Yesterday afternoon my UPS driver dropped off two fantastic new toys for me to play with: The ingenuiTEA which you need to order now if you're at all into tea and the ThinkGeek 8-Bitty gamepad... A product I'm not sure I can give a similar glowing recommendation to. It's something that has sparked quite a debate amongst TouchArcade staff as we all agree on various levels that it almost seems like the era of the iOS Bluetooth gamepad may have passed.

To back things up a bit, let's start with some history of games on the App Store. One of the true revolutions of the iOS platform (or, the iPhone, I suppose as the "iOS" monicker didn't exist until recently) is the full touchscreen design of the devices. While using things like Safari and the mail client totally felt like the future, when the App Store launched, mobile developers who were used to having some form of physical controls were left scrambling trying to figure out how to best translate their games to a platform with no tactile feedback to speak of.

Most early entries in the Games category on the App Store could be described more as "Games that happen to run on the iPhone" rather than "iPhone games." It's an important distinction, and a large part of the reason why we loved early titles like Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor so much [$1.99]. Spider felt like it could only exist on a full touchscreen device like the iPhone.

Just looking at the two above screenshots, the difference is massive. Spider, on the left, is played entirely with taps and flicks and in turn provides this remarkably immersive experience where you're spinning webs, catching flies, and actually beginning to feel like you're really directly controlling this little virtual spider.

Comparatively, Gameloft's Earthworm Jim [$4.99] is the same old console game, made to run on the iPhone, with a massive set of virtual controls plastered on top. To make things worse, these controls were so clunky that they actually reduced the overall default difficulty of the game to account for the kludgy feel that got thrown into the mix when you removed tactile controls. Earthworm Jim is a perfect example of an early release of "a video game that runs on the iPhone" versus Spider's "iPhone game" feel.

Regardless, back in 2009, we were all hungry for some sort of accessory that'd allow us to play these incredible games that were available (like Earthworm Jim) which were broken on some level or another because of the implementation of virtual controls. These days though? It's getting exceedingly rare to see this phenomenon as by and large developers have gotten much better at making games that succeed on the platform instead of just releasing games that happen to run on the devices.

The original iCade was released in early 2011 and we were totally excited for the promise that the peripheral seemed to be making: Plop your iPad in, and all the sudden you're playing video games like an old retro arcade machine. On some level, the iCade delivered, as it succeeded in making some games feel better at the cost of having the massive iCade cabinet sitting on your desk and being locked out from using the keyboard on your device whenever they were paired together.

The Thinkgeek 8-Bitty attempts to take the proverbial torch from the iCade to continue the marathon of physical controller accessories. It works just like the iCade, in that you drop a few batteries (which aren't included) into it, flip the switch on, pair it with your iOS device and you're good to go. Thinkgeek is boasting that the 8-Bitty works with all of the existing iCade games, which is true to some extent, but nearly every game I tried is going to need an update to tweak control mappings as the way they mapped the buttons is just crazy.

The way the original iCade works is by pretending it's a bluetooth keyboard. For instance, when you moved the joystick up, it'd actually send the keypress "w" and when you moved the joystick back down it'd send the keypress "e". The 8-Bitty works via a similar protocol, using all the same character combinations from the iCade. The problem with this is that developers who have implemented iCade controls have largely used the left-most set of four buttons of the eight available buttons to map primary game functions to.

The way this is translated to the 8-Bitty is a little weird, as the top left set of two buttons on the iCade are actually the "select" and "start" buttons on the 8-Bitty, while the lower two left-most buttons are mapped to the right and left trigger. The remaining four buttons on the right of the iCade translate directly to the set of four face buttons on the 8-Bitty.

So, for example, playing Super Crate Box [$1.99] with the 8-Bitty works just as you'd expect, aside from the fact that you need to use the center "select" and "start" buttons to shoot and jump. Sure, an update can fix this, but it didn't seem like the iCade adoption rates were that high outside of our own forum community (as evident by them being sold for significant clearance prices at Bed Bath and Beyond a few months after release) so it's really hard to say how much urgency developers are going to feel to "fix" their existing iCade control implementations to work with the 8-Bitty.

