Maybe we were too hard on the Ouya.
I'm not going to pretend for a second that the Ouya is a great piece of gaming hardware. It's not. Thanks to the breakneck pace of our mobile industry, the Ouya's internals were already outdated by the time the box was actually released, the controller was a stiff and sticky piece of garbage, and the connection between the controller and the console was spotty at best.
What's Amazon's excuse?
Fire into the sun
It's been approximately three months since Amazon unveiled its Fire TV as a full-spectrum entertainment device, with Android-based gaming prominently featured as part of that package.
Three months to hammer out the kinks, build up a compelling library of games, and make the Amazon Fire TV an attractive gaming purchase--and that's increasingly necessary, considering the Fire TV isn't just competing with the Ouya now but also Google's in-house Android TV.
Amazon simply hasn't done enough. First of all, the best games on the Fire TV are still the games that launched alongside the console in April--namely, Telltale's adventure games (Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead) and the PS2-era Grand Theft Auto games. I'll also give Amazon a point for its self-published game Sev Zero, which is at least an interesting entry in the tower defense genre.
The rest is a mishmash of tablet endless runners and other 2004-era Flash game garbage. In other words, it's the type of stuff you'd be fine playing on a phone on the way to work, but not the type of game you typically sit down in front of your TV to play for any great span of time.
Discoverability through the Fire TV itself is a nightmare. The Games channel lets you access games you have installed or browse through curated lists, but when I tried to go to the Categories section and just look through all available games, I was served an empty list. There was no other way to look through the available titles.
Oh well. I downloaded a selection of the highest rated games and went through them one by one: Sev Zero, Wolf Among Us, Badland, Hungry Shark Evolution, Fenix Box, and Grandpa and the Zombies.
Performance, or the lack thereof
I don't know what kind of gatekeeping process Amazon has in place, but it needs to be revisited. I downloaded one game, Fenix Box, that wouldn't work with either the Fire TV remote or Amazon's gamepad. It would launch and then just sit at the start screen.
"Is the controller malfunctioning?" I wondered. But no, I could still get back to the home screen. I just couldn't play the actual game. Neither the analog sticks nor any of the buttons worked.
It's not a huge deal. The game was free. But why was it even available on the market? And not just available in the market--it was promoted in Amazon's very own Editors' Picks list.
It's doubly frustrating when you realize the Fire TV comes with only 8GB of internal storage, part of which is taken up by the operating system. That's comically small for a standalone gaming device--some of these games (looking at you, Grand Theft Auto) are multiple GBs. There's a reason the Ouya bumped its storage to 16GB soon after release, and most Ouya games aren't even as large as the ones on the Fire TV.
Once it's time to start playing, the Fire TV is constrained by the same problems as the Ouya--it cannot perform up to the standards required by many of these games, and we're only three months out from release. Give it another year or two, and the Fire TV will be even more outdated.
Every game I played stuttered. Two games froze. That's unacceptable. Sure, I'm pumping the game out to a 40-inch TV screen and Amazon wants it to look as crisp as if I ran it on my 5-inch phone, but the stutter is far more damning than a bit of aliasing/artifacting.
Games look like you'd expect from a high-end mobile device--2D vector-based games look best, while 3D games are aliased with some less-than-stellar textures. You might not notice if you're not way into the games scene, but as someone who has (for instance) played Wolf Among Us on the PC for the last six months, the Fire TV version is clearly downrezzed, with lackluster lighting and particle effects.
The gamepad is a bright spot
I will give points to Amazon for its standalone Fire Game Controller, which is an optional purchase. It's well-constructed, solid, and far more responsive than the Ouya's. The D-pad is a little stiff, as are the left and right bumpers, but overall this is a decent piece of hardware.
My one complaint is that Amazon hasn't followed standards that exist across the industry, or at least hasn't required developers to adhere to those standards. On a standard controller, for instance, the button labeled B on the Fire TV controller is used to cancel actions or return to a previous menu. But not on the Fire TV.
The Fire TV also adds a row of buttons to the bottom that are ostensibly related to media playback--Rewind, Fast Forward, and Play/Pause--but then uses them for weird menu functionality in games, however only occasionally and without any real rhyme or reason.
Apart from these few missteps, though, the controller is one area where the Fire TV absolutely destroys the Ouya. The only problem, of course, is that the Fire TV controller costs an extra $40, while the Ouya's comes included with the device.
If you want to get the most out of the Fire TV as a microconsole, you'll need the controller. Many games (such as Wolf Among Us) won't even run with the standard Fire TV remote.
Microconsoles are still a great idea in theory and a mediocre idea in practice, and even Amazon's billions of dollars can't change that fact. As a side benefit to the Fire TV's excellent media streaming capabilities? The games are fine. They're a cheap time waster or a fun diversion for the kids.
But this is not a great console, if that's what you're buying it for. Neither is the Ouya. And, if I had to guess, we'll see the same problems with the Android TV. Maybe it's time for us to rethink the viability of this entire concept.