Gaming on the iPad (or any slate-style tablet) has one serious drawback: the lack of physical controls. For some games, such as Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, touch controls are perfectly suited. But many iPad games attempt to emulate gamepads, joysticks, and other traditional control schemes by way of onscreen virtual controls. Lacking any kind of tactile feedback, and often covering up part of the screen, it's not an ideal solution.
The iCade attempts to correct this problem by offering a joystick and eight buttons, laid out in a classic arcade format inside a miniaturized arcade cabinet. The product actually started life as an April Fool's prank on the novelty retail site ThinkGeek.com, but overwhelming consumer interest prodded the company to bring the $99 iCade to life (much like the Tauntaun sleeping bag, another ThinkGeek mockup that became a real product). The actual hardware is made by Ion Audio, a company best known for its plastic USB turntables and high-end Rock Band video game drum kits.
As pictured in the original April Fool's prank mockups, the iCade acts as a cabinet/stand for your iPad or iPad 2. The unit arrives in kit form, with some assembly required. The side and front/back panels are made of particleboard printed with retro graphics, and the kit comes with a page of Ikea-like wordless instructions, along with a handful of hex screws and a tiny allen wrench.
Construction was simple, but the front and side panels took a little elbow grease to fit together, and we managed to crack a plastic tab along the way. Our unit is the ThinkGeek version of the iCade, which has the same wood grain and color rainbow graphics as the original April Fool's mockup. If ordered directly from Ion (for the same $99) the graphics look much more generic.
To slide an iPad in, the top panel tilts open, and the tablet simply sits in a plastic docking cradle. There's no connector cable or locking mechanism in the cradle, so shifting the iCade even a little bit can move the iPad--we'd definitely not suggest moving it around with the iPad inserted. The interior compartment is much bigger than the iPad, meaning you've got a lot of empty space on each side of the screen; a tighter fit would make for a more arcadelike experience, but as it is, we were able to fit a finger alongside the iPad to adjust the volume controls.
For now, the iCade's biggest flaw is that it only works with a single iOS app, the Atari iPad app, which offers 100 classic arcade and home console games for $15 (or individual game packs for 99 cents). One hundred games for $15 may sound like a great deal, but keep in mind that many of these are variations on a theme: Asteroids, Asteroids Deluxe, etc. And, since these are Atari games, you won't find arcade classics such as Pac-Man, even though that game has its own iOS app (and seems to be an obvious choice for an iCade compatibility update).
Connecting the iCade (powered by two AA batteries) was a breeze; select the iCade from the Bluetooth devices menu on the iPad and enter a series of joystick and button-presses to make the connection (Bluetooth-tethering instructions are printed on the underside of the hinged top panel). From there, you still have to manually launch the Atari app and navigate to your favorite games, but once in an individual game, the controls worked well in games such as Missile Command and Battlezone. Because the eight physical buttons are unlabeled, a cheat sheet is included showing the button mapping for some of the more popular Atari games.
Using the iCade as a game controller works best with games designed to work with a joystick, but many of the games in the Atari app were originally controlled with a track ball, such as Centipede and Crystal Castles. Your mileage may vary on how frustrating it is to use a joystick instead. Ion Audio recently released a software development kit which would allow any iOS game developer to add iCade support to their games. We have yet to see any new iCade games or updates to existing games, but that would definitely make the iCade much less of a one-trick pony.
Despite its limitations, the iCade is a fantastically eye-catching conversation starter, and very fun to use once you find a handful of Atari games that work for you. For vintage gaming enthusiasts, it may be an expensive novelty, but a very worthwhile one.