Most serious game players agree that the iPhone and iPod touch need a game controller — Apple’s reliance on imprecise accelerometer and touch controls may well be the only thing keeping these otherwise impressive devices from being serious competitors to dedicated pocket game consoles. Unfortunately, there’s no real relief in sight for this problem, as the addition of external controllers or keyboards to these devices would require Apple to make a minor software tweak that currently appears to be many months or even a year away.
This hasn’t stopped companies from dreaming up stopgap alternatives, and though several add-on controller concepts have been floating around, Marware’s Game Grip ($50)—billed as an “Extreme Gaming Controller”—is actually the first to market. To be very clear up front, we have a lot of respect for Marware as an iPod and iPhone case maker, and have repeatedly cited the company’s products as amongst each year’s very best options for Apple’s devices. But Game Grip is so hugely wrong in concept, execution, and pricing that we can’t recommend it to our readers. In an effort to ape the shape of conventional game controllers, it transforms either of Apple’s tiny touchscreen devices into a big, unwieldy chunk of plastic, adding little to nothing to the gaming experience, while costing more than a sophisticated electronic game controller.
From one perspective, the Game Grip package isn’t short on parts. Marware includes a black hard plastic frame, two blue silicone rubber side grips, two black silicone rubber cases—one for the iPod touch 2G, one for the iPhone 3G—and a matching rubber sizer insert for the thinner touch. In order to use Game Grip, you need to place your iPod or iPhone in the case, then the case in the frame, and if you want, you can also run certain headphone cables through nooks in the frame that are hidden behind the silicone grips. Marware has also left a compartment on Game Grip’s back for attachment of an optional battery pack, which isn’t yet available, but will apparently let you add extra power for your gaming sessions.
A wire will run through the frame to connect to the bottom of either device.
Once assembled, Game Grip transforms the widescreen-oriented iPod or iPhone from a roughly 2.5” tall, 4.3” wide, sub-0.5” device into a roughly 5.75” tall, 6” wide, 1.25” thick block of sculpted plastic and rubber, an unnecessarily dramatic increase in volume. Even without the optional battery attached, Game Grip outstrips the sizes of current Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo console controllers, as well as the portable PSP and Nintendo DS systems. In fact, Game Grip is comparable in size to Microsoft’s widely panned original Xbox controller, which the company famously replaced midway through the console’s life cycle due to complaints about its bulk. Marware apparently didn’t hear about the Xbox debacle, as Game Grip is taller and roughly as wide, and with the battery pack installed will most likely be almost equal in thickness.
It bears mention at this point that all of this extra rubber and plastic might have been forgivable if Game Grip actually enhanced the experience of playing games on the iPod touch or iPhone. Over four days of testing, which included playing everything from racing to flying games, puzzle games and platform games, it did not. We actually found that we preferred just pulling the devices out of the Game Grip frame and just using them without interference; the games were easier to control, and the devices considerably easier to hold.
Part of the problem is that Apple—perhaps wisely—has not standardized a single orientation that all games will be played in, so titles range from tall to wide to both. Games presented in widescreen orientation with the Home button on the screen’s right do best with Game Grip.
By comparison, games that are presented fully in tall rather than wide orientation are negatively impacted by Game Grip’s use; you most likely won’t want to play them with the frame attached. Similarly, there are games such as Clusterball Arcade that are presented in widescreen, but with the Home button on the device’s left side rather than its right. On the iPod touch, these games can be used with Game Grip if you flip the device around inside the frame, but generally won’t work with headphones or the optional battery; the iPhone 3G doesn’t fit properly in this orientation, as its volume buttons get mashed inside. Finally, there are games that require you to change orientation mid-game as a play mechanic, such as Trism. The results with Game Grip vary somewhat from game to game, but every time you revert to the Home screen, you’ll be back in the device’s portrait mode, and wanting to either remove your device from the frame or turn the whole thing awkwardly on its side.
Variations in Game Grip’s utility depend substantially upon how the developers have implemented their controls, and upon either the real or placebo effect you get from having something larger than the iPod touch or iPhone to hold in your hands. With either device rotated into a headphone-inaccessible orientation for the flying game Clusterball Arcade, Game Grip initially felt more stable for steering, but we didn’t see improvements in our actual performance. The same was true with the racing game Fastlane Street Racing: we started out feeling good about holding a more steering wheel-like controller, but ended up removing the iPod from the frame for more precise control over the car’s orientation. Depending on the size of your hands, and your preference for positioning your fingers on the screen relative to buttons that may appear in some games, you may find that Game Grip helps or hinders normal control.