The 8-Bitty hardware itself has the same super-square retro feel which also makes the device seem fairly solid even if it's surprisingly light when you pick it up. It's small enough that it'd easily be thrown in a bag, and the recessed on/off switch will guarantee no accidental battery drain as it'd really be something if it got turned on unexpectedly. The D-Pad works great, and the buttons all have a good feel to them. The pairing process is simple (holding down the two center buttons for four seconds kicks it into pairing mode) and because it uses the Bluetooth keyboard profile it'll pair with basically everything including all the iOS devices, Android devices, and even your computer.

The $29.99 price point definitely makes the 8-Bitty an attractive accessory to pick up, as that's in line with the price of cases, cables, and car chargers- But the 8-Bitty does a whole lot more. It's just really hard for me to get excited for these devices now. In 2009, the 8-Bitty would've been heralded as the "must have" companion to any iOS device as it'd be an immediate solution to horrible virtual control implementations.

However, this isn't 2009 anymore, and it seems like games where I find myself thinking "Wow, these on-screen controls are really bad I wish I was playing this with a real controller" are few and far between. As I've mentioned, developers by and large have just figured out how to make games for the platform rather than games that merely run on the platform, and in essence, have almost entirely solved the problem that the 8-Bitty tries to fix.

I look forward to watching the progress of 8-Bitty supported games, as the iCade saw a fairly large swell of support from many developers. Who knows, a game might come along that totally makes sense to play with the 8-Bitty. Until then, the device is likely just going to live in my desk drawer with other iOS accessories that seem like good ideas but rarely make the cut when it comes to being thrown in my bag or pocket.

The 8-Bitty is available now from ThinkGeek for $29.99.

Thanks to @Quarkles for taking these photos!

  • Firetruck94

    That ingenuitea looks freakin amazing

    • Nycteris

      They are!

  • http://twitter.com/crunchewy Crunchewy

    I have an iCade and an iControlPad and I basically never use either of them. I think you're right. If you want these type of controls in your games, the way to go is to pick up a 3DS or Vita instead, and play games designed for them.

    • Adams Immersive

      I would say that iCade (which I like a lot) doesn’t so much solve a problem, it fulfills a desire that only some people have: retro gaming with arcade-style controls. Buying a console and a bunch of console games doesn’t do that—and would be awfully expensive, and I couldn’t continue the games on the go without the controller, like I can with iOS games.

      I don’t expect the majority of iOS gamers care about the need iCade fills, but then again, lots of great games appeal to less than 50% of the market. iCade has a place! 8-Bitty? Probably a smaller one...

  • parranoya

    Just buy Blutrol from Cydia. 6.99$ I think I paid for it and this will open up everythng for you. I made the joystick input bigger for Tekken X Streetfighter and assigned all 4 buttons...and WOW....plays great. The iCade seems easier to control because of the joystick but this is second best for sure.

  • godofodd

    I would like to hear from someone with a jailbroken phone regarding the compatibility of the 8-bitty with SNES emulators and the like. I have a first gen. iPad, jailbroken, that my kids use to play Mario Kart, etc. They like the touch controls fine, but I hate them. I'd love to try out this controller with it, but I'm hestitant to spend the money. 

    • Christopher Hale

      Works perfectly with most of the latest emulators from Robert Broglia. Just spent my lunch going through 5 of his emulators and a few games each to check that it worked, and it passed with flying colours. iOS and Android tested.

      • godofodd

        Thank you very much, Christopher. I really appreciate it. I think my kids will have a whole new appreciation for these old games with a controller in hand.

      • http://www.davidmulhern.com/ David M

        Thank you - I was about to return it until I read this. It works! For 8 Bitty emulator support, use Robert Broglia emulators as Mr. Hale said above

      • http://www.facebook.com/scott.barrett.losangeles Scott Barrett

        The iMpulse controller on Kickstarter just posted a video showing it work with all the emulators on both Android and iOS.  The 8-bitty is neat, but not as portable.  Plus the iMpulse has a key finder and works as a media controller and a camera remote!

