this would easily support old school gaming via emulators, opening up the possibility for even more games and essentially makes this the catch-all console for anyone not interested in contemporary console titles.  Obviously we here at Gaming History 101 were going to weigh in on this and I just want to forewarn you that after I get through all the smoke and mirrors you will not only know why all of this is possible but also what they’re really selling.  I may break some hearts here, but it’s all in an attempt to inform the consumer.

There’s a lot of marketing double-speak woven into the sordid tale of manufacturer Boxer8’s little console – but I must admit the cube-like design looks slick.  In the past gaming consoles have been non-existent, like the appropriately named “Phantom” console, or try to do too much and failing at everything, hello N-Gage.  That’s not what the Ouya is though, which is why it doesn’t seemingly make the mistakes these other failures have.  I don’t believe the Ouya will be a failure, in fact I expect it to sell many consoles provided they can iron out the manufacturing plans, but I think this is going to be a useless gadget that most consumers will buy and eventually forget about.  You see, the Ouya is nothing more than an Android-compatible cell phone without any of the cellular communication.  It boasts a strong NVidia Tegra 3 quad-core ARM processor, 1 GB of RAM, 8GB of flash memory, HDMI-out, USB in, wired ethernet port, wi-fi and bluetooth connectivity, and a controller.  You’ve heard many of these specs before, they mirror most of your Android phones, and that’s why all of these components, if purchased on a mass scale, can be combined to make a console that will turn a minor profit for $100.  It’s like a computer, or even more closely related, the Wii, which was able to be manufactured and sold for a small profit margin.

So how can it do so much?  It really isn’t built to do all of that, it’s just capable of doing these things.  It runs Android operating system 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and has specs equal to today’s top cell phones, so yeah, of course it can run Android games.  You know how Square Enix just announced that Final Fantasy III (which was a longtime Japan only release on the Famicom)?  Guess what – Final Fantasy III just hit the Android store for the “low” price of $15.99 – and it runs on almost any Android device, so this console can support it and thus it’s an “Ouya game”.  Same goes for previous announcements of Angry Birds, Dead Trigger, Grand Theft Auto III, and the list goes on and on, they’re just re-iterating what is on the Android store (known as Play).  Most of the people who haven’t caught on are iOS users, at least among my circles, so it doesn’t surprise me that they can’t see the connection right away.  I will admit that the good news about this is the controller, which will make controls on many of the games better but mind you that’s only if the developer supports controller inputs.  That emulation thing that everyone is going nuts over, not that big of a deal either.  The freaking Gameboy Advance was capable of playing NES games, the DS can play almost anything up to the 16-bit era, and the PSP/iOS/Android phones can run 32-bit games with ease.  They just noticed that there were a ton of emulators on the Android store and decided to use those as a selling point and if you know how to root your phone (which I think this console will already allow root-like access out of the box) you can easily use free alternative versions of these emulators by simply copying program files to the memory.  They also make mention of free games, which is another use of smoke and mirrors to explain a majority of things on the Android store: they are either free or have free “Lite” versions (just like iOS devices).  And finally OnLive.  Really?  The OnLive micro console was cheap and required nearly no components and OnLive runs on any web browser, surely this comparative computing powerhouse can stream a game remotely.  As you start to think about it, the gusto fades away and you now see how this console can do all these things: because your phone has been able to do them for years.  It’s just a new way to market the non-communication features of your cell phone, whether or not that’s a useful device is up to you.

I can go on and on with all their bullet points and tear them down.  “1080p video”, yeah yeah, it has an HDMI port and all HDMI devices are capable of 1080p resolution, even if the game looks blown out to hell and crappy.  China already makes much cheaper looking versions of this thing (yes tech junkies, I know, not nearly as impressive internal components) for like $40-$50 that will play emulator games and pirated Android/iOS games downloaded on the net – they are manufactured to look like PSPs, PS2s, Xbox 360s, and more.  So that’s what you’re getting with the Ouya, for better or for worse.  Now you may be reading this and thinking, “so, what’s wrong with that?  That sounds great.”  Excellent, then you are now an informed customer who knows what they are purchasing and will appreciate a new device on your home TV.  In fact, heavy Android users will have massive libraries of both free and paid content right out of the box if you sink your Google account to it.  The only thing that threatens this console at this point is the manufacturing deal.  At the time of this post, only a prototype of this device has been developed and with the massive response on Kickstarter, there is fear that even if they can make a working design, that they’ll never be able to create the 200,000+ consoles they have already pre-ordered, but also future consoles for the mass market.  That’s a time thing, I guess we’ll see on the proposed release date of March 2013.

