The Corolla of game consoles
The New York Times
FOR every Prada, there's a Gap. For every Four Seasons, there's a Holiday Inn Express. For every Lamborghini, there's a Corolla.
Why shouldn't the same thinking apply to video-game consoles?
The ageing Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles cost US$200 (S$253) and US$270, respectively.
Their successors, the Xbox One and the PS4, will cost US$500 and US$400, respectively, when they arrive this holiday season. But do all game fans really need the raw, hulking power of a mainframe computer sitting beside their TV screen?
Maybe that's why a scrappy team of game designers decided to create the Gap of game consoles: the Ouya, at US$100. It began life as a project on Kickstarter, the site where inventors ask the public to help finance their pet projects in exchange for little more than a sense of participation; eager gamers raised more than US$8.5 million.
They were rewarded with delays, bugs, more delays and frustration. But now, at last, the Ouya (pronounced Ooh-yah) is a real product for sale in stores, at least where it's not sold out.
What you get for US$100 is a black plastic cube measuring about 8cm, and a standard cordless Xbox-style controller. The size is a virtue; you can shove the cube into a coat pocket and head over to a friend's house or a hotel room. You wouldn't try that with an Xbox.
The cube runs a version of Android, Google's phone software. That's no coincidence; its guts are about what you'd find in a phone or tablet.
It connects to your TV set via an HDMI cable. The controller's magnetic top panels pop off so that you can insert an AA battery into each leg.
When you switch everything on, instructions on the TV screen guide you through "pairing" the controller with the cube. Then you are asked to help it onto your home Wi-Fi network. Finally, you're treated to a long update process as the Ouya downloads the latest software.
Every game is free to try. Some are free forever. Some are free to play for an hour, then require payment (usually US$5 to US$20). Some let you play only the beginning levels before you have to pay.
Here's the thing with Ouya games: You won't mistake them for Xbox or PlayStation games. Many are terrible. Some are adapted from phone games. Some have jagged, bitmapped graphics like video games from 20 years ago. Some look like Wii games; some, like Vector (a simulation of parkour, the acrobatic urban running sport), have a great stylised look.
The games rarely approach the movie-like realism of the best big-name console games. Still, the 200 games available possess their own charm. They're indie. They're alternative. Some are goofy and hilarious.
I watched a trio of primary-school kids laugh themselves silly for over an hour as they played a game called No Brakes Valet. It's a free, not-even-finished game in which you try to park skidding, nearly-brakeless cars in a carpark. There's a lot of crashing and helpless giggling.
Knockoffs and remakes abound. Final Fantasy III is here. Polarity is like a low-rent Portal. Ouya says that 500 more games are in the works.
What's more, this box is open source and hackable. Already, a not-so-secret society of tinkerers has written emulators - that is, software-impersonation modules - that can turn the Ouya into a Nintendo DS, PlayStation 1, Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Color, Genesis and other old consoles.
If you can find games for them online (the fuzzy legal ramifications don't seem to stop anyone), you can load them onto the Ouya via a flash drive or from a computer, and play them.
You can connect up to four controllers to play with other people at parties, which is fun. But you can't play against people online, and there is no leader board to keep track of your scores.
Yes, the company will spend the coming months fixing bugs, and game creators need time to dream up more offbeat winners. But, already, Ouya is different: entertaining, portable and open source. Eminently entertaining and playable, in fact.
Ladies and gentlemen, the Corolla of game consoles has just pulled up.