ThinkGeek sells gadgets, computer equipment, T-shirts and toys that appeal to people who love technology. Every year for April Fool's Day, folks at ThinkGeek come up with a series of joke products that are funny but occasionally so interesting that people wish that they could actually buy it. On April 1, 2010, ThinkGeek pretended to offer for sale the iCade, a device that would turn the then brand-new iPad into an arcade machine. Many folks (for example, Chris Davies of SlashGear) commented that people would buy this if it were actually for sale. This led ThinkGeek to team up with iON Audio, a company known for linking retro with high technology (for example, they sell a USB turntable), to work on bringing the iCade to the market. A year later, they did it, and the iCade is now for sale for $100.
I hesitated before accepting a free review unit of the iCade. iPhone J.D. is clearly not an iPhone or iPad game site. (If you are looking for one of those, I recommend Touch Arcade.) But I figure that there are a lot of attorneys like me who are of the right age to remember visiting their local mall or neighborhood arcade in the 1980s to play the classic games like Asteroids, Missile Command, Pac Man, Galaga, Donkey Kong, etc. For those of us, the idea of using the iPad to relive some of those halcyon days of youth is almost irresistible.
So I have been trying out the iCade for the last few weeks. I deputized my son, who is almost six, to serve as my assistant tester. The iCade is well designed and nicely constructed. The wooden case is sturdy, and the top lifts open so that you can easily insert your iPad. The controls communicate with your iPad via Bluetooth, so you need to pair your iPad with the iCade to use it. Just press any button on the iCade and the button at the bottom that simulates a quarter slot lights up, which causes the iCade to show up in an iPad's list of Bluetooth devices.
The controls work well — not as sturdy as what you would find on a real arcade machine, but they definitely do the job and can withstand a lot of abuse. I don't play a lot of games on the iPad, but I know that games with virtual joysticks and buttons are not as easy to use. That's why I prefer games like Angry Birds that are designed with a touch screen in mind, working with swipes and gestures instead of working when virtual buttons are pressed. Being able to use a real joystick and a real button with a game makes a huge difference for games designed for a joystick and a real button.
The main shortcoming with the iCade is the availability of games. The iCade is advertised to work with only one app, the Atari's Greatest Hits app. Fortunately, that one app contains lots of different games, 100 in total. Many of those are Atari 2600 games. As someone who spent MANY hours in my youth playing an Atari 2600, those bring back great memories, but with a few exceptions I don't think that they hold up very well over time. (One standout for me: even with its simple graphics, Yar's Revenge seems as fun today as it was in 1981.) Playing the old Atari 2600 games reminds me that some of my favorite games on the 2600 came not from Atari but from other companies such as Activision, and obviously those games are not included in this app.
But the real stars of the Atari's Greatest Hits app are the arcade games, and those tend to hold up rather well. The app includes Atari classics such as Asteroids, Missile Command, Centipede, Crystal Castles, Pong and Tempest. Note that the app itself is free and includes Missile Command, but to get other games you either need to pay $14.99 for all 100 games or pay $0.99 for packages that contain four games. I bought several of the packages to try them out. For example, the Centipede Pack gives you the two arcade versions of Centipede and Millipede and the two 2600 versions of those games. When playing Centipede on the iCade, I find myself wishing I was using a track ball (like the original), and when playing Tempest I find myself wishing that I had a knob to turn (like the original), but for most of these games the joystick works well, and certainly works much better than the virtual controls that you have to use to play Atari's Greatest Hits wthout an iCade.
To solve the problem of not enough games, ThinkGeek and iCade have released a free Software Development Kit (SDK) so that other app developers can make their apps work with the iCade. So far, there are only a few games available, such as a free Tetris-like game called Compression HD. It works very well with the iCade controls, and makes me hope that other developers update their games to support the iCade. I would love to play other classic arcade games on the iCade — such as NAMCO's Ms. Pac-Man, which is already available as an iPad app and just needs someone to add iCade support. Fortunately, there are signs that more games are coming. Ben Kuchera of Ars Technica interviewed one game developer who said that adding support for iCade only takes a few hours, which suggests that we should see more iCade suport in the future. TouchArcade has a list of the games with iCade support, about a dozen so far. [UPDATE 8/18/2011: See also this post for a good list of compatible games from TouchArcade.]
For example, just this week, a free game called Match Panic was updated to add iCade support. Match Panic is a simple but entertaining game. Pictures appear on the screen and you tap on the left or right side of the screen to match the picture. But you must do so before the timer runs down, so the game is fast paced. Sometimes the pictures have bonus features such as a bomb which quickly eliminates a number of the pictures that you need to match. The game works on both the iPhone and iPad, and while the visuals are nice on the large screen of the iPad, it is actually harder to play than on the iPhone just because it is more awkward to touch the larger screen. On the iCade, however, the iPad version of the game is fantastic. The game uses the iCade's buttons, not the joystick, and you push either a left or a right button to correspond to the two sides of the screen. On the iCade, you can play the game much faster with the real buttons and thus get higher scores and get to higher levels, plus the game just feels a lot more fun when you are using real buttons. Match Panic also takes advantage another feature of the iCade: a ledge that will actually support the iPad in landscape mode, which is required in this game. Indeed, Match Panic's retro graphics seem even more at home when played on an old-style arcade machine like the iCade:
Is it worth spending $99 on the iCade? The quality of the construction is excellent and it interfaces very well with the iPad. The only problem is the small number of games. As much fun as I have had with the old Atari games — and frankly, it is amazing that video games from 30 years ago hold up so well today — for me, they do get old after a while. Note that I say "for me." My son must have taken his job of deputy reviewer very seriously because he loves playing these games just as much today as he did when I first unboxed the iCade earlier this summer. (His favorite game right now is an arcade game called Major Havoc, a vector graphics game released in 1983 that I frankly don't remember ever seeing at an arcade way back when.) If I was just going to play with the iCade myself, I would feel more comfortable paying $99 if there were more games that worked with it, although as noted above that is starting to improve. But if you are looking for something fun to share with others — be they people who will view the iCade with nostalgia or those of a younger generation that just enjoy playing any games — the iCade becomes more worh the price.
Having the iCade around my house reminds me that when I was a a pre-teen and young teeanger, I thought that one of the coolest things that anyone could have would be an arcade game in their own house, much like Ricky Schroder's character did in the 1980s sitcom Silver Spoons. If that describes you as well, then the iCade will bring you hours of fun while making you feel just a little like the lucky guy in that childhood fantasy.
Click here to get iCade from ThinkGeek ($99).
Click here to get iCade from iON Audio ($99).