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ION iCade Review

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Posted by: Robert Workman

Review Rating 8.0 Great

After lingering for months on the Internet as an April Fools joke, ION has finally gotten the last laugh with the iCade, an accessory that essentially turns your iPad or iPad 2 into a quality mini-arcade cabinet, kind of like those ones you see on countertops at bars. Granted, it only works with one specific app at the moment—Atari’s Greatest Hits compilation—but the experience it provides makes it a must for nostalgic fans and classic quarter slappers.

Selling for $99 over at Thinkgeek (amongst other retailers), the iCade comes shipped unassembled. You’ve got the side panels, the front unit, and a supply of batteries and screws to put into use, along with a joystick and buttons that eventually form the play area of the unit. It didn’t take long to put this unit together, thanks to step-by-step instructions that come included. Once assembled, we set up the unit for play (after lifting its somewhat heavy frame—this thing is a beast) and got to it.

Now, the best thing you can do to complement your iCade purchase is to download all of the games that Atari’s Greatest Hits has to offer, which is essentially $15. It’s well worth it, though, as you’ll have access to a variety of titles that make use of the Bluetooth-connected control panel. We’re talking a fresh mix of both arcade and Atari 2600 favorites, including the likes of Tempest, Black Widow, and dozens of others.

Now, there are two things you should know about this collaboration. One, not every single Atari game works with the iCade control set-up. Some require direct touch-screen controls, such as Sentinel, which wouldn’t make proper use of the controls. Secondly, some games require a certain finesse. Black Widow, for example, doesn’t come with the dual stick set-up like the arcade game, so you’ll need to adjust to using the buttons to fire while the joystick provided handles your character movements.

These are a small price to pay in order to get a quintessential arcade experience. ION has done an extraordinary job recreating the feel of these games, and the Bluetooth controls work almost flawlessly—save for the lack of a trackball. We had no problem operating these games and building up high score after high score, just like in the “old pro” days. Furthermore, the arcade display is set up exactly like the old “tall screen” units, so you get the authentic feel of each game as you would in a real arcade set-up. The Atari 2600 games are a little more peculiar this way, but it’s certainly nothing to complain about.

We also dig the retro design of the iCade. The side panel art looks like something along the lines of a Nintendo PlayChoice design, with 80’s text and a flush selection of rainbow colors. The panel set on the front features a well-designed joystick knob, bright red, and multiple colored buttons to choose from. Again, it’s bulky, but it feels like a quality cabinet, unlike most of those shoddy models that you see from third-party vendors.

What's more, it feels like the real thing, and that’s where ION really hits a home run. Despite having to change some control methods around a little bit and needing to assemble the thing, it’s really worth the effort and stands proudly on your shelf, showing the world you’re a true gamer. There’s also a neat, light-up coin slot that lets you know when the unit is about to run out of power. (Thankfully, it only takes two AA’s to keep it going.)

Still, it would’ve been nice to see more games supported for it, aside from the Atari collection. Namco’s got a ton of retro favorites on the iPad, including Ms. Pac-Man, and we’ve seen some new releases from WB Games that would’ve been nicely handled here as well. Maybe in the future, ION will get a few more parties on board. Atari games can only please so many people.

In the end, though, this is a must for collectors and those looking to expand their iPad gameplay experiences outside of a touch pad. Costly? Sure, but the experience this thing brings are pretty much priceless. Step up and get to gaming. We’ll see you on the high score boards.

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