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iCade 8-Bitty hands-on: Cool controller, not enough games

This nifty Nintendo-style gamepad adds analog controls to your smartphone or tablet. But only a smattering of games are compatible.

The 8-Bitty controller works with iPhones, iPads, and, to a lesser degree, Android devices.
The 8-Bitty controller works with iPhones, iPads, and, to a lesser degree, Android devices. ThinkGeek

How many times have you played a really sweet game on an Android or iOS device, but found yourself wishing for better controls?

Because, let's face it, some games really suffer when your thumbs block the screen, or when you don't get any tactile feedback. Tapping glass is a far cry from mashing buttons.

Enter ThinkGeek's iCade 8-Bitty, a mobile version of ThinkGeek's iCade gaming cabinet, an iPad-only accessory that started out as an April Fool's Day joke.

The retro-styled 8-Bitty pays homage to the original Nintendo NES D-pad controller, but tethers to your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth instead of cords.

The gizmo has a four-way D-pad, four red game buttons, two shoulder buttons, and Start/Select buttons. The whole thing is wrapped in wood paneling to complete the retro look.

I easily paired the controller with my iPad, but then discovered a glitch: while it's paired, the onscreen keyboard won't appear. So when you go to the App Store to search for iCade-compatible games (more on that below), you'll have to turn the 8-Bitty off. Annoying!

Although ThinkGeek had originally planned to sell the 8-Bitty for $24.95 (way back in February, when it was first announced), it's currently priced at $29.95.

That's not a huge deal, but this is: not nearly enough games support the 8-Bitty. Although it works with any game that supports the iCade, that list (available on the product page) currently numbers only a couple dozen -- and those are all for iOS. The games that would really benefit from a controller like this -- I'm thinking Lep's World 2 and Crazy Taxi, to name a few -- aren't coded for it.

Update: The list of iCade-compatible games actually numbers around 120, as listed on Ion's Web site. And there I found some titles that really do work fabulously with the 8-Bitty, including AirAttack HD and Rush City. That's still a drop in the bucket compared to how many games don't support the controller, but at least there's a greater selection than I originally thought.

Android support in particular appears to be limited to MAME emulator MAME4droid.

So what you've got here is a really cool game controller without many really cool games to play with it. (The original iCade: same problem.) Likewise, a lot of the buttons are extraneous; few titles take advantage of, say, the shoulder buttons. One silver lining: if you're willing to jailbreak your iPhone or iPad, you may be able to use the 8-Bitty with more games.

If not, well, I think there's some disappointment in your future. Much as I'd like to recommend the 8-Bitty, I just can't.