Last year, ThinkGeek may have outdone themselves on April Fools' day by announcing the iCade, a miniature, upright arcade cabinet complete with joystick, buttons, and a coin slot. You just slip your iPad into it and -- wham -- it's game time! It was well done joke, but it got a huge response from readers and that got the awesome folks at ThinkGeek thinking. And before long, we heard the epic news that the net's best geek-toy vendor was teaming up with ION Audio to bring that little box of goodness to market -- for real -- and with Atari as a games partner. (Like they did with their 2007 8-bit Tie. Those guys are unstoppable.)

Yesterday, after leaping to pre-order and waiting a long and anxious month, the iCade was delivered unto my door. Readers that follow us on Twitter might have seen the informal and rapid unboxing and assembly photos I took along my hopeful journey to arcade bliss. So, now that I've spent some real time with the unit -- was it worth the wait and the $99?

The iCade comes packaged unassembled. The box contains the main control unit, two side panels, a back panel, a handy flip-up top panel with instructions printed on the inside face, a lovely red joystick knob, screws, batteries, and a set of instructions. Getting the unit together with the help of the illustrated assembly sheet is about 5 to 10 minutes' work. Once assembled, the first thing you'll notice is that the iCade is heaver than you might have imagined. The unit's panels appear to be vinyl-coated particle board, which accounts for much of the weight. The control unit is housed in a plastic shell and the sides of the cabinet are nicely illustrated. The assembled cabinet has a very solid feel with an impressive overall fit and finish. The weight of the unit combined with four rubber foot pads keep it from budging while the joystick and buttons are being manhandled.

Speaking of the joystick and buttons, I'm happy to report that it's a quality situation going on at the control deck. The buttons -- all eight of them -- feel exactly like those that you'd find on an old Defender cabinet. The stick feels rugged and substantial, if somewhat less "stiff" than some you might find in an arcade. It has significant directional travel and issues a tactile "click" with each movement, sounding quite like the old Epyx 500XJ that some of you may have used in the past. I might have preferred if the actual control panel were also coated particle board to give a more textured feel, but the plastic shell surface does the job.

Yes, I mentioned batteries. The iCade's control unit interfaces with the iPad wirelessly, via Bluetooth, and so power is required. Two AA batteries come with, and the light-up "coin slot" on the front of the cabinet flashes when the batteries are low. There is an AC adapter jack built into the unit that can be used with a power adapter sold by ION, if changing batteries sounds like a nuisance. (I've not had the unit in my hands long enough to speak of battery life, unfortunately.) There's no power switch; after the initial Bluetooth pairing process, any stick movement will wake both the iCade and the iPad, and after a period of inactivity, the iCade's control system will go into sleep mode awaiting the next tug. I wish the iCade did sport a power switch, though, as it presents itself to the iPad as a Bluetooth keyboard, and so when it's awake and paired with the iPad, any attempt to do text entry on the unit in the vicinity of the iCade results in no onscreen keyboard. You need to disconnect the iCade in Settings to break free, which is a nuisance.

Ok, we're six paragraphs in and no mention of the games -- how does it play?! Glad you asked.

When ThinkGeek announced the iCade, they mentioned that Atari was partnering, to provide support for the device in "a huge suite" of classic games. When the excellent Atari's Greatest Hits [App Store] landed, featuring up to 100 games, we assumed that this was the iCade's magic bullet app -- and we were right. Nearly every game in the collection supports the iCade's controls, without even having to update the app. (Sentinel for the 2600, for example, does not, as it's a "light gun" game with a virtual tap screen area.) A control legend sheet comes with the iCade that shows how the various arcade and 2600 titles in Atari's collection map out on the unit's eight buttons.

I found tearing through these classic games on the iCade to be everything I'd hoped it to be. On the whole, it's just an awesome experience. Holding the stick in your hand, hearing the switches click open and shut, and mashing the fire buttons is absolutely the way these classic games were meant to be played. A proper stick in your hand beats a virtual D-pad every time.

But Atari's Greatest Hits implements many other control systems as well. There's the "roller" used in Tempest. The trackball found in Centipede and Missile Command. The "thrust rotation thing" used in Asteroids. For almost all of these games, I prefer the tactile experience that the iCade provides over the onscreen controls. The only exceptions might be certain virtual trackball-based games where the "momentum" of the virtual ball feels pretty right. Centipede and Millipede are good examples of this. Of course, you're still mashing a virtual button which doesn't compare to the real thing. (And yes, it is possible to lay the iPad down on the table and go "half and half" on the onscreen and iCade button controls -- if you're flexible.)

