Review: ThinkGeek iCade 8-Bitty Game Controller
To say that Apple hasn't shown much interest in physical game controllers for iOS devices would be an oversimplification of reality: in truth, the company has been quietly mulling this particular accessory category for years, while providing little public encouragement or discouragement to game developers interested in creating joypads, joysticks, or other options. Because Apple has remained quiet on a topic that's unquestionably of interest to millions of iOS gamers, potential controller developers have been rightfully wary of making major expenditures on creating peripherals that Cupertino could kill with a single iOS software release. Thus, companies have come up with cheap, less than thrilling solutions such as the Fling and Fling mini suction-cup joysticks, Game Grip controller cases, miniature arcade cabinets, and too many iffy, oft-delayed "convert your iPhone into a joypad" accessories to count. Support from software developers has been extremely limited, and we've been hesitant to even cover most of them, as we couldn't in good conscience recommend that readers invest $50 or more on controllers with limited future software prospects.
Two late 2012 releases that caught our attention were ThinkGeek’s iCade 8-bitty Game Controller ($30) and Duo Games’ Duo Gamer ($40), the latter of which debuted at $80 before recently falling very significantly in price. ThinkGeek’s product consists solely of a rectangular box with eight buttons, an eight-way directional pad, and a rear-mounted on-off switch, while Duo Gamer is a larger, curvier controller that adds two analog joypads to the iCade array, while shipping with a large plastic iPad stand bearing the Gameloft name. The stand can hold an iPad or iPad mini on a fixed angle, with a spot to hold the Duo Gamer controller in front, and support for some iPad cases.
Both controllers use similar—but not identical—hardware and software technology. Bluetooth 2 is used for the wireless connection between each controller and your iOS device, requiring you to manually pair one time, with automatic re-pairing each time you turn the controller back on. iCade runs on two AAA batteries you supply yourself; Duo Gamer requires two AA batteries that are included in the package. Despite the hardware similarities, Duo Gamer has some iOS software-side mojo that its rival is lacking: go to use an on-screen keyboard with each controller, and you’ll find that you can still do so with Duo Gamer turned on, but can’t without turning iCard 8-bitty off. Duo Gamer received Apple certification—the first iOS-ready controller we’re aware of to do so—which suggests that it’s following some underpublicized game controller standards that might be supported in future games.
iCade 8-bitty’s primary appeal is its size. Roughly 4.9” wide by 2.1” tall by 0.8” deep, it’s just about as pocketable as an iPhone, though its highly boxy shape—recalling Nintendo’s classic NES controller—is far from the comfort standards of top modern (or even, say, 1990’s) controllers. Although the D-pad has eight-direction support, it tends to register the X and Y axes more easily than the diagonals, the latter a feature found largely in 16-bit (and later) console game controllers. While they’re unfortunately unmarked, the four circular face buttons and two shoulder buttons give iCade 8-bitty the ability to serve as a viable Street Fighter series controller, and its dedicated select and start buttons don’t hurt, either; they’re all appropriately springy and responsive. Putting aside some cheap-looking stickers that have already begun to peel off, ThinkGeek’s biggest issues are the lack of analog control pads and the less than streamlined power switch/Bluetooth pairing system, though if you’re really only concerned about retro control and arcade gaming, you won’t necessarily care much about the former.
As user experiences are concerned, iCade 8-bitty is alright. We tested games such as Atari Classics’ Missile Command and Super Mega Worm, finding the button arrangements somewhat confusing—in part because of the lack of labels, in part because of the less than ideal controls chosen for the games—but responsiveness to be totally acceptable for twitch/action gaming. ThinkGeek’s design has just enough heft to feel respectably substantial, and the digital joystick and buttons will be fine for most really old games. Newer titles, including iOS games ported from 32-bit and later consoles, will be hobbled somewhat if developers try to graft their analog controls onto what’s here. Moreover, it needs to be noted that while earlier iCades included mini arcade cabinet-shaped stands for iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads, this one doesn’t, so you have to figure out a mounting solution on your own.
The major problem with both of these controllers is that today, some months after they were first released, game support is at best highly limited and at worst almost worthless. No universal game controller support has been built into iOS, so developers need to add support to their games one at a time. Buoyed somewhat by the prior iCade cabinets, the iCade 8-bitty controller promises support from “well over 100 games,” including well-worn ports of old Atari VCS titles, as well as handfuls of Midway and Namco arcade games, and a collection of indie titles with only scant recognizable names. Unless you count unofficial support for MAME using jailbroken devices, the collection of supported titles for iCade 8-bitty is too flimsy to recommend to anyone except serious retro gamers.
In a slightly different world, Duo Gamer would be easy to recommend for its current price—sort of ridiculous at the prior and thankfully abandoned $80 level. For $40, it’s a well-designed game controller with proper iOS integration, dual thumbsticks, a D-pad, and all the buttons most gamers need. Ideally, it would have a rechargeable battery rather than disposable cells, and possibly Bluetooth 4 for lower energy consumption, but we’d expect to see those in a sequel. The biggest issue is the software compatibility, which is presently so weak that very few people would ever be able to take it seriously. For this reason, Duo Gamer winds up with a limited recommendation, the strongest rating it could achieve without proper software support. iCade 8-bitty is less expensive and has more software support right now, but its ergonomics, cosmetics, and functionality are all big steps behind Duo Gamer’s. It merits a flat C, and really could benefit from some major enhancements in a follow-up version.