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If you look back at iPad/iPhone game reviews, there is a common theme: too many potentially great games are let down by poor controls. Many titles are not well suited a touchscreen environment and the lack of a physical controller has a major impact on their playability. This is where the iCade Core comes in: a neat little device that allows you to slot your iPad into it to create a mini arcade machine complete with joystick and buttons.
From a design point of view, the iCade is probably not going to win any awards, but it does its job. It looks a little like an old cocktail style arcade cabinet into which you fit your iPad. The flat bottom makes it nice and stable and it's reasonably comfortable to use. It's also pretty well catered for when it comes to control figurations, with a single joystick and eight different buttons making it suitable for pretty much any type of game.
A slot at the top of the iCade holds your iPad. The manufacturer's specification say it is compatible with the iPad and iPad 2 but I've used it with the iPad 3 and it fits fine and I've read reports that it will also work with the iPad Mini (although I can't confirm this). Depending on the individual game, you can also use the iPad in both landscape and portrait mode. I have to confess I'm always happier using landscape mode because it seems a little bit more stable; portrait mode seems to make the unit a little top heavy. I was initially concerned that the iPad only sits in the slot fairly loosely and is not secured in any way, but it does actually seem pretty safe.
The iCade itself is powered by 2xAA batteries and it doesn't seem particularly power hungry, so a couple of batteries are going to give you a fair few hours of gaming time. It's worth noting that there is no on/off switch, so it's best to take the batteries out when not in use.
Bluetooth is used to link your iPad to the iCade and the prospect of this rather filled me with dread. I've had all sorts of problems in the past trying to get Bluetooth devices to play nicely together. I needn't have worried. As soon as I turned my iPad's Bluetooth on, it immediately recognised and paired with the iCade ready for use. Once you've paired the items once, they automatically link up the next time they are both switched on and in range.
Of course, Bluetooth is a notorious battery hog for the iPad, but ION have got round this by leaving a space at the bottom of the iCade through which you can feed your iPad charger, so you can keep on playing even when your iPad's power is low.
It has to be said that build quality is slightly variable. As already noted, it's not the most aesthetically pleasing item in the world and looks like a great big lump of plastic. It does, however, feel surprisingly sturdy and whilst it wouldn't survive being dropped, neither is it something you're going to have to treat with kid gloves. It's not the most portable of items either since it is quite large (although reasonably light). It's fine to carry to different rooms around the house, or even to take around to a friends', but it's not something you'd want to take on holiday.
The main control panel also has its ups and downs. The joystick is responsive and the action on it is good. It springs back into place easily and works very well. For right handed people, it can initially feel a little awkward to be controlling the joystick with your left hand, but you soon get used to this. The buttons are a reasonable size (about the width of two fingers) so when pummelling them, your fingers are not in danger of slipping off. From an ergonomic perspective, the Core is reasonably comfortable, but not perfect. The joystick is fine but the buttons can feel slightly stiff and require a reasonable amount of pressure. This can cause problems for longer gaming sessions and I do sometimes find my fingers are aching after a while.
Where the build quality really lets the side down is that the iCade Core is surprisingly noisy. The joystick makes a real thudding noise when moved and the buttons click loudly. On the one hand this is a good thing, recalling the thuds and clicks of the old arcades (remember those?!). However, if you want to play on it when other people are in the room, you might get some funny looks.
Let's move onto the important stuff: does it actually work? Can it really turn your iPad into a gaming machine with proper physical controls? The simple answer to this is "Yes"; the slightly more complicated answer is "Yes, but..."
Starting with the simple answer, it's hard to over-estimate the improved playability the iCade brings. Every single compatible game I have tried works like a dream and improves the playability by at least 50%. Games that were almost unplayable with virtual controls are suddenly turned into really fun titles.
Moving onto the "Yes but..." answer, it's a question of support. There are currently well over 100 titles that support the iCade, but it's not universally supported and there are far more games that don't support it than do. Helpfully, there is a partial list of compatible titles on the ION website and a quick Google search will reveal further compatible titles. It's just a shame that not all developers have the foresight to use it.
The iCade actually started out as an April Fools' Joke on a gaming website, but quickly became a real world product when so much interest was expressed in it. Given its impact on playability, it's not hard to see why. It might be a niche product, but if you use your iPad to buy and play games on a regular basis, it's well worth considering.
It will cost you a slightly eye-watering £59.99 if you pay its RRP. However, with a bit of careful shopping around, you can get a new one for half that. Whilst this might still sound a little expensive, I personally think it is well worth it for the improved playability it brings to so many titles.
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