Some of the control configurations are pretty interesting. As can be seen in the video above, Black Widow is a dual stick game that utilizes the iCade's joystick for movement and an inverted-T arrangement of buttons for aiming / firing. It sounds quite obscure, but works well.

The iCade has obviously been designed with a portrait orientation of the iPad in mind. And most of the games in the Atari collection are so oriented. To setup for these games you just flip up the cabinet lid and set the ipad down in a dock-like stand that has a hole in the bottom for a charging cable. A few of the Atari titles are landscape, however, and for these the iPad can be removed from the portrait area and placed in a groove that runs the width of the control deck, leaning it back against the angled front edge of the side panels. The landscape arrangement does look a bit precarious, but testing the balance of the iPad so fitted, I've no concerns of it tipping out. The whole thing just looks more tidy with the iPad in a portrait arrangement, which has the added bonus of significantly amplifying the volume of the fairly boxed-in iPad, thanks to audio reflection.

iOS devices with their multitouch displays, accelerometers, and gyroscopes have brought a wonderful array of fresh and innovative games to the world. But some games just want a joystick and proper buttons. The iCade delivers all that, and with an epic dose of retro arcade styling. And with an API on the way to allow other game developers to jump on board (Manomio has already confirmed upcoming support for C64), the goodness here is just going to grow.

As far as I'm concerned, the iCade (along with Atari's Greatest Hits [App Store]) is an absolute must-have iPad accessory for the serious retro gamer.

TouchArcade Rating

  • bigrand1

    Now we need this type of device for the ipod touch/phone! Any talk of that? That would be awesome! I NEED this!!!!! Anyone else feel the same way?! 

    • http://westaby.net Dustin

      Closest is the iphone video pinball shell.
      http://www.thinkgeek.com/gadgets/cellphone/e6dc/

      Atari classics app is a universal app. Don't see why you couldn't place the itouch in the icade.

    • Peephole Circus

      yes indeed. I 'NEED' this for sure. Bring on Astro Wars and I'll be a happy man.

  • DotComCTO

    Sounds great! The bigger question is whether other games will support the device. That would make it a more compelling purchase. Otherwise, you're spending $100 + the cost of all the Atari games. It's certainly much cheaper than building/buying your own cabinet, but it is - at this point - a single purpose/app device. I'm an old-school retro gamer...all these games came out when I was in college, so I'm likely to spend the money right now. Not sure about the broader market appeal and market sustainability without getting more developers on board.

  • Adams Immersive

    "any attempt to do text entry on the unit in the vicinity of the iCade results in no onscreen keyboard”

    Maybe as a workaround they need to add some button combination that triggers the “show onscreen keyboard” function. That’s the Eject key signal: http://support.apple.com/kb/TS3280

    • Anonymous

      To be honest, you should be turning off Bluetooth when not using it anyway to save battery life.

      • TKO

        Well, sure .. if you're a control-freak!  The iPad has a crazy-huge battery.  If you're using bluetooth a fair bit, why turn it off?  All my other bluetooth devices can be easily turned off.  I'd be inclined to hack a switch onto whatever wires come off the battery compartment to make the process more user-friendly.  (Those not so comfortable with a soldering iron will probably just have to live with it.) :| 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=672145212 Paul Kuhr

    Watching the video, there seems to be a very slight lag between button / joystick and the actual action on the screen. For these Atari Games, this might be a huge issue, but for other games that require more precision, this might be bad. Any feelings on that lag? Did it bother you at all?

    • http://www.twobitestories.com Mindfield

      I noticed this as well, and it looks like it would bother the heck out of me.  That's pretty disappointing.

    • http://toucharcade.com blakespot

      I spent a great deal of time examining what lag there might be in the Bluetooth controls. A great deal of time. I found that there is an extremely small degree of lag that so small as to be insignificant for every game I tested except those of the trackball-based games. The lag here is slightly more pronounced, but I concluded that it is a function of the movement algorithm that is attaching the iCade to the simulated analog trackball games. I concluded that it's part of the "ramping in" of movement there that does not instantly convey "full ball spin."

      I think that's how Atari endeavored to sort-of simulate the trackball feel on a stick, as opposed to a hardware / OS latency issue.

      I do not feel that there is lag worth mentioning.

    • http://twitter.com/MattRix MattRix

      I know this is kinda old, but I just got an iCade, and there is definitely *no* lag. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2TCN4ALC3T7HA3BA24232WOV6I Matthew Keith

    If capcom comes on board I'll go by me and ipad and the icade so I can play super puzzle fighter 2 as real as it can get.

