I once went to a water park and spent the entire day beating the Top Gun arcade game over and over with a buddy. By the end of the visit, two quarters was all we needed to blast our way through to the end, two skinny kids with dripping neon swim trunks and cheap sunglasses hanging from our necks on Croakies. Constantly aware of girls with their oh-so-tan shoulders, leaning in at the edge of the cabinet, watching our progress.
Good or bad, the 80’s was where I spent my formative years and arcade games were a huge part of that.
That’s why the iCade is so awesome. It’s a tiny arcade cabinet that’s built to resemble the hooded arcade cabinets many of us grew up with and houses a standard iPad or iPad 2.
There are 8 arcade-style plunger buttons and an 8-way stick. The build quality is great and pretty much nothing about it feels cheap. Unfortunately, until more games support it, its real potential is yet to be seen.
The iCade is the result of an April Fool’s joke by distributor ThinkGeek. After the jokey iPad arcade product got an incredible level of interest, the company decided to actually source a manufacturer and get it out there for customers to actually own. The original design featured some copyrighted Nintendo graphics, which have been stripped off in favor of some early 80’s flavored ‘iCade’ signage, but other than that, the current production model is pretty much what was shown in the original listing.
My testing of the iCade has left me incredibly impressed with the overall craftsmanship. The casing is solid fiberboard and plastic and once it’s together it feels solid and dense enough to withstand some real button pounding action. While light enough to lift and more, it’s heavy enough not to scoot around like crazy when you’re using it on a table top. This is aided by rubber feet that provide a scratch barrier as well.
The front is covered in an appropriate faux-wood decal and the sides have the aforementioned bright graphic panels. In a nice touch, the top flips up to give you easy access to the ‘dock’ area where your iPad sits. The front features an illuminated dummy coin slot that serves an additional role as an indicator of power. Since there is no on-off switch, the iCade has a short auto-off timeout. Simply stop using it for a couple of minutes and it will power down.
The whole cabinet is powered by a set of AA batteries that are inserted into the underside. I’ve been able to get several days worth of casual play out of one set.
The buttons and stick all feel very robust. The throw and strength of the springs in the buttons is a bit more aggressive than I’d like, which makes it hard to get the rapid fire clicking you’d get from a Street Fighter or another traditional cabinet, at least so far. I have a feeling that the buttons will wear in over time though and feel a bit less stiff.
The stick has a large dead spot, as you get with most arcade-style sticks, which are meant to be slammed around and rotated. The stick is a standard 8-position, which makes it great for games that require lateral or vertical movements like Tempest or Breakout. It’s not quite as pretty a picture once you get to stuff like Missile command though, which was originally controlled by a trackball.
The iPad seats nicely into the holder, although it can get a bit wobbly if you really go at it. Simply extending the slot across the entire width of the cabinet would fix this problem. There’s no real reason for it to only be 3″ wide.
So far, everything is wine and roses. The iCade really delivers on quality and aesthetics. It’s easily worth the $99 that it runs on ThinkGeek. Unfortunately, you also need games to play and currently that is pretty much limited to the 99 games available in the Atari Greatest Hits app, most of which you have to purchase on your own if you want things to play.
The iCade connects to your iPad over Bluetooth as a keyboard. You can actually see the key mapping of the directions of the joystick and the buttons on the underside of the top cover. Because it connects as a keyboard it’s fairly easy to build in support for the cabinet and there is already an SDK out there for developers who want to support it.
This means that we should start seeing iCade support in more games soon, which is the only thing that would stop me from recommending the cabinet to any arcade fanatic. I’ve spoken to developers like Bjango who are already integrating iCade controls into their app, so hopefully it won’t be long before we have more options.
As far as what’s available now, we played quite a few of the Atari games like Breakout, Centipede, Missile Command and Tempest, as well as many of their Atari 2600 cousins. Some of them translate better than others though and many would need a lot of tweaking before they had the same feel with the iCade as they did in the arcade.
The iCade is an incredible reproduction of an arcade cabinet at iPad size and a rare example of wish fulfillment for people with an arcade fetish and an iPad. The build quality is top-notch and the feel of the controls are well within tolerance for an old arcade junkie.
The only thing holding the iCade back from an unreserved recommendation from us is that the stable of supported games is fairly anemic. With a growing number of game developers like Bjango and Manomio, the creator of the Commodore 64 emulator for iPhone, now getting their iCades and starting to work on support, that could all change quickly. I would really love to see larger game companies like Capcom start to make Street Fighter and other games compatible as well.
This could make the iCade a must have for anyone looking to take a trip back to when you could impress girls by beating Top Gun on two quarters.
The iCade runs $99.99 at ThinkGeek.com.
Did you know we have a newsletter all about consumer tech? It’s called Plugged In – and you can subscribe to it right here.