Retro Gaming and Emulation on the iPad: Hardware

Retro Gaming and Emulation on the iPad: Hardware

0 2016
iCade 8-bitty

I’ve grown fond of my iPad in the short time I’ve owned it. It’s turned the corner from bothersome, useless hunk of aluminum and glass to something that I actually legitimately use everyday, whether it be for productivity, media consumption, or—most importantly—games.

Unless you love time management simulators and tawdry imitations of legitimate console experiences you’ll find the App Store—despite its promises of millions upon millions of games and software—a little bit sparse. That’s where emulation comes in. In a nutshell, emulation is forcing another device to act like another device (much like S&M roleplay, yes). Depending on your tolerance for what would be a very grey legal area1, one can really feast at hours upon hours of quality gaming that only console/handheld/computer emulation can provide.


Putting it bluntly: touch controls suck ass. One can try to hobble along and attempt to play games by aimlessly pawing at the the non-tactile screen; or better yet — invest a few bucks in augmenting the iOS gaming experience with one of these bad boys. Should be noted that these widgets work on the iPad, iPhone as well as any Android device (hooray semi-open interoperability, for once?). I’ve got a few options that I’ve tested myself, and will update this article as more suitable alternatives make their way into my hands.

ION iCadeION iCade/iCade Core

Before the iCade came along, Bluetooth game controllers were a rare breed, and bluetooth controllers that actually worked on iOS were even harder to find. There were very janky solutions such as the iControlPad that kinda worked but were prohibitively expensive for what you were getting: cheap hunks of plastic and microswitches with zero official support.

Once an April Fools’ joke, the iCade was R&D’ed and manufactured by ION Audio, purveyors of very strange but oddly useful gadgets and add-ons for consumer devices. My understanding is that alongside the hardware, they also released a middleware package to developers to make their games compatible with the device. Initially support was tepid but there’s a decent amount of games on the App Store that support this solution now.

Overall the iCade is nice, compact and most importantly, works. I’ve been wanting to build a bartop arcade for years but the iCade has pretty much satiated that need for now (I still want a full-sized MAME cabinet. Soon). The buttons are annoyingly light and clackety but if that bothers you, the plastic divots are easily replaceable with Sanwa parts. The joystick is again pretty click-y and tends to miss directional inputs but for what I use the iCade for (shooters and platformers) it works absolutely fine. The cabinet itself is sturdy particle board (let’s laugh at the irony of that for a few seconds) with yucky decals that I’d recommend painting over or covering with stickers. The default art is horribly bad.

There’s also a slimmed-down version of the iCade called the iCade Core but I haven’t managed to try it out yet. I’d imagine build quality to be similar.

iCade 8-bittyiCade 8-Bitty

Genius. Produced by Thinkgeek independently—without ION’s involvement—the iCade 8-bitty is probably the best joypad I’ve ever used for emulation (barring official controller-to-USB converters). About the same size as an original NES controller, the 8-bitty is kind of a hodgepodge of retro parts: it’s got the NES’ boxy shape and dimensions, the Famicom’s extraneous face buttons, the Genesis’ island directional pad (thanks to Nintendo patenting the cross d-pad), and—this is a stretch—the SNES’ shoulder buttons.

It’s my go-to controller since it’s small, compact and connects to my iPad in a cinch. I’ve got zero complaints about the main buttons; they feel just perfect and push down with a satisfying squish. The d-pad and the shoulder buttons could use some work, however. Both have really weird dead zones and seem to miss inputs every now and then. Really not sure if I’m not pressing down hard enough or whatever; but it’s an issue that has happened so rarely that I’ve not bothered to look into it.

Bluetooth KeyboardsThe Wii Remote

The proverbial whore of the controller world, is there a bluetooth-enabled device that the Wiimote can’t talk to? Sure enough, most apps (especially when coupled with a software solution like Blutrol, tackled in part 2 of this series) simply work with no fuss and you’re getting Nintendo quality out of the gate. If you have four of these collecting dust, these make great alternative pads for your tablets.

Bluetooth Keyboards!

Ubiquitous and easily-accessible, these are great for playing old text adventures or the odd PC title in DOSBox. I’m rocking an IOGEAR Bluetooth Mini Keyboard which has served me pretty well for gaming as well as general productivity. Fits my tiny, girlish hands like a glove, I’d say. (Ed. Note: I did not write this. I have amazingly brawny hands, thank you very much)

Onwards to Part 2!

That should about do it for hardware. Not a lot of options on the iOS side of things unfortunately but things are getting better—for one, the author of Blutrol is about to roll out an update that should make Sixaxis/Dual Shock 3 controllers compatible with his software layer so that’s something to look forward to. Watch this space as I’ll be showing you folks around what I think are the best emulation apps on the platform fairly soon. Tomorrow, to be precise.


1 – Depending on where you are, there either is very little to no explicit laws governing the legality of emulators. Near as I can tell, using emulators themselves are completely legal; it’s ROMs or where you get them from that seems to be truly iffy. Regardless, for whatever reason this is a really touchy subject over at Nintendo, so caveat emptor.