  • Gamer_Kev

    This article makes a good point. I recently purchased an iCade, but only because I want to replicate the arcade feel with arcade games and newer arcade like games. I have no desire to use it for all games, especially not game that are native to the touch screen.

    Still $30 isn't really that bad for a controller, (I paid more than that for the Xbox controller I use with my gaming pc,) so I wouldn't mind picking one of these up some time. While other games might be best played with the touch screen, as retro gamers know that most retro releases would still work best with physical controls. The iCade control scheme has come closer to providing a standard control scheme for non jailbroken iOS devices than any other attempt, so hopefully it will continue to grow for arcade style gaming.

    • rotopenguin

      Thirty bucks is a horrible price if you never use it. I had to unpair my $40 iCade cabinet in short order. It is amazingly annoying to have the iCade suddenly decide to suppress the keyboard for you, from across the house. I would like to clear the dust off of mine for PC gaming, but "pairing" with computers isn't the same as "generating outputs that can be used". 

      Maybe there is some half-compiled kernel hack (with free Yahoo toolbar!) out there to make PC use work, it would be a whole lot better if the iCade had another 4 lines of firmware code to generate plain keyboard taps itself. The regular keyboard mode can involve holding down some button while flipping the power, just like every other brand has done for years.

      (Oh, and thank you Capcom for porting many fine fighter games with exactly zero support.)

      • Gamer_Kev

        I think you missed my point, which was that we need a standard control scheme for iOS devices, this has nothing to do with whether a device can be turned on or off or it's size. Developers should only have to worry about programing one control scheme into their apps that would work with all controllers. All I was saying is that with quite a few games supporting the iCade, it started to look like a standard might actually be possible, but sadly as long as hardware developers won't settle on a standard, that's not going to happen.

  • SpacePenguinBot

    Every time I think of picking up one of these iCade controllers I look at the list of compatible games and decide to save my money.

    • Gamer_Kev

      Have you looked at ION's compatibility web page? Over a hundred and fifty apps listed which include Atari's 100 game app and Elite's 100 ZX Spectrum game collection app included, that's well over 300 games that can be played on the iCade. Some game consoles don't have that many.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-D-Dunn/679068624 James D. Dunn

    Steel Series has the "FREE" which looks like a much more modern controller for all bluetooth enabled devices. But it's 80 bucks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.orth.927 Michael Orth

    The german branch office of ION told me that the 8-bitty is NOT one of their products (which makes it actually the first one of the iCade range). Does anybody know more about the background of this? Maybe this has to do with the technical issues of the 8-bitty?

  • Squablo

    1. Buy iCade 8-bitty
    2. Jailbreak
    3. Buy Blutrol
    4. Experience the best of BOTH worlds.

    This controller is awesome, but with Blutrol, it's amazing! I like both types of games, which would be touch controlled and physical controls, but if I have a choice, I'll take a controller any day.

    The button layout is different then the original icade, so I made a diagram and posted it in the 8-bitty thread in the forums, which makes mapping easier since default layout is that of the original icade in Blutrol. Don't like the layout for Super Crate Box? Re-map with Blutrol. Tired of your hands taking up too much space on the screen? 8-bitty and Blutrol are your answer.

    If you're a gamer, and most of you are, you owe it to yourself to get both this controller and blutrol.

    • http://twitter.com/8thRann Randy Law (Rann)

      thanks for the advice i'mma try that on my jail broken iphone :-D tho personally I'm still more interested in the icade psp looking one cause it would feel awkward to have the iphone so far away from me instead of in my face when i'm using the 8-bitty

      will keep an eye out for blutrol tho :-)

    • handhoney

      Agreed. I got an icontrolpad with bluetrol and it Makes playing so many games so much better.

      You nailed it. Best of both worlds.

    • http://www.facebook.com/scott.barrett.losangeles Scott Barrett

      Blutrol is a great program.  I'm using it with the iMpulse controller (on Kickstarter right now) and it is simply awesome.  Mapped it to 'Space Junk' and got my best score ever on my first game.  The makers of Blutrol are adding official support for the iMpulse as I type this and will be available when the iMpulse ships.

