Monday, February 20, 2012


iCade Roundup

It's kind of startling how suddenly my iPad went from being a "there's some great potential to make this a game system, but I'm just not seeing it yet so I'll just play Tiny Tower in the meantime" machine to being my primary video game console. A number of factors have contributed to this. One is that I'm starting to notice games that were originally released on more traditional game consoles popping up for a couple bucks apiece in the iTunes store. Another is that I got $50 in iTunes credit for Christmas. But top of the list is the fact that I splurged for an iCade.

I've owned a lot of joysticks, from the NES Advantage all the way to the X-Arcade. You could reasonably ask why I've done this, because the kinds of games I typically play usually aren't improved with arcade controls. I've always found a thumb-based directional device to be more accurate and responsive in my home games. Even when I feel like digging out Namco Museum for a game of Pac-Man or something, it never really feels like I'm playing an arcade game, not even when I'm playing with my freaking X-Arcade cabinet that I paid an embarrassing amount of money for and set up in my game room.

The iCade, in contrast, is an absolute joy to use. This is the first thing I have ever owned that has successfully brought the feeling of the arcade home for me. When I sit behind it, I feel like I'm eight years old again, at a Chuck E. Cheese, except the tokens never run out.

Part of it is just how well the iPad and iCade work together. Obviously the iCade was made with the iPad in mind, but it almost seems as if the iPad was also designed with the intention of one day sitting it inside a small desktop arcade cabinet. The portrait orientation gives it an uncanny resemblance to a number of classic standup machines, especially Pac Man and Galaga.

Another fact is that iOS allows you to switch applications so effortlessly. My experience with arcade games on home consoles is... less than elegant. Say you pop in Namco Museum on your Game Cube. You have to wait for it to load up, then go through all of the opening credits and logos and everything before you finally get to select your game. It comes up on the screen, but the resolution's wrong and there are weird borders that are supposed to remind you of arcade cabinet art. By that point, the magic's lost; you're not tricking yourself into thinking you've got a Pac Man machine at home. Then say you want to play Rampage, so you switch discs to Midway Treasures, and go through the whole loadup all over again. With iOS, you buy all of your games individually, and then you can put them together into folders. Just tap your Arcade folder, then pick the game you want. Press the home button to exit, tap the next game. This is a lot closer to the real experience of playing at an arcade -- you just wander from one attraction to another. (And, of course, many games allow you to run your playlist as you play; queue up some 80s music to run in the background for a true arcade experience.)

And the unit itself is just... perfect. It's just completely beautiful to look at, a small work of art. When you sit down in front of it, the shape and depth of it give you that immersive feeling that arcade cabinets are supposed to give you, where your field of vision is blocked off and you're in your own little retreat, alone with the game. Even the way the sound echoes around inside it reminds me of the way old cabinets used to sound.

Of course, none of this would mean anything if there were no games to play with it. Indeed, the list of compatible apps is relatively small, but damn, there sure are some good ones. Here's a few of my favorites:

Pac-Man for iPad

Pac-Man is the headliner, the big granddaddy of arcade video games. If this device didn't get his support, there'd basically be no point to it.

I won't lay any claims to arcade accuracy -- I haven't tested any of the patterns in my copy of Mastering Pac-Man -- but everything else about it is... stunning. It looks exactly as if they've shrunk a Pac-Man machine and put it on your desk. Pac-Man is kind of a ho-hum game compared to your RPGs and your Super Mario, but when I was little, I was as crazy about Pac-Man as anyone. This version takes me right back to my childhood. It's addictive again.

Now, if we can just get Ms. Pac-Man to follow suit and update with compatibility, we'll be all set.

Temple Run

Man is this game addictive. It's just this randomly-generated platformer where your character runs forward automatically and you have to jump, duck, and weave left and right to collect coins and avoid hazards. No sooner do you smack into something than you're slapping the replay button to give it another shot. It really looks and feels like a classic arcade game, kind of like a more interactive Dragon's Lair.

Dragon's Lair needs a compatibility update too, come to think of it.


Atari's Greatest Hits is positioned as the killer app for the iCade -- it's plastered all over the box, and it comes with a diagram to explain how all of the buttons work in all of the games -- but I honestly don't see it. While it's awfully nice of them to support the device, most of the classic Atari games didn't use your standard 8-directional joystick; they used trackballs or dials or weird stuff like that. Many games just plain control better with touch controls.

Of course, Atari 2600 games used a joystick, so the authenticity with those titles is great -- it's just that, by and large, Atari's unlicensed Atari 2600 games are pretty shitty. The only game I want to play in the set? Adventure. It's fun on your TV, it's fun on your DS, and somehow it's even more fun when you're playing it on a screen that's propped up on a simulation of a 1980s arcade cabinet.

League of Evil

There are presently two League of Evil games for iOS, and both of them are really excellent and well worth your time. They're tough platformers filled with double jumping and wall jumping and lots of fun and ridiculous obstacles. I've never been fond of joystick controls for platformers (especially, say, Super Mario Brothers), but this game just feels so wonderfully natural. I'm jamming the joystick back and forth, mashing buttons, and my little guy on the screen just bounces around doing all these cool split-second moves, and I'm never thinking about how I'm doing it. I have slightly more affection for the original game over the sequel because of its more 8-bit look, but really they both really feel like great arcade games.


A single-button platformer. Your character moves forward automatically, and you have to time your jumps to get him to avoid obstacles, collect trinkets, and defeat enemies. It's more challenging than you'd expect a one-button game to be, like a Wario Ware game fleshed out into a whole game. Since it is just one button, the iCade doesn't really improve the controls terribly, but the look and feel of the game fits right in with the arcade theme.


This is a wacky mountain-climbing game about breeding goats. As the view scrolls slowly upwards, you have to jump from platform to platform, finding male goats to "kiss", and then eating all of the grass off of the platforms until you give birth. Get as many kids as you can and climb as high as possible. The game is fun enough, and it has a really pleasant neo-retro look and feel -- lots of low-res characters mixed with cool flashy special effects.

Of course, if you really want the authentic arcade experience on your iPad, you need more than just video games. Consider some of these classic attractions (none of which have any iCade support at all):

Glow Hockey

It's air hockey. You can even play with a friend by setting the iPad on a table, and each player grabs a paddle with his finger. The screen is big enough to make the game really playable. Isn't that neat?

Skee-Ball HD

It's amazing how zen-addictive Skee-Ball is when you don't have to keep pushing tokens into it. This app really brings Chuck E. Cheese home by paying out virtual tickets that you can exchange for virtual crappy toys. I admit it -- I've bought several DLC packs to stock my imaginary arcade with ever-weirder plastic junk.

Pinball HD

I haven't tried a lot of pinball apps, so I can't whole-heartedly recommend this over any other package in particular, but I will say that this game suits my particular needs. That is, it turns your iPad into a pinball machine. The table takes up the entire screen, so you can play the game without any disorienting scrolling, yet it's large enough that the layouts are interesting.

The really interesting thing about all this, of course, is that my prophecy is coming true, sort of: Think Geek is coming out with a handheld version of the iCade that you can slip into the bag next to your iCade. Very, very soon, the iPad will be a game console that you can stick in a bag, prop up, and play anywhere. The question this naturally raises is, where does that leave console companies?

I hope to talk a bit about that next time.


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