8-Bitty game controller brings wireless retro fun

Just when you thought iCade was getting boring

Whenever I see retro style games gaining traction on the App Store, it reminds me of the all the grown-ups like me that still crave for some good old button mashing. From joysticks, arcade machines, home consoles and even keyboard and mouse, I'm pretty sure our finger muscle memory still remember the moves.

For a crowd with a handful of console generations on their back, all the effort gone in recreating the game atmosphere of the 80s can be ruined by touch controls. Getting the right retro experience is impossible if you're going to be tapping on a glass, right? Fortunately, nostalgics can upgrade to an actual physical controller with the iCade 8-Bitty.

Back in 2011 ThinkGeek and Ion brought us the iCade, a novelty iPad stand shaped like an arcade cabinet. Of course, this was fitted with working joystick and think buttons despite Apple's restrictions on this kind of accessories. Not the cleanest solution, but it worked. The iCade managed to talk to the iPad via Bluetooth pretending to be a keyboard. Fast forward two years and iCade is a family of iOS accessories that bring the buttons to the touch devices.

The latest arrival is in my opinion the neatest. The 8-Bitty is a compact wireless controller for iOS devices and Android. The rectangular shape and the button disposition is inspired by Nintendo's NES, making it feel familiar immediately. The 8-Bitty has a traditional D-pad on the left, four action buttons on the right, shoulder buttons plus the 'select' and 'start' — none are labelled in any way, perhaps to avoid any copyright infringement.

Although I don't mind the device is powered by two AAA batteries, you'll need a small screwdriver to open the compartment. Once you turn on the power and trigger the Bluetooth discoverability mode, the process to pair it with your iOS device is quick and easy. This is similar to the way you pair a Bluetooth speaker or keyboard. Something straightforward as you can see in this post.

The 8-Bitty feels good

You can clearly notice the finish isn't as good as some third party console controllers but it's not amateurish either. The plastic used doesn't feel too cheap but could do with more texture for my taste. The retro looks are what initially sold me. The top and the sides are covered with some thick plastic sticker which show some white edges if you look carefully. Perhaps it could be cool if it included different covers for you to customise it. I does look like this is a sticker you've put on top of a black controller.

Let's move to the important part: the clickiness of the buttons is fantastic. Soft and not too deep, they only make a click sound when released. If you are the type of person who tends to press the buttons on the side rather than the centre, this will register as well. Also, the buttons are attached solidly to the device. If you are like me and have abused your video game consoles over the years, you've played hours with controllers worse than this.

When it comes to playing the 8-Bitty — or the iCade system to be precise — shows its shortcomings. Menus can often only be navigated with touch controls despite your futile attempts to move something on the screen with the up and down arrows on the controller. I don't particularly mind, but since the setup and Bluetooth pairing is done outside the app, you're wondering if you've done it correctly and whether you need to return to the settings or not. The iCade led only indicates the device is on, not that it's been recognised properly.

The iCade selection of games is still minuscule but those included make the whole difference.

Once you start playing it's a matter of seconds for everything to come together and bring back some nostalgic memories. In addition to the classic Atari catalogue, there's a good number of iOS developers who have included iCade support in their games. Cave shooters and platformers are the ideal genres for this as the official list shows. Some of my favourites like Super Crate Box, Hard Lines, Forget-me-not, Super Lemonade Factory, League of Evil and Mos Speedrun benefit from touch controls, making your moves even quicker. There's no lag or anything like that. If nobody told you, you wouldn't know this is running wirelessly pretending to be a keyboard.

For me the biggest disappointment is the absence of any way to reassign buttons. In Super Crate Box the jump and the gun are the 'select' and 'start' buttons. In League of Evil the attack button is also 'select'. My guess is that these are inherited from the iCade arcade cabinet model, which had six buttons. This is a big flaw that I don't know how is going to be addressed. Unless an indie dev has purchased an 8-Bitty and decides to change the keyboard mapping to have a sensible set of buttons, I don't see this happening.

There's also little instructions of what the controls do, and at times you even need to change the control mode inside the game's own menu. In Super Mega Worm for instance, you can only use the four direction D-pad option rather than the left-right only I'm used to.

8-Bitty against other wireless controllers

Compared to other joysticks and controllers for iOS such as Atari's iPad deck and the recently announced Gameloft, 8-Bitty is superior on the paper. The fact is, iCade adoption isn't that impressive, and even those developers who bothered to make their apps compatible with the system, might not even go an change the controls to suit the 8-Bitty after all this time.

The 8-Bitty is compact, looks cool and is the cheapest of the options to game on your iOS device I know of. If you are like me and keep playing games like Mikey Shorts or replaying levels in Mos Speedrun, then this controller is going to make a difference.

These days developers work hard to nail touch controls for gaming. Unlike other platforms, they can push updated with tweaks and add new layouts possibly based on user feedback. I don't really see the need to use an external accessory to enjoy iOS games. However, if you really like two or three of the games I have mentioned in this review, the 8-Bitty will change the experience.