ThinkGeek's 8-bitty controller isn't bad, if you already want one

ThinkGeek's iCade started out as an April Fool's joke. In conjunction with the folks at Ion Audio, that product actually came to be, and it's been so successful that it's launched a whole line of different controller products, most of them from Ion. But ThinkGeek isn't done with this brand yet. It recently released the "8-bitty" controller, which combines a Bluetooth-enabled iCade-protocol controller with a very retro NES-style design. The price is appealing as well: For just US$29.99, you can get a very cool-looking retro controller, designed to work with all of the various iCade-enabled titles.

Unfortunately, the same issues that apply to all of the iCade services apply to this controller, and there are a few extra to boot. I'll talk about the 8-bitty-specific problems first, the biggest of which is that as cool as the boxy retro look is, it's just not very comfortable in my hands. Call me a wimp, but though I did spend a majority of my childhood clutching the old NES controllers until the paint fell off, I've definitely gotten used to the much more ergonomic console controllers of today. After just a few minutes with the 8-bitty, I could feel my hands cramping up in strange ways.

The d-pad on the controller is strangely wrong, as well -- the thought I kept having while playing was that it felt way too "analog." This is really an issue with the iCade protocol rather than the controller, I think, given that because it's simply sending keypresses over Bluetooth, developers can't do much more than the standard eight directions for d-pad movement. But even so, I also played around with the iCade mobile from Ion, and found that it worked better than the 8-bitty in general. The shoulder buttons on the 8-bitty also seemed strange to me -- I don't know if they should have been completely placed on the back of the controller, but they just felt awkward to hit up on top somehow.

And the last problem with a controller like this is something that always comes up when we talk about iCade: It's all about compatibility. There's no question that the iCade is the most supported iOS-controller protocol out there, but when you look at the list of games, iOS' biggest titles still aren't supported at all. That's mostly because the strength of the iOS platform is its touchscreen, so most of the platform's most popular titles take full advantage of touch in a way that a controller just won't be able to match. Too bad, because I actually prefer playing games with a controller most of the time, but obviously until Apple releases its own solution, developers won't have an "official" rule on how controllers should work with iPhones and iPads.

Now, all of that said, the 8-bitty is still a well-made controller, and it'll still do what you want it to do when it's paired up with your iPhone or iPad. At $29.99, it's relatively cheap, and it's mostly simple to set up and use. There are two exceptions to that: The battery cover inexplicably requires a tiny screwdriver to get into, and the controller doesn't come with two required AAA batteries either, so you'll have to obtain those yourself. Weird that ThinkGeek didn't consider those problems, but other than that, setup is simple and fast.

If you want an iPhone or iPad controller and you don't want to pay for the more expensive, but better, $80 iCade mobile, there's definitely good reasons to pick up an 8-bitty. But if you want a premium controller for playing iCade-compatible games and are willing to pay a bit more, I'd pass on the 8-bitty in favor of the mobile or even the original iCade cabinet. The 8-bitty is cute and all, but not quite necessary.