What true gamer wouldn’t love their own arcade cabinet in their home or office? For years, it’s been a hobby only for dedicated enthusiasts, but now there’s a more affordable option for iPad owners called the iCade. What began as an April Fool’s joke for ThinkGeek is now a real Bluetooth controller and stand shaped like a miniature arcade cabinet. But is it worth the money, with support for only one app?
The $100 iCade comes in several pieces, and with an Allen wrench and about 10 minutes of your time, you’ll be able to put together the miniature cabinet. The instructions are very clear, like the ones that come with Ikea furniture.
With assembly out of the way, it’s time to sync up your iCade. By pressing the four bottom buttons and one on top, you’ll activate the iCade’s Bluetooth, and you can then sync it up by entering a numerical code that corresponds to button and joystick presses. It feels a little bit like entering a secret code for unlimited lives or level select.
By now, you’ve got a fully assembled iCade cabinet synced up with your iPad. This is the moment where you can proudly display your new toy in your home or office. It may also represent the peak of your enjoyment of this accessory.
The gigantic, glaring problem with the iCade is that it currently only works with one app: Atari’s Greatest Hits. For anyone reading this who is younger than 30, the Atari system was popular in the 70s and early 80s, a period of rapid growth for the videogame industry.
The Atari Greatest Hits app contains 100 games, which are available in bulk for $14.99, or $.99 for packs of four, but an overwhelming number of them are shovelware. That is to say, they’re the early 1980s equivalent of the App Store’s junkiest apps. Blocky, ugly, and chronically unfun, there’s nothing that will make you regret your $100 iCade purchase more than being forced to play some awful Atari games on it.
The quality Atari games are very few and far between. We only enjoyed playing the arcade versions of Centipede, Asteroids, and Tempest– true classics that benefit from the iCade’s arcade joystick and buttons. But if you were hoping to play Pac Man, Street Fighter, or any of the hundreds of other App Store arcade games, you’re significantly out of luck.
The lack of app support is an absolute killer. The Atari shovelware just isn’t worth your time, and that beautiful miniature arcade cabinet is bound to elicit disappointment when you tell people what it actually does. Instead of being the savvy gamer who bought a miniature arcade cabinet for your iPad, you might look the sucker who’s playing stuck bad games from 1980 on a device made in 2011.
There is another option, though: Jailbreak your iPad. While we almost never endorse jailbreaking or running emulators on your iOS device, the iCade’s utter lack of decent games support makes this option tempting. Recently, the jailbreak app iMame4All announced that they’ve added iCade support, allowing you to play much better arcade games on the iCade. Jailbreaking comes with its own risks, though– you’ll void your iPad’s warranty, and it’s possible to screw up your device if you don’t know what you’re doing. The iCade SDK has also been released, so more legitimate App Store developers could potentially come on board.
Before the iMame4All support, we wouldn’t recommend buying an iCade at all. If you’re willing to experiment with jailbreaking and downloading (potentially) illegal ROMs, the iCade has some potential. But if you’re not interested in jailbreaking, and you don’t love ancient Atari games, the iCade is little more than a fancy piece of art or executive desk toy. We’re hoping that soon, more App Store games besides Atari’s Greatest Hits will support the iCade. Until then, it’s a waste of your money and table space.
Pros: Beautiful design; easy to assemble; sturdy joystick and buttons; now has MAME support for jailbroken devices
Cons: Currently supports only one App Store app with ancient, terrible Atari games
Bottom line: Only buy the iCade if you’re willing to jailbreak your iPad, download MAME, and pirate some ROMs, or if you love 30-year old Atari games. Otherwise, don’t bother at all.
Update: Since we first published this review, a lot more games that support the iCade have come out. Check out our review of the iCade Mobile, with our top picks for compatible games, by clicking here. You can also view our full list of iCade game reviews here. If you find enough great games, the iCade setup starts to look like a much better deal.