  • http://www.buzzabit.com/aaron Aaron Sullivan

    So... the devs need to get right on options for games with the iCade. Tempest should be portrait and Crystal Castles should be landscape to use more of the screen. The on screen controls should go away when I want them to. :) Plus, it needs a spinner. I can dream. :oP

    I hope retro game developers go for support of this as well! There are plenty of games that would be much nicer with these controls. Oh -- I need to add support, too.

    • Evan

      I completely agree with you. Those on-screen controls for Tempest look terrible. They need to go away when used with iCade. And Tempest should be portrait and maximize screen real estate.

    • Anonymous

      I was able to configure Tempest to play portrait style using the latest iPad game update.

  • http://twitter.com/21tigermike Michael A. Robson

    "Atari"

    Beg your pardon.........?

  • Adams Immersive

    Thanks for the review. Questions:

    1. Does the docking slot hold the Apple cable in place, so that you can dock the iPad to power without touching the cable? Or do you have to manually attach the cable before placing the iPad in the holder?

    2. How much clearance is there between the top of the iPad and the lid? Enough for an audio cable to be plugged into the headphone jack?

    • http://toucharcade.com blakespot

      1) manually required

      2) no

      • Adams Immersive

        Thanks! (I suppose if the lid flips up, that adds an audio-out option. Or use a dock cable with a line out... like the composite AV cable I already have!)

  • pup

    Now someone needs to make a cocktail table version of this, please.

    Also, another someone needs to offer "actual game cabinet art" decals to fit this device!!!!

    • Anonymous

      You could absolutely fabricate your own cocktail table style to it, the big question is whether the iPad would allow for more than 1 bluetooth joystick to be connected at a time (I suspect not, since my bluetooth keyboard can't work while iCade is connected). Without multiple joysticks, the cocktail table configuration doesn't gain you anything more than the tabletop iCade already gives.

  • http://twitter.com/lions3 Bill Keeter

    Hell, I want to see Cave and all the other shmup devs add support. 

    Also can't wait to see what the mod community comes up with. You know there's guys just waiting to take the bluetooth board and drop it into a custom cab

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZZ3LQNZ53BO6XBZ3UECETH64YI Ryan

    I remember getting this on the newsletter at the time, it didn't seem like a joke then at all... It looks great, but it has an absolutely atrocious name: iCade?!

    The prefix has never been more obnoxious.

  • Go

    What's the pricing on this thing?

    • Arcadefan

      $99

  • Sentientdead

    I totally want this, yet I am a horrible human being and tend to buy EVERYTHING I want, yet never have groceries in my cupboards. Either way, dev support for this would be amazing.

    • Sentientdead

      I also agree with the custom decals comment, that would make me even more stupid for this. Too bad I am in Canada and we can't get on board the thinkgeek preorders.

      • Reytherat

        eBay - just bought one

  • Anonymous

    freakin awesome...cant wait to try it with SFIV someday.hope that stupid capcom will comes up with SFIV for the ipad and make it compatible with iCade....probably....someday...

  • AndyM

    So awesome! Thanks for the review.

    Can you comment on the decals on the case? Are there different options? The case in your review looks better than the one for sale on the site.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Anonymous

      You can get the "retro" style from Think Geek's site (has woodgrain front and oldschool 25c coin slot for the power indicator), or a less 80's arcade style from ion audio directly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002119548264 Cory Engel

    I can understand why some games necessarily use the joystick even though the originals didn't (e.g., Tempest), but why do Asteroids and Asteroids Deluxe use the joystick? Those games operated with fewer buttons than the iCade has (left, right, thrust, pew pew, and hyperspace). Can the controls be remapped from the default, and if so, is the button configuration playable for those games?

    • Mrsmartiepants

      There are buttloads of different button configurations. 

  • Anonymous

    Does this work with first gen iPad?

    • Mrsmartiepants

      Yes. It's more built for the original than it was for the 2nd anyways.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marshall-Pope/100000602530531 Marshall Pope

    After playing with it for a couple of hours, my biggest disappointment is with the Atari App itself.  The games are not upscaled so most of them end up taking up only half the screen, plus there are some serious flaws in some of the game controls.  The icade itself is sturdy, works well and with most of the games works great, perhaps is custom mapping were added to the Atari App it would be better, but this thing is just begging for the API to come out so that games more properly suited can be played.  If cave and namco got on board with this it would be a must have for gamers but until it gets more support its mostly a really cool novelty.

  • Artazan

    Does anyone remember the old tables that you could sit at, Flat like a cocktail table, but the glass on tom was a screen and it had inbuilt joystick and buttons?

    The arcade looks breat, The idea is simple, Lets see some more range to this!!

