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.
Duo Gamer’s appeal comes from a combination of versatility and comfort. Measuring around 5.7” wide by 3.1” tall by 1.3” deep at its largest points, the controller isn’t organic or soft, but the hard plastic is tapered in each direction with curves that increase both hand comfort and finger accessibility for the more numerous control options. Unlike iCade 8-bitty, there are thoughtful integration touches: the start button doubles as a pairing button and a power indicator, with a blue light glowing through its clear bar shape. Moreover, each button is labeled for easy in-game identification, and the controller surfaces are tactile: the D-pad has ridges that aid in diagonal presses, and the analog sticks have uneven rubber surfaces so that your fingers don’t slip off. They’re also depressible, which effectively gives Duo Gamer one more total button than iCade 8-bitty. Games from virtually any generation of console could be made to work with this controller without major problems.
Games we tested with Duo Gamer worked pretty much as expected, though gamers who have gotten used to well-designed iOS controls may have to get acclimated to the handset. This won’t be a problem in Asphalt 7: Heat, where steering feels natural and precise, and it’s easy to figure out how to accelerate, use the turbo button, and brake. But on Modern Combat 3: Fallen Nation, you’ll need to re-learn firing, grenade, and other controls, even as the virtual buttons remain in very obvious places on the screen. At some point, such as when a grenade’s been tossed at you, you may wonder why you’re hunting for a button on Duo Gamer when you can just hit an on-screen button to toss it back. iOS developers who hope to use these accessories will need to get gamers acclimated to physical controls, and perhaps remove on-screen ones as a decluttering incentive, as well.
Add to Duo Gamer’s list of benefits the stand, which enables your iPad to stay upright—even while charging with a self-supplied, pass-through cable.
Apple’s single biggest argument against physical controllers has been the simplification factor of keeping everything inside its devices: once your hands are holding a separate controller, you need to prop up your iOS device somewhere else to see the screen. Duo Gamer handles this nicely. It also comes packed with a soft carrying bag, so although you probably won’t want to toss it into a pocket, you won’t have to worry about nicking it up if you carry it around in a backpack or bag.
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.
Duo Gamer, by contrast, is in even worse third-party shape. It’s solely for Gameloft games, and then, only a handful of titles. While the developer promises that it supports “a host of Gameloft’s top-rated first-person shooter, role playing, and racing games,” the list presently includes a grand total of seven games, such as the aforementioned Asphalt 7 and Modern Combat 3, as well as NFL Pro 2013, Wild Blood, and N.O.V.A. 3. But if you’re hoping to play brand-new releases such as Modern Combat 4, you’re out of luck, at least for now.