Those rascals at ThinkGeek are at it again, today unveiling the iCADE 8-Bitty, a physical controller for use with iOS games. The 8-Bitty sports a traditional d-pad, as well as four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, and start/select. The 8-Bitty is battery powered and connects to any iOS device wirelessly, and can be used to play any game that supports the iCADE API. Tired of tapping the screen to play Super Mega Worm? Well that won't be a problem much longer.
ThinkGeek has announced that the 8-Bitty will retail for $24.99 and should go on sale sometime later this year. If you happen to be at Toy Fair you can get a look at the 8-Bitty up close and personal, just don't try and steal it because I'm pretty sure ThinkGeek deploys at least three snipers at such events. If you are going to attempt a snatch and grab then please remember to run in a serpentine pattern.
Virtual d-pads and joysticks are one of the most ballyhooed subjects on iOS, as they are often cited as one of the biggest slights against touch screen gaming. One of the first solutions to attempt to improve controls on touch screens, especially tablet devices, is the JOYSTICK-IT from ThinkGeek. The JOYSTICK-IT works by having a single suction cup on the bottom in the center that attaches to the screen, and then you tilt that around on the touch screen to simulate a real joystick. Now, the JOYSTICK-IT comes with some basic instructions printed on the box that it comes with, but there are two that it should come with. One, the joysticks will not work properly with floating controls that readjust themselves based on where you put your finger down. Due to the design, they cannot create a center point for these floating controls, and they will mess up and be inaccurate. Second, your screen needs to be as clean as possible. Using a moist microfiber cloth on both your screen and the suction cups of the joysticks should do the trick. Otherwise, the joysticks will easily come off and slide around the screen. Just a word of warning - these will technically work with the iPhone/iPod touch, but they obscure so much screen space that it's not practical usage.
Games with fixed firing joysticks work wonderfully with the JOYSTICK-IT. Games like Gun Bros., Etolis Arena, and Infinity Field feel remarkably natural with the the joystick, and you will notice an accuracy improvement while playing the game. Games with fixed digital joysticks also work well, such as Namco's various Pac-Man games. Sega's Genesis games running in 2X mode work really well with the JOYSTICK-IT; the best part is that the d-pad in 2X mode is just slightly larger than the footprint of the JOYSTICK-IT, so you can see in which direction you're specifically pushing in.
The problem with the JOYSTICK-IT is its limited utility. Because it only works well with non-analog inputs, this means that you can only use it on a particular subset of games. If you like playing dual-stick shooters with floating joysticks, this won't work for them, because the joystick cannot define a center point. For example, Max Adventure only works if you place the joysticks down after you start playing and only if you can manage to keep an end of a joystick down all the time, otherwise you'll lose the center point, and the next time you press down, your firing or movement will be inaccurate, as it will define a new center point based in where you touched.
There's just too many ifs, ands, and buts to properly recommend the JOYSTICK-IT, because of its design limiting the number of games it works with. For games with simulated digital inputs or 360 degree firing controls, you will notice an accuracy increase that for serious gamers, it may be worth picking up a single JOYSTICK-IT to check it out, though casual gamers will likely not find this to be a worthwhile investment. If you have any games that you're curious to see how they work with the JOYSTICK-IT, leave a comment or send me an email and I will let you know how it works.
When it comes to iOS gaming, the biggest complaint that continues to come up is the lack of physical controls. While veteran iOS gamers have gotten used to virtual controls, games still often suffer from not having actual physical buttons and joysticks to use. While an iOS device that actually has physical gameplay buttons on it is unlikely to ever appear, some people and manufacturers are looking to provide physical controls to gamers on touchscreen devices, either by facsimile physical joysticks, or through external accessories to provide actual physical controls to games.
