ThinkGeek iCade 8-Bitty review

The ThinkGeek iCade 8-Bitty feels like an NES controller for your smartphone or tablet, but make sure the games you want to play support it.

The Apple iPad  has become a powerful gaming platform, but it still doesn’t quite work for fast-reflex arcade games. No matter how nice a touch screen display is, it can’t replace a set of physical controls. Last year, the ThinkGeek and Ion Audio iCade  showed us that an iPad can be turned into a mini arcade cabinet, complete with a joystick and buttons. Now, ThinkGeek’s $29.99 (direct) iCade 8-Bitty turns your iPad into a home console, thanks to its rectangular controller design and direction pad. The 8-Bitty is a fun Bluetooth controller that brings to mind images of 8-bit gaming, but like the iCade, its ability to play games is only as good as the games’ own support for the controller.

Old School Design
The 8-Bitty is a giant shoutout to old hardware. Specifically, it’s a call back to several old designs, mixing Nintendo and Atari metaphors with its 0.7 by 5 by 2.1-inch (HWD) rectangular shape, round red face buttons, direction pad, multicolored decal on the front, and faux wood grain decals around the edge. While it echoes the NES, SNES, and Atari 2600 simultaneously, its profile and feel are pure NES controller.

Besides the two round face buttons, two rectangular mode buttons, and direction pad of the NES controller, the 8-Bitty has an additional two face buttons for a total of four (not counting mode buttons), plus two grey shoulder buttons similar to an SNES controller, giving it more flexibility. It doesn’t feel quite as indestructible as the original NES controller, but it doesn’t feel flimsy, either. It doesn’t have an analog stick or secondary triggers, but the simple design should be good for most non-3D games and even some 3D games.

Pairing the 8-Bitty is a simple process. It automatically enters pairing mode when you first turn it on, and you can put it in pairing mode again by holding the two mode buttons in the center for five seconds. A blue LED light on the top left edge of the pad lets you know what mode the 8-Bitty is in and whether it’s connected.

Inconsistent Support
The 8-Bitty works with both iOS and Android devices, but the game compatibility lists are inconsistent. ThinkGeek lists 38 titles compatible with the 8-Bitty, including Atari Greatest Hits and Pac-Man. Both Atari Greatest Hits and Pac-Man played well with the 8-Bitty, along with Temple Run (which arguably made the game too easy). Midway Arcade, a game not on the list, detected the controller but mapped the main action buttons to the shoulder buttons, making it very uncomfortable to play.

In fact, there’s no easy way to map controllers in most iOS games. If a game doesn’t work with the 8-Bitty out of the box, it probably won’t work at all in a way you can play it comfortably. It appears as a keyboard to iOS, so the on-screen keyboard will disappear whenever the controller is on. Devices like the Logitech Joystick for iPad  can offer responsive, analog stick-like controls by putting a physical control over the on-screen control, but while they can be placed over any part of the screen and work with any game, they block the screen and don’t always stay in place. 

Android games tend to be a bit more flexible, and there’s an entire ecosystem of legally dubious emulation titles the 8-Bitty can work great with, as long as you manually map the controls. While ThinkGeek doesn’t name specific console emulators, it mentions that MAME4droid now has iCADE and 8-Bitty support (along with iMAME4all for iOS, which requires you to jailbreak your iPad).

The ThinkGeek iCade 8-Bitty is a less expensive, more portable way to control some of your iPad games than the original iCade, which itself started as an April Fool’s Joke. The 8-Bitty feels almost like an original NES controller and offers enough input for classic arcade games, but its compatibility with iOS games is scattershot. If you have an Android device your choices are more open, especially if you’re willing to explore. The 8-Bitty manages to climb out of the novelty hole the original iCade was in, but iOS’s own limitations hold it back from being a must-have gaming accessory for mobile devices.

More Video Game Controller and Accessory Reviews:


Verdict
The ThinkGeek iCade 8-Bitty feels like an NES controller for your smartphone or tablet, but make sure the games you want to play support it.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc