The dream of making your iPhone or iPod Touch a perfect on-the-go gaming handheld used to depend on this question: do you care about buttons? The Moga Ace Power, the first of what will probably be many official game controller accessories for iOS 7, adds all the buttons you'd ever dream of having, and even has a few more tricks up its sleeve. But, it costs $100. Is it worth the investment?
As iOS devices have evolved, their graphics have leaped massively, and the games they can play are becoming downright impressive. But, for the most part, you needed to accept using touch, and tilting, as ways to play.
Android devices have enjoyed game controllers for years, and now it's iOS 7's turn. The Moga Ace Power is the first game controller I've seen that takes advantage of iOS 7's baked-in support for MFi controllers. In short, that means that there can finally be "universal" game controllers that just work, and can connect either via Lightning or wirelessly.
The Moga Ace Power has dual analog sticks, triggers, buttons galore, and even a headphone pass-through, but it's meant strictly as a snap-on case for the iPhone 5, 5C, 5S, and fifth-gen iPod Touch. It only connects via Lightning. But, if you're eligible and game-curious, this Moga accessory -- and the peripherals that are bound to come out after it -- opens up a lot of possibilities for the future of iOS. I've been using one for the past week, and it might be one of the best stocking stuffers yet for the iPhone Gamer Who Thinks He Has Everything; but keep in mind that the product and its app support are still in the experimental stages, and its design leaves a little to be desired.
Buttons, buttons, buttons galore
Apple supports two types of game controllers in iOS 7: "Standard," which has a D-pad, four buttons, and two top shoulder buttons, like a Game Boy, or "Extended," which adds dual analog pads, left and right trigger buttons, and everything else in Standard. The Moga Ace Power is an Extended controller. What that means is it'll cover, in theory, any controller-ready game that hits iOS 7.
The only thing it really lacks compared with a console controller is rumble. It's a more complete button set than what's on a PlayStation Vita or a Nintendo 3DS (the Vita lacks the extra triggers, and the 3DS doesn't have a second analog pad). The four buttons are color-coded and lettered, with A, B, X, and Y. Certain games pick up that you're playing with a controller, and advise you to press certain buttons via pop-up info boxes. That's not true for all games, but it needs to be.
Design: Feels more like a $50 device than a $100 one
Covered in plastic, the Moga Ace Power feels more like a toy than a serious accessory -- but then again, we're talking about a game controller. In folded-up form, it looks exactly like a little Xbox controller, complete with all the types of buttons you'd expect. Unlock and unfold it, and the device somewhat clumsily slides open to act as a cradle for an iPhone/iPod. It feels loose, but snapped into an iPhone it becomes a lot more sturdy. (It only works with a naked iPhone or iPod, so abandon ye cases before using.) When installed, it made the iPhone feel like an old-school Atari Lynx gaming handheld (if you remember one of those): very long, and not very pocket-friendly. And the glossy piano-black front finish scratched very easily on my test unit.
Another button turns the iDevice on and off, and another on the left presses Pause during a game (a new feature added into iOS 7 game controller support).
Getting it on my iPhone took a little work. It took me a few minutes to figure out, but I inserted my phone top-end first and then stretched the device out to lock the Lightning connector into the phone's bottom end. Once connected, the Ace Power flashes its red LED light. Press that button on the upper right, which also shows how much battery life is in the controller, and you can see if the device is connected and ready to go.
Inserting an iPhone versus an iPod Touch involves some annoyance: included are extra plastic inserts for helping each differently thick device slot in with the least amount of wiggle. An iPhone 5C doesn't require an insert. It's weird, and a little wonky if you plan on switching devices a lot.
Do buttons make a killer iOS game machine?
I've been hindered by iOS game controllers before that only worked with a couple of games, or had a strange of way of kinda-sorta playing with games, like the iCade 8-bitty. Sometimes Bluetooth added extra lag. The Moga Ace Power has none of these problems: compatible games work seamlessly and right away, with button functions mapped logically. The physical Lightning connection resulted in nearly lag-free gaming, from what I could tell over the games I tried.
I played Bugdom 2, Limbo, Dead Trigger 2, Galaxy on Fire 2 HD, Oceanhorn, Bastion, FurFighters, and Otto Matic. Some of these were on a test iPod Touch provided by Moga, and others were on my iPhone 5S test unit that I loaded with some games. In both cases, the games played well. A few, like Limbo, seemed to display a bit of response lag, but that seemed to be part of the game's actual interface design.
How do you know which games support controllers? Good question. Right now it's tough. According to Apple, hundreds of games in the App Store already support it. Finding those games is the challenge: there's no actual way, at the moment, to know which games do and don't support controllers like the Moga Ace Power short of message-board searches, gaming sites, and, well, places like CNET. At least, once you've found a game, the ability to fold in controller support is easy: iOS 7 already allows it, and Apple has a standardized API for controller accessories, so the Moga Ace Power -- and any other controller -- should play the same way.
Some games immediately recognize the controller, and even offer controller-specific tutorial tips. Others, more often, just end up working with premapped button layouts that turn out fine, but take a while to guess and figure out.
Do buttons make a difference? For certain games, absolutely. You're not going to use the Moga Ace Power for Angry Birds or Words With Friends, but a game of Pac-Man suddenly becomes a lot more enjoyable. So would any platformer, racing game, or sports game.
AirPlay remains a curious wild-card amid all of this. You can connect an iPhone, iPod, or iPad to an Apple TV via AirPlay Mirroring and enjoy many games in full screen -- and some even have second-screen support that turns the paired devices into additional control panels or view screens.
I tried using AirPlay with a few games and had mixed success. Galaxy on Fire 2, when it worked, was really cool with a controller: it felt like having a little video game console. But, AirPlay streaming of gameplay can get pretty choppy in my experience, at least over my home network. It's not smooth or consistent enough yet to be a killer feature, or even a feature.
It's early days for iOS game controllers and controller-supported games, but odds are there's more exciting stuff to come. Most big game developers are already supporting these controllers before they've even arrived: Lego The Lord of the Rings and Oceanhorn, in particular, show how AAA games will probably be arriving with controller support standard. So, for early adopters of a game controller like this one, that's good news. But you'll have to go along for the ride. This is a peripheral that screams "hobby" in big letters.
Battery charging: A pleasant extra
Interestingly enough, the Ace Power also doubles as an iPhone/iPod Touch battery pack, with an 1,800mAh battery. That's equivalent to some standalone battery-pack cases. The controller uses a bit of that power, but the rest is meant to charge the iDevice you've got in it. A little button shows battery life, and to recharge you plug in an included Micro-USB cable. To activate charging, you slide a toggle on the lower left from red to green.
For extralong gaming sessions it's a nice touch, but I wonder if a less expensive and smaller device could have been made without the battery.
Conclusion: Killer stocking stuffer...and possible console alternative?
An iPhone with a game controller case will never replace a game console...at least, not this year. At $100, the Moga Ace Power may be a more tempting proposition than a PlayStation Vita for some, but the Nintendo 2DS, already a full-featured game system, costs nearly the same.
Once more games and future wireless AirPlay uses arrive, maybe game controllers will be the open door for iOS games to evolve to the next level. Right now, the Moga Ace Power is the best iOS game controller I've ever seen -- which might not be saying much -- but it holds promise for future games, too. Android gamers may be laughing at how iOS is late to the game controller party, but I'm at least glad the party's on at all.