Read on for an honest, in-depth evaluation of this sexy piece of nerd hardware.
Many of you will remember that the iCade first debuted on ThinkGeek.com as one of their famed April Fools jokes in 2010. The reaction to the arcade device was so positive that ION (a consumer electronics manufacturer) took it upon themselves to develop a real version of the hardware for ThinkGeek.com to sell. It was released earlier this year for $99, and so far the feedback in the industry has been great.
So why the late review here at TouchGen? Plain and simply, we only just recently received a review unit from the manufacturers to take a look at! The other sites that have already posted reviews would have needed to actually buy one for themselves, as the purchased units were the first to be shipped from the current stock of iCades. Here at TouchGen, we don’t believe in paying for games or accessories that we review. We feel it’s easier to provide an honest and unbiased view of a product when there’s no monetary commitment involved. It doesn’t mean everyone else is doing things the wrong way, it’s
just that we like to stick to our own set of guidelines when writing our reviews. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s get to talking about this bad boy!
The iCade came in a much larger box than I expected, but this isn’t a bad thing! It was due to the incredible amount of packing materials used to make sure your iCade’s parts are in perfect condition when you receive them. Yes, as I expected, the iCade comes in pieces – but not to worry! It took a mere fifteen minutes to assemble everything from the provided instructions. Much to my delight, they include the Allen wrench needed to screw the boards together, which saves me from having to dive into my “stuff drawer” to find one.
Once assembled, the iCade looks just as awesome in-person as it does in the pictures you’ve probably already seen online. The joystick and buttons feel sturdy and clicky, the rubber feet on the bottom keep the unit from sliding around, and the red ‘25 cent’ light on the front is the cherry on top to what is already a delicious blast from the past. Of course, without adding an iPad, all you have is a classy conversation piece in place of a functional gaming cabinet.
One of my biggest surprises with the hardware came when I slid my iPad into the iCade. I was expecting grooved edges, or some sort of padded base to firmly hold the iPad in place, but instead it just kind of sits loosely in a 2-inch wide groove on the bottom. Granted, I am using an iPad 2, which may explain why it didn’t fit quite as firmly, but even an original iPad has plenty of room to slide left or right, since the edges of the iPad do not sit flush with the side of the cabinet. This means that if you pick up the iCade with the iPad inside, it can easily clank back and forth within the box, rather than sitting snuggly in place. It also means that an overly aggressive play style can knock the iPad slightly to the left and right off it’s base. It’s not a huge deal, but it
cheapens what is otherwise a class-A iPad accessory. I should mention that you can thread an iPad cable through the back of the iCade to charge while you play, and that this does provide a bit more of a hold on the iPad than without it. I never really felt a need to use this though, since the iPad has such an incredible battery.
Once you get the iPad in place (or before, if you prefer), you will need to download the Atari’s Greatest Hits app to access Atari’s library of games that all support the iCade’s bluetooth arcade controls. Sadly, a moment of disappointment comes when you realize that this pack of games only comes with a single free offering: Missile Command. The irony of this is that Missile Command was played using a trackball in arcades, and translates very poorly to controlling with a joystick. Other games, such as Centipede, Crystal Castles, Astroids, and Super Breakout can be purchased for 99 cents each. There are 18 total arcade titles and 92 Atari 2600 titles to choose from (many are just slightly different versions of the same games). If you want to buy it all, you can get 99 games for $15. (Yeah, I know the math doesn’t add up. I don’t understand it either.)
Before we talk about actually controlling games with the iCade, let’s talk about pairing the controller. It’s really really easy to do. The instructions that come with the iCade for assembly and setup are very easy to follow, and pairing the bluetooth arcade controller was no exception. I did run into a little bug though. If you try to buy a new arcade title while the iCade is paired with the iPad, there’s no way to enter your iTunes Store password since the on-screen keyboard doesn’t pop-up. Just be sure to do all of your game-buying before pairing the iCade with the iPad, otherwise it’s pretty frustrating to have to constantly disable and reenable bluetooth to enter your password.
The first thing that jumps out at you when get everything setup is the complete lack of iCade controller support in any of the menus in the Atari Greatest Hits app. In fact, the app doesn’t automatically recognize that you’re using an iCade in any of the
games either. For the most part, the iCade controller support feels pretty shoe-horned in at the time of writing this review, without any graphical integration to the menus of the games or the app itself at all. I assumed that the games would know I was using an iCade and default to that control/visual style. Sadly, that’s not the case. Some games will default to a sideways landscape mode, and require you to manually choose the right viewing mode every time you launch the game. There is an option to rest the iPad in landscape mode on the outside front of the iCade, but that felt a bit precarious for my taste.
Luckily, when you finally get into a game with the right settings, the iCade feels pretty good, and for the most part was really responsive. The problem is, several of the offered Atari games were designed be played with a trackball or knob, so playing them with the iCade’s joystick is very difficult, and can prove very frustrating. Games like Astroids, Centipede, and Crystal Castles play well enough with a joystick, despite their respective original arcade control inputs. However, Super Breakout, Tempest, and the previously mentioned Missile Command prove very difficult to play with a joystick, and provide for a generally frustrating experience.
I don’t know if there are any plans for other game publishers to support the iCade, but I really hope so. The first questions I heard from friends who played with the device were “where’s Pac-Man?” or, “do you have Galaga?” It has been said that hardware is only as good as the software that supports it, and so far I am pretty unimpressed with what Atari’s Greatest Hits has to offer as far as iCade “integration” goes. Limited game support is definitely something to consider before spending $99 on a novelty peripheral, even it is one of the coolest-looking peripherals on the market.
I received the iCade shortly after I returned from E3, and it’s retro-nerdy presence has been gracing my home ever since. I felt that in order to truly review a product of this magnitude, I would need to use it for more than a couple hours. The iPad is a device that is constantly passed around in my home, and I expected that the iCade would be a frequently used device considering how many gamers pass through my house on any given week. To my surprise, after the initial fascination with the device, and attempting to play a few of the games, the iCade was quickly left alone by most of my friends. I asked why, and the most common answers were: 1. “The games are too difficult to control with the joystick”, and 2. “There aren’t any/enough good games.” These statements just confirmed what I had already experienced on my own.
At this moment, the iCade is sitting quietly on a chest-high shelf in my living room (so people can stand up and play it). Every once and a while I’ll see someone come up and play a game or two of Tempest or Centipede, but it’s always for just a few minutes, then they move on to something else. This doesn’t mean the iCade is a bad product, but rather that Atari’s Greatest Hits simply isn’t enough to keep people interested in the device. Also, due to poor integration with the iCade’s buttons and joystick, people who really enjoyed playing arcade games competitively (to get a high score) in the old days are frustrated with not being able to perform nearly as well as they were used to.
The iCade, on it’s own, is a very impressive feat of retro-nerd creativity, and the folks at ION should be proud of what they’ve made. The physical build-quality is extremely high, and the responsiveness of the joystick and buttons is as accurate as you could possibly expect from a Bluetooth device. But unless you’re a collector or arcade enthusiast, the initial excitement of the iCade will quickly fade due to poor software support, and a library of games that is limited only to (mostly mediocre) Atari titles. The entertainment value of the iCade would vastly increase if other publishers jumped on board with full support and integration. Playing games that properly support the iCade would be really fun, and I’m hoping it’s something I get to experience in the future with such a well-made iPad peripheral.