Back in the day when Atari was God — a one button, one joystick controller was all that was needed. Your thumb and the side of your index finger against the stick got calluses, you lived with it. Then along came Nintendo’s NES — making the “candy bar” controller the defacto way to play: a direction pad at one end, buttons at the other, and option tabs in the middle. And since the NES sold through the roof and made Nintendo what it is today, that was good too.
Since then, more powerful game consoles have demanded more buttons, knobs, joysticks, you name it. To the point of where it takes more dexterity than well, Dexter from the TV show of the same name handling his sharp implements. Only problem with the new controllers is that they aren’t well suited for the latest gaming trend: mobile devices.
Don’t tell Nintendo or Sony or Microsoft (but Sega, sure go ahead), but gaming on smartphones and tablets is the wave of portable gaming — or one person gaming in general. Games can be quickly accessed and played and on top of it all, these game “apps” don’t cost nowhere near as much as the games for the consoles (despite console games now being made available digitally in some cases). And with mobile devices having built-in accelerometers and touch-screens, you’d think that would make gaming easy. Well it doesn’t.
The reason it doesn’t is partly because of the games themselves: a lot of them are based on “retro” concepts of game-play and require the “press button, hit direction pad” mentality. That certainly makes sense when you’re dealing with refurbished versions of Pac-Man or Space Invaders (etc.), but for newer games, not so much. The problem with the newer games is that they are more easily played with a hand-held controller because of the need for dedicated buttons and quick access to them — something you can do with something you’re holding a lot easier than on the mobile device itself.
So break out the 8-bit colors and take out ThinkGeek’s iCADE 8-bitty Game Controller. One glance and you can see that it’s more retro than not — comparing it to a NES gamepad at first glance isn’t a crime. But besides spacing the two horizontal sets of buttons at the right side one atop the other, rather than angled, there’s some real physical differences between the 8-bitty and the NES. Not the direction pad — it’s at the left — or the two side-by-side nubs at the center for Start/Select use; no it’s the left and right front-mounted shoulder “triggers.” Of course the artwork of the 8-bitty is more of a blend between NES and Atari, thanks the “wood grain” finish around its edges for that.
There’s also a small LED panel near the upper left corner — what that does we’re about to get to. But first turn the 8-bitty over, unscrew the battery compartment and insert two “AAA” batteries.The reason I point this out is that inexpensive batteries will be consumed very quick and then you’ll have to grab a screwdriver to get the back opened when you’re more interested in playing than maintenance. So use Duracells or the like.
Having turned the 8-bitty over and the power switch to the “On” position, you’ll now see a blue LED glowing in the panel. One that stays on when you’re using it, but goes out to show it’s back in “standby” mode when not. And with the batteries inside, the 8-bitty does up its weight, but it’s still pretty slight. However, there’s a nice “solidity” to how it feels — it’s not flimsy and it is not going to fall apart should you drop it (and since the battery compartment is screwed on, the batteries won’t be flying everywhere either).
Now here’s the easy part because Bluetooth is in play: you press those two nubs and hold them until a blue LED starts flashing. You have your mobile device nearby — in my case it’s an iPad — and flip through the settings till you find 8-bitty’s name in the BT section. Select it and the 8-bitty is “paired” and ready to rock. Android users will have a similar experience — and in both cases no stupid password should be needed. But if you’ve been using BT wireless headphones, forget it since that gets wacked out. I also found out that the onscreen keyboard on the iPad (iOS6) can’t be accessed while the bitty is in play. Minor annoyance, that.
Now ThinkGeek notes that the Atari Greatest Hits works with the 8-bitty, as does the Activision Anthology and a lot of other titles. Basically you try it out on the game and if it works — you’re in like Flynn (to use an old cliche in keeping with 8-bit). It doesn’t work with every single game out there, but it’s surprising how many it can handle — both that came out last Century as well as this one.
Now it’s obvious that you have to use two hands to work the controls properly — so in most cases you’ll need to find a way to prop up the device being controlled: I tried leaning my Ipad against a book while seated at a table and it started to slide so that wasn’t good. You can’t use the bitty with one hand, no matter how you try because it’s just not constructed to work that way. There’s portable stands you can carry about, but placing the device against a pillow propped on your lap can work in bed, for example.
The shoulder buttons don’t get a big play — in fact I never needed to use them with any of the games I played in the first week or so — so you’d expect the ones on the bitty’s right side to stand up to abuse. They had better. Yeah I mashed the hell out of them with big thumbs and big fingers and the big idea that the harder and faster you press a button, the more successful the results. It ain’t true, sadly, but the buttons didn’t fall out or start sticking or any of that jazz. I can’t say that will be the case after I pass the ten-thousandth button mashing, but so far so good.
Now once you get a handle on how to keep that phone/tablet upright on its own 8-bitty makes handling games a lot easier too — my scores for missile command have gone way up using it — yeah call me old school but that’s what 8-bitty is sorta all about. No lag delay when playing, no connecting cables to get in the way, and you’re free to move around a bit inside the Bluetooth’s 30 feet (aprox) range should you want to overview what’s going on as opposed to being on top of it. Using one of those stands they make to hold a tablet (or phone) upright makes sense, but you’d be surprised how convenient a lap can be in a pinch.
The 8-bitty also makes playing games where horizontal movements are needed more precise — moving the “catching” bar in KABOOM using the direction pad gave me finer and more exact control,, as compared to how it moved all over the place when I was using the onscreen controls instead. I would have to say in general that a physical game controller just feels “right.” There, I said it. And you do know that if you have a bandage on your finger or it’s awfully dry to where the touch-screen doesn’t react, that plain sucks right?
Oh — besides removing wasted space on the screen that onscreen controls take up, you’re making it less likely you’ll have to clean fingerprints off the touch surface too. Not to mention the inevitable poke to the screen where a jagged fingernail or ring makes an unwanted scratch or depression. Even that Corning Gorilla glass (if there) doesn’t need to be tested against that badly.
Bottom line: A “portable game console” has to have adequate gaming controls — plain and simple. You want to turn your mobile device into a console without ending up sucking at the games, you need a physical game controller. So you pull the $29 retail iCADE 8-bitty Game Controller out of your other pocket or knapsack and have at it. When done, toss it back in because it can take the abuse. And if you’re not interested in finding out what games work the hard way — go to the ionaudio website to check out a big list of them already put together for you.
- Small and durable
- Button layout intuitive
- Is not universally compatible with all games
- “Wood grain” could cause splinters…
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.