iCade Review / Thoughts

I got my iCade last weekend, and am extremely pleased with its design and functionality so far.

Happiness:

  • Aesthetics: Let’s face it, I wanted this in large part so that I could have a super-sweet looking iPad stand. This delivered in spades. I had a game party on Monday, and everyone commented on it. People couldn’t keep their hands off my joystick!
  • Ease-of-use: After one minor assembly SNAFU (I tightened a screw too hard, and cracked the plastic in a place that — so far — hasn’t had any repercussions), the iCade was super easy to set up and get running. There are really nice instructions for turning on bluetooth and pairing the iCade on the bottom of the “lid” that doubles as the top of the box. So you can’t really loose ’em!
  • Design: Do I acknowledge that it is dumb to play any games on the iCade in landscape mode? Yes. Am I glad they designed a slot/tray so it would be easy to do? HELL YES. Would I have preferred to plug the iCade in and have it charge my iPad while I’m using it? Yes. Was it “good enough” that they included a sweet little hole so you can run a cable up through the back and charge with your existing hardware? Yeah. (Would I have paid more for built-in charging? Probably not.)

Sadness:

  • Bluetooth: Perhaps the most annoying thing about the iCade is that it pretends to be a bluetooth keyboard. This means that, when you’ve got it paired, if you bring up a text dialog in ANY application, the iPad thinks you have a connected keyboard, and doesn’t give you a software keyboard. It’s possible there is a setting or something to disable this helpful lack of functionality, but I haven’t found it yet if there is. This is extremely annoying, as a LOT of apps require text-input at some point, and of course web-browsing is neigh-impossible. Most notably, searching the app store and finding additional apps that support the iCade, while the iCade is paired, is an impossibility.
  • The Atari App UI: While not a beef with the hardware per-say, the Atari app could really use some help when it comes to user-interface. For whatever reason, there is really no on-screen help when you are using the iCade in the Atari app. It mostly “just works”, but you do need to refer to the included sheet of controls for specific games. (There are 99 of them, after all, you can hardly be expected to remember which ones use which buttons!)
  • The Atari App Screen Real Estate: The Atari games I’ve played so far generally take up a little over half of the iPad’s screen real estate. The other half of the screen was used for the on-screen controls, (which handily disappear when you start using the iCade). Unfortunately, when that happens, the game-portion of the screen doesn’t expand to take up the rest of the iPad! So you end up playing the games on about half of the iPad. This is a terrible waste of space, and just feels wrong. I have some hope for this, as I’ll mention below…

So, given that I only just got my iCade, of course it is revealed today that Atari is working on an arcade joystick of its own. (I read this first at TouchArcade, although it was also widely reported elsewhere.)

One of the most interesting things about this announcement to me is the included image (lifted from the announcement link at the time of this writing). Notably, the image differs from the one that Touch Arcade (presumably) lifted from the site earlier today in the following ways:

  • The “Available soon!” text is now followed by logos for Target, ToysRus, and Walmart. This could mean a lot of things, but to me it means: a) these will be highly visible to the public, and widely available and b) there have been lots of deals already made behind the scenes, which could mean that “soon” really does mean soon.
  • The “Made for iPad” logo sends some serious credibility to this image, it’s lifted straight from Apple’s marketing materials, so unless there is funny-business going on here, this is officially licensed Apple Hardware. Is Apple finally beginning to sanction gaming peripherals? I sure hope so, and would absolutely love to see more like this in the marketplace.
  • To the right of the “Made for iPad” logo is some text that reads: “The first Atari controller for the iPad using the 30-pin connector, as it was meant to be.” This has a couple of possible negative implications: a) that (unless there is something clever going on that we can’t see in the hardware) this joystick will only function in portrait mode, and b) that it’s possible Atari could opt to phase-out support for the iCade in favor of their own hardware. I really hope the latter isn’t true, but who knows. I don’t know the extent of their partnership with ThinkGeek.

One observation based on the image that was also possible earlier today: In the screenshot, the game (which appears to be Centipede, although it’s lacking some visual elements, so is obviously doctored) takes up the full real-estate of the screen. This gives me hope that the Atari app could possibly learn to re-size when a joystick is present. I hope that’s true, as it would be sweet.

Almost a year ago, I wrote about iPhone control pads. It’s interesting to me that of those I covered, only one (AFAIK) has really seen a commercial release, and it’s definitely not licensed Apple hardware. The iPad has not been around all that long, yet we have at least two commercial products vying for attention, one of which claims to be official. iOS gaming has come a long way, baby.

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