If you look at the iOS retro (or retro styled) games I’ve reviewed, two common complaints stand out: the use of in-app purchases and the unsuitability of touchscreen controls for many games.
Whilst there’s not a lot you can do about in-app purchases (other than refuse to pay), a solution does exist to the second problem: iCade Core. This a neat little device that converts your iPad into a mini arcade machine complete with physical joystick and buttons.
From a design point of view, the iCade is unlikely to win any awards. It feels a little bit cheap and looks like what it is (a big block of plastic moulded to mimic an old arcade cabinet). The flat bottom makes it nice and stable and it’s reasonably comfortable to use. It’s also pretty well catered for when it comes to control figurations, with a single joystick and six different buttons making it suitable for pretty much any type of game.
Despite the plastic finish, the Core feels surprisingly sturdy. Whilst it wouldn’t survive being dropped, it’s not something you’re going to have to treat with kid gloves either. It’s not the most portable of items – although reasonably light, it’s quite big and chunky. It’s fine to carry to different rooms around the house, or even to take around to a friend’s house, but it’s not something you’d want to take on holiday.
The iCade Core is definitely compatible with at least the first 3 generations of iPad, and I’ve read reports that it will also work with the iPad Mini (although I can’t confirm this). Depending on the individual game, the iPad can also be used in both landscape and portrait mode. I have to confess I’m always happier with it landscape because it seems a little bit more stable; portrait mode makes things a little top heavy. I was initially concerned that the iPad only sits in the slot fairly loosely and is not secured in any way, but it does actually seem pretty safe.
The iCade itself is powered by 2xAA batteries and it doesn’t seem particularly power hungry, so a couple of batteries will last you a fair while. It’s worth noting that there is no on/off switch, so it’s best to take the batteries out when not in use.
Bluetooth is used to link your iPad and iCade, something which filled me with dread. I’ve always found Bluetooth to be rather unreliable and a real pain to get different devices to play nicely together. In fact, with the iCade Core, it was easy: I turned my iPad’s Bluetooth on and it immediately recognised and paired with the iCade. Once you’ve paired the items once, they automatically link up the next time they are both switched on and in range.
Bluetooth is a notorious battery hog for the iPad, but ION have got round this by leaving a space at the bottom of the iCade through which you can feed your iPad charger, so you can keep on playing even when your iPad’s power is low.
The main control panel also has its ups and downs. The joystick is responsive and the action on it is good. It springs back into place easily and works very well. For right handed people, it can initially feel a little awkward to be controlling the joystick with your left hand, but you soon adapt. The buttons are a reasonable size (about the width of two fingers) so when pummelling them, your fingers are not in danger of slipping off. From an ergonomic perspective, the Core is reasonably comfortable, but not perfect. The joystick is fine but the buttons can feel slightly stiff and require a reasonable amount of pressure. This can cause problems for longer gaming sessions and I do sometimes find my fingers ache after a while.
One the downside, the iCade Core is surprisingly noisy. The joystick makes a real thudding noise when moved and the buttons click loudly. True, this gives it a very tactile feel and reminds you of the good old days down the arcades, but you might not popular if you use it whilst your other half is trying to watch TV!
Noise aside, it’s hard to over-estimate the improved playability the iCade brings. Every game I’ve tried it with works like a dream and enhances playability by at least 50%. Games that were almost unplayable with virtual controls are suddenly turned into really fun titles.
The downside is that only a relatively small portion of iOS games are compatible with it. There are currently well over 100 titles that support the iCade (and happily for this blog, many of them are retro or retro-related titles) but it’s not universally supported. Helpfully, there is a partial list of compatible titles on the ION website and a quick Google search will reveal further compatible titles. It’s just a shame that not all developers have the foresight to use it.
The cost is another downside: the typical RRP is around £60 although, with a bit of careful shopping around, you can get one quite a bit cheaper. Personally, though, given how much it enhances pretty much any game it’s compatible with, I think it’s well worth it.