If you’re an iOS gamer who prefers physical controls, you’re probably already aware of the iCade product line. There’s the iCade iPad Arcade Cabinet for iPad and the iCade Mobile for iPhone and iPod Touch. Both of these house your iOS device and allow you to use physical controls to pay a substantial number of games over Bluetooth connectivity. They’ve just released a controller called the iCade 8-Bitty, and sent us a review unit to play around with. Read on for our impressions.
First off, the iCade 8-Bitty is by far the most portable iCade to date. It’s about the size of an NES controller without the wire, and unlike previous iCade models, it’s not designed to hold your iOS device. That means you’ll need to find a way to prop up your iPhone or iPad, but it also means that the 8-Bitty fits easily into a bag or a pocket.
Because it doesn’t hold an iOS device, it’s also the most future-proof iCade yet. Apple has been known to change the form factor of iOS devices from year to year, which is why the newest iPhones and iPod Touches don’t fit into the iCade Mobile, and the rumored iPad Mini won’t fit snugly into the iPad Arcade Cabinet. Apple is less likely to remove Bluetooth connectivity (but of course nothing’s certain). So if you’re looking for one iCade to use on all of your current or future iOS devices, the 8-Bitty is the one to get.
It also feels good in your hands, because the build quality of the 8-Bitty is fairly high. It’s not on par with modern first-party console controllers, but the plastic is solid, and it’s heavy enough to feel substantial but not weighty. It’s shaped like a rectangular box, so it doesn’t mold to the shape of your hands like an Xbox 360 controller does. But it’s not uncomfortable to hold, and we never experienced any hand cramping or pain even after using it for several hours.
It has a disc-shaped D-pad, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and two center buttons. The buttons have a nice clicky feel to them, and seem like they’ll hold up over time. They’re also conveniently placed, but that’s to be expected with the tried-and-true classic design. A blue power light sits on the upper left of the device, and the back sports an “on/off” switch and a battery dock that’s covered with a piece of plastic.
The overall design of the 8-Bitty is very good, but we have two problems with it. The biggest issue is the power light on the front of the 8-Bitt, which glows brightly the entire time you use the controller, and can be very distracting. The more minor issue is that the battery cover is held in place with a screw, so you need a screwdriver to swap batteries. Unless you play games every waking hour of the day it’s not that big of a deal, but it is a nuisance.
And now the real question: how does it hold up as a controller for games? In the dozen or so games we tested, the iCade 8-Bitty worked great. Without fail, the controls were tight, and the buttons were terrifically responsive. We played titles like Mos Speedrun, League of Evil 2, and Temple Run, and the physical controls work just as well as touchscreen controls, if not slightly better.
However, using the 8-Bitty is not without its quirks. In Mos Speedrun, for instance, you can’t use the 8-Bitty to navigate the menus, so you have to revert to the touchscreen between levels. In League of Evil 2, you can use the 8-Bitty for both regular gameplay and menu navigation, but the punch function in the game is mapped to the left shoulder button, which feels quite unnatural. Temple Run took us some time to get used to, because there’s no tutorial for using the controller, so we had to figure out which buttons did what on our own. That held true for all of the games we played: we had to rely on trial and error to figure out which buttons did what.
And League of Evil 2 wasn’t the only game with strange button-mapping. In Gunman Clive, the face buttons don’t do anything at all. Instead, you have to use the shoulder buttons to jump and shoot. Super Crate Box is just as bad: it uses the Start and Select buttons for jumping and shooting. Controlling games with such unusual controller inputs takes a lot more time to get used to than the simple touchscreen controls that come standard with the games.
All in all, the iCade 8-Bitty does a solid job at providing physical controls to certain iOS games. If you can get past the odd button-mapping in some games, and get used to touching the screen occasionally to navigate menus, and are okay with the list of compatible games, the iCade 8-Bitty is definitely usable, if not preferable over the default touchscreen controls.
But here’s the rub: None of the games we played had poor controls to begin with. By this point, iOS has established itself as a major platform for gaming, and developers have figured out how to program great touchscreen controls into their games. In other words, the iCade 8-Bitty does a good job of controlling games, but it’s usually not noticeably better than the touchscreen controls.
Still, if you’re dying for a physical controller for iOS, the iCade 8-Bitty is the one to get. It’s compatible with more games than any rival company’s controllers, it’s highly portable, modestly priced at $30, works with any iOS device, and it’s well-built. It’s not for everybody, but for people who can’t get the hang of touchscreen controls, it’s the best replacement on the market.
Pros: Portable; reasonably future-proof; modestly priced; it works well
Cons: Blue light is distracting; there’s no consensus on which buttons do what; often doesn’t add much to the games that use it
Bottom Line: The iCade 8-Bitty is the best physical controller for iOS yet. If you want a physical controller for iOS games, this is the one to get.