While the iOS device's multitouch screen has introduced a whole new way of interacting with software and enabled game developers to rethink the fundamentals of game control, there are definitely areas where it falls short. One such area is in the on-screen approximation of a physical control stick or D-pad. Ever since we first mentioned the iControlPad, three and a half years ago, button mashers particularly frustrated by virtual controls began eagerly waiting for such physical controller accessories to arrive. This summer, the iCade and iControlPad did arrive and developers wanting to go that extra mile began adding in support for these controllers, where it made sense.
In a short time from now, the controller market will be gaining another iOS-compatible unit for gamers to choose from in the form of the Gametel Bluetooth controller from Fructel AB. News on this one began spreading a couple of weeks back, but we only just learned of the device, likely due to the Android-centric PR that surrounds it; there's scant mention of iOS devices on the product webpage. Luckily, C64 for iPhone [App Store] developer Stuart Carnie of Manomio pinged me to let us know that the unit works quite well with iOS devices (by way of an iCade emulation mode, the addition of which was driven by Stuart, himself), and that he is particularly impressed by the unit's ergonomics.
The Gametel controller pairs with any iOS device, appearing to be a keyboard to the host unit. It has a spring-loaded arm / brace extending from the top of the unit that allows it to firmly grasp most any type of app phone, including all iPhone and iPod touch devices (not the iPad, of course). The unit sports a digital directional pad, four main action buttons, a Select and a Start button, and two shoulder buttons. (It lacks the analog nubs offered by the iControlPad.) The Gametel device delivers 9 hours of battery life -- for itself only, not the host unit -- and is charged via micro USB cable.
Jimmie Johansson, involved with the project, informs me that the 120mm x 67mm x 24mm unit is light weight and durable and fits easily into a pocket. Production of the first batch of devices is happening right now, as I post this, and it should be available at Amazon UK before Christmas for around £50.
Oh -- and it has a super feature: pressing Select and Start together instantly toggles in the on-screen keyboard, to enter high scores or search for an app to launch. It's an extremely welcome feature to anyone that's used an iCade, which lacks such functionality.
The Gametel controller isn't the only news from the iOS controller scene. The OpenPandora folks behind the iControlPad have been busy working on firmware updates to better the experience of iOS gamers.
Remember, back in the review of the iControlPad, how I mentioned that only jailbroken iOS devices and other platforms could utilize the sweet, dual analog nubs on the iControlPad? Well, I'm happy to have been proven wrong. Now, it's not as wonderful a scenario as if Apple had begun allowing the type of iOS Bluetooth pairing that an HID device with a set of analog sticks really needs. No. Instead, the iControlPad firmware developers created a new interface mode called "special packet mode" in the latest test firmware that sends the coordinates of the two analog nubs as strings of characters -- from the perspective of an iOS device, they're being sent by a keyboard. It's a pretty awesome workaround in the face of an Apple restriction that we truly wish the company would see fit to dissolve, and it lets legitimate games in the App Store take advantage of physical analog controllers.
A perfect example of this mode in action is Warner Skoch's Vertex Blaster [App Store], a space shooter in the vein of (a retro and rather simplified) Super Stardust HD that we've not covered directly, but that has a lengthy thread in our forums where readers are enjoying it. It was in the OpenPandora forums that we learned of this little gem. Have a look at a fan video showing iControlPad analog nub gameplay on an iPad. (The video also shows D-pad play of Super Mega Worm.)
Oh, and that pop-in-the-onscreen-keyboard trick the Gametel unit brings -- the iControlPad, with the latest test firmware, has that as well (it just takes a few more seconds of button-holding to kick in).
So, with all this exciting news about the Gametel controller and the analog stick support from App Store games for the iControlPad, I went ahead and contacted ThinkGeek to see if there is anything exciting on the horizon for the iCade. It turns out that while, sadly, the pop-up-keyboard trick isn't a planned thing for the iCade right now, I did glean, from extremely vague terms, that there may be some interesting things to come in the iCade's future. No specifics, unfortunately, but it's something we'll keep an eye on.
And there you have it -- a round-up of physical controller news. The introduction of a new controller, the Gametel unit, will only sweeten the proposition for developers to support for such devices in their games down the road, and that's definitely a good thing for iOS gamers. Stay tuned for more controller news as it unfolds.