  • http://twitter.com/dezign999 François

    Got my 8-bitty today and I'm pretty surprised ion didn't sort out the buttons during production. Why not set the buttons right match the icade's from the get go? The red buttons should be the same as the 4 red buttons on the icade. I was really surprised to find out that right out of the box, nothing works outside of the old iMame I happend to have tucked away in iTunes. I'm on an iPhone 5 using the 8-bitty with imame, and if weren't for that, I'd be utterly disappointed. I mean who wants to play SCB with the start and select buttons?

    • Squablo

      Original icade has 4 black buttons, 2 red, and 2 white. 8-bitty has 4 red and 4 gray. I agree the layout is bizarre, but luckily for me I have an iPad with BluTrol, which allows me to map whatever buttons I want.

      • http://twitter.com/dezign999 François

        I also have a JB'd iPad, but I'm happy using my iCade with that, I got bitty for my iPhone, which just so happens to be a 5, so no BluTrol :

  • Nycteris

    I love my ingenuitea! And someone else in my office saw it and bought one - they're great!

  • menom

    Sorry Eli - disagree entirely with the end & premise of your review.

    There are still plenty of games that benefit from real buttons and joystick. I'd forgotten how insane Spectre got as you get through 20+ levels. Also love Warblade HD, Saucelifter, Alien Breed etc etc all way better with physical controls. Midway arcade's Defender is finally playable and is still a great game.

    I've got the iCade and liked it a lot as it was but always intended to make it more ergonomic (seemed too cramped with iPad just in front of controls) so I've dismantled it to have just the base to use remote with iPad propped-up wherever best.

    Even better just got an articulated arm & clamp for the iPad So the screen is at eye level with Bluetooth iCade base as controller - best gaming experience yet.

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      Thanks a ton for the comment, but this isn't really a review. ThinkGeek sent me one of these, and I'm just sort of underwhelmed because what I like most about iOS devices is how easily pocketable they are. I mean, my iPhone is always with me, and as such the games I typically play on it in my spare time are quick pick up and play games that work with the device. If I'm at home with an iCade and a articulating arm for my iPad, chances are I'd just play console games instead.

      Like I said, I'm excited to see where the 8-Bitty goes, as everyone was hot on supporting the iCade and I'm not sure if it ever really resulted in any major sales or userbase increase.

  • Jeff Strong

    Some games are just better with buttons. Always have been, always will be.

  • http://twitter.com/blackbanditsho Shola Akinnuso

    Very torn by the article. Eli's point that we should encourage more games that take advantage of the device's strength is a great one.  However, as the developers begin to get a firmer grasp of the hardware, we're starting to see the limitations of what can be done with it.  

    For starters, the one thing that irks me about whenever the TA guys have an opinion about something, is that opinion not only colors the tone of the entire article, but by defacto, becomes the site's stance. That's troubling considering how prominent TA is as an authority on iOS gaming.  Publishers and Devs read this stuff and make decisions.  I'm not sure that because, say, Eli is satisfied with touch gaming, that the site should indirectly discourage devs to continue to try to make the iPAD the ULTIMATE mobile platform. 

    Should Apple come out with an actual sanctioned portable analog controller and code that other developers can adhere to as a control option, this essentially turns the iPAD into a Nintendo DS/ PS Vita killer. 

    The reason that i invested in an iPAD is because it does everything exceedingly well.  However, when games REALLY started to reach fruition, my eyes were opened. The graphics power of the device continues to get closer and closer to this generation's console equivalents. We're pretty darned close to VITA level already. 

    Frankly, games like Bastion, Dead Space, Horn, and Trigger Fist 'do the job', but as the inevitable end of countless conversations i've had over the past two years end up: they are acceptable but only because we don't have a controller.  Bastion, the most recent example, plays entirely differently because of the design choices that needed to be changed because of the input mechanics.  Heck, Super Crate Box almost made me break my iPAD in frustration because the mistakes I've made in that game were entirely based on the limitation of touch screen.  

