ION Audio is most famous in gadget circles for creating the iCade, the virtual arcade cabinet for your iPad that started off as a Thinkgeek April Fool’s joke, but gained such popularity online that it seemed silly not to make the thing. ION Audio took on production duties, and has now expanded the range with two additional iPhone arcade gadgets. The iCade Junior is a tiny version of the original iCade while the iCade Mobile is a game controller that encompasses your iPhone or iPod Touch. We took the iCade Mobile for a test drive, as it’s one of the most promising iPhone controllers we’ve come across.
Apple doesn’t make it easy for accessory manufacturers like ION Audio, though. Third-party accessories can’t simply interface with the iOS 30-pin connector, necessitating a wireless Bluetooth connection and plenty of fiddling developer-side or some other workaround.
The ION iCade Mobile opts for the wireless Bluetooth route, but has a huge head start over some competitors because it is compatible with all the games supported by the original iCade. This includes a fistful of indie games plus, if you were lucky enough to snag it before it was pulled in December, the iMame arcade emulator. A fairly full list of compatible games is available from the ION iCade website.
Every physical game controller for the iPhone has spoilt the sleek and stylish look of Apple’s phone and, if we’re honest, the iCade Mobile isn’t any different. It extends the phone lengthways significantly, giving it more the feel of the Sony PSP or, for you old-schoolers, the Atari Lynx. Looking more like a game console isn’t necessarily a bad thing when making the iPhone feel like such a thing is precisely the point of the iCade Mobile.
Its iCade arcade roots rules-out having an analogue stick, but otherwise the iCade Mobile offers a pretty complete spread of buttons. There’s a floating D-pad, four a/b/x/y style buttons and two on each shoulder.
Your iOS device sits in the centre of this gamepad, held in place within a rubberised cocoon. For iPod touch devices, which are significantly slimmer than an iPhone 4 or 4S, ION Audio provides a little rubber insert to fill-in the gap.
As this is a Bluetooth unit, it needs its own power supply. An AA battery sits near each edge of the back of the device, behind a plastic backplate. ION tries to use this drawback to its advantage, moulding the plastic casing around the AA batteries to act as ergonomic hand grips. We found them less than perfect, not quite fitting perfectly into the left hand in particular, but that’s in comparison to something like an Official Xbox 360 pad rather than a more direct rival like the Gametel Android gamepad.