The Ouya is a hot mess, and that's why I love it

The Ouya is inexplicably small for a video game console, so small that the stiff HDMI cable it comes with threatens to unbalance the nondescript cube when plugged into your TV.

That size, owing to the rapidly shrinking mobile technology that powers smartphones as well as the Ouya, isn't the only thing unbalanced. The diminutive console brings the self-publishing marketplaces familiar to iPhone and Android users to the television, in a move that could either disrupt the traditional game publishing model or be an amusing sideshow to it.

For all its ambitions, the Ouya is a hot mess. The user interface needs work, the controller feels cheap and, more seriously, has input delay issues that makes some games feel like you're controlling them with an echo, everything slightly out of sync. But despite that, maybe because of that, I can't help but dig it. The Ouya is a throwback console recasting itself as the future of gaming; a system that, perhaps inadvertently, strips away all of the slick marketing, black box research and demographic-broadening entertainment hubification of modern day consoles to deliver a singular experience: gaming.

The Ouya is a $100 console that requires some effort on the part of its owners. For instance, players can fix the controller lag issue by hooking up the much better controllers of a wired Xbox 360 or wireless PS3 to the console. Most importantly, that glut of games, while overwhelming at first, offer up the sort of eclectic experience not found in more traditional modern day consoles, even if most of them started out as games designed for a 6-inch, not 60-inch screen.

Because the Ouya has no Call of Duty, no Halo, no Madden or Grand Theft Auto "system seller" and because the console supports hundreds of games at launch, owners are dropped into a sea of games with no direction, no indication, really, of what might be amazing, what might be horrid. So the act of finding a game to play on Ouya becomes a game in itself.

Fortunately, the Ouya's games all start out as free. Some offer you a set amount of time to play them, some offer up certain levels, some only ask for donations in exchange for the time you've spent playing.

All of the games I sampled with my son gave me plenty of time to decide whether I wanted to actually pay for them.

The people behind the Ouya have tried to help owners sort through their games by categorizing them and even creating lists based on notable gamers' and developers' favorites. But that best way to experience gaming on the Ouya is to just dive in.

When I play on a PS3 or Xbox 360, or even a computer, I find myself gravitating toward the twitchy experiences of first-person shooters or the methodical depth of tactical games. That makes me a fan of shooters and strategy games.

Based on my first hour with the Ouya, I'd have to self-identify as a parking lot gamer, a fan of No Brakes Valet Parking, a game that has me trying to direct speeding cars into parking spaces on a crudely drawn lot. Or maybe I'm a bomber, the sort of gamer who enjoys competing with friends to see who can blow the others up more in Bomb Squad.

That's the most delightful thing about the Ouya: It redefines you as a gamer, whether you want it to or not.

Driven by more than a little desperation at first, I found myself downloading and playing bite-sized games that I would never consider on more commercial consoles. Because those games so quickly installed, because they cost nothing to try, I found myself discovering a sort of play I had long ago forgotten I enjoyed: trivial.

My son and I weren't playing for high score, or achievements, or so we could say we had completed a campaign or mastered a level. We played for fun, for laughs.

The Ouya hasn't reinvented modern gaming, instead it has, by happy accident, deconstructed it; reminding us why we play and that fun can be had for under $10 in under ten minutes.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and their bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.

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