    + Can anyone tell me if there are any partners in on this? Games partners would mean that this will grow and grow, with out them, i'm simply looking at a 1 off purchase with limited options, Partners would make sure that this little arcade is just the begining of something amazing!

    Thoughts anyone?

  • http://increasingworkplaceproductivity.net Bojan Djordjevic

    Hahaha, I can't believe that someone would buy such a thing!

    Does anyone now a price?

    • http://twitter.com/stickyicky97 stickyicky97

      $99.  I got mine yesterday.  I love it so far.  However, I'm ready for games like Street Fighter, Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat, etc...if/when those are updated with the new API by the developers, this thing will be completely worth it!

    • Anonymous

      Oh, I bought one as soon as it was announced! It arrived today... It makes a nice tabletop gaming setup for the iPad, I'm really hoping game makers build in support for this device in updates to their titles. The cabinet pieces fit together perfectly, easy to assemble and not feel like you did it wrong.

  • Owen

    How well does the iPad fit when it's in the official case? I'd hate to be messing around with it the whole time.

  • Mkimble1

    So on an iPad2 you could connect it to an HD screen of any size with the video cable and build a full size arcade cabinet for it. Then, since the controls are bluetooth, fit those in a panel on your full size cabinet (put them in a removable box if you like), attach some kick ass speakers to the iPad and you would have a really nice setup. That would be the mod to see. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/mfarrow Matthew Farrow

    I would like to see other makers build bluetooth control pads for the iOS devices using this protocol.  I travel a fair bit and a battery-powered joystick would be great for playing lots of different games on my iPad.

    I usually just take an old PS3 Sixaxis bluetooth controller to pair with my MacBook Pro, but that doesn't work with the iPad.

  • Craig Watson

    Anyone figure out a way to get the iCade to work with iMame4All? Just got the iCade yesterday :)

    • Seleuco Nicator

      No man, I haven't implemented support for this fake keyboard... Best to play with wiiclassic since you have analog support and no lag...

  • New

    Pinball,,, this unit needs two side buttons for flippers and pinball action.  A icontrolpad VS icade would be great.. and testing the lags on games...

  • Axman69

    I would buy this if it worked with streetfighter 4 or mortal kombat 3

  • http://www.blurbpoint.com/directory-submission-service.php Directory Submission

    When you browse the listing of features for the Apple iPad 2, it might seem it’s got just about everything, but this isn’t truly the truth. For example, Apple still has not incorporated Flash support in their iPad2 and lots of end users find that frustrating. Excluding Flash, whilst perhaps not really a significant problem, does establish restrictions for viewing sites driven by Flash. Additionally it is difficult to transfer pictures from a digital camera as there is no SD card slot on the device. You may still get it done, but you will need an adapter instead of having the ability to insert an SD card, which would be a lot quicker. Since you are unable to increase the memory capacity, you’ll have to ensure that you invest in an iPad that will fulfill your storage needs in the long run.

  • PLEASANT Designs

    I have been developing some neat stuff for ICADE. I can't post it here but if you would like to know more contact me. It's something really cool and positive!

  • Steve Konopa

     Some 9 months later, these things are now pretty much available everywhere now. I just picked one up yesterday at Best Buy.  There are some cosmetic differences to the one pictured, as there is a different graphic design on the side panels (mine is red with a "starburst" design and "iCade" through the middle of the "starburst", instead of the moer retro 70's looking blue with the colored strips and wood grain front), but beyond that it is functionally the same as reviewed here, including the same sturdy authentic arcade style controls.  I first tried it out with my iPad 2 with the Atari collection and it works quite nicely.  However, I also have an ASUS Transformer Prime, with MAME4Droid installed.  Since this is just a bluetooth device, I figured what the heck and tried pairing with my ASUS tablet.  Lo-and-behold!  It works perfectly even with Android tablets as well.  MAME4Droid has support for the iCade (you have to go into the settings and set the "external controls" to "iCade").  I've played several games such as Galaga, Jackel, Time Pilot, Donkey Kong and many others and they all worked beautifully!  Much like back in my teen years when I used to dump many a quarter in those games back in the 80s.  The only downside, the ASUS Transformer Prime is a bit taller than the iPad in portrait mode, so the top of the iCade does not shut all the way.  However, the only way I know that I'll get to play games like Donkey Kong or others that will most likely never see the light of day in the Apple App store is to play on an android tablet.   That being said, these things are getting more prevalent and popular (seems that ION is also coming out with newer, cheaper models, such as one that is just the control panel, without the whole cabinet, for example), so there should be many more games available now that supports this.  I hope to see plenty of good games on both iOS and Android that supports this.

  • http://yepi-games.kizifriv1.com/ yepi

    for additional shipping fees to 10km distance so you make much money?