    Eli's solution seems to be to not bring those types of games to the platform at all.  Focus instead on the awesome games like Waking Mars, Incoboto, Topia, and Beat Sneak Bandits. I argue that there's room for both, and that the retina resolution and graphical capability of the A5 (and upcoming a A6) chip makes a strong case that the iPAD could very well be an awesome portable external display for something like the console experiences of Arkham City, Tomb Raider, or any number of AAA games on the big boy platforms. 

    I don't WANT to buy a VITA or 3DS.  My iPAD has it all ready.  My screen is HUGE and beautiful, and when I'm flying, I simply want the option to enjoy a more casual experience like Girls Love Robots, then get into something incredibly hard core like Assassin's Creed or any of the halfway decent GameLoft FPs games.  Those, are absolutely unplayable to me without a controller. The gyroscope business is a quick novelty at best. 

    The path that Eli suggests leads down only one road, sadly.  That's the continuing tradition of really inexpensive games (iOS gamers already have a freebie mentality), and fun, but ultimately shallow, short-lived experiences. Just because YOU really get a kick out of hour-long pick up and play games for your sole gaming fix on the device, I personally don't mind the potential for costlier - and meatier - experiences on the device should a sanctioned controller become available. 

    I shouldn't need to buy a VITA or 3DS to do that. Not when the iPAD is already spectacularly capable.  

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      Thanks so much for a well thought out response to my article. You have no idea how refreshing seeing things like this is.

    • Michael Schneider

      Not really sure why so many iOS gamers are fixated on the idea of other systems dying so their platform of choice might thrive.

  • Michael Schneider

    Here's the thing Eli, any game with a virtual d-pad will automatically be improved by the 8-Bitty.  That's why its significant.  That's why it's needed.  2009...2012...it doesn't matter, virtual controls are still vastly inferior and many games remain unplayable (Chinatown Wars, Super Crate Box, etc.) as a result.

    Dragon Fantasy is coming to the Vita early next year.  Assuming the ports are identical, it would still make the Vita edition the definitive release by virtue of having physical controls.  No matter how adept iOS developers become, virtual buttons will. Always. Be. Inferior.

  • vadersb

    While touch controls are nice and natural for some games (PvZ is a good example) they are completely inadequate for games where you control some specific entity in dynamic environment. Super Mario, Spelunky, Contra, R-Type, etc - all these games would be a frustration fest with touch controls, just like Super Crate Box or Spell Sword are. Sooner or later we'll have physical controls renaissance.

  • pinchez

    I'll say it again - Apple please include PS3 joypad drivers in the next release of iOS like you already do in OSX.

    So many awesome FPS games released for iOS and yet still no way to play them properly. I'd say there's a very good reason we still need a controller ;)

  • mudd

    Where's the TA makes ingenuitea video? Let's go.

  • Acidbottle

    Not so keen on this clunky looking device, use a home brew Nintendo wii for most retro games anyway and virtual controls are usually fine when out and about.

    However, what happened to icade jnr? Still up on their website but no news or reviews for a while ...

  • dasker

    Me gustaría que tuviera joystick a ese precio :)

  • Karzay

    I've gotten so comfortable using virtual controls, I could care less about a physical controller. That boat has sailed.

  • ANIMALCHOPPINGS

    I am definitely interested in this, even just as a novelty, but am wondering if could this also work with a PC/Mac. As almost a "lite" gaming controller it could have a larger market.

  • tjgeneva

    I love my iCade, but it's BIG, clunky, heavy and the joystick and buttons are loud.  There are a number of times I wanted to play Mame games but opted not to, because the family would be annoyed.  I got my 8-bitty last week, and I love it.  I know there is a limited selection of games for these iCade devices, but I was surprised that the quality seems better than the iCade, and the price is right.  It's responsive, portable and quiet!  I love it.

  • LeoGe

    Ggg

  • GSJ1977

    Did they have to make it so fugly?

  • JohnnyJ301

    30 bucks that POS hardware. I could pay a buck a win that from a "claw" game at the mall.

  • BEASTMAN

    Has anyone found a way to utilize this for the Mac?

    I understand it will connect through Bluetooth, but the strange up/down button combos I assume cause it to not function in standard emulators.

    Is there an easy good key mapper app for the Mac that could fix this?