First up is the Fling Joystick from Ten One Design. Designed to simulate an analog joystick on a touch screen, primarily the iPad (it appears to be designed for the wider bezel of the iPad, and might not work as well on the iPhone and iPod touch), that you stick on the iPad screen, and works to simulate a physical controller's analog joystick. The product claims to leave no residue on the iPad, and to increase your accuracy in games that simulate analog joysticks. You can buy both a single Fling joystick, or buy a 2-pack for dual-stick shooters. The joysticks appear to be designed for iPad-only games, but some games running in 2X mode appear to work, such as Secret of Mana, according to the publicly-edited compatibility list. Some games may not work as well due to the way their joysticks work or how they're positioned, so it may be a bit of a crapshoot depending on the games you want to play. The Fling is available now, and it will run you $19.99 for a single unit, and $29.99 for a pair.
A second virtual joystick option is the JOYSTICK-IT, exclusively from ThinkGeek. It appears to work similarly to the Fling, simulating a joystick on a touch screen, but it has a different design, more similar to an arcade joystick than a controller thumbpad. However, it still appears to work as an analog joystick for 3D games and dual-stick shooters - it would be curious to see a joystick work to simulate a digital joystick, if it was at all possible. While the JOYSTICk-IT is more expensive than the Fling, running $24.99 for one and $39.99 for a set of two, the shape could be preferable for some people, and give a more arcade-like experience.
Also coming from ThinkGeek and ION Audio is the iCADE. This was originally a joke product from ThinkGeek on April Fool's Day, but similar to products like the Tauntaun sleeping bag going from joke to real product, the iCADE is soon to be real as well. This lets you dock the iPad into a miniature arcade cabinet, that features an arcade-style joystick and 8 buttons, for any various configuration of games. The iCade connects to the iPad via Bluetooth, and claims to offer support via an API for other apps to support it. iCADE will support Asteroids and other Atari arcade games at launch, though. It will be interesting to see how Apple reacts to a device like this, and if it's allowed, although external game controllers have been theoretically allowable since iOS 3.0, as long as they're Apple-approved devices, but no company has gotten on releasing one. There's theoretically no reason why a Bluetooth controller shouldn't be allowed, as a dock accessory would have to work through its own API as well. The iCADE is still in development, and is "Coming Soon" - but here's hoping for April 1st just for the sake of irony.
However, most of these control options are designed for the iPad and other tablet devices - for gamers on the iPhone and iPod touch, their physical control options are more limited. One of the most intriguing physical control options for these smaller devices is the iControlPad from Craig Rothwell, who has worked on the Open Pandora handheld. This device communicates over Bluetooth, and offers support with a variety of different protocols, though it will work as a Bluetooth keyboard in its most basic mode, with the d-pad, 4 face buttons, and 2 rear buttons each mapped to a keyboard keypress. The iControlPad isn't just a gamepad either - it has a built-in 1350 mAh battery that supports a generic USB output so you can charge a variety of phones and devices with it. iControlPad is also future-proof, as it uses a clamp system to support a variety of phones - including iPhone and iPod touch sized devices, and smaller Android phones. A larger clamp set is in the works to support larger phones like the Samsung Galaxy S line.
Unfortunately, the iControlPad might be of limited use for non-jailbroken iOS users. According to Craig Rothwell, one of the designers of the iControlPad, the odds that Apple would allow support for the profiles that support the analog joysticks are low, though if apps can use keyboard input as game commands, the iControlPad could be supported through that. Considering that a device like the iCADE exists and offers similar Bluetooth control, there is a chance that games could actually support it in the legitimate App Store, if Apple approved it, though Craig Rothwell has said before that Apple would not approve apps that support the iControlPad's API. He and the rest of the iControlPad team have been in touch with some iOS developers about implementing the iControlPad into their apps, though these would likely be jailbroken-only apps. Android apps are more in luck; due to the OS's less restrictive policies, many apps already support Bluetooth gamepads, and so they would be able to easily support the iControlPad. The iControlPad is currently in production, and the first batch of units should be shipping out in the next month.
It will be interesting to see if any of these devices catch on in any meaningful way, or if they'll just be devices for gaming enthusiasts looking to simulate the feel of gaming controls on their touch screen devices in any way. As some of these devices start to ship out to customers and as new controller solutions are potentially announced, we'll have the latest news and impressions of these devices.