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iCade 8-Bitty Retro Wireless Game Controller review: Retro iOS game controller with a handful of quirks

If you're hankering for a novelty controller that works with retro games and looks like it escaped the mid-'80s, the 8-Bitty might be your holiday treat.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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3 min read

No, you don’t need a dedicated iPad/iPhone game controller. Let’s just settle that right now. I used to think it would be a fun idea, and sometimes I still do, but iOS games are too fluid, and too few use button schemes that make sense in a physical controller format.

iCade 8-Bitty Retro Wireless Game Controller (iOS, Android)
6.0

iCade 8-Bitty Retro Wireless Game Controller

The Good

The <b>iCade 8-Bitty Retro Wireless Game Controller</b> is cute, not too expensive, and works with a decent batch of iCade-compatible games. It's also Android-compatible.

The Bad

It's not a universal controller. Some compatible games end up with awkward button layouts. The old-fashioned lack of analog pads means it won't work with many iOS games. Android compatibility limited to an emulator app.

The Bottom Line

iCade succeeds in shrinking last year's arcade cabinet down to a clever pocket size with the 8-Bitty controller. Even though it won't work with many iOS games, the price is low enough that some people will want to buy it anyway for the novelty.

That being said, there are an awful lot of retro games out there that could benefit from that type of device. But, it needs to be versatile. And it needs to be affordable. Both of these qualities were lacking in the overpriced, incredibly limited Duo Gamer, a dual-analog Bluetooth control pad that cost $80 and only worked with a handful of Gameloft titles. Last year's iCade arcade cabinet was a fun concept that made for a great desktop toy, but its size, price, and limited game library support makes it largely impractical.

Sarah Tew/CNET

On the other side of the spectrum is the iCade 8-Bitty from ThinkGeek, a throwback-style controller that looks like an escapee from a NES-knock-off factory in 1985. Graced with faux wood-paneling stickers on the sides and a D-pad with four buttons on the front (and two shoulder buttons), the 8-Bitty is a clever Bluetooth controller that does what its larger cousin, the iCade cabinet, did, but with less hardware. It works with a large chunk of the iCade's eclectic, oddball indie and retro supported titles. More importantly, it only costs $30. And, it also works with Android devices. It's an improvement over the iPhone 4/4S-specific iCade Mobile released earlier this year.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Which games does the 8-Bitty support? Midway Arcade and Atari Greatest Hits, quirky little games like Forget-Me-Not and Super Crate Box, and dozens more. The list isn’t easy to track down, and the 8-Bitty doesn’t work with all the games the iCade does, but most of them translate well enough. On the Android side of things, the emulator app MAME4droid supports 8-Bitty. Ion’s list of iCade-compatible games gives you a mostly complete sense of the gaming library you can take advantage of.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There are drawbacks, though: the 8-Bitty works by tricking your iOS device into thinking it’s a keyboard, but simple button-mappings get laid onto games in ways that sometimes seem random. Super Crate Box makes you use the middle gray buttons on the 8-Bitty that look like old-fashioned Start and Select buttons on an NES controller, but are in fact additional buttons. Sometimes the shoulder buttons and other buttons do the same thing. Sometimes you have to press up on the D-pad to jump, instead of being able to press one of the four comfy red buttons like you’d want to. Most games have no control-tweaking options for the 8-Bitty, so you’re stuck.

Sarah Tew/CNET

An screwed-on back cover accepts two AAA batteries, and an on/off switch keeps battery drain down. Pairing is easy, although as CNET's Rick Broida pointed out, once you're paired you can't use the iPad's onscreen keyboard anymore. The 8-Bitty is even more portable than the Duo Gamer. It’s more comfortable, too. You can even you use it with your iPhone, though I'm not sure why you would: it's larger than the iPhone 5.

The 8-Bitty is a cute stocking-stuffer, a clever novelty gift, and, depending on your usage, a functional retro-gaming accessory for your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. It’s less expensive than an iCade, and more flexible.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This isn't the perfect iOS game controller. It's an awkward, feisty little gadget that won me over with charm, not usefulness. It might do the same to you, if you keep your expectations low.

iCade 8-Bitty Retro Wireless Game Controller (iOS, Android)
6.0

iCade 8-Bitty Retro Wireless Game Controller

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 5Performance 6