With all this talk of consoles that may or may not exist, I think it’s best to point out my top 5 consoles that either didn’t come out or failed miserably to deliver what it promised:

  • The Phantom Console: Phantom Entertainment came to E3 2004 with a prototype of a console that would play video games via downloaded content instead of discs or carts.  At the time this was a very ambitious undertaking, especially when you consider that download speeds at that time didn’t come close to today and the inherent fear that downloading a 4GB game would take a week (which it probably would).  Phantom even hired DirectX founder Ty Graham and Xbox development liaison Kevin Bachus along with 220 other engineers and developers to work on the console, which still sounded too good to be true.  Not only that, it was due to release in January 2005.  Then March 2005.  Then in the summer, Phantom was a no-show at E3 2005, the only ray of hope was Kevin Bachus hinting at a Fall 2005 release alongside the Xbox 360.  To no one’s shock it didn’t come and in February 2006 it was indefinitely put on hold due to lack of funding.  The console finally disappeared altogether on August 15, 2006, never to be seen again.  Now in annuls of history it serves as an ironically fitting name for the never-released console.
  • ActionGamemaster: Active Enterprises was a company you love to hate.  As a responsible gamer I scoff at those “300-in-1” DS carts, knowing they are the seed of piracy and cheap components from China, but to the general public they are an end to purchasing video games.  Active had already released 52-in-1 carts for NES, SNES, and Genesis, but unlike many other collections they did not pirate a batch of existing games and opted instead to create original (read: horrible) games.  The most popular among them is a rough action platformer known as Cheetahman, which also got an unreleased sequel available on the net for emulation.  At CES 1994 Active announced the Action Gamemaster, a catch-all 16-bit portable system that would sport a rechargeable battery, DC adaptor, 3.2″ color LCD screen, and adaptor carts that allowed it to play NES, SNES, Genesis, and PC CD-ROM games.  Sound too good to be true?  Yeah, it was. We never even saw a prototype.
  • Gizmondo: We’ve already covered the Gizmondo in our history of portables but this nearly non-existent portable only saw the light of day for a few thousand European early adopters and a handful of US gaming press.  In fact, if you find the console in the wild it will always be set up for Europe and requires you to turn off all the communication devices (such as cellular and GPS) to run games without stuttering horribly.  After the apparent failure of the company Gizmondo it was discovered that executives, including known criminal boss Stefan Eriksson, were using the company purely as a front to launder money.  In its wake the all-in-one device that promised to be a cell phone, e-mail server, GPS, and portable game device had a handful of games and a $400 price point legacy.  Still, there was a game that never released called Colors, which had a scene where you could go to prison and perform sexual acts on your bunkmate to avoid getting beaten, perhaps an internal development joke on the future of the executives?
  • ApeXtreme: Apex, the company that developed super cheap DVD players for sale in Wal-Marts and RadioShacks in the early to mid 2000s (some of which were graciously region free), was also at the infamous 2004 E3 alongside Phantom to show off their conceptual console.  As you can see the prototype model looked sleek enough and flaunted a realistic $300-$400 price tag depending on the model.  What did it do?  Simple.  Put a media disc (CD/DVD) in it and it would play whatever the content was.  Mind you, it wouldn’t play console CD/DVD games, but as for PC, it would play any game, read any DVD, read any CD, and even play various new and old media types like MP3 and VCD.  Honestly most of Apex’s $30-$50 DVD players already did most of this (including MP3 support), but the idea that you could put any PC game into it and it would run it instantly without installation and spec management raised an eyebrow.  Of course it never came out and Apex was all but forgotten after big companies like Sony started selling DVD players for $50.
  • N-Gage: Ah Nokia’s N-Gage, the taco phone/console.  Like the Gizmondo, it promised to do almost everything – cell phone, e-mail, web browsing, gaming – and unlike the Gizmondo it actually came out.  Yes friends, if you have a GSM cellular service (T-Mobile, AT&T) then you can, even today, have a working taco phone to walk around and look cool with.  The only problem with this device is that it sucked at being a phone and it equally sucked at being a portable.  It had a bunch of ports, but they were pathetically inferior and its original games still make reviewers of the time tremble in the night (just as Jeremy Parish).  So neither the gaming or cell crowd even touched it and nowadays its just a waste of money in many pawn shop display cases.  I chose this as the top example because it comes the closest to matching what the Ouya is, only just the opposite.  Here’s hoping that portable devices brought to the home and TV work out much better than home and TV devices brought to portables.

Written by Fred Rojas

August 3, 2012 at